Sunday, January 29, 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.

Wednesday, January 25, 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.

Tuesday, January 17, 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...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

KMT Reelection in Taiwan: 4 More Years of Peaceful Coexistence with China?

Gone are the days when any analyst seeking to get a clear picture of Sino-Taiwanese relations would have to first look into the military aspect. Are the American aircraft carriers going to enter a war in case of mainland invasion, and how much advanced weaponry can the Taiwanese procure to deter the potential invasion, thankfully, are no longer the primary concerns when we address the future developments across the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, even as the PRC government continue to point thousands of missiles at the end, there has been more talks of non-violent means of resolving the decades-old "problem."

And the Taiwanese presidential election results published yesterday indicates that on that aspect of toning down the traditional militant stance, both sides are increasingly converging toward a single view. The reelection of "moderate" (at least with regard to China relations) president Ma Ying-jeou shows that the the Taiwanese public, in their current economic instability, does not have the excess energy to devote energy to a more flared-up cross-Strait relations. Questions of economic health rules the agenda, and trade, not potential war, with the mainland, is a big component.

However, for the leaders to Beijing to be simply convinced that Chinese soft power has won over the Taiwanese public, and the existing status quo would comfortably remain for at least the next four years would be a grave underestimation of Taiwanese influence on the mainland, especially at a grass-roots level. Certainly, it could be said that the Taiwanese could be more reliant on the mainland for economic stability than the other way around, but for non-economic factors, the evaluation is much murkier.

For instance, take the issue of the very process of election in Taiwan. Unprecedented in the history of China, the state-owned TV stations and state-monitored major portal websites were actually allowed to do LIVE coverage of the Taiwanese elections, with all the boisterous debates of netizens, and millions of excited commoners glued to the screen to check on the current balance among the major contenders. Add to that the presence of two million Taiwanese citizens interacting with the mainland middle class in the major urban centers of the mainland, and there forms a primitive yet all-too-functioning election atmosphere too reminiscent of similar times in places like the US.

With Chinese citizens speaking out for their favorite candidates (even though the choice is pretty much unanimous on the mainland with near 100% support for Mr. Ma), the only thing that is missing is the ability to vote. Combine that with mainland coverage of all the random election stories (e.g. conspiracy theories, celebrity endorsements, voter turnouts, the list goes on and on), and the excitement for the election on the mainland, barring actual street rallies, is not any less than what is found in Taiwan.

If such excitement does not constitute Taiwanese soft power, what else can? The systematic support for the political process (if not the views) of Taiwan demonstrated by the people (and to an extent, the government) of mainland China is unprecedented in the history of relationships between independent sovereign entities. Much as Hong Kong pop culture claimed the eyes and ears of the mainland people, the Taiwanese election culture has claimed the hearts and souls of the educated elites of the mainland.

And it is not difficult to envision that Mr. Ma, riding that wave of domestic and mainland support, will seek to take a much more "independent" stance on relations with China. Already in his victory speech, he has promised to continue the process of having Taiwan joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a FTA that includes the US and most advanced Asian economies but blatantly excludes mainland China. Facing the small country's destiny of having to rely on major powers for shield, Mr. Ma's Taiwan may secretly pick the US even for economic support.

Ultimately, what "peace" means across the Taiwan Strait would depend on how the government in Beijing responds to such undermining of CCP authority through indirect political influence and economic distancing. Certainly, gone are the rhetoric of missile tests, invasions, and wars, but for a country so deprived of suitable soft power weapons at the grass-roots level, mainland China would have a much harder time neutralizing the threat from a "war of ideas and minds." How Beijing reacts to the behavior of an emboldened reelected Mr. Ma would be the determining factor for peace or non-violent conflict in the coming years.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Dominant" vs "Auxiliary" SNS and the Future Convergence of all SNS

Around Day 27 of my 30-day, 30-country mega-trip across continental Europe, my usual (and often exclusive) source of self-expression, i.e. Facebook account, suddenly was suddenly disabled without prior notice or warning. After contacting the customer service personnel, the account was not reinstated until this morning, nearly a week later from the mysterious suspension. In the mean time, there was a frantic effort to set up and expand other SNS accounts to replace the inflows of readers entering this blog from Facebook.

As much as the amazing power of the user-generated contents (UGC) in social networking is confirmed, the propagation of the UGC through cyberspace is by all means quite murky. One can share a link as many times as possible in as many places as possible to get maximum possible exposure of the link among the largest possible group of SNS users, but the fact the link pops up on the front page of everyone's favorite SNS all the time does not guarantee that the link is clicked on, no matter how interesting the content really seems to be.

In fact, sharing certain links, as one comes to find out over time, is pretty efforts in vain when targeting certain locations or segments of audience. The reason could be as simple as the fact that the link is blocked as "harmful" in the eyes of automatically set up filtering systems (especially in the case of China), or the audience that comes across the link would "mentally filter" out the content as inappropriate for the given destination. The latter is especially true for the many people taking advantage of active use of SNS by large populations for business purposes.

And whats most important to understand, if one tries to replace the power of one SNS with those of others, is that having a largest number of users or even a rapidly expanding membership does not automatically equal greater clout or potential dominance of a certain SNS. Increasingly, there is a trend of a netizen holding a "primary" and one or many "auxiliary" SNS accounts to boost online presence. However, the auxiliary accounts supplementing the main one would be used to communicate with a very small, well-defined, and most likely unchanging group of well-acquainted people.

Thus, one sees the continuing expansion of regional or country-specific SNS such as Cyworld in Korea or Mixi in Japan, as well as purpose-specific ones such as Linkedin for business despite the increasing dominance of Facebook and Twitter at a global level. Users, despite spending most of social networking time on Facebook or Twitter, need to at least infrequently maintain the auxiliary accounts to communicate with the holdouts, and increasingly, coerce the holdouts into accepting the mainstream dominant global SNS sites.

The limited purposes of the auxiliary SNS can easily be seen when the same link is shared across them and the dominant SNS. By monitoring the sources from the audience clicked on the link, one can easily determine, by the sheer disparity in number of entries, the differences of dominant and other SNS. The dominant SNS is the only place that the SNS user would go to leisurely browse new materials (as the content of the shared link) while they only head to the other ones to fulfill a specific mission or purpose.

Eventually, however, as more and more holdouts from smaller SNS joins the dominant ones to increase their own "social capital," or quit SNS altogether, it becomes less and less necessary for active SNS users to go back to their auxiliary SNS accounts. Ultimately, these accounts will remain in place but abandoned in reality with no more actual sign-ins. The global SNS arena, barring the few exceptions that do exist because of "country-specific regulations" (again, as in China), will be consolidated into one or two SNS, which will have increasingly overlapping memberships.

There may never be one SNS left standing (likely due to personal preferences for certain functions), but one thig is clear: the greater convergence of SNS means one's social capital is more and more concentrated within one SNS account, and if that account is blocked (as in the case of my Facebook), one's SNS presence may be drastically reduced immediately. Perhaps for that reason, it is better to actually maintain presence and constant updating within multiple accounts to reduce such "social risks."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A 30-Day, 30-Country European Trip Drawing to a Close...

All good things have to come to an end, and as I spend my final night here on the Continent awaiting my morning flight to London from Berlin, I still somehow lament the unlikely finale of a trip that was at the same time too long but also in a way a bit too short. Yes, I am ready to go back home, settle down, and get some studying done again, but the accumulation of the many experiences and stories of the road must still be regurgitated, digested, continually reflected, and if anything, requires further reinforcements to prove them to be generally valid rather than simple one-time exceptions.

But before I go on, here is the final authoritative list of countries touched and visited on this trip out of London and terminating here in Berlin: (1) France, (2) Belgium, (3) the Netherlands, (4) Germany, (5) Denmark, (6) Norway, (7) Sweden, (8) Finland, (9) Estonia, (10) Latvia, (11) Lithuania, (12) Poland, (13) Ukraine, (14) Moldova, (15) Romania, (16) Bulgaria, (17)Turkey, (18) Greece, (19) Albania, (20) Macedonia, (21) Kosovo, (22) Montenegro, (23) Croatia, (24) Bosnia, (25) Serbia, (26) Hungary, (27) Slovenia, (28) Austria, (29) Slovakia, (30) Czech Republic.

Unbelievably, in the one month-long trip, I actually managed to average one country per day, and given the fact that I visisted more than one city in some counties (e.g. Warsaw and Krakow in Poland, Lviv and Kiev in Ukraine, Dubrovnik and Zagreb in Croatia, Hamburg and Berlin in Germany, etc), I actually managed average more than one city a day despite the fact that all journey up until this very last flight back to the UK are done with sometimes extremely slow and clunky trains and buses.

If the sheer speed of progress was one defining characteristic of the trip, the sheer differences of conditions and cultures encountered during the whirlwind tour of the Continent was definitely the other. The differences are especially sharp in mentality. On one hand, some countries are leading the world in modernity through the acts of recognizing and actively preserving their traditions. They are moving toward worldly humanist principles that move beyond narrow nationalist concerns. These countries deserve our respect and our emulation.

But on the other hand, for every admirable quality some on the Continent offered, there were always other, equally noticeable elements of malign. A traveler had to keep his vigilance at the highest level in some parts of Europe, mostly dealing with random incidents of locals sacrificing their countries' reputation for personal benefits of ill-devised financial scams, or more benignly but just as annoyingly, a prevalent outward expression of racism. A clearly misplaced and irrational sense of local pride alarms anyone with an internationalist mindset.

To make all the observations and their meticulous recording happen, I must thank the "friends" who accompanied my journey faithfully to the end. My informative travel guide book, who saved me repeatedly when I was completely lost in completely unknown lands, situations that would lead anyone to be discouraged and question the very purpose and motivation of the trip being undertaken. And of course, there is this laptop that recorded every touristy and strange picture I bothered to take on the road, and allowed me to jot down every thought in my mind as I continued my journey.

In fact, amazingly, this trip was the first one in which my laptop actually accompanied from the beginning to the end. While previous trip also found me recording my thoughts in Internet cafes every other night, the freedom to write anywhere anytime gave me the flexibility and ability to capture those fleeting thoughts at an almost real-time basis. The result was a much fuller and extensive, albeit a bit delayed and outdated stream of reactions as I traveled across unknown lands and get myself into feisty situations.

All in all, though, to sum up such wealth of experiences in a few words is unfair and impossible. But looking back at the very purposes of the trip detailed before its beginning, I feel that at least one of them is achieved. That is, I have witnessed and confirmed firsthand the true diversity of European peoples and nations, politically, economically, socially, and culturally. And the differences are worthy of continued observations, if the second European tour gets underway later this year...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Collective Conscience as the Fundamental Basis for a Morally Ordered Civil Society

The communist leaders of Eastern Europe had a knack for building monumental structures. From massive office and apartment towers in the style of “Soviet classical realism” to the various sculptures of brave World War II soldiers and anti-Nazi civilians commemorating communist heroism and victory, the architectural vestiges of communism are still very much visible across the East. Yet, in the anti-communist drives of the wildly capitalist post-Cold War atmosphere, many in the East have been busy tearing down these last remainders of their dark past.

For some reason, East Berlin proves to be a startling exception to the trend. The communist victory monuments and showpiece TV towers have not only been maintained after the collapse of the East German regime, the government and the people of the united Federal Republic have come to embrace them as symbols of reunification. Unlike in the other parts of the East, the communist past have not been simply and completely denounced in the negative superlatives of “utter oppression” and “thorough poverty.”

That is not to say that the Germans do not have a sense of reality like the other Eastern Europeans. Berlin was the absolute center stage of Cold War standoff in Europe, with large numbers of protests, demonstrations, escape attempts, persecutions, and executions related to the decade-old conflict. However, the Berliners have not forgotten that it was the Soviets who liberated their city from the Nazis, and it was also the Soviets who numerically suffered the most in the hands of the Nazi war machine.

All things have their positive and negative aspects, and it is necessary to separate the two, denouncing the negatives while praising the positives. While decades of American anti-communist propaganda have made speaking NOT critically about the Soviets as something practically political forbidden, here in the political heart of Germany where the detrimental effects of Cold War is much more deeply felt, there instead seems to be truly and widely accepted and practiced sense of objectivism in judging the events and actors of the past.

A short observation of everyday life here in Germany, and to a lesser extent, her southern brethren Austria, can make one feel that it is entrenched social practice for the public to automatically follow those values of objectively define what is right and wrong. The foreign traveler would be amazed to find that in major cities here, the suburban railways and subways do not have ticketed entrances. There are simply ticket machines on the train platforms and a few small machines to validate those tickets.

There are no one checking the tickets on the platforms and onboard the trains, and in smaller stations, there is not a single railway employee present. Riding the convenient trains halfway across the city without any valid ticket is easy (and if caught by spot-checkers, one can easily feign confusion and buy a ticket on the spot). At any “regular” country would have this system, the railway company would probably have to drive up enormous amount of cost to hire large numbers of spot-checkers if it is to get any ticket sales revenue at all.

But amazingly here in the German metropolis, one can easily spot locals who miss trains because they cannot buy the ticket from the platform machine fast enough. And they do so not because they are afraid of fines or other punishment, but because they objectively know that it is simply wrong and inappropriate to ride without a valid ticket. It is the same logic for keeping the communist symbols intact. What is positive must be preserved and practiced, even if individual or collective self-interest may narrow-minded say otherwise.

A “civil society” is, ideally, one in which all members can subject themselves to a certain standard of behaviors that can lead to smooth, productive functioning of social order. The standard, while not arbitrary, should also be enforced by a shared sense of conscience, in the form of an unwritten “social contract,” among the people rather than some form of top-down legal or armed coercion. The ability of the common citizen, rather than “wise” leaders, to, as a collective, objectively decide and put into practice the right and wrongs of everyday life is the first step in creating that lasting “social contract.”

Invading Europe en Masse: East Asians as the Foot Soldiers of Global Capitalism

The yellow faces come in many forms and many languages, but there is no doubt where they come from. The definite voices of spoken Chinese, Korean, and Japanese echoes through the major tourist sites of the Continent, even, in some broken, ill-pronounced forms, among the local tour guides and shop owners seeking to get some extra businesses from these arrivals from the other side of the world. And the Oriental hordes have made their presence felt.

In sheer numbers, a crude observation show them to be just as numerous as, if not more than, visitors from other European countries, much more cheaply and easily reached from these destinations. And the willingness of the Asian hordes to spend and consume at these tourist destinations have completely beat out European tourists. The Asian tourists are snapping up expensive local produce, luxury brands (cheaper than their home countries), and pieces of kitschy souvenirs in quantities inconsistent with the state of the world economy.

The Europeans have not lost on the significance of these hordes and are working quickly to accommodate. In the heart of Athens, Prague, Krakow, or Budapest, it is hard not to find shops with at least some simple signs (usually along the lines of “sale” “tax free” “can use credit card”) written in these three languages. Tour guides speaking these languages are nearly always available, and there are even exchange bureau that readily changes Yuan, Won, and Yen into local currencies.

However, to simplify these hordes as short term tourists just in to spend a few euros and go home is, unfortunately, definite over-simplification. Along with increased Asian tourists is a dramatic increase of local businesses catering to the Asian crowds. Chinese restaurants and sushi bars are popping up everywhere to represent the largest group of foreign restaurants in Europe aside from American fast food chains. And much unlike the American fast food chains, these Asian restaurants are actually all run and staffed by Asians.

And increasingly, the “Asian lifestyle” is becoming more and more integrated into the local community. Just as many non-Asian faces grace the inside of these Asian restaurants as Asian faces, and many of these consumers are not even tourists. Outside the obvious tourist zones, new forms of non-immigrant “Chinatowns” are emerging in surprising places like rural Albania and Bosnia, with Chinese merchants peddling to locals all sorts of manufactures imported from Chinese factory.

Aside from the grass-root import-export scene, large businesses from the Orient also dominate in conspicuous ways. Throughout the Balkans and former Soviet territories, Chinese car brands Great Wall and Geely feature prominently on the streets and large advertising billboards. Locals play around Taiwanese-made Asus and Acer laptops. Heavy construction equipments have obviously Japanese brand names. And the Korean giant Samsung seems to put up their flashy blue sign on a tall building in every Eastern European city.

Surely, to group together all of “East Asian” presence here in Europe would be to ignore the massive competition that exist among the firms hailing from each East Asian economy, and the fact that the different ethnicities of East Asia do not really interact or even cooperate as they continue to dominate the local business scene. However, despite the generalization, one thing is for sure: the locals here are learning not to just look west toward Western Europe and America for economic development. The yellow peoples from the East are becoming as important for their economic future.

For an East Asian, no matter where he or she hails from, the powerful demonstration of East Asian economic ascendance here on the streets of Europe has to be a point of massive pride. For decades, the Caucasian world was the undisputed economic centers of the world, and any non-Caucasian wealth was considered some sort of “exception to the rule.” But in the coming decades, if East Asia can true work together as an intertwined economic bloc, she can fundamentally challenge and destroy this Caucasian-dominated world economic order...

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Doubts about Free Flow of People and Goods in Europe: Where is the “U” in EU?

The international traveler is often keen on comparing the prices of basic commodities among different countries, often as a simple-minded effort to gauge the local standard of living. Here in Europe, the same basic travel necessities a traveler comes across in different countries, such as a bottle of Coke, a kebab, or a bar of soap with the same brand name, happens to fluctuate enormously from country to country, even if the towns of different countries use the same currency and are literally less than an hour away from each other.

Massive differences in prices between short physical distances are especially the case across the old “Iron Curtain” between the long capitalist Western Europe and the “transition economies” of the East. In one instance, the traveler snacks on a hot dog and a bottle of diet Coke first in Slovenia, costing him a total of 1.40 Euros. Then the traveler heads to Austria, a couple of hours to the north, and orders the same thing. He is shocked to find that the same bottle of diet Coke by itself cost 2 Euros, and the hot dog is another 1.50 Euros.

Finally he heads east for an hour to Slovakia, again buying the same two items. The price of the Coke goes down to 1 Euro and the hot dog is now 60 cents. Within four hours of train travel, there are three vastly different costs for the same goods. All uses the same ingredients to produce the same goods, and the location where the goods are sold is the completely the same (near major train stations of capital cities in little street side kiosks). All three countries use the Euro and are part of EU, so free travel exists among their citizens.

From strictly an economic point of view, this phenomenon makes no sense. In the common market that is EU, all raw materials to make the Cokes and hot dogs should come from the same sources (or at least, sources of great physical proximity) so that the production and transportation cost of the goods should be about the same in all three countries. And even if the goods initially have vastly different prices, people from the countries with more expensive prices can easily, quickly, and cheaply move across the border to take advantage of the cheaper prices.

Eventually, from the economic standpoint, cross-border production and consumption should bring the prices of hot dogs and Cokes to around the same among the three countries. Such is what one sees within any country, and EU, despite cultural and language barriers, have the same characteristics of a large country (free movement of people and goods) to make the same economic logic work. So, then, why are the prices so different for the same goods in three close neighbors.

From a crude analysis, it seems like the assumption of free movement of people and goods is the invalid part of the whole logical process. Young locals in Slovenia and even Greece marvel at the high wages, in the order of three to four times of the average salary in their home countries, given to them when they were working in Germany or Sweden. If there is indeed a free movement of labor, the wage differences would not be so big, at least in neighboring states, because the citizens of countries with lower cost of living can drive down wages across the border b working there and living in their still cheap home countries.

The fact that both costs of living and wages remain so far part among the Western and Eastern members of the EU, years after they are supposed to be integrated in a common resource and labor market, shows that the barriers to movement still exist so much as to make the concept of common market largely unworkable in reality. And the reason may not be economic at all. The nationalistic identities of the different peoples crammed into this little corner of the world still plays the dominant role.

The Slovakian worker, willing to work at a third of the wage of a local in Austria, still may not be hired (legally) by the Austrians because problems of communicating may make him or her not even a third as efficient and productive as a local. The Austrian consumer may not be keen on buying Slovakian vegetables at his or her local supermarket even if it is a third the price, simply due to some sort of long-held distrust or worse, a sense of superiority. Until these cultural factors are obliterated, ture economic integration of the EU may only be an empty dream...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Three Things an International Traveler Tends to Forget after Being on the Road for Too Long

The travel guide books tend to make it clear how difficult it is to travel, even in convenient and relatively safe continent that it Europe. “Even for 3 weeks, travel seems to become...work,” the books say simply. And after personal experiences doing exactly the many things the travel books recommend travelers to do, the travelers would unequivocally agree with the books’ sentiment. But amid the tiresomeness and desperations of continued travel, what becomes more important, upon retrospect, are things that the travelers seem to forget when they are on the road.

(1) When the travelers are still energetic at the beginning of the trip, they tend to carefully track their spending and remember to budget for how much to spend every day and each destination. Three weeks later, that financial meticulousness goes out the window as fatigue sets in. The travelers would eat whatever whenever they want; they would stay in much nicer lodging because they cannot be bothered to seek out those cheap places in dark corners of the city and then share facilities with strangers who would inadvertently disturb their much needed rest...

And scarily enough, the travelers would stop realizing just how expensive the accumulation of nice food, nice lodging, and an occasional taxi ride or two are becoming until they are reminded of the numbers. Especially here in the Balkans, the Western travelers like to rationalize their little luxuries because saying how they are so much cheaper than “back home,” only to be informed by the locals in response that the average monthly wage is 500-800 Euros. Only then, the travelers remember that they are spending more than a month’s salary for the locals every few days....

(2) Traveling around Europe, entering another country, getting another stamp in the passport, and coming across another language or currency becomes a thing of routine for the travelers. Then the travelers, with the matter-of-fact voice, start talking about transporting themselves from one country to the other, they get the “complaints” in response, from friends back home and from locals alike, of how they never been to even the countries neighboring their home countries.

And interestingly enough, money and time never seem to be the reason why they have never done so. And for the many citizens of EU, getting the paperwork is not the source of obstacle either. Often it is much simpler than that, in the realm of “lacking motivation to go” or “lacking some sort of justifiable rationale to travel.” To the frequent traveler, such excuse is just outright puzzling, but on second thought, the traveler has to, in a way, be grateful of his own privilege for having the adventurous mind for travels.

(3) Indeed, the locals’ lack of willingness to visit their neighboring countries often contains an element of massive gap in mutual understanding incongruous with the tiny physical distance. Travelers from massive entities like Canada, the US, Russia, or China are surprised to find just how much prejudices and stereotypes, not to mention real cultural differences, exist among proximate clusters of tiny countries, each smaller than even half a state or province back home.

But these gaps among tiny countries of Europe can be much more deeply rooted and divisive than any form of regionalism in those massive countries. The Slovene and the Bosnian, for instance, is readily bashing the Serb for being mentally backward or averse to multicultural community building. Yet, such sentiment confuse the foreign travelers, who see three peoples who speak essentially the same language and, not withstanding recent history of conflicts, did live within the same political entities and socio-economic circles for centuries...

Sometimes it feels like the foreigners on Euro-trips are going through “the Amazing Race” with themselves as the only competitors. They, perhaps, are just too preoccupied by getting to all the amazing sights, not forgetting to checking out all the dazzling varieties of different peoples, or, more realistically, simply too tired and too crunched for time, to think through the underlying meaning of those sights and differences. Maybe what is forgotten on the road can be regurgitated and recalled when the trips come to their inevitable end...

Figuring out How to Deal with Racial Slurs against Asians

Many non-Asians traveling through the less touristy parts of Asia often complains that they receive too much unpleasant and unwanted attention from the locals simply because of skin color. Of course, the source of the attention is justifiably obvious: the locals simply have not come across many foreigners before and are expressing their surprise/curiosity/”joy” of seeing foreigners in ways that the foreigners would consider them rather obnoxious.

The Asian travelers, unfortunately, usually do not understand just how unpleasant it is to be on the receiving end of such unwanted attention against foreigners because they tend to always end up in places where Asians faces are common. In Asia, they can blend in as locals. In the West, they can be one of the millions of Asian immigrants. And in popular vacation destinations such as Athens and Istanbul, the foreign crowds, whether it be tourists or businessmen catering to the foreign crowds, are often predominantly Asian. Locals in these locales would never verbally target Asians because they are so used to seeing them.

When the Asian travels to the Balkans, then, the normalcy of being Asian suddenly gets thrown out the window. Curious eyes fixate on the Asian face as soon as the Asian steps out of the bus in the “tourist backwaters” of the region, whether in Tirana, Skopje, or Pristina. Then the words are bound to follow, often excited yelled out by excited twenty-somethings walking down the street, “Ching Chong Ching!” “Hey, Jackie Chan!” “Yo, Chinese!”

Frankly, as racist as these comments obviously sounds, the Asian would actually be just as excited to hear such things as the locals are excited to utter them. After all, wherever the Asians tend to go, they are the quiet, low-key hard workers, not troubling anyone else and getting out of the way of everyone else in order not to be troubled. For places with large number of Asians, the locals understand as much, and would not go out of their way to bother the Asians.

But in the Balkans, the locals, perhaps seeing one or two Asian faces in year (usually in the form of Chinese import-exporters selling made-in-China toys and clothing), still get a kick out of openly insulting Asians, even if they are ignored by the Asians. It is not that they are more racist than non-Asians in other locales, its just that they do not have enough experience dealing with Asians to understand how to properly interact with them, especially considering that Asians in the Balkans do not tend to stay for a long time.

But what is equally, if not more, unfortunate is that the Asians coming to the Balkans do not know how to properly deal with these seemingly racist locals either. Used to being treated with (at least nominal) respect by non-Asians in other regions of the world, the first instinct of the Asians when hearing such racial slurs on the streets is to quietly throw an angry stare at the speaker, ignore the comment, and then move on. In the West, where people are constantly educated to be racially sensitive, such method works very well.

One has to realize that part of the role that the few lone Asians have to play in regions with little Asian exposure is to pioneer local understanding of Asian peoples and cultures. Under such context, the stare-ignore-keep moving method can only give unknowledgeable locals the impression that Asians are indeed an unfriendly bunch, and treating them with open distain and name-calling is highly appropriate. If so, no matter how many Asians travel through the region, the insulting comments toward them would not lessen.

Instead, there has to be some sort of friendly communication with the locals to rid their minds of those superficial racial stereotypes. Even a kind smile to those who make the insulting remarks may potentially help. Yet, with the Asians’ deeply rooted reflex to remain hostile to those who refuse to respect people of other skin colors, combined with the huge language barrier, it is difficult to see how true communication to educate the locals can take place...A solution remains to be found.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Humanitarians Must Minimize the Pompousness of Their “Selflessness”

Sitting in the city center of Sarajevo, right in front of the bustling main bus and train stations, is one of the most massive gated compounds one could ever imagine in the middle of a city. Surrounded by tall white walls and patrolling armed guards in military uniforms, the compound consisting of three well-maintained concrete towers stretched well over two and a half standard street blocks on what must be some of the most expensive real estate in town. In front of the big entry gate, the golden letters marked “EMBASSY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”

One would normally be awed by the sheer size of the buildings, especially considering that this is Bosnia, a country where there is barely any presence of American citizens outside the few, like myself, who drops by from nearby countries to check out the well-preserved ancient townscapes of Sarajevo. But the American representation here in Bosnia is nothing compared to the grand residence of UN and NATO representatives in downtown Pristina, not even attempting integration with the local community with its high concrete walls topped with barbed wires.

There is an obvious irony here. The Americans and Europeans build high walls and hire armed guards obviously so that their personnel working within the compound can be protected from still active radical elements of Serbian nationalist elements. However, had they instead built their offices with less grandeur, attracting less attention from the locals, the radicals seeking to attack the personnel would perhaps not even find the target for their militant revenge.

And, of course, the high walls can only protect the Westerners when they are inside the compounds. Across the street from the EU compound in Pristina, there are two five-star hotel towers conspicuously sticking out next to an otherwise low-rising pedestrian shopping street for the locals. To see local peddlers working next to hotels that they, and most of the local populace, can never afford to stay in their working lifetimes, brings a certain degree of worry that the Americans and Europeans, who gained local respect for establishing peace and maintaining independence in Bosnia and Kosovo, are unnecessarily distancing themselves from the locals.

After all, the above-average number of Western personnel still here in the Balkans is to help the locals maintain political stability and increase economic development. In other words, the central role is a humanitarian one, supposedly selflessly guiding the locals toward true self-sufficiency by pumping the necessary financial resources and professional knowledge. The productive assistance they provide to the locals is the only source of legitimacy they have to maintain such heavy and obvious presence here.

Yet, the conspicuously massive compounds on the streets of Pristina and Sarajevo are, if anything, great symbols of arrogance and condescension toward the locals. They demonstrate incredible powers of the West over the locals when the locals, by allowing the West to help them, already humbly acknowledged such power. By emphasizing the condescending power in such obvious physical ways, the Westerners are perhaps beginning to earn the ire of the locals...

And the actions of the Westerners here do indeed reinforce the physical symbols of grand administrative buildings. The five-star hotels here, after all, exist mainly for the Western “experts,” who sees such treatment only as appropriate for going to developing countries. So much money, which could have otherwise went into productive projects directly improving the lives of the locals, were and are still being wasted on providing the Westerners on humanitarian work here lifestyles that would even be considered extravagant in the West.

In Pristina, a major thoroughfare leading out of the city is named after Bill Clinton, and there is even a statue and huge poster of him on a nearby building when such adulation does not even exist in the US. But unless the Western “humanitarian workers” start to reform their condescending and extravagant ways while working here in the still developing Balkans, it would not be surprising that the admiration the West earned during the late 90s may simply evaporate in the near future.