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Solace in the Face of Disaster

An excerpt from “On the Pulse of Morning”, Maya Angelou

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.

[807] The Unwelcome Chinese – Pokong Chen

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*Currently only available in the Chinese- and Japanese language. Pokong Chen appears on Voice of America radio.

Where the Chinese are there will always be racket, filth, and kerfuffle. It’s for a fact. Pokong Chen, a dissident originally from Szechuan and now residing in New York, cities many incidents of uncouth behaviors of mainland Chinese people to argue that inveterate despotism and one-party rule are to blame for the vices. He recognizes that rudeness and uncouth are not exclusive to the Chinese, but the Chinese people’s distasteful behavior are tied up with a long history of suppression, persecution, and cruelty by the government. The age-old monarchy and dictatorship system in China is not conducive to development of ethics on an individual level as people, out of fear, are led to blind observance. They are stripped of their own thinking and more caught up with pleasing the system at the expense of right-or-wrong.

Chen expounds on the culture of control that reigns over the people as a whole. Under generations of censorship, China has remained closed to any democratic liberation as seen in former East Germany and the USSR. China, ruled under the Communist Party, has become a nation that does not respect the dignity of human freedom. Chen is relentless in his denouncement of party officials, whose vices are endemic to their political culture. Bribery is rife as it’s the unspoken norm to get things done. The demonic values and pervasive influences of their party have every last Chinese person to some extent. Daily life becomes currying favor with local officials. The rougue behavior of Chinese tourists is a result of a deep-seated anxiety and fear imparted in them over the years. There’s a lot of distrust. There’s fear that material properties will be taken away from them. They dare not to criticize the Party or the government. Every man is for himself and so individual integrity diminished.

Chen further demonstrates the Chinese psyche is mere manifest of a political system so corrupted from the very top. Bureaucrat is the most coveted job in China because it’s the bright path to money and power. Their pride and arrogance; their exclusivity and elitism; their outward vanity and bravura; their titles of respect, authority, and personal renown; their heavy burdens that crush so many; their exploitation to maintain the standing—all trickling down to the common people, entangling them and weaving them into actions and thinking that are not of their own volition. In pleasing the devil, the people become devil of their own, given to corruption, cowardice, deceit, hypocrisy, selfishness, effrontery, greed, apathy, distrust …

The book title sounds gimmicky but Chen is neither sermonizing nor pedantic. He draws on facts from over a long period of time from the dynasty periods to modern China and makes objective generalizations. He seeks a fair justification of the cause of the unruly, uncouth behaviors of Chinese people from a social and historical perspective. He argues there will be no trust and freedom until the demise of the tyrannical rule. Until then, the weightier matters of the law-justice, love and mercy are neglected, and ultimately, the eventual slavery of men to the powers that be.

269 pp. Open Books Hong Kong. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Hong Kong Bookseller Gone Missing

imageBanned books raised an outcry. Imagine if you’re censored and arrested for publishing materials that are at odd with the government. Imagine Bill Clinton wants to persecute and imprison all those who breathed a world about Monica Lewinsky. This is what happens in Hong Kong, in 2016. The firm believers of “one country, two system” by which the former British colony is governed after its return to the embrace of motherland get a reality check as five staff members of a local bookseller disappeared. Vanished without a trace.

The Hong Kong publisher whose disappearance has caused a major rift between Hong Kong and Beijing has written to a colleague to say that he is across the border, in China, where he is “cooperating with the authorities with an investigation.” But close examination of his handwriting revealed that the note was not written in Lee Bo’s hand. The bookseller specializes in books critical of Beijing’s Communist Party leaders. His disappearance on Wednesday, December 30 looks increasingly like an illegal abduction by Chinese police, which has no jurisdiction in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

In China, “assisting the authorities with an investigation” is equivalent to detention suspicion of criminal activity. Criminal activity can be criticizing party leaders and exposing corruption of state officials. The bookseller’s wife later went to the Hong Kong Police and withdrew of complaint of her husband’s mysterious disappearance. This, in my opinion, is very much a charade performed under duress. The bookseller’s disappearance is an assault on Hong Kong’s principles of freedom of expression and autonomy from Beijing.

“Distraction Theory”

On 4th of July, a day of celebration of America and its values, I read an article on the New Yorker how many many options and choices might do a disservice of our well being. The article is a response to a book called The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford, who states that “distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind.” At a glimpse Crawford’s claim seems very outlandish. To him, life’s most meaningful activities involve shutting down options and dealing with the constraints of the physical world. He means by being engaged in activities for which you cannot simply choose what you want to happen by pressing a button, like on your iPad.

Crawford presents an alternative ideology. The book is a somewhat philosophical treatise on how to cope with modernity that starts with annoying ubiquitous ads. The whole figuring out ways to capture and hold people’s attention is the center of contemporary capitalism. You cannot even get through a transaction of a card machine without being interrupted by an ad popping up on the screen. There is this invisible and ubiquitous grabbing at something that’s the most intimate thing you have, because it determines what’s present to your consciousness. This is exactly why we all try to close ourselves off from this grating condition of being addressed all the time—by withdrawing to the video game, the cellphone, etc. These experiences are so exquisitely attuned to our appetites that they can swamp our ordinary way of being in the world. But these “defense mechanisms,” Crawford argues, distract us from being productive and causes the “deadness of our time.”

The article is worth a read and if you’re piqued, the book as well. We all know how our attention wanders if a cellphone is merely visible on the table. Crawford belives that it is only by grappling with the world in a concrete that we can grasp it, and every screen that replaces a real interaction makes this more difficult.

Restless Empire

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This will be one of my summer readings, which will gravitate toward non-fiction. I realize a chronological history of China doesn’t sustain my interest. In the same way, I abandon a general history of Paris for a book on how landscape and urban design transformed the City of Lights. Restless Empire is a welcoming alternative. It tells the story of the foreigners who helped China become what it is today, from China’s first interactions with the West to the current era. In doing so, Odd Arne Westad upends, but ever so politely, a slew of misconceptions about China that have been concocted by his academic predecessors both in the West and in Asia. The Washington Post comments, “Westad’s book goes them one further, showing that the foreigners’ story in China is not the monochromatic account of malevolent imperialism that has dominated the discourse in U.S. universities but a much richer and more important tale. The brilliance of Restless Empire is that while acknowledging the threat to China inherent in its contacts with the West and Japan, Westad also shows that they inspired and amazed the Chinese and played the critical role in the opening of the Chinese mind.”

China shows pleasure in being treated as a global player, but shows little sign of knowing what to do with that power other than criticizing the United States. “China has to learn,” Wastad says drily, “that sticking it in the eye of the world’s hyperpower may bring short-term gratification, but it does not amount to a grand strategy in international politics.”

Reclaiming the “Real” Life

I found an an interesting article on reclaiming our real life from social media. It’s funny, true, and thought-provoking.

If Hemingway were alive in 2014, he might not have finished what he started writing that day. Realistically, he probably wouldn’t have even put a pen to paper.
Instead, he might have ducked into the cafe, pulled out his smartphone and proceeded to waste an entire afternoon on social media. Perhaps he would update his Facebook to discuss the rogue weather, snap a picture of his café au lait to post on Instagram and then lose the rest of the afternoon to Twitter.

While I enjoy to see what my friends and family are up to, increasingly, my time spent on social media (only limited to Facebook) is starting to feel like a lot of wasted time. Like a virus slowly invading its victim, social media has methodically started to consume the hours of my day. I belong to the age bracket that spends the second most time on social media a day, at 3 hours. Gladly and proudly, I spend far less than 3 hours. Morning coffees, lunchtime breaks, time before bed, are still cordoned off for books. I still read at least 100 pages a day and roughly two books a week. So even if I’ll spend all day on weekend on Facebook, I won’t feel as guilty—but, I rather read a book.

Addiction aside. There’s deeper issue. We live in the age of narcissism. Walking down the street you can count the number of people you see pointing phones at their faces (now with the 3-foot long selfie stick) for selfies. Social networks are the “culprit” for broadcasting narcissistic tendencies that otherwise may have gone noticed. Simply speaking, everything you eat, every act, every place you go, are accounted for and broadcasted to the world. User-generated content like Facebook, twitter, and Instagram encourage an endless stream of self-promotion. At what point does this become psychologically destructive? People can get caught up in cultivating their own image rather than interacting with others. My worry (other than that I would stop reading books) is that we will be faced with a generation where everyone acts like the star of their own reality show.

Tiananmen Remembrance

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Twenty-five years ago, the world was shocked. Tanks rumbled through the streets of Beijing and shots were fired at students and other civilians who had gathered to protest against inflation and corruption. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed. Across the world, communism was in retreat. A quarter of a century later, Deng’s successors feel vindicated. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate?” Xi Jinping asked while pondering the collapse of the Soviet party. He concluded: “In the end nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist” and so “a great party was gone”. The party has also stoked nationalism in the form of a “Chinese dream” of national grandeur. Love of country is being equated to love of the party. What fanned the flames of opposition in 1989 was not so much the desire for democracy as outrage at official corruption. This corruption has continued to thrive. Sum Chan, convener of pro-Communist group Voice of Loving Hong Kong, goes as far to claim there was no casualty at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The party must find shameful what it did on June 4, 1989. Why else will it not allow those historic events to even be mentioned in public?

Occupy Cal

Occupy Cal protesters have called for a strike and day of action today, with a noon gathering and teach-outs–classes taught outside–on Sproul Plaza (the administrative building). After lunch a rally ended in a march to downtown Berkeley. At around 3, while on break and reading Wallace Stegner on the glade, I heard the gun-shot report at Haas School of Business on the southeastern side of campus. Following the shooting, we were advised to get off work early. The general assembly and encampment that protesters originally called for at 5pm is most likely to be cancelled. Earlier campus administrators have said it is prohibited anyway. In my office underground, it has been an uneventful day with the usual workload–processing requests from faculty members, evaluating book collection. Students file in and out of study hall at the library. Demonstrations are scheduled for today and tomorrow to coincide with the Nov. 16-17 meeting in San Francisco of the UC Board of Regents, which calls for yet another fee hike next fall after a cumulative 32% increase in fees over the past three years, but the meeting was canceled yesterday because they had received information about the possibility of violence and vandalism. As for the shooting, a staff member at Haas reported sight of the suspect armed with a gun to the police, who responded immediately. The suspect entered a computer room, where police followed him and asked him to put up his hands. The suspect then pulled out the gun, and police shot him. The police remain on the scene, and the victim is en route to the hospital. No other injuries have been reported, and there is no indication of other shooters. We were advised to leave work early because police have to patrol the entire campus to ensure safety of staff and students, and to evaluate whether they should close the campus tomorrow.

[138] The Future of Love – Shirley Abbott

“Why should everyone get hysterical? They were all alive. In the past nine months, the predicted squadrons of terrorists or bioterrorists had not smashed the city and broken their hearts. Gregory was dead–a reminder that life was too precious and too precarious to be wasted. Gather ye rosebuds!” (280)

“I’m sorry. I can never explain what I did, not really. It seemed the right thing at the time. She was so forlorn, and well, her threats were pretty terrible. I can only beg forgiveness. I know I fail as a lover sometimes, and as a friend most of the time, But I need you.” (282)

If we can always get in touch with our feelings, if we can always explain what we do, if we can always let go of our ego and admit our need for love, maybe this world would have less of the drama that fetters us. About Shirley Abbott wants us to know that drama is what makes us realize we need people in our lives. The Future of Love, beautifully written (and her first) in the perspectives of eight New Yorkers, delves into their lives and explores the difficult choices and the sacrifices they must make (and afraid to make) to find love. The one character that keeps everyone together, the central connection, is Antonia Blass. A grandmother, a mother, a mother-in-law, and a great friend, she is in her early sixties. She has been widowed for five years. Being a devoted and dutiful wife, she had attended to her demanding, angry husband whom diabetes, heart disease, and failing kidneys had reduced to a grumpy invalid. But Antonia has quibble criticizing her late husband, for she harbors a secret: an affair with her former boss Sam Mendel, the publisher who lends her support that far exceeds the obligation of a friend when Antonia’s husband laid dying in the hospital.

Sam is a typical alpha male who certainly has accomplished more than what most people couldn’t achieve in double his lifetime. He and his wife Edith are admired as a successful couple who has raised three children in a stupendous estate with cosseted lily pond and a forest. But Sam also has his regret: he is facing the end of his life with a woman he never loved, whom he married out of convenience, and with whom he hadn’t been intimate for years—and he hardly knows what love is, until he meets Antonia. Edith is not as clueless as he thinks she is, and her threats are so terrible that the divorce paper could crumble his publishing empire. The grown-up children are also on the prowl for the estate, which they chiefly prevent their siblings from possessing it.

Surrounding Antonia and Sam are good people who face tough decision in their life. Antonia’s daughter Maggie struggles to save a sour marriage with her husband Mark, who was laid off from his mutual fund job that he thought was a huge mistake in his life. Sam’s grand-daughter Alison has decided to strike a blow for gay rights by having an extravagant wedding at the grand estate. Her bride is a black lawyer, Candace, whose marriage to a white girl her mother deems as being the end of the black race. Five floors down from Antonia live Arty and Greg, who have been partners for 40 years. Cancer has declared biochemical warfare on the once muscular, resilient body of a choreographer, who on his death bed suffers the scruple of cheating on his partner.

On September 11, 2001 when the first hijacked plane hit the tower, and as it boiled with flames and smoke, let go its moorings and collapsed, the life of every American changed. Along with bits of bodies that were discovered in the hole and rubble, the pulverized concrete and plastic, and the tattered office paper, also emitted from Ground Zero were pulverized ideas, ideas about making things better through goodwill. But the attack has breathed a sense of awakening in these eight people, arouses in them a shred of integrity. What gender difference, sexual orientation, ego, and past failed relationship, do they really matter? Life is too precious and precarious to be wasted. Each of the characters comes to realize, through self-examination, reflection and the horrible tragedy, that one does not have to live in the shadow of their mistake and foibles. So The Future of Love, as its title implies, bespeaks a hope for happiness, as everyone finally understands the need for commitment from friends, lovers, and family.

Goons and Thugs? Shut Up CNN

In covering the Beijing Olympic Torch Relay in San Francisco recently, CNN’s commentator Jack Cafferty attacked China, saying that Imported Chinese products are “junk”, Chinese people are “basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years.” Although I’m reserved about the issue on Tibetan independence, I’m shocked to hear the malicious attacks of CNN commentator Cafferty against the Chinese people and express our strong condemnation. Taking the advantage of the microphone in his hand, Cafferty vilified China and the Chinese people, seriously violated the ethics of journalism and human conscience. His arrogance, ignorance and hatred to the Chinese people have aroused indignation of the Chinese people at home and abroad, and will definitely be denounced by righteous people all over the world.

The robust opinions that usually generate debate, as CNN has claimed in the apology speech, is simply racist remarks. It is rare for the world audience to hear such a blatant discrimination against an ethnic group of people with such a derogatory connotation. What Cafferty did was using his privilege as a CNN anchor to insult China and slander all Chinese people. He is pathetic to have wantonly violated professional ethics of journalism and lost his conscience. To all those who said Jack Cafferty’s words were just free speech: how about replace ‘Chinese’ with ‘Black people’or ‘jewish’ in that sentence? How would that make you feel?