Friday, October 28, 2011

Britain, the Land of Free Medical Care

The view outside the large, cleanly wiped windows was absolutely spectacular: across the River Thames on the Westminster Bridge is a full panorama of the House of Parliament, with Big Ben proudly standing on one side as if an attentive soldier on guard. As the afternoon sun began its descent, a bright red hue lit up the sculptured details of the historical building, giving us, right on the spot, an artistic feast of representing the glorious heydays of the British Empire. And as bright red hue disappears into the darkness of a typical autumn night, subtle yellow and green lights around the building project the fullness of the imperial beauty into the River.

And all this, from a well-maintained bed on the 8th floor of one of the most reputed comprehensive hospitals on the British Isles. Dinner is served as we messed around with the fully functioning bedside Internet system. You may ask just how much were we, the poor students of LSE, were willing to pay for this experience (not to mention the idea of actually getting sick to end up in a hospital). But shockingly, a fully-accommodated three stay at the St. Thomas Hospital, inclusive of all treatments and clinical tests, only came out to be...completely free.

Yes, for some reason or the other, the British medical care system take care of foreign students without local registry just as one of her own. A classmate of mine, who was unfortunate enough to suddenly discover a major medical condition through abrupt pain after class, somehow was fortunate enough to discover the condition in a country like England. Rushed to the hospital completely oblivious to the local medical system (and certainly, medical insurance system), the process of identifying her sickness was completed without a single mention of hefty bills and payment installments for the efforts of the hospital staff.

"There is no such thing as free lunch," people would say. Surely enough, we collectively do have some complaints about the bureaucratic inefficiencies that led to her surgery being delayed for weeks. But, I cannot simply be too vocal about my protest when the surgery, and all the medicines that will keep the patient functioning like a normal person til then, are completely free of charge. After repeatedly hearing the rumors of "European welfare states falling apart under financial and demographic pressures" for four years as an Economics student, I simply could not believe this sort of treatment still exist somewhere in the world.

Just imagine the same situation were to occur in the US. Sure, the same procedure may have been done just as dutifully and perhaps more efficiently, but without insurance, the combined costs of emergency treatment, medicines, and various expenses for hospital stays would result in a long-term financial scar much more painful than anything felt physically. The patient would have felt that he or she should never have gotten sick at all. Especially for the student, all the continuing expenses for surgeries and check-ups could have meant temporarily giving up full-time studies for lack of tuition funds.

The same is true for most other countries, even when some sort of social safety net with respect to medical care is in place. Systems of government-required (even financed) health insurance mean little in the case of utterly poor students with serious, costly treatments. Whatever "discounts" to treatment achieved through enrollment in medical plans cannot change the fact that the high cost of being in a hospital for a long time will be a life-changing "financial decision." And young people's confidence in their own health (thereby doing reckless things while being too cheap to buy insurance) certainly do not help the overall situation.

It is hard to predict how long the current system of free healthcare for students will last here in Britain, but at least, the existing status quo is worthy of admiration. A hard-working, high-earning population conditioned over peaceful decades to pay high taxes for sometimes empty-sounding promises of certain unbelievable social benefits is hard to come by in this day and age of selfish, short-term individualistic economic interests. Maybe enough Britons benefited under schemes like free medical care to learn to trust the government.

And as for the government, it did its part by committing to the lofty words of communal benefits. Because it genuinely did provide good (if not excellent or impeccable) services at extremely low costs, it earned and is still building up the trust of the citizenry. The long-term unwritten cooperation of the government and citizens is a lesson for others around the world. It calls for governments to be more accountable for promises of welfare, while not using them as code-words for corruption and embezzlement for personal benefits of certain officials.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Life is Short, Try to Keep Moving...

Amid the ongoing economic downturn, it is easy for people to start believing that a certain degree of globalization has to be temporarily rolled back. Ever since moving to the UK, we the foreign students have been living the fear of not being able to remain on the island after graduation due to the recent government decision to stop automatically issuing 2-year Post-graduate Work Visa. Every time one sees "do you have full authorization to work in UK?" on a job application, an overwhelming sense of anger often boils over, leading to practically meaningless self-blame of living in a wrong country in the wrong age.

It is, however, a bit premature to conclude that a country's ruthless reduction in acceptance of foreign labor, even highly educated (and hopefully, skilled), is equivalent to a country becoming more "selfish" and focus on concerns for her own citizens at the expense of others living within her boundaries. After all, the tide of human migration, in an age of rapid and convenient international transport, can easily overwhelm policy frameworks to discourage further movements of "unwanted" or "undesired" alien personnel.

Thankfully, at the more private level, the ruthlessness of the government has yet to be transmitted. We, especially here in the well-developed welfare states of Europe, can still count on an exceedingly protective social environment to prop us up, both financially and logistically when something does indeed go wrong and permanent home is too far away for immediate salvation. We can still take comfort in the fact that, here, a sense of social ethics commanding total protection of all constituents have not been defeated by sensationalized imperative of limit "economically damaging" foreign presence.

Whether it be hospitals and, well, many private companies, the initiative they have taken to counteract any government-generated impressions of newly found self-isolation is by all means admirable. Even today, there are (albeit decreasing) stories of a person from and educated in country A, currently working in country B, finding his or her more ideal employment in country C. And amid the sheer poverty in the transition stage, the said person can still receive much needed aid for free when there are unforeseen emergencies.

Such bottom-up Good Samaritan actions, despite government discouragement, are what is necessary to continue driving the global movement of talent. And we, those who have taken advantage of such informal processes, must be at the forefront of preserving its rigorousness and vitality so that others with global dreams like ours can continue to realize their ideals by taking advantage of the same processes. Especially, we all have the responsibility to keep open and increase the number of different channels with which people can utilize for their desired movements.

The best way for us to do so, in the most basic way for the least experienced and skilled new graduates, is to keep moving. Most remaining venues for accepting foreigners in any country can only remain an active venue if there are continued demands for their services. If foreigners are discouraged by detrimental government actions and stop trying, then even those desiring foreign presence will be forced to shut down due to perceived lack of their necessity. By applying to those international jobs and frequently using those international services, we are using the most theoretically economic way to signal the continued existence of demand.

Such signals are perhaps most important in the so-called global periphery. So many in the developing world have in a way came to the conclusion that developed countries, hit by serious financial crisis, can not only not assist them with their situations, but also will try to seek whatever means to use the cheaply obtained resources of the developing world to enhance their own dire conditions. A fear for their own safety can easily lead to suspicion of all foreigners as unwanted leeches sucking the already limited resources.

To counter such tendencies, those of us with the capabilities to do so, must personally make our positive presence felt in those peripheral regions. As those supposedly educated in the domains of political and economic development, we have the responsibility of turning education into something that can become clear methods of assistance. The world is big, if the traditional destinations of immigration (such as the UK), I do not see why people cannot take up new adventures in the global South, fulfilling our own globalizing responsibility and executing our own ideals...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Class, Mentality, and Exceptionalism: Hopes for Wealth-transcending Community Building

Often, it is quite refreshing to simply be out of that never-ending emphasis on egalitarianism that American society and people often insist as a present reality. The Brits laugh out the "myth" of America, where supposedly a whopping 98% of people identify themselves as some sort of "middle class." The Brits, despite living on a continent so often associated with welfare policies to create egalitarianism, often seem to have absolutely no fantasies about how or why everyone in the country should be labelled "equal" in some fashion.

Walking around East London a few days ago, it is not hard to see that their realist line of mentality is, in fact, highly appropriate. This little slice of South Asia seems like a whole world away from the central neighborhoods that is home to LSE and much of foreign tourist-student traffic. The same lineup of short stone buildings along the street somehow managed to become a view completely different only a one-hour bus ride away. Small ethnic markets and restaurants with their talkative owners occupy the first floors while the most non-British looking people hoist their laundries upon the most stereotypically British architectures.

It is here that the practicality of "make-do-with-anything" immigrants sweeps away British pompousness, and the stature of "everlasting British greatness" is reduced, to the dismay of the Anglo-Saxon "natives," a simple struggle of day-by-day survival. All extravagances of street-cleaning, facade-repairing, and overall "gentrification" are nowhere to be seen, but nitty-gritty-ness of having absolutely no illusion of some long-dead British imperial pride is vehemently omnipresent.

But,then, to say that somehow we the foreign students (i.e. long-term tourists) are really that particularly different from these "low-status" permanent immigrants scratching out a living on the immediate border of utter poverty, well, is nothing but an oversimplification. After all, even the most practical-minded person at LSE can agree that this academic community is bound together by some sort of common ideal (whether it be high social, financial, or moral status), within a shell impossible to be penetrated by mere concerns for putting food in the mouth, without any "grander visions" in the background.

The fact is, as much as we all try not to show it in the open, the LSE student body can also be divided into its very own "central" and "East London." Every day on campus, the biggest line is for lining up to get food from the charity Hare Krishna. For some, the sight of the world's brightest social science students stooping down to the position of penniless beggars invokes sheer insult. But for most, practicality trumps everything else. To survive through year, for some, is not much easier, and definitely not more deservedly honorable, than anyone scratching out a living in East London.

Society will always be a mosaic, however, even at the most basic level. Consultants and investment bankers from reputable multinational firms do reside permanently in East London, and many a student with too much pride bleed their measly bank accounts for a flat in central London. In a city where high prices and high tuition fees are constants for everyone, the building block of different social classes become not money itself but a fundamental attitude toward life under the given conditions.

Those who are practical will sacrifice excesses to feed personal pride, saving up for the few occasions will money is definitely worth the experience. Those who are not, well, will simply lavish themselves under any condition, seeking a lifestyle irrationally incongruous with their being full-time students with no income. Such difference in mentality, ultimately, should transcend people of all financial backgrounds. There really should not be some definite correlation of wealth with luxury.

Perhaps the American "middle class myth" is socio-culturally justified. The idea of class, in this day and age, has become simply too associated with money and material abundance. By setting that sensitive idea aside, people can actually deal with each other in an equal setting as members of one single community. It is only under such premises that, hopefully, people can spot those who take their facades of life in comfort way too seriously, and those who can face the ups and downs of social living without resorting to some conspicuous display of exceptionalism.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

As Ideals Disappears, What is Left in the Mind?

Three weeks into classes, and it seems like the level of stress among the newly enrolled graduate students are reaching its first peak. No. It is not because of the hundreds of pages assigned to read for weekly discussion seminars. The reading lists, so far, have been largely neglected by the students, who instead, have been busy wondering around the exhibition rooms of the LSE and various high end luxury hotels of central London. Ubiquitously, they spot freshly ironed suits, their newly purchased LSE decorated folders, and, most prominently, an unchanging anxious facial expression.

The biggest event of the school year, the great hunt of post-graduation employment, is already underway among a population that has barely gotten used to the life of a studying "academic" here in London. Oddly, even the professors seem to have accepted such a phenomenon as a "necessary evil" distracting students from course contents. My person 5-minute chat with my adviser in the comfortable academic confines of his office quickly diverged from my "main interests in academic research" to my post-graduation plans to a simple advice of "you better hurry up with your job search."

For some reason, I thought grad school is going to be different from the undergrad years. People I met in the first week were indeed full of optimism, hope, and ideals. They spoke of creating new theories of social sciences, and using their logic and innovative academic ideas to change the world, to rid its problems, and to help its people. Yet, a mere two weeks later, it feels as if they were all silenced...and some even completely disappeared. Locked in on their minds are no longer how they will better the world, but how they can somehow make ends meet when September 2012 rolls around.

Sadly enough, as the anxiety of joblessness spreads, the atmosphere on the campus harked back to those very few last months of senior year in undergrad studies. People are looking to each other as sworn enemies, rivals threatening to take away their livelihoods in a global economy still plagued by pessimism of continued economic downturn and rumored high unemployment. No longer do people care to have a friendly random chat with a stranger. Often, the conversation jump straight into the complaints about "how tough the world is."

Talk about the "maturity" of the grad students, as we all have been so fantasized into believing as undergrads with little social experiences. The grad students, to us at the time, even without job or job prospects, were supposed to beyond mundane worries. They, in a way in our illusions, are supposed to be sort of like monks in a monastery. They devoted their lives to concentrated studies and research, sacrificing desires for excessive material wealth, and without any carnal vices of greed...

The ideals of us, the fresh wannabe grad students, attempting to live an extended stereotype, faced a quick demise. People are no longer "too lowly" for attending dozens of employer presentation by investment banks and consultancies over the course of couple of weeks. Saving ourselves, financially, mentally, and physically, is definitely taking up the priority, and those precious goals of "saving others" can quietly take its well-deserved place at the very bottom of the "to-do" list in life.

But, eh, it is just too shameless for any of us to simply abandon those lofty ideals, still so well reflected in our program titles and course names in manners as "Humanitarian Emergencies" or "Development Studies." Some of us, myself included, gave up way too much practical benefits of stable salaries and work to seek this "happier" and more "morally satisfying" alternative. The continued existence of such obligatory sense of morality, unfortunately, can only cause more unwanted pressure in an already prevalent feel of gloominess.

Of course, there is always a mad rush of the people to rationalize their behaviors. "Got to get corporate experience first before moving into humanitarian work" (wow, where have I heard of this one before?) and "I need to get the returns for my massive investment in grad school" have already become acceptable excuses for "practicality." Yet, underneath all that justification, the words of one guy I met, "I am regretting a bit about the decision I took to come here" may be the one that ultimately shines through.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Controlling Your Own Wings as You Fly High: Reflection of the Life of Steve Jobs

From the iPod, to iPad, to the slim MacBook, the Apple products that inundate our lives today are not simply technological products touted by so many as "cutting edge," as "revolutionary," and as not surpassed or comparable with any rivals. Above everything else, these products are cultural phenomenons, symbolizing the very definition of a modern life and harbinger of a great optimistic future of technological innovations, triggering the endless imaginations of the tech-savvy youth and the fashionable across the world.

Yet, mortality of human beings, unfortunately, cannot be annulled by that promise of an ever-increasing optimism of a technological future. And as its chief architect, who has captured our imagination and expanded our dreams, leaves us all of a sudden, we cannot help but wonder if the dreams, so well-encapsulated by his very presence, must now be deterred somewhat. The fact that physical legacies of his achievements are now so ubiquitous, only makes all of us that much more anxious of what is to come.

Surely enough, technological innovation, throughout history, has never been the work of one or even a few. The improvements to existing technologies come from combined efforts of many unrelated people who each supplied their tidbits to push crude prototypes to their current mastery. Yet, the human memory is limited, and none of us can remember and appreciate those millions who made their contributions to make our lives that much more convenient and simple with their anonymous mental efforts.

We, instead, turn what is prominent into mental and physical icons, easily recognizable and memorable to all. Steve Jobs, ultimately, was the master reader of our minds. It is he who packaged the works of millions of innovators into a slim package (with a simple logo) that became the symbol of "cool" and "fashionable" for people in every country and every social class. Suddenly, dry technology, reserved for geeks, became the pinnacle of desirability in the minds of the most tech-illiterate populations.

In the process of turning the technology into cultural symbols, Jobs also had to turn himself into a cultural symbol. In the minds of both fans and rivals, he became the symbol of a tough perfectionist, a vivid storyteller, and brilliant marketer. His success, in part due to his technological genius, somehow also became packaged, comprehensible, and possible for imitation among millions of aspiring business leaders, hoping to turn their own ideas and products into the next cultural icons.

Yet, above everything else, Steve Jobs would not have become the symbolic Steve Jobs without his determination and self-control. His rag-to-riches story of a in-the-garage entrepreneur to a globally recognized billionaire businessman is above all, one of self-determination and self-control. He depended on no one, no business connections, and no existing corporate structures to become who he is. He showed all of us that, even in the sophisticated dog-eat-dog world of modern global capitalism, strength of the self, sprinkled with a bit of originality, can still create a massive impact out of nowhere.

And as history progresses and technologies become ever more complex, it is for this self-reliant quality that people will ultimately remember Jobs. For every skill in the world, there are millions of people who claim to be experts. Yet, even among thousands among those who are true experts, only a few will remembered to be so. The collective memory, as Steve shows us, depend not upon skill itself, but its expression: the willingness of persist with it despite crushing sense of anonymity one must face in the initial stages.

Every person in the world, for all his or her lack in confidence, does have something to claim as "good at." It does not have to be unique in nature or even best in the kind. But, without passion or persistence, even those minor "good at" will simply disappear. However, if those little "good at" can be fueled by persistence and a little flair to the widely observable benefit of human beings, then, well, maybe we would all have something worthy of cultural symbolism. Steve Jobs would certainly be cherished to hear that.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

How Much Experience is Worth the Price?

Britain is by no means a cheap country to live in. This is a fact established by the experiences and constant complaints of so many expatriates calling the city their temporary home. But the existing prices, just as death and taxes, are something that people simply have to accept as constants, barring any sort of sudden economic meltdown that cannot possibly serve anyone any sort of long term benefits.

Yet, many seem to just completely unwilling to let the prices off their minds. From the Americans meticulously (and vocally) converting the price of every little thing into US dollars before opening their wallets, to many from developing countries who simply disappear from common activities with friends for fear of excess spending, the financial cost of London, in a way much ore than I could have imagined, is affecting the very fabric of our lives.

First-time “nice to meet you” events become inundated with stories of exorbitant prices paid for otherwise ordinary goods, providing readily available common language among participants. But then, when the bouts of complaints pass our minds and voices, what is left, inevitably, is just how cheap and miserly all of us seemed during those conversations. Plenty of back-stabbing talks of the negative nature emerge based on “emotionally connecting” complaints of high prices.

No one loves a person who thinks about money all the time. And it is especially true in a grad school, where everyone is supposedly here for a certain “life experience.” Whether they choose to say it or not, everyone knows that to “experience” means to spend money, on things that have never been done and/or in the process of meeting people who have never been met. People who are unwilling to sacrifice some cash for experience perhaps should not at all be part of one’s London “experience.”

However, as much as we all love to complain about others being too cheap for experiencing London together, we all, after all, have our own financial limits. A weeklong string of party nights with five-pound cover charges and three-pound drinks made all of us realize just how fast the spending add up and wallets get emptied. People break into cold sweat thinking about just how scary it would be (and most likely it will) for such parties to becoming regular events throughout the year.

For most, the need to balance the money issue and the experience issue becomes a disheartening tendency toward cliquey-ness. “Before I go to that expensive club/pub/bar/event, let me check who else I know will be there” become standard sentiments. Massive “nice to meet you” parties disappear, only to be replaced by small hangouts of familiar people talking amongst themselves, destroying the events’ original purpose as people-meeting experiences.

Maybe I am being a tidbit too pessimistic about the whole thing: a week into school and events still do go on involving large number of completely unknown people. Or maybe I am overvaluing that “experience” component of grad school: as classes officially begin next week, we may all come to the realization that the familiar patterns of readings and assignments, rather than meeting new people or doing new things, is ultimate definition of grad school.

Price, in the end, is really a relative factor. Come to think about it, given the right circumstance, anything obtained anywhere can be considered expensive. The monetary cost is simply a common and easily rationalized excuse anyone would use to express certain sense of discomfort or unhappiness. We all just need to put in more effort and find our own joys to make those extra few pounds, so dreaded in the mind, more worthwhile...