On decentering


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.

Straight talking

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

A New Yorker cartoon popped up in my Facebook feed the other day, and resonated with a situation I have often faced – particularly when working around (straight white male) entrepreneurs.

It’s a form of communication that I like to call ‘straight talking’. It struggles to listen, and likes to make a point. At its worst, it sees every conversation as an argument to win. At best, it subtly polarizes discourses. All this passed off as assertive honesty.

Straight talkers are arrogant. Dig a little, and you find the following reasoning. Their time is too valuable to think hard about their words – or even learn to do so. Yet their views deserve attention, right now, in their unfiltered state. ‘I’m being honest’ only means, I won’t carry the load of emotional labor.

I like to take more care in the way that I speak or write. What I am seeing, or thinking, may be wrong, partial, incorrect. In their raw form, my thoughts may be somewhat astringent. I need to mollify them before sharing. That other person’s mental balance may be more important than I realise. I shouldn’t disturb their focus and well-being with my unmediated stupidity.  

Yet there is a dark side to this level of care. Homophobia taught me diplomacy. In spite of whatever status or confidence I might have gained, I still brace for the risk of aggression. Unless it’s a major issue, push a little, and I let go. Many members of minority groups do the same – if a straight talker pushes, they receive silence and a nod. Confirming their illusion of self-importance.

Without mindful handling, idea meritocracies built on the best intentions degenerate into survival of the loudest. Good people leave, teams fall apart. Resisting demands calling it out, making explicit requests for silent members to intervene, and setting protocols assigning turns to each person in a group. In live and virtual settings. And all this takes effort.

Not to mention, there is a dangerous temptation for strong egos. Acting like a dick is a good way to find yourself the smartest person in the room. Anyone with half a brain is drifting off already, planning their next move.

So, if you’ve ever been the smartest person in the room – or slack thread – just wonder – could it be that you silenced everyone else, or chased them away?

On arguing and listening

Sometimes, little linguistic observations reveal the deep shape of your thinking patterns. I was sitting at the breakfast table with my partner this morning, and said about the coming US election: ‘My friend X was saying the other day, no matter who wins the election, I think the US-China relationship will improve. It was fascinating to me how detached she seemed to be. As if, being Chinese, the US election was somewhat less existentially central to their world.’ My partner replied, interested ‘oh, why did they think the US-China relationship will improve?’ I experienced a very familiar sense of embarrassment. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘they didn’t say more, and I didn’t ask.’

People have often described me as open and accepting. Here is one of the manifestations. I often let people take positions without asking why, and I certainly don’t argue. My focus, when I listen, tends to be elsewhere.

Many people seem to like having positions, defending them, attacking the positions of others. The whole debating circus. I find all that about as dull as competitive sport. What interests me more is existential embodiment. Figuring out the personal, emotional, cultural details of why that person came to have that position at that time in history? What categories are they using to frame their position? What do those categories tell me about the world they inhabit? And what does all this tell me about the world that I inhabit, and the categories that shape my own thinking? For this, I must often be silent: if I started asking for justifications after every statement – or worse, if I was to start arguing – how would I ever hear enough that I can begin to sense how another person thinks, and how I think differently from them?

The result, however, is this regular sense of embarrassment when I discuss things with someone else, and realise, in the course of listening for categories, I took on someone else’s position, almost by default – repeated it, and find myself challenged on it. Often causing a measure of perplexity from the person I speak to, wondering how come I utter second-hand opinions, without knowing what reasoning goes behind them. Strength of your weaknesses, weaknesses of your strengths: the method I adopt to follow the thoughts of another person properly, comes with this regular blindspot.

Amplifying the signal

My partner used to take me to concerts – not so long ago, when concerts were still a thing. Last year, we listened to the Doric quartet. Walking back from Hamer Hall, I raved about that concert. Here is how I phrased it: their interpretation was such that I could identify the signal clearly – the melodic phrase, and the harmonic intention. There was a deliberate attempt at making sense of the score. Playing in that manner takes expertise, but also courage. Because, when you decide to interpret music in this manner, you state this is the music. No fudging. And if you made a wrong choice, inaccurate interpretation, people notice.

I had the same experience a while back, listening to Peter de Jaeger play a piece by Messiaen at an ANAM concert. Suddenly, there were echoes of jazz, it sounded like Gershwin. That was the message. I thought: ‘Of course, that was the musical world of Messiaen, no wonder he captured it, incorporated it to his work’. Peter de Jaeger revealed this to me, and showed how this piece fit in historically with others at the time, only by a choice of deliberate interpretation. He was reading the score, and shared the meaning he found with an audience. He made sense of the piece.

For this, he amplified a certain signal – melody, harmony, rhythm – isolating it, muffling the rest as noise. In the same way, the work of an editor is to amplify a signal. This is what I do, when editing: I look for the signal in the noise noise, then work with an author to amplify the first, and reduce the latter. It is a very personal process. I might be right or wrong. In fact, what I perceive may not even be clear to the author themselves. My unconscious brain, or whatever it is, comes into play.

Corollary: when a piece has nothing but noise, no signal, I will sense this, make it clear to the author. So, the skill – my gift, one may even say – is not my capacity to understand, but remain puzzled. In fact, I have never felt – or been – more useful than when I got puzzled.


On soundscapes

I’m back at Gills Diner. Yesterday morning, I started working from my study, but felt eerily drawn to Gills, and so I went. It’s not only the bombolone. It’s something about the place, it’s the vibe. And when I reflected on it, wondering why I love working form that cafe so much, I realised: it’s the soundscape.

We live in a multi-sensorial environment, surrounded by sounds and smells; our body reacts to the cold wind on our legs or the presence of another person nearby. But – maybe distortion of our screen-mediated world – visual cues take credit for everything. A place, a person, a thing, look good, or doesn’t. Whether they feel, smell, sound good – it matters, but it’s not something we think about.

I’m an earthy guy, and experience the world through all senses. The touch of wood, the waft of bacon and coffee, the echoing voices of nearby conversations and clinging metal from the kitchen – they’re more important for my own sense of space and presence than just how things look.

There’s an old rivarly between Melbourne and Sydney. Once, coming back from the other city, as I stepped out of Spencer Street Station, I had a sudden flash of insight. Sure, Sydney pleases the eye – but Melbourne is sweeter on your ears. The tingle of trams, the clapping horses, the buzz of pedestrian lights, and the large echoes of its broad street, make the Melbourne CBD one of the most pleasant urban soundscapes in the world.

And since that moment, I realised – to discover whether a place feels right – I close my eyes, and listen.

On speaking up

Today, I took part in a Hackathon organised by the Red Cross. Our goal was to come up with new creative solutions to improve social cohesion and integrate new migrants. I was part of a diverse team: a doctor from Pakistan, a basketball champion from Iran, a logistics expert from Congo – and a young Australian woman working for the Red Cross.

When working with diverse groups, particularly when English is not everybody’s first language, I’m very sensitive to conversation patterns: are all voices being heard, or do some people speak more than others? Generally, my tactic – and personal preference – is to sit back and listen, leaving more verbal space for others. If I am in a good position to do so, I try to encourage the more silent people with warm looks and smiles, or if I sense that they might want to contribute, try asking them a question.

Not everybody does that. Today, I noted an increasingly awkward dynamic develop in our team. The young Australian woman was a manifest extravert, and articulated all her thought processes aloud, thereby quickly dominating the conversational space. She might have been aware – she pulled anxious frowns, and seemed to call for help with her eyes, meanwhile piling up sentence after sentence. Not with much success. Our Iranian team-mate sat back, arms crossed.

An observer from the Hackathon core team came and sat with us for a while. When she left, she tapped on the shoulder of our African friend – all the time she was here, he had not spoken a word. ‘You should speak up,’ she said in half-voice, ‘I’m sure you’ve got a lot to contribute.’ This is often how we like to frame the situation. If in a group, some voices are not heard, well-meaning observers will encourage them to ‘speak up’. Much more rarely, if ever, will they turn to the local extravert, tap them on the shoulder, and say in half-voice, ‘you should shut up, I’m sure others have got a lot to contribute.’

On animes

When I was ten, I spent a lot of time out of class watching animes. I was an only child with two working parents. They had nothing against TV. My father said if I had freedom to choose what I watched, I would learn to make better decisions. My mother believed in giving me free rein as long as I did well in school.

At the time – it was the late 80s – Japanese animes, dubbed in French, were playing back to back. I watched across genres: sports and friendship, school adventures, magic and pop stars, robots and aliens. Looking back, there was a clear favourite: Saint Seiya, which I knew then as ‘Knights of the Zodiac’. I avidly collected figurines, recorded episodes on the family VCR, and impersonated the fights of Pegasus and Phoenix with my school friends at lunchtime.

Today, I decided to watch the first episode of the series again. I wanted to look back on what I learnt as a child – role-models, attitudes, values.

In the first ten minutes of the series, young Japanese Seiya fights a Greek giant among broken columns. The stake is the sacred armour of Pegasus. Against all expectations, Seiya triumphs. A flashback sequence explains how he developed his power. His mentor, a red-haired woman with a silver-mask, tells him of the relationship between the cosmos and his body. “To break a stone with your bare hand,” she says, “you must feel its atoms. Concentrate on the point of weakness, concentrate on your hand, then hit.”

Raw strength is not enough in Seiya’s world. Armors are only metal, they need human will and intelligence. True power comes from understanding the structure of things, through concentrated efforts of perception. Victory comes to those who can pause, watch and understand. This wisdom, I still apply today, and might have learnt from anime.

Teaching is listening

Has everyone heard of ‘the flipped classroom’? I bumped into the concept a number of times when following an education course on Coursera, and more recently, saw allusions to it in my partner’s reading notes for his Master of Teaching. The ‘flipped classroom’ model proposes that, instead of students listening to a lecturing teacher in class, and collaborating outside on homework, they should listen to recorded video lectures at home – and at their pace – while facilitated classroom time is reserved for collaborative exercises.

When I taught at the Sorbonne, I was not encouraged to develop group activities. However, my basic assumption was consistent with the flipped classroom model. Students have a motivation to learn, and previous skills to build on. My role is not to feed them new knowledge as if it fell into a void, but to rectify their imperfect understanding of some point of grammar, or how language works – as well as continuously sustain their motivation. In other words, my role as educator is not to pour knowledge into student-vessels, but guide spontaneous movements and correct harmful postures. And in order to rectify, I need to understand what’s wrong.

This is by no means an original idea of education. It does entail, however, that the main skills teachers need is not speaking or reading – but observing and listening. This New York Times editorial, expresses it with great eloquence: “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.”

Listening requires a different type of preparation from speech delivery. I couldn’t entirely script a class – and definitely not read my notes as some of my colleagues did – but needed the capacity to rephrase and identify errors. Partly, this comes through experience. Partly, this comes through general intelligence and emotional intelligence. Partly, this comes through relaxation. I would come with three basic points I wanted students to learn, and a general idea for potential conversational pathways. Then I would improvise, systematically taking my cues from students’ interventions.

Teachers certainly should be good speakers, but more importantly, they must be good listeners. Do you agree with this statement? And if so – how can we train as teachers to become better at listening?

Three core tips on pronouncing Chinese

From years of experience teaching French and English phonetics, I know that often, one simple change in the way we make sounds can improve our pronunciation dramatically. But few teachers – and almost no untrained native speaker – can accurately describe what a non-native needs to change in order to pronounce better.

I studied Mandarin on my own mostly – and like most Westerners, I’ve struggled with phonetics: tones, vowel quality, rhythm, aspiration. I didn’t know quite how much until recently. Early during my stay in Nanjing, I had an opportunity to join a singing show on Chinese TV (in the end, it didn’t happen). Before my interview, I wanted to check that a live performance wouldn’t cover me with ridicule, and recorded myself singing Chinese on my iphone. ‘Thick laowai’ is about what I sounded like. But this unpleasant experience had one very positive outcome: I was able to pick out some of the problems with my pronunciation, and based on what I heard, improve it.

The three tips below are based on this experience, and represent three areas of pronunciation where I feel I made significant progress just by changing one element in the way I articulate Mandarin. They may be strictly personal, or work for you – try them out!

1) More vowel, softer consonants

I’m trained as a classical singer, and I have a particular fondness for Schuman’s lieder. I also grew up in Strasbourg, and German is he first foreign language I learnt: trained ears still recognise echoes of it in my English. I could hear more than faint traces in my rendering of Jay Chou. I could hear every consonant exploding, hacking the flow of sound, like a pounding march: it sounded nothing like Chinese. I remembered some of my French classes: I improved some of my students’ accent by instructing them to de-articulate their consonants. I needed a serious dose of that. I recorded myself again, making sure I avoided any strong impulsion from my lips or jaw in between vowels, only softly closing them in between vowels. The result was astounding: it radically changed the quality of my singing, and I thought: “this really sounds Chinese”.

3) Use your diaphragm

Softening my consonants was a real improvement, but now my pronunciation was two soft. I listened to Chinese tracks again, and they all had a rhythmic beat I lacked. I thought again of my classical practice: one of the things we were encouraged to do was se our diaphragm on stressed syllables to mark an impulsion. I thought, if the structure of the Chinese language is such that every syllable has its own independent meaning – and a tone – maybe they all need an impulsion from the diaphragm. I tried, while keeping my consonants as soft as I could, and it worked! More importantly, I tried the same technique to speak aloud, and for the first time, noticed a radical improvement to my tones.

Tones – like all linguistic elements – form a system. And ‘bad tone pronunciation’ must be systemic. In a tonal language, changes in pitch carry word-meaning, as in the often quoted: 妈,麻,马,骂. These characters/words are all pronounced ‘ma’, with tone 1,2,3 and 4 respectively, and mean mother, hemp, horse and curse. Western learners (or teachers) generally focus on the difference between tones, trying as best we can to use a first, second, third or fourth tone, as required. But more fundamental is the difference between marking and not marking tones; yet we never learn about this more fundamental difference. From this experience, and others later, I have come to believe that these changes in pitch require every syllable to start with an impulsion from the diaphragm. I tested the theory with a few Chinese friends who concurred, feeling that in Mandarin, the sound came from ‘down below the throat”. Therefore, to speak better Chinese, the first step to to give each syllable its own impulsion from the diaphragm.

Concretely, when you speak Chinese, at the start of every syllable, you should push forward with your diaphragm. To check that it’s happening, you can put a finger just below your solar plexus, the bit where your ribs come together at the front of your chest, and push it forward by contracting the vert top of your abs. If you do that simple move well, speaking Chinese will feel like a series of small jumps and hops, you will start sounding more like a native, and you will experience the four tones as a different type of dance step.

3) Use your nose

The balance of consonant and vowel improved, and the general beat of the language improved, but something was still off the mark – I still sounded like Bel Canto practice. One of my goals in coming to China was to learn the beauty of Chinese opera: to my untrained ear, the singers’ nasal shrill sounds were simply unpleasant. But my own non-nasal voice was certainly not right. I tried: I sang in a nasal voice – and sounded like a Beijing opera star.

How do you speak or sing in a nasal voice? The sound (and air) goes both through the mouth and nose. It’s particularly clear when pronouncing a Chinese ‘i’. Imagine that there is a vertical piece of cardboard in the middle of your mouth. Then, try to imagine that the sound is resonating inside a small sphere located somewhere between your back teeth and your nose. You can also place your hand in front of your nose – if air comes out as you speak, then you’re nasal.

No teacher ever taught me these three tricks, and I never saw them explained anywhere else. Maybe because they don’t actually work – maybe because nobody’s bothered to research and describe them – or maybe they are widely known, and I just didn’t know where to look. I encourage you to try them at least – and see whether they bring any improvement. Please share your own advice on pronunciation here.

Shigong – on trusting Chinese infrastructure

‘No, my building is ground zero’, said a friend, ‘I’ve had jackhammers from six again this morning – so I just wake up and walk around – I can’t stay home anymore.’ Massive ‘Shigong’, or infrastructure works, have been going around Nanjing University since I arrived. I’ve had mud up to my ankles on the way back home, walked along a thin ledge of ground beside a moving excavator, and woke up to the pleasant sounds of jackhammers before 6am a few times. Yet I learnt I should count myself among the lucky ones: my jackhammers stopped after a while.

I left for Beijing ten days ago, and expected the Shigong outside my building to be finished when I came back. Indeed, I pulled my suitcase back along a freshly covered path, and the mounds of dirt had been swept clean – beside the thick layer of brown dust, nothing remained of the previous chaos. I put down my bags, and turned on a tap to get water for tea. Nothing came out – and nothing came out from the bathroom taps either. On the little path leading to my compound, I had noticed an unusual line of people queuing in front of a tap with empty water bottles and buckets. I picked up my empties from the kitchen – lazy man’s luck, I had a bunch of four-litre bottles I never bothered throwing away. ‘How long will the water be gone?’ I asked, hoping for quick respite. ‘Day after tomorrow’, replied a neighbour. Then added, philosophically ‘Lucky we got a tap working here, it would be really annoying otherwise’. I nodded. It’s been three days, and the water hasn’t come back. ‘Day after tomorrow’ seems to be short for ‘who knows?’

Running water is such a part of my daily life I hardly notice how much I rely on it every day – whether I quickly wash my hands or clean a cup, running water allows for my daily purification rituals. My dirty laundry took two journeys to the tap – and I collected the used water for my flush. I experienced something, and I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for the daily comforts of life in a developed urban environment. But it surely wasn’t fun or particularly pleasant. So for the last few days, I’ve been just a little bit grumpy, just a little bit frustrated I couldn’t wash properly – body, tea-cup or underwear – and couldn’t get a cup of tea whenever I felt like it without planning ahead.

By global standards, I am still in a privileged environment. A walk down the stairs will take me to the nearest tap, and I won’t have to queue for long. The water there may not have the cleanest taste, but if I boil it properly, I can drink it without immediate harm to my body. And I can get as much as I need for free. By relative standards, however, I am experiencing hardship: ‘if this was a shantytown, I would understand’, commented my father. ‘In a Chinese metropolis, it’s surely not normal’. I live in a rather wealthy central district of Nanjing, the capital of China’s second richest province, and an aspiring global metropolis. Yet as I discover, it’s not simple operating as a fully-connected citizen of the globo-sphere when practical details of your water recycling management require so much attention. And it’s that little bit harder to plan international skype meetings and visits to local innovation communities when you’re not sure you can get a shower, or boil yourself a cup of tea.

‘Not knowing is the worst’, right: this applies to Chinese infrastructure. It’s actually quite good when it works – but you cannot rely on it. I’ve experienced it with internet access, I’ve experienced it with transport, and now I’m experiencing it with running water. 没办法’, there’s no way, say some of the locals, resigned. Others pester with annoyance. The service is gone, the cause isn’t clear, and nobody knows when or if things are gonna work again. In other words, basic infrastructure cannot be trusted – and people treat basic service provision in the same way they deal with major weather events.

This lack of trust in basic infrastructure affects the whole society. If anything might break at any moment without sign of warning, long-term planning and risk management become laughable pursuits. Why build solid, if nothing is assured –cheap, fast and low quality makes more sense among such levels of contingency. Expected standards of service also drop accordingly: my cashier/waiter/doctor/ teacher/manager might have no running water today, no wonder they’re in a bad mood. Maybe this transaction cannot be completed on time, because some part of the system has collapsed. Let’s try it anyway – but if it seems too hard, we should give up: surely something must be wrong somewhere, or we’re just out of luck. And this attitude, in turn, breeds further chaos.