When I was in Year 10, I was part of an exchange program with a school in Connecticut. Our pen pals came for two weeks in late Spring. One of my school-friends took his on a visit to Prague. I was surprised. It was the mid-90s, the fall of the Berlin Wall was still fresh, and Prague felt like a distant exotic place. ‘It’s not’, said my friend. I checked on the map, and indeed, from Strasbourg where we lived, it was only slightly further than Paris.
Growing up on a border, I had a distorted sense of geography. Everywhere, I was exposed to the French map – in history books, on TV, or on the jigsaw puzzles I enjoyed making. I lived somewhere on the top right corner of the Hexagon, with Paris as my off-centre capital. Beyond the borders, ‘there be dragons’.
That perception was based on linguistic, political and infrastructure reality. TV was made in Paris, transport systems converged on Paris, decisions were made in Paris, affecting the entire country. Also, there were other realities. Strasbourg was a European capital. It was midway through the Blue banana. Street names, food and architecture made Vienna familiar, Paris foreign. Sometimes, on my way to school, I would cross a few visiting dragons.
My professional life has always been chaotic. I’ve always worn multiple hat. More: there is no clear vocabulary to describe the work I do. What has the most value may not bring the most money. Neither may be connected to my primary job title or affiliation.
This is hugely frustrating in standard networking events. ‘So what do you do?’ They ask, and I mumble a long-winded answer. Quickly, my reply triggers confusion, impatience, dismissiveness. Which in turn brings up dark emotions: agitation, frustration, embarrassment. And the conversation dies.
Earlier this year, I did a little exercise. I tried reflecting on what happened in those situations, using non-violent communication as a heuristic framework. Surely, those negative feelings on both parts were just about unmet needs.
Starting with my own experience, this is what I uncovered. I’m agitated when I see that, in spite of my efforts, I’m not coming across clearly. I’m frustrated that I can’t connect with the other person. Then comes embarrassment: as a professional communicator, I’m ineffective.
I didn’t have reliable input about my interlocutors, but in a flash I wondered – is it possible that our needs match? They’re confused, because I’m not giving them clarity. There’s too many threads, or unconventional words. They’re impatient because we don’t connect. I don’t have a one-word label they can recognise, why should they bother with a weirdo? Finally, they’re dismissive because they’ve got a certain number of people to talk to, I’m taking too much time for basics, and it’s not efficient.
Here was common ground then, and from this, I was able to go one step further in self-awareness. We all want effectiveness – but for me, busy work towards undesirable or vague goals is the opposite of effective. We all want clarity – which is why I question vague terms, cliches and arbitrary categories. We all want connection – but shared belief in neoliberal propaganda just doesn’t cut it for me. My sense of alienation was gone, I finally saw my interlocutors as human – and my desire to attend networking events faded.
In 2007, when I started learning Chinese, a friend introduced me to PPstream. It was one of those sites where you could watch all sorts of movies and TV series for free. This was my first introduction to mainstream East Asian drama.
I remember watching this film. The protagonist was a Chinese man, who went on a trip to Japan. It rocked my world. I had never considered inter-Asian relations. Surely, Japanese people, and Chinese people, and Korean people, would have complex relationships with Europe. They would think about it, talk about it, and travel there. I never thought they would travel around Asia.
A few weeks ago, I was at an event in the Collingwood yards. It was a bunch of environmentalists coming together to celebrate spring. There was craft beer, canapes, and music making. Yet I was frustrated. I invested hope in the event, and it felt a bit flat.
Looking back, I noted an ambiguity. The vibe indicated an event for individual change-maker to meet and bond. Yet when the organiser spoke, the goal was framed as facilitating new collaborations between organisations. So were we there as people, or as representatives?
I reflected further. Maybe the missing element was not clear focus, orgs or people, but rather, tension between the two. My sense of wasted opportunity came from that event not meeting my needs. I’m well aligned with myself, but I work in a shapeless in-between space. It’s lonely, and I was looking for connection. My first two conversations were with people in large organisations – government and university. Their emotional experience was very different, not lonely, but frustrated at inefficiencies and misalignments. Then I had a chat with a woman from a smaller org – well aligned, but overwhelmed. Her challenge was letting go.
What if this was a recurring pattern? What if people attempting system change had different emotions depending on the context of their work. Could this, then, be the right conversation starter: are you lonely, frustrated, or overwhelmed?
The Internet is a global infrastructure, with no centre. This applies on multiple levels: connected cables and machines, common standards and protocols, then a shared set of global platforms.
Except, a few locations have disproportionate influence. New York, London and Los Angeles, media capitals of the global English language. Sillicon Valley, where global platforms are designed and headquartered.
In a talk I gave once about the Chinese Internet – back in 2014 – I ventured the word diversity. There’s censorship and control, for sure – but also, here’s a different system, with different platforms, different norms, and a different language. Based on the same shared infrastructure, it’s a whole parallel universe.
We listen religiously to those people who discovered late in life how much happiness and meaning are more important than success and numbers. Meanwhile, we neglect those who spent their life in the pursuit of meaning and happiness.