Wednesday, February 29, 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...

Wednesday, February 15, 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.

Sunday, February 12, 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.

Monday, February 6, 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...

Wednesday, February 1, 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...