Archive for the ‘China’ Category

Darwin was a man who stirred up a lot of shit.

His ideas were not that crazy; after visiting the Galapagos Islands Darwin observed that finches had different beak features on each of the the tiny island pockets.  He concluded that they must have come from some larger population of finches that migrated to the islands, but as time passed, groups of finches would learn to eat the specific foods on each island from small insects, to large rock-like nuts, and thus grew to be more and more different from their neighbours.

The process that I outlined (very unscientifically and in very general terms, of course) is called speciation, and is the idea that time, distance, and some geographical factors can lead to the creation of sub-populations, and that over time, with isolation, these groups will eventually branch off completely and become unique species within their own right.  The test?  If chance and geographic factors are removed, and the groups are somehow merged together onto the same island, they are prevented from mingling together and producing offspring that are not infertile.  Mules are a good example of that time that donkeys and horses were not the same species.




Cultural Speciation

Cultures can speciate too.  I’ve become acutely aware of how race is categorized in the recent US Presidential elections, with Asians kind of being lumped together as a voting bloc (we only make up 3% collectively, so maybe this is to our advantage influence-wise).  But I think in our need to represent ourselves in solidarity we are forgetting that there is a cultural speciation that is happening all over North America.  Asian-Canadians are an entirely different culture from both Canadians and Asians and sometimes this is leading to a bit of tension.

A few days ago there was this article in a Vancouver e-paper about the shark fin soup ban.  I’ve included the link but the restaurant owner says the following:

“His culture is totally Canadian, and he has no feeling for shark fin,” Chung reiterated to the Straight. “Canadian-born Chinese are based on Canadian culture….They’re called bananas for a good reason. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s not to be degrading. It just describes it well.”

From the rest of the article I can tell you that Chung does imply that there’s something wrong with being a banana. And who can forget  the CVC incident a few years ago when an Asian student society with a stronger “Canadian” cultural component found itself in the middle of hot water over some promotional campaign videos that mocked more “Asian” culturally dominated (wow, awkward wording) groups.

The reason for the tension is a level of cultural speciation.  I feel like while there is a continuum, a large clump of younger Asian Canadians immigrated to North America at least one generation ago and settled in areas where there was little cultural critical mass (*ahem*, Saskatchewan).  We grew up with friends who were not Asian, in classrooms that had little exposure to Asians before, and were generally treated like we were not Asian.  We were the “first movers.”  In the last fifteen years, there’s been an influx of Asian communities, places where Asians could read street signs their own languages, buy their own food, and generally forget that they were in Canada.  We aren’t separated by a geographical barrier, but we are separated by a temporal one that resulted in our being exposed to essentially two different cultural environments.

The result is two cultures that look the same but don’t really have much in common.  The worst part is that we aren’t recognized as two different groups by outsiders and are often lumped into the same category.


Where did the love go?

I’ve felt like there is a growing animosity between the two groups in general.  When I was younger I used to be embarrassed to be Chinese in thanks to a lot of externally inflicted self-internalized racism from grade 7 summer camp.  But the most animosity that I felt was not towards other groups, but towards other Asians. I used to take every “embarrassing” thing that a “more Asian” stranger did as a personal attack on my (self-evaluated) level of coolness.  My mother tells me that a lot of my “more Asian” peers tend to resent me and young people like myself for “choosing” to speak English, hang out with groups that are less homogenous and generally looking down upon newer immigrants.  We are kind of like the equivalent of “cultural traitors” and if the article is any indication, this is a thinly veiled sentiment across the board.  I don’t know how this happened, but we were raised in two different times and came out of the process hating each other.  The whole shark fin soup ban is kind of like a litmus test in terms of indicating which side of the “Asian spectrum” one will fall on.

How do we fix this?  We accept reality.  We do this by dropping our obstinant adherence to the belief that we have the same cultural obligations.   I think we need to recognize that the worlds that we faced when we grew up were not the same, we were not given identical cultural choices.  Our speciation took place not in spite of or due to our efforts, but just because of the circumstances surrounding the racial make-up of Canada at each point in time.

We need to accept that the speciation happened regardless of choice because we need it to blamelessly understand that culturally, Asians have diverged, and that because it was a circumstance and not a deliberate choice, “FOB’s” are not at fault for refusing to integrate into a “whiter” cultural norm.  On the other side, “Banana’s” are not at fault for “betraying their culture.”  Our peers were dealt evolutionary cards that we may or may not understand.


In spite of this, Mr. Chang is wrong about shark extinction.


Read Full Post »

Centres of Gravity

So, I actually passed math!

Well, most of it.  Macroeconomics was my weakest section by far, but given the fact that I went from 0 knowledge in the area to kind of sort of understanding the mechanics of the Bellman (but not even coming close to a deeper comprehension of the Hamiltonian) is enough for me.  New standards!

So I dropped out of the required economics course for my degree and moved onto something that seems a lot more scary challenging.  Macroeconomics and Political Science are my two favourite courses so far (I only have four, so I guess it is redundant to say I like half of my courses more than the other half) and macro has presented me with some new ideas which are interesting, open for discussion right now, and in the process of happening.  How often can you say that about science?

Danny Quah (economics rock star extraordinaire) is our lecturer right now and presented us, on the first day, with an interesting illustration of the “average location, on earth, where the dollars are happening” – also known as the Economic Centre of Gravity.  It used to be somewhere in the trans-Atlantic, but is slowly moving to a place that’s *ahem* a bit further east.  Look at the prediction.


So it starts out between Western Europe and the States (because that’s where everything was happening 30 years ago, but as Asia continues to rise, the average location of output starts moving East.

It’s weird to think about the implications of this.  I’ve never really given serious thought to what the changes mean; will trade start happening in a different currency?  Will children be learning a different language?  In fact, will parents send their children to universities in China?  Will trade happen on China’s terms more-so than it does now?

Just think about all the assumptions you’ve become accustomed to in your lifetime knowing that the United States, like it or not, is the global centre of cultural, economic and military power.

Professor Quah then moved on to the difference between “hard” and “soft” power.  It can be argued that even if China rises economically and develops military influence, they still will not be able to attain the “soft” power that the United States has, the ability to influence ideas and culture.  People in China still look up to American culture in ways they don’t even realize.  The music videos are very much modelled after American MTV culture.  Pizza Hut and Macdonalds are huge.  Starbucks has taken over every major city.  In a more important way, America will still retain a type of cultural influence over global policy in areas like its insistence on personal liberties and free-markets.  These are things that money cannot erase too quickly.


So, if China cannot acquire soft power, then for a while, the world will have to divergent centres of of gravity, one which is economic and one which is cultural and public policy oriented.  The world has really only ever seen one centre of gravity (think about Britain and then the US).  Does that mean that holding the economic power will pull cultural influence towards the east as well?  Or maybe this time is different, and we will see a more permanent fracturing between the East and West?

I’m not entirely sure that China has the power, as of yet, to much influence cultural capital the way that the United States has.  China has so far been an amazing copy-cat, from technology to fashion to media. But imitation does not an innovator make.  In fact, the plagiarism is an implicit acceptance of America’s role as the cultural centre of the world; if it was not so influential, China would not lap up American ideas with such eagerness.

In order for China to unify the hard and soft centres of gravity, it would need to do something it has not done in very long; innovate.  I’m not sure what this would look like, or how they would achieve this, but without it, it is seems inevitable to see this sort of fracturing between the two kinds of power.

After all, it’s hard to copy someone, when you are supposed to be ahead of the game.

Read Full Post »

My Job is Ambiguous . . . 

I’m still in the process of absorbing a lot of the films that the NFB is working on/has already made.  There are a lotttt of movies to watch, and I’m sure for a few weeks this place will become some sort of a referral service to the films that I’m looking at.  Don’t worry though, I have good taste, I think.

One of the films that is in the process of filming/development is really intriguing to me, but I’m not sure if I can post the name here.  It is following the life of Joseph Kony‘s former favourite wife.  If you don’t know you Kony is, you can read more about him at the Wikipedia link.  Interestingly enough, there’s also some news on him today, as President Obama has begun a mission to hunt him down.

A Portrait of Joseph Kony

I’ve read the proposal for the project and it’s actually really interesting.  Kony claimed that his actions were supported by the Ten Commandments, that his kidnapping of children for the Lord’s Resistance Army were the cost of setting up theocratic rule.  Most of the preview is centred around meetings with his former wife, Evelyn.  She talks about the days when he would sit down with her beside a river and tears would flow from his eyes.  I’m supposed to feel like he’s a more human character, that he isn’t some kind of monster.  He’s being sought for crimes against humanity, by the way.

Evelyn also used to be a powerful figure in the LRA, but she was kidnapped at the age of eleven and made Kony’s wife.  She has since left the LRA and Kony’s side, but not before spending eleven years in the LRA.  They had three daughters, and now everyone in Uganda wants Kony’s children to pay retribution for what he did to the country.  They probably also want Evelyn to pay for what she used to be.  When you are kidnapped, I’d say you don’t really have much of a choice in how you survive, let alone if you are also a child.

Nice vs. Good

So we have a portrait of a woman whose had a difficult life for reasons that were probably out of her control.  The only problem is the undercurrent running through the film of “Good vs. Evil.”  Without going into Evelyn’s story, she tries to paint for the audience her version of Kony, who was apparently sensitive and loving for many years of their relationship.   It is supposed to confuse an audience that is accustomed sorting through people in a binary way

I think this whole concept is framed incorrectly though, probably because I no longer think that good or evil exist, they are too subjective.  But let’s assume that they do for a second, shall we?  Another metric of character that sometimes gets confused with ‘goodness’ is ‘niceness,” and those two do not always move in the same direction.  There are probably some serial killers out there who are just bursting with charm and hospitality.

The portrayal of Kony as a man with two sides isn’t entirely accurate, because he has orchestrated the destruction of innocent lives through rape, murder, war, enslavement, etc.  I guess this would make him “evil.”   However, evil does not preclude someone from also being a “nice” person, which can explain Evelyn’s recounts of how candid and emotional and intimate Kony could be.  It is possible to possess both qualities simultaneously.

Manners in Nanking

Too bad the quality of ‘goodness’ in a person is so ambiguously defined, eh?  I guess my roots come from a culture of people who are on the surface, very rude.  Don’t try to convince me otherwise!  The Chinese, especially in China, are pushy, and loud, and prone to doing all sorts of things in public that North Americans would consider unhygienic.  The Chinese are also considered incredibly miserly.  From working in the service industry, I can tell you, we probably aren’t the best tippers, which is a constant source of my embarrassment.

The Japanese have a reputation for manners that is probably the opposite of the Chinese, especially internationally: Japanese tourists have often been voted the most polite, meekest tourists in the world.  There is also social pressure to conform to norms which prevents all sorts of common acts in North America, such as vandalism or littering.  This pressure also ensures that in public, the Japanese will go to lengths to avoid embarrassing themselves.  When I had a table of Japanese tourists, the tipping was unreal, and this was probably out of a fear of  undertipping.  Needless to say, I wasn’t complaining.

Our reputations as “nice” and “not so nice” cultures did not stop the Japanese from finding brutal ways to murder hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Chinese civilians during the WWI, in humiliating and painful and creative ways.  It wasn’t simply the conquest of a land; the torture of innocent men, women, and children, and their slaughter, can be considered sociopathic.  It wasn’t enough to kill civilians, the focus was more on prolonging the suffering and degradation than anything else.  The Rape of Nanking does not go over well in China; if you visit the south like I just did, you can still find an undertow of bitter resentment of the Japanese.  This is only aggravated by the fact that there’s still nothing in the way of education of children in schools about what happened, or any sort of official government apology to the Chinese.  I remember that I had to read about it on my own as a high schooler; and for weeks the images I saw would haunt me.

The Chinese have done some egregious things to repress people as well, but the point I’m trying to make is that a culture of manners and an outward projection of “niceness” does not stop a society from exhibiting the potential to act in “evil” ways.   The two qualities are entirely unrelated to each other.

Which Matters?

Ultimately, if both existed, I would choose to be “good” over “nice.”  I’m not a nice person, but I can fake it if an occasion calls for it.  Faking “goodness” would get a bit more tricky.  The more difficult problem is that my framework for “good” and “evil” has been slipping away from me for quite some time, and so I’m not even sure if I can be “good.”

Maybe I can’t be anything at all.

Read Full Post »

Okay, so my brain vacation seems to be over in a day when I get back to work.  In the meantime, I thought I was going to be here a lot, catching up.  I come back and apparently the only catching up I’m doing is with my liver, and now karma has confined me to tamer activities as I try to recover from what-shall-now-be-known-as-the-worst-and-speediest-cold-ever.  So WordPress it is!

Last year around this time, I did the Terry Talks at UBC, which was our version of a TEDx event.  The student immediately proceeding me was Jenn, who had just spent a summer in China working some kind of an investment banking job.  She presented a talk on “East meets West”, which was less than inspiring for some of my non-Commerce friends.  And with good reason.  The arguments in support of China’s current progress were sometimes superficial or weakly put together. The talk also entirely ignored the human rights issue.

However, in Jenn’s defense, it’s impossible to build a balanced debate about China’s progress without real information, information that we don’t always have access to.  I’d wonder about the highways; toll booths were set up to recoup the cost of building these massive infrastructure projects.  However, when the costs were recouped, the tolls were still in place, sometimes collected by the government, and sometimes by private companies.  No one was told why or where the additional funding was going.  That is just one example of many where there were too many questions and not enough answers

Without such information, I’d like to give my own personal reflection on what my first trip back in 9 years meant to me.  Some of these reflections are pretty trivial and some of them are more legit, so bear with me.

1) China is really crowded and the pushiness of people in crowds only exacerbates the feeling of claustrophobia.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as claustrophobic as I did when I was in China.  There are people EVERYWHERE, and every city, even the more obscure ones, are the size of New York.  When people cross the street, they move in herds.  Malls are packed like every day is Christmas eve.

But that’s just it.  The more you think about it, you just get this wonderful sense that loneliness is the last word in your vocabulary.  We seek it out here sometimes; think about NYE in New York when the ball is about to drop, and everyone’s happy to be surrounded by hundreds of strangers.  I think coming back to Canada is always the hardest part; trying to fall asleep when the streets are silent, as opposed to still buzzing with traffic, or shopping in grocery stores where there may be only a dozen other patrons.  After being surrounded by that many people, it just feels like every part of this city has been deserted, as if it were a part of some post-apocalypse zombie film.

2) The bathrooms are really scary.

Have you ever seen a squat toilet???  Okay, when I was eight, the first time I ever went to a rural area, I needed to go, so my aunt takes me to a small brick building on the side of the road with a “toilet” sign on it, and I peer in.  And it is literally a shallow hole in the ground.  I looked at her like she must have been joking.

Most of them are ceramic and have running water and all that stuff, but even in the major cities, bathrooms are hit and miss; and squat toilets always have a lingering smell like you never really fully got rid of the contents.  I know that China is really conscious of how much foreigners hate these things, and so in the nicest places, the old bathroom system had to be completely refurbished to accomodate the potties that we Canadians know and love.

In Western society, you get a real sense for how important the bathroom of a place is.  This never existed in China until very recently.  You’d get the nicest restaurants and there would still be an olfactory reminder of the presence of a squat toilet in the corner.  Heck, when I was in Beijing, the airports still have some of them.  It didn’t used to matter to the Chinese because a bathroom was never a reflection of the prestige of the rest of an establishment.  Can you imagine the same thing in Canada?  A five star restaurant would never get anywhere if the bathroom was odorous or neglected.  But the Chinese might have a point; my mother used to quip, ” why does it have to be so fancy anyways?  How much time are you really ever going to spend in there?”  To each land, their own room of sanctuary.  But in China, squat toilets save water and space, and  no one is sitting in there to read a magazine.  To them, it’s almost comical now much time North Americans want to spend in a room that’s literally built around waste.

3) Arranged marriages are backwards and outdated.

You know what’s bizarre? North American dating practices.  For people my age.  No one has a clue what the fuck is going on anymore.  Back to this in a second.

It’s true, in China (with the exception of places like Shanghai or Beijing) you still have to rely on your parents and your family connections when it comes to setting you up with a spouse.   My cousin is getting married very soon off of one of these setups.  And people still get married pretty early, at least that’s my impression.  When I was there, the biggest questions I got were, “why aren’t you looking?  Aren’t you worried? Maybe you should just keep an eye out?  Do you need us to help you?”

Haha, no thank you, I’ve still got a big chunk my twenties to get through.  Back to this . . . nevermind.

The good thing is that everyone’s got so many aunts and uncles that it’s almost impossible to run out of family friends who might know someone who might be suitable.

These new arrangements aren’t forced or anything.  Instead, your parents will choose someone they think might be compatible with you based on age, income, temperament, and then suggest you two meet on your own and see how you like each other.  It’s like your family becomes your own personal eHarmony or something.  I think I understand the logic behind it; if your parents like their parents, and income levels are compatible, then your family has automatically eliminated the two top reasons for divorce: money and in-laws.  Besides, young adults make bad judgement calls (my entire third year of university was a bad judgement call, aherm) and so it can be settling to know that someone more mature has already approved a choice for you.  And if the date doesn’t work well, the parents move on and try to find someone else who is equally compatible on those key elements.

The one thing I noticed in my time away from Shanghai and Beijing was the lack of youth prowling the streets at night.  And a lack of bar-type establishments.  But really, why would they be necessary when marriage is the ultimate goal?  In China, it would seem bizarre to try to explain to anyone how in North America, us young people dress up on the weekends in order to consume liquor in the hopes that our newly lowered standards will present us with someone who might be temporarily interesting.  All of the motions that we go through would seem empty to my relatives since marriage, or even the possibility of marriage, is not part of the picture.

I think we scoff at the idea of arranged marriage in China because in North America, there is a real crisis in terms of what commitment means.  It’s become so mainstream to be afraid of it, that it seems almost crazy to embrace it.  In China, marriage is moving towards more of a North American style, and with rising incomes there will inevitably be rising divorce rates, but I think China still holds marriage to a much lower standard than North America does.  Lower standard in the sense that there is less of an expectation for marriage to be perfect, or solve one’s problems, or to not come with its own set of complications.  In this way, the young people in China are freed from any false notions about it, and understand there’s some periods that they will have to endure, for the sake of family or whatever.  This also means they are less afraid of commitment because  it doesn’t mean the destruction of a perfect illusory ideal, the way it does here. And because we here are afraid of it, we continue to seek out less than ideal temporary replacements.

Read Full Post »

Happy Birthday!

. . . . China!

Just kidding.  Sort of.  Happy Canada Day.  I’ve never had to work on a stat holiday before but this waitressing thing really strikes whenever.  Please grace my presence with your grumbling tummies today!  I will appreciate the company!

So, I’m supposed to be taking some trip with my parents back to the mothership in September, which includes a “subsidized,” week-long trip through Southern China where we will be staying in the best hotels (because that’s how I prefer to roll :D, the antiseptic feel is far-removed from the actual, disgusting, messy, state of my room.  I love contrasts).  The worst best part: it is subsidized by the government of China!

. . . . . yeah, I’ll give you a few moments to sort out your emotions too.

Which makes you realize how young anglo-Canada is when you realize it is only about as old as the most recent incarnation of government in China.  And there were like, fifty before this last one.

Hu warns the Chinese Communist Party

Preventing implosion may require something like rooting out corruption, but China’s been pretty satisfied with humouring citizens with a few small gestures; sacking a mid-level or a local official, some nice words, etc.  But is that enough?

Maybe?  My initial thought was that rooting out corruption requires real democracy, and the ability to safely and quickly publicly shame officials involved in “scandals.”  But that makes the assumption that on the other end, the citizens who are hearing this news are going to feel enough of a sense of outrage for the threat of publicity to act as a corruption deterrent.  I’m not at all convinced that this sense of outrage would exist on the level that we expect in Canada.  I mean, in many other parts of the world, corruption (to a reasonable degree) is part of the cost of doing business.  So what happens if you highlight something that everyone expects to be the norm?

Yeah, I don’t know either.

My impression of China has always been that people are a bit jaded with the politics.  Either that, or they don’t care.  It’s really not far off from how jaded people are about the system in North America, and at least in Canada, the system isn’t really representative of what people want.  So if disappointment leads to indifference, at what point should you start to worry about that indifference churning itself into a nice, buttery anger?

Happy Birthday, both.


** By birthday, I realize that Canada existed long before Europe settled here. So let’s just go with illegitimate birthday?

Read Full Post »

Panda Kama Sutra


I don’t know why this article is hilarious, but it is. Maybe because it’s 3 am again.

Read Full Post »

Harvard Kennedy School – Exaggerating the Importance of Good Governance.

I am up at 3, trying to finish my Kennedy School Application.  This is an interesting article, and I will definitely look for her book now.

Dr. Moyo suggests that good governance is an impediment to economic growth in Africa, and calls for abolishing this type of aid model as a way to encourage growth and reduce poverty.  I had a conversation with the IR chair Dr. Allen Sens last week, and he reiterated the commonly mentioned accusation of China’s lack of any governance criteria as pro-longing the conflict in Somalia a few years ago (no, that is not a typo, not Sudan).  Bad governance in the area prevented growth because the investment that was supposed to be happening just ended up in the hands of shady individuals.

So what Dr. Grindle is suggesting, from the description anyways, is that perhaps governance is important, but the way aid agencies are describing it are too complicated.  What is governance anyways?  Does it need to be defined on 116 different criteria in order to ensure that an LDC is getting what it needs?

Perhaps it is not a question of eliminating the condition of governance that would affect the effectiveness of aid.  Perhaps, it is clearing the terms of the aid to eliminate too many distracting (and initially, not very useful) terms for defining good governance, to focus on the handful of key indicators which are actually useful.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »