Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dis-O Week

This week was Orientation Week on university campuses around Australia. It’s always a festive time when new students arrive clutching campus maps handed to them, as they step off buses, by volunteer guides. They’re fresh faced, wearing their everyday clothes awkwardly, until they find their personal style outside of the comforting strictures of their old school uniforms. Their skin hasn’t become weathered by assessment-related stress or an unrestricted social life and, so, they’re bursting with untapped potential as they begin an exciting new stage in their lives.

It may have been all clubs and societies, freebies, markets, weird college initiations (watermelon!), and rock concerts for new and returning undergraduate students this week, but for working academics it was also the last opportunity to refine ARC Grant Applications before they were due on Friday afternoon. This is what I spent a good portion of my week doing, in my role as Project Officer, for a Discovery Grant application. This particular application was being revised and rewritten from a Linkage Grant, I also helped with, that had been unsuccessful in the last round. It has been another massive learning curve for me, seeing how The Academics do such things. Let me just say there’s a lot of out-of-hours emailing and cursing of the disappearance of the ARC Applications Management System (GAMS) site. I won’t go into the machinations of inter-university rivalries here, but my stars this week seemed more appropriate to last week advising me to remember that Machiavelli and Sigmund Freud were also Tauruses.

Now that many academics have spent the week before teaching starts, wondering if a misplaced semi-colon will be cause enough to have their hard-wrought application disqualified from contention in the grants lottery, it’s time to take a deep breath and prepare for delivering lectures and running tutorials. I accepted an offer to teach two tutorials in Australian Television this semester. I’ve done some marking for the course co-ordinator before and he is wonderful to work for—very cognisant of the potential for the yawning gap between pay received and work done. The course is right up my alley too, related to my thesis topic, and as someone pointed out to me the other day, it’s really useful to be forced to explain the intricacies of your subject to a lay audience.

I’ve also been working intermittently on a thesis-related post for about 3 weeks now. Not that I’m seeking to explain any deep insight to anyone reading this blog, truly. It’s just something that came up in my thoughts as part of the Summer Lovin’ series because I like to watch television. And the fact that the next line in the song is ‘crazy for me’. It seemed like an opening for some thesis talk that was impossible to ignore. So, that might be up here before another week goes by.

In other news, I’ve received notice that my rent will increase by $20 per week. I’m not convinced the flat is worth $160, especially when the griller on the oven doesn’t work, despite repeated requests; there is only one recycle bin between seven flats, despite repeated requests; the neighbourhood is full of drunken football goers and club-goers at least thrice a week; people have been killed and sexually assaulted around the corner, the latter on a fairly regular basis; the grime from the Hale Street Bypass makes cleaning an impossible, never-ending task; I have to run the water from the taps until the rust from the pipes clears before I can use it for cooking and drinking (what drought?); and the yard isn’t maintained to any standard.

But you know, real estate agents and property owners are just salivating over this whole give-the-flat-to-the- highest-bidder business that’s going on at the moment. I think they believe they can get $200 for this flat. Well good luck with that, I say. I’ve looked at what you can get for $200 and they’re all in cleaner, quieter and much better maintained premises than this one. The question is, am I prepared to pay that much right now? It means I would have to earn money in addition to my scholarship from now on, because that much would be more than half my income. I can’t imagine that I could make enough so it would be one third of my income, which is apparently the ideal amount to pay—I remember when ¼ of your income was considered appropriate.

It’s all a bit depressing. Whenever my rent has gone up, I’m always reminded of my financial vulnerability. I start to think about how I’m pretty much the age where if I don’t buy a property now, I’ll never pay it off in my working lifetime. But I just don’t have the regular income so that any bank/institution hoping to get a return on their investment, would give me a loan. It would be easier if I had a partner, because then, presumably, there would be two incomes. Fuck. It’s really frightening actually, so I’ll stop thinking about it for now.

In better news, I cooked the Thai green chicken curry. Ta dah!

I also took my niece to see Happy Feet. The funniest part was in the shorts before the movie. We were watching the previews for the new Eddie Murphy film, Norbit. Hannah was looking at the screen quizzically, when she turned and looked at the rest of the audience. She said to me, ‘All of those people are laughing. Let’s laugh too!’, at which point she did the best fake laugh ever. Smart as a whip that niece of mine.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Hello Panda!

I went to China Town in the Valley today to get more Chinkiang Vinegar and some frozen soy bean pods, and I thought if I happened to soak up some of the atmosphere of the Chinese New Year celebrations, well, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

I got off the bus and remembered that I needed some basmati rice. I like to buy it from the Indian grocers in McWhirter’s off the Brunswick Street Mall, so I went there first. Despite the rain, the markets were in full swing, catching the overflow of people from the celebrations in the parallel China Town Mall on Duncan Street. There was a girl sitting with a guitar in a coffee shop; she flicked the pages of an exercise book sitting on a music stand and said she was going to play a Radio Head tune.

I walked behind a girl who I’d seen on the bus. She had a tattoo on her arm of one of those round cartoon bombs with a lit fuse, and a red ink ribbon was wrapped around it. I’d also caught a glimpse of some musical notes on her legs. As she stood waiting for the traffic lights to change, I noticed they wound up her legs on the most delicately traced staff lines

In the Indian grocers I decided to replenish my stock of dried chillies too. At least I had used those, which is more than can be said for the dried oregano I felt compelled to throw out last night. Its use-by-date was 2004. Now I have another five years supply, even if its use-by-date is 2008 (that was the smallest packet).

Across from the Indian grocers, I saw another small supermarket I hadn’t seen since I last did some shopping here. It was called something like ‘Best Friends’ and sold a lot of snack foods imported from South East Asia. There were aisles of pork rind and potato chips, puff pastries and wafer sticks. I hesitated over some Langue de Chats from a local Manila baker, but decided to buy some Hello Panda chocolate-filled wafers, enticed by the promise of a surprise inside.

The surprise was a sticker of a panda on a windsurfer. Something else to add to my collection of ‘Things to Give to Hannah’. So far I have a Happy Feet ruler, on which Mumbles does a dance across the ice when you tilt it—I couldn’t find it to gift her, when I took her to the film, but she was delighted with the origami penguin—and a magnet to entice children about the benefits of having their eyesight checked regularly.

In the China Town Mall, I stopped and saw a brief Chinese Opera performance. I was caught by the music. I’ve always liked the costumes and dramatic make-up of Chinese Opera. The performers were engaging, telling a funny and charming love story—it was more light Opera, I suppose.

I found the vinegar in a Chinese supermarket across from the Ann Street end of the China Town Mall. I was trying to read the labels of the pre-prepared dumplings through the freezer door, when one of the supermarket staff said I could open the door to look if I wanted to. I think I’ve learned too well the lesson of choosing before opening the freezer door. I chose the prawn dumplings I’ve had before, and decided to treat myself to the pork and peanut variety, since it’s Chinese New Year. Although it’s just occurred to me that eating pork on the first day of the Year of the Pig, might not be such good luck.

I left the shop with my groceries after exchanging Happy New Year greetings with the checkout assistant. I made my way through the debris of a hundred crackers and imagined the crackle and smoke they would have released at the entrance of the shop. I walked past a man with the legs of a dancing lion.

Sitting at the bus stop with my grocery bags, I saw that the bus was late by five minutes. Another bus came along, and I sat waiting.

Then I looked up and this young, lightly-bearded man, wearing a knitted hat said a word to his friends then came over to me. He crouched down and put his face very close to mine and said ‘Do you know what the time is?’.

I thought about tilting my head down and looking at my watch, but then I remembered. My eyes stayed on his, ‘Three o’clock’, I said. I looked at the woman with him. Her face offered nothing. The man hesitated, then asked me the time again. I looked at his teeth which were chalky as if there had been too much fluoride in the water when he was growing up. ‘Three o’clock’.

I just looked at him, not feeling anything, there didn’t seem to be any time for a reaction. Then, with his face still close to mine, he said, ‘Say hello to Yazzie for me’, and went with his friends.

My bus came and I caught it home.


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Gastropod News

You might be wondering what these apparently unattractive green packages have to do with anything in the realm of culinary delight. It turns out I couldn’t be bothered taking a photo of my efforts in the kitchen after I came home from work on Friday, so I’ve just had to take one now. It’s unfortunate for this green curry paste that I’ve done it absolutely no justice by photographing after it had been frozen into handy packages.

I had a particularly frustrating day on Friday, and since I’d been drooling over recipes in Charmaine Solomon’s Thai Cookbook, I’d had visions of making a curry paste in the most violent way possible, in a stone mortar and pestle: ‘Take that you long green chilli! Don’t think you’re surviving coriander root! You’ll be nothing but pulp when I’ve finished with you galangal!’ Fortunately for everyone concerned, by the time I got home with my ingredients, I began to doubt the strength of my pestle wielding skills and chose the far less flat-shuddering option of the food-processor (still going strong after all other hand-me downs have died).

I’ll make a green chicken curry with at least one of those packets in a couple of days time. Meanwhile here’s a photo of Thursday’s dinner and Friday’s lunch, while it was still in the wok.

It’s another dish I’ve made lately which signals the end of my vegetarianism. There’s some pork mince in amongst the silken tofu, and I’ll admit I’ve been eyeing this recipe from Kylie Kwong Recipes and Stories for some time now. I’ve made all the other silken tofu dishes in that book on a regular basis—can’t get enough of them—and this was the only one I hadn’t tried because it had meat in it.

I have to say it was very tasty. I think I’ve become addicted to black vinegar because of this cookbook, and it seems to combine particularly well with the pork taste and together they made for a wonderful syrupy gravy. I don’t have a picture of the final dish but the whole taste was set off with some sliced green spring onions and a home- ground Szechuan pepper and salt mixture that I have also become addicted to thanks to Ms Kwong.

(Have I ever mentioned that I have jars of different varieties of peppercorns? Black, white, green and Szechuan. Does this seem excessive?)

In other Gastropod news from chez Galaxy, I’ve resurrected the bread-maker. I’ve never been very thrilled with the bread from it, but that’s probably because I need to experiment more, be a more vigilant bread maker and eater. I’ve always excused its imperfections thinking I couldn’t expect too much of it because if it wasn’t quite a hand-me-down, it was purchased never-used for only $50. That and my main reason for wanting it was for the dough setting to make hassle-free pizza bases. As you may know, I’ve been relying on pita bread bases for my pizza for a while now, but since I had some flour that it didn’t seem I was otherwise going to use, I’ve made four pizzas over the last week or so. In addition to using the flour, I’ve managed to use up some other ingredients that might have been relegated to the garbage bin if I hadn’t put them on pizza, including some roast pumpkin and a tomato pasta sauce. I’m glad I didn’t have to waste anything—these peasant cuisines know how to make the best of things, don’t they?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Met A Girl

A week or two following the screening of Pickles, SBS showed Veiled Ambition which introduced us to Frida, an Australian-Lebanese Muslim woman, who was intent on cornering the retail market in formal wear for women. She first opened a shop in Melbourne, catering to Muslim women, because she was insistent that wearing the hijab need not be any reason to abandon fashion principles. Unfortunately that conviction didn’t prove profitable enough, so she began to import American Prom dresses to cater for a broader range of women.

Meanwhile, Frida was newly married to Albert who was living in Sydney, and each of them spent time travelling back and forth. She went to Sydney to visit her family and see her husband’s progress on their future home, which they were building across the road from her in-laws. He went to Melbourne to hand out pamphlets at a Bridal Show to attract people to the Fatimah Boutique’s display—Frida noted that people stayed away when she, resplendent in her hijab, stood in front of it. Then Frida got pregnant and had a gorgeous baby boy, and still her incredible humour, ambition, energy and conviction that anything was possible didn’t flag.

During the filming, the Cronulla riots took place, so we got the opportunity to see Frida’s response to the ugly Australian nationalism of that event. She simply stated that there wasn’t any more she could possibly do to demonstrate her allegiance to Australia, but the despair in her voice was evident—this, after an earlier part of the documentary, filmed before Cronulla, where she had proudly shown off a roast chicken and vegetables she’d made as evidence of her assimilation into Australian life.

As part of the globalisation schedule, I also caught a couple of episodes of The Closet Tales of Australian Fashion, a series on Australian fashion designers who were launching into international markets as the only way of keeping their businesses viable. I have an ambivalent relationship with fashion. On the one hand, the sheer artistry of designers like Akira Isogawa is only to be admired. He creates such beautiful garments. And there’s nothing wrong with creating beauty for the world; it’s uplifting, even if I will never be able to afford his clothes. Here, too, I think of another SBS series, Fashionista, that was hosted by Lee Lin Chin, which highlighted a whole range of glorious fabrics and designs—from singlets sold at market stores (more my budget), through to exclusive boutiques of imported designer ware. Lee Lin Chin was obviously the most perfect presenter, with a genuine interest in fashion evident in her quirky sense of dress—a fact that the designers she interviewed seemed to appreciate.

On the other hand, I can’t not think that fashion is an industry, much of which exists on the back of exploited migrant and third world labour. I find this more than troubling. It’s so wrong. I’m caught between admiring a perfectly pleated shirt, and recognising that it was probably made by someone with not very much in the way of decent working conditions nevermind negotiating rights, lest they lose their only source of income. I’m aware that even as someone on a low income in the first world, I am infinitely better off than anyone on a low income in the third world. I am in a position to make decisions about what I purchase. I still have such a lot of choice.

The fact of my privilege has been brought home to me as I’ve watched a few documentaries on Sudanese refugees over the last month. Two of them were written and presented by British journalist Sorious Samura. In the first, Living with Illegals, Samura made the journey an illegal immigrant would from Morrocco to the UK, and in the second Living with Refugees he travelled with a Sudanese family to a UN refugee camp in Chad. If you follow those links, you’ll find a more detailed description of the programmes.

The genius of this kind of film-making to my mind is that we get to see a Western body go through these hardships, which makes the viewing all the more visceral. I’m speculating here, but perhaps it is a more difficult task to empathise with the lean, sinewy bodies of the African refugees while sitting comfortably on the couch eating dinner in front of the television. When one of the women that Samura is travelling with in the second documentary states that he is fat and she can’t fathom why he is complaining of hunger, when everyone around him is so skinny and clearly, far more in need of food, well there’s something about that charge that is difficult to counter. It’s an uncomfortable fact.

What is not difficult to understand are the stories of murdered and lost family members that many of the people Samura met had after surviving years of civil war. Again, in the second documentary, there was one man who spent his time walking from refugee camp to refugee camp, searching for his family. In the first documentary, one man eventually made it into England by clinging to the underside of a moving truck. It was apparently his third or fourth ‘successful’ journey to the UK and it turned out to be his third or fourth deportation as well. He was desperate to find secure work and freedom from poverty and war for himself and eventually his family, and the UK held that promise in a way that Sudan hadn’t for many years.

It was appalling to see what happened when Samura and the family he was travelling with in Living with Refugees finally arrived at the UN refugee camp in Chad. They had to register in order to receive any food, and this was not a simple matter. It seemed to involve an inordinate amount of bureaucracy. They couldn’t just walk up to an administration section and declare they were registering. They had to rely on the graces of the representative of the section of the camp that they happened to arrive in. Communication was difficult, if only because there never seemed to be any forthright answers to questions, just endless fobbing off and obfuscation about what exactly was required. For days the new arrivals only survived on the charity of other refugees who shared their meagre food rations, which were sometimes riddled with pestilence.

It was only in another documentary, one shown this past week, Ayen’s Cooking School for African Men, that the long term consequences of the state of refugee camps became apparent. This documentary was the story of Ayen, who in her work with Sudanese refugees in Australia, came across a houseful of Sudanese men, who had a fridge full of food but were lying about lethargically because they had no idea how to cook. Ayen decided they needed to know how to cook, and began attempting to teach them. It was a difficult task because there are major cultural taboos, connected to notions of masculinity, against men cooking. They were fearful that they would never attract a wife if they cooked in public.

There was a lot that was fun about this documentary—such as the suspicion of prawns identified by the Sudanese as ‘insects’—but again there were moments when all that fell away. Ayen spoke about the ‘lost boys’ (the fate of girls isn’t elaborated), those children who were born and raised in refugee camps, never knowing the everyday rhythms of Sudanese life. Part of the cooking classes involved cultural instruction in the form of anecdotes of life in Sudan. Then there was the moment when one of the newly arrived refugees was asked about the situation he had just left. He became visibly upset and said he didn’t want to go into details of the atrocities he had witnessed.

He said that he thought he might have to get some counselling, because ‘it makes you crazy’.