moving into the neighbourhood

Part of me really hates taking personal responsibility for things. Last week I was on a train back from Manchester, and I sat next to this guy who was very chatty. He told me about his PhD thesis, how he had gone to Spain and interviewed lots and lots of social activists about how they lived their ordinary, day-to-day lives in line with their beliefs, even in really little things, when they weren’t protesting and campaigning. It sounded like an amazing way to live, but also incredibly difficult.

I really like the idea of having a cool life like that, a life which is that coherent. But it’s also so hard and often I feel so weak (I hate feeling weak), and even when I have brought my unruly life somewhat in line, I can see where I’ve just done it to impress certain other people, or to avoid conflict with them, rather than because it’s right.

For example, going vegetarian. That FAO statistic about a quarter of carbon emissions being in some way linked to animal agriculture gets me every time. But for a long time, I would tell people that I couldn’t possibly be a vegetarian, because I live in a community house, and we all share food and cook for each other, and I really love my housemates, and my housemates weren’t thinking of going vegetarian, so how could I terribly inconvenience them by stopping eating meat, especially bacon? It would be so selfish. Besides, I am ethnically Chinese, and everyone knows that Chinese people love their meat. To move away from that would be a betrayal of my family and heritage, you know?

It was a sad day when I realised that I could still be vegetarian when I ate on my own.

But you know what? I’ve decided that however I feel, and regardless of my mixed motives, being a part-time vegetarian still just is right (for me). And so living that out is a really, really good thing. Even if it feels like dying sometimes.

I used to just know a lot about being vegetarian, and to be ‘open’ to eating vegetarian food when I was out (even if I never actually ordered it) and hearing from my friends about what exciting new veggie recipes they had concocted. I would nod along, yes, that all sounds delicious. I also probably signed some things online, probably some of those pre-drafted letters to your MP about animal agriculture. But I don’t think it’s enough anymore to just listen or agree, or even tell the government.

See, I love Someone who lived absolutely everything he believed, and said, be it on my own head if you don’t like it. A message of love became real flesh and real blood, and moved into the neighbourhood. And in fact some people (the religious and the powerful) really didn’t like it, and they crucified him. Because I love Someone like that, I can’t anymore refuse personal responsibility for the things that I believe in, even if part of me really doesn’t want to take a stand, and feels weak doing it.


In Malay, dada means chest. Wikipedia tells me that “The origin of the name Dada is unclear; some believe that it is a nonsensical word. Others maintain that it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco’s frequent use of the words da, da, meaning yes, yes in the Romanian language. Another theory says that the name “Dada” came during a meeting of the group when a paper knife stuck into a French-German dictionary happened to point to ‘dada’, a French word for ‘hobbyhorse'”.

I teach a teenager who suffers from a heart problem. His teachers are worried he won’t be able to get a job because he won’t be able to drive. The first couple of months, I wasn’t worried about him at all. I wanted to bitchslap this kid across the room because he was unbelievably uncooperative, uninterested, and dismissively rude. Then one day in class I talked about how I really liked Radwimps. Not a lie, because I do like them, but not entirely the truth, because I don’t know as much about them as I would if I really liked them. But I knew they were a popular band, and I figured Backstreet Boys wasn’t going to cut it. This kid suddenly woke up and started spouting random information about the band I could barely understand. A couple of weeks later, after I had asked some of the other kids for their music recommendations in my weekly letter, he┬ácornered me and made me write down all his recommended Radwimps songs. This kid even started singing some of them. Made me promise to listen.

Teaching is an art, but a lot of good teaching is destructive. You try and break down the concepts that kids come to school with. You try and break down their ideas about what teachers are. You try and destroy that part of yourself that tells you it’s easier just to deal with the kids who will do what you tell them to do, who will not make you feel like a fool, who will react the way you want them too.