Category Archives: Rants

More on 三八女 (the social status of women in China)

11 March 2009

A few days ago, I wrote about International Women’s Day, celebrated on 8th of March each year.  The name of this festival is "San Ba Jie," or "Three Eight Festival" (for third month, 8th day).  It is a festival day in China to celebrate the equality of women in society, particularly in Communist societies.  Women in China, Chairman Mao said, "hold up half the sky."  The only problem is, that ordinary citizens in China don’t really see women that way.  Women may hold up half the sky, but they are not viewed as equal with men. 

Nor are women valued as highly, literally.  If they were, it would not have been necessary for the Chinese government to ban the storefront ultrasound businesses, which would tell people whether the baby they were expecting was a boy or girl, so they could selectively abort the baby if it were a girl.  It would not have been necessary for the government to institute a campaign in the countryside to convince parents that "Every child is precious." 

How well I remember the days in the USA when women who agitated for equal rights were viewed as abrasive.  Let’s put it bluntly.  They weren’t just viewed as pushy.  They were viewed as something akin to lesbian bitches.  Well, … in China, to refer to a woman as a "san ba nu" (three eight woman) has somewhat the same connotation.  It’s not a nice term. 

That’s why, when I recently referred to myself as a "san ba nu," one of my Chinese friends wrote to me:  "It is not a positive comment for you. Stop using that word. :)"  She didn’t realize that I knew it wasn’t a flattering way to refer to one’s self.  But, I’ve already been there, done that.  I’ve battled those barriers of sexism in the workplace.  You don’t make progress by being sweet and playing by the same rules that kept women in their "place" for centuries already. 

Thus, my reply to her?

"Wo zhidao [I know]. My point really is that, it just goes to show how far women still have to go in a society — how small our gains are — when the mere fact of seeking equality with men is equated with being an annoying, yacking, gossipy, complaining, bitch! I utterly disagree with the Chinese use of the term we westerners would call "liberated woman" as being the equivalent of what we would call "bitch", MOST ESPECIALLY when the term itself (directly translated "March 8th woman") is a direct reference to International Women’s Day, which is about nothing more than seeking equal rights for women! I PRAY that the future for you (and for all sisters) will be much better than this cultural stereotype indicates!!" 

Another of my friends wrote to me a really sweet note, which in part says:  "I don’t think we need a worldwide banner proclaiming how great we are. We already knew."

To which I reply, "zhende, zhende [truly, truly!]"!!! 

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My American Plug Converter

August 17, 2008

Last fall, I wrote a blog entry about my Chinese friends’ reaction when I paid 50 RMB for a plug converter while I was in Beijing.*  My friends were so outraged that someone would charge the exorbitant rate of 50 RMB for a plug converter, taking advantage of the foreigner, that they took the matter to the local police.  Well, this little blog entry is a follow up, with the American sequel to the story.  Because the same issue came up here on this side of the pond last week, when I needed plug converters to be able to plug my Chinese electrical things into American sockets. 

My stuff arrived from China last week.**  With the arrival of our lamps and other electrical stuff, came the problem that all of the plugs on our Chinese stuff are designed for Chinese or Hong Kong outlets.  We needed a bunch of plug converters to enable those things to plug into American electrical sockets.  I could use about ten. 

I went to Circuit City (an American electronics store) to see if they had them.  Yep, they did.  They have plug converters that enable an American electrical appliance to be plugged into a European or Hong Kong plug.  They didn’t have any designed to go the other way, to enable a foreign plug to be plugged into an American outlet.  Except for one.  It was a "universal travel" type plug that comes apart different ways so that it enables any type of plug to be plugged into  any other type of plug.  In Hong Kong this spring, I paid 80 Hong Kong Dollars (about $11 U.S.) for one.  The ones in Circuit City were $20 apiece.  I didn’t need all the fancy configurations, though, I only needed Chinese to American, so I went to Radio Shack to see if they had any of the more simple ones for a cheaper price.  

Radio Shack did have them.  They had exactly three of the type that I needed.  They were priced at $10 apiece.  Hmm.  That’s about 75 RMB.  One and a half times the price that my friends were outraged at my paying in Beijing.  About eight times the price that it sells for on the street in China.  Americans are being bled dry and scalped clean, when it comes to how much they pay for things. 

I just plunked down the cash.  As I walked out of the store, the thought flitted through my mind that I’m so American that it didn’t even cross my mind to bargain. 

___________

*Here is the link to the original plug converter story:  http://xanskinner.spaces.live.com/Blog/cns!F92952EA9124A41B!2258.entry
**Wow, our stuff was packed so well by the movers!   Not everything is unpacked, but it appears that nothing at all was
damaged!  I have no hesitation about recommending our moving company,
Unigroup Worldwide.  They were prompt, responsible, professional, and courteous every step of the way.   Our contact was Vieng Sayavongsa, and the local Guangzhou phone
number for the moving company is (8620) 8328-4681.

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The Many Meanings of “Yes”

Yesterday, I wrote a blog entry about fussing at the Trolley Driver in Hong Kong.  In hindsight, I feel a bit embarassed!  Do I actually think it matters if I fuss?  I don’t actually think that one grumpy old codger like me will make a difference, do I?  Also, as I thought about it, it was plain that what I did was so, very, American!  A Chinese person already knows the world doesn’t revolve around him, and he will just grin and bear it.  He already knows what I should have known, that it’s not "worth it" to bother. 
 
I told one of my Chinese friends today about my little temper fit.  She replied that she thinks one difference between Americans and Chinese is that the Americans are more likely to complain.  The Chinese will simply accept poor customer service (or whatever) and not say anything.  My thinking about this subject reminded me of another exchange this summer that I found a bit humorous.  It, too, was a case when an employee said something other than what he meant, in a customer service setting.  Except this one happened in the USA. 
 
While yesterday’s entry could be titled "When No Doesn’t Mean No," today’s entry could be titled, "When Yes Doesn’t Mean Yes." 
 
In June, I arrived at the Detroit airport early in the morning after a very, very long flight over the Pacific.  My original flight had been delayed and rerouted.  I hadn’t been able to sleep at all on the very uncomfortable overnight plane trip.  I was extremely tired and a bit dazed when I had to switch terminals in the Detroit airport.  I couldn’t figure out where my new gate was.  It turns out, I couldn’t find my gate because it was in a different terminal. 
 
I was confused about how to do this.  I asked an employee at the Northwest Airline ticket counter for directions.  He gave me complicated directions, something like, "walk to the escalators, go down, go outside, catch the shuttle bus right there."  
 
I know, in hindsight this instruction was very easy, but at the time I was so tired that I couldn’t understand what he was saying.  I asked him again, peering around and looking for the escalator as he pointed in that direction.  He could see that I was obviously still confused about where I needed to go.  Kindly, he said, "I’ll take you there."  He came out from behind his counter and personally walked me to the escalator I needed.  From there, it was very simple to get to the bus stop.  
 
Yesterday, when I mentioned random acts of kindness by strangers, his action would qualify as one of them.  He was a ticket agent, not an airport guide, and walking a dazed passenger to their gate fell completely outside of his job description.  He saw that I needed help, and he helped me.  I was very grateful. 
 
But before this really helpful, kind person could walk me to my bus stop, he had to field a query from one really irate passenger.  Due to the Northwest pilot’s strike, a lot of peoples’ flights had been delayed, rerouted, canceled, etc..  A man came up with his family in tow and was yelling loudly.  His face was very red.  The airline employee who was helping me found another flight for the man, but the man didn’t like it.  He yelled some more.  The employee found a different flight, but that wouldn’t do either.  The man was livid and yelling.  The airline employee then gave the passenger directions to a different place where they might be able to help him.   He pointed out to that man some distant location, showing him the direction to walk in as well about how far it was.  After that man left, he walked me, so tired, to the escalator where I needed to go catch the shuttle bus. 
 
After we were walking toward the escalator, I asked the man, "Will the manager be able to find that person a different ticket?"  He replied, "No, I’m the only one who can reroute him, but whenever they get really loud, I send them away.  By the time he comes back to me, he’ll be calmed down a bit."  Talk about anger management! 
 
The employee — who was in the middle of being so outrageously kind to me — had simultaneously and cheerfully sent another customer on a wild goose chase wandering through the Detroit airport!  Similarly to this, when I told my friend today about my exchange with the Trolley driver, she smiled and replied, "At least he said "no" instead of giving you the wrong directions."  We both laughed, because we’ve both been given wrong directions before.   
 
So . . . yesterday I wrote about a case in China where "No" didn’t mean "No"; and today I’m writing about a case in the USA where "Yes" didn’t mean "Yes"! 

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The Many Meanings of “No”

I had a fussy moment yesterday.  (You’re not surprised?!!)  Being closely related to being cross-cultural in nature, I’d call it a "TIC [this is China]" moment. 
 
Sometimes when expats get really fussy for no reason, we say that we had a "TIC Day" [i.e. "This Is China day"].  It helps to have a "significant other" to help smooth out one’s ruffled feathers after such a day.  Many times at the end of such a day, one’s spouse or close friend will say, "You’re just in a bad mood and had a day.  Blow it off." 
 
Admonishments from a close friend, telling us frankly that the anger is out of proportion to the event, can provide a useful reality check.  Otherwise, the frustration from having things go wrong in a confusing and alien environment could lead one to think the level of frustration, all out of proportion to the actual offense, was an indication either of insanity or that one is completely unsuited to an overseas assignment. 
 
Fortunately for me (and my family), my TIC moments have occurred with decreasing regularity over the past year.  Now, I have enough knowledge of cultural differences to at least not be so baffled so much of the time.  I can communicate better in the local language, so there are fewer confusing moments on account of lack of communication.  And also, I don’t feel so overwhelmed by them when they do happen.  But still, TIC moments and days do occasionally happen.  I’ll describe the one yesterday. 
 
I needed to go to a very large, very well-known hospital in Hong Kong for a medical test.  My doctor gave me a business card that had the name of the hospital on one side and a map on the other, and he told me roughly where it was.  But I had never been there, and I didn’t want to make any huge mistakes and get lost. 
 
When I arrived at the train station in Hong Kong yesterday, I asked the Customer Service people at the desk how to get to the hospital.  A very helpful employee told me to take the metro to Causeway Bay exit, then to find the trolley stop and take the trolley to Happy Valley.  Once there, I couldn’t miss it, she said.  When I got to Causeway Bay, I stopped again and made sure I took the correct exit out of the metro station, and I got more detailed directions how to find the Tram stop and how to know when to get off.  I found the tram and then rode it to the terminal station, which was where I was supposed to get off.  The map on my business card indicated I was only one intersection away from the hospital, but there were some other side streets.  I wasn’t sure if those streets were on the map, and it looked like the map didn’t exactly match where I found myself standing.  
 
I felt a bit disoriented.  Should I walk to the right or to the left?  How far should I walk?  Should I turn down one of the side streets or at the main road?  Stopping at the exit, I asked the Tram driver for help.  Since we were at the terminal station for his tram, there wasn’t any rush.  I showed him my card with the map, showed him the spot on there that marked the tram stop, and asked him where the hospital was.  He brushed me off, indicating that he didn’t know.  I could tell that he didn’t really look at the map on the card I was pointing to. 
 
I had a hunch that his "no" didn’t really mean "no," it meant instead that he didn’t want to be bothered.  Or something.  When this type of thing happens, one has to be a sleuth to figure out what exactly it does mean. 
 
The first time this type of experience ever happened to me in China, I remember exactly where I was.  In the airport in Shanghai, I wanted to buy an English language magazine to read on the plane.  I went to a book store employee and asked if they had any English language magazines.  At that time in my language development, I was carrying a phrasebook.  I looked up the word for magazine in my phrasebook and showed it to him.  "Meiyou [don’t have]," he replied, nodding his head back and forth, before he went back to his job.  Very disappointed, I was walking out the exit when I walked past an entire shelf of English language magazines.  I was so upset that I called the employee over, dragged him to the stock, and said, "You do have English language magazines!"  Just then, a store manager was also walking by and asked if she could help me.  I told her that her employee had just told me that they didn’t have any English language magazines, when here was a whole shelf of them.  She replied that he didn’t speak English and perhaps he didn’t understand.  I replied to her, that in that case he should tell me he doesn’t speak English and get some help, not just blow me off.   
 
Since then, I’ve experienced many times that the answer "No" often doesn’t really mean "No."  It can mean, "I don’t know," or it can mean "I don’t have time to look it up," or it can mean, "I don’t want to be bothered," or it can mean, "I don’t understand the question."  David and I have learned that to get to the truth of a matter, we actually have to make some strong effort at times.  We do this using various techniques which could be labeled as "active listening."  We ask, for example, "Do you know that you don’t have it, or do you do you just not know where it is in the store?" Or, "Do you just not have it now, or is it that you will never be ordering it again?"   We also try to clarify whether it’s a language issue:  "Ni mingbai, ma [Do you know what I’m saying]?" Or "Ni ting dong ma [Do you understand]?"  When given the opportunity, the person usually will clarify exactly why they answered the way they did.  E.g., "We used to carry this item, but it has been discontinued now."  
 
Well, when the driver told me "no," I just shrugged and set out to figure out on my own where the hospital was.  But the answer was so obvious that the only explanation for his ignorance was that he had made no effort whatsoever to understand my question. 
 
When I figured out,where the hospital was, I got pretty angry because it was so obvious. There was no way the driver didn’t know.  He was just blowing me off.   Just up a block or so in front of me, I could clearly see the fifteen (or so) storey building, clearly marked with a big red cross on the front.  Moreover, later on I also noticed street signs all over the place with arrows and pointing ahead for "hospital."  It wasn’t that this guy didn’t KNOW where the hospital was.  He just didn’t care to help. 
 
I’m glad I had enough savvy to find it on my own.  For me personally, the consequences of his indifference weren’t so severe, and I could make it without his help.  After all, I now speak some Chinese, I had a map and can read it, and I am able bodied.  Unfortunately, some people who might need his help might be none of the above.  They might be sick or even have an emergency, not have a map, and not really be able to get there without asking help from another human.  I’ve been there.  Navigating the strange streets of a new city in an alien land, where I didnt speak any of the language, there’ve been times when I was extremely grateful for the kindness of strangers who somehow materialized from nowhere to meet the need. 
 
In light of his indifference, I did get angry.  It wasn’t that he didn’t know.  It was that he didn’t care to help me.  Most English speaking people whom he shrugs off in this way probably wander off, still dazed.  He never gets any feedback from them. 
 
When I figured out where the hospital was, the driver was still sitting in his tram.  After all, as I said, it was his terminal station.  He had to wait five minutes or so before heading out again.  Even though my language skill isn’t totally great, I went back to him and said in Mandarin, "Don’t tell me you don’t KNOW where the hosptial is.  JUST SAY YOU DON’T WANT TO HELP ME." 
 
In this respect, Hong Kong is probably no different from any other big city in the world.  People fail to help others all the time.  But hey.  At least be honest about it.  Don’t try to make yourself feel better by trying to uphold the myth that you didn’t KNOW when the truth is more like you didn’t want to be BOTHERED. 
 
We Americans are sometimes criticised for being too honest when it comes to feelings.  It’s "easier" just to say less, to communicate less, and avoid all the messy complications that being in relationship with another human being entails.  On the other hand, failure to be honest also enables an undue amount of denial when it comes to moral responsibility.  Sometimes a little guilt can help correct the rudder on a ship.  The feedback we get from guilt, when we feel guilt, enables us to act in such a way that we don’t feel guilty the next time — it helps us improve. 
 
Of course I’ve learned that it probably will make no difference.  My little venting probably had no effect.  But perhaps, just perhaps, the next time somebody asks him for some very minor assistance, he’ll make a more conscious decision about whether he really doesn’t know . . . or if the real issue is that he doesn’t care.  In my mind, there’s a big moral difference between the two.  I hope he chooses to care what happens to another human. 
 
And that, my dears, is my rant for the day. 

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Usury and Judgment

 
I just threw away a credit card offer.  Ripped it to shreds, in fact.  Not that this is unusual, even though I have no income and live in a foreign country (I mean, what could be lower risk than this, right?).  I guess what’s actually unusual is that I took time to read the offer before shredding it. 
 
It promised that I was preapproved for a card with "no interest until October of 2008".  Hmm.  Intriguing. 
 
When I read the fine print, I saw it stipulated that the zero percent interest rate was only good on balance transfers from another card.  The default rate on the card was over 21% interest.  The penalty rate, the rate someone pays if they have been even one day late on a payment, was close to 30 percent.  The fee for the balance transfer would be either 3%, or $75, whichever was less.  The interest rate for all purchases or other cash advances would be 21%.  After the expiration of the initial "teaser rate" on balance transfers, the interest rate on the balance transfer would also change to 21%.  Moreover, it had a notice that the rate could be changed at any time for any reason, in the sole discretion of the bank.  I didn’t look far enough to see if the card had an annual fee etc. 
 
Judgment sometimes comes in the form of natural consequences.  My personal life has many examples of this.  For instance, if I didn’t spend so much time on the computer I’d be in better shape physically! 
 
I’m sorry about the brewing economic crisis in the USA; I think it’s going to be worse than most people imagine.  But part of me thinks that if the banks suffer terrible losses, they’ve brought it on themselves.  Several days ago I proposed a sales transaction involving a 50 RMB plug converter as a case study in ways people from different cultures make economic decisions.  I propose this credit card offer providing food for thought about "what is wrong with this picture." 
 
Judgment day is coming.  And it won’t be in the form of a lightning bolt from the sky! 
 
As additional fodder for the mind, consider the following admonition:   
 
If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you.  Take no usury or interest from him; but fear your God, that your brother may live with you.  You shall not lend him your money for usury, nor lend him your food at a profit. (Leviticus 25:35-37)

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A Goldilocks Planet?

One of the MSN headlines today says that scientists have discovered a new "Goldilocks" planet that may be capable of supporting life.  Correction.  Upon reading the article, astronomers have discovered a planetary system 41 light years away which appears to have giant gaseous planets.  Though the planets themselves are gaseous and giant, similar to Jupiter and Neptune, they are in the right temperature range for liquid water and therefore might have an orbiting moon somewhere that could possibly be capable of supporting life. 
 
Forgive me, I always ask stupid questions.  But here’s my stupid question where searching for life on other planets is concerned: 
 
Isn’t it a bit hypocritical to be searching for some unknown life on other plants, when we don’t even bother to take care of the life that exists here and now, on this planet? 
 
Species right here on earth, real living species right under our noses, are going extinct now at a rate higher than any rate in the known history of the earth.  We don’t bother to care about massive extinctions on earth, and we don’t seem to value life that is right here already on earth, so why are we so concerned about some hypothetical life on other planets when we don’t even know if life even exists there?  Especially since we could never realistically reach it? 
 
If we destroy the climate on earth, do they think a billion people are going to pack into a space ship, survive space radiation, and travel 41 light years to colonize some theoretically inhabitable planet?  If one spaceship were to be packed up with humans, or with other forms of life facing extinction, or with genetic material, well, who among the would-be-gods would decide which genetic material to include? 
 
Or, is this human interest theoretically for medicinal use or some other kind of small scale exploraton (and exploitation)?  Since something like 60% of my genes are identical with those of a banana, and some other form of life would have developed independently and therefore would most likely have a completely different type of chemistry, can’t we pretty much assume that knowledge about life here is going to be more illustrative than knowledge about some completely unrelated life form? 
 
And that’s even assuming that we would recognize some other life form when we found it.  Because, well, heck: we can hardly even define what life means on earth.  I mean, there are still people who assert that fish or earthworms, or baby boys being circumcised, don’t feel pain.  If we can’t even agree what consitutes basic life experience on earth, how could we agree on what it is when it took an entirely different and possibly unrecognizable form?  So, assuming we found life, how would we anthropomorphic humans even be able to decide whether it really was life or not? 
 
I can imagine a debate similar to the one on whaling, except how much more profoundly sophmoric:  "You claim that whales are intelligent and endangered, but you can’t really prove it to my satisfaction, and I choose to disagree, so I’ll just continue to hunt (for scientific purposes of course, and then eat) whales so long as I feel like it, and if you disagree with that decision then it’s simply because you don’t respect my culture."  Good grief, and this is a position regarding the largest mammals on earth, already barely surviving the challenges posed by ship propellers, polluted seas, plastic and long lines, and sonar that confuses echolocation.  In fact, I read recently that they think the last pink river dolphin has disappeared from Shanghai and Hong Kong harbors.  When I look in the river here, I’m amazed that any fish live in it, let alone marine mammals. 
 
Well, so much for my stupid questions.  I’m sure the Carl Sagan geniuses of the world are delighted.  I just can’t quite see what the fuss is all about, in terms of balancing the values. 
 
Here’s my illustration of what I mean by valuing life:   
 

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Another “TIC” (“This Is China”) Story

A series of letters from Munchkin’s school exemplifies the manner in which community input is gleaned concerning governmental decisions here, as well as methods by which the government communicates those decisions to those affected.  It seems “so typical” that I decided to share.  I hate to confess, I had a small mental chuckle imagining the "Americans versus the Chinese" in the meeting described by the newsletter of March 20.  I imagined it as a bit similar to our encounter at the top of Hua Shan, or perhaps any other meeting in which expectations about "what is normal" are so different in the two cultures. 

For background information, the school has a front entrance and a back entrance, and that is all.  In terms of access, those are the only two options.  The front entrance is on a tiny lane that will fit two cars, if none are parked.  The back entrance is reached from a large, one way road that has three lanes.  Though of course there is traffic on the big road, it is not heavy by city standards. 

 

March 16, 2007:  “School Approach Road to be Closed – the school received notification this week that our access road where buses park to pick up students will be closed from March 20 to the end of 2007.  . . . [The letter then gives detailed instructions on changes to pickup and drop-offs arrangements for children due to the anticipated change.]  . . . .”

March 19, 2007:  “Over the weekend, a wall closing the road in front of [the school] was constructed without the school being informed. . . . Our school buses this morning started dropping off and picking up students on the main  . . . [road] rather than the front gate.  [The letter then gives further pickup and drop-offs instructions which are different from those in earlier letter, changes which are necessitated by  THE WALL] . . . .”

March 20, 2007:  “Yesterday, March 19, the Guangzhou Traffic Police, after a two hour meeting in the evening with school authorities, decided that [school] buses would not be allowed to pick up students at our rear gate . . . .  [The school] has been instructed to park its buses . . . [in the location previously designated for car pickup].  Buses will have priority.  We ask that everyone cooperate and leave this area available exclusively for our school buses.  . . . We regret the inconvenience caused to all our community caused by the closure of our access road . . . .   We ask everyone at this time of change to give the highest priority to the safety of our students. . . . ”

[Regular Friday newsletter] March 21, 2007: “School Traffic Disrupted by Road Closure – Last weekend [a governmental entity] built a wall closing off the access road used by the school community for the arrival and departure of . . . students.  On Monday, the school buses were allowed to park on [the main road behind the school].  However a problem soon developed as a motorcade for an ‘important person’ passed by.  . . . [S]chool buses were not allowed during that time to stop to pick up our students.  The . . . Traffic Police then instructed the school to park the buses on [another] street . . . .  As this newsletter is written, the school is still looking for the best solution given the very limited parking space near the school.  We ask for the support and understanding of the [school] community as we give priority to the safe arrival and departure of our students. . . . “ 

At the moment, the only access to the front of the school is a road, barely two lanes wide, that now ends at the front of the school gate.  There is no place to turn cars around there.  There is a private road running off to the side from this road, which could be used to siphon off cars, but it is blocked off.  School buses are parking approximately one block east of the school on a side street so that children can walk in at the pedestrian access beside the construction site.  Carpool parents (mostly cars with paid Chinese drivers) are coping as best they can, approaching from the west via the small access road. 

Walkers like us?  We are gripping our children’s’ hands ever so tightly, because the Chinese drivers don’t seem to have slowed down a bit, and they are parking so close to the side of the road that there is no place for children to walk except in the middle of the road.  I thought I had communicated and made some progress on the issue of leaving children some room to walk between the row of parked cars and the fence on the side of the road, but this morning three cars were parked so that they virtually touched the fence. 

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Entries too Long

That entry on Primate Morality was a bit long!  It’s categorized under the topic of ethics, which is where I put my more academic musings for my own reference, really.  To skip only to blog topics you’re interested in (travel, daily life, etc) click on the topic index above. 

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The View From Inside

An ordinary citizen, in this land where I am, lives an ordinary life, and thinks nothing of it.  He wakes up in the morning, eats breakfast, goes to work, eats lunch, works, comes home in the evening, fixes dinner, does something in the evening, and goes to bed.  An ordinary person here doesn’t know that wikipedia is blocked, because he doesn’t know about wikipedia.  Ordinary citizens in the USA have similar experiences.  From inside either life, the view is normal.  You don’t know you are in a cage until you butt up against the bars.   
 
Maybe it doesn’t matter to you that someone is keeping a record of your cell phone calls or maybe monitoring them.  Or, maybe it doesn’t matter to you that voting district lines are gerrymandered to maximize the voting block of the party in power or that ballot instructions are confusing.  Maybe you never wondered how it came to be that so many of the people who own land on the shores of Lake Murray — a hydroelectric power created lake — trace their land title back to officials who worked for the electric company, who in turn purchased it for a song after the land was taken from the original owners in order to build the dam. 
 
What is shocking to me, is that there are so many similarities between two systems that throughout my childhood I was taught were so different.  Nevertheless, one does have more freedom than the other.  But freedom is endangered everywhere.  If you and I are not vigilant to protect those differences, we may find the bars of the cage closer than we had previously imagined possible.  The interesting thing is that there is always some good reason to curtail freedom.  Freedom is messy.  It leads to social unrest, revealing discontent among citizens, injustices.  Freedom of speech and inquiry leads to uncomfortable questions aimed at those in charge of policy.  Too much trouble! 
 
I’d venture to guess that an ordinary citizen has no idea about the issues that keep these guys featured in this article busy, or that these guys even exist.  And, if they are known, it’s almost as likely that they are just perceived as troublemakers:  http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/25/world/asia/25china.html?ex=1330146000&en=55df621e655a238a&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink .   Just as some people think the ACLU in the USA is just a bunch of meddlesome troublemakers.  But there’s a reason for the Freedom of Information Act!  My bet is that within one week the above link will not function on a computer located within my geographic location.  Let’s see if that’s true or not.  My bet is that the ruling parties in the USA have things so tied up that only power-hungry, maniuplative people can get on the ballot, that ordinary people will be so repulsed by the process that they won’t want to get involved, and that the people in power will do anything they can to keep it that way. 
 
Am I a cynic or what? 

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From 10th Feb: Late Night Musings on the Train Ride To Chumphon

One thing that D and I really enjoy about our third daughter is that she is always cheerful.  She wakes up happy, she is happy to get dressed, she is happy to go to school, she is happy to come home, she is happy with the clothes I choose for her to wear, she is happy with a story at bedtime.  You get the drift.  She’s happy.  And this makes her a very pleasant person to spend time with.      

Today, our first morning in Bangkok, she woke up happy at 7:40 A.M., about the same time we woke up as well.  This is after the night before having driven two hours to Macau, gotten into Bangkok last night about midnight, standing in the taxi line of about 200 people in Bangkok for about half an hour, then driving halfway into Bangkok to our guest house and arriving at about 12:30 AM.  I imagine it was about 1 A.M. before we got J into her own bed where she was begging to just go to sleep.  I had expected she would sleep until much later in the morning, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had been grumpy.  So her cheerful, early start to her morning was a bit of a surprise.   

After waking up in such a cheerful mood, she remained cheerful when there was nothing on the breakfast menu that suited her taste.  After a bite of toast, she asked to go swimming in the pool that is immediately adjacent to the covered porch that serves as a dining area.  Then we packed, checked out, stored our bags, and went out for an afternoon of walking in 90 degree F weather.  We went by mistake to a market that was selling small religious trinkets.  I guess they were valuable, because there were many Thai people there using hand held microscopes to examine them, but it was nothing I was interested in shopping for.  Any time J asked me to look at something, I would say “No,” explaining to her that no matter how beautiful such a trinket might seem, it would invariably get lost before she was an adult.  In short, this excursion was completely boring for a seven year old.  Not to mention that in Bangkok we always clutch our youngest child by the arm tightly.  Traffic is horrendous, with motorcycles just as likely to run you over while you are on the sidewalk as when you are crossing the street.  But also we don’t want to take any chance on losing her in such a big, unruly and unregulated city that has such a bad reputation where protection of women is concerned. 

By the time we stopped for a late lunch, everyone was starving, but all the food we ordered from the restaurant was too spicy.  (Travel lesson #56:  if an Indian or a Thai tells you food is “not spicy,” all that statement really means is that the food probably won’t cause long term chemical burns.)  When her food was too spicy, she caught a waiter by herself and had them bring an alternate dish, then while she waited for her second dish to come she found a fresh water manta ray in the garden pond of the restaurant.  She crouched and watched the ray swim for about 20 min while she waited for her food. 

In all of this, J never complained or whined.  I confess, I got felt pretty whiney myself when it turned out that the delays in the restaurant (slow service, having to reorder, etc) caused so many delays (Travel lesson #43:  If time is a factor, see the sight you came to see before you eat, not after, no matter how hungry you are!)  that we didn’t have time to stay for the tour that we had come to see.  (Travel lesson #72:  Never act like you are in a hurry in S.E. Asia; it is so far removed from the culture that people will respond negatively and may make you wait even longer.)  Then, very hot and tired, we all returned to Asha Guest House, where they allowed us to shower before catching a 6:30 train to Chumphon. 

Asha is friendly and clean, but Spartan.  The showers are hall baths, and you change clothes inside the shower stall.  (Travel lesson #17: always carry shower shoes.)  Only one of them has hot water.  I chose to take a shower in a “cold only” shower.  The water was quite crisp, though not unpleasant, especially since we had been so hot when we came in from our day’s expedition.  It was refreshing.  Although I had been on the fence about whether to make J bathe, because she wasn’t really “dirty,” I decided it would do her good to have a shower and freshen up before the overnight trip on the sleeper train.

After I got dressed, I fetched J to give her a shower.  Pleasant as always, she cheerfully gave up the board game she had been playing, then cheerfully talked with me while we prepared the shower and hosed her down with the spray nozzle.  If anything, I was the fussy one, acting pretty grumpy when I realized the nozzle had sprayed backwards and gotten water on my fresh, dry clothes.  After I washed her hair, I washed the rest of her. 

As I sprayed water over her, she cheerfully commented how wonderful the water felt.  She said, “It makes me shiver all over with happiness!”  I replied, “Are you happy?”  Her answer:  “No, but I’m pretending to be.” 

Wow!  Now that is an attitude that will carry her far in life.   I even think there’s a school of psychotherapy that generally teaches people how to cultivate this kind of attitude in their own life. 

This attitude seems in sharp contrast to tendencies I see in my own self.  At the moment, it’s late at night, I can’t sleep, and so I’m writing from the top bunk of a sleeper car in Thailand.  We’re on our way to one of the most famous coral reef diving spots in the world.   Thailand, in fact, is so full of beautiful beaches and diving spots, the difficulty is in choosing just one of them.  So, what is going through my mind?  Is it visions of trigger fish, “Nemo,” finding a Thai massage, coconut palms, and a week of having no schedule?  No.  I’ve been thinking about things like sunburn, skin cancer, being allergic to sunscreen, salty water drying in my hair and turning it to cobwebs, heat rash, encounters with sharks and barracudas, rip tides, and the danger of stepping on pieces of coral.  Geesh! 

I remember a certain friend of mine telling me one time that now that she was forty, she had made a decision to be a grumpy old woman.  I’m fighting that urge in my personality!  I’d prefer, when I find myself tempted to be grumpy, to instead take a lesson from my seven year old. 

What a wonderful personality trait, and really food for thought.  "I’m pretending to be happy!"  This attitude of seeking and finding things to be happy about makes me feel like I’m the one being childish!  Could I at least make the same effort at cheerfulness as my seven year old?!!  Am I going to decide to be grumpy, or am I going to decide to be cheerful?  Well, to me it’s fairly much a no brainer:   Since I have just one life to live, I may as well make a decision to enjoy it.  So, tropical beach and coconut palms, here I come! 

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