Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Privilege at a Price: the Foreigners' Continued Dream of British Greatness

Walking around the meticulously kept grassy grounds of the Windsor Castle, the hordes of foreign tourists simply could not hide their excitement. Snapping away with their cameras at every wall sculpture, every statue, and every traditional-looking signage, they shouted to their friends to stop and look, filling the traditional heart of the British monarchy with simultaneous calls in dozens of foreign tongues. The keepers and guards of the Castle, dressed in the traditional costumes little changed since the Empire's heydays, can do little but to smile politely at the incomprehensible noises.

Once, the Castle was the home of a ruler governing half the world, including the lands that now send these enthusiastic tourists. And for centuries, the rulers of the Empire sought to educate these colonial subjects in all matters British, from that standard Queen's accent (which I still find exotically attractive after a week here) to every aspect of the British culture, the highest materialistic form of which is so beautifully preserved in the confines of the imposing walls. Those colonial subjects who best learned British culture was handsomely rewarded with high status in her colonial administration.

As condescending as all this might sound to people of the Empire's formal colonial lands, it is fair to say that Her Majesty's government has not entirely failed in the endeavor. A genuine admiration of British culture seem to run deep across the world, as witnessed by the many people from the developing world pouring in their life-savings just for an experience in the lands of their former master. In a rather perverted way, they enjoy that idea of gaining access to a place only a few generations ago were only open to the exclusive few that determined the very livelihoods of their nations.

In response, Britain is trying her best to retain their pseudo-exclusive feel. Just a five-minute walk across the river from the Castle, schoolchildren still wonder the streets in their suit-like uniforms in the aging stone buildings of Eton College. Tourists delight in briefly rubbing shoulders with whom they perceive as the few elites from powerful, well-connected traditional families. The tourists imagine themselves in the shoes of remarkably cultured-looking schoolboys, dreaming of themselves feasting on the Empire's prizes of knowledge stored in the chandelier-lit library halls.

Of course, even here in the secluded campus of Eton, reality of the world is seeping in. A close examination of the student roster reveals a student body just as foreign as she is British. The premier private secondary school of the Empire has went in the same way as places like the LSE, a mere representation of traditional high reputation, intelligently (or desperately) used to draw in endless lines of foreigners willing to pay the hefty fees for that sample of life as a British elite.

Yet, the more other tourists and I wonder around the cobble-stoned streets of the increasingly touristy town, the more somehow and so strangely we suppress the downtrodden reality. The wealthy and exclusive Empire is long-dead, yet at that moment, we simply refuse to accept that. We, in a truly self-deprecating way, want to see the Castle still as that center of global political power, home to someone who can affect the life and death of millions half a world away just with a single sentence.

It is the same fantasy that govern our thought toward the monarchy. Centuries after so many philosophers and revolutionaries thought about, fought, and died for the implementation of republics, the average human still see those evil hereditary beings as semi-celebrities, worthy of positive attention even though they have done nothing besides freely spending our hard-earned taxpayer money to upkeep their ridiculously extravagant lifestyles. No one, even from the most anti-monarchic and anti-feudal bastions, expressed a tinge of obvious hatred.

Perhaps, really, our reality-escapism has sunken to a new low. To fulfill our inflated delusions of grandeur, foreigners still voluntarily choose to wash up on British shores to continue living, with the British themselves, that dream of British greatness. Secretly, the former colonial subjects somehow still acquiesce to the very British pride of a historically unequal royal pompousness. Privilege, even if it only lives on in name only, still evokes envy...

Friday, September 23, 2011

Higher Education Inspired by the British System: Mass Production of International Graduates?

The registration of new LSE students on the first day was by any means “epic.” Even with a dozen computers working simultaneously to complete a process that takes no more than 2 minutes each, the registration staff was soon overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. The queue of students, minutes after registration opened, snaked out of the largest auditorium on the campus and spilled onto the busy main boulevard in front of the building.

And the crowd that had gathered was, well, a curious bunch. Most came in groups of twos and threes, easily identifiable by their respective nationalities. Small talks consistently appeared to be something not local. Overwhelming noises of Mandarin Chinese are mixed in with various European and South Asian languages, occasionally broken by spurts of American English. Distinctive British accent only came from the administrators trying to keep the whole place in order.

Indeed, judging from the actual registrations, the vast majority of the people in line showed up with their passports, something obviously not required for the UK “Home” students. From the looks of it, at least for the current school year, the London School of Economics will be dominated by “Overseas” students, most in the UK, Europe, and for some, abroad, for the very first time. Looks like the headache I had in Australia with seeing foreigners everywhere on campus will be repeated here in London.

The massive number of internationals, of course, is present for a very apparent reason. In both the UK and Australia, universities (at least the best ones) are public entities receiving funding from the government. Yet, with government budget cuts, educational funding has consistently been in decline for the past years. With no experience in business operations and no asset to operate with besides limited endowment and real estate, they have to turn to one source of steady revenue.

That is, rationally, revenue generated from tuitions and other expenses (textbook sales and dorm fees) paid by the students. To keep up with inflation and higher expenses in practically everything from professor salaries to raw materials for dorm food, schools like LSE are forced to raise both the tuition per student and total number of students. Yet, as a historically reputed institution, suddenly increasing enrolment is bound to damage the image of intellectual elitism.

So the solution somehow became one centered on increasing the number of full-time full-tuition-paying international students. British unwritten academic rules stipulate that internationals often pay as much as five or six times in tuition than that of “Home” students. Increasing internationals became the financial savior of the schools while giving the schools opportunities to boast their “cosmopolitanism” and “emphasis on globalization and diversity.”

What is worrisome is that such a phenomenon in the UK and Australia is now occurring everywhere. In the US, public universities, previously completely dependent on state or municipal funding, are now also forced to lure in more students with higher tuitions. The only reason private colleges in the States averted such a problem is a historical lack of dependence on public funding, forcing the schools to make sensible financial investments (often completely unrelated to education) and market diligently to alumni to create a tradition of steady endowments.

At least schools like the LSE still have that historical fame to continue luring in internationals despite high costs. Most colleges that are practically unknown abroad, on the other hand, are not that lucky. While anxiously executing massive student recruitment campaigns in foreign countries, they at the same time are forced to raise tuition on Home students and increase overall enrolment to pay for such expensive marketing.

For most, the result will be low returns on the marketing campaigns abroad (college brand-names are not something one can establish in the course of a year or two) combined with decreased reputation at home. “Home” students will become more attracted to and compete for fewer spots in the few remaining “high-quality” college (like the LSE) sustaining themselves on revenues from internationals. The result is an increased gap among the few elite colleges and the others.

Yet, even for elite schools like the LSE, the overdependence on international student tuitions is almost certain to be detrimental in the long-term. As more and more international students like me realize the simple “business model” of the schools, they will suspect the actual quality of the education in the absurd congregation of foreigners. Bad rumors will spread, number of applying internationals will decrease, and the little revenue system operating today will eventually fall apart...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Walking in London: the Tale of a Historically Dense City

The roads in the heart of London are not straight; they are designed not to be. Going about my usual exercise of walking around the immediate neighborhood around my dormitory, I found out the hard way just how difficult it is to get acquainted with the historical neighborhood. Every road curved, beginning and ending in completely random places so that the very concept of cardinal directions became completely useless as one tries to get from point A to B.

And the physical appearances do not help. Looking down every street, both sides are packed with five-story-high stone buildings that seemed to have persevered through centuries of urban development. They remain utterly devoid of any commercial signs: no advertising, no store signage (except on the occasional shop fronts on the first floor), and no unique colors to distinguish one building from the dozens around it. All buildings harmoniously blend into two long stone rows extending down every street.

In awe at the first sight, one quickly becomes frustrated by such a physical sight. Your average old London neighborhood does not believe in the idea of “landmarks.” There are no outrageous monstrosities (the London Eye excepted) to characterize each neighborhood, and some communities do not even have major thoroughfares near them to guide travelers to them. The only things that seem to demarcate the neighborhoods are the changes in the neighborhood names on street name plates.

The average Londoner does not seem to be bothered at all by the irregularities that certainly confuse any visitor. Bland-faced, they roam through the twisted streets, not even stopping to check if they are heading in the right direction. But their quiet confidence does not seem to come from a thorough knowledge of the neighborhood. When asked about directions to a certain street, even the most knowledgeable-looking local remark how they do not know where the street is.

Indeed, the very idea of getting to places by following a series of streets is not commonly used. The street name plates are not clearly identified at street intersections, indeed only occasionally popping up on the sides of buildings as small iron plates with a creamy white background color easily blending into the stone façade behind them. Londoners do not seem to notice them, and visitors who try to pay attention to them only get more frustrated by unexpected name changes not reflected on maps.

The urban organization, or the lack of it, here in central London, is consistent with her reality as a densely packed city. The lack of viable space for further development means no frills are possible. Spaces for overhead electricity lines and “non-essential” traffic lights, not to mention billboard ads and more “obvious” street signs, are highly limited, and if occupied, detract from the uniformly beautiful row of stone buildings. With so much history, tearing down communities for rebuilding is not an option.

Amid the reality of inescapable density, businesses face limitations. Wal-Mart-style one-stop shops are impossible because of lack of space for item displays, and Japanese-style convenience stores are impossible as their model of outward advertising to draw in consumers will certainly draw the ire of old time residents. Yet, Londoners do occasionally show quite a bit of ingenuity for innovation. Specialty hole-in-the-wall stores abound, making up for less of space with comprehensiveness in one narrow category.

The result is a conglomeration of mom-and-pop shops selling different things within a single neighborhood. The collection of stores, when combined, does not lose to Wal-mart in item diversity or convenience stores in immediate accessibility. Chain store also adapted. For instance, general store Argos developed “in-store catalog shopping” to retain valuable space for item storage. Limiting the shop front to a bunch of catalog books, a cashier, and a pickup point nonetheless allow the chain to offer every durable good one would need for living in the densest of neighborhoods.

Judging a city within a little more than 24 hours after first arrival, no doubt, have its limitations. But even know, I realized that London has much more to tell me here in the mundane corner of her historical heart than she does in the usual tourist traps of the Tower, the Bridge, and even the museums. And as a resident, rather than a tourist, I have the duty to listen to all her tales and reflect on them. There are probably many more stories about the city than I will care to hear, but I will try my best to record them.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"Social Etiquette" is Being Used as Excuse for Social Isolation

Watching my friend talking to random people in the electronic store as we shopped around for his new laptop, I was once again amazed just how one "out-of-the-line" guy can brighten up the entire place. In a society which talking to random strangers for no reason without being talked to is often frowned often (behind their back) as "inappropriate" and "weird," one guy's action can make all of us rethink just how "appropriate" such unwritten social rules really are. And certain enough, these unwritten rules have become too deeply rooted in our psyche.

For instance, whenever people learn new languages, they always start with greetings. "How are you?" "Where do you come from?" "What do you do for living?" and other inquisitive phrases often top the list of useful phrases to master in the beginning of any formal language instruction. It is as if, in any language, asking about other people's backgrounds is standard practice for beginning a conversation with a stranger. Most people certainly has no problem with such an assumption. Learning a new language is most often about meeting new people in new places, and it just makes sense for all that to start with a little exchange of personal information.

But then, as a person continue to learn the new language, he or she is in for a surprise. There is little follow-up on the basic greetings taught in the very beginning. Instead, the textbooks diverge onto what are needed for survival, emphasizing terms that one will directly encounter in everyday living. The only remaining inquisitive phrases seem to be ones asking for help from others on everything from finding the bathroom to opening up a bank account. The warmness of initial introductions are quickly replaced with practicality of getting needed things done.

Such "common logic" used in chronological organization of language learning can say much about how people interact with their surrounding society. All conversations with strangers will of course have to start with gaining of mutual trust through sharing of information, but the process to do so appears to be highly superficial. The "small talks," so to speak, are usually done simply for the sake of ridding the awkwardness of meeting for the first time, after which practical needs on both sides tend to immediately take over.

It seems that the "social etiquette," applicable to all languages, states that it is perfectly appropriate for people to start communicating to others for the pure purpose of exchanging certain benefits right after getting basic understanding of each other through a "crash course" on background information. And if there is little benefits the two can exchange, then, well, there is little reason for the two to continue talking to each other, even just for further acquainting for fun.

People are social animals with certain biological and psychological need for social communication. We entertain ourselves through interacting with others. There is that distinct human need for gossiping and chatting randomly. However, as technology advances, people no longer have to meet new people in new places to fulfill that need. With the advent of technology in the form of first mobile phone, then Internet messaging, and now SNS, people can connect at any-time with their existing friends on the other side of the world.

So, with the pure fun of talking to new people taken away as a benefit, meeting new people is becoming more and more straightforward matter of practicality. The emotional aspect of interaction become a matter of pure formality, and people are increasingly finding themselves second-guessing others' true intentions when they proclaim that they "would like to know you better." Meeting new people, not to mention tiring, can even potentially turn out to be dangerous, as people take up the attitude that one's new "friend" today can easily the victimizer tomorrow.

The result is a populace generally much more distrusting of others and much lonelier compared to past generations. The prevalent "social etiquette" has evolved to guarantee a sense of distance between two briefly met individuals, to such an extent that one cannot find the correct method from the "book" to get more intimate with someone they are sure they can trust. Social rules are making people less and less able to verbal expression their true feelings, and in turn, people adhering those rules are becoming more and more isolated...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Legalization of Some Beneficial Black Markets Are Needed

More than a year ago when I was solo backpacking through central China, I argued that the illegal underground markets for imitation products provide an economic way for increase material consumption and employment of relatively poor areas. But the argument back then was still much too deviated from the legal reality to make much of a difference. After all, the value of expensive brands exist because of high quality and restricted supply, both of which are undoubtedly disturbed by the very existence of such markets for imitation goods.

And people have the perfectly legal alternative to buy cheaper, non-branded, legally produced goods serving the exact same functions. The closure of the imitation market should not fundamentally reduce the standard of living for their consumers. The illegal markets fulfilled a "want" (most likely for "face" and bragging of the consumers to fulfill a standard Asian mental desire to out-compete others in everything) rather than any substantial need in which the consumers will be hurt if the exact same goods cannot be bought.

But what if the illegally sold goods are somehow vitally for the very survival of the consumers they are targeting? Then, does morality contradict what is legally considered correct thing to do? The perfect instance to consider the question is organ trafficking. In most countries of the world, the US included, the trading of organ, even when voluntary, is prohibited by law. The law stipulates that any organs used for transplant must come from voluntary donations without any involvement of money.

Yet, as it is the case everywhere, the demand for organ transplant from an ever-increasing waiting list of gravely ill patients constantly outstrip the supply of voluntarily donated organs. The discrepancy no doubt lead to the situation in which some of the well-off people on the waiting list are willing to pay high prices for a needed organ. And there are plenty of poor people out there with perfectly healthy organs willing to trade them in for some much-needed cash. It is not like people need EVERY organ they are given biologically for survival.

People tend to argue that such black market should not be allowed to exist because it is biased in favor of the wealthy. Only the wealthy can afford to buy organs, and the seriousness of the need is not considered part of the process. Certainly, it is unfair that only wealthy people can use the black market to obtain organs, but if the wealthy can pay their way off the waiting list for voluntarily donated ones, which indeed is listed by the seriousness of the patients, then, isn't the existence of the organ-trading market also benefit the poor?

The answer should be a legalization of both the waiting list for voluntary donations and the market for sold organs. By crossing off the wealthy serious patients on the top of the waiting list, the poor can also get a better chance of securing a needed organ without hefty fees. The need for organs can translate to an economic trickle-down effect in which people with healthy organs, often selling in poorer countries, can increase their income, consumption, and contribution to development of their regional economies.

The only issue, as many people pointed out, is how to prevent a dwindling of voluntary donations due to legalization of trading. It certainly makes no sense for people to donate for free when they can earn some extra cash from doing the same thing. Yet, the same people fail to realize that with a legal global market for organ trading established, the increase in supply will certainly drive down the cost. With further government regulation, it is not hard to see the possibility of organs becoming affordable for most middle class families across the world.

As technologies develop, the idea of organ trading, as well as many other goods now sold in black markets, will no doubt become obsolete. But in the meantime, it would be rational to ask lawmakers to consider a proposal that is both life-saving and economically beneficial for the most needy. The legalization of black markets for such vital goods, if correctly regulated and monitored by proper authorities, can only lead to benefits.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Irrelevance of Criticizing Historical Decisions through Current Events: the Case of North Korea

To the eyes of humans living today, history is full of bad decision-making. To almost every historical event that occurred, someone can wisely say "If the leaders at the time carried out the plan this way, the results would be different, and people of today would not have to suffer through the bad consequences." Unfortunately, most of such wise comments are exclusively based on information of the said "bad consequences" available to us but not even imaginable to the decision-makers of the past.

Thus, it is not only unfair to judge events of the past through modern lenses, but any conclusions from such exercise are also completely meaningless. The political events occurring on the Korean Peninsula serve as the perfect example to illustrate the point. To the dismay of the entire world, the authoritarian regime of the North continue to flaunt a brinkmanship-based military power at the expense of trapping the necessary resources for developing the national economy and resolve an almost continuous famine.

The resulting humanitarian crisis in North Korea and instability across East Asia have caused many to regard the assistance the Chinese and Russians provided during the Korean War as the ultimate culprit. While it is true that military support from communist allies almost six decades ago is indefensible for survival of the North Korean state today, it is simply ridiculous to assume that China and Russia would have known back then what North Korea would become today. If anything, for the two regional giants, North Korea of today is as much of a diplomatic headache as it is for the allies that fought against it in that pivotal War.

What is more interesting to think about is that, in a alternative history in which Russia and China never intervened in the Korean War, a whole new set of regional problems and issues would arise today. These issues, in many cases, would be no less destructive and debilitating for the development of the region as a whole. To say in short, the disappearance of North Korea would have potentially launched a more intensive and divisive competition among great powers of the region.

To accomplish the portrayal of the alternative history, it is necessary to examine what are the consequences of the War outside its immediate military results. First, the War convinced the US of the need to build up regional counterbalance to a strong Sino-Soviet alliance. Industrial bases in Japan were quickly rebuilt as pro-American military manufacturing center of East Asia, directly resulting in the Japanese pro-WWII economic miracle. Second, US renewed military and political support of the Republic of China regime on Taiwan, culminating in the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act to guarantee its de facto independence since.

On the communist side, Chinese participation in the Korean War guaranteed economic and diplomatic sanctions from the West until the 1970s, causing catastrophic economic conditions (much like what North Korea is facing today). The conditions gave political motivation for the failed Great Leap Forward, leading to famine as well as a Mao's attempt to revive his damaged prestige in the aftermath through the Cultural Revolution. The combination of events hampered Chinese economic development for at least two decades.

Thus, the Korean War without Chinese participation would yield a completely different regional balance. Without US military needs, Japanese economic revival would not have been as strong. On the other hand, a unified Korea with a larger population and access to North Korea's mineral resources will be a much larger economy than South Korea is today. Instead of Japan's economy being five times that of Korea today, the two would be almost evenly balanced economic and military powers.

The alternative story for China will be even more dramatic. Without Chinese participation in the War, Sino-Soviet split that occurred in the late 1960s will inevitably be pushed to the early 1950s, forcing the Chinese to seek American support against the Soviets. Diplomatic normalization that happened under Nixon would have happened perhaps in the Kennedy era, in turn causing the pro-capitalist economic reforms in China to potentially happen in the late 1960s. Military invasion of Taiwan would have happened without American intervention while the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution would not have happened.

And in exchange for American non-intervention in Taiwan, China is likely to have turned a blind eye to American movements in Vietnam. In the alternative history, without Chinese support, North Vietnam would have been invaded by American troops, leading to Vietnamese unification under pro-American South Vietnam. It would not be surprising to see this Vietnam to go through similar economic development under American tutelage, jut as South Korea did in the 1970s and 1980s, and, with a population greater than unified Korea, also emerge as a major regional power.

So, with Chinese non-participation in the Korean War, today's Asia would have a unified China with an even stronger economy surrounded by three middling powers of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, each with a 3-4 trillion dollar economy. While the common people are certainly better off in terms of standard of living, such a dense concentration of great powers in one region is bound to cause today's several bi-national territorial disputes to be even more exaggerated. In fact, it is hard to say with such balance of power, there would not have been some regional wars after the Korean War.

For instance, the Dokdo issue between Korean and Japan is largely sidelined as "diplomatic protest" by the Korean government because of its need to concentrate on North Korea. The conflict over South China Sea between Vietnam and China is rather subdued because Vietnam has little confidence to defeat a China with much greater economic and military power. And if Korea is unified, issues over Chinese-controlled Korean territories of Baekdusan and Yongbyeon are bound to be more intensely fought over compared to what the cash-strapped North Koreans can do today.

And as for America, the generally pro-American atmosphere in the entire region will force it to be neutral in such nationalistic conflicts, making the region even more prone to open conflicts for territorial control, and, worse, an expedited rise of China to the position of regional hegemony. All in all, the East Asia of the alternative history would be a much more dangerous place than it is today. The trans-regional fight for territorial control and unchecked arms race would pose much bigger threat than what Kim Jong Il can do with his brinkmanship.

The tendency for some people to simply portray a historical decision as short-sighted and completely harmful is often result of shortsightedness and lack of a more comprehensive analysis of the historical situation. As the case for North Korea illustrates, the urgency of some to nobly wish for better livelihood in North Korea cause them to ignore the greater holistic cost to the entire region if an alternative is chosen. The tendency for such people to quickly jump to conclusions on historical decision-making, therefore, can be said as useless and irresponsible.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Morality and Radicalism in Politics in the Wake of Middle East Disturbances

In the course of modern politics, great power relations has always defined what is considered right and wrong in international relations. Whether it be the Europeans and their colonial imperialism, the Germans and their theories of racial superiority, the Soviets and their communist ideologies, and most recently, America and her democratic internationalism, for centuries, those with superior military and economic powers always forced their philosophies upon the weak. And as they also dominated the education of the ruling elites and control of media across the world, such great powers, at their height of power, managed to affect public opinions in their favor on a global scale.

However, even as American superpower continue to follow such a trend in the post-Cold War era, the emergence of so-called "non-state actors," especially in the Middle East, is slowly changing how people perceive the right and wrong. First came the truly ironic instance of Egyptians using that "truly" American ideology of democracy and human rights to overthrow a government serving as the pro-American bulwark in the Arab world. The move forced America to flip-flop on national interest to "stand together with the Egyptian people."

And then, as the "Arab Spring" spread, came the news of Palestinians attempting to seek statehood through the UN. Against all odds, the Palestinians are moving forward with their plan for UN full-membership application. Even as the US firmly stated her intention to veto any such proposal, the futility of their plan has not led to the Palestinian authorities from backing down. Again, here is a democratically-elected, generally pro-American (or at least, not openly hostile to America) regime openly defying American demands.

In many ways, America's grip on global public opinions today is much more absolute and unchallenged than those of any other great power before it. Her nearest rivals are in no position to challenge her ideologies as they nominally subscribe to the American-dominated capitalist economic order (such as China, Europe, and Russia) or democratic values aspired by the US government (such as India and Japan). Yet, somehow there are always these "pesky little entities" attempting to gain moral high grounds on the superpower supposedly setting the tone for what is moral in the first place.

The rationale behind the phenomenon, in my opinion, comes from the sort of "morality-for-benefits" America arranges abroad to maintain an almost monopoly on morality. In a time and era where America continues to dominate global financial structure and military power for the foreseeable future, other states need to concede in order to maintain their own stability and security from financial ruins or military defeat. In other words, even as they disagree with the underlying principles, they have to serve nominally serve as accomplices of spreading American values to ensure their own peace.

The fact is that, many of the "pesky little entities," unlike the great powers of today with potential of challenging America, has little to gain from subscribing to the "morality-to-benefits" arrangement. Even as they sought support from America, citing American values of democracy and equality, they are drowned out by their adversaries (whether it be Israel or the Egyptian government) with deeper ties and access to the heart of American decision-making. Frustrated, they have no choice but to radically display their moral principles to get American attention.

The result, as seen across the Middle East, are situations in which America is forced to choose between maintaining the existing "morality-for-benefits" arrangements with existing players or maintaining her control of global public opinions by abandoning those who had been faithfully pro-American in their nominal values. As the existing pro-American players become more and more fearful and defensive, it often becomes harder and harder for America to make either choice without suffering serious setbacks to her political and moral dominance in the region.

As America continue to maintain global presence, her moral rationale to justify doing so are becoming more and more inconsistent with the actual methods she use to maintain favorable positions. Liberal internationalism, as her moral values can be said in so many words, just as socialist internationalism after advent of Stalin-ism in USSR, has been killed off in exchange for expansion of national interest. Those seeking to overthrow the existing pro-American political order are increasingly exploiting the massive gap between selfish realities and moral ideologies.

America, in the wake of such exploitation, is in an increasingly embarrassing position. Sure, as the case of Palestine, she can still definitely proclaim opposition as the alternative is too politically costly, but for most other cases, the benefit-cost analysis would not yield such clear-cut answers. But even as America anxiously weighs her options, accusations of her hypocrisy will continue to boil over, reducing her control of global opinions to such a degree that eventually, even those initially benefiting from superficially propagating American values will begin to doubt the wisdom of continuing such arrangement.

To Each His Own: the Need for Self-Reflections for Self-Actualization

The quietness of my home in San Diego can sometimes get quite addictive. With only the sound of wind in my ears and the whole world accessible via the Internet, I can not only think about anything I want without anything to disrupt my train of thought, but also find plenty of materials to add on to that train. Left alone with the entirety of the two-floor real estate, I can pace through the confines, lost in my own mind, without awkward stares or forced conversations.

Perhaps that would be the thing I would miss the most as I am set to depart for London in less than a week. Although I do have a single dorm room, much of the dorm life will revolve around what happens outside the room itself. The need for "harmonious" interaction with fellow hall-mates, even at the very superficial level, will define the entire atmosphere of the building, for better (to provide a crisis-free, quiet study environment) or for worse (make room for all those mentally stressful gossip and "dorm politics")

Either way, one thing is clear. Not matter how productive the dorm in London turns out to be, its capacity to generate private thinking time will be much less than here at home in San Diego. No doubt, what happens around school and even in the dorms will provide plenty of materials for blog writing, but the feel is different. In such cases, I will, at most, be that passive third-person observer assigning broad social and cultural meaning to every single event happening, without the option of aggressively choosing my own way in the sequence of events.

Of course, observing events is, like I said before, a main theme and purpose of this particular blog, but as I continue to expand the number of subjects, topics, and words on its pages, the more I come to realize that on-the-spot "analysis" of small events for big underlying meanings are, in the best cases, biased (upon the situation at hand) and hasty (impossible to take into account the other factors, some of which no doubt will not show themselves until a time much later than when the post is being written).

The mind can only wonder and daydream when it completely zones out all its surroundings. And as the observer that I claimed myself to be, I cannot zone out anything happening around me. So, logically, the only time that I can legitimately think for myself and about myself occurs when there is absolutely nothing happening around me. As much as I am bored and running out of things to write out productively, I am afraid that staying in my house in San Diego is the only possible way for such self-reflection.

And self-reflect I certainly have. I discussed my political views on everything from Chinese regionalism to American foreign policy, social issues from conformity to social mobility, and cultural issues from public suicides to sports competitions. Of course, some of these are based on what I saw and read, but quite a few are written at much later dates in quiet places where I can think about them carefully and at my own pace.

The other issue is always restrictions on time. When I am outside the house, I tend to see so much on any given day that I would like to write about each observation in a separate post. But considering the workload (previously of paid work, now for graduate school), my time and conscience ("have to travel/read/finish problem set!") will force the number of posting to about one or two a week, meaning that the posts will end up becoming the summaries of events that occurred over the whole week.

Even if only one or two most memorable ones are cherry-picked for analysis, the posts run the risk of becoming simply diary entries: much length devoted on what actually happened rather than why do I think it happened and what do the events mean. "I think there for I am," the saying goes. If I no longer have the time or the energy to express my own thoughts, then is the blog even part of my personal growth anymore? And if self-reflection becomes nonexistent, then to whence shall my understanding of "who I am" go?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

America's Institutionalized Charity Worthy of Imitation

Some people speak of America's primary strength as her constituents' multitude of different backgrounds; the different cultures, religions, customs, philosophies lead to a country tolerant and accepting of differences. Others argue that the singular pride for being Americans, based on her economic, cultural, and military might on a global scale, unites all her constituents and presents that powerful nationalism superseding superficial differences in backgrounds.

Yet, the more I observe the country, the more I realize that the aspect in which America is truly unique is a fundamental existence of voluntary mutual support among individuals in the populace, without any coercion from the government to do so. While there are plenty of coldhearted-looking people in major cities (especially New York), even when there are not any crises on the horizon, it seems like the average American has been keen on helping out with the normal functioning of their communities.

The willingness to help even though there are no disasters or emergencies is what separate the Americans from the others. Surely, the Japanese came together for volunteering, donations, and emotional support after the big Quake, but when everything is functioning normally, they tend to stick to only their jobs, friends, and families, and mind their own business without troubling themselves with the suffering of others. The same is true for most other nations I have encountered.

But America has proven herself quite different. Just looking at the stats proves the point. The number of volunteering hours put in by Americans annually is consistently at the top of world rankings, as is the number of non-profit organizations registered in the country (even in the per capita terms). The monetary amount of donations to the NGOs and various other public institutions such as museums, churches, and libraries greatly exceed those of other countries, and the looking at the source of the donations, a surprisingly high percentage comes from people not in the wealthiest bracket of the population.

The almost obsessive passion Americans have toward charity, both in labor and money, cannot be simply a matter of habit or wealth. Similar levels of charity are not seen in many other equally wealthy economies of Europe and Asia, while American devotion to volunteerism is unparalleled anywhere else. There has to be a combination of traditions, incentives, and philosophies to institutionalize enthusiasm for charity. And the said combination would be truly unique in American culture.

The first institution lies in the tax code. Few countries beside America legally entitle "tax deductible" status to any amount of donations to public organizations. For cash to cars to even certain capital goods, anything the taxpayer gives up to a certified organization can earn him or her right to less taxation. And as organizations constantly mail brochures and letters to private homes to remind people of the fact, individual taxpayers do not see any financial reason not to answer the calls for charity.

The second has to do with religion. As the most religiously conservative and passionate country in the developed world, the US is in much better philosophical position than atheistic Europe or Japan for volunteerism. The calls for money and time, not just to religious establishment but any cause that would be consistent with heaven-ascension-worthy good intentions in mind, are often echoed by Judeo-Christian dogma. Giving up time and money to ensure better chances for a better afterlife sounds pretty good for a populace with no shortage of either.

And then, there is a certain social necessity. Many critical institutions in American society depend on volunteers and donations to function at all. As a high school volunteer at the local library and hospital, I realized just how important unpaid people are in everyday operations. In fact, for mot public institutions, like libraries, small museums, and political campaign offices, there perhaps is only one person (the head of operations) who is paid. The same is definitely not imaginable in other countries, where volunteers would be replaced with public servants paid with taxpayer money.

Finally, American society is designed to reward those with voluntarism. The most obvious is the instance in which volunteer hours are seen as big plus on college application, making volunteering almost a requirement for getting into good colleges. Less conspicuously, those with track records of charity often receive good impressions, something especially beneficial for political candidates and corporate PR. It is no wonder that many American corporation devote so much energy in "corporate responsibility," as opposed to, say, where I worked in Japan.

The combination of all four factors, mash together so perfectly, is only seen in America. It provides the social obligation, the financial incentive, religious persuasion, and personal benefits to push forward charity. Such an all-round package to induce volunteerism has led to a sense of public unity and participation in social improvement, while reducing the costs and hassles of operations for the government and other non-corporate organizations. The system is definitely worthy of emulation by other societies...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Are Asians Immoral for Trying to Succeed "at All Costs"?

Back when I was applying for college, all my acquaintances used to joke around that the greatest disadvantage I had was simply being Asian. Of course, the joke is sadly, halfway true. Asians worked hard to get there. They tend to study more than anyone, go to so many different prep programs for SATs and college applications after school and during vacations, that competing with them in the same "affirmative action" bracket was simply academically and logically unfair by any means.

All Asians had to go through the dilemma. And for many, they have to think of any possible method to get ahead in the face of stiff competition. Diligence just was not going to be enough, they would think. So, all sorts of otherwise illegal, and immoral-looking methods are devised for the students and their parents with the financial capability and ethical blindness to do so. In the past, I already spoke about students paying off professionals to write their entire college applications.

But, of course, the word "success" does not end with an acceptance letter from Harvard or some other prestigious, brand-name college. Success would ultimately have to be defined by high social status that one can show off, accompanied high income that one can turn into publicly certified signs of luxurious materialism...in essence, pretty much anything that one can brag about for greater "face." To obtain all of that often cannot be achieved by simply "trying hard" and following all the rules.

As for the money, one must somehow establish a steady stream of seemingly legitimate income. For people with connections in high places, especially in large corporations and government, it is not particularly difficult. Simply ask for a good job through the connection, and the decent salary plus "grey income" in the forms of bribes and other forms of corruption will satisfy the needs. Then, all they have to do is keep a low profile and investing the money abroad so that they can flee the country when something goes wrong.

For all the "normal" people without good backgrounds, the job is a bit more difficult. Many people, even now, are insistent that becoming a citizen of a developed country is a sure way to generate personal wealth (I sure have not seen it after my own naturalization). For girls, it is just about shamelessly hooking up with a local guy and marry him for the passport. For Asian guys, with little sexual appeal to local women, the same process does not work quite as well.

Instead, the guys have been doing exactly the opposite for the same end result. They, by trying to show just how much they love their native country, have been able to earn the trust of their native country as those "rare few" that can positively represent the country as not simply a place where everyone wants to get out and come back. Yet, when these "loyal, nationalist" guys are sent abroad to propagate the "positive image," they do exactly what they are not intended to do: they criticize their native country and never go back.

And knowing the sad end result, it is just even more disheartening to see the length to which individuals go to show they are the "best of the best nationalists." They constantly regurgitate whatever political propaganda or nationalistic sentiments they are fed by the authorities and schools of their native country, without the slightest understanding or sympathy toward the words. They could honestly care less what the propaganda honestly means because these will lead them out of their native countries for a better place abroad.

Ultimately, these hypocrites who scream nationalistic propaganda the loudest before they leave their native country happens to be the ones who criticize their native country most passionately after they get out. The Asian pursuit of "success" is no longer as simple as cheating on some contests or avoiding some taxes. It has led to a fundamentally mind-bending opportunism, participated by almost every citizen, that threaten to destroy the entire social fabric of civilization...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Mental Preparations for Europe as the Last Preparations Are Set

In one week, my vacation in San Diego will draw to a close. The airplane ticket to London is purchased, the registration for housing is completed after that endless wait for visa is finally finished. Most importantly, that day of enrollment as a grad student, anxiously expected since my moment of acceptance back in March of this year, will finally come. As I continue to lounge around my home in San Diego, doing little besides writing this blog, I wonder, am I really ready for studying again?

It is a question that I thought about time and time again, under different circumstances, with different suppositions, and for different rationales. A part of me keeps on reminding myself of how difficult the upcoming year will be. After a year being outside of school, doing work that requires little critical thinking along the lines of regular schoolwork, I know that the massive amounts of reading and essay composition will give me endless headaches. The ability to concentrate on little details amid dry academic work, so built up over years of schooling, has been quickly wearing away during the past year.

And the same part of me also keeps on reminding myself that I am in London not simply for the reason of getting a master's degree. It is, after all, a beginning of a new chapter of my life, a new adventure in a new, unknown land. It is about meeting new people (one of whom may end up as my ideal partner in life), and realizing possibilities of new career and life paths. And of course, it is about continuing my world travels, visiting lands that I perhaps only have this year window in my entire lifetime to visit.

Too much work that I am no longer used to, plus too many distractions to lure away my limited ability to concentrate...knowing such difficult realities, I cannot but feel slightly afraid, afraid that perhaps I will not get passing grades, will not graduate on time, and most of all, afraid that I will come to regret the decision of applying to grad school and accepting a place there with little hesitance and concern for long-term consequences. "Am I doing the right thing?" I constantly self-reflect. Am I really?

Then I take a deep breath, pause, and look around. In my passport is that student visa I spent more than 800 US dollars to obtain, a 650-dollar one-way plane ticket to London Heathrow Airport, and confirmation for my place at the school dorm, for which I already paid more than 200 pounds in deposit. There is no turning back now. I already put in too much money and too much effort to let all of this go to waste. The determination I had back in Tokyo for myself to find something better than a good-for-nothing salary-man cannot be betrayed.

What lies ahead can only be left up to fate. If I have heard time with classes or even graduating on time, if I have hard time getting along with fellow students and professors, and/or if I have hard time finding that next big job after graduation, they are all plainly and justifiably meant to be. From my home in San Diego at September of 2011, I cannot control what will happen another year later, just as I had no idea that I will be in London less than a year later when I started work in Tokyo.

Of course, that is not to say that I can passively wait for events to unfold over the next twelve months. Job searches will be conducted, personal networking will be held, and school assignments will be diligently completed. All efforts must still be undertaken to ensure that I do not end up overspending or overconfident while I am in London. Plenty of opportunities, of all kinds and results, will pass by, but only if I put in the energy will the opportunities come into my embrace.

Reality will certainly be tough, but above all the toughness lies the said opportunities, enveloped by a shroud of cautious optimism. Fiercely individualistic and dissatisfied with the status quo, I must once again begin the journey that take me into the unknown. As I get ready to board the tiny little ship that will take me into the stormy sea, the mental readiness for seasickness and physical/mental pain must be present. The ship departs in a week; let us see how I change...

Worrisome Excess in Gift-Giving on Traditional Holidays

Recent few days saw the celebration of two major Asian holidays of the fall: the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋節) in the Chinese-speaking world plus Vietnam, and Chuseok (추석) in Korea. Essentially, both traditional holidays calls for temporary reunion of families to celebrate good harvest and share the bounties of the land in the form of traditional food. It is a time to return home, both to visit the tombs of clan ancestors and to meet with families, relatives, and childhood friends. As people become more mobile in the developed societies, the visits during these holidays are bound to be one of very few during the year.

And to make the visits more meaningful, people are bound to bring some gifts for each other, traditionally as signs of sharing the harvests with neighbors and extended families. Logically enough, traditional foods are the mainstays of such gifts, but in recent years, their contents have become increasingly lavish. From "specially decorated" mooncakes worth hundreds of dollars, to expensive alcohols, the fall gift-giving season has become a major marketing campaign and revenue earning period for food companies.

And crazily enough, often "specially decorated" has become closely associated with "not actually edible." The gift receiver simply feels too mentally discomforting to take a bite when they notice how the foods have caviar inside and too timid to take a sip when the drinks have little pieces of gold floating inside. They are haunted by the fact that such gifts are just too valuable to be consumed outright. Instead, without opening up the packages, they give away gifts they received to the people to whom they "must" give gifts.

Luckily, there are plenty of people to give gifts. Not to mention every member of the extended family down to the newborn third cousin, gifts are somehow "required" for every single significant acquaintance that one keeps in (even infrequent) contact with and for the children, even for the acquaintances of the parents who are too poor to buy gifts themselves. The number and scope of potential gift recipients would exceed those of whom a family would need to send cards on Christmas and/or New Years.

So, what ensues in a frantic exchange of gifts across one's entire social circle. Yet, as one notice the lavish gift received from Person A (which one promptly pass off to Person B), one also realize the need to "one up" Person A's gift when one is offering Person A a gift in return. The quiet competition for who gets more face mandates one to offer a counter-gift greater in value than what one received. The social demands for "one up"-ing quickly push up the financial costs of the gift-exchange process.

The food companies are only too happy to accommodate such competition for "face." In addition to significant effort to brand their products as high quality, they have been stepping up their game with product design and addition of "extra benefits" within the products. Packaging of products have been revamped to give off an aristocratic air even from the outside (not to mention the inside). And the extras that come with the products have become even more expensive than the products themselves in certain cases (two-decade-old red wine with mooncakes, anyone?).

While the food companies, domestic consumption figures, and "face" benefit from such vain exercises in holiday showing off, ultimately the benefits cannot possibly be matched by the damaging hit taken by the wallets. As some people become more financially well-off with each passing year and decide to make it publicly known through the latest fad in holiday gift, others with less financial capacity are forced to keep up. The financial burden is becoming so great for some that they are avoiding home visits altogether.

So in the time of family unity, forced spending on expensive gifts, most of which one simply give away again, is destroying the traditional meaning of the holidays. Of course, giving a few gifts to the most intimate families and friends will bring people closer together, but self-promotion through excess materialism will just serve to alienate. People complain that school reunions in Western cultures are exercises of narcissism; can we at least try to not make traditional Asian holidays to go the same direction?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering the Quake on its Six-Month Anniversary

The Chinese proverb goes, "禍不單行" (disasters do not come alone). Just as today the world remember the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, some people are also recalling the equally shocking and much more lethal Quake and tsunami in northeastern Japan exactly half a year ago. For the many people like myself who experienced the chaos, the strength, and socio-economic impacts of the Quake firsthand, its immediate aftermath is something that is bound to be never forgotten in our entire lives.

In many ways, many parallels can be drawn between the two events. Both came suddenly to a completely unprepared populace. The Americans believed in their military superiority meant 100% security of the homeland from "foreign attacks." The Japanese thought their decades of experiences in dealing with quakes and their negative effects meant the casualties will be limited. Both "woke up" on the 11th to the emotionally damaging realization of helplessness and vulnerability. Panic ran through society in both circumstances, forcing people to reevaluate their long-held ways of thinking.

In both cases, the government had to renew their strategies against an elusive yet omnipresent "enemy." The success of 9/11 encouraged instigators of potential future attacks. And a massive earthquake made the possibility of more damaging future earthquakes in the same area more likely. Existing state institutions seemed to be ineffective against either. The destructive power of mother nature is unstoppable by conventional military or political means, just like militant fanaticism of a radical ideology recruiting in a global scale.

Yet, even judging by six months after their respective pivotal events, America and Japan went separate ways in their responses. While America used propagandized calls of patriotism to unite a nation behind two "anti-terror" wars, Japan was and still is seemed to be too busy with political squabbles at the highest levels to formulate unified policies to counter the increasing threats of another major natural disaster, rebuilding of the tsunami disaster zones, or the continued worry of the international community with regard to nuclear radiation.

A new prime minister has stepped up to the plate, and the first major news out of the new cabinet was the resignation of economy and trade minister over, ironically, a tasteless joke about nuclear radiation. It seems like, after few months of genuine philosophical thinking regarding the future path of the country after the major disaster, Tokyo is back to the old habit of short-term, short-sighted complaints about political leaders "lacking leadership skills." People seemed to also left behind their post-Quake anxieties and went back to their usual lack of patience with elected leaders.

And six months later, the efficiency of the local level private sector still shines in contrast to the inefficiency at the top of the political hierarchy. The tsunami-affected disaster zone, thousands of times larger than the 9/11 disaster zones, is showing physical results of rapid cleanup and rebuilding than put 9/11 rehabilitation to shame even ten years after. The stoic yet diligent self-organization efforts among the affected locals, even without any credible guidance from Tokyo, again proved the strength of the Japanese national character.

However, the rapid rebuilding in the Japanese tsunami zone still betray a lack of the cautious optimism displayed by a mourning New York ten years later. It is a reflection of the fact that the 9/11 site will be just as great, if not better, decades later, while the Japanese northeast, even rebuilt, is on a sure decline only slightly slowed down by the rebuilding itself. There is no one, not the lackluster government or the hardworking locals, to galvanize concerted effort to make the Japanese northeast greater than her former self pre-disaster.

I suppose, the lesson is that punching a 50-year-old in the stomach is completely different thing from punching a 30-year-old in the same place equally as hard. The 30-year-old may still get angry and hit back to defend himself, but the 50-year-old will probably submit to the demands of the victimizer. Whether Japan has become that 50-year-old in the analogy is something we may find out when the tenth anniversary of the Quake rolls around.

What Really Makes a Homeless, "Homeless"?

Development of the world economy has not had equal effects on all people. Some countries with strong governance and suitable policies grew much faster than those that do not, leaving massive wealth gaps across national borders that are still now being enlarged. And within national boundaries, those with the right social connections, high education, and access of economic means of production benefit disproportionately from growing wealth, leaving behind many compatriots who are still struggling to cope with economic changes.

And at the bottom of those coping with economic changes are who the society ruthlessly calls the "homeless," those too poor to afford permanent housing even in the shabbiest of the neighborhoods, scrapping by what little wealth they can find on the street-sides of the world's wealthiest and most developed cities. Furthermore, the municipalities that these homeless reside generally have relatively well-established social welfare systems. It only adds to the puzzling increase of the homeless over the past few years.

To be honest, defining the "homeless" as simply unemployed people somehow excluded from the local social welfare benefits is perhaps a bit antiquated. While indeed most homeless have no jobs with stable incomes to afford permanent housing, whether they are truly "neglected by society," as proclaimed by so many in the self-proclaimed world-saving NGO sector, is perhaps a little exaggerated. At least a significant portion of the homeless have enough physical and intellectual capacity to be employed (even in the lowest of lowly lower-class jobs) and thus could afford themselves the cheapest of the cheap shantytown homes available.

Yet, in my experiences talking to the homeless, during volunteering and random travels, and according to news reports, these seemingly normal people always resort to stories of hardships in personal life, emotional trauma, supposed discrimination, and most important of all, "there are no jobs out there." In a day and age when even Ivy League graduates are grudgingly taking up dead-end part-time jobs, there simply cannot be any excuse for people to cite minor reasons while continuing to sleep on the streets. There has to be reasons other than economic ones to rationalize the existence of these homeless.

One of these reasons is socio-cultural. When a family knows one of its own is living on the street, would its members take in the homeless? Modern society, with its individualistic concerns for financial self-preservation, has seen "no" become the dominant answer. Families, and along the same logic, clans, neighborhoods, and ethnic communities, have become increasingly indifferent toward the sufferings of one member. The self-help functions of these social groups have, in essence, disappeared as some members became wealthy through individual means.

And as individuals of such indifferent attitude become political leaders, the socio-cultural reason also becomes a political one. Many people are so convinced that the equality of opportunities for education and employment is sufficiently well-enforced that they refuse to believe homelessness of a mentally capable person can be caused by anything other laziness. And that maintain that using taxpayer money to financially support "lazy people" are not politically justifiable in anyway.

Increasingly, public opinion turn against the homeless themselves rather than the society that is allowing the homeless to stay homeless without really asking why. And the entire situation is turning into a vicious cycle making reintegration of the homeless into mainstream society increasingly difficult. The strong public belief in moral wretchedness of the "lazy bums" makes it increasingly difficult for families, communities, and employers to help them without receiving certain criticisms themselves.

As sources of potential help dwindles, ultimately it is the homeless who become even more financially and emotionally troubled, giving others the chance to call these "social scums" not only "lazy" but also "crazy" and must be socially isolated and shunned by any means. Public opinions become even more intolerant of the homeless as the cycle continues...perhaps we should ask, are we the not homeless really causing the homeless to become homeless?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11 Ten Years Later: Are the Lessons Learned?

The ceremonies are certainly as solemn as they have ever been. Across the nation, people remembered that pivotal day exactly ten years ago, when America bore witness to a whole new kind of terrorism. As buildings collapsed and lives lost, the Americans everywhere were forced to come to realization that the mighty economic and military strength of the only remaining superpower are not enough to protect themselves against a few skilled and determined “foreign operatives.”

Shock and sorrow are bound to be accompanied by a certain degree of irrationality. In the wake of the disaster, the Americans became blinded by their emotions. They simply entrusted the government with handling any responses to 9/11, thinking that perhaps, amid their own sense of helplessness, their political leaders can come up with solid plans for revenge, for compensation, and for comprehending what was really going on that day.

With the emotionally distraught constituents casting aside their usual doubts of government policies, America had unprecedented political unity in the years after the disaster. People threw away their common senses of constantly questioning government actions, simply by arguing that the time was for immediate actions against the perpetrators, not incessant squabbles among voters and politicians that make inefficiency the norm in American politics.

With the voters voluntarily casting themselves aside and foreign states sympathetic with American sufferings, the politicians at Washington, DC were able to freely script foreign policies in the post-9/11 era with little domestic or foreign resistance. They had the opportunity to reshape American image, and redirect American interests abroad to take into account that whole new factor of threat on the American homeland. Yet, instead, our leaders simply accentuated the need to increase, even further, the presence of America in every corner of the world to stamp out existence of the “foreign operatives.”

Ideologically, the mission represented an almost coerced execution of liberal internationalism. The creations of new democracies abroad are supposed to be supported by the locals and Western nations as institutionalization of social equality and legal fairness needed for economic progress. Yet, under the propagandistic calls of the post-9/11 American government, democracy itself almost became a propagandistic concept.

It was and still is democracy for the sake of democracy. America sought to quickly turn around anti-American public opinions in foreign countries through direct and indirect oppositions to unpopular long-time rulers. Insurgencies are supported by financial and military means, and the costly supports are justified to the increasingly skeptical populace back home as galvanizing support for “freedom seekers.” Somehow, the government and the media succeeded to convince the public that there is direct correlation between the mere existence of militarily created, messy, unrestrained popular democracies and a decrease, even disappearance, of terrorism.

Ten years after the formulation of the liberal internationalist mission, the American government has persisted in its execution. Despite costs of billions of taxpayers’ dollars and tens of thousands of deaths in innocent American soldiers and local civilians, the politicians are still determined to carry out the policy to its bitter end. Washington is not giving up until every last “oppressed people” can have a taste of that sweet joy of “freedom.”

Surely enough, the increasingly aggressive military deployment has been instrumental in encouraging “freedom fighters” everywhere. As witnessed by events across the Middle East from Libya to Egypt to Syria, any thuggish gangs vowing to fight against the non-elected local government is hailed by America as nobly fighting for freedom and democracy. It did not matter what background they come from as long as their guns are pointed at “dictators” and not at America.

But the question remains whether America and the world at large has become more secure against future flairs of fanaticism that has been the root cause of 9/11. As popular fanaticism continues to overthrow long-established regimes in the Middle East, the answer cannot be too reassuring. After all, popular uprisings, unlike what has been long proclaimed by American liberal internationalists, have been caused by economic and social reasons, rather than simple desires for greater political participation.

Ten years of turbulence resulting from movements to establish democratic rule has not brought about economic development or social equality. The newly rich and powerful emerged from Western-sponsored “democratic elections,” while the vast majorities of those who fought on the frontlines of the movements are left in exactly the same social and economic statuses as before.

It is only a matter of time before those involved realize the grim reality. And when they do, they will realize the ludicrousness of the American liberal internationalist vision. Then, it would only be a matter of time before the disgruntled once again turn their guns away from the “evil despots” of their native lands and back toward America. The American voters, in renewed shock and sorrow, will have pay for their blind trusting of foreign policies to self-centered politicians.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Americans as Targets of Hate Abroad and the Continued Hate of the Americans While Abroad

Another day, another American making a scene in some distant foreign country and draw the ire of the locals. The latest is what has never been that uncommon of a phenomenon involves an African-American English teacher beating up a middle-aged Korean man for supposed use of "nigga," the derogatory term for blacks. The Korean man was in fact saying "니가..." Korean for "You..." Perhaps the black man was so drunk that he did not realize that the Korean man was speaking to him in Korean. He did not bother clarifying the situation; he just immediately resorted to shouting back in English and throwing punches.

Obviously, this pathetic idiot cannot possibly be your typical representative of a foreign man living in a country where he does not speaks the language. He cannot represent America, or the typical African-American. But at the same time, it is not the first instance in which obvious conflicts between locals and Americans have occurred, and comparatively speaking, a black man beating up fellow passengers on a bus is relatively episode. In the past, there have been instances of Americans raping and killing local females, doing drunk hit-and-run, and even still-instigated serial murders.

And while these stories have been practically unknown in America (where, to be honest, similar things happen in the ghettos literally all the time and are thus not particularly newsworthy), the local media in foreign countries have made them major news. Especially in safe developed countries like South Korea, the fact that an extremely rare incident of violent crime is caused by a foreigner is often quite shocking to the locals. And with some Sensationalization, the media can easily create the illusion that foreigners are dangerous.

Funny enough, Americans somehow always top the list when it comes to dangerous foreigners committing violent crimes (Yes, the Chinese often are not trusted either, but usually for pickpockets and frauds). And it is all the more ironic considering just how much youngsters in foreign countries love American pop culture, and that America, as the major ally for many of these same foreign states, is indispensable as military and political protector even in the post-Cold War era.

That discrepancy between the "protector" status of America as a nation and "criminal" image of America as individuals may be responsible for fueling the sense of unfair treatment American feel that are getting while abroad. Some Americans feel that locals should give them preferential status for helping them with economic development, providing them with basis for their own pop cultures, and teaching them the "international standards" of (American) English language and American business practices.

Yet, when the Americans land in foreign countries, they almost always discover themselves under-appreciated. Some locals lecture on and on about the greatness of their own way of doing things, and many locals refuse to even show efforts for trying to speak English and be more Western in their behavior and ways of thinking. Some Americans are absolutely repulsed to find that some locals are even foolhardy enough to refuse "cooperation," citing "social and cultural differences."

Suddenly having the expected "preferential status," or at least above-normal (relative to other nationalities) respect and admiration not materialize, the Americans, by their own logic, deserve to be angry. And being the socially open people that they are, they often make it clear in public about how much anger they are feeling. They "lavish" their anger upon the locals as acts of hatred, which sometimes "blossom" into beating up locals on buses, raping their daughters, and refusing to be tried in local courts after killing locals.

And with the Americans being so blatant in their behavior, having the locals breed constant hatred toward Americans would not be surprising either. Its just that the locals (perhaps with the exceptions of the Chinese and North Koreans) cannot openly express as such due to the continued dominance of America as a global political, economic, military, and cultural superpower. It will be interesting to see how Americans as individuals will change their ways of interacting with locals as America's international profiles go through a relative decline in the near future.

Humans Are Becoming Over-dependent on Electricity

“What? Electricity is out?!” I had to notice when the fridge stopped humming, the wireless Internet stopped connecting, and my computer screen suddenly got darker from “power-saving mode.” All the sudden, it was as though my life was thrown into chaos. All the Internet resources, the TV cannot be watched, and even news and books (exclusively) online, cannot be accessed. It was instant isolation, and the passage of time suddenly slowed to a crawl.

Even at four o’clock on a bright, sunny, and still very much summer-like afternoon, it was as if darkness suddenly descended. The only source of “light” I have now is the battery of my notebook computer, slowly running her dwindling two hours of reserve power. Time is running out, my inner anxiety says. What can I do if electricity does not return within the next two hours, when all that my still-typing hands face is a blank, pitch dark computer screen that cannot respond to any further command?

Much can be said by the fact that I am feeling so emotional distraught by facing the prospect of literally not being able to operate anything with electricity in less than two hours. Some of our lives, especially those of “socially isolated” people like me right now, depend on electricity. Our “food source” is kept fresh by it. Our bodies are kept cool by it in the hot summer. And our mind is kept stimulated and entertained by it as a source of information.

Perhaps it is enough to say that humans are just too dependent on the Internet. It is after all, what we would miss the most when electricity is gone. It is social infrastructure in the purest sense: our route for communication, for learning, for playing, for simply killing time. Without it, it is as if a part of our brain has suddenly been taken away, leaving a huge chunk of painful dark void that no replacement can truly substitute in functionality or volume.

But what is worse is that the lack of electricity also destroyed all potential replacements that can possibly replace the Internet. Let us not even mention the television and other gaming devices that can be used to pass time. Even traditionally on-electric devices like newspapers and books cannot exist outside electricity (or more specifically, the Internet) anymore. The shrinking market for bookstores, newspaper stands, and traditional print media perfectly suggest the harsh reality.

In developed societies, such over-dependence on electricity is not only not a problem for society, but it is also completely encouraged as a matter of social progress. No one hesitate to label the “dawn of the digital revolution,” the “borderless interconnected world,” and the “advent of the information age.” The use of electricity for more complex tasks, often through the Internet and beyond, is heralded by all societies as strength and modernity.

But living in a developed society or developed regions of the developing world, one seem to forget that there are still so many people who has yet to be part of the “digital revolution,” live in the “information age,” and in short, embrace electricity for something more than some fancy foreign scientific concept used to power some fancy incomprehensible machines. The electricity they get is instable, unreliable, and not always available.

Yet they survive, and one day, they wish to become part of the developed world, without fully understanding what sacred position electricity has in those developed societies. They will suddenly realize, in the same way I felt when the electricity went out, that they are so isolated, so confused, so useless. But their distraught will not be as easy to resolve as mine. Years of accommodation and hands-on education are not easy as a flick of a switch. Will the developed world be ready?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Should People Continue with Their Education Simply for Fun?

Some say we should not write essays for fun. However, I believe we should write essays for our own entertainment. I base my examples on personal, historical, and cultural reasons. In fact, if people can write essays for entertainment, they can also continue every aspect of their education simply for the joy of studying. The overwhelming sense of self-accomplishment, the merits of being simply knowledgeable, and the increased social status due to education can all serve to justify a person pursuing education not for practical benefits of getting better jobs with higher salaries.

Higher level of education can bring a person greater sense of achievement in life. The pride and self-confidence associated with having a respectable degree from a respectable university can boost a person's stature in front of others. For instance, as I finally received my student visa to UK today, I am officially on my path to continue my one-year master's degree in the London School of Economics. From the very beginning, I never thought of the degree as a leverage for a better job, but simply as an opportunity to boost my life experience in a brand-new place. The extra experiences one can have in the course of education can lead to a higher level of maturity and worldliness best expressed in greater sense of self-confidence.

Yet, the experiences that come with education is not only manifested in mental comfort but also scholastic intelligence. Even if extra education lead to no better job prospect, it is certainly guaranteed to increase the amount of knowledge one possesses, and will provide the additional intellectual evidences needed to improve one's logic and rationale. For instance, a few years ago, a well-accomplished Ivy League student was once sent by her parents to a boarding school in the Philippines. In the course of her interaction with the society and people of the Philippines, she gained much greater knowledge of the country than her peers ever will and is easily proclaimed a local expert on Southeast Asia. Education, by throwing a person into a whole new environment, gives the person opportunities and requirements for learning both in and outside the classroom. The person with more of such educational experiences are bound to have a more diverse set of knowledge than others.

And as the more educated gain respect for their greater confidence and knowledge, it is often not a surprise that they will also gain respect and admiration within a society. The adulation of the others for the educated is culturally reflected by their higher status within society even when they do not necessarily have the best jobs and incomes. Such social tendency can be illustrated by a famous doctor living in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Even though many government workers with high salaries live in his neighborhood, the doctor is still considered a patriarch of the neighborhood due to the superior knowledge he gained through five years of medical school and years of practice. Social status is not always based on financial revenues, but always upon respect. Respect is earned through honest application of knowledge, as in the case of doctors, and not through corruption and deceit, as in the case of bureaucrats and investment bankers. Thus, knowledge will always be a conduit for higher social status.

People often only pursue higher education knowing that better job prospects await its completion. But just as writing essays, pursuing education itself can be simply done for the sake of education and other mental, non-monetary benefits. As personal, historical, and cultural reasons show, education can provide the mental strength a person need to keep walking down his or her life path with heads up high. The confidence and happiness provided by experiences of extra education will always worthwhile than any extra income gained from that education.

The Writer's Block of a "Professional" Writer

It has been more than two weeks since my Asian tour came to a calm conclusion. And I have been nothing short of a professional, full-time blogger during this time period (and will continue to do so until I can finally get my visa and get myself to Europe). Meanwhile, writing two posts per day everyday while doing little else besides watching TV and reading news has been an extreme toil on my mind. As I continue to empty out my private thoughts on these posts, I am beginning to realize that there really is not much left for me to empty out anymore.

The current lulls between my travels/work/school reminds me of the period of time I spent in Shanghai before I left for Japan to work in October. It was a time just like now, lounging around at home doing very little but anticipating the beginning of my next adventure (last time was work in Tokyo, this time is school in London). Each time, there were plenty of time to write, but there were so little events happening in my life that there is not much that I can really write about with enough analysis to cover the entire minimum 40-line structure I use for my posts.

Back then, I was extremely enthusiastic about the blog, having just started to serve as the repository of all my thoughts. I had the backdrop of entire two decades of my existence to work on at that time. There were just too many thoughts I accumulated over the years that I wanted to be recorded before they disappear to oblivion. And of course, back then, I still had a whole stash of rejected opinion articles to various newspapers that I can directly transfer to my blog without extra editing.

Unfortunately, more than a hundred posts on many different genres have become more than enough to cover all the thoughts I still had left in me after twenty years of various experiences. I have to constantly come up with new resources, new stimulation, and new observations to fill these pages. It is just too bad that these new experiences are nowhere to be found in my family's newly bought, renovated, and completely socially isolated housing compound in the remote corner of northern San Diego.

Writers often speak of mysterious instances in which they have something in the mind but cannot really put them beautifully on paper. They tend to blame them on irrational blanking of the mind they call "writer's block." But the reality is, there is no such thing as writer's block. The mind works logically, and the hand only needs to scrap together the same logic in writing. The existence of the writer's block is a sign that the mind is handicapped at the moment, and it is incorrect to simply blame it on the hand.

The logic will automatically form in the mind if the writer thinks about a topic long enough. And the writer will certainly think about the topic long enough he or she feels passionate enough about the subject. If writer's block occurs, it is just evidence that the writer is not feeling particularly enthusiastic enough about something he or she is about to write, at least not enthusiastic enough to write about...

Some people argue that writing is a profession of diligence and persistence. I have to disagree. Writing is just like art or music, putting in more time and effort can only give one more opportunities to create fine pieces of work, but there is completely no correlation between the amount of effort and time with the qualities of the final works. The quality will have to come from passion, not just a striving attitude. Sitting in front of the work-space for prolonged period of time is only a cause of frustration.

The best artisans are all those who spent most time observing (outside their workplaces) and understanding the surrounding environment rather than blindly imagining and construing it. Art, whether in the vocal, pictorial, or textual form, inevitably have to be reflections of reality rather than the ideals. And even when the resulting works seem to reflect something completely separate from reality, they are bound to still reflect certain aspects, usually problems or issues, omnipresent in reality.

It is this sort of "realist" writer I aspire to become. Pursuing the underlying principles, whether it be truths or vices, of real human lives. I may occasionally render them metaphorical or even completely imaginary, but below the surface, the comprehension of reality shall never be lost. As such, perhaps not having much to write about these days may not be entirely a bad thing. I will learn that squeezing vain pieces out of desperation and mental emptiness can serve no purpose in perfecting the art of writing.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Only If Those Opportunities Can be Transferred...

In Chinese, there is a proverb that says "望子成龍,望女成鳳" (watching the son become dragon, watching the daughter become phoenix). It denotes the urgency and the joy parents get from expecting and seeing their children become successful in life. Throughout history, parents have made endless financial and physical investments to help their children the necessary connections and education, so that the children can live better lives than the parents are ever able to during their lives.

The case is especially true for immigrant parents who has in many cases, lost out on the same opportunities they would have had in their native countries largely due to their inability to fit in the societies in which they immigrated. But parents are not the only ones who constantly expect their children to succeed beyond anything they can imagine. The friends and other relatives also seem to put in at least certain emotional investment in the progress of the elite few in their social circles.

And occasionally, the expectations reach an almost paranoid scale. Lavishing attention and money on the person with the potential is one thing, but exerting constant mental pressure with incessant preaching to the person of the potential success he or she can achieve cannot possibly be a positive force in the person's mental development. Especially for distant friends, partaking so much interest in the future of someone not even that particularly familiar is often highly puzzling and distressful for the person on the receiving end.

In fact, when those relatives and friends speaks of expectations for others, they speak as if they themselves are the ones with the potential to succeed. They never hesitate to paint a bright picture of someones else with their own definition of "success," even picking the profession and workplace of the others according to what they think are the best. They only superficially consult with the person in question regarding his or her future, only enough to keep painting their own pictures with more details.

These friends and relatives, in essence, are dreaming their own dreams. Their backgrounds, whether it be financial, familial, or linguistic, do not allow them to pursue their own ideal dreams without reservations. So indirectly they are relegating the tasks of living their own "perfect lives" to those they known have the potential to get there. By preaching the "correct" life directions to someone else, they are just reflecting, vainly, the success and professional/social status they themselves will never be able to achieve.

So, the one who is targeted as the "potential big-shot" has to carry on life not only with his or her own dreams and hopes, but also those of myriad others who are looking on his or her advancements. These onlookers will keep on seeing their "better selves" in the success of others, and will relentlessly redirect the successful toward a life path they themselves hoped to have pursued if it had not been for the existence of many social or financial obstacles. To fulfill the dreams of all these people, the targeted person has to try several times as hard.

Yet, the extra pressure on the person walking down a path of success is perhaps the lesser part of the story. Beyond the progress of one person lies hundreds of illusions in the minds of the others. These illusions will stay as illusions precisely because of continued existence of social inequality, the uneven distribution of opportunities that force many to simply think of their own dreams as something that can only be seen as hollow dreams.

Because society cannot guarantee that every single one of her constituents can have a shot at pursuing his or her own dream, that some of these people can only dream emptily of what they could have been if they had the chance. Their imagination take on the persona of another people who were luckily given by society the opportunity to succeed. Only if true equality of opportunities do exist then can people stop dreaming and start acting for themselves to pursue their own life goals.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Does Computing Spell the End of Written Chinese?

It is not news that Chinese has been repeatedly voted around the world (even by the Chinese themselves), as the most difficult language to master. In addition to the weird pronunciation system involving for tones, the loose grammar rules, the most troubling of the language's characteristic to haunt the learners is the thousands and thousands of individual characters that must be memorized before basic reading and writing can be accomplished. With so many of these characters floating around, it is not surprising for even native speakers to forget the most commonly used ones.

The advent of computing seemed to resolve the problem. With the language turned into a Latin alphabet-based phonetic code called Pinyin, turning spoken Chinese into writing has never been easier. Just type in the sound with a regular keyboard, and a list of characters is automatically generated. Type in a combination of sounds to form vocabulary, and the character combinations are automatically narrowed down to those pairs that actually make sense. Writing has been reduced to simple process of elimination.

All is well until the writer is asked to pick up a pen and write some Chinese by hand. Having been writing so exclusively on computers by blindly picking the right characters on the screen, the writer generally loses the ability to come up with the correct characters off the top of his or her mind. The "multiple-choice" exercise on the computer has ruined the ability to do "free response." The frustration I felt the other day when asked to write down two sentences in Chinese was an evident realization of such grim reality.

As I ironically looked up unknown character on my computer to finish the handwritten note, a shocking thought suddenly struck me. Perhaps, because Chinese people everywhere are becoming "handwriting-illiterate" like I am, they will be less and less capable of producing Chinese without the assistance of a computing device. And perhaps, as the trend continues, Chinese as a written language will be the first one that will seek to exist in physical form. It will only become available in digital/virtual format.

Not being able to write a character in a pictograph-based language like Chinese is nothing like not being able to spell out a word in a alphabetical one like English. Due to the mind's innate unscrambling ability, a misspelled word, if all major letters (notably at the beginning and end of the word) are correctly included, can still be deciphered by the mind. And even if deciphering is not possible, by guessing what the word is based on context of what other words are near it, we can figure out what approximate meaning it is intended to express.

Knowing such capability of the mind, other pictograph-based languages have long ago moved onto pronunciation-based scripts. Most notably, the three languages that originally used Chinese characters (Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese) all moved to their own scripts, with some (Vietnamese and North Korean) completely abolishing the use of characters. Even Japanese, where characters are still thoroughly used in everyday language, unknown characters in handwriting can easily be replaced with phonetic symbols for (albeit a bit childish) correctness.

Chinese Pinyin phonetic symbols, on the other hand, are simple learning instruments that are not designed to be part of the written language. Replacing unknown characters with Pinyin is only acceptable for elementary school students. All adults can do during writing is truly to write "around" the unknown characters by expressing the intended meaning in other ways (with known characters) or, if they are not embarrassed in public, look up the characters in a dictionary. Either way, there is no getting around actually writing down characters to one's best knowledge.

Yet, I am suggesting that Chinese move to a phonetic written system (as so many literati in the past suggested) or that any specific measures be taken to counter the "handwritten-illiteracy" of even the native speakers. With the increasing popularity of iPad and other handheld writing devices, maybe humanity will in the near future face a day where pen and paper become completely obsolete. When that day comes, the Chinese language will be ready to sustain itself even with existing level of complexity and difficulty.