Tuesday, 19 June 2018

The man who went to the North Korean place that ‘doesn’t exist’

It was a visit to Pyongyang's Yanggakdo Hotel that resulted in the detention and eventual death of American student Otto Warmbier. US doctor Calvin Sun recalls his night inside a secret floor in the hotel and warns other travellers to stay away.

Calvin Sun had been awake for almost 24 hours when North Korean guards boarded the minibus that was due to take him and his friends to Pyongyang International Airport and out of the country.

There was an issue, the officials announced. The group would not be allowed to leave until it was resolved.

The bus fell silent.

Sun thought back to his one-week excursion to the most isolated country in the world, nicknamed the Hermit Kingdom. It had been one of his most memorable trips.

"Of all the things we had done in North Korea that week," says Sun, "it never occurred to me that our visit to the fifth floor may have been the problem."

It still didn't cross his mind when the guards asked the travel group to step out of the minibus.

***********

Calvin Sun was born and raised in New York City by Chinese parents. By the time he reached his 20s, he had barely left the state. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, 20 minutes away from his home in New York, he didn't like venturing outside his comfort zone.

But a spontaneous trip to Egypt in 2010 sparked a thirst for exploring the world. He set up a travel blog, The Monsoon Diaries, and quickly gained a cult following.

Sun used every break and weekend to explore a new country, with the goal of never repeating an experience or going back to the same place.

Before his second year at medical school, Sun decided to use the summer break to embark on a trip that would start somewhere in the Middle East and end somewhere in Asia. He kept his itinerary fluid, allowing for spontaneous excursions with friends he would make along the way.

North Korea was not part of the initial plan. Neither was the secretive fifth floor of Pyongyang's Yanggakdo Hotel.

The Yanggakdo International Hotel is one of the largest operating hotels in North Korea
Western tourists wanting to visit North Korea in 2011 needed the assistance of a private tour operator. Around half a dozen international travel agents offered bespoke guided tours for groups to North Korea through China. The rules for these visits were tightened in 2017 - in part, many believe, due to one fateful trip made by a Western student to the forbidden fifth floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel.

While in Beijing, Calvin Sun had a week to spare before his return to the US. He visited one of these tour operators to browse through their itineraries. The secretive state of North Korea seemed too enticing an opportunity to pass up. He opted for the tour that gave him the best deal.

"North Korea was one of the easiest visa forms I had to fill out. You didn't even need to hand in your passport to apply for entry then. I think many people don't even bother to try because the thought of it is too overwhelming."

This would be the final country Sun would visit before returning home to New York and his second year of medical school.

Sun, along with a group of 20 American, European and Chinese travellers, mostly in their 20s, met their tour organisers in Beijing. During an orientation session, the group were told to listen their guides and to always show respect for North Korean culture.

They would be staying at the Yanggakdo Hotel in the capital. The fifth floor, however, was never mentioned.

Landing at Pyongyang International Airport, Sun was immediately struck by the contrast with China.

"It was as if God had muted the colour," he says, "Beijing had been so colourful that it now seemed garish next to Pyongyang."

Pyongyang International Airport with a portrait of Kim Il-sung, who was the
first Supreme Leader of North Korea from its establishment in 1948
"The buildings, the posters, the signs, the clothes were white, grey and black with maybe a little bit of red. Communist party colours. It was as if I'd got into a time machine and arrived inside a 1970s Soviet TV show time warp."

Three guides in their 40s, two male and one female, were in charge of running the packed tour. They informed the group that they used to be officials in the DPRK military.

"Although they seemed a little strict and organised in the beginning, telling us not to cross streets without supervision or take photos of certain buildings, we formed an instant rapport with them," says Sun. "The guides enjoyed drinking. We learned that alcohol is a central part of Korean culture, and they encouraged us to socialise with them every evening."

Calvin Sun says the North Korean tour guides were relaxed as the week went
on and allowed the visitors to take informal photographs.
The trip saw the group visit landmarks like Juche Tower, the Worker's Memorial, the USS Pueblo - the only US Navy ship still on the commissioned roster to be taken hostage by North Korea in 1968 - and the Demilitarised Zone. But it was the moments drinking and socialising where Sun saw true glimpses of how the country - which has state-controlled internet and limited TV access to mostly propaganda broadcasts - views the US.

"The guides were fascinated with Michael Jackson and kept asking us if he died of Aids. They also asked us a lot about police brutality in America. The American reality show Cops, which follows police officers on real-life stings is one of the few international shows that was shown on North Korean TV (at least to the officials). They asked a lot of questions about that."

But it wasn't just the content of the questions that struck Sun. It was the way they were asked.

"It seemed more than curiosity, as if they were trying to get confirmation of a very particular view they had of the US."

Sun shot a gun for the first time at a North Korean shooting range in the countryside. Most of the group missed the target. Their ineptitude caused the guides to wonder out loud in surprise at how Americans, with their experience of gun violence, could be so bad at shooting.

As the week progressed, the stringent rules drummed into them at the start had relaxed. The guides were no longer bothered if the group crossed roads unsupervised. They were no longer briefed to not take photos.

It had been a memorable week. Sun had made fast friends with his travel companions and felt at ease with the guides. On their last night together the group went to a nightclub called Diplo and danced to music from the 80s, predominantly Michael Jackson.

Back at Yanggakdo Hotel, the guides encouraged the group to once again join them for drinks. They didn't stay long. It had been a busy week.

The group started to make their way to their respective bedrooms, when some decided it would be fun to congregate briefly in one room before bed. They weren't as tired as they thought.

It was then that someone suggested they explore the rest of the hotel.


At 47 storeys, the Yanggakdo International Hotel is one of North Korea's tallest buildings. It's located on an island in the middle of the Taedong river, and boasts four restaurants, a bowling alley and massage parlours. TVs in bedrooms play dated BBC World News reports on a loop.

It's by far the most popular place to stay for tourists in the country. The North Korean Tourist board bills it as a five-star hotel, although tourist reviews on travel sites say the standard is closer to three.

"It's almost like they sent someone to Vegas in 1984 and said, 'Look what they've got, come back here and build it.' And they did, but got it all a bit wrong," wrote one blogger.

There is no fifth floor button on the lifts of the Yanggakdo Hotel
For their five-night stay at the hotel, Sun and the group had been supervised by their guides. Now was their last opportunity to explore the building alone. After all, there had been no rules against exploring the hotel.

The group made their way to the open rooftop and then to the revolving restaurant on the top floor, before making their way down in the lift.

Someone then noticed that the button for the fifth floor was missing. The numbers on the panel jumped from four to six.

"We should check out the fifth floor, see if they skip it because they're superstitious or if it really exists," another said.

The mystery of what the secretive fifth floor may hold had already been a source of much intrigue among travel bloggers. Some in Sun's tour group, most of them seasoned travellers, had heard of it. Sun had not.

"We weren't the first group to go to the fifth floor - or the last. In 2011 no tourists had ever been detained in DPRK. The weight of what we were doing didn't occur to us."

Today there is a page on Young Pioneer Tours (Sun's tour operators) website stating that the floor is strictly off-limits for tourists. There was no such online warning in 2011. Neither was there one offline.


"We were not briefed to stay away from the fifth floor at any stage by the guides, it just wasn't mentioned," says Sun.

They had also been informed by another traveller who had already been there, that as the fifth floor doesn't technically exist, they couldn't get in trouble for being there.

The group disembarked on the fourth floor and made their way to the stairwell round the back of the hotel. While the mood was outwardly jovial, Sun says they were on edge.

"One of the guys who was walking ahead in the corridor ran back and said 'No not this way, I heard screaming.'" Sun adds that he didn't hear the screaming, but was unnerved enough to pay attention. "We all decided to change direction and head to the sixth floor, and walk down to the fifth floor from there."

The group were surprised to find that the door to enter the fifth floor from the stairwell was unmanned. It was also open. Pulling out their cameras, they stepped inside.


The first thing that struck Sun was the low height of the ceiling. It was around half that of the other floors. Some ducked or tilted their heads to the sides. Keen to explore, the group dispersed.

Sun started walking through the dimly-lit, concrete bunker-like floor. Bar the ceiling height, it looked just like a normal hotel bedroom corridor with doors branching off either side.

Most rooms were locked, but one was open. There was a pair of shoes outside, next to the open door. When they looked, they couldn't see anyone inside.

"This room had lights coming from inside and we saw security cameras, TV screens that seemed to show the inside of bedrooms and what looked like surveillance equipment. I now began to think that this floor was where what the hotel staff reportedly kept equipment to surveil guests."

One of Sun's friends on the trip began to film a video as Sun took photos. Everyone was speaking to each other in hushed tones.

"We accidentally used flash photography though - but no one came looking for us."

The walls were covered with brightly coloured anti-American and anti-Japanese propaganda paintings and framed hangings. Several images glorified the former Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il.

One caption read: "This bomb is the product of the Americans. Every product of the Americans is our enemy. Get revenge a thousand hundred times against the Americans."

"Every product of the Americans is our enemy."
After several minutes a man they didn't recognise emerged from the shadows and approached the group.

"Lost?" He asked calmly in English.

Someone said yes, they were. The man nodded and pointed them to a lift.

"He didn't escort us back to our rooms, or appear angry or agitated."

Returning to a bedroom, the group agreed that they did not feel threatened by the encounter with the hotel official. A few decided to venture down again.

Back down on the fifth floor, one of the people in the group opened a door to find nothing but a brick wall. Another opened one to find stairs that led to another floor.

"There was a floor within a floor."

"Prepare thoroughly to destroy the invader" . The poster also includes a list of
things the Japanese "took" during occupation (between 1910 and 1945)
including 200,000 sex slaves and the lives of 1 million Koreans.
There were more locked rooms and more propaganda posters nailed to the wall. Sun can't read Korean but later, after uploading the video onto YouTube, he found out the meaning of some of the messages. They spoke of revenge on the US and the power of the Kim family. One poster, depicting an early 1980s model computer, heralded the 21st century as the age of technology.

Once again a different hotel official approached the group and once again they were politely asked to return to their rooms.

Some returned for a third time. Even more relaxed this time round, two members of the group wandered off on the floor and kissed in private (this was revealed in a small group reunion years later). Once again, a different guard arrived to good-naturedly point them back to their rooms.

"We were all in our early 20s. We were foolish. We were very naive. The experience seemed exciting and innocent. After everything that has happened since then and taking responsibility, knowing what I know now, I would not have done it."

Sun and the group eventually returned to their respective rooms at 05:00 and packed for their flight out of Pyongyang. Their minibus would be arriving in just two hours time.

"Our General is the best."
At 07:00, the group was still in good spirits as they waited for the minibus to take them to Pyongyang International Airport. But when hotel officials boarded the bus and asked them to disembark, a ripple of concern went through the party.

The guides said they knew of what one member in the group had done and it would be prudent to confess now. The group remained silent.

An official spoke up. Embroidered towels from the private rooms of the Yanggakdo Hotel had been taken without permission. If the group wanted to return to their respective homes, they would need to be returned. No one admitted guilt.

The tour guides made a deal with the officials. If they turned their backs and stepped out of the bus, the offender would place the towels on the floor. It would be the quickest way to resolve the situation, they argued. The guards accepted the deal and the stolen towels were returned without the thief being identified.

The group made their way to the airport and, as is customary, turned in their North Korean visas at the gates and flew out of the country without a stamp on their official passports.

Sun started his second year at medical school the following day. He rarely thought of the fifth floor. That all changed four years later.

***********

In 2015, US university student Otto Warmbier would follow the same programme in North Korea as Calvin Sun, with the same operators, Young Pioneer Tours. Warmbier would also stay at Yanggakdo Hotel. And it was at the hotel that North Korean officials would say that Warmbier attempted to steal a North Korean poster.

Warmbier was subjected to a sham trial and then a forced TV confession. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years hard labour for the offence. Warmbier sustained injuries while incarcerated and he fell into a coma from which he would not regain consciousness. Otto Warmbier's death in June 2017 made international headlines.

Grainy surveillance footage indicated that Warmbier had been in a part of the hotel not open to the general public. Those who visited the Pyongyang hotel say that the 21-year-old student had undoubtedly ventured onto the fifth floor and removed a propaganda poster from the wall - a detail never confirmed by the North Korean government or Yanggakdo Hotel, who have similarly never confirmed the existence of the fifth floor.

US college student Otto Warmbier died as a result of injuries he
sustained at a North Korean labour camp
"While we were there there were no posters that you could take down. The pictures were either all painted or nailed to the wall," says Sun. "Not that we ever had considered taking, let alone touching anything on the floor - there was nothing that we could have stolen from there anyway. Except for maybe the pair of slippers on the floor outside the surveillance room."

Warmbier's death put the spotlight on tourism to North Korea. A number of tour operators, including Young Pioneers Tours, said they would no longer escort US citizens to the country. Many said they would be reviewing their policies for all Western tourists, adding pages on their websites stating that the fifth floor was a service floor that was strictly off limits.

Now an emergency doctor finishing his last month of residency, Sun still continues his travels any opportunity he gets, having gained thousands of followers for his blog. However, he is now more careful about his actions.

"I feel terrible about what happened to Otto. And knowing what we now know, I would certainly advise all travellers to respect the customs of the country they are visiting. But back then, there was no way I could have known that we were being reckless or what we did could have resulted in such a tragic and serious outcome as Otto's."

All photos belong to Calvin Sun and The Monsoon Diaries unless otherwise indicated

(Source: BBC)

Arundhati Roy: ‘The point of the writer is to be unpopular’

The acclaimed author and activist answers questions from the readers of Guardian newspaper and famous fans on the state of modern India, the threat of AI, and why sometimes only fiction can fully address the world. Read on: 

Arundhati Roy does not believe in rushing things. With her novels, she prefers to wait for her characters to introduce themselves to her, and slowly develop a trust and a friendship with them. Sometimes, however, external events force her hand. One of these was the election of the divisive Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as Indian prime minister in May 2014.

At the time, Roy had been working for about seven years on her second novel, the successor to her stunning, 1997 Booker prize-winning debut, The God of Small Things. But Modi’s victory forced her to “really put down the tent pegs” on what would eventually become The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

“It was just a moment of shock for people like me,” says Roy, twirling an elegant, checked scarf around her neck like spaghetti around a fork. “For so many years, I’d been trying to yell from the rooftops about it and it was absolutely a sense of abject defeat and abject despair. And the choice was to get into bed and sleep for five years, or to really concentrate on this book. I didn’t feel like writing any more essays, although I did write one, but I felt like everything I had to say had been said. It was time to accept defeat.”


It may have felt like defeat to Roy, but the arrival of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness last year was a cause of celebration for nearly everybody else. The novel, now out in paperback, opens in Delhi, in what appears to be the 1950s, and introduces us to Anjum, a Muslim hijra or transgender woman. In the second part of the book, the story moves to Kashmir and we follow a new protagonist, Tilo, an architect who becomes involved with a group of Kashmiri independence fighters. The strands eventually converge, but along the way dozens of odd characters dip in and out of proceedings. It’s not always immediately clear what purpose they are serving; it’s only at the end of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness that you realise what an extraordinary and visceral state‑of‑the-nation book Roy has created.

“What I wanted to know was: can a novel be a city?” says Roy. “Can you stop it being baby food, which can be easily consumed? So the reader also has to deal with complexities that they are being trained not to deal with.”

Much of Roy’s own experience feeds into The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, not least the fact that she studied to be an architect and has campaigned for Kashmiri independence. For herself, she realised very quickly that architecture was not for her. “I graduated but I didn’t actually build anything, because I wasn’t really cut out to be making beautiful homes for wealthy people or whatever,” she says, smiling. “I had too many arguments with my bosses. Kept getting sacked for bad behaviour. For insolence!”

So finding her way to writing was probably for the best then? “It started with knowing very early that I couldn’t have a boss!”

Even now, at the age 56, Roy manages to retain a healthy rebellious streak. We meet in London, at the offices of her publisher, Penguin Random House, a couple of days after the end of the Hay festival. I notice she hadn’t appeared at the festival and wondered if there was a reason. There was: Tata, the Indian conglomerate that owns everything from steel plants to tea company Tetley, sponsored various events at Hay under the banner “Pioneering with Purpose”. Roy has in the past been critical of it as one of the “mega-corporations” that run modern India. She didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

“There are so many of these corporate sponsors and mining companies,” Roy explains. “For example, Vedanta, which sponsored the Jaipur literary festival in 2016. I’ve been writing about them for the last 10 years. Recently, there were 13 people killed [by police] on the streets of Tamil Nadu protesting against one of their projects. It’s a big conflict for me, because so much of my writing is about what these people are up to and then they have these free-speech tents. So I just avoid them.”

Arundhati Roy at a protest in New Delhi, 2008.
Photograph: Manpreet Romana/AFP/Getty Images
Roy, who lives in Delhi, instead wanted to use her time in London to confirm the publication of her collected nonfiction work. In the 20 years between her two novels, these projects have occupied most of her time. She has written powerfully about government dams, the 2002 Gujarat massacre, and spent almost three weeks walking through the forests of central India with Naxalites, a Maoist group that seeks to defend the rights of the tribes whose land, abundant in minerals, is being developed. It is a considerable body of work: so much so that when the essays are released next year – with the title My Seditious Heart – the book will run to more than 1,000 pages.

Her political writing often lands Roy in hot water in India. In early 2016 she even felt it necessary to leave Delhi for London, after student protests broke out in universities across the country following the hanging of a Kashmiri separatist whom Roy had praised. “I didn’t fear for my welfare as much as I feared for my book,” she says. “I was very vulnerable at the time because I was just a few months away from finishing The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and because there were students being put into jail, mobs were on the street. The main TV news channel was saying: ‘Who’s the person behind this?’ And it was me. But I came [to London] and I went straight back in nine days or 10 days, because I knew this was not my thing to run away.”

Roy describes her nonfiction as “urgent interventions”, but ever since Modi came to power she is mostly drawn to writing fiction. It seems unlikely, then, that we’ll have to wait another 20 years for a new novel. “Who knows, but I hope not!” she says. “Because I really have so enjoyed writing fiction again. But I must say that, the times are so uncertain, there’s going to be a very, very hard year in India and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can’t ever say in advance what I’ll be doing …”

She shakes her head and laughs, “It’s a highly unplanned life.”

Famous fans’ questions…
Lionel Shriver
Author
Do you ever worry that your work as an activist detracts – or at least distracts – from your fiction, and are you concerned that sticking your neck out politically changes the way readers and critics respond to that fiction?

I have always quarrelled with this word “activist”. I think it’s a very new word and I don’t know when it was born, but it was recently. I don’t want to have a second profession added to writing. Writing covers it. In the old days, writers were political creatures also, not all, but many. It was seen as our business to be writing about the world around us in different ways. So I don’t feel threatened or worried about that. For me, my fiction and my nonfiction are both political. The fiction is a universe, the nonfiction is an argument.

What I do worry about is the fact that writers have become so frightened of being political. The idea that writers are being reduced to creators of a product that is acceptable, that slips down your throat, which readers love and therefore can be bestsellers, that’s so dangerous. Today, for example in India, where majoritarianism is taking root – and by majoritarianism, I don’t just mean the government, I mean that individuals are being turned into micro-fascists by so many means. It is the mobs and vigilantes going and lynching people. So more than ever, the point of the writer is to be unpopular. The point of the writer is to say: “I denounce you even if I’m not in the majority.”

Nina Stibbe
Author
Which Beatle is your favourite and why?

John Lennon. I can say that in my sleep! Why? Because I always felt that there was a sadness that was wrapped with brilliance. And, this is not the reason that I love him – I also love the way he looks. This morning I woke up and felt a little jealous of seeing Yoko Ono and him together. I was like, “Fuck!” Although it was really before my time, but still…

George Monbiot
Writer and environmentalist
In a world racked by climate breakdown, ecological collapse and the marginalisation of billions, what gives you hope?

One of my books of essays is dedicated to “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason”. So being unreasonable is the only way that we can have hope. I am often among people who battle every day, but when you’re in there with them it’s not all grim. These are people who have their backs to the wall and are fighting for survival, but so much of the time they spend laughing at stupid things.

For example, when I was inside the forests of central India with the comrades, one night everyone was asleep and I saw this guy typing something on his solar-powered computer. So I said: “What are you doing?” And he said: “Oh, I’m issuing a denial. You know, if all our denials were published, they would run into several volumes.” So I said: “What’s the most ridiculous denial you’ve ever had to issue?” And he said in Hindi: “No brother, we didn’t hammer the cows to death.”

Arundhati Roy on the banks of India’s Narmada River, where she campaigned
against a new dam, 1999. Photograph: Karen Robinson
The story was that the current sitting chief minister had promised in his election campaign that, if he won the elections, every rural household would get a cow. So once he won, to pretend to deliver on his promise, they rounded up all these elderly cows and then they were subcontracted to people who were expected to deliver them to these far-flung households in the forests of indigenous peoples. Some of them just killed the cows halfway through and then said the Maoists did it. It served so many purposes: they didn’t have to bother delivering them, and the Maoists come out of it as anti-Hindu.

So there’s often a graveyard humour and a steely resilience, and I believe that the only way – if at all – the machine can be pushed back is through these resistances. And I’m on the side of the line with them.

Eve Ensler
Playwright
What reader’s response to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness surprised you the most?

Ha-ha, there are several. One is that it’s a book that doesn’t pretend to universalise anything or conceptualise anything. It’s a book of great detail about a place. So the first thing that surprised me was that it has been translated into 46 languages – that it is being read in Vietnam, in Georgia. It was never designed to be that kind of an easy read. I got a letter from someone in Palestine the other day who said: “Thank you for making space for the poetics of other languages in your book.” That was amazing because the book is imagined in more than one language. And given the climate we have in India right now, I’m happy to say that it’s been pirated and even being sold to me at the traffic lights. For half-price!

Wendy Doniger
US Indologist whose book The Hindus: An Alternative History was recalled by its publisher, Penguin India, in 2014
Do you think it is possible for writers and publishers to join forces to find ways to oppose prosecutions for blasphemy (or “offending” religious feelings) under laws like Indian penal code section 295A? Or at least to change the charge from a criminal to a civil offence?

If we’re talking India in particular, I feel that it is possible. I know Wendy Doniger’s publishers let her down very badly. It was very wrong what they did, because they were not even taken to court. It was just this crazy man who makes a business out of going after people in this way. This is the way the criminal justice system is used in India, as harassment. So they could have backed her, but they didn’t.

At the moment what is happening in India is that censorship is being outsourced to the mob. Some person comes out and says: “Oh you’re not showing rajput in a good light,” or any community starts feeling that they can burn down cinema halls, they can stop a film release, and it’s all being allowed. In the same way, writers have been killed and shot and threatened. The government can try to act as if it’s not involved, but its involvement is in protecting the mobs. It’s a question that leads to many questions and Wendy Doniger has suffered.

Shobha Rao
Author
When did you know your childhood was over?

It’s not over yet! It should never be over for writers. The people I fear most are the people who I look at and I can’t imagine what kind of a child they were. Because of the circumstances in which I was born and how I lived, I had to be in some ways a pretty adult child and I would like at least some part of me to be a pretty childish adult.

Kate Hudson
General secretary of CND
It’s 20 years since India’s Pokharan nuclear weapons tests. At the time, you powerfully and convincingly demolished the claims that such weapons were deterrents to war. Now the narrative from the White House is one of “usable” nukes. How can we defeat this drive towards global self-destruction, and how can a new movement be built?

I don’t know what the answer to this question is. But one thing that’s truly on my mind now, and I know it will sound paranoid – but I think we do need to be paranoid – is artificial intelligence. Perhaps AI can do better surgery than surgeons, write better poetry than poets and better novels than novelists. But what it does is make the human population almost surplus: it makes it unnecessary. One argument is that it will be the end of work and the beginning of play; that people can be looked after. But people could be looked after now, as we know there’s enough surplus to do that, and it doesn’t happen.

When human beings become surplus, that’s where these smart nukes and chemical and biological warfare – these things that are genocidal – begin to really worry me. Because I do see a time when the masters of the universe will decide that the universe is a better place without most of the population. Artificial intelligence is a way of becoming the perfect human being, which fascists have always thought about: the supreme human being. If you can think of that, if that is your goal, then certainly you can think of the other. I worry about it.

Ali Smith
Author
I am a fan of all your writing in all its forms, but what is it that the novel makes possible for us that no other form of writing does?

When photography came, there was a certain kind of art that it put out of business. When film came, there was a certain kind of theatre that it put out of business. So what the novel has to do, what I felt when I wrote The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is [ask] what can it do that nothing else can?

And there are things it can do. There’s a quote from James Baldwin in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: “And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.” So if you were to take out the political milestones in this book and just do nonfiction about them, they would not be what they are. Only a novel can tell you how caste, communalisation, sexism, love, music, poetry, the rise of the right all combine in a society. And the depths in which they combine. We have been trained to “silo-ise”: our brains specialise in one thing. But the radical understanding is if you can understand it all, and I think only a novel can.

Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell 
Directors of Grafton Architects
You have said that literature is not about issues, that it is about the world, about everybody, that literature is a monumental, profound, beautiful and complicated thing. Would you apply the same values in your contemplation of architecture?

Yes, of course. I’m a student of architecture, and if I had to choose a profession again I would choose architecture, because I do believe it’s about everything. One of the people who made me want to become an architect was Laurie Baker; he was British but had lived in India all his life. He used to do what was called no-cost architecture, where you pay a lot of attention to material and where it came from: he was so against the idea of his buildings living for ever. I learned from him that beautiful architecture is not directly proportional to how much it costs or how much money you put into it. So for me, it’s a very fundamental and beautiful art, certainly extremely profound in terms of how you should be thinking about it.

Arundhati Roy in 2002, after being released from jail for contempt of court.
Photograph: Manish Swarup/AP
Readers’ questions…
With regards to your fiction, would you be able to describe the balance between research, autobiography and imagined worlds? How important is it to you?
James Corcut

I don’t do research. What generally happens is I begin to get curious about something for no reason and then I just find it impossible to contain and I’ve written nonfiction. But especially in the novel, these things just settle in you and you become like a sedimentary rock. The characters come by and it’s almost like you’re walking down the street and someone catches your eye and you meet them again and then you become friends. It’s a bit like that. One of the ways in which I write, especially when I write fiction, is just that I wait. And something just comes knocking at your door. You have to be open to it. You have to allow it in, more than pursue it.

I’m very much part of those worlds that I describe. So sometimes it might be really autobiographical and I don’t know. When you’re open to allowing these characters in, everything is autobiographical, no? Esthappen in The God of Small Things says: “If in a dream you’ve eaten fish, does it mean you’ve eaten fish?” For me, those worlds are all very osmotic: experience, autobiography, imagination, understanding. And that’s why it all needs to mix and settle and it’s not segmented.

My friends and I often debate “the best Bookers”. Mine happen to be, in no particular order: Disgrace, The God of Small Things and Midnight’s Children. I’d like to think that you, too, have these “pub conversations” – so, what’s your favourite Booker novel, and why?
Viren Mistry

I don’t have these conversations, because I don’t feel like thinking about books in this way. Books are unique and so I don’t think of them hierarchically. I understand that people need to give prizes, but it’s so particular to you and I don’t even think of “Booker books” to begin with.

You have been fiercely expressing your disagreements with the state, irrespective of political parties in office. Have you ever wished to go into electoral politics? If yes, why haven’t you yet? If no, why?
Anand Aani

No. It’s such an important place and time in which to be a writer, where you’re not burdened by the idea of soliciting people’s support. Where often it’s so important to stand alone, to be a person who expresses themselves very clearly on certain things. So I can only see it as a great defeat if I really wanted to come into politics or stand for elections or ask people to like me or vote for me. It’s just not in my DNA to do that. I cannot even conceive of becoming a person who needed to change something about the way they were dressing or thinking or speaking to get someone to vote for me. To suddenly start going to a temple and pretending I’m really religious because I want to win the Hindu vote, I can’t do it! I’d be terrible at it!

You once said: ‘Each time I write an essay I get into so much trouble I promise never to do it again.’ What was the last essay you wrote and did you get into any trouble?
Cate Lobo

Well, the last essay I wrote was actually about the trouble, it was called My Seditious Heart. But previous to that, I wrote a piece called Professor, POW about GN Saibaba. He is a professor of literature, paralysed in his lower body, and he was thrown in prison and sentenced to life for… I don’t know what all the reasons are, but he’s accused of being a Maoist and working against the state. He’s still in prison now and is in a bad state.

I’ve known him for a long time and when I wrote Professor, POW I was charged with criminal contempt of court. I have a long history of contempt of court, being accused of contempt of court – I’ve also gone to prison for it. So I had to appeal to the supreme court to quash it, which they have not done, but they have put it in cold storage. It’s so tiring, but it’s OK for me. Because of the work I do, I have lawyers who are friends. I have the money to fly to the other city where the appeal is being heard and hire a hotel and stay there. But let’s say you’re a young journalist or a young writer who doesn’t have that – what do you do? You’re finished! So the idea is: “Let’s make this an example, let’s break up the stride, then the mobs will come there and will shout at you.” It just goes on and on.

How do you write the parts that make us cry? And do you cry when you read them back?
Brendan Ross

Writing and crying are things that people do differently. For me, I’m always writing: when I’m walking, when I’m shopping, when I’m thinking. There’s a processing that’s going on – and the heartbreak is close to the surface all the time. But there’s a difference between the retelling of a tragedy and when you sometimes don’t actually tell it, but what it reflects is even more tragic. So often when I think about things, yes, I do cry, but I shift between laughter and tears and anger. That’s what I meant about never stopping to be a child: you have to always be in touch with those feelings.

What female writers have inspired and influenced you?
SofĂ­a Guerrero

Oh, so many. Of course, I have read Jane Austen in the past but long ago. I don’t know if I’m inspired by her, but I’m maybe interested in her. There’s Toni Morrison, whose Beloved was a great inspiration. The memoir of [Russian poet] Osip Mandelstam’s widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam [Hope Against Hope] – oh God, what a book, just incredible. And recently I read this book called Barracoon, it’s just come out. Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist and she transcribed a first-person account of the last slave, who was captured 50 years after slavery was abolished. He has a memory of the whole thing, of how he was kidnapped from his village in Africa – not kidnapped by white people, but by another tribe – and then sold into slavery to American slave traders. So it complicates the way you think about things.

It seems that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness suggests it’s possible to live in a world that is carved out of, yet also away from, the degradations of a class- and caste-ridden (also ableist, homophobic etc) society. Is such a world possible only in novels, or do you think it’s possible in real life?
Alpana Sharma

I don’t think that The Ministry of Utmost Happiness should be viewed as a manifesto, that it’s proposing an alternative way of living. It’s a story about certain particular and unique people who find their way in a unique way. By having these people, you are shining a light on what society is really like and the fact that you can’t ignore caste and gender and all of that. It’s really about that.

What moments in your life give you solace?
Sylvie Millard

The moment when I just put my cheek on my dog’s tummy. I have two of them, and one has a considerable tummy, but the other is slightly more delicate. Both of them used to be strays. I found them. One of them, her mother was killed by a car on the road outside my house. Her eyes were closed and she was so small and I had to feed her with a dropper and now she’s huge. The other one I stole. I’d see her tied to a lamppost night and day on this road, and I just took her. Later, I told the people that I’d taken her, and they said: “OK, we didn’t want her.”

(Source: The Guardian)

Neighbors and family members mourn those who died in Osaka quake

Neighbors and family members mourned Tuesday for those who died in the powerful earthquake that rocked Osaka Prefecture a day earlier, including a 9-year-old girl remembered as a bubbly child who often greeted them with a smile.

Rina Miyake, 9, was on her way to elementary school in Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, when a concrete wall surrounding the school’s swimming pool collapsed, killing her.

The girl, who lived with her brother and parents, had left for school 10 minutes earlier than usual on Monday to join a greeting campaign as a class representative.

“She usually left for school around 8 a.m. but told me she had to leave early since it was her turn to join the greeting (campaign),” said a 71-year-old woman who lives across the street from the girl’s family. “It’s unfortunate that the quake occurred on this day.”

Another neighbor remembered Rina as a gregarious child. “Since many cars pass close to the school, children usually walked at the side of the road,” the 69-year-old woman said. “I will miss her as she always smiled and waved to me.”

A temporary memorial was set up Monday evening in front of the school, where bouquets of flowers lined its main gate in memory of the girl.

A woman cries near a memorial adorned with flowers for Rina Miyake, 9, who was killed in the major earthquake that hit Osaka Prefecture on Monday morning when a school concrete wall collapsed on her as she was making her way to class. | KYODO
In Higashiyodogawa Ward, Osaka, Minoru Yasui, 80, was also killed when a wall collapsed in the quake.

Yasui, who lived with four other family members, had been bound for his daily practice of keeping watch over children making their way to school.

A few minutes after leaving home and immediately after greeting an acquaintance the quake struck, and Yasui, who walked with a cane, was buried under the collapsed wall of a nearby residence.

Neighbors and family members rushed to the scene, with his wife holding his hand, though they were unable to revive him.

“I feel empty. I just can’t understand how this could have happened,” Yasui’s wife, Sanae, 78, said tearfully.

His son Katsuyuki, 54, echoed her thoughts.

“We had dinner together Sunday night to celebrate Father’s Day,” he said. “I can’t make sense of my feelings.”

Yasui was known to be close to the neighborhood children and was often seen riding his bicycle in the area.

“He must’ve felt invigorated by helping keep watch over children,” Katsuyuki said.

A third victim of the quake, Motochika Goto, 85, of Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, died after being crushed by a bookshelf in his apartment.

He had worked for a major trading company and was known by neighbors to enjoy reading foreign books and taking strolls in the area.

“When my two daughters entered university, he gave them books. He also gave us souvenirs from his hometown in the Kyushu region. He was a kind person,” said a 65-year-old neighbor who declined to be identified.

(Source: JT)

How a giant python swallowed an Indonesian woman

An Indonesian woman has been killed and swallowed whole by a 7m (23ft) long python, say local authorities.

Though such incidents are incredibly rare, this was the second python death reported in Indonesia in just over a year.

What happened to the woman?
Wa Tiba, 54, went missing last Thursday while checking on her vegetable garden on Muna island in Sulawesi province. A huge search was mounted by local people.


Her sandals and machete were found a day later - a giant python with a bloated belly was lying about 30m away.

"Residents were suspicious the snake swallowed the victim, so they killed it, then carried it out of the garden," local police chief Hamka told news outlet AFP.

"The snake's belly was cut open and the body of the victim was found inside."

Gruesome footage has been circulating on social media in Indonesia showing the woman's body being recovered intact in front of a large crowd.

How do pythons attack?
The python in Sulawesi is believed to have been a reticulated python.

They can reach lengths of more than 10m (32ft) and are very powerful. They attack in an ambush, wrapping themselves around their prey and crushing it - squeezing tighter as the victim exhales.

Reticulated pythons are usually said to avoid humans
They kill by suffocation or cardiac arrest within minutes.

Pythons swallow their food whole. Their jaws are connected by very flexible ligaments so they can stretch around large prey.

When it comes to eating humans, "the restricting factor is human shoulder blades because they are not collapsible," Mary-Ruth Low, conservation & research officer for Wildlife Reserves Singapore and a reticulated python expert, told the BBC in an earlier interview.

Do they eat other large animals?
"Pythons are almost exclusively mammal feeders," Ms Low points out, though they do occasionally eat reptiles, including crocodiles.

Typically they eat rats and other small animals, she said, "but once they reach a certain size it's almost like they don't bother with rats anymore because the calories are not worth it".

"In essence they can go as large as their prey goes."

That can include animals as large as pigs or even cows.

Sometimes the size of the meal can be misjudged. In 2005 a Burmese python - the largest in the python family - tried to swallow an alligator whole in Florida. It burst in the process and both died, their bodies later being found by rangers.

But these opportunistic hunters can be surprisingly picky too. If they don't see suitable prey, they can go for long periods on very little food until they see something big enough.

Is this the first time a python has eaten a human?
No. In 2002, a 10-year-old boy was reportedly swallowed by a rock python in South Africa.

And in March last year - also in Sulawesi - a farmer was swallowed by a 7m-long python.

The 25-year-old from West Sulawesi was on a palm oil plantation near his village when he was attacked. Video footage showed his body being extracted.

Video showed the snake being cut open with a long knife to free the man's body
Also last year, a man from the Indonesian province of Sumatra managed to fight off a 7.8m-long python who had attacked him while he was on a palm oil plantation. He survived with serious injuries.

Previous claims often involved hard-to-prove cases that happened some time before they were reported, in remote areas and without reliable witnesses.

Anthropologist Thomas Headland, who spent decades among the Agta, a group of hunter-gatherers in the Philippines, had claimed that a quarter of the tribe's men had been attacked by reticulated pythons at some point.

Though almost all fended them off with machetes, adult Agta - who are physically small - were occasionally eaten, his research said.

Snake expert Nia Kurniawan from Indonesia's Brawijaya University, told BBC Indonesia that pythons are sensitive to vibrations, noise and heat from lamps, so they normally avoid human settlements.

The latest victim's garden was located at the base of a rocky cliff littered with caves, known to be home to snakes, according to the local police chief.

The reticulated python (Python reticulatus)

  • The longest snake in the world, capable of reaching over 10m (32ft) in length.
  • The longest in captivity is held in Kansas City, US, and measured 7.6m (25ft) in 2011, according to Guinness World Records.
  • If often lives in forests, is normally fearful of humans and is rarely seen.
  • Is often treated as a sacred animal in parts of Indonesia when caught.
  • Dozens of other python species are found in sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, and across South East Asia.

(Source: BBC)

Parents forced to quit jobs as they wait for school places for children with special needs

‘It almost feels like you are being constantly punished for daring to have a disabled baby’

Dozens of councils across the country have called on the education secretary to urgently boost special needs funding as thousands of children have been left at home waiting for school places.

Parents have been forced to quit their jobs – and in some have waited for several years for a place in the right provision – to ensure their child with special needs is supported, experts say.

Local authorities have said they are “deeply concerned” that funding cuts are making it even more difficult to place children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in schools.

A letter – signed by 39 local authorities and education unions – calls for councils and schools to be given more money to make sure that children with SEND get the support they need. “We urge the government to act quickly on this matter,” the letter, which is addressed to Damian Hinds, says.

The number of youngsters with special educational needs, plans or statements has been rising – as has the demand for special school places. Meanwhile, funding pressures have made it harder for schools and local authorities to provide specialist provision to the most vulnerable learners.

More than 2,000 children with complex needs have “no education provision at all” due to inadequate funding, according to the new letter – which is backed by some Conservative-led councils.

Thousands of children with special needs are not in school because of funding pressures, councils and unions say ( Corbis )
Jo-Ann D’Costa Manuel, director of charity Autism Parent Empower, said she knows of parents whose children have been at home for two years while they wait for the right specialist school place.

“When they are left at home on a waiting list, even if they are provided some help, they become wasted years,” she said. “It is hugely wasted time and opportunity for them to progress.”

Ms D’Costa Manuel, who has a nine-year-old son with autism, told The Independent that some parents have resorted to home schooling their children because they feel “failed by the system”.

“A lot of parents are not equipped to homeschool their children. They cannot suddenly become teachers or teaching assistants and know what to do,” she warned.

Some parents have been put in an “impossible position” and have been forced to quit their jobs to look after their children, according to Andrew Baisley, from the National Education Union (NEU).

And in other cases, parents have seen their children with SEND repeatedly being passed between mainstream schools because of funding and accountability pressures on staff, he added.

“I think it is harder to get kids into mainstream schools because there is a massive financial disincentive and there is an enormous accountability disincentive,” Mr Baisley said.

Last month, schools minister Nick Gibb said judging schools on the education outcomes of students they have moved on could help tackle the rising number of schoolchildren being excluded.

It came after special educational needs experts called for excluded children and parents to be protected by a “bill of rights”, giving them better scrutiny of a school’s decision to get rid of them.

Nancy Gedge, a coordinator of special needs provision in a school in Oxfordshire, told The Independent that she thinks increasing funding alone will not solve the problems in the sector.

Ms Gedge, who has a 17-year-old son with Down’s syndrome, said a culture shift was needed to ensure families with children with special needs were treated fairly throughout the process.

“It almost feels like you are being constantly punished for daring to have a disabled baby. It feels like you are constantly dealing with brickbats thrown in your direction,” she said.

The Department for Education announced last month it was allocating £50m for the expansion of special schools – but unions and councils say it “will not solve the long-term challenges” they face.

Nadhim Zawahi, minister for children and families, said: “We want to make sure every child with special educational needs gets the support that they rightly deserve. The high-needs budget for pupils with special educational needs is £6bn this year – the highest on record, with core schools funding rising to £43.5bn by 2020 – 50 per cent more per pupil in real terms than in 2000.

“We are also undertaking the biggest special educational needs reforms in a generation, introducing education and health care plans that are tailored to the needs of individuals and put families at the heart of the process.

“Already, nearly 320,000 children and young people are benefiting from these and we will continue to work to make sure every child gets the support they need to fulfil their potential.”

(Source: The Independent)

Mexico fans set off earthquake sensors celebrating seismic World Cup win

Supporters in Mexico City watching Germany game cause two ‘artificial’ quakes during their team’s surprise win

Mexicans jumping in jubilation on Sunday shook the ground hard enough to set off earthquake detectors after their team scored a surprise victory over World Cup defending champions Germany.

The Institute of Geological and Atmospheric Investigations said highly sensitive earthquake sensors registered tremors at two sites in Mexico City, seven seconds after the game’s 35th minute, when star player Hirving Lozano scored. It called the tremors an “artificial” quake.

Fans waving Mexican flags and wearing traditional “sombrero” hats, gathered at the iconic Angel of Independence monument in downtown Mexico City, to watch the match on on a giant screen in front of a towering cathedral.

As Mexico beat Germany 1-0 in Moscow, they sang the country’s unofficial soccer anthem, “Cielito Lindo,” or “Pretty Little Sky,” a popular folksong.

At the Angel of Independence monument after the match, Rodolfo Pulido, 47, led a chant of “Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!” perched on a concrete barrier that usually separates traffic on a busy thoroughfare.

“I am incredibly happy,” said Pulido, with his girlfriend and son on a Father’s Day outing. “It’s a double gift: Mexico won and I get to celebrate with my son.”


He also said he could now dream of Mexico reaching the next stage along with 15 other teams, getting a shot at reaching the quarter- and semi-finals before the final match.

“El Tri,” as the team is called, in homage to Mexico’s three-colour flag, has failed make it past the round of 16 in the last six World Cups.

Presidential front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador offered his congratulations at a campaign event in Mexico state, telling supporters, “Just like the team won today, Mexico will keep winning.”

Fans on social media celebrated goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa’s performance, circulating memes depicting him as president of Mexico.

Others riffed on US president Donald Trump’s pledge to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico, placing photos of Ochoa guarding the goal alongside the caption “Hey! We already have a wall.”

Another popular meme depicted German chancellor, Angela Merkel, holding a phone to her ear with the text: “Donald? It’s me Angela. Please build the wall.”

Mexico will face South Korea in their next game on Saturday in Rostov-on-Dov.

(Source: The Guardian)

Monday, 18 June 2018

Deadly quake hits Osaka, kills child and two men, injures hundreds

A strong earthquake in Osaka, Japan has killed at least three people, including a child, and injured more than 200.

Airports in the area were closed for several hours, train lines interrupted and factories had to halt production.

The 6.1 magnitude quake did not trigger a tsunami warning and nuclear plants in the area are operating normally.

Japan lies in a particularly earthquake-prone region and accounts for around 20% of quakes worldwide of magnitude 6.0 or more.

Monday's quake in Osaka occurred just before 08:00 local time (23:00 GMT Sunday) north of the city.

A nine-year old girl killed by a falling wall at her school was one of three confirmed fatalities.

An elderly man was also killed by a collapsing wall while another was trapped below a bookcase at home, national broadcaster NHK reported.

'I thought my time was up'
Atsushi Yokoi, a research scientist who lives in Ibaraki-shi near the epicentre of the tremor, told the BBC he was asleep when the quake struck.

"The earthquake woke me up," he said. "It felt like strong sideways shaking and lasted about five seconds, and I stayed there until it stopped."

After sending messages to his family and friends, he went to work to check the damage to his research equipment.

"Though most public transport was still paralysed, buses were working. All the experiments planned have bee cancelled and postponed until we are absolutely sure that there's no risk of an aftershock."

Ibaraki-shi resident Gloria Randriamihaja was also woken by the earthquake.

"It only lasted a minute but it seemed so long. My apartment was messed up, broken glasses on the floor, fridge open.

"The whole building was shaking, I was so scared, telling myself 'Gloria this is it, your time is up.' Finally the [shaking] stopped," she told the BBC.

Several people were trapped in elevators and roads were cracked with broken pipes spilling water.


Some 170,000 houses were left without power and gas supplies to more than 100,000 homes were stopped, the Japan Times reported.


The earthquake registered as 6.1 on the Japan's quake scale, a level at which it is difficult to remain standing. The US Geological Survey measured it as magnitude 5.3.

Debris on a supermarket floor showed the impact of the quake
Both the high-speed Shinkansen and local trains suspended operations during the morning commuting hours as several smaller aftershocks followed the quake.

The tremors also affected the prefectures of Kyoto, Nara, Hyogo, and Shiga.

Japan's meteorological agency warned there could be another big earthquake in the coming days.

Trains had to stop en route and be evacuated
There are also warnings that rain and landslides will continue to pose a danger for several days.

The quake also hit several key industrial areas near Osaka with companies like Panasonic and Daihatsu saying they were suspending production at their affected sites.

(Source: BBC)

Six telling signs your child has a bad teacher

With the beginning of the next school year swiftly approaching, moms are gearing up for all of the changes -- and in turn, potential challenges -- their child will likely encounter in their new classroom. And as tightly as you may cross your fingers that it won't happen, it's always possible your kid may end up with a "bad" teacher, otherwise known as an educator who doesn't resonate with your child.

"Having a 'bad' teacher or, as I’d rather call it, a 'bad fit,' can be very detrimental to a child’s social, emotional, and academic growth," explains Kimberly Kulp, director of marketing and product development at Bridgeway Academy. No wonder moms dread it! Thankfully, there are red flags to look for that can help you confirm your suspicions or your child's accusations, so you can preempt problems down the road. Here, 6 signs your child's teacher really isn't up to par.


Your child is suddenly disinterested in school. If your kid was psyched about all the books he was reading or acing his math homework last year, but his attitude about school has taken a turn for the gloomy, his teacher may be at the crux of his crankiness. "Parents need to watch out for their child verbalizing and showing a decreased desire to go to school and learn," Kulp notes. "He may say, 'I don’t want to go to school' or even, 'I hate school.' Typically, when the struggles are related to the teacher, this will be a big change from how your child has felt about school in the past. If you’re lucky, he’ll be able to tell you that the teacher is the root of the problem, but he will likely not say anything."

Your child suffers a staggering drop in self-confidence. "Your child may begin to call himself 'dumb' or 'stupid' or is overly anxious about homework," explains Jessica Parnell, president of Bridgeway Academy. "This is often a sign that the teaching style your child is meeting in the classroom is in direct conflict with what he or she requires to learn. Conversely, if your child is not being challenged, you may notice that he or she has started to act out in the classroom or regularly complains about being bored at school."

You hear (either from your child or another parent) that the teacher is having temper tantrums. "Your child may report that the teacher screams and yells at all the kids -- for any reason," notes leading child and family psychotherapist Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child (Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2010). "There is no excuse for teachers losing it and modeling bad behavior in the classroom."

You're told that kids aren't actively engaged or involved with their classwork on a regular basis. The mark of an exceptional educator is one who gets kids fired up and excited. But every teacher relies on handouts or silent sustained reading from time to time. That said, teachers who disengage from their students more days than not are likely problematic. "Your child might inform you that the teacher does not lecture or facilitate class discussions," explains Dr. Walfish. "He or she simply assigns quiet reading or individual solo desk work to the kids during class lesson teaching time. This may indicate a psychological trauma the teacher is suffering from or pure laziness."

The teacher is MIA for parent-teacher check-ins. Sure, you have to have realistic expectations about how much emailing and phone calling the teacher will be able to do, but poor, lacking, or nonexistent communication may signal a problem, explains university administrator Chester Goad, Ed.D. "It's prudent for parents to ask educators their preferred method for contact because it lets them know you respect them and their time," advises Dr. Goad. "If you've done that, and you're still not getting a proper or timely response, that may be a red flag."

The messages the teacher sends home are consistently negative and/or point the finger at Mom and Dad. "Be on the lookout for the blame game," recommends Dr. Goad. "Most parents at some point are going to receive bad news from the teacher regarding academics or behavior. But an effective teacher will work cooperatively with parents and the student to address the problem as soon as it surface, not wait until the issues are out of control." Ideally, a teacher will want to work with parents, not go to battle with them.


Even if these signs ring a bell, it's important for parents to tread lightly. The first step: "If a mom has a suspicion about her child's teacher, she should request a classroom visit to observe the candor of rapport between the teacher and all of the students," advises Charisse Beach, assistant principal of Joliet Public Schools in Illinois and author of At-Risk Students: Transforming Student Behavior (R&L Education, 2013). "Much can be learned about a teacher based on how he/she communicates with other students."

You may determine that the situation isn't necessarily as dire as you had thought. Or your hunches may be confirmed. "Part of life is sometimes learning to cope," says Dr. Walfish. "On the other hand, if you've determined you're in a hopeless situation, that's never worth the misery. A lot of ground can be lost in a year, and there's nothing wrong with demanding a positive, quality experience for your child."

(Source: Cafe Mom)

The dangers of distracted parenting

When it comes to children’s development, parents should worry less about kids’ screen time—and more about their own, writes Erika Christakis, the author of The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grownups, in The Atlantic. Read on: 

Smartphones have by now been implicated in so many crummy outcomes—car fatalities, sleep disturbances, empathy loss, relationship problems, failure to notice a clown on a unicycle—that it almost seems easier to list the things they don’t mess up than the things they do. Our society may be reaching peak criticism of digital devices.

Even so, emerging research suggests that a key problem remains underappreciated. It involves kids’ development, but it’s probably not what you think. More than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents.

Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned. To be clear, I’m not unsympathetic to parents in this predicament. My own adult children like to joke that they wouldn’t have survived infancy if I’d had a smartphone in my clutches 25 years ago.

To argue that parents’ use of screens is an underappreciated problem isn’t to discount the direct risks screens pose to children: Substantial evidence suggests that many types of screen time (especially those involving fast-paced or violent imagery) are damaging to young brains. Today’s preschoolers spend more than four hours a day facing a screen. And, since 1970, the average age of onset of “regular” screen use has gone from 4 years to just four months.

Some of the newer interactive games kids play on phones or tablets may be more benign than watching TV (or YouTube), in that they better mimic children’s natural play behaviors. And, of course, many well-functioning adults survived a mind-numbing childhood spent watching a lot of cognitive garbage. (My mother—unusually for her time—prohibited Speed Racer and Gilligan’s Island on the grounds of insipidness. That I somehow managed to watch every single episode of each show scores of times has never been explained.) Still, no one really disputes the tremendous opportunity costs to young children who are plugged in to a screen: Time spent on devices is time not spent actively exploring the world and relating to other human beings.

Yet for all the talk about children’s screen time, surprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents themselves, who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory.

Child-development experts have different names for the dyadic signaling system between adult and child, which builds the basic architecture of the brain. Jack P. Shonkoff, a pediatrician and the director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, calls it the “serve and return” style of communication; the psychologists Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff describe a “conversational duet.” The vocal patterns parents everywhere tend to adopt during exchanges with infants and toddlers are marked by a higher-pitched tone, simplified grammar, and engaged, exaggerated enthusiasm. Though this talk is cloying to adult observers, babies can’t get enough of it. Not only that: One study showed that infants exposed to this interactive, emotionally responsive speech style at 11 months and 14 months knew twice as many words at age 2 as ones who weren’t exposed to it.

Child development is relational, which is why, in one experiment, nine-month-old babies who received a few hours of Mandarin instruction from a live human could isolate specific phonetic elements in the language while another group of babies who received the exact same instruction via video could not. According to Hirsh-Pasek, a professor at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, more and more studies are confirming the importance of conversation. “Language is the single best predictor of school achievement,” she told me, “and the key to strong language skills are those back-and-forth fluent conversations between young children and adults.”

A problem, therefore, arises when the emotionally resonant adult–child cueing system so essential to early learning is interrupted—by a text, for example, or a quick check-in on Instagram. Anyone who’s been mowed down by a smartphone-impaired stroller operator can attest to the ubiquity of the phenomenon. One consequence of such scenarios has been noted by an economist who tracked a rise in children’s injuries as smartphones became prevalent. (AT&T rolled out smartphone service at different times in different places, thereby creating an intriguing natural experiment. Area by area, as smartphone adoption rose, childhood ER visits increased.) These findings attracted a decent bit of media attention to the physical dangers posed by distracted parenting, but we have been slower to reckon with its impact on children’s cognitive development. “Toddlers cannot learn when we break the flow of conversations by picking up our cellphones or looking at the text that whizzes by our screens,” Hirsh-Pasek said.


In the early 2010s, researchers in Boston surreptitiously observed 55 caregivers eating with one or more children in fast-food restaurants. Forty of the adults were absorbed with their phones to varying degrees, some almost entirely ignoring the children (the researchers found that typing and swiping were bigger culprits in this regard than taking a call). Unsurprisingly, many of the children began to make bids for attention, which were frequently ignored. A follow-up study brought 225 mothers and their approximately 6-year-old children into a familiar setting and videotaped their interactions as each parent and child were given foods to try. During the observation period, a quarter of the mothers spontaneously used their phone, and those who did initiated substantially fewer verbal and nonverbal interactions with their child.

Yet another rigorously designed experiment, this one conducted in the Philadelphia area by Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, and Temple’s Jessa Reed, tested the impact of parental cellphone use on children’s language learning. Thirty-eight mothers and their 2-year-olds were brought into a room. The mothers were then told that they would need to teach their children two new words (blicking, which was to mean “bouncing,” and frepping, which was to mean “shaking”) and were given a phone so that investigators could contact them from another room. When the mothers were interrupted by a call, the children did not learn the word, but otherwise they did. In an ironic coda to this study, the researchers had to exclude seven mothers from the analysis, because they didn’t answer the phone, “failing to follow protocol.” Good for them!

It has never been easy to balance adults’ and children’s needs, much less their desires, and it’s naive to imagine that children could ever be the unwavering center of parental attention. Parents have always left kids to entertain themselves at times—“messing about in boats,” in a memorable phrase from The Wind in the Willows, or just lounging aimlessly in playpens. In some respects, 21st-century children’s screen time is not very different from the mother’s helpers every generation of adults has relied on to keep children occupied. When parents lack playpens, real or proverbial, mayhem is rarely far behind. Caroline Fraser’s recent biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie, describes the exceptionally ad hoc parenting style of 19th-century frontier parents, who stashed babies on the open doors of ovens for warmth and otherwise left them vulnerable to “all manner of accidents as their mothers tried to cope with competing responsibilities.” Wilder herself recounted a variety of near-calamities with her young daughter, Rose; at one point she looked up from her chores to see a pair of riding ponies leaping over the toddler’s head.

Occasional parental inattention is not catastrophic (and may even build resilience), but chronic distraction is another story. Smartphone use has been associated with a familiar sign of addiction: Distracted adults grow irritable when their phone use is interrupted; they not only miss emotional cues but actually misread them. A tuned-out parent may be quicker to anger than an engaged one, assuming that a child is trying to be manipulative when, in reality, she just wants attention. Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless, even healthy, for parent and child alike (especially as children get older and require more independence). But that sort of separation is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her nonengagement that the child is less valuable than an email. A mother telling kids to go out and play, a father saying he needs to concentrate on a chore for the next half hour—these are entirely reasonable responses to the competing demands of adult life. What’s going on today, however, is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.

Fixing the problem won’t be easy, especially given that it is compounded by dramatic changes in education. More young children than ever (about two-thirds of 4-year-olds) are in some form of institutional care, and recent trends in early-childhood education have filled many of their classrooms with highly scripted lessons and dull, one-sided “teacher talk.” In such environments, children have few opportunities for spontaneous conversation.

One piece of good news is that young children are prewired to get what they need from adults, as most of us discover the first time our diverted gaze is jerked back by a pair of pudgy, reproaching hands. Young children will do a lot to get a distracted adult’s attention, and if we don’t change our behavior, they will attempt to do it for us; we can expect to see a lot more tantrums as today’s toddlers age into school. But eventually, children may give up. It takes two to tango, and studies from Romanian orphanages showed the world that there are limits to what a baby brain can do without a willing dance partner. The truth is, we don’t really know how much our kids will suffer when we fail to engage.

Of course, adults are also suffering from the current arrangement. Many have built their daily life around the miserable premise that they can always be on—always working, always parenting, always available to their spouse and their own parents and anyone else who might need them, while also staying on top of the news, while also remembering, on the walk to the car, to order more toilet paper from Amazon. They are stuck in the digital equivalent of the spin cycle.

Under the circumstances, it’s easier to focus our anxieties on our children’s screen time than to pack up our own devices. I understand this tendency all too well. In addition to my roles as a mother and a foster parent, I am the maternal guardian of a middle-aged, overweight dachshund. Being middle-aged and overweight myself, I’d much rather obsess over my dog’s caloric intake, restricting him to a grim diet of fibrous kibble, than address my own food regimen and relinquish (heaven forbid) my morning cinnamon bun. Psychologically speaking, this is a classic case of projection—the defensive displacement of one’s failings onto relatively blameless others. Where screen time is concerned, most of us need to do a lot less projecting.

If we can get a grip on our “technoference,” as some psychologists have called it, we are likely to find that we can do much more for our children simply by doing less—regardless of the quality of their schooling and quite apart from the number of hours we devote to them. Parents should give themselves permission to back off from the suffocating pressure to be all things to all people. Put your kid in a playpen, already! Ditch that soccer-game appearance if you feel like it. Your kid will be fine. But when you are with your child, put down your damned phone.