A Child’s Dream

In 2014, Lu Peng was an experienced manager in a large telecom company in Tianjing: stable office job with decent pay, like an insurance for a tranquil life. Until he walked in front of a cinema advertising the Transformers movie. While roaming back and forth in front of the poster, he felt his chest burning, as if there was “an open can of beer spewing fire” in it. Since he was a kid, he had admired Transformers, but he never dared asking his father to buy a model for him, fearing his iron harsh face. In a poor family, in an time when a popsicle costed 5 cents, spending tens of yuans on a plastic model sounded like heresy.

At mature age, he had the idea of building his own transformers. While his friends mocked him, he found unexpected support in his 60 year old father who worked as a wielder. “I do not know what a robot is, but if you want to make one I will support you.” They had been in a bad relation for the past 10 years, and he felt in his father an attempt to reconcile with him.

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Li Peng climbing on his first robot. Picture taken by his father. (Photo from the original article)

His life changed: every week after working in his office, he will take the last Friday night train at 21:30 to arrive at his natal village at 5 am. Thus he had 2 full days to work: wander from car wreckers to dumpsters to collect metal scraps. Then home to select them and imagine how a robot would look like. Wielding and sanding… from 5 tons of collected metal, 1 ton ended up shaped like a 4 meter tall Optimus Prime. With his heart full of gratitude for his father, Lu Peng climbed on his first robot for a photo. “At that time, I think, no matter what crazy idea I muttered, the old man would turn, bow his back and start wielding.

After that, the local newspapers took notice, and a car seller asked to display his model at a car show offering to reimburse the expenses and pay a fee. Submerged with requests, he thought of quitting his job to dedicate all his time on making robots. His father first opposed the idea, thinking that he may be intoxicated by the quick fame. But the intention was pure, and his father, once again, supported him. People came looking for him to learn how to wield robots, and even a school class came to learn how to make lamps with metal pipes.

Today, Lu Peng has a large shed in Tianjin where he opened a Road Club with ample space for people to build metal things (mainly robots), a long wooden table where to sit down and discuss new ideas, a cafeteria and an exhibition room. In the future he hopes to open also to crafters working with textiles and ceramic “to bring people together and learn from each other”. In just 2 years, what started like a childish dream changed into a service for the society. His dream is reviving the spirit of craftsmanship into the people.

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The Road Club in Tianjin.

I was very touched by reading this story. Like Lu Peng, I always wanted a Transformer robot when I was a kid, but I never got one – too expensive for my family too, I guess. A child’s dream can become something big in the future, we never know! This is what Lu Peng’s story has inspired in me. Now… to work!

(Story from an article on the WeChat journal 司马 – A beam of light)

Crazy song no. 1

Wang Rong Rollin – Chick Chick (王蓉 – 小雞小雞)

Some time ago, while browsing aimlessly youtube, I stumbled on this song coming straight out from the 2014 Chinese Pop music landscape. Check it out:

After the first view, I felt as if I had been hit by a hundred lids on my head1. Chinese people call this kind of music 神曲 (shen qu) – insane and crazy in English. This word is fascinating on its own: the first character (神 – shen) means divine and spirit. The second one means music. What’s insane in this word? A scientist would say: in chinese, nerves are called path of the spirit (shenjing), so spirits are associated to our psyche. Using shen for crazy is like using psycho for psychopath. A mystic would say: isn’t there something divine in the craziness of our lives? (It’s amusing, to an italian like me, that 神曲 is also used to translate the Divine Comedy by Dante)

A crazy chicken?

A crazy chicken?

I do find something divine in this song, hence my zen reaction. At first sight, the visual creativity of this video may bring to mind a Chinese Lady Gaga at her best. I was impressed by the effort put in imitating the verse of the chicken, showing how much energy she’s putting in the song. As a result the song quickly draws in the listener, taken by the mindboggling rhythm. The song goes on and on repeating meaningless words imitating the verse of chickens and little chicks, amongst psychedelic imagery of bodies and cartoons.

Chicks all over

Chicks all over

However, there is more to it than a hypnotic and easy-to-remember melody. The song expresses a “revenge” of women in a man dominated society. We (males) often refer to pretty girls as chicks (this is also true in China), relegating them to the role of a weak individual with a lot to offer. In this song, women accept the imagery of chickens which is given to them by men, but turn the table around by showing how strong that position can be. I find this attitude refreshing compared to the old school feminism which seeks to affirm equality between men and women. We are different, and this fact alone is a motivation for respecting the other sex (sexes).


1. [Once I read that a famous Zen master had a pot lid falling on his head while he was picking something from a shelf, and he reached enlightenment on the spot.]

 

Silver and Golden Dragons

The sky in Lyon has been amazing recently. Yesterday, just before sunset, a heavy blanket of clouds started rolling over the sky from the East, covering the blue with a soft cover that soon became a palette for the colours of the sunset. In the pictures below you can see the view from my east-ward window and from the west-ward ones.

Looking at such scenes, I feel close to the ancient people who saw the energy of nature and materialised it in the form of “magic” creatures. Like the dragons in ancient China: not the scaly fire-breathing winged lizards of western children’s stories, but golden and silver snake-like creatures ruling the stormy weather and rivers.

Detail of the Nine Dragons painting, 1240 Song Dinasty

Detail of the Nine Dragons painting, 1240 Song Dynasty

The walls of Johannesburg

Jo’burg is the least expected city to be found in the least expected corner of South Africa. With a 10 million people metropolitan area, it is located on a dry and high plateau in the east of the country, with no nearby sources of water. The location was chosen because gold was found in the area in the late 19th century, and after the gold ended people kept flowing in. The area should be covered by stones and low bushes (like in the picture below), however the beautiful Jacaranda trees imported from Australia to provide for wood for the gold mines makes it a beautiful garden. What struck me in Johannesburg, however, was neither the logistic nonsense nor the beauty of the city, but its human sides.

I visited Jo’burg for work reasons at the end of 2013. During a weekend, I took a guided tour to the Apartheid museum and Soweto, lead by the owner of the guesthouse I was lodged in. The mid-aged white man turned out to be a well informed guide, having lived in South Africa during the Apartheid regime, where the life of people was carefully regulated based on their loosely defined race. In fact, all the population was divided into 4 classes, the lowest of which (Natives) contained the black african part of the population – mostly workers arrived in Jo’burg from the south of Africa to work in the gold mines. It was interesting for me to realise that the division was not based on rigid racial requirements, but on the fuzzy judgement of bureaucrats: often, European immigrants were included in the Natives just for their low-society look! And that decided how their life would be: for instance, all Natives were forced to live in townships (that’s how the ghettoes were named) around the main city. Like in Soweto.

Getting its name from an abbreviation of South-West-Township (as I disappointedly learned, and not a spicy sounding word in a poorly known african language with a mysterious meaning), it is famous because Nelson Mandela lived there for a few days before being locked in jail. We visited it during the guided tour. It contains simple and torn houses originally built by the government to accommodate the Natives of Jo’burg, but also fancy looking nice houses. I had a very pleasant impression of the town, with its lively markets, people busily walking around everywhere and small shops showing all the local flavour. It was just a pity that we never stopped the car to have a walk, maybe because a pair of white chaps would feel quite out of the place in the middle of the 100% black local population.

I later learned by the guide that, even after the end of Apartheid, the population in Soweto remained entirely black, and that even people who managed to earn money and pass to the rich part of the society decided to remain in Soweto – just building nicer houses. The center of Johannesburg, once reserved to the white population, gave a completely different vibe: large streets encircled side by side by high fenced walls, endless signs of security companies watching over your property, and Jacaranda trees in full bloom. Few people walking on the often non-existent sidewalks, guards at every intersection and a warm recommendation from my host not to walk alone at night.

I can understand that the city may have had a very unsafe past and that rich people living in the centre were eager to protect themselves with walls and fences, however I didn’t feel a level of unsafety to justify the level of security I witnessed. What I could feel was the persistent fear that kept people building cages where to lock themselves in. This realisation was made stronger by the comparison with the relaxed life in Soweto, where rich people certainly live too. Not behind high walls though. In the Apartheid museum, I watched an old video of an early leader and founder of the segregation system defending it in the name of the safety of their children (words worryingly similar to those of some European politicians of today). Divisions create hatred and misunderstandings, never safety. A similar case is still happening in Israel.

To end this post, I have to say: I did enjoy my stay in Johannesburg, so much that I will go back there this December to see again the beautiful Jacaranda trees in full bloom, drink savoury coffee from Burundi and learn more about the people of South Africa.

Jacaranda trees in downtown Jo'burg. Notice the high walls.

Jacaranda trees in downtown Jo’burg. Notice the high walls.

 

Divisions and bananas

Credit: Steve Hopson, www.stevehopson.com.

Credit: Steve Hopson, http://www.stevehopson.com.

The brazilian football (soccer) player Dani Alves has drawn a lot of attention on him after, a few days ago, he responded in a new way to an episode of racism in a stadium. When a supporter of the other team threw a banana at him, he calmly picked it up and ate a bite off it before going back to play. Spontaneous or planned, this act puts racism and hatred under a new light.

Very often hatred calls for more hatred as a response, thus catalyzing a never ending spiral of violence, misunderstanding and divisions. Other players have been targeted in similar way by supporters, and they reacted by leaving the pitch, thus trying to divide themselves from the racist spectators. To achieve what? Nothing but to show how successfully was the target hit! Eating the banana, on the other hand, is an active and courageous way to show how ineffective the insult can be.

This episode also made me think about the effect of divisions in general: it’s always easy to attack and curse somebody who is on the other side of a fence. Not so easy when he is directly facing us. This is often the case when the hatred is fueled by unfounded fear, or our own lack of confidence. It came to my mind a post I read on this blog (in italian) about the complicated situation in Palestine, written by an italian scientist who is currently living in Jerusalem and, one day, visited Ramallah.

Ramallah is the administrative capital of Palestine, and it is considered a very dangerous place to go. I had the same feeling from the many news that come from that area. However, the blogger describes Ramallah as an ordinary and pleasant town. Why is it then so feared? It turns out that jewish families used to visit Ramallah for an out-of-town day trip, until checkpoints were established in 1993 after the Oslo peace accords. The idea was maybe to make people on both sides feel safer. The net effect is that people on the israeli side now fear a town they will never have a chance to visit and experience in first person, and same goes for the people living on the other side.

Palestinians cross the Israeli army's Hawara checkpoint near the West Bank city of Nablus. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/AP. From the guardian.

Palestinians cross the Israeli army’s Hawara checkpoint near the West Bank city of Nablus. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/AP. From the guardian.

Divisions create more hatred instead of reducing it. Building high fences increases the sense of insecurity and fear instead of making people feel safer. Because the hatred and fear are inside the people that build fences, and have nothing to do with the other side. I had a chance to feel this personally when I travelled to Johannesburg in South Africa, and I will write about this in another post.  Not all conflicts will disappear by just turning down divisions, walls and fences. At least, by doing so, we can remove unfounded fears, and have a good fight on real issues that we care about enough to put up a fight for.

Avocado… brazilian way

 

 

Last sunday, while browsing  a new grocery shop, I stumbled on this interesting looking fruit. It ended on my shopping list before I could think twice.

It was not before I got back home, that I realized it’s an avocado brazilian style. It’s much bigger than a Haas avocado, however do not expect a huge bowl of Guacamole from it! Besides the looks, the two kinds of avocado have very different character. The brazilian one has a more firm and crunchy pulp, with a fresh zest in the sweet taste. No creamy feeling, like you would expect from a Haas!

After a quick google search, I made a smoothie with some apple and soy milk. Sweet and refreshing! It’s also great spooned after a meal, like you would do to a melon. A proper dessert fruit, that is.

Avocado seed growing

The nut is half-dipped in water, waiting (hoping) to sprout.

The nut is now sitting on my my windowsill with feet in water, waiting to sprout – I’m the one waiting, to be fair. While the dried skin of one half made a nice (but frail) bowl.

Pan fried trouts

I love eating fish! But every time I buy it, I face the problem of how to cook it! Last Sunday, at the market I bought a couple of fresh trouts from the Isere valley. And I found a delicious and easy way to cook them!

  • 2 trouts (cleaned, scaled and washed clean)
  • bread crumbs (about 4 tablespoons)
  • parsley (or cilantro… I love cilantro!)
  • lemon juice
  • olive oil
  • a frying pan

In a small bowl, mix the bread crumbs, chopped parsley, oil, lemon juice and a pinch of salt. Stuff the mix in the belly of the trout, leaving a tablespoon aside, which you will use to cover the skin of the trout.

Trouts in the frying pan: the skin is getting crusty!

Trouts in the frying pan: the skin is getting crispy!

Warm the frying pan on medium fire, with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in it. When the pan is hot, toss in the trout. Let it cook for a couple of minutes with medium fire, so that a crispy crust will form on the skin. Then, lower the fire and let cook for another 8 minutes. Flip the trouts, and repeat the treatment: 2 minutes medium and 8 minutes low fire. Add salt.

When the fish is ready, sprinkle some lemon juice on the skin, and serve warm! I added a few fresh cilantro (or parsley)  leaves to garnish! Finally… dig in while still warm!

Serving suggestion: with fresh cilantro and soba noodles!

Serving suggestion: with fresh cilantro and soba noodles!

  • Tip: instead of normal bread crumbs, I used a couple of toasts with garlic and parsley that you can find in grocery stores. I simply smashes them with a glass to obtain savoury bread crumbs to use in the recipe!