Monday, December 31, 2012

Koreans in the Philippines: Middle of Nowhere, Out of Everywhere

At the foothills of the magnificent Taal Volcano, two hours drive south of Manila, there is a little two-story concrete building.  It is a building no different from any other local ones that stand densely across the highway from the luxuries resorts, restaurants, and private homes that crowd the Tagaytay Ridge offering perfect, unobstructed view of the Volcano's surrounding lake fromed from an ancient crater.  On the second floor of the building was a little sign: Hansung Vision Church (한성 비전 교회), pasted in strips of simple blue-colored plastic tape over a background picture of green field dotted with pink flowers.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Reality Escapism Revisited: the Shopping Mall as a Social Institution

The streets down below are steamy with fumes, all sorts of fumes.  One can almost smell all that as one gets off the crowded platform of the nearby train station.  It is, as many other places of humanity are, a chaotic symphony of sensory overload of any and every nature.  The smell is a combination of toxic exhaust fumes belched from inefficient jeepney engines, the heavily salted batter of fried chicken, fried fish, and fried God-knows-what-else.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Duality within the Stereotyped Character of the Average Filipino

Your blogger here has always considered himself above the typical racial stereotyping that goes on in societies around the world.  He tries to see only individuals and their unique personalities, some of which are component traits that can be observed in a diversity of different societies with little interaction (such as individualism, optimism, rebelliousness against the status quo).  But residing and bonding with people who are eager to resort to certain "national/ethnic characters" as the primary means of making sense of their own existences and their places in the world, he finds himself gradually succumbing to similar tendencies...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Yes, Sir!"/"Yes, Ma'am!" Culture as a Reflection of Social Conformity

Every time another shooting rampage occurs in America, the first instinct of nearly anyone who hears about the tragic news is to blame the lack of gun control.  They somehow believe that more strict access to guns is the ultimate resolution of such problems.  While the author is just as much a proponent of gun control as the next leftist, he also believes that sort of random killing that occurred in a Connecticut elementary school says much more about how America's culture create lethal-minded deviants rather than how America's gun culture lead to lethal incidents.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Price and Glory of Cheap Alcohol in the Philippines

For anyone moving in to the Philippines from any of its Muslim neighbors, the price of moral "sinning" becomes shockingly cheap.  Everywhere you look, there are prostitutes walking around seeking out potential clients, local bars with little restrictions on smoking indoors or televised lingerie models, or customers, both local and expat, mixing together, heartily laughing away at crude sexual jokes, while dancing to the latest hip-pop hits imported from the US.  Fluent English with American accents are sprinkled with Filipino on the streets, giving the place both a familiar and exotic feel simultaneously.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Welcome to the "Little Las Vegas" - Day One in Manila

That is the term the real estate agent used when he shows foreign clients around the neighborhood for the first time.  Among the dense skyscraper-filled skyline of Makati, Manila's central business district, a whole new scene unravels on the street-level.  As one cuts into any one of the small side streets leading away from the impeccably maintained, tree lined, wide central boulevards of the country's premier financial district, a whole new world of dodgy entertainment and equally dodgy people hits the casual pedestrians unwittingly passing through, with a force that one simply cannot ignore.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

...And Then, Flying East to the Phillippines

Many a wise traveler met on the road have remarked as such, "every adventure with an abrupt beginning must have an abrupt end."  The wisdom of the words cannot be anymore appropriate for my five-month stay in Kuala Lumpur.  The whole episode started with a directionless grad student frantically seeking any opportunity anywhere in the world as he awaited the inevitably end of his one-year tenure in London.  A couple of 30-min Skype interviews and a few disjointed email communication with a landlord...all the sudden, he found himself on a 12-hour flight across the globe.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Chicken Soup for the Lonely Foreign Soul: An Asian Guide for Non-Asian Guys to Hunt down Girls of East Asian Origin

When it comes to understanding the everyday social mentality of East Asians, your writer ashamedly bills himself as a leading grassroots expert.  After five years in China, seven years in Japan, half year each in Korea and Malaysia, one would learn to make out some trends and generalizations about people there.  And after ten years in the US, one in UK, and a few months in Australia, one begins to see how such trends and generalizations are continued or discontinued when the Asians move into a Western environment.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ecommerce Marketing as a Tool for Inventing Consumerism: the Case of "Single's Day" as a Lesson for Diwali

Once again, Diwali, or the Hindu Festival of Lights, is upon on us, and just as Hindu community around the world does, the Malaysian Indian community is busy reuniting with families and friends while everyone in the country is enjoying a couple days of public holidays even though they have literally nothing to do with this particular religious event.  But while the Indosphere indulge in some wholesome family gatherings, something remarkable just happened in China: on Nov. 11th, ecommerce portal Tmall set an all-time world record for one-day sale by a single site by raking in 3.1 billion USD.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Can a Stricter Version of Islam be Used a Guarantor of Social Equality?

Looking at the published stats, the tiny Sultanate of Brunei in northern part of the island of Borneo, sandwiched between Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, is definitely one of the wealthiest states in the world.  Massive income from exporting oil and liquified natural gas have created a land where every citizen enjoys automatic enrollments in hefty and regular pension payments, near universal access to modern facilities, perhaps the highest per capita consumption of cars in Asia.  Many a travel guide out there refers to the country as the "Islamic Singapore."

Sunday, November 4, 2012

When Childhood Affection Becomes an (Extended) Family Affair...

The late morning party at the poolside of the local tennis-cum-swimming-random-conference-hosting family club was reaching its climax: the little star of the party: a baby boy turning one-year-old tomorrow was about to blow the candle on his little birthday cake from the comfort of his mom's lap.  The entire attendance of the party, some two dozen family members, friends, and coworkers, gathered around the cake, the boy, and the happy parents, clapping and singing the birthday song.  They broke into spontaneous laughter every time the boy cooed or smiled, and captured all that on their cameras.

Friday, October 26, 2012

"Outward-looking" Holiday vs "Inward-looking" Holiday

Consistent with Muslim traditions, Malaysia is again at a three-day weekend, celebrating the second Eid of the year to mark the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael to God (as detailed in the holy books of both Christianity and Islam).  Much as the first Eid of the year celebrated not that long ago, the occasion, for the Muslims, marks a time to travel to home villages/towns, get together with family, and have nice meals over nice stories.  Many, as in our company, took extended vacations before and after the actual three-day break to have more substantial trips.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Is Confucianism Democratic?

That is the central question posed by the interviewer, picking off where the examination left off, as our conversation continued on the topic of Oriental ideologies in modern-day world affairs.  The interviewer's argument was not that Confucianism can be revised to be compatible with democratic values, but that it is fundamentally democratic from the day of its very is simply not conceived as so by anyone with excess "Western bias" because the idea of what is considered democratic under Confucian socio-economic system is completely different from the Western sense.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

When the Rain Brings Back Past Memories...

Finally, a day of endless sunshine sizzles the city after a week of endless monsoon rain turned its streets into rivers and ponds.  The countless puddles formed on the streets quickly evaporate into the air and the streets, so devoid of life during the rain quickly regains life, with families crowding into cars and outdoor shopping streets to enjoy a Sunday morning at its fullest tropical glory, thanks to the rain, feels freshly devoid of the smog that regularly blankets the city with just a few too many cars and jammed highways to facilitate (?) their use.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

What is the English Language to Malaysia?

There are simply too many times living here in KL that I feel that "I cannot believe I am actually in Malaysia" moment.  The familiarity of certain events and situations would make any Western expat feel that there simply is not anything foreign at all in that moment in time.  Today, as I was sitting in the 16th floor of modern office building, shielded by comfy sofas and high-powered from the hustle and bustle of regular Chinatown activities a stone's throw away, I just entered another one of those "Malaysia feels so Western" moments.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Tiger Mom-Style Strict Parenting is Leading to End of "the Asian Family"

My Malaysian Chinese girlfriend frequently speak of how pushy her parents can be.  Not only run errands for the house, force her to go to university to study what they dictate, and compel her to help out with the family business on a more permanent basis.  She tells me that she just want to get away from her family and move far far away to become independent  just like what I am currently doing by living and working in Malaysia.  While such complaints are common among Asians growing up in the West with its strong individualistic values, it is rather interesting to observe similar mentality in collectivist Asia.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Protests in China as Sudden Bursts of Releases in Social Pressure

Corporate denizens from around the world have an almost identical habit of getting absolutely wasted and hammered whenever they do not have to work the day after.  It is not because everyone is secretly alcoholics waiting for that right moment to get in touch with their dark side, nor even because most of these people are truly so fond of intoxicating beverages and equally intoxicated company of others that they must carry on such rowdy affairs week after week, year after year.  Instead, the motive is one of release, of even temporary escape from dark realities of bondage to stressful work and hierarchies.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Death of Islam as a Missionary Religion and Death of Political Islam as a Moderate Alternative

Another little known anti-Islamic expression in the West triggers another anti-Western riot in the Muslim world, this time culminating in the disgraceful death of the highest-level American official in the hands of young extremist rioters, storming an American diplomatic compound supposedly protected both by heavy local police presence and international law that the newly formed democratic government in Libya surely have to and willingly abide by.  Ironically, the riots only made the previously unknown anti-Islamic film more famous among the common people in the West.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Beauty and Folly of French Colonial Legacy in the Developing World

Walking down the streets of central Saigon has a tendency to bring one to other places in the (ex-) Francophone world.  At times, the shady boulevards littered with Neoclassical masterpieces, turned into museums, bars, and political institutions, reminded of the French Concession in Shanghai.  Some of these buildings feel so dilapidated that their plain sight brings one back the rundown yet previously elegant main streets of Casablanca.  Yet the well-manicured parks and horticultural street exhibits are just like those found in the central parts of Montpelier...

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Questioning Malaysian "Independence": the Presence of Intra-Race Tensions amid Malaysia's Multiculturalism

A previous post commented on the seemingly constant presence of inter-racial tension in Malaysia, where nearly equal numbers of Malays, Chinese, and Indians jostle for economic and political positions as they co-developed within the same, yet divided society for generations.  However, that post was written with the assumption that each of the three races mentioned tend to look and act as a unified bloc, with individuals that place their own racial identity above anything else as they strive to move upward in the social ladder of the complex multicultural society.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Does K-pop “Get” the World? - Reflecting on the Socio-cultural Significance of “Gangnam Style’s” Unlikely Global Success

“See, sometimes foreigners just do not ‘get’ Korean music.  They just don’t seem to understand it!”  As an avid follower of Korean pop music that has been all the rage across Asia in the past decade, I still frequently hear about such genuine anxieties in heated discussions with those with keen interest in continued global expansion of K-pop across the world.  They see a clear “glass ceiling” for just how much Korean pop music, and Asian pop music in general, to expand beyond Asia.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Eid ul-Fitr, the Muslim Christmas?

Occasionally (perhaps a little misleadingly) abbreviated as “the Eid” and better known as the “Hari Raya” to Muslims in Southeast Asia, the three-day festival marking the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, is a time of, as much as it is possible in the Islamic world, gaudy commercialism.  With a four-day weekend, many jump on long-distance buses and reunite with their families in their hometowns and celebrate the end of fasting with a big family feast and many exchanges of gifts.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tourism, Sex Industry, and the Larger-than-Life Presence of "Farang" in Thailand

Language acquisition is about immersion in an environment where people constantly use common vocabulary from that particular language...yet, being in Thailand for little more than a day, and your foreign male tourist literally manage to pick up one single word...not "goodbye," not "hello," and not even "thank you" (tried and failed on that one).  Instead, it is a word that even short-term foreign expats in Thailand manage to pop into their English.  The keyword of the day was "farang," a term for Caucasians derived (supposedly) from Arabic transliteration of "Franks."

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Reflecting on the Meaning of "Mutual Respect" during Ramadan

In a society where a Muslim demographic majority and an economically (and somewhat demographically) significant non-Muslim minority coexist, the celebration of Ramadan is, not surprisingly, social contentious beneath a veil of obvious social harmony and mutual cultural respect.  Religious doctrine dictate that the Muslim not eat and drink from sunrise to sunset while toiling under the brutal hot weather of tropical Malaysia and going about their daily tasks of schooling and employment without any adjustments attributed to the fasting.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Majority’s Sacrifice for “Collective” Pride?

And with the flames shooting out of the stadium, songs, and mass choreographed dances a little bit too reminiscent of what occurred in Beijing 2008 (albeit with a Western, kitschy rural British twist), that once-in-four-years spectacle begins once again in a city that some London residents (including many of previous year’s LSE students) have already left behind, while others painfully adjust to the suddenly inflated costs dished out by opportunistic shop and real estate owners.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Daily Grind of Logistics: the Operations behind "Getting Business Done"

The warehouse at the quiet, industrial part of the town started as, literally, an empty concrete shell, with no furniture, no goods, no ventilation, and no sign of life.  Truckloads of item and upholstery shipments later, combined with more than 12 hours of continuous work by more than a dozen cheaply hired foreign moving men, the new warehouse is finally looking like a warehouse, with the shelving racks, desks, and chairs arranged in their proper positions, and shifted items ready for unpacking.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Dark, Exploitative, and Unsustainable Global Expansion of K-pop

The prominent-looking bar/club on a busy side-street of Bukit Bintang, the premier inner-city shopping district in Kuala Lumpur, has a colorful sign perched on top of it, looming large over the skyline of the narrow street crammed with hawker stands and attracting attention from all passersby.  The sign prominently features young East Asian songstresses clad in miniskirt, skimpy tank-top uniforms, making the usual suggestive poses, in a way largely (or perhaps not at all) inappropriate for the conservative culture of this Muslim country.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Curious Existence of Singapore: Insecurity amid Prosperity

A quick 30-minute stroll through any residential neighborhood in Singapore can make one understand why so many foreigners love the tiny island city-state. Food is everywhere and cheap (just like here in Malaysia), the public transit system modern and all-around impeccable, the streets well-manicured and completely free of litter, and there is just no sign of poverty whatsoever (no beggars, no run-down shantytowns, not even a single truly dilapidated building). As modern as Malaysia sometimes seems to be, the level of physical modernity is absolutely shocking in comparison.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Malaysia’s Not-so-Hidden Illegal Sex Industry: an Immoral “Crack” in the Islamic State?

Living in Malaysia, a purported Islamic state where Islam is clearly defined as the state religion within its constitution, one is often left to wonder just what really an “Islamic state” really means in the Malaysian context.  From the alcohol sold everywhere to the ever-so-subliminally sexual K-pop being blasted everywhere, to the clear Westernization in all aspects of life from fashion to food, the country simply has very little in common with the imagination of non-Muslims when it comes to the words “Islamic society.”

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The "Unfriendliness" of ethnic Chinese: Result of Experiences or Mentality?

Having a quick chat with my Iranian landlord regarding the tripartite racial divisions here in Malaysia, he remarked that the Malays and Indians here are much more welcoming of foreigners and all around more open, warm, and friendly than the ethnic Chinese here.  Two weeks into my life here at Kuala Lumpur, and despite being ethnic Chinese myself, I am becoming more and more inclined to agree with him (and many other foreign expats I come across at work) that this notion is indeed true.  The Chinese here really are less friendly than the other two races.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Divisive Dilemma of a Western Company in a Developing Country

"So, do you get paid in Ringgits or Euros?" a coworker casually asked over a quick lunch at the local hawker stand outside the office building.  The nonchalant air he tried to project as he suddenly blurted out the question betray a damning curiosity that is nothing but nonchalant.  Indirectly, he just spoke volumes about the internal division within the company: the difference between foreigners and locals working in the German company here in the remote corner of Kuala Lumpur is not simply a matter of skin color and national origin, it is a matter of financial status that could have deep ramifications.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Multiculturalism in Malaysia: Physical Superficiality or Permanent Tension?

"Multicultural Asia," for someone who has never been outside East Asia, is largely an oxymoron and impossibility.  Even the most cultural diverse in the region, China, has no real diversity to speak off.  Minorities languish in the political, economic, and obviously demographic dominance of the Han Chinese, who has made assimilation an ultimate goal in creating a stable society.  And then, an East Asian who shows up to Malaysia is simply dazzled, amazed by how the Malays, the Chinese, and the Indians have together carved out a truly multiethnic country where no one is more foreign than the other.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Remembering Tiananmen Square: What Does June 4, 1989 Mean in the 21st Century?

While the overseas Chinese sites and commentators have been abuzz with videos, pictures, and stories remembering that fateful day 23 years ago, there was an eerie silence on the Chinese blogosphere, punctuated by short bursts of coded messages with indirect references.  Most of them disappear from cyberspace in matter of minutes, thanks to extra-diligent monitoring by relevant personnel at the various mainland-based social networking sites, but the few that avoid their meticulous reviews of new contents then go on to ignite a viral round of coded reply before the whole thread disappears.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Queen Elizabeth II at 60 Years of Reign: What is the Meaning of a Modern Constitutional Monarchy?

"Queen Elizabeth II, 1952-2012," various signs across Her Majesty's great capital city proclaims.  Patriotism, so uncommonly seen physically here on the British Isles, seems to be at an all-time high on this weekend, with British flags and other related goods sold in shops across the city, just in time for people to celebrate Her Majesty's 60 years of reign by attending a boat parade on the Thames River this Sunday (i.e. tomorrow).  The uninhibited adoration that the Crown receive from both the British and foreign residents, at least here in London, seems unanimous.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What is the Wisdom behind "Pulling an All-Nighter"?

Walking through the LSE library during the exam study period can be an experience in itself. Students, sitting quietly in their reserved desks and tables, seem to have not moved from that exact position in days. Behind piles of books, printed documents, and empty cans of Red Bull are sometimes near non-human-like red eyes, accentuated by the unnatural puffiness of their darkened skin beneath them. Sometimes, close-distance observation is not even needed for knowing that they have been in the same spot for a long, long simply has to open one's nostrils to the bodily scents emitted in the area...

Monday, May 21, 2012

When Do School Grades Stop Being Important?

It is sometimes curious to find employers dishing out job offers with the precondition that the prospect employee achieve a certain level of grades upon graduation.  Head-scratching how that would work, considering that under the British system with its all-or-nothing 100% final exam system, the final results will not be available until the November after graduation, when the new employee is already, perhaps, been working full-time for quarter of a year.  So what if the expected level of grades was not achieved?  Does that mean the employee is then fired, not taking into account the good work of last 3 months?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Presidential Support for Gay Marriage: Ending "Moral Divide" in the US as Necessity for Effective Liberal Interventionism Abroad

Perhaps in no democracies in the traditionally labelled liberal, developed West is there such a huge schism in social issues as people see in the United States of America.  Even in local city elections of supposed "progressive" urban parts of California, there are plenty of incidents where right-wing candidates passionately declare their intentions to "boldly stand up for Christ" if elected.  While plenty of atheists with a "live and let live" attitude toward individual behaviors exist, equal numbers among the citizenry feels the urgent need to halt America's "moral decline."

Thursday, May 10, 2012

And Malaysia! Thoughts upon Suddenly Deciding the Next Move

Looks like the traveler is ready to pack his bags and hit the road once another place, full of unknowns, and full of excitement.  This time, the destination is Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and with it, my very first time heading into the Southeast Asian region.  What awaits me is a business development internship in a local Internet start-up, bound to be filled with unpredictability and sudden changes in a emerging market of god-knows-whats-gonna-happen-in-a-few-years.  Balancing the ever-changing tasks of an internship as well as writing my dissertation in a whole new country is going to be a wild ride...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

LSE Library Seat-Booking Service: Institutionalization of Laziness in Academia?

Another day sitting in the always-crowded individual study spaces in the LSE main library.  There is not a single open seat in sight as dozens of students, in collective dead silence, pour over (or pretend to pour over) their study notes and textbooks to prepare for upcoming exams.  Suddenly, footsteps are heard, everyone stop what their doing and look up.  They notice a new guy walking into the packed quiet area, checking out something on his smartphone, and then looking at the seat numbers on already occupied desks.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese Diaspora, and the Quiet Revolution of the Opinions in China

In many ways, the ongoing political confrontation with regard to the blind human rights activist Mr Chen Guangcheng is nothing new. Mr Chen, who has seen his fate tossed about by behind-the-door negotiations between Chinese and American diplomat since his daring escape to the US Embassy from years-long house arrest in his rural hometown in Shandong Province, seems to be just another figure that portrays the damning and ever-so-embarrassing situation of human rights violation in China.  Yet, scratch below the surface of all the usual opinions and a new picture seems to emerge.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Reflections on May Day: the Undying Role and Challenge of Global Socialism

As a global movement of unparalleled ideal, socialist internationalism was extensively damaged in reputation and image after it was ruthlessly hijacked by the likes of Stalin, Mao, and various short-lived governments in the developing world they supported in the Cold War.  As "socialism" became the justification for their respective political authoritarianism and economic stagnancy, the word itself and the ideals behind it became increasingly associated with lack of development and perpetual poverty suffered under suppression of any form of dissent.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

An Obituary for Rakuten China: Excess Pride as a Recipe for Failure

On one side, it was a Japanese giant ready to make its mark on the global stage after its sheer dominance of the domestic market.  On the other side, it is the world's largest potential market for online shopping, massive even though the penetration rate is a mere 3% of total retail but growing at a pace unheard of in the brief history of the Internet.  There seemed to be some sort of synergy.  Its potential meeting ambition, backed up by the trust the Chinese consumers placed in Japanese products combined with what the Chinese see as diminished by still significant wave of that "cool Japan" pop culture.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

"Bumsterism" Continued: a Night of Clubbing with Aggressive Gambian Prostitutes

Three non-black guys, happily tipsy but fully conscious, causally strolled into a second-floor dance club on the premier tourist strip of the Gambian coast.  The place was jam-packed with locals and the DJ was blaring a beautiful mix of African and American hip-hop.  Before the three guys can get a full look of their immediate surroundings, they all felt female bodies being heavily and intentionally brushing against theirs in a rhythmic up-and-down movement.  Surprised and with female scents aggressively invading their otherwise inebriated nostrils, they come face to face with African beauties lying in their arms...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"Bumsterism" in the Gambia: a Sign of Traditional Values Distorted by Mass Tourism

Walking down any dusty, unpaved road in any small town in Gambia, a foreign tourist is bound to be chatted up by a local within a matter of seconds.  "Hello, you alright?" blurts out the local, typically a young man in his late twenties, just casually strolling down the street in a T-shirt, a pair of jeans, and flip-flops.  As the tourist takes this to be a casual greeting and responds with a polite "I am fine, how are you?" a seemingly genuine friendly smile appears on the youngster's face and the conversation continues to the standard questions about the tourists' national origins and motivations for coming to the Gambia.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Does Being in a Group Setting Actually Make Traveling Safer?

On being in Morocco, a fellow traveler who came directly northward across the Strait noted with worryingly horror over a glass of cheap Spanish beer, “It is totally differently over there, man; you can get pick-pocketed on the streets even if you are with a large group of your friends.  You got to be careful on your own!”  He went on to carefully describe the wild chase he and his newly acquainted travelers had in the narrow streets of Marrakech’s medina. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

China’s Sex Tourism Boom Changing the Stature of Chinese Language Abroad?!

The use of foreign languages in a particular country often shows the status of that language in the foreign country.  For instance, English, as the global lingua franca, is heard in most places around the world.  Rich countries, with their rich tourist crowds, usually get the benefit of locals attempting to speak their native tongues.  So it caught me as a rather interesting surprise when I overheard local Spaniards using their broken Chinese, rather than Japanese (as it is usual) to the Asians walking down the street.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Train Systems in Europe: Speed, Efficiency, and State Monopoly

In the countries of France and Spain, the train system is by all means a symbol of modernity and technological prowess.  The respective state-owned railway companies, the SNCF and the Renfe, both have their signature high-speed railway networks and their sleek train systems, the TGV and the AVE.  Connecting major cities with speeds topping 150-250 km/hr in amazingly silent and comfortably stable environments, these high speed trains are highly viable alternatives, both price- and comfort-wise to the burgeoning private budge airline industry.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Language, Nationalism, and Open-Mindedness: the Case of France

A fellow traveler staying at the youth hotel on the hills of old Lyon made an interesting remark. “The French does not discriminate against people of different color or background, but they do openly discriminate against people who do not speak French.” While the first part could be considered an understatement given the frequent news of ethno-social divisions in the country, the second, by all means, is generally an accurate state in daily life.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Man's Desperate Attempt to Reconnect with Nature

The whole exercise was perhaps the greatest ever illustration of group-think in action: one guy in the big tour bus thinks he sees something in the dark, cloudless sky and rushes out the back door to stare upwards, and then, seconds later, a busload of passengers, easily numbering in the dozens, quickly follow the first guy out of the bus to stare at the sky. Before long, showering in the strong cold sea winds of the North Atlantic, a group of shivering tourists stand on the desolate Icelandic coastline.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Defiant Dignity and Dangerous Dependence: the Perplexing Motivations of an Easy-to-Enter African Country

In an average quiet residential neighborhood of west London, a little building just like any other around it had a massive national flag of Gambia flying from its second floor. A little plaque at the front door denoted it as the "Gambian High Commission in London," as anyone who did not deliberately came looking for the place surely would have been very much confused as to why there would be such a big flag flying in a random neighborhood of the metropolis without any other diplomatic presence.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Finishing off a Continent-wide Backpacking Trip Where It was Left off

As the traveler takes a comfortable and inexpensive ferry ride from Scotland to Northern Ireland, another trip-filled vacation has begun in earnest, safely and steadily. Despite (and perhaps because of) the relative uneventful-ness of the first couple of days, the traveler is given ore time to fill in the details of an ambitious travel plan that will span from the very top of the European continent to the depths of sub-Saharan Africa. Excitement lies ahead as light, knowledge, and understanding are shed on unknown lands.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Justifying the Student "Ethnic Society": Finding Diversity within Cultural Immersion

Being in any university, one has to encounter at least well-organized ethnic society on campus. From the Russian to the Australian, from the Portuguese to the Argentinian, these tight-knit clubs are seem to definitely offer one thing: a home away from home for the students of that particular ethnicity or nationality in the university, maintaining regular contacts with fellow countrymen bolstered with the language, cuisine, and occasional small chats about TV shows and celebrities from back home.

Monday, March 12, 2012

3/11 One Year Later: Government Absence, NGO Authoritarianism, and Thoughts on the Kony2012 Affair

Exactly one year ago today, on a small island on the other side of the world, Mother Earth suddenly unleashed her fury. The wealthy, peace-loving, docile residents of the island were thrown into sheer unprepared chaos, running, hiding, and crying in confusion and fear as buildings shook and fell all around them. All semblance of a civilized society disappeared in an instant. What awaited the shell-shocked populace was a scene seemingly from Armageddon.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Blogging as Universal Self-Exposure: Is It Worth the Risk?

"by the way, I was reading your blog the other day, and you say..." the interviewer, whom I met for the very first time a little more than an hour ago, inserted the comment in the most casual fashion as he went on to question my view toward Asia's economic future. As calmly as I received the statement as nothing but the continuation of the discussion we have been having for a while now to gauge my background and interest for the job, I cannot help but be slightly surprised.

This blog, as the product of my pure hobby of opinionated writing, for all its apparent bias, lack of formal structure, and full of grammatical errors, have become taken so seriously as to become a part of judgmental criteria for who I am, how I think, and what my views are toward contemporary issues across the world and around my daily life. For something that is openly accessible and searchable on the Internet, I suppose for complete strangers to access its content is no doubt unavoidable.

But, at the same time, what does that "open access" mean for the blog itself is a completely different matter. First, the very purpose of the blog's existence is for the identification of the writer as a unique individual, with unique views, thoughts, and viewpoints. To make the point clear about the individuality of the writer, he or she, on certain issues or opinions, must somehow make the words and views stand out from the general crowd.

Perhaps passion in writing, combined with beautiful storytelling and prose, may suffice to distinguish one blogger from the millions out there, each armed with their own attempts at literary independence and style. But obviously, most bloggers are not even close to being at that stage, or will they ever reach that stage. Most are simple amateurs, with mediocre writing skills. In that is not the case, all bloggers would be professional journalists by now.

Without the superhuman writing abilities, the writer has nowhere to turn to besides generating unique personal viewpoints, something that has surely not been lacking within this blog, particularly with regard to issues of working for corporate Japan that the interviewer picked up in their brief examination of its contents. In these personal opinions, surely some are perfectly valid from firsthand experiences, observations, or even secondhand accounts.

Yet, just as surely, some are bound to be pure sensationalizing of petty issues, or grave exaggeration of the positives, or more likely, negatives of particular situations, designed and written for the very reason of attracting more readers. It is not 100% the writer's fault that the words are inadvertently structured in ways that incite strong passions from the readers, who would then proceed to distort the original meaning of such words to justify their irrational passions.

Thus, for the sake of upholding the very logical and sensible nature of his or her own opinions, the blogger faces serious constraints in writing. The more he or she thinks about how the Internet-surfing, blog-reading audience perceive the "creatively generated" contents of the blog, the more he or she gets, at least mentally, the incentive to self-censor the blog posts before they are published and possible to be searched and spread across cyberspace.

Given the amount of energy needed for such careful wording and self-screening, not to mention how much such a process takes the very fun and entertaining nature out of blogging itself, one wonders if it is indeed worth it. Sure, some employers are not going to like 100% of the views presented in a blog, but one has to realize that those views are genuine and will come out, sooner or later, in its most original uncensored fashion. To have them exposed in public sure the heck is much worse than just letting them out naturally on cyber-paper.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Societal Fairness, out of Self-Interest, not Lofty Ideal

One moment, my characteristic blue backpack was beneath my feet at its usual position, and then next second it disappears into the thin air, never to be seen again. The gigantic poster in front of the busy pub warning customers about thieves lurking within the busy Friday night crowd just became a reality, this time, for me. Drunken, and surrounded by drunken friends in London suddenly did not feel so well for the normally happy crowd, as they suddenly became fearful of who is the next victim...

Frankly, despite all the justifiable anger the victim is entitled to, the fault is completely the victim's. Drunkenness (and friends' drunkenness) is by no means a valid excuse to let down one's guard and decrease the usual level of vigilance, so needed here in Europe, toward to otherwise innocent-looking strangers. But while greater vigilance by everyone may indeed lead to actual decrease in successful thefts, perhaps the possibility, the potential, and the number of theft attempts will not go down.

To exterminate the root cause of the problem would require a much deeper look into why the motivations for pub thefts, so risky for the thieves themselves being exposed to the watching crowds, for so little financial benefits of whatever the bags content (at most some notebooks and a laptop, which in my case had a worth of around 200 USD). With such an unprofitable way to steal, why would people still attempt it, so often as to warrant a massively self-fulfilling poster in front of the pub?

Coincidentally and ironically enough, the group of friends who just "witnessed" a skillful backpack theft occur "in front of their eyes" somehow began a conversation about the necessity of social fairness immediately after. The argument began under the context of one person arguing for the lack of credible logic and rationale behind ideals of "equal opportunities" for all people around the world, and some social inequality should justifiably be entrenched and accepted as matter-of-fact.

As we contemplated the hypothetical situation of a child prodigy being born in the isolated rural community of central Africa and express deep regret in the world that cannot let him/her develop the extraordinary gift, I could not help but think about the theft in such a context. Imagining the thief going through my backpack in a dark corner of the street, I wonder what could he have thought when he came upon the pages and pages of academic notes from a distinguished, renowned school like the LSE.

The answer, in my mind, is somehow a picture of deep contempt, a hatred of a society that did not provide him with the calm, nurturing environment for him to dispel negative social pressures of crime and excel academically. And unlike the child prodigy in central Africa, the thief here in London, a city of readily available information and exposure to all social virtues and vices, conditions and testaments, would only see his discontent balloon over time just from firsthand observations.

Thus, given the wide availability of information on different social inequalities that realistically do exist in the world, the only way for us as a society to reduce the conflicts, crimes, and victimization of the innocent is to give every single person equal amount of opportunities and possibilities, from the day of their birth, to reach the very top, in wealth, social status, and power, if they strive hard enough and grasp those chances.

If we do not, then the wealthy will continue to become targets of attacks, from petty thefts to more violent and life-threatening instabilities of organized crime and even political revolution. Those who display wealth will be a source of public assaults, both verbally and physically, and those without opportunities will contribute to detrimental social pressures and stress. The existence of fairness for all is not just an ideal of humanists, but genuinely in the interest of the haves if they want to keep themselves safe from violent tendencies of the have-nots.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Chinese People: NOT Welcome in London Chinatown?!

Two Chinese grad students from LSE walked into a half-empty Chinese restaurant in the middle of the equally empty London Chinatown, looking for a quick late-night meal over a casual conversation in Chinese. The restaurant has about two dozen big round tables in a bright-lit atmosphere. Three or four groups of white people were having loud conversations in English over their meals and a few drinks. The two LSE students, seemingly the only Chinese customers at that time, were shooed by the waiters speaking heavily accented English to a small square table in the poorly lit back corner of the dining, skipping past many better tables closer to the entrance.

Perhaps less than a couple of minutes after sitting down, the Chinese were immediately compelled to place their orders for food and drinks. After the food arrived, the staff of the restaurant came to check on our "progress" many times, and as soon as we were done, our table was cleaned and complimentary desserts presented. The two awkwardly felt that "the air" of the place was forcing them to leave, and they had to do so almost immediately after asking for the bill and throwing the cash on the table.

As if the whole situation is staged by the staff, on the long way out of the restaurant, the Chinese customers saw the same few groups of white people (already there before they picked the restaurant) still casually chatting away, all their finished alcohol bottles and empty plates strewn across the now dirty table, yet without the slightest "harassment" from the restaurant staff. The whole episode was, granted, pretty damn efficient, with well-cooked food served in matter of minutes, but somehow leaves a bad taste in the back of one's mouth.

Sure, having an experience like this is not anything particularly unique, and during the festivities of Chinese New Year, every customer in every restaurant on this tiny ethnic strip in the middle of London was hurried in, hurried out in a way for restaurants to capture as many celebrating tourists as possible. But this was a quiet average Tuesday night in a restaurant with spare capacity of at least another 30 simultaneously ordering and eating customers. Why is there such hurrying for the Chinese and what does it mean?

One could conceivably argue that the restaurant staff is taking into account the cultural difference between the Chinese and whites, thereby providing "good service" to both. Chinese people are particular about doing stuff fast (like using the Internet) so they should "like" being rushed to eat. But such argument, by itself, is a stereotype/generalization that the Chinese (or Asians in general) should not ascribe to, especially for those who work in a restaurant and perhaps have seen every kind of people.

Instead, this whole thing could simply be a case of "racism against one's own race." In a world where one can have interesting, lengthy conversations even in a fast food joint in workaholic Japan, to rush people through a meal in a sit-down restaurant can mean little beyond not wanting those customers to be present for a time period more than needed for them to eat the food and pay the bill. Somehow, the restaurant management decided that the "cost" of keeping the Chinese in a half-empty restaurant would be much more than the benefit of their presence making the restaurant seem more popular.

The "cost" in the mind of the restaurant manager could very much be how the Chinese presence would lead to loss of other potential high-paying customers, who are put off by the presence of the Chinese itself. The issue may be the negative image by which Chinese people are perceived by foreigners, which, in a rather culturally unique logical extension, contribute to a loss of "face" on the part of the restaurant itself, as it is not bringing out the "best facade" of itself to potential customers.

With regard to such a view by the restaurant management, the Chinese customers can do little but sigh in dismay. On one hand, it is certainly true that largely because of the negativity surrounding the Chinese government, Chinese people have also been viewed with negative light in recent years. But one the other hand, the behavior of the Chinese people running the restaurant also show that lack of gratitude so prevalent among Chinese immigrants for the support they get from their fellow countrymen in achieving success abroad...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Correlation between Happiness and Poverty: Satisfaction with the Status Quo?

"I remember those days when we were just playing around in the little stream around our house...there were no pollution, no social pressures, no corruptions...sure, we were poor, but everyone was really happy because everyone was equally poor..." Speaking with the likes of my parents' generation, spending their childhood in the pre-economic reform, pre-Cultural Revolution mainland China, these are the kind of nostalgic thoughts that are often fondly remember and recall. The younger generations, too used to being surrounded by hardly comparable materialistic wealth, quietly react to such fanciful descriptions with scoff.

It is fair to say that, in the last few decades of global integration, the change in individual mentality has been even more dramatic than those in political or economic structures for the group of rapidly emerging developing countries like China. The ethos of modern-day Chinese is not that different from their counterparts in the developed world. "Progress" for both hinges on continued improvements in the living standards, most obviously defined by greater availability of physical objects such as convenient electronics for everyday use and better social infrastructure.

The mentality is, in sum, one of continued displeasure with the existing situation at hand. Sure, life is better now that it was in years ago, but what is preventing it from getting better, and making more drastic improvements in shorter amounts of time? The emphasis on looking beyond what one already has is fundamentally a source of displeasure and unhappiness for most of the population. And thanks to race to the economic top among nations and individuals, the constant unhappiness is integrated with the socio-political environment.

Against the background of such a way of modern thinking, the Economist magazine recently released a graph showing that the degree of "happiness," as defined by the percentage of surveyed citizens calling themselves "happy" in a random-sampling poll, has fairly remarkable negative correlation with wealth, as defined by the country's GDP per capita. In other words, the magazine blandly noted, with a simple economic regression, that throughout the world, poor people tend to be happier, or at least so they say they are.

The very existence of such correlation may be the reflection of just how far globalization has come, especially in the developing world. In the isolated China of the 1950s and 1960s, very few common people had an exact idea just how wealthy the developed world is. Without a concrete standard of comparison, the people can credibly believe that they are indeed living a very good life, and despite all the inconveniences they faced, their level of materialistic wealth was what is considered "normal" and perfectly acceptable.

Fast-forward three decades, every family knows someone who has been or lived abroad, in developed states such as the US or Japan, and through first or secondhand information, everyone can easily put a finger on where and how just how much behind China is compared to the developed world. Current level of materialistic wealth becomes insufficient as everyone knows or has seen just how much more others can have. Greater understanding of economic inequality across the globe, gained through faster and more abundant dissemination of information, may be the culprit of greater "unhappiness."

The correlation between perceived inequality and unhappiness could very well be just as noticeable within a country as it is throughout the world. A corollary of the Economist data given could be one that shows that higher Gini coefficient, denoting greater internal wealth gap, would lead to lower overall happiness within the country. One would venture to say that such an amended portion would hold for all countries irrespective of overall wealth denoted by GDP per capita or some other indicator. Unhappiness is generated from relative wealth, not absolute one.

Yet, the unhappiness should not be considered purely in the negative terms. Dissatisfaction with the status quo can be transformed into positive energy that lead to the strive of the poorer individual or nation to catch up with those above them on the wealth scale. The Unhappiness can be translated into greater effort or even efficiency at the individual level, and, holding the overall economic and political environment constant, greater economic growth for the country. Perhaps attempting to show a correlation between lower happiness and greater economic growth rate would be possible as well...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How is London Such a Massive Tourist Draw?!

On a standard Sunday afternoon, the sidewalk on the Westminster Bridge simply becomes invisible. The massive hordes of tourists, of every skin color and speaking every language under the sun, spill onto the bridge, their camera clicking away at the sights of the Big Ben and the Parliament on side, and the massive wheel that is the London Eye on the other. Peddlers dressed up as British loyalty pose for pictures with the delighted tourists, while right there on the bridge, the visitor can purchase anything from an ice cream cone to a little gamble on the which-of-the-three-boxes-has-the-ball game.

Yet, such sight of London as the cosmopolitan destination of global tourism is but another five-minute stop on the self-guided walking tour of the entire city. West from the modern skyscraper district of Canary Wharf and historical heart of the the Tower Bridge and its adjacent medieval castle, to the east with the underwhelming sight of the Buckingham Palace and its changing guards, seeing all the major sights of London could not possibly take more than a few hours if the convenient tube was used a couple of times.

Even for the first-time visitor, each of the sight is not worth dwelling for more than a couple of minutes, especially considering how most of the most important ones, like the Parliament or the Buckingham Palace, does not grant the privilege of witnessing their internal grandeur to the vast majority of eager visitors. For others, such as the St Paul's Cathedral, the inside would not merit more than just a few pictures. Perhaps the only way to make the walking tour any longer is to simply get lost in its crooked streets.

The sheer blandness of London is especially evident when one is the tour guide trying to show visitors around the city. The guide does try to show his or her best effort to explain the excitement of living in the historical streets of the metropolis, among the ghosts of great personalities of the past and influential centers of decision-making even today. But even the best effort to be excited cannot hide the general complaints even the die-hard Londoners will readily expose about their hometown.

The frequent closures of the tube, the lack of convenient shopping options late at night, the danger of some neighborhoods, the lack of delicious meal options...the list goes on and on. The visitors with even minuscule opportunities to speak with locals will undoubtedly have to be exposed to such complaints, and likely to be unhesitatingly agreeing with such sentiment by the end of their one-week trip. The faceless mega-city, for all its residents and visitors, often acts as a black hole for all positive feelings and expectations.

As an alternative, one can argue that the unique lifestyle offered by London could still be counted as a fascinating element for the first-timer. Sure, the British pub culture, with locals watching soccer (sorry, "football," that is) and sipping UK-brewed ales amid gold-gilded wooden frames of historical yet very much local watering holes would be an unmissable experience. But how much of the experience is actually fun without the very act of getting drunk or watching others get drunk? One is forced to wonder...

All this is not to say that one should not visit London. London, after all, is London, one of the most economically powerful and influential cities of the world, commanding over a culture and language whose offspring we all ascribe to in some way or the other. But just because it is what it is does not make London any different from other large cities around the world. The expectation that the city, and Europe as a whole, for that matter, is simply surreal and beyond normal human comprehension is simply absurd.

To be frank, London, with its history of being a small little forge on the mighty Thames River, should be regarded a little local town that just happened to be caught up in the waves of human migration during the era of colonization and globalization. Its massive hordes of foreign visitors and residents, just like its exorbitant prices for everyday goods, are nothing but an unfortunate side effect to an unprepared and sudden shove from the world over that pushed it against its will into the global spotlight...

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Jeremy Lin and the Paradox of "Asian Athlete"

The gap that separates a globally known superstar and the endless queue of nobodies waiting to get their shot at fame, in professional sports at least, is a matter of a few stellar performances dished out in the most unexpected way. The "unexpected" factor goes up further if the amazing performances come from those who are least expected to make those amazing performances. And for the minimally perceptive public to list those with the least likelihood to "make it big," it rarely takes more than a few stereotype-based "criteria."

As far as basketball, a sport requiring physical explosiveness and agility, not to mention height, physical appearance by itself is enough to make certain predictions regarding potential success. The easiest of those "physical appearance" classification is race, by which East Asians, with statistically proven lowest average height, not to mention worst records for every sport and activity testing endurance and speed, without a doubt comes at the heavily disadvantaged very bottom for predicted success in basketball.

Sure, in every classification there would be outliers with freakishly "un-Asian" characteristics, as in the case of Yao Ming with abnormal height when it comes to basketball. In such circumstances, success can be understood, but in terms of DESPITE the racial disadvantages. And then came Jeremy Lin. His presence in basketball, not to mention success, is an enigma by itself, considering a family background completely unrelated to sports (both parents are very much average height, working as computer engineers).

To put it in a highly racially-stereotyped way, while the African-Americans in the NBA were busy honing their skills on the street playing street-ball since a very young age, Lin, like many other Asian kids growing up in strict upbringing of a Tiger-mom style parenting, probably did not...or at least, not nearly as much as non-Asian players in the league. And surely enough, having gone on to play for a Harvard basketball team not known for producing professionals probably means equally concentrated and consistent academic efforts.

Asian, Harvard, not particularly tall (Lin is 1.91m), normal Asian family background, and indeed unprecedented (never have there really been a successful Asian point guard in NBA history) are all factors that make the sudden breakout of Jeremy Lin unexpected, even for those who do not particularly pay attention to sports like myself. What his sudden fame illustrates is not really anything about NBA or sports in general (he could just be another outlier with regard to a factor that no one has really considered).

But it does say plenty about what it means for one to step out of a "socially predefined role" based on existing racial (and any other crudely put yet widespread) impressions held by the general populace. The "wow"s Lin earned in the last week is may be characteristic of an America where prevalence of individualist principles leads to respect for those who are and seeks uniqueness at a personal level. But even in a conformity-obsessed Asia, the Jeremy Lin phenomenon is receiving serious and highly positive attention from the public.

Essentially, every single shot Jeremy Lin sinks in a game, for those paying attention to his endeavors (basically at this point, everyone), he is creating some sort of hope for more permanent breakdown of a self-fulfilling prophecy: no longer will the Asian simply takes it for granted that they have certain unchangeable limitations, such as their biological build hampering performance in sports. And the resulting "hope" is not simply limited to Asians. All, of any physical diversity, would come to realize the power of later-day efforts in suppressing the disadvantages of "nature."

That hope, as the rapidly growing commercial and media value of Jeremy Lin demonstrates, has been aggressively and pleasantly absorbed by large number of people across the world. What he represents is not just a successful sportsman, but a belief, a force that breaks down unseen emotional and socio-cultural barriers that constrains both horizontal and vertical social mobility of a wide range of people. It is not simply about race, it is about everyone who is now coming to realize the folly of their own self-restraints in life. And that, ultimately, is the meaning of the Jeremy Lin phenomenon.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Small Country's Destiny Revisited: the Case of Luxembourg

The main street of Luxembourg City looked rather deserted on a cold wintry weekend, with windchill sending temperatures down to negatives even on the Fahrenheit scale. Yet, the wealth of the tiny Western European country could not have been more evident. Luxury cars from the "normal" Mercedes, BMW, and Audi to the more flashy Lamborghini are ubiquitous, yet blending in with the old town with visual evidence of ducal glory dating from the 8th century in a perfect mix of tradition and modernity. In a continent dominated by wars among major powers, the tiny country somehow survived AND became its wealthiest...

Even as tourists quickly poke fun at the description coded by UNESCO at the World Heritage-listed Luxembourg Old Town proclaiming the country to "have played significant role in European history," in terms of defining what the existence of micro-states means in the modern era, the millennium-old living example of Luxembourg is perhaps playing a very significant role. It, along with states such as Monaco and Andorra, represent the rare breed of small states where performance in external relations has not be the determining factor for sovereignty. Indeed, its continued survival seems to be guaranteed even as it lives in a "tough neighborhood."

Nearly two years in Taiwan, the traveler was convinced that in order for a small country (relatively small economic size, population, geography, and overall "strategic depth") to survive, it has to play off major powers or simply be at the mercy of the major powers in its effort to maintain geopolitical significance and sustainable sovereignty. Indeed, Taiwan was the perfect case for East Asia, being surrounded and influenced by regional powers such as Japan, China, Russia, and the US. Its economy and political integrity depended on relations with all these states.

There is a striking similarity between Luxembourg's situation in Europe. Being one of the smallest states on the continent, it is subjected to overwhelming power of not only the major European heavyweights of neighboring France and Germany, but also tiny compared to "middling powers" (at best) of Belgium and the Netherlands. As a political vestige of Europe's Dark Ages, its very survival is a matter of amusement for the foreign travelers, and perhaps a result of geopolitical motivation in neighboring states rather than the "power" of the Luxembourger leaders and citizenry.

If anything, to the casual observer, Luxembourg's situation in Europe is much more precarious than that of Taiwan in East Asia. While more than 10% of Taiwanese citizens reside abroad (mainly in China) for business, much more of the Luxembourg citizenry are permanently residing abroad, pursuing more exciting employment in various areas of the EU. Luxembourg economy, with its strong off-shore banking sector is notably much more affected by economic performance of its clients than Taiwan's high-tech manufacturing.

Yet, despite being surrounded by major powers, each of them with multiple times the geographic, demographic, and economic size of itself, Luxembourg is sitting very comfortably in the middle of the neighborhood, simply enjoying the unparalleled wealth at the personal level. By being absolutely nonchalant about political affairs, so much as to not even retaining any sort of regional, not to mention international, voice in diplomacy, the country is becoming some sort of liberal safe haven free of all criticisms from abroad.

So, the situation of Luxembourg denotes a model of how micro-states may "behave" successfully in a geographic arena of semi-permanent power struggles among bigger states: it is, to put simply, do nothing at all. Take no sides in conflicts, be open to investments and cooperation from all sides with no reservation, and never attempt to emphasize (or even have in the first place) its own international political agenda. By doing nothing, the likes of Luxembourg, along with Monaco, and to lesser extent Andorra, became special economic regions with high standards of living.

Can such model be exported? Surely, for a place like Taiwan, to not emphasize its own interests abroad would certainly mean death at the hands of an invading force. but what about countries with less pronounced conflicts? Places as diverse as Rwanda, Singapore, and to lesser extent, Hong Kong, can benefit from toning down their fierce pride in attempts to stand out in their respective world regions. A lack of political stance may be the true beginning of widespread economic integration with all major regional powers.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Solitude and Sincerity, Sobriety and Superiority, Snow and Superbowl

A snowy weekend in London, and the only thing that seemed to have been more exciting than some people seeing the first snow in their entire lives were the excitement brought, at least for some, the Superbowl, or finals match of the American football match, occurring halfway across the world in Indianapolis. For some, it was a time to great homesickness, missing the beers, the couches, and the screaming with childhood friends who they grew up together watching the Superbowl every year. For some, perhaps, it was a time to put behind that rusty annual routine and get on with being a more locally integrated expatriate for once...

With more life experiences, one comes to see more and more aspects of it being a reflection of true dichotomy, as opposed to any sort of spectrum with many grey zones. For every football game, there is a victor and a loser; and for every country, there seems to be an increased split of those who love it and those who despise it. Gone are the days of "middle ground," of compromises, of cooperation while putting aside differences. To the half of the population ending on the "right side," history grants them the right to knowledge of the future, and for the defeated, well, there is only voices of "best luck next time...if there is a next time."

The most straightforwardly simple situations are often the most splendidly surreal depiction of such dichotomy in life. My past weekend was such an example. On Thursday night, I would feel just how routine-like and lonesome my life in London has become after weeks of superficial compulsory "going-out" routines. Then Friday night, I find myself caught in the middle of one of the largest clubbing events I have experienced since coming to London. Another night later, I find myself talking to a nice Brazilian kid about how going out in such nasty weather is just "crazy talk."

And then, another night later, I was attempting in vain to advise a fellow traveler on the possible options for going out to watch live Jazz shows in London's various bars and pubs. One may call it "mood swings," but the back-and-forth of the quiet moments and the, well, more boisterous ones, in good and bad ways, just like two even-handed football teams battling it out on the gridiron, with scores for one side going up in balance to a prior increase in score for the opposing side. Not one side shows clear advantage until the very end of the match.

The dichotomous up-and-down swings, of course, are not without its justifications, provided by so many, yet just as black-and-white pieces of outwardly expressed bits of one&s own psyche. "To be social or not social" is always a good one for determining just how much a person is "socialized" within a society, but not always a good one. After all, simply wanting not to be alone cannot justify lengthy episodes of drunkenness or random conversations. The content of one's minds has to correspond to the contents of the situations.

A classic alternative explanation is the dichotomy of self-pride vs inferiority-complex. Crudely put, the very idea of bragging to a willing audience is like getting high on drugs. People feel so good from talking up a storm retelling their awesome endeavors, pushed on by a wowed group of listeners. In contrast, those who are unable to come up with similar stories, whether in response to mesmerizing tales of others, or simply disappointing the high expectations of the willing listeners, are bound to feel slightly ashamed.

...and that is just like the football team with the high expectations going into a major game, only to be thrashed by the opponents, or in some cases, win in a very unconvincing manner, only to be doubted by the fans and media, lashing out against their mediocrity. The braggarts, as the football teams with the high hopes, are bound to be dejected and decreased in morale after a few disappointments. And even worse, those with nothing to brag, and the underdogs who forever continues to be underdogs, will live out their lives in sorrow through self-fulfilling abject failure...

That is, all in all, the dichotomy of life, something that one comes across in various fashions in various places, with various people in various circumstances, but never fully realizing its presence and influence until reflections and realizations much later in the progress of time. Just like football, there would be celebration and dejection, but just like the snow, the ugliest and the most beautiful sights are all bound to disappear at some point, only to return at a later date. A football season would not be erased from the history books, but with each year, a new chapter of unpredictability is written. Life should also just be like that...

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Freedom to Choose a Partner in Life as a Universal Human Right

The idea of "feudalism," as marked by the inflexible, hierarchical, and often hereditary relationship between a wealthier and more powerful lord and his poor and submissive servants, as opposed by the foundation of modern republican nation-state, is often just as socio-cultural in nature just as it was political and economic. Yes, the overthrow of the established elite aristocratic class was a means to break their monopoly of political control and means of economic production, but what really distinguish the so-called "feudalistic" society of the middle ages and most of the modern and developed societies is just as much in the field of "common attitude" as by wealth.

The definition of what constitute that "modern attitude," of course, varies from society to society. In some, the values of individual freedoms are maximized and completely decriminalized as long as the freedoms of one person does not interfere with those of others. In some, the idea of conformity to the generally practiced norms of society in all aspects of life, generates collective social conscience. And still in some, modern attitudes are redefined, but at the same time not constrained, by reexamining classical values of the past.

But the premise of all such examples are the same, the modern society, just as any society of the past, relies on a set of what is considered right and wrong accepted by the vast majority of its constituents to operate smoothly, without constant accusations of unfairness and immorality. While no universal legal code as such exist, any blatant opposition of the widely accepted established values with direct intent of restricting social freedoms can simply be defined as violation of a universal human right.

Under such definition, the modern human would view the hereditary nature of the feudal lord-servant relationship to be restraining the social mobility of the servant, and thus violating human rights through unnecessary limitation of freedom through coercion. The exact same logic works for situations as varied as Internet censorship in China to outright racism, expressed even in the most subtle of methods. Those who seek to violate such rights may not receive legal punishments, but are sure to receive social rebuke if known to a globalized citizenry.

One such violation that has yet to receive much-deserved public attention, especially in the Western world where such idea has already for centuries been considered outdated and worthy of ridicule, is the institution of arranged marriage. The idea, still very much in vogue in the upper social echelons of places such as the Indian subcontinent, is intrinsically a feudal idea of preventing social mobility by ensuring that certain "good" families, as defined by their positions in social hierarchy, maintain high social position down the generations by bonding only with other "good families."

Scarily enough, the feudal institutions has evolved along with modern society. Even in republican and democratic societies, a political oligarchy of literati and businessmen have come to exert almost complete political and economic control of a state, bolstered by presence of large populations who seem largely content with their complete lack of real voice with the functioning and future course of the nation. In such societies, arranged marriage has not only stayed, but is even making a comeback.

The newly rich and powerful, mentally congruous with medieval lords, are more and more willing to segregate themselves socially from "the others" in the background of an increasing discrepancy between haves and have-nots. A violation of a universal human right, one that is even considered ludicrous in some parts of the modern world, is now being framed as a matter of social necessity to protect the political and economic oligarchy against populist and potentially violent encroachment of the "uneducated, unknowing" general populace.

And today, the oligarchy is trying to sell this inhumane institution to the younger generations as something normal and acceptable. Using the unparalleled power and wealth, the establishment, in the form of family friends, older relatives, and even parents themselves, is forcefully reverse the negative global image of the institution. And if the younger generation does not resist, then one day, a human rights violation may indeed, in the public opinion of the majority, become part of the universal norm...

Monday, January 30, 2012

Soft Power Revisited: "Majority Culture" vs "Minority Culture"?!

The rising importance of "soft power" in modern society is unmistakable and unavoidable. In an era when more deadly weapons and less urgent conflicts make wars among established nations less likely, the battle for supremacy between nations is increasingly shifting to ones dominated by positive image and cultural influence. While one may not feel just how fierce this quiet cultural battle is, when one finds oneself living in the supposed "cultural melting pot" of Europe and America, the issue of cultural interaction and communication becomes a matter of daily life.

Yet, occasionally, it is more interesting to see how some cultures do NOT interact, and attempt to stay insular in an otherwise extremely multicultural atmosphere. Instead of "melting in" and mixing with elements of other peoples and customs, the similarly "foreign" cultures imported to a third country may implicitly but surely, battle for influence, both in order to remain true to itself, and to attract the liking of other "foreigners." Certainly, some will be more successful than others in this persistent cultural battle, but none can completely conquer the others because no culture would abandon its own identity just to "fit in better."

Moreover, the cultural battle is not simply about the pride of a people originating from a faraway nation in being recognized by others across the world. It has much more of a commercial necessity, with many of the poorly integrated members of an immigrant society seeking to use the cultural exoticism for a sustained living, whether it be an ethnic market, souvenir shop, or a restaurant. To have one's culture understood and liked by the others, even at a highly casual way, for them becomes a serious matter of financial life and death.

So I thought as I went for a lunch with a friend to a hard-to-find Korean restaurant while skipping the most massive Chinese New Years celebration the city of London puts on this same day and roughly around the same time. The friendly little cafe on a rather unnoticeable side street two blocks away from the British Museum turned out to be one of the most relaxed and friendly ethnic places I came across in London, greatly satisfying at least the atmospheric portion of our craving for Korea.

But a lazy Sunday afternoon was also somewhat true not only for the few customers, but also for the restaurant owner. With no Korean customer, a few Japanese businessmen, and many open seats in what aptly can be described as a hole-in-the-wall, the reservation I made for lunch to make sure I have a spot was not even worth confirming for the server as she showed us to our seat in the back. It was a massive contrast to the previous weekend when I went to Chinatown for lunch, where me and my friend was hurried through our meal only to see the long queue outside every little eatery on the New Year-decorated area.

Of course, this is not at all to say that Korean culture is less attractive to foreigners than Chinese culture is. In fact, after one sees the negative images of the word "Chinese" gets after being persistently associated with a politically controversial government in Beijing, one wonders just how and why people still would feel affinity to China in the first place. Barring intervention from the government organizers and pressures from China, the Chinese New Years celebrations in London should logically become a venue for certain NGOs venting their anger regarding human rights or Tibet.

On the other hand, it could pretty much be said that Korean cultural power is expanding just as much and as fast as Chinese economic power as its cultural exports of pop music and romantic dramas have now truly started to make inroads outside of the traditional Asian market with government support. The only reason that it is "Chinese" New Year, rather than "Korean" New Year (yes, they do also celebrate it) that is being celebrated in the West, is, perhaps, ironically, the greater number of Chinese emigrants fleeing their homes due to political and economic instability.

But for now, our little piece of Korea in the heart of central London still feels like a isolated little boat inching forward in a turbulent foreign sea. Cultural acceptance requires continued exposure and massive amount of communication. Some, like the old Chinese immigrants founding the Chinatown, were forced to do so for generations as a matter of survival. Others, who can be perceived as "minorities" today, will gradually catch up, eventually wearing away the first-move advantage of an increasingly commercialized and meaningless Chinatown culture.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Good One-Percenter, Bad One-Percenter...

In a day and age where tens of thousands of well-educated college students go on demonstration to protest the disproportionate amount of global wealth held by the elite "1%," it is glad to see, perhaps a bit ironically, that the very icon of someone, at least in financial profile, leading the pack of the global "one-percenters" is, in fact, receiving a rather pleasant reception from the student population. In his quick, 3-second move from the lecture hall from which his delivered his web-broadcast address to his awaiting black van was anticipated by a massive crowd clicking away on their cameras, waving, and chanting in joy.

If there is anything that can be said of Mr Bill Gates' few-hours-long visit to the LSE, it is about just how divisive a term like "1%" really is, even for people who belong solidly in the 1% (such as Mr Gates) or the people who are very likely to belong in the 1% in the near future (the excited LSE students flanking his van and updating their Facebook status immediately after the 3-second "event.") Sure, there were a few dissident voices in the background ("say, isn't that black van a little bit too big for someone who preaches environmentalism?"), but the whole process remained remarkably calm and uneventful.

Now imagine if the CEO of Goldman Sachs, not Microsoft, was here at the LSE delivering exactly the same speech at the same place to the same people. The crowd outside the black van will still gather, and they probably would still have their cameras clicking away, but the atmosphere will not be one of "It was AMAZING, I saw a billionaire" and end of the story. There would bound to be name-calling banners, of student organizations chanting anti-corporate slogans, and plenty of post-event Facebook status updates dripping with cynicism and criticism.

...And all that would only happen if it is assumed that the CEO of Goldman Sachs would be able to deliver his speech, with LSE budging the pressure of cancelling his very appearance for fear of prolonged student protests and somehow managing to promise the CEO his personal safety while he is on the LSE "campus." For now, let's just say that the very idea of Goldman Sachs CEO appearing in the LSE for anything other than an Investment Society private event is highly unlikely. LSE grads may become 1% later on, but for now, as poor students, that still like to think they have certain ideals.

The whole scenario, then, begs the question of what, exactly, is the difference between the CEO of Microsoft and that of Goldman Sachs. Certainly not the amount of wealth they generate for themselves, their employees, and the society. And also not in terms of the social, political, or even cultural impact they bring about on a global scale. Both provide very utilized services and products to worldwide clients, and both contribute heavily to employment and tax revenue income of whatever countries they decide to operate within.

Some idealists then go on to point out what they believe to be the differences. One, they would say, created a business empire and changed the lifestyles of billions in one of the all-time greatest rags-to-riches stories. The other simply inherited a pile of cash given by a group of duped and partially informed "investors" which he went to multiply rapidly by creating elaborate mechanisms that operated based on deceiving both the public and the government. The morality, or lack thereof, behind accumulation of wealth is all that makes the difference.

Yet, the same idealist seemed to forget none of the Microsoft products were actually "invented." They were assembled from a hodge-podge of different technological breakthroughs that already existed at the time. Mr Gates and his team were clever enough to put them in a single package, and then improve upon the original package over decades of increasing usage. The ingenuous assembling of existing techniques is also exactly what investment banks have done to expand their grip on global economy, in much of the same way Microsoft created a near monopoly in operating software.

In essence, who Occupy Wall St protesters and the media labelled the "1%" is not a general term for those who control the global means of production and inflows of wealth, but entirely a social construct based on people's hatred for the existing social order. Perhaps Mr Gates was smart to foresee the breakout of such immense and irrepressible emotions over the public perceived unfairness of wealth distribution and preemptively market himself as a "man of the people" through his Foundation. But at the core, business is business, and feeding a few more of the starving and putting a few more of the disadvantaged in college is not going to change business operations, whether it is for Microsoft or Goldman Sachs.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Commercialization of Chinese New Year and Death of Unified Chinese Identity

除夕 (Tsu-shee), or the eve of Chinese New Year (春節, "Tsun-jae"), is today, and atmosphere certainly showed on the main street of the London Chinatown. The usual suspects of red lanterns and shops going on New Year sales aside, the crowds filled the street, filling nearly all eateries to the maximum capacity. Not only were the British Chinese present, the tourists from China, as well as non-Chinese British residents and tourists alike congregated to make the red, gold, and people-filled little district quite picturesque in a highly China-esque way.

Indeed, on this Year of the Dragon, even the least knowledgeable foreigner with access to a bit of information outlet could not have avoided the bombardment of the Chinese New Year-related activities. On one hand, foreign dignitaries, from the UN secretary to presidents of major powers, have wasted no time courting the favors of Chinese officialdom and people with official new years greeting videos partially done in badly pronounced Chinese. All emphasized the need for closer relations with China and the Chinese communities for future development.

As for development, service industries across the world have taken an aggressive step further. A "golden week" of Chinese new year holidays means a massive flow of newly wealthy Chinese tourists abroad. And after witnessing the unparalleled spending power of the massed Asian hordes during the New Year vacations, and with no other significant groups to cater to, stores in major tourist destination for the Chinese are busy hiring Chinese-speaking staff and draping their facades in Chinese red and gold colors to lure in the Chinese money.

And of course, the Chinese themselves are actively involved in all the action. Whether it is in China or abroad, the Chinese consumers are increasing converging with developed country consumers in the matter of taste. Chinese New Year presents of today are just as likely to be a bottle of wine from France as a bottle of traditional Chinese rice liquor. The Chinese government, of course, would use the increased spending power of its citizens, to go on a "charm offensive" promoting Chinese culture.

However, lurking beneath the perceived growth of economic power of the Chinese populace and the soft power of Chinese culture is an increasing divisive vision of what "China," as an ethnic and cultural entity, really symbolizes. The Chinese-speaking world can no longer agree to be "all Chinese" and the mutual hatred by Chinese of different origins is reaching a high new level. For one, the recent trend of the Taiwanese increasingly refusing to identify culturally with the Chinese is a worrisome sign.

However, it is the recent episode of conflicts between mainlanders and locals in Hong Kong that are sparking widespread debate and outrage in the Chinese cyberspace. The story begins with a mainland tourist in Hong Kong eating in the subway, an act that is strictly forbidden in Hong Kong but widely practiced in places like Shanghai and Beijing. A local's attempt to stop the mainlander was met with ridicule, and a violent verbal exchange quickly ensued. The whole story could have ended right there with netizens from all sides criticizing the mainland tourist for refusing to adapt to local customs.

But a certain Prof. Kong of the renowned Peking University, himself a direct descendant of Confucius, lashed out against the locals of Hong Kong for being "dogs." The issue suddenly became one of the mainland academic community and populace against the Hong Kong government and people. The exaggeration of such small incident, initiated by a few "bad apples" and resolvable through a few quick apologies, somehow becomes massive national controversies when taken to the Chinese-speaking world. When the pride of the Hong Kong residents over their perceived superiority over the mainlanders gets insulted, all hell breaks loose.

Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has their sense of superiority, whether it be Taiwan or for the overseas Chinese. But if we cannot sit aside those differences in a time of happiness in unity like the Chinese New Year, then the concpet of Chinese New Year itself may become culturally meaningless and blindly materialistic like the kind of Christmas celebrated in Asia. And, worse, the concept of "China" may soon become a purely evil political one rather than exotic cultural one.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

When Did "Patriotism" Become So Black-and-White?

While economically the world continues to live through the uncertain futures of the Great Recession, it seems that in the political front, there are increasingly optimism and hope that the next few years will offer the sort of global conciliation and peace needed to create the stable environment desired for economic growth. Over in the Middle East, the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq finally seems to be drawing to a close, despite the indefinite presence of myriad local ethnic conflicts. The tension with respect to Syria and Iran, while leading to local bloodshed and show of force, has yet to become seriously disruptive on a global scale.

Over in Asia, the two traditional hot-spots, Taiwan and Korea, are also somewhat "cooling down" vis-a-vis the major powers involved. The presidential election of Taiwan reaffirmed the strength of forces favoring preservation of economics-focused status quo, much to the relief of Washington and Beijing. And the sudden transfer of (hereditary) power in North Korea has yet to produce inflammatory or aggressive stances on any side. State-level actors, and lower level actors constrained by the state, are all playing nice.

And surveying the current sources of conflicts in the world, the vast majority has shifted from governments (whether it be North Korea, Iran, China, or the U.S.) to a much more defused bunch consisting of private individuals with strong radicalized beliefs willing to act upon them even at extremely high cost. Of course, terrorist organizations beginning with a few ideological guys with some extra cash to spend would be the most obvious examples to raise here, but even as the terrorists have repeatedly proven, in the current age of technology and global trade, organizations are not needed for extensive damage.

Any individual with access to a little cash can purchase crude weapons of destruction and transport them to where it is necessary for destruction, while remaining completely undetected. All that is really necessary besides a little cash is a large dose of radicalization, giving an individual the ideational fuel needed to walk straight along a path of destruction. Unfortunately, looking around everyday life, one simply finds a ubiquity of such thoughts permeating daily lives. One can simply drop in to listen and instantly pick up the most violent strand of radical militancy.

Chief among such radicalism is an increased tendency toward black-or-white patriotism, by which one can define as a love of one' country expressed in either (1) complete approval of EVERYTHING done by one's country while tolerating no criticism, or (2) complete disapproval of EVERYTHING done by the national government while tolerating no positive comments of the status quo. While sounding like polar opposites, the two types emerge from exactly the same type of reasoning, grounded not in well-founded academic or factual logic but upon repeated experiences in emotional interactions with others of different views and backgrounds.

And, perhaps ironically, "the others" in such context often represent foreigners with limited knowledge of one's country, the very group one is supposed to educate about one's country and be educated about foreign lands in order to become true global citizens. Yet, instead of responding to the often partial comments of a partially-informed foreign friend with sensitive care and friendly remainders of alternative explanations, the back-or-white patriot often take such comments as a direct assault or complete approval of his or her country.

Responding to the ill-informed comments of foreigners, the patriots then go around emotionally attacking or supporting what they call the foreigners' fundamental bias against his or her great land. Any of his or her fellow citizens daring enough to agree with the criticisms, or contradict the praises uttered by the foreigners, even in the slightest part, would quickly become "traitors" in the eyes of the black-or-white nationalist. Social fractures, both internally within the collective citizenry of a certain country, or externally across different nationalities, would deepen with the presence of these unwanted patriots.

It is not difficult for anyone to join the ranks of such illogical nationalists. The internet and mainstream media, with their so many outlets promoting national greatness to an excess degree, is a great place to start. Isolating oneself to one's compatriots while simply dismissing foreigners as empty-minded is a great way to cement such blatant radicalism. And as small individuals built up such unwanted sentiments in their daily lives, there will be times when words will not be sufficient to keep it in check. The resulting actions will be more damaging than that of any state-owned military...