Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Feeling the Economic Downturn through a Birthday Meal

My family rarely finds itself as a complete whole. With my attending school in Connecticut and London and running all over Asia-Pacific in between, and my father running his own research lab in Shanghai and attending conferences around the world, the family is often split up in three pieces, three countries, and even three continents. Its only so often that we can actually have family meal together, especially on my birthday. The rare coincidence called for a quick visit to the neighborhood Chinese restaurant on the eve of my birthday.

Physically speaking, San Diego and US as a whole certainly has not changed much during my one-and-a-half-year absence. But just by going to a meal in the restaurant, the superficial sameness goes away, and much gloomy changes reveal themselves. Specifically, I can say after a single meal that the general economic conditions in the US, after that financial crisis of 2008, has not gone back up (as some expected), but pretty much stayed the same, with both consumption and consumer confidence looking consistently low.

First, upon entering the rather well-known restaurant among the Chinese community in San Diego, we cannot help by notice just how few clients there were. Yes, it is a weekday night, but even compared to similar time frames just a year ago, when the restaurant at least had about 7 or 8 groups, the utter scarcity of people is just plainly scary. With no definite newspaper ads or words-of-the-mouth information on new restaurants opening up in the time period since, one can only conclude that people are becoming less and less willing to splurge on a nice dinner once in a while.

Second, the food itself changed for the worse. The prices certainly went up across the board (not a surprise since inflation did happen steadily throughout the last year or so), but the quality of the food also declined. Sizes of portions general became smaller, while there were fewer pieces of smaller, more bony meat and much more cheaper vegetables in the serving. Even dishes involving more expensive vegetables such as stringed beans were taken out of the menu, with no replacements to be found.

Seafood such as crabs and lobsters, still advertised as "serving daily" main dishes of the restaurant, is quietly having its supplies cut out. When asked about when they will be available, the waiters simply stated, "they will be available whenever the next supply arrives." Evidently, as the restaurant's number of clientele declines, it cannot afford to keep up a large inventory of expensive raw materials, only to have them go bad over time as no one will purchase them in time.

And finally, the very few clients that are still coming to the restaurant are becoming more conscious in their orders. My own family, previously pretty careless about what to order when we do eat out, are becoming more nit-picky about how much each dish is priced. And looking at the one or two other groups present, the amount of food ordered is also significantly smaller than before, perhaps averaging no more than one dish per person. All the anxious waiters can do is to go around asking each table if more food is needed.

An economic downturn is an endless spiral. More constraints on income force consumers to cut out unnecessary expenses like outings to restaurants. And those employed in industries offering the "unnecessary expenses" see their incomes decline and jobs lost. Consumption goes down further, hurting more industries and more people. The only thing sadder than businesses begging the clients to stay and spend more is the exasperation of the clients themselves when they realized that they spent way too much.

If I would wish anything for my birthday (I just realized that I have yet to do so), I would simply ask for an end, or at least a temporary suspension, of the downward spiral. For the sake of too many common people suffering out there, and more importantly, for people looking for jobs in the upcoming year (like myself), I hope that the global economy can at least show a little sign of an upward tick so that consumer confidence and consumer spending can both begin to make a comeback of some sort....

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Thing or Two About Diligence: Why Isn't My Jet-lag Going Away Yet?!

Let's be perfectly honest: since coming back from working full-time in Korea, I have been a complete lazy stay-at-home bum. After applying for UK visa for the second time after that heartbreaking first-time rejection, I have been doing little more than hanging out with friends, watching TV, and updating this blog. Ironically, I tend to write the best posts when I am stimulated by the many personal experiences I get traveling around the world, yet it is often times like now when I am not traveling (and thus have little to write about) that I have the most free time to do casual writing.

And being unproductive is not the worst thing. Even after landing in American soil for more than a week now, I am still having trouble staying up beyond 10pm at night, and almost promptly wake up at 7am everyday without alarms or noises. And during the day, the constant tiresomeness, characterized by pains in the eyes and headaches fading in and out, just would not go away. Even the daily exercises of writing the blog and reading the news are proving to be difficult at times. It is certainly fortunate that no academic work needs to be done right now.

The constantly sub-par physical conditions makes me wonder just how can such huge change be possible after working in Korea for literally every waking moment from 8am to midnight and dangerously entertaining myself in equally tight schedules when I am not working. After returning to San Diego, I cannot even imagine myself to be physically capable of such things just a few days ago.

In the few days, justifying the abnormal physical conditions were easy. Besides jet-lag, I can simply blame the conditions on caffeine withdrawal (certainly could not have survived work in Korea without those instant coffee sticks) and even because of the excess energy to adjust to the dry hot climate of San Diego and home-cooked food (I still think the drinking water here have a nasty salty after-taste). But the rationalizations fell one by one as the days passed and no improvements are seen.

The only comprehensible explanation left is the one about lack of work. Idleness makes a person unable to concentrate. Or rather, they have no proper task at which to concentrate their energy. Because my blog posts never really have set deadlines for completion, they cannot act as something I focus on (I simply work on-and-off whenever I feel like it during the day). And because there are no productive tasks to focus on, I instead concentrate on the little supposed "illness" and physical discomfort I feel.

Too used to being busy, my mind seeks something to pay attention. No given any proper task to do so, it just wonders off, finding fault with anything that can potentially be the cause of why no proper tasks are given. I should commend my mind for being diligent at its job of staying focused, even if there is nothing to focus on. The result is frequent lapses of concentration, alternatively gaining and losing focus on each little thing that the mind wonders off to. The highly inconsistent, unnatural writing in recent blog posts is definitely a direct manifestation of such.

The only hope I have right now is that nearly a month of bumming at home does not cause my ability to focus to become lost. After landing at London, I certainly wish that I can pick up exactly where I left off in Korea, allowing myself to read on for more than 14 hours a day without any feeling of tiredness or boredom. "Maintaining high levels of diligence whenever the time calls for it" is definitely another one that I would like to add to my list of "new year resolutions"...

With that said, the new year will be a constant balancing act of "lets study hard" diligence and "lets be really social" self-confidence. Grades and networking matter equally in graduate school. But networking, beyond the few fun events among close friends, will often become a test of diligence, while continuing to be diligent under such unhappy situations also a test of self-confidence. It would be interesting to see how the two factors interact and evolve in the next year...

On the Eve of Turning 23: Resolutions for the New Year

In the quiet confines of my room I welcome the addition of another year to my age. Without much fanfare (even less compared to the little I had last year in China), but the quietness before the storms of a whole new episode in London is giving me just the environment needed to contemplate exactly what I want and need to do as a 23-year-old. In a year when the title of a new college should start to wear off, whole new characteristics and undertakings are definitely to be pursued and achieved.

As wishes of happy birthday stream in from Japan and Korea (where it is already the 30th), I am slowly coming to the grip with the fact that I am turning a year older, and one more year closer to fully independent adulthood. Obviously, a few short paragraphs cannot detail all the little things I would like to do to complement my step forward toward that "full adulthood," but I would still like to at least summarize a few general directions I would like to pursue in my "New Year's Resolutions"...

The first has to do with self-confidence. Although over the past years, I have become more and more vocal and more freely like making myself heard in the public, the driving force behind such is often a matter of arrogance and insecurity. It is because I am afraid that I am always forgotten by others and that my importance is underestimated that I speak out. I brag for the sake of some devious, perverted sense of psychological satisfaction, only to exacerbate that innate illusions of grandeur.

Only greater self-confidence can bring about change. Expressing my opinion should become less of activities in attention-grabbing but more of an outward manifestation of who I am as a person. To be truly proud of my identity, it is not simply sufficient to let others know about my character, but to interact more closely with others, listen to what others have to say about me and themselves, and improve who I am based on those interactions. Of course, the interactions will be done without losing that sense of myself.

And speaking of confidently interacting with others hearing the news of others surely make me feel just how behind I am. In particularly, I have been indirectly informed of many high school and college classmates of mine (around the same age), already getting married or at least intimately attached to their significant others. Although my strictly anti-traditionalist views are only compatible with late marriages, I cannot help but respect these equally young acquaintances for being willing and able to confidently shoulder the responsibilities of having a family.

For me, at least, the time has come for a semi-permanent romantic relationship. And London will certainly give me the opportunity to start anew on that front. It would be the ultimate reflection of self-confidence and ability to hold my own in an undoubtedly brilliant crowd that I am sure to face at London School of Economics. Holding steady to my sharp observations of the female population, I hope that good results on that end will allow me to achieve the thing in Europe that I did not achieve in Japan, i.e. the establishment of a permanent career.

Furthermore, as I go about finding that love and career of my life, I do also realize that my relationship with my family does need a complete revamp. In some ways, my inability to communicate effectively with my own family is an underlying cause of my lack of self-confidence, and being able to communicate well at home is directly related to ability to interact with strangers. Sure, I do not agree with how Asian parents like mine teach their children, but that cannot be the reason for constant emotional distance I put up with my immediate family.

Lastly, I do realize that my year as a 23-year-old, just the past one as a 22-year-old, will be a year of more self-discovery and personal change. I promise that all the delicate feelings and major events I will most definitely go through in the near future will be recorded in the confines of this blog. Consistent with its purpose, the blog will continue to provide an open and publicly available forum as I document the rough and difficult path toward fulfilling the resoultions I detailed...

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Diverging Fashion Styles in US and Asia: Consequence of American Racism against Asians?

Walking on the streets of America after more than a year of absence from permanent residence, I cannot help but notice that many of the fashion trends prevalent during my years in high school and college have not changed much. In fact, if anything, the trends have been greatly intensified. For instance, the most noticeable one has been the affinity of the American youth toward loose-fitting pants that are pulled down to the level of their butts. After all these years the pants seem to have only gotten looser and the level of the pants' waist have become lower and lower.

In contrast, the trends in Asia have moved in the opposite direction. The adherence to the American urban dress culture (loose jeans, decorated T-shirts, sneakers, etc) has been significantly altered along Asian tastes in the past few years. Jeans have been becoming noticeably tighter, T-shirts are becoming increasingly abandoned in favor of causal dress shirts, and the Asian love for black-rimmed glasses and baseball caps see little parallels in here in the States. The overall Asian "fashion sense" would be subject to much ridicule in America, and vice versa.

Partially, the increasing difference is a matter of differing attitude toward fashion. In Asia, one's fashion is a matter of expressing social conformity to established social norms of beauty and physical decency. While in the West, one's fashion is a matter of expressing individuality and more often than not for the youth, a rebellious deviation from the established social norms of society. Popularity is everything for Asian fashion while the case is not always obvious in the West.

But such difference in social attitudes cannot be the entire story behind the divergence. In an age when American fashion, based on widely available portrayal in fashion magazines and still popular Hollywood movies, the glorification of America should not be that quickly abandoned. Even though plenty now have doubts about living in America, American styles are still symbols of "coolness" widely admired among Asian youths. To entirely reject such an important component of American culture as street fashion would make no logical sense.

So, with the assumption that American cultural influence has not significantly declined among the fashionable youth, what can cause these youngsters to blatantly ignore the fashion trends across the Pacific? The answer, in my opinion, my lay in the increasing self-consciousness Asians are having with regard to the biological differences of the "Americans" and the Asians. They are gradually becoming more and more "aware" that the clothing that "fit" the "Americans" are not usually the most suitable ones for Asians.

America is certainly to blame for Asian's new-found independent views on fashion. Looking at the same magazines and Hollywood movies still so popular in Asia, how often are Asians depicted as cool beautiful young main characters sporting spotless fashion? Very rarely. And even when Asians are indeed portrayed by the magazines and movies, their looks are often so different from what Asians consider to be "Asian beauty" that their fashion sense often just become an extension of their physical ugliness.

American media's outright racism against Asians, portraying them as mostly incapable of "being fashionable," has led to a quiet but almost unanimous backlash among Asians against American fashion sense. Sure, American fashion look good on non-Asians, but American fashion would not be good on Asians. Otherwise, why would there be so few "cool" fashionable young Asians in the American celebrity scene? To such a question, most Americans really cannot say anything beyond words implying that Asians, especially the men, do not represent physical beauty in their eyes.

Ironically, prevalent plastic surgery in Asia still sees making people look more Caucasian (bigger eyes, higher noses, whiter skin) as a major goal. It shows that, with proper public displays, the aesthetic values of America and the Western world can still capture Asian hearts. With more young, Western-looking Asians sporting loose pants and T-shirts in American magazines and movies, perhaps we will be able to see a reversing convergence of fashion sense on the two sides of the Pacific.

Should the Media Criminalize Those who Supposedly Caused the Financial Crisis?

Four years of economics courses at Yale has not prepared me for in-depth analysis of the global economic, not to mention financial, system. While Yale can be partially blamed the lack of technical knowledge she infused into her curriculum, it could be fairly said that no amount of so-called "economic expertise" can prepare one for the realization that the "expertise" is worth little in the constantly changing conditions of global economy. Especially with a global financial industry at its helm, the global economy becomes so volatile that no theory can last without constant revisions and updates.

Despite sounding condescending, I must say that the controlling factors governing the future directions of economic health are just too complicated to understand for the average layperson. And after watching a documentary on the supposed causes of the 2008 financial crisis, such realization becomes more established and deeply rooted. "The Inside Job," as the admirable film is caused, suing various interviews with those with personal interest in the industry, attempted to explain in the simplest terms how and why the crisis came about.

And the explanations were certainly laudable. By using easy-to-comprehend graphics and detailing the roles of each involved party, the documentary drew a straightforward yet very complete picture of how the financial system in place is structurally destined to cause the crisis. The narration foregoes complicated mathematical calculations that no doubt went into various investments, instead focusing the personal relationships among the "big bosses" of different financial corporations and government agencies which were said to collaborated on causing the crisis.

By watching the documentary, the overall mechanics of the financial industry are no longer complicated. In fact, the back-and-forth among the investment banks, the private rating agencies, the government "financial regulators," and insurance companies are proven to be nothing more than a combination of brilliant marketing and bribe-induced deliberate ignorance of underlying dangers. Those who control the financial industry, knowing the enormous risks and potential hazards of the structure, nonetheless continued their beautiful rhetoric toward individual investors.

Yet, what remains difficult to understand for the viewer is that, how, in the aftermath of the catastrophe that led to loss of jobs and life savings for millions of people across the world, that those responsible for creating and running to the ground the financial arrangements be acquitted of any sort of criminal charges. The more the film and the general public point fingers, the more one would feel the utter complexity of the human relationships that shields the now-wealthy victimizers.

Indeed, the part about human relationships in the financial industry is simply too complicated for the layperson to understand. The higher-ups of the industry agilely moves from government to academia to the corporate world without public scrutiny (or knowledge, until public investigations such as "the Inside Job" surfaced). Their "career moves" not only allowed them to retain the pre-crisis wealth they collected from now worthless investors, but also gave them the opportunity to successfully ask the government (indirectly the taxpayers) for more money to keep the financial system in place even after the system's credibility has been massively damaged.

As people come to realize that these financial criminals, accused with fraud, bribery, and endless cycles of deception, are doing more than fine today, the only thing they can do is snare cynically. Because they acquired untold wealth, they have close audience of the government officials. And because they have political connections, they are destined to not fall even under the weight of increased public criticism. Their continued control of a vital industry that influences the very life of economies and nations means that they are somehow hold hostage of the governments around the world, forcing the people to entirely pay for their wrongdoings.

Even now, there are people who always ask Ivy League graduates (like myself) why they do not join the ranks of the financial sector, hauling in hundreds of thousands a year and living a fashionable life of a banker in a big city? After learning a bit more about the undertakings of the bankers and their accomplices, we all have to come to the conclusion that their fashionable lifestyles are, in essence, based on the untold pains of the common people. It is no longer about whether I am happy being such a person, its about being an ethical person and NOT an outright shameless criminal feeling happy with dirty cash in his pocket.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What is "Happiness": Reorienting the Motivations to Achieve Satisfaction in Life

Idealists out there are often adamant about their personal definitions of happiness. Money, they would proselytize, is the ultimate evil. It does not give the beholder any more comfort than the amount of materialistic possessions needed to fill in lonely, empty, sin-filled hearts. As long as the average men have aspired to accumulate great wealth, the major religions of the world have been piously calling for simplicity, to be away from the lures of the seemingly all-powerful cash that have "corrupted" all modern humans.

The purported nobility of the idealist should not be doubted (especially since I am one of them in many ways). Yet, the genuineness of those who believe higher income leads to greater happiness also cannot be doubted in any way. And certainly, by following through on their respective dreams, each will certainly lead satisfying and enviable lives that they can proudly brag to anyone else. Both camps ascribe a certain predefined way that can lead to a belief of personal improvement.

However, is one of the ways better than the other, or, to take a step even further, is either of the ways actually worthy of following and emulation for anyone seeking greater satisfaction in life. While the significant adherence to major religions and their codes of conduct is still a fact of life in most places on Earth, the popular knowledge of billionaires and their paths to success are also rising and changing the ways of religious following. Is such a situation "good," or is it "bad"?

The truth is, by defining both the methods (following money or ideals) and the results (satisfying or not satisfying, good or bad), humans are unfortunately subjecting the entire argument to oversimplification of such extent as to making the point of the whole argument null. The question is not one of what one "should do" to achieve happiness, but to fundamentally question what really satisfies oneself in a biological way, beyond simply to follow the public perception of "happiness."

Indeed, for both the money-chaser and ideal-chaser mentioned above, the defining moment of their "happiness" is public recognition: the money-chaser by public knowledge of his wealth, and the ideal-chaser by the public gratitude of his efforts. It is pretty much guaranteed that both need to go through painful efforts and maybe multiple failures in the process in the process to achieve the ultimate public recognition. In other words, they are not really considered to be "happy" biologically (due to mental strain and physical pain) until the euphoria of being surrounded by envy and respect at the very end.

The alternative would be to subject oneself to biological pleasure at all times: to eat, to sleep, to have sex, to play games...the life of a lazy good-for-nothing bum, as society defines it. Certainly, come to think of it, mentally handicapped people with no more incentive to live beyond such simple pleasures, often seem the happiest people on Earth. Thus, if everyone were to chase that real biological happiness, society would not advance, and indeed, even the basics of survival, such as putting food on the table, would not be completed.

Thankfully, our ancestors redefined "happiness" along more socially productive ways as they went about creating the existing social hierarchy that made humans the most organized animals on the planet. By rewarding the productive with symbols of respect, whether it be higher social ranks, greater power, or wealth, human civilization, throughout her formative years, have taught individuals that SOCIAL pleasure, such as being respected, greatly outweighs biological ones like eating or sleeping.

And to make the brainwashing even more completely, the early humans gradually formed systems of morality, evolved from organized religions and traditional customs, to define what is "evil." Unproductive seeking of biological pleasure, with the code of morality, is professed as "evil" worthy of social isolation and public condemnation. By placing such social restrictions, it is no wonder the talks of pure "happiness" can only exist today in the form of abstract philosophical theories.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Illusions, Violence, and Gruesome Realities: Life in the American "Ghettoes"

I am one of those people who strictly consider themselves to be "men of the people." Growing up in low-income household with little materialistic possessions, I believed that I understood perfectly what it is like to come from the "lower class." Even as my family's financial conditions grew more stable, I swore by the notion that I will always stand by the proletariat, partially fueled by political beliefs and partially by disgust of rich-world consumerism. But reality often proves me wrong in my naivete.

And certainly, my professed knowledge on social classes may have been a bit too shallow up until now. A quick yet quite comprehensive visit to one of the supposed "ghettos" of San Diego yesterday showed me just how much more there is to learn about the world of the low-income populations. It is humbling to see that compared to some of the people who are truly in need of improvements in their livelihoods, just how lucky and how "not lower class" that my family, even during the lowest points, is.

The meaning of a "ghetto," despite popular stereotypes, should not be simply considered as neighborhoods congregated with people of little income. In fact, a neighborhood becoming filled with low-income people, and indeed, becoming a so-called "ghetto" is but the ultimate end result to long-standing social problems. Th social woes experienced by these neighborhoods act as pull factors to drive away those with the financial resources to leave so that only the poor are unluckily left behind in perpetual misery.

Indeed, my family, when living temporarily in the violence-prone Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, did get out as quickly as we were stable enough to move out. Even with the expensive apartment rent costs in the nicer neighborhoods of Boston, my parents knew that a sense of safety in everyday life is significantly more important than having a bit more savings in the bank account. The social problems associated with the neighborhood must be escaped for me and my brother to grow up with physical and mental health.

These social problems of the typical "ghetto" are often clearly manifested by physical appearances. While the neighborhood does not particularly look that different from anyone at the first glance, a careful second look betrays the existence for many causes of daily misery. The street-side one room casinos are crowded with older men on a Thursday night. Flanking the casinos are money lenders, pawnshops, and liquor stores...basically anything that will keep the gamblers at the tables mentally and financially.

If grown adult men are drinking and wasting away their hard-earned cash on a Thursday night, one would wonder how well they treat their wives and children. And with significant alcohol in the bloodstream and emotions from excessive losing, it is not difficult to imagine how the situation can translate to violence both nearby the casinos and in the form of domestic violence once the men get home. Children of such households grow up without proper nurturing from uncaring parents.

And as they grow up, they take revenge on the equally uncaring society. They form gangs that terrorize the streets where they grow up, making law enforcement and regular education both impossible. One consequence sees real estate prices significantly decreasing, drawing more poor families with dangerous backgrounds into the neighborhood. Rival gangs are created. More violence ensues. And the whole cycle is repeated over and over again, victimizing more and more children in the process.

Any injection of financial or material wealth in such neighborhoods (such as the efforts to "gentry" dangerous downtown areas in many American cities) is futile. All the injected wealth will be squandered by irresponsible residents and lost in incessant violence. The only way to break the cycle of deterioration, as far as I can see, is to remove all children from such neighborhoods in their formative years. Only by educating the young in the proper ways of social behaviors can the gruesome realities of the "ghettos" see the light at the end of the tunnel...

Why Are Grad School Students Treated So Differently from Undergrads?

Preparing for graduate school, I found out the hard way, was not the easiest thing in the world. The flimsy "graduate offer pack" received with the acceptance letters had little more than the most basic information for survival. A brief introduction to the school along with a highly "abstract" campus map, a couple of paragraphs on "how to get accustomed to the new environment," and the dates and meeting place for registration. And that's all. The remaining information, if necessary, was all independent research, starting at the Google homepage.

And interestingly enough, after I figured out how to configure my LSE email account, but had a hard time accessing it from my computer, it literally took four days for the IT staff over in London to get back to me via email. Although I am getting used to inefficient BS after dealing with the British visa agencies, the slow response, whether deliberate or properly designed, will definitely force every single grad student like me to learn to survive without even the most basic and necessary support when we get to London.

Remembering the days as a fresh young high school graduate stepping into Yale's Ivy-covered campus for the first time, the situation seemed quite different. While superficially polite, the older students and the administrative staff did extend all sorts of support to the new freshmen, from small things as carrying bags to more important topics like helping out with selecting classes. Such personalized support, most likely, will be completely nonexistent when I head to London in less than a month.

Our welcome as new grad students will most likely be a simple key hand-off at the front office of the grad student dorms. No help with setting up, no visits from school officials, and not even smile-filled welcome parties. I am not saying that Yale did a particularly good job at those things (I certainly do not believe so), but at least, help was readily available when sought after, and it did not take much effort to find and talk to the higher-up people directly responsible for student welfare.

I suppose for the grad school staff to expect maturity and independence from the new students is perfectly justifiable. Unlike the fresh new undergrads, most grad school students do have significant experiences overcoming unfamiliar situations with unfamiliar people after four years of college education and possibly a decently long time of full-time work. They are full-time, functional, and (hopefully) productive members of society now. They are just taking a year off that building up a bit more credentials back in school.

Yet, are such expectations maybe a little too much on the part of the staff? For many new students like me, grad school will be the first time we step onto British soil. Sure, the language difference may not be there, but there are still certain cultural differences between America and Britain, as well as Europe as a whole. There will be certain biases against Americans that we will not know about beforehand, and the stereotypes against Chinese and Asians in general will most certainly be different.

There will be no one to teach us these differences. No set lectures, and no extensive booklets to explain cultural, ethnic, and religious taboos. Everything will be a firsthand trial-and-error process: if one gets scolded doing A, then do not do A ever again. It will most definitely be a rough road ahead for all of us as we find, step by step, where that dimly-lit path of what is considered "socially acceptable" lies. The process will test our mental strength and many will protest and complain about why there are no one available for assistance.

But looked in another way, it may also just be deliberated a part of our social education. Seeking the truth via independent exploration is the essence of a thesis-based grad school curriculum. By not spoon-feeding the grad students bite-sized pieces of knowledge in toned-down lectures like she does with the undergrads, the school is allowing us to learn and remember much more quickly and deeply. And by facing difficulties together, we, as a group of unknowing grad students, will bond and network more closely, creating those needed lifetime professional associations.

Friday, August 26, 2011

In Writing and in Love, "Don't Play by Other People's Games"

This blog is about criticism. I have spent probably more than half of the blog scolding Japan to the very details of her people's attitude and daily life. At the same time, I have not forgotten to keep up a constant rate of fire on the often politically originated indecencies of Chinese mentalities. And do not even get me started on America. The arrogant attitudes of the American people is and will always be a subject of constant scorn. Add a few criticisms of the countries that I have briefly traveled to and even briefly lived and worked in, and out comes the perhaps the darkest, most unfriendly sounding blog on the entire cyberspace.

Many a faithful reader has questioned whether the incessant criticism really means something. As I mentioned from the very beginning of the blog's existence, I intend the blog to be something of a personal diary, a forum for my thought to be jotted down, along the same lines as wherever my mind decide to land at those very moments. And from the current criticism-filled contents, I suppose that one can extrapolate that I am just a very dark kind of a person, only capable of seeing the worst things in each place.

And it is the rationale that many people (and myself included) has used to justify why I can never get satisfied staying in one place for a long time. But such way of characterizing me is definitely oversimplifying who I am and what this blog is really about. First of all, there are plenty of positive things that I wrote about to balance out all the negative contents. Both the positive and the negative contents are indeed direct verbal reflections, without any modifications or reservations, of my firsthand observations.

And if anything, the content being mostly negative do show the ability of myself to see through what is mostly normal and functional in society and discuss those intricate details that can be improved...or perhaps that what most people consider as perfectly OK and even desirable as something totally wrong, unacceptable, and irrational result of mindless conformity and brilliant brainwashing from the top. If all such observations are indeed missing, then the blog really has no originality and purpose for continued existence.

Back when I was in Korea, a superior of mine always reminded me of staying true to who I am without falling for the desire of imitating the actions of others. He consistently told me to stay calm and "play by my own games" no matter how successful others seem to be. Indeed, there is absolutely no guarantee that the successful methods employed by others can be directly copied. Behavior is often highly relative to personality; without the right sort of combination, there cannot be good overall effects no matter how perfect either of the constituent part is considered to be.

At the time, he was referring to how one should approach girls, but the point also rings true for writing. Begging for readership is not that dissimilar to begging for romance. Both involves creating great first and lasting impressions through well-coordinated self-expressions. But according to him, both would even more depend upon the need for complete honesty, to stick to self-expression that include only genuine information and not any beautiful yet temporary flourishes meant only to be attention-grabbers.

Such integrity beyond on displaying only what is genuine is sometimes the most difficult task both lovers and writers have to face. At least as a writer, I am trying to strip my attitudes down to the bare basics, i.e. bringing in the pure criticisms without making any concerted effort to somehow hide my disgust. Yes, by writing in such a way, I would no doubt draw the anger of many different groups of people over a whole spectrum of completely unrelated issues, but if they cannot bear my honesty, perhaps they should not be reading my writing in the first place.

Writing, just like romance, is after all, foremost about expression of individuality, not seeking an audience. After showing one's true self to others, it is lucky if one can find an audience agreeable and mature enough to tolerate or even fall in love with oneself. But even if one does immediately find such a devote fellowship, it is not a big problem. Some day, somewhere, at least one such person will come along, and that is when all magic shall start...

The Burdens of History: Race Relations, Tensions, and Superiority in Asia

My parents love to watch Chinese war dramas. The dramas all invariably depict poor Chinese farmer-turned-militiamen fighting relentlessly against the immoral, arrogant Japanese invaders. Shouting patriotic messages of the freeing the country from foreign domination, the Chinese militiamen use various sabotage tactics and mind games to win struggles of attrition against the otherwise dimwitted-looking Japanese. Sometimes a few heroes die of dramatic deaths, but at the end, the established formula always fate the Japanese aggressors with devastating, unrecoverable blows.

And my parents are not alone in their hobby. Such war dramas still constitute a large portion of domestic productions in China every year, even more than six decades after the end of the events they portray. And the continued production, above their propagandist value of showcase for patriotism and devotion to the Communist Party, actually makes economic sense. When asked about the reason for continued production, the studios reply that the set model still finds a steady stream of China's massive middle-age TV viewing population.

In other words, it does not really matter if the youth population in China, much like myself, is confused and annoyed by the endless repetition of these highly falsified and superficial symbols of nationalism. The middle-aged are the ones with the money and will be the ones responding to the TV ads in droves. Young people barely watches TV anyways (they are stuck in their street-corner Internet cafes playing Starcraft) so there is absolutely no point in catering to them with more "youth-friendly" TV programming.

But the economic rationale aside, being bombarded day and night with anti-Japanese TV programming must have some sort of psychological effect on the general Chinese populace. While harboring a secret love for many things Japanese, from fashion to electronic products, the Chinese of today, like practically every other Asian nationality, are still somehow socially obligated to "hate on" the Japanese for whatever atrocities they committed to their grandparents.

The economic benefits to the private studios of creating such brainwashing TV programs are influencing popular attitudes and national relations across Asia. It is no wonder that many Japanese refuse to recognize themselves as part of Asia; it is often simply because they would never be accepted by other Asians as equals even if they throw off their often racist pride as Asia's wealthiest country and seek to become the equals of other Asians.

All this harks back to the conversation I had with a former student of mine regarding race relations in Asia. We argued whether it would have been better for all Asians if the Japanese indeed won World War II and every other Asian race become forcefully assimilated into Japanese culture. We, a Chinese and Korean chatting over a beer in Seoul, somehow came to an affirmative conclusion. Much of the racial tensions that we see today are precisely due to that endlessly emphasized war history, and perhaps, if all Asians were to be unified under one race, there would be no discussion of pointless patriotism everyday.

Of course, all such talks are of pure fantasy. The Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and many others are just too racially proud (I cannot avoid it completely myself) to simply submit to Japanese dominance even if their wars of independence are lost. But hypothetically, if all Asians were to be citizens of the wealthiest and in many ways, the most respected Asian nation, there would be much fewer, sometimes aggressive and highly debilitating, arguments about which Asian is better.

And just as the Japanese become the most pacifist (at least on the surface) people in the world, all Asians, if completely conquered, may become more docile and disgusted by violence. There would be less interest for these mindless patriotic war dramas and less economic reasons for studios to continue making them. Maybe then, we would not need the whole generation of people experienced in war-ravaged childhood to drop dead before we Asians can all walk out of the shadows of endlessly glorifying the "achievements" of our forefathers.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Should Societies Be Obligated to Protect Disappearing Professions?

The cobbler quietly worked on the dress shoes, right before my mesmerized eyes. He put glue into the sides of the shoes that were opening up, pounded in mails to the bottom to keep the glue in place, applied new bottoms to hide the nails, and finally polished the shoes to give them a brand-new shine. All this happening within 30minutes for equivalent of 20 US dollars in a shipping container-turned-personal workshop placed smack on the sidewalk of the busiest financial street in all of Seoul.

After admiring Asia's superb public transportation system as well as cost-efficient and convenient compactness of her urban areas, the lingering existence of many traditional service professions in Asian cities also becomes a phenomenon worth a few words of praise. While the likes of such humble shoe cobbler can be rarely seen on the streets of the US, in Asia they continue to provide their, indeed, still popularly used, services to the general populace.

But, alas, as Western concepts of materialism take hold in Asian consumer culture (in the form of incessant demand for newer and better products), such sight of cobblers plying his trade on the street-side will no doubt become rarer and rarer. As I sat there looking at the old cobbler with his rough hands permanently darkened by industrial coloring for the shoes, I cannot help but wonder if he will ever have an apprentice as enthusiastic and diligent in the tasks of fixing the shoes of random passersby.

The shoe cobbler will no doubt be the latest victim in a series of "disappearing professions" as human societies develop from manual to mass-manufactured. As newer and better products are more cheaply made in larger quantities, those living by that one skill of the hands one day find their skills to be no longer useful. Factories once outproduced family workshops and driven them out of business with chap prices. Now the same factories are producing so much as to even make the concept of repairing broken products anachronistic.

As the lighthearted modern consumers resort to throwing out the broken products because the financial and time costs of repairing them are simply too high in comparison to buying new replacements, one wonders if those skilled labor doing the repairs deserve some sort of professional protection. Both economic and environmental factors may attest to the need to not passively letting such basic but previously venerated service positions to just disappear.

The two factors are related and easy to explain. Mass manufacturing, by simplifying production procedures and taking advantage of economy of scale in production, has in the process led to massive use of limited natural resources that cannot be possibly sustainable over time. As the raw materials for new products begin to run short and both production and retail costs of the new products increase over time, there will be, at some point in the near future, when repairing the old products become not only economic feasible but also often the only alternative available to the consumer.

Or perhaps even before the economically necessary point is reached, the environmental awareness of the general populace will catch up and trump the benefit of "convenience" of buying new products. As eco-friendliness continues to become the chic and cool concept in the developed world (and increasingly so in the developing world as well), it is not hard to imagine when sporting obviously repaired goods would be just as trendy as, say, eating organically produced foodstuffs.

Obviously, that point in time, for each distinct product, will happen at different points in time. For some products such as shoes, the time may not even come during the working lifetimes of the cobblers like the one I visited in Seoul. And without viable measures, the unique skills of such people may go straight to the graves with them without being passed down. When repairing becomes fashionable again in the future, there may not be anyone left who knows how to perform the necessary repairs.

Thus, as the future of disappearing professions like cobblers remains largely in doubt, the question one must ask is whether governments and/or societies in general have the responsibility to protect these useful skills for the future. Even as the businesses of the cobblers become unprofitable, perhaps the state can consider putting at least some of the most skilled ones on government salary so that there is time for their skills to be properly recorded for future reference?

Is There Really Faster Internet in Asia?

The Japanese and South Koreans never stop bragging about how they have the fastest Internet connection in the world. Nor do they ever stop making fun of the Americans or the Europeans only switching out of dial-up years after they started using high-speed broadband. Surely, the ubiquitous Internet cafes with their hordes of online game-playing teenagers do show the need and existence of high-speed connections, but for the travelling foreigner only concerned with news and basic text-based information searching, the difference seems quite minimal.

In fact, if anything, living in Korea or Japan occasionally would make the foreigners feel like there is SLOWER Internet connection than they can get back home, for the contents they wish to obtain. After all, especially in the case of Americans and Europeans, their favorite sites from back home can only be viewed after the data travels thousands of miles below the Pacific Ocean, no doubt slowing down the processing speed. And it is doubtful that the foreigners, even after years of living in Korea or Japan, will start viewing the local sites predominantly.

Although the difference in speeds for accessing domestic and foreign sites is usually minimal, at times of emergencies, even differences of such slight magnitudes can be annoying. For instance, the earthquake that occurred on the East Coast a couple of days ago is sure to attract the attention of many American expatriates living in Asia (while, at least for a little while until they realize how insignificant it was). The first instinct would be for them to access American news sites, where they would promptly decide to watch the video coverage of the quake.

But often, as is the case for many of many acquaintances, the loading of the videos on these American sites, from access points in Asia, becomes unbearably slow at such times. Maybe the situation is exacerbated by above-average access of the same contents by users back home, but either way, the example shows that the ABSOLUTE speed of Internet connection is not something that really matters in determining how fast the Internet of a certain locale truly is to each individual user.

And added to the issue of accessing online information from the other side of the globe is the measure, taken by some countries, of restricting incoming/outgoing bandwidth from/to foreign countries. Purportedly used to "stabilize local connections" (whether it is in essence just another type of online censorship we do not have sufficient information to determine), the upper limits on how much online information to let in and out of the country can only make the connection even slower, not to mention less international-oriented.

In essence, what can be genuinely said about the difference in speed for online connections across different countries applies mostly to INTRANET, and not INTERNET. Of course, for likes of developing countries like India, the difference between the two may not be that big as both are significantly slower than US, South Korea, or Japan. On for censorship-heavy countries like China, the accessibility of the Intranet compared to the Internet can be so big as to make this whole argument pointless.

But, even with such exceptions, the original point of the question still stands. The Asian (mainly South Korean and Japanese) pride of having better Internet connections than America or Europe is often largely dubious and even completely unfounded. Surely they may experience faster page viewing for domestic sites at home, but never can accessibility to the EXACT SAME site (especially of Western origin) be comparable in an absolute scale. An insistence that the connection in Asia is faster under any circumstance is a reflection of Asian chauvinism rather than technological reality.

Unfortunately, the Asian insistence of better Internet may be taken as another poignant illustration of the growing and perpetually irrational sense of Asian pride. As noted previously, the rapid rise of Asia economically has not changed the pro-Western attitude of the individual Asians. Professing Asian superiority in some cases is just another way of suppressing Asian inadequacies like the tendencies for the Japanese to live in their own little worlds. Such delusional attitudes are not only unhealthy but also serves as burdensome mental obstacle to continued, realistic development of Asia.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Confessions of a Cynic: Choosing Words More Carefully as the Key for Building Better Social Relationships

The news of natural or human disasters, unfortunately for me, no longer raises even an eyebrow. After experiencing the massive earthquake in Japan, the massive floods and mudslide in Korea, and hearing about the massive rioting in London, waking up today to the news of a rare earthquake on the East Coast of the US did not even bring any sort of reaction to my face. Fortunately, so far, there has been very little reports of damages and human casualties. But given my insensitivity to disasters in general, would I act any differently if there were large numbers of deaths occurring from the quake?

Sadly, my personal reflection at the current state would immediately tell me "no." As any other survivor of the Quake over in Japan, I have had a tendency to trivialize the dangers of such disasters in order to suppress the memories of being part of the Quake or any of its lethal consequences. While we the survivors ourselves may take pride on being able to speak of disasters as if they are nothing, but for those new to such situations, including those who just experienced earthquake for perhaps the first time in their lives over on the East Coast, there is little to be cheerily bantered about even though the whole experience may have just been an empty scare.

Any sort of near-death experience, after all, presents a shock to the human psyche. And any shock to the human psyche, after all, will definitely create some sort of dark spot in the mind. Poking at the dark spot, especially when done intentionally and nonchalantly by an outsider (even if the outsiders has similar experiences) can only serve to irritate the victim of the near-death experience. Those who experienced them on multiple occasions can laugh off the dark jokes, but for those victimized for the very first time, joking around such dark matters is definitely not the right move for some sort of post-traumatic emotional bonding.

The discretion with which jokes need to be exercised extend far beyond just situations involving actual disasters. For any person with any amount of actual life experiences, there are plenty of personal-level disasters that the person would incur emotional shock. Especially in the case of failing exams in schools or being scolded by superiors at work, the consequent realization of stupidity and decrease in self-confidence can create shocks much more damaging and lasting than coming to grips with imminent death for a few minutes in a physical disaster.

For someone like myself whose humor largely consists of a seemingly endless repertoire of cynical commentary, being careful with words so not to exacerbate the negative feelings of others is an especially challenging task. The utterances I feel to be completely benign are often taken as grave insults. Most people will hide their annoyances and laugh them off, but occasionally the receivers get so disgusted by the comments as to either leave in anger or in turn criticize my lack of sensitivity.

Yet, because cynicism has become so much a significant part of the personality of people like myself, it is simply difficult to figure out how to "tone down" the level of cynicism that exist in each comment. Because people already know us to be cynical, every "I feel so sorry about hearing that" no longer sound genuine. Our honest attempts at expressing sorrow or consolation, to the listeners, are simply taken to be another segway into the next cynical expression that seeks to draw a few laughs in some perverted way.

So, in the end, the dilemma is no longer about how to say it, but whether or not to say it at all. Talking by itself becomes a tiring exercise of reading the situation and the people involved. Are the people emotional tolerant enough? Is the situation mild enough to warrant a joke without laving a bad taste in everyone's mouth? Every factor must be considered before talking so that the relationship without people involved can be maintained at courteous levels and the reputation of the cynics can be kept at least at "half-way decent" rather than "downright inhumane."

Cynical people may be some of the most emotionally tough people on Earth, but they at the same time can be taken as the most delusional and idealistic. By laughing at every single negative in the world, they dismiss the inherent problems that cause such negatives with a laugh rather than putting in the serious effort to find their resolutions. We certainly have to find a sustainable way to be outspoken without being taken as just negative, and to be cooperative with others consistently without unintentionally stabbing the tender parts of their minds...

How Low Would Asians Go to Get Their Hands on Western Citizenship?

There was this perpetual drunken joke of myself and my Western acquaintances about using US citizenship to leverage dating the local girls in Asia. "Who cares about language or cultural barriers?" We would say, as long as we can hang our US passport around our necks and flaunt them around the nearest Western-styled bars we can find. If we do it correctly, we do not even have to say anything at all before we can hook some young pretty wives to bring back home to the good ole USA...

But the drunken joke really in essence reflects a sad truth that unfortunate still is very much relevant in most parts of a fast-developing Asia. Besides the perpetually isolationist Japan where young people no longer have any desire to be anywhere outside their native country, for most of Asians, settling down in the West, and especially the States, is a dream that they would like to be fulfilled in one way or the other. Even in wealthy places like South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, emigration to the West is still very significant and raising.

Of course, not everyone is smart or diligent enough to go through the route of getting admitted to higher education in the West and then finding permanent jobs there. In fact, even if the youths do succeed in getting into good Western schools, it often seems that the increasingly strict quotas for handing out immigration visas to foreigners have been discouraging more and more people from wishing to live in the West permanently. Most people today are simply studying in the West to be associated with "having knowledge of the West," giving them some sort of advantage in job markets in their native countries.

However, for most Asians (aside from the cream of the crop that can find good jobs in their native countries no matter what), the lack of work visas just means they will have to find new ways to become legal permanent residents of the West. And after hearing some stories of the measures taken by these determined Asians, I cannot help but feel very much disheartened by just how far such people would go to abandon their own countries.

One of the most notable stories I heard involve the concept of "civil partnership" in Australia. In the Land down Under, supposedly marriage certificate is not required to allow the foreign spouse to take on the Australian citizenship of the significant other. All that need to be proven are that the two people are indeed living together and will definitely form a marital relationship sometime in the "near future." Of course, to do so without official government certificate involve quite a hassle.

The documents involved in proving the "civil partnership" status go from dubious to downright ridiculous. There are pictures that "display intimacy" of the two people, bank account jointly opened by the two (something I would never do even if I am married), objects that show "emotional connection" between the two (a ring, perhaps?)...the fulfillment of such requirements is made just so much more ludicrous when I heard the two people involved in this particular case are still both full-time college students with no stable independent incomes.

It could be fairly assumed that, like almost all other cases of Asians attempting to get citizenship off "romantic" relationships, this one involved an Asian girl enticing the emotional and short-sighted Western guy into such an arrangement. The only thing more despicable than how these Asian girls profess false love to obtain immigration status is how Asians in general become practical, emotionless liars in the Western perspective as more of such situations surface and more Westerners are emotionally (and sometimes financially) from their personal experiences.

Perhaps it is quite hypocritical for me, a Chinese guy obtaining US citizenship off his own family to say, but maybe, just maybe, we Asians, as constituents of a continent with rising political and economic might, should start behaving like we are more proud of our own backgrounds. Continuing to giving up our moral integrity and sense of honesty for ability to live in the West permanently can only draw the ire, not the respect, of Westerners toward a rising Asia.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pro-Car Inconveniences: the Absolute Needs of a More Walker-Friendly Lifestyle in the US

"You know, I am just so used to living in a big city that I feel uneasy when I do not see a convenience store and a subway station within ten minutes walk of where I live." Those were the exact words coming out of my mouth two minutes after getting picked up by my parents at the San Diego Airport. Harking back to the last conversations before departing Japan for one last time, I constantly remarked that I will miss the lifestyle of convenient shopping and transportation that I will not get in the U.S. I was totally right, as I realized even immediately after landing on her soil for the first.

Indeed, to the accusation of inconvenience, San Diego certainly can make no justifiable comebacks. Aside from a few un-cared for and unconfirmed rumors of her non-extensive trolley system extended a little bit beyond its current northern terminus "very soon in the future" (without any concrete plans besides a "proposed" 2015 completion date), public transportation and with it, more compact and pedestrian-friendly city-building, still, after all these years of high gas prices, clogged roads, and political leaders speaking of beating Asia in infrastructure, do not at all excite the locals.

Yes, it is undoubtedly true that cities out here in the West Coast are designed to be car-friendly (thanks to their growth during the time in which American car culture rapidly seeped into the daily lives of not only the wealthy, but the common middle and working class population). And yes, because the car culture is so deeply rooted in the psyche of the local populace, public transportation will not be used by the locals even if the entire infrastructure system is redesigned to be based on subways, trains, buses, and indeed, walking. But if people are simply satisfied with the status quo without experiencing or even simply considering the benefits of the alternative, then such pro-private vehicle argument cannot be particularly persuasive.

With a car-based culture, the city cannot possibly be compact and the sights of having small convenience stores extensively dotting neighborhood dominated by high-rise apartments cannot possibly be created. While I indeed do not doubt the fact that the enormous size of American single houses is a major factor for the high living standard of the US, the stats for average residential area per person should also be counterbalanced by whatever social deformities associated with extensive sub-urbanization.

Here I am not just talking about the weak socio-cultural issues raised by various social critics of America (e.g. the "spreading out" of cities through faceless suburbs destroy emotional connections among the people). I am more inclined to think about the need to use private vehicle in the process of purchasing the most basic of daily necessities (a bottle of Coca Cola, for instance) a matter of extremely high economic cost that will prove to be significant for each individual living in places like suburban San Diego.

Compare walking 5 minutes to the local convenience store to buy a bottle of Coke versus driving 5 minutes to a supermarket in the nearby strip mall for the same thing. For the former consumer, since he or she is so close to the store and because the store is open 24 hours, can go there at any time, he or she will only what she needs at one point in time. The latter consumer, because of high gas prices and hassle of driving combined with a large empty trunk, will be inclined to hastily predict what he or she needs for the next days or even weeks and over-purchase to save extra trips.

Besides wasting money on things that are not actually needed, driving to the supermarket can also prove to be unhealthy both physically and mentally. A visit to the convenience store, at least in my personal experience, often double as a refreshing walk away from troubles at home and a chance to get acquainted with the bustling compact neighborhood surrounding my apartment. A drive to the mall is simply for the sake of necessity, a chore that must be completed against the consumer's will.

Ultimately, seeing the global trend toward sustainability and more eco-friendly lifestyle, it would perhaps be apt to say that in the near future, the compact neighborhoods of Asia and older parts of America and Europe will again be the exemplary (and surely, logical and practical) models of town-building. And as human society head toward such a direction, perhaps cities such as San Diego can finally seriously consider the conveniences brought by the combination of convenience store-centered shopping and subway-centered transportation.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Emotional Calmness as the "Asia Tour" Ends...

One and a half hour until the plane for San Francisco departs from Seoul Incheon Airport. My second short-term work trip to Korea concludes with more calmness and less of the passionate pro-Korean emotions I got from the country last time. Back in 2008, I remember telling myself that I will for sure come back and for months after, tried my best to keep up with everything and anything Korean (ultimately leading to my taking Korean class my senior year). Talk about the power of the Korean Wave...

Three years later, back in the same airport, going to the same place after finishing the same thing, there somehow is only a nonchalant, almost empty non-caring attitude. London, surprisingly, is not in my head, even though the news of the riots seem to make everyone around me a bit more anxious. And of course, going back to San Diego, as always, never really excite me more than the fact that I can get some free housing and food. Inside my mind is emptiness, pure emptiness, without a slight sympathy for what I am leaving behind.

Perhaps a bit more experience can account for the blank tranquility. After all, this time, it was not just another teaching stint in Korea, it was a whole "tour" of Asia that span more than a year in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. And even more, it was my ultimate attempt to be "Asian" once again, anchored by an attempt to live permanently in Japan as part of the local society. The abortion of such a plan and the end of the "tour" was more than just a soothing feeling of "it is all over."

It is more than even just a shoulder-shrugging dismay. It, as some dark part of my mind keeps on telling me, pure heartbreak in many ways. It was the experience of having my childhood home reject me culturally as a member of her society, and consequently realizing that looking like the locals, or even speaking the local language fluently, is not a guarantee for open-armed acceptance. Yes, politeness and respect were handed to me, but they were the kind given to outsiders, not their own ethnic brothers and sisters.

Such situation somehow becomes more acute paradoxically in a time when the mingling of different ethnicity and cultures are occurring more frequently and at greater length. My heart aches every time I hear a local say (usually behind a foreigner's back) "What is he/she doing here (i.e. in the foreign country)?" It is simply unbelievable to hear such comment still leisurely uttered when the foreigner, not knowing the language or the culture of their strange destinations, still build up enough courage to depart their familiar homelands.

Instead, all they earned here in the foreign countries are irksome (albeit hidden) attitudes of the locals and subtle discrimination in the public. There are just too many stories of what foreigners cannot do in the country, from opening up online banking services or simply buying a ticket to a Korean pop music concert (so much for using Korean Wave to attract foreigners...). We foreigners do not demand respect or to be put on a pedestal, but we would like to be treated as equals in these still close-minded Asian societies.

Of course, we foreigners are also to be blamed for the situation. Too long have we treated the locals with condescension. Too long we have thought ourselves better than the locals (so nonchalantly as to not realize that we are indeed doing so), and too long we have expected the locals to bend themselves to adapt to our culture instead of ourselves adapting to theirs. We have used every opportunity to try to "educate" the locals in our "enlightened" methodologies and "modern" ways of thinking.

For every joke specific to American culture and for every sarcastic remark uttered in English, we the foreigners are enlarging that already-too-big emotional gulf between us and the locals. They simply become afraid of us, afraid that we will straightforwardly (and in a straight face in the classic Western way) tell them that we do not understand their broken English or botched attempt to emotionally connect by joking around. And as fear expands in their minds, how can we expect the locals to really take us in as their brothers and sisters?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Asian Girls and Their "Playing Cute": Expectations or Inequality?

While Seoul and the northern half of South Korea drench in the leftover of yet another storm (after a previous one flooded half of the Metropolis and caused deadly mudslides in Chuncheon), over here in Busan, the skies are clear and the beaches are packed. The only three-day weekend of the Korean summer seems to have brought the entire youth population of Seoul down here, to the point that the characteristic Gyeongsang accent is getting drowned out by the more "standard" stuff spoken up north.

Youth and sunshine in the premier beach town in Korea means quite much...and honestly, it is exactly why I am drawn back here for the seocnd time (going against my standard principle of not traveling to the same place more than once). Unlike my trip here back in 2008 when the city was rained out for an entire weekend, this time around the crowded beaches of Gwangalli and Haeundae were perfect for photos...and crowd-watching.

Yes, crowd-watching, to the single male seeking a mate, can only have one possible meaning. Clad in bikinis, they walk the streets nearby the beaches. Yes, they, like girls anywhere else in Asia, tend to be cold to strangers and unwilling to talk to anyone who would come off even just a little "dangerous" to them. But just looking at them, going about their vacations with their female friends, boyfriends, or families would be a feast to the eyes.

And after a drunken night of walking around the beachfront and gawking at them on the beach and in open-air bars, I have all the more noticed the tendency of the girls to play cute to their friends, both male and female, even in normal conversations. Usually used exclusively to beg boyfriends to buy them expensive gifts (and more shadily, used by prostitutes to beg customers to enter their "stores"), the behavior seems much more common and casually used by more girls in this particular vacation spot.

To the foreigner growing up in Western societies, the behavior is just as weird as it is cute. In the States at least, guys admire girls that are "hard to get": those who give off that air of unapproachable grandeur, self-reliance, and independence. The more that the girls show that they "do not need the guys," the more the guys seem to fall for them. In Asia, the opposite is definitely true. The girls must show that they are weak and need to be protected by a "strong man" for them to seem attractive.

One can only wonder what sort of socio-cultural factors that led to such a huge divergence in romantic desirability. Traditionalists can of course point to Asia's Confucian hierarchy. In societies where women are for centuries lower than men in social status, women need to behave like they can still fit those "lower social roles" if they want to be liked by the guys who still tend to have those traditional male-centered beliefs deeply stamped in their mental psyches.

But, come to think of it, the lack of gender equality in the West is just as deeply rooted as in Asia. While feminism certainly has advanced more in the West, underneath all the ruckus, it cannot be said that women, in actuality, have significantly higher status in the West as they do in Asia (as far as stats on income, life expectancy, or education are concerned). Social reality alone cannot be pushing Asian women to behave so differently.

What about male expectations then? Without the social reality to buttress, I cannot see how the male expectation for females to lower themselves can continue (and more obvious version of feminism in Asia to not blossom). Sure, there are the continued media portrayal of obedient women as something close to the ideal (Korean dramas, with their emphasis on filial piety, are filled with such examples). But as Western culture, spearheaded by Hollywood stereotypes, continue to seep into Asia, will the expectations change?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

“Asian Ethics”: the Emotional Unifier of Greater Asia

The dogs just barked away in their little cages.

As I passed by the inconspicuous corner of the market, I could not have possibly missed those distinct sounds. I had to keep up my nonchalant appearance as I continued strolling down the dusty little market streets.

But the hawking would not stop. Targeting the strange, innocent-looking young tourist, the vendors came. They blocked my way down the street, whispering into my ear, “hey, how about one for tonight? It is cheap today.”

I had to look where the vendors were pointing their fingers. The dogs, all of which perhaps the most massive I have ever seen in my lifetime of strange travels, looked back at me from their cages. Some whimpered at the sight of a “new guy.” All examined me with almost teary eyes.

Toward the further inquiring voice of the overly enthusiastic vendors, I had no response. I was at a loss for words, any words. The sight of “the men’s best friends” happily wagging their tails at the sight of a new human friend was nowhere to be seen. There were only the almost constant cracks of whip from the “cage managers” against any animal who dared making a rebellious sound during their important trade negotiation.

Yet, I, the usually adventurous and fearless lone traveler, felt more scared and depressed than those unusual caged creatures waiting to be slaughtered for human consumption. I just froze in front of a little stall in a little market, not even 30 minutes outside the modern Korean metropolis of Seoul. I felt like a part of me was in the cages, right next to those normally fun-loving creatures quietly staring at the ground before them, waiting for their final, inescapable fate.

I was then suddenly shocked back to my senses. Behind the vendor who still stood before me and still begging for my business, other dog-meat vendors were cheerfully chatting away, to my disbelief, in Mandarin Chinese. Bewildered, I once again examined the inconspicuous little street corner at which I stood. Greeting me behind the live-animal-selling cages were disproportionate numbers of shops with signage in Chinese characters, advertising everything from herbs, cheap toys, to of course, dog meat.

It is quite a way to illustrate Asian unity indeed. On a sunny early Saturday afternoon, a Chinese-Korean trader with his shipment of live cargo met with an idealistic Chinese-American at a little street corner of a maze-like market in suburban South Korea.


In many ways, Asian people do share some strange habits. Food may be the most infamous in the Western world.

From the stories of Korean countryside seeing their dogs disappear during important festivals, to the news of Japanese whaling ships fighting Greenpeace to obtain that century-old delicacy, to the rumors of people eating wild cats in China as the beginning of SARS, and the fables of Indians drinking cow urine for strength and “genuine” sanctimony, within the Western imagination, Asia cannot be without her often well-known dark spots.

No matter how advanced Asia becomes economically and politically, the Westerners can only grimace at some of her continuing traditions, simply because such Oriental habits is not acceptable in the Western code of ethics based on centuries of Judeo-Christian teachings.

Even these deeply entrenched Asian culinary traditions have to take a step back for PR reasons. In Japan, my taking picture of whale meat in a “fish” market was severely criticized. And here in Korea, dog meat soup is now only referred euphemistically as “Revitalizing” or “Energizing” Soup, inferring only its traditional role of fighting off summer laziness, without any single mention of the contents.

At the request of a close foreign coworker, I went to find “Revitalizing Soup” in Seoul. We found a dish simply called “The Soup” with the same contents.

Perhaps because both of us are Asian, we had no qualms about seeking out and actually eating dog meat without too much anxiety. Although the pictures of his pet dogs and my visit to the dog-selling market continued to race through our minds, we actually spoke of the taste and the texture of the meat as if it is some sort of normal cuisine, “It is tough, but interestingly gamey...I would not mind eating it again if I knew it was not dog.”

Both of us did grow up outside of Asia, and neither of us would consider ourselves immoral beings. One is a devout Christian who believes social justice and the other is a left-wing internationalist who insists on social equality. Yet both of us, perhaps because we are Asian, somehow said that, trying, just trying, the Soup once would be no problem, physically or emotionally.

But for us, the Western-educated Asians, the experience ultimately cannot be without its uneasiness. Whether it is eating dog-meat, whale sashimi, or fried frog legs and insects, the feedback cannot be 100% positive. After all, most of our friends did grow up with Western values, so we can possibly brag about our experiences without portraying ourselves as little rebellious “badboys.”

And as Western influences spread to every corner of Asia, most Asians have come to agree with the Western characterizations of such Asian habits. My Korean students and coworkers also frowned upon me when I spoke off my adventures over the weekend. There were no laughs, no musings. What I received in response were only sheer embarrassments that the foreigner like me had to see “something like that.”


Within all this, one question begs to be asked.

Are these “morally appalling,” not to mention physically disgusting, Asian traditions, backed by their old-fashioned Asian principles, really deserve any sort of preservation?

In a world of moralistic convergence, in which Western-created concepts such as “democracy,” “nationalism,” and “basic freedoms,” and ironically, “free-market capitalism,” “individualism,” and “communism,” long dominated progress of modern socioeconomic, political, and cultural thoughts here in Asia, do the existence of any Asian values actually matter?

If my dog-filled weekend can illustrate anything, it would be the incredible tenacity of some traditions that people would expect to die out fastest. Even as ancestor worship, Confucianism, filial piety, and traditional attires are all given up under the incessant assault of Western materialism and individualism, somehow these foods survived.

The relatively “benign” Asian intellectual and social traditions, yet the “repulsive” culinary ones live on. It feels as if that, all over Asia, these sensationalized “weirdness,” besides our faces and languages, are the only Asian inventions that can survive against the Western onslaught.

So it is by these that we Asians have to collectively define ourselves.

The very survival of these practices shows that despite outward conformity and identification with “modern,” Western ways of thinking, Asians, underneath all that, still do stick by their own sense of moral definition. Even if the locals refuse to admit as such, the Asians, today just as in the centuries past, have their own idea of what is right and what is wrong, entirely separate from those originating in the Judeo-Christian communities.

However, the power of Western morality to market itself on the Asian continent is not to be underestimated. With their sense of philosophical superiority back by sense of socio-economic authority, the Western line of thought marches on, winning more and more young adherents even among the most conservative and traditionalist corners of Asia.

Thus, it has come for the time for Asia to unite in a concerted cultural resistance against the Western way of morality.

While this is not to suggest the complete preservation of all habits originating from Asia, it does mean that the preservation of Asian values and practices should not and must not depend upon how the West perceives them. In other words, how Asia develop herself culturally in the modern world will have to be decoupled from how the West makes of Asia and how Asians themselves make of the Western impression of Asian cultures.

In a time and age in which Western political systems have became the inevitable mainstream, and all Asian countries compete with one another under the auspices of an American-designed and dominated economic order, perhaps culture is that one thing that can still unite all Asians. If Asians can maintain their unique moral values, then perhaps our future generations can still identify Asia as more than just a diverse geographic block.

Dog-eating, whale-hunting, and insect-frying may all be shameful under the Western values. But despite all that, Asians have the moral responsibly to hold our heads up high and keep at least the principles behind those practices alive and well for the future.

It is our response to the continuing Western dominance on the cultural sphere. Asian integration into the Western political and economic systems does not necessarily mean Asian conformity to Western values and principles. We as Asians do have our unique ways of life, and we shall fight, together, as Chinese, Indians, Japanese, or Koreans, to defend those beliefs despite so-called Western moral high grounds.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Reconsidering the Needs of Communal Living

After weeks of anxious waiting, the accommodation offer from LSE finally arrived in my mailbox. At the rather expensive rate of around 120 pounds a week, I will have a single dorm room located at the heart of London, two blocks away from both the main campus as well as my new home station of King’s Cross (of the Harry Potter fame, as I discovered last weekend after watching the 7th movie). Yet, the uneasiness upon acknowledging the prospects of going back to that dreaded environment of school dormitory is somewhat outweighing the joy from not having to go out and find my own housing in an unknown metropolis.

Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that dorm life, more than classes, activities, or personal relationships, defined my four years of college life. The dorm-mates, for better or worse, became not friends but collectively a surrogate family: people you may not necessarily like at all, yet must spend time with in a regular basis. Their presence, no matter how unwelcome, is often completely assured, to such an extent that, by the end, complete silence spent with them in a common room would bring about absolutely no sense of awkwardness whatsoever.

But at the same time, because dorm-mates have to spend so much time together and deal with each other with consistent friendliness in order to resolve various issues in our communal living, the dorm-mates’ impressions of each other became so significant. Especially in the first, anxious days of living together, every action taken and every word uttered were causes for some behind-the-back complaints about “nasty personal habits of you-know-who.”

Then there is the added nuisance of cultural differences. In a way I am glad that my college dorm consist of people who have all lived for enough years in the States to at least understand certain taboos associated with living in American society (well, I am by far the most likely to break those “unwritten social rules”). I cannot possibly expect the same thing over in London. I, among perhaps the vast majority of my potential dorm-mates, will be new to Britain, struggling to understand the strange host society and each other.

It is my hope that my months over here in the Chuncheon “dorms” may give me some pointers for my time in the LSE dorms. In a way, everything is about courtesy (in a highly superficial, polite form) to establish smooth, yet emotionally detached working partnerships. But simultaneously, it is about moving beyond courtesy and genuinely sharing some secrets and not-to-be-confessed confidential information to build up trust as confidants and friends in the most socially realistic definition.

Sure, in any closed environments, there will be random debilitating rumors. They will undoubtedly break relationships and cause tension within the dorms. But every opportunity for schism can also be seen as a chance of unity in a different perspective. Hate (and in some cases, love) for a common person unite people of different interests and backgrounds, and often the most simple complaints and confessions transcend any sort of cultural difference.

As long as I do not find myself in the position of an instigator of any conflicts, the dorm life should stay peaceful and harmonious. But if no one instigates anything, how boring would the dorm life be? Efforts to establish and maintain peace can be thought of as true maturity, but wouldn’t the much more laborious efforts to deal with and settle existing violent conflicts be even more certain symbols of maturity? Either way, striking the balance between “peace” and “excitement” will be interesting to watch...

And finally, a closing comment on becoming a complete foreigner again. As shown by the blind following of Harry Potter (which I watched last weekend) and Transformers (watched last last weekend) shows, being American does bring certain advantages. But the arrogance of being from America and Yale would indeed lead to my being perceived as arrogant no matter what I do. Avoiding scything remarks and connecting others without showing American cultural-centrism will be the key to succeeding abroad socially.