Thursday, November 10, 2016

Through this Grove

Look around you closely,
Peer through the gathering fog.
Glance back along our wayward tracks,
Prepare—the night is long.

Hunker under drooping branches,
Opaque forest walls surround
Our huddled troupe: lying in low spirits,
Upon the dampened ground.

Here comes the creeping
enfolding dark.

Ragged breath strays in and out:
confusion, anguish, exhaustion mount.
Not rest, but penance;
Not respite, expurgation.
Weighted with worldly cares,
the fragile spindle of the soul
trailing wisps of
sight decaying,
hope abating.
Breathe out bleak dust.
Exhale black air.

Through spreading boughs, a glimpse of light:
Blink—it winks out, a sudden flare,
calamitous and gone.

Hours pass,
Centuries evaporate.
Uncertain and unsung,
you remain prone, corpus prostrate.

Time turns.
A new song stirs.
Look up to see the forest,
manifest all around you.

Go forth,
run nimble along fallen trunks,
dance atop swirling leaves.
Silent, swift, sure-footed,
pass through groves of swaying trees.
Leap an arc across this land,
for this world that once
evaded your glance
now shines out in all its invisible glory.

In nocturnal black and white,
we see bold strokes,
luminous lines etched with
startling clarity.

Crisp sound,
stark sight,
inscribing acts of
laughter and brilliance.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

San Francisco: A Trashy Place

"A San Francisco Recreation and Park gardener's expletive-filled rant about the trash problem at Dolores Park was pulled from Facebook, but not before the SFist captured a screen grab," the San Francisco Chronicle reports. (Check out the video report as well.)

This city employee's rant does not bother me, and I certainly hope he is not reprimanded or fired for expressing his point of view.

I propose Rec & Park stop cleaning these places. If people insist on behaving like juveniles and littering everywhere, then they should suffer the consequences. San Franciscans can wake up and take some responsibility for their own city's environment, instead of acting like entitled brats who throw things everywhere and expect to have a maid pick up for them.

True, it's a collective action problem. "I'm not littering," you might whine. "Without taxpayer-funded cleaning the park is still ruined for me!" I still say let everyone fester in the garbage. Maybe you should apply a little social pressure and express opprobrium at the people who do litter and ruin it for everyone else.

Otherwise, letting Rec & Park clean up after parties is a moral hazard. Who will care if someone else always cleans up the mess?

The famed Taiwanese writer Lung Ying-tai 龍應台 wrote an essay entitled "中國人,你為什麼不生氣?" (We might loosely paraphrase it as: "Yo people, why the hell aren't you angry about a-holes who pollute and throw garbage everywhere? Shape up yourselves, and get pissed off at transgressors.")

Why is this a conversation we still need to have in the most liberal city in America, home to a crunchy granola environmental movement, with one of the highest per capita rates of electric car adoption? There seems to be a big disconnect between environmental responsibility to the planet and still letting people trash our own backyard. 舊金山市民,你為什麼不生氣?

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

The American Saga Continues

Precisely when all the talk about this year's Academy Awards has focused on Hollywood's lack of diversity (#OscarsSoWhite) and less-than-equitable treatment of minorities, out come the racial jokes targeting Asians. During the Oscars' ceremony, host Chris Rock lampooned three children of Asian/Asian American heritage as "accountants," and then tossed in a child labor quip while he was at it.

PRI interviewed one of the children, Estie Kung, and her family, and it's a pretty gut-wrenching read:

What it's like to be the butt of the joke. One of the kids at the Oscars speaks out.

You know why this happens? Because we are the silent "model minority." Because we take it, and our parents remind us, "Don't make waves, don't make trouble!" They just got off the boat and don't want to provoke rage or greater opposition than they already face, every moment they live their lives in the American public sphere -- in the grocery store, at the airport, in the workplace.

Where's the solidarity? "I'm beat up by the white kids, so let's attack the even more hapless Asian kid?" (They are literally KIDS here. What gives?) This behavior shows a reprehensible lack of humanity and responsibility. It's also extremely immature.

While I'm always down for critiquing East and Southeast Asian countries, this is done through the lens of "We can do better." or "This isn't a society I believe in." (There's also more than a little pointed criticism of America built into a lot of these neo-liberalism-run-amok commentaries.) But to simply pick on someone because they're meeker than you, because you know they won't resist? That's called BULLYING.

At the end of the day, somehow in America, it's okay to poke fun at Asians. Because "positive" stereotypes (which are really backhanded-compliments) are seen as less offensive. Because we never fight back. Because we just silently take it -- even as we are building the country. See: Chinese Railroad Workers in North America

This is why we move into ethnic enclaves that have more delicious food. (In some cases, these places also have higher average incomes and less crime than the average American town. I qualify this statement because I'm trying to avoid falling into using the "model minority" trope, but my point is that Asian Americans can "make it" when they take matters into their own hands.)

I want us to stand up and fight, to push back on this kind of disgusting and pernicious discrimination -- but not on White Americans' terms or African American's terms. Let's resist, without turning into mainstream doltish America. We can do better.

We've always survived, and we're going to keep going. However, the way to truly fight back is not to become whiter (please avoid whitewashing ... don't do that to yourself!), but to be vocal and proud about being Asian. It means flourishing and growing, while maintaining cultural fluency in both worlds. It means making it in America, but on our own terms -- holding on to a sense of ethics, identity, and values, while helping to define anew what this diverse society is all about. It means owning and celebrating who we are; it means being who we want to be.

Don't give in. Don't give up.


Who are the people here? (Source: PRI)

The juxtaposition here is strangely bittersweet. I see two amazing kids looking up in wonder at C-3P0 and R2-D2, a pair of esteemed pop culture icons from our childhood. Yet some part of America only sees blank-faced "all the same" stereotypes across the board, which enables them to make tasteless jokes -- and not even recognize how it's wrong. Apparently we're not people, only faceless droids.

In spite of all this, at least one thing does give me hope:
Estie [the Asian child actor], though, is taking it all in stride. She isn't familiar with Rock's comedy ("I've never seen 'Madagascar,'" she says) and she didn't initially understand the child labor joke until her mother explained it to her. (She thought Rock was saying that they designed the phones.)
Aside from the hilarious-yet-unintentional dig at Rock's appearance in a kid's cartoon, Estie's wondrously innocent response speaks volumes. It shows that:

(1) Young people aren't naturally bigoted. It's learned from flawed models of human beings, i.e. adults.

(2) Not just those three, but their whole generation will grow up in a globalized, multicultural world, where Asians and Asian Americans are not only tech savvy, but also media and business savvy. They won't just be the IT guys anymore.

So yes, not only will they design your phone -- they may also manage the robotic facility that manufactures it, own the company that sells it to you, and probably be your next-door neighbor too. They may even represent you on the city council.

In any case, instead of pumping up one particular ethnicity in a misguided and meaningless arms race, it's more important that we preserve that child-like sense of equality and openness. Let's aim for a world where anyone is empowered to make a contribution to society and isn't hindered or pigeon-holed by their ethnic background.

Welcome to the 21st century!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Overture for the 丙申 Year (Gregorian 2016)

A sudden fissuring:
the boulder splits open and issues Fortune,
quivering with excitement for the new year:
unbridled and unbound!

Hear the snap and hum of firecrackers,
staccato notes piercing the night,
crackling like crusty bread that
sheds fat, crisp crumbs on the table.

An overturned vase unleashes
a current of loose pebbles,
smooth and round,
streaming across the tiled floor.

Bass rumblings heave long and low,
strafed by the sharp retort of rifles
blazing on the firing range,
echoing in vast stone canyons.

General bombardment commences:
the celestial power hailed by
earthly subjects jolts the city.
Volley after volley, shattering cadences
usher in the first tuning of the lunar calendar.
Engines thunder, sirens wail, seasons are rewound.
Once more, the moon clock is set into motion.

Hollering and drumming, exploding and shouting,
it is the fanfare for the Year of the Monkey,
who leaps happily from trunk to branch, rooftop to cloud.
His time is now upon us!

Taoist gunslingers trade shots and greetings:
warding off demons, calling in prosperity.
Armed with divine trigrams and spiritual ordnance,
they dispel ill luck as they float on the aural tide.

Black powder, grey smoke, galloping ferghana flames,
all corners awash in noise and joyful exhalations.
The waves of sound carry
calligraphic notes and crimson envelopes,
bearers and recipients both youthful and old,
fresh-faced and wrinkled, wide-eyed and wise,
exchanging bright wishes and long embraces,
re-knotting family ties.

Heaven Above smiles
as percussive cheers resound
in streets painted ruby, rouge, and fiery vermilion.
We'll be burning paper money tomorrow
hailing spirits, recollecting ancestors—
and lighting incense to underwrite
Another Auspicious Year.

Luck and pyrotechnics blaze
in iron cauldrons set alight, 
the air fills with
the sizzle of frying sesame oil,
the blasts of happy cannons,
the lively roar of balletic dragons chasing their own tails,

everywhere to sound benevolence,
everywhere to draw in life,
everywhere to birth this pearlescent new year,
the music of jubilant celebration punctuates the night.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Write Map Illumine Draw

“I don’t do poetry."

My heart sinks—full stop, before sputtering to life again. “It doesn’t matter," I say. "We can still make beautiful maps together."

Our poetry will be found in continents and cities,
and the spaces that exist between them.
Our metaphors are the lines, colors, contours that make up
geographical stanzas stamped onto the surface of the Earth,
that floating blue marble, planetary marvel,
where our species exists unlike anyplace else.

We will make ourselves fluent in
the language of navigators and map-makers,
speak in chloropleth dialects
and cartographic accents,
Robinson—not Mercator!
Cylindrical or Winkel tripel?

We’ll learn to run through high latitudes,
draw circular lines, chart raw aptitude.
Mark out the meridian: “Le Meridien”
the meeting place for lovers,
as we paint the geospatial reality of
plots, projections, parallels,
lyrics, lore, laws, and land use,
newfound stories, ancient songs,
dynamics, demography (destiny?)

When we draw out an elegant curve,
or make sense of jumbled pieces;
when we assemble our own jigsaw puzzle
from fragmented clues strung around the globe in
24 separate time zones;
when we count capitals of countries bounded by
snaking frontiers and jagged partitions;
when we see environmental furies and human agglomerations
cross all conventional borders, transgress artificial, man-made dimensions;
when we apprehend that
degrees-minutes-seconds mean distance,
as well as time;
when we inscribe the world with meaning—

then paper becomes cartography,
our orthography,

You’ll speak to me the way I speak to you—
dancing across the pages of an atlas,
tossing the starlight quill into the wind,
pouring cool, blue ink into the glass-flowing river, 
tracing the distance from Seattle to San Francisco to Skopje to Shanghai
and end up home.

On the shores of a floating island, que ilha tao formosa,
verdant beauty encircles me, my embrace the sky that envelopes you. 

Sunday, December 06, 2015

The view when suspended 10,000 feet up

It might not be 100% intentional, but why does service on trans-Atlantic flights—from airport check-in, to boarding, to meal service—seem smoother, higher in quality, more designed to satisfy, compared to flights across the Pacific? I've grown so used to the circus of getting from SFO to Shanghai or Beijing that this flight to Paris is shockingly ... calm.

What lies at the root of this contrast? Do different classes of the flying public exhibit different characteristics? Do we assume customers from some demographics will put up with more strain, will have fewer expectations, or are generally less experienced with international travel?

Do service employees adopt a more implicitly hostile attitude—harsher voice, more impatience, a guarded wariness—toward "foreign" or "alien" peoples, compared with those they assume are "civilized"?

Is it all simply business savvy? Is it fair?

There seem to be some deep racial dynamics here that I don't totally understand. What I can say is that in our increasingly globalized world, the frictions and conflicts, the micro-aggressions and outright discrimination—whether ill-intentioned or simply mis-informed—are all going to come to the fore. Yet in parallel, many more moments of mutual understanding, successful non-verbal communication, and a growing sense of human solidarity will also mark our collective experience.

Probing and unpacking these stories requires introspection on the part of many different actors—the airlines, the service employees, the passengers; the advocates, the by-standers, the ruler-makers; even the observers and commentators on these affairs. This exercise requires a non-judgmental attitude. In racially-tense situations, resolution can only be found when deft handling and cultural competency are coupled with a willingness to not shy away from the truth of sensitive questions. It will most of all require empathy.

Luckily, empathy, and all the attendant processes, can be learned, practiced, improved, and eventually habituated. It will be a lifelong project for this generation, and the next, to figure out how to live, coexist, and thrive in this shifting planetary landscape. There will be increasing moments of alienation and strangeness, but also greater recognition and familiarity. These processes will be shaped by technological leaps, environmental disruption, and most of all, human awakening.

Sometimes, it takes a moment of contrast to shake a person awake to the interesting character of our times. What a brave new world we truly live in! Despite the years I've spent on this planet so far, I guess I just hadn't quite realized it yet.

Monday, August 24, 2015

通用奶茶 We all scream for ice cream!

I wonder if calling it 通用話 or 通用語言 might capture the spirit of the enterprise a little more, and sidestep some of the political friction from nationalist 國語 or classist 普通話 choices. (Great for constructing societies, maybe not so hot in the modern era where we lack consensus on "the nation" or disagree on promoting class conflict as a mode of revolutionary change. ‪#‎politics‬)

Of course, people who use the words 國語 or 普通話 might not see these particular connotations, because the usage of the phrases is so common/widespread 普遍 in their own societies. But upon closer inspection, the current choice of what we call our language does raise an eyebrow.

If we care about 正名 (or the "rectification of names"), then in terms of defining a mission of language and urging its acceptance among populations who do not currently speak it, we should focus on its applicability, utility, and ability to serve as a means of communication—not on its nation-building 建國 character.

We may also prefer using the name of our language to elevate discourse, not as a tool for fighting class battles. "Common," as in "common tongue" in English, has a uniting character, i.e. what we have "in common" with each other. It contrasts with 普通 "common; ordinary; plain; average" which could be interpreted as emphasizing an elite-commoner divide, and in regular usage feels "pedestrian."

華語 is okay too, but it gets into the whole ethnic question of "Who is 華?" Although maybe that's a good thing, because then only 華 people should have to use Mandarin, and you don't get to impose it on other non-華 groups.

So in terms of identifying the purpose of language, while keeping it politically neutral and viable, 通用 seems to deliver the message in a way that more Sinophone communities could swallow. It also doesn't preclude foreigners and/or minorities from learning the language, because it doesn't force any particular appellation or uncomfortable surrender of identity on them if they choose to pick up this dialect.

There doesn't appear to be any ongoing debate about these monikers, but this particular line of thought was sparked while reading about the history of the "construction" of the national language—a language that, at this juncture, is not only for the nation.

Tiger Troll

Amy Chua is bringing her type of programming to Singapore. She's well-spoken and articulate in this interview, but I can't tell if she's massively trolling when she says these things

AFP | Getty Images via CNBC

I disagree with Amy Chua and with Tiger Parenting in general—supremely grateful that my parents weren't like that—but I have to compliment her on her writing style and wry tone. The behavior she describes in her book is pretty appalling, but it also made me chuckle. 

At the end of the day, the behavior and incentives it frames are antithetical to what I believe in, in terms of the kind of lives we live. For example, from my perspective, you should do something because you care about it, not because your parents make you do it. Otherwise it seems to demonstrate a lack of autonomy and self-direction.

On the other side of the coin, I'm not moved by the coddle-your-kids self-esteem-boosting approach practiced by a number of Americans, which verges on caricature. There's something to be said for a decisive, no-nonsense attitude, because kids *are* resilient and can handle it. That doesn't mean it should descend into paternalist, authoritarian, militant abuse. (Tiger Mom-ing is really a converse to helicopter parenting, which seems very New Age ... one leaves children unable to cope because too much is done for them, whereas the other leaves children unable to think because too much is constrained for them.) She seems too smart to fall for this parenting trap, which is why I think it's got to be, on some level, trolling. (Or to put it in a more high-brow way, a rhetorical exercise. Is this for profit? For making a reputation? For provoking American society so it shakes off its stupor and gets moving?)

It does speak to the anxiety of immigrants, and also the sense of cultural disconnect, which is where a good deal of the humor comes from too. Something like this:


which in my mind is still the classic video on Asian parenting.

In both "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" and in this YouTube video, there is recognition, as well as an almost perverse sense of pride regarding the differences in cultural values. Perhaps it is only in retrospect, as survivors viewing the situation through the lens of parodic humor that we can gain the distance to laugh.

Then again, the job of children is to accommodate, resist, and negotiate cultural norms of both Old World and New. Thus, the conversation raised is an important one. It is a little odd that she feels the need to bring this mentality to Singapore, because they're already doing a great job at paternalism, but I suppose they're also in the midst of their Anglicizing-Modernizing moment when parents educated in Chinese schools are raising kids raised with English as their native language. It's a nation of immigrants and children of immigrants without the immigrating!