Sunday, July 27, 2008

We're Home!

Well, we are now happily back in the states after our year-long adventure in a foreign land. We learned a lot in this short time; a lot about ourselves, others, and life in general.

Tiffany’s Prediction
Last week, while putting along in our electric tricycle through a crowded Tianjin street, dodging cars, pedestrians, bikes, and air-horn blowing buses, we reminded each other that we would be driving a car again very soon, on wonderful clean American roads. When we want to go out, we'll constrain our kids safely in their car seats (not hang on to them for our dear lives), fill our trunk with as much stuff as needed (no need to carry it in hand), and go directly to our destination with minimal effort and time. No waiting for buses and juggling kids and the elements. We remembered how orderly the traffic is back home. We remembered how relatively easy and convenient life is back home. In these moments of realization, we longed to be home, though we became well-adapted to the inconveniences and inefficiencies of Chinese life.

“How long will it be before we take it for granted again?" I asked Tiffany. "You know, before we forget to be patient and start complaining about less-than-important annoyances again?”

“Three weeks,” she replied.

Now, I’m sure she was just being facetious, though we were both maybe a little too excited to leave this aspect of China behind. I hoped that her estimated time frame would be far from reality, because I like what I had become: less petty + more grateful= happier.

Personal Contradiction
When I was on the plane, I was disappointed in China Air. I was hoping to have an individual screen to watch the programs I wanted (more airlines have upgraded to this service on Trans-Pacific flights). The plane was also old and dirty. The cheap China Air headphones flickered, making any radio or movie audio channel impossible to enjoy. My seat’s reclining button was broken, which increased the difficulty to sleep and caused a sore neck.

In these moments of despairing realizations, I remembered a Chinese phrase that I heard often in Tianjin (really an anthem of Chinese psyche): 没办法, which means pretty much “there’s nothing you can do about it, so don’t waste energy over it because it will only hurt you in the end.” This phrase helped me cope many annoying Chinese inconveniences before (like traffic, waiting in lines, personal space issues), and it helped me again this time. This phrase has made me stronger mentally, more patient and kind. It only takes an attitude adjustment! (and some practice)

However, as I stepped onto American soil (actually foreign-manufactured airport tile), it only took about three minutes before I caught myself falling back into old American attitudes. Behind me in the immigration checkpoint line were three elderly Chinese ladies also from my Beijing to SF flight. They pushed up against me with persistence, making sure that no hamburger-eating capitalist-roader American could physically squeeze between them and me (which is typical queuing behavior in China, except they are noodle-eating socialist-roader Chinese). My attitude toward their firm, yet harmless, pushes began to really annoy me. This caught me off-guard because just a few hours ago, in the Beijing Airport, I thought nothing about this kind of behavior; it was expected, so I was not annoyed in the slightest. The only difference now was that I was in the US, so now their behavior was out of the norm.

So what happened? How could I change my own expectations so immediately because my feet suddenly stood in San Francisco, even though I was still surrounded by Chinese people? Culture is not limited by geographical boundaries because people carry it wherever they go, so am I just weak, selfish, or what? I quickly caught myself and remembered the conversation with Tiffany on our tricycle, and shamefully corrected my attitude.

American Life
Not that we have a monopoly on impatience or anything, but, why is it that so many Americans are so quick to be upset when things don’t go exactly how we expect, or when we are slightly inconvenienced? Endemic road rage. Violence with little thought of potential consequences. Saying words with the intent to hurt or offend. Not stopping to help people in need though it may take only a short moment. These are evidences, to me, that we have a serious social problem, and it must be recognized at the individual level in order to be solved. Is it selfishness or are we just a little too inflexible to break from our routine, quickly becoming irritable and unreasonable?

I just heard a man angrily say, “I’ve got some nasty letters to write when I get back. You know, United [Airlines] should have a way for people transferring flights to not need to go through security again.” I thought, is that reasonable cause to write “nasty” letters? (Sir, your “nasty” letters serve only as a self-serving forum to complain, not the altruistic means to improve their business you’ve justified it to be. If you sincerely wanted to improve the system, you could write a ‘diplomatic’ letter, or you could politely use the suggestion box in the corner of the room.)

“I hate standby. I HATE it,” said an angry someone hoping to fly to Salt Lake City.

I lacked the words (or the courage) to convey to these people the miracle that a heavy piece of constructed metal would soon leave the earth, somehow fly through the air, and take them to distant places in a matter of hours. Why can’t we be more patient and grateful? Then, we will be empowered with positivity instead of negativity.

I compared these attitudes of my countrymen with that of a blue turbaned Punjabi Sikh man from a Northwestern Indian village, with whom I held a very fulfilling conversation in the Beijing Airport. He emphasized to me that we are all God’s creations containing the same blood. And as fellow members of the human race, we need to do good things for each other; we need to be kind and gracious. The way he sees it, we are all siblings. Many religions and social institutions teach similar doctrines, but do we believe it enough to do something about it? Maybe we as Americans aren’t as enlightened as we silently think we are.

If you’ve made it through this post, I hope that you will be a little more patient and flexible about any inconveniences that may happen to you today, and hereafter. You will be happier, and more people will want to be around you. We have much to be thankful for, and we don’t need to move to other countries to recognize this revolutionary principle if we will just open our eyes and think of the incredible conveniences that surround us every day (remember, we didn’t use to have all of the technology we have today that makes our lives so much easier… just think about it!). Though I don’t claim to be a master of this concept (as seen in my own examples), I hope I will never forget this principle that was solidified for me in China.

Let's be grateful. It will empower you with happiness. We have so much to be grateful for; we have much to be happy about.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

ABC video project

Well, the way my school oddly works is that we have class for about 3 weeks after final exams where nothing affects their grades. It's like babysitting because they have no desire to study; they've already received their grades and they are excited for summer break. We usually just watch movies as we waste the day away.

In one of my classes, though, we decided to make a music video as we waited for time to pass. So here it is:

Monday, July 07, 2008

Where's the Beef? Korean Beef Imports

Disclaimer: I hesitate to write this post because I fear that I may offend my Korean associates if they chance upon this site. Please know beforehand that I have high respect for my Korean friends and students. There are some points of ideological differences that I wish to address between the West and Korea, though.

Korean protests over American Beef
American Beef Imports
Because I was previously unaware of the Korean ban on importing American beef, I was surprised a few months ago when a large number of my students (at the Korean International School) talked incessantly about eating, and then dying from, US imported beef. As they wrote sentences to practice the new grammar patterns, many of them alluded that American beef is, in fact, the greatest threat to life itself. American beef is the devil.

I soon learned that the new controversial Korean president had signed a bill to overturn the American beef ban despite widespread fears of Mad Cow Disease. Apparently, the media has determined that President Lee cares more about Korea's relations with Washington than the Korean health issues. They also added rhetoric to spark widespread action that he cares nothing for the safety of thousands of school children who would literally go insane from the beef he sends to primary schools because he hates school children. Well, isn't it obvious? And it seems that the masses ate up the media's claims; millions have hit the streets over the past few months to shout their beef with US beef.

Korean Pseudo-science Perpetuated by the Media
The issue (in combination with other ones I've recently heard) sparked my curiosity about Korean logic and beliefs to a whole new degree. At work, I often hear about questionable Korean scientific conclusions which have been 'proven' by the all-knowing Korean scientists, like:

1) Kimchi cures bird flu, SARS, and most other diseases,
2) if you don't blow-dry your hair before bed, you'll get chronic headaches for the rest of your life,
3) tongue-cutting--if you cut the piece of tissue that connects your tongue to the bottom of your mouth, you will not have a Korean accent when you speak English (many parents will do this to ensure good English skills in their kid's future)
4) if you aren't in a deep REM cycle by 10pm you'll be short in stature when you grow up (my office-mate is vehement about this with her three children and she strongly appeals to science to prove it),
5) fan death--if you sleep with a fan on in an enclosed room, you'll die (the fan steals all the oxygen causing you to suffocate; Korea regulates that fans actually have timers installed as a safety device; the media actually reports cases of fan death often on news programs)...
The multiple times I've questioned Koreans I know about their sources on these issues, they are quick to declare that it's all been proven with scientific evidence, though they don't know anything about the specifics. When I've asked who proved it, they say, "the scientists!" (And yet Korean students' math and science test scores are among the highest in the world. Explain that one to me.)

What's the risk?
World statistics list 208 victims of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (Mad Cow Disease) from 11 countries since the disease was first reported in 1996, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Only three of the cases were in the US. Two of the three almost certainly contracted the disease in the UK (due to the fact that they had not been in the US long enough for the 10 year incubation period by the time of diagnosis). The third person very likely ate contaminated beef in Saudi Arabia. (His history does include annual trips to the US, allowing for a slight possibility that he contracted the disease in the US.)

With nearly 100 million cows in the US (and millions more that have been slaughtered since 1996), and only one possible domestic CJD case existing in the history of the US, I feel safe in concluding that there is a significantly low risk to eat American beef. Though Koreans have demonstrated their excitability over many issues of seemingly small importance, this one has created the need for a significant riot police presence to quell the masses... How could such a slight health risk incite such restlessness... unless it is about something other than beef, right?
What's it really about?
I've read many arguments from both Koreans and foreigners alike who claim the protests are not so much about the beef, but as an outlet to express their discontent with their newly-elected President Lee Myung-bak. Other people argue that they fear importing American beef will disturb the pricey Korean beef industry, which they have tried hard to protect by limiting imports in order to keep prices high. I agree with them that the issues run deeper than health concerns.

Of course, Westerners and Koreans have a very different way of problem-solving. Being Western-educated, I think it is much more reasonable to be upfront, direct, and honest about issues to get the desired result. After working at the Korean International School, I realize that it is usually impossible to do this in Korean circles because of cultural restraints; directness is often associated with aggressiveness, which is widely frowned upon in Korean social situations. It is true that many people recognize that there are deeper reasons to protest US beef, but in my experience, I still believe that most of them view the deeper problems only as side-issues to the main health concern, of course perpetuated by claims from the media.

So, to me, it seems like the media is implementing this propaganda campaign in order to mask their discontent with the real issues in their political fight, by controlling the malleable population like a marionette. The media knows how and what strings to pull to get them to act, which has a powerful effect because the real issues alone won't unite the masses enough to get them out on the streets; there needs to be an overlying threat to Korea, so they sensationalize it.
Back to the Beef: Korean DNA
The media, no doubt in cahoots with "the scientists," went as far to blame weak Korean DNA as a cause for national panic. They claim that Koreans are more susceptible to Mad Cow Disease than any other race, even though no Korean anywhere in the world has ever contracted it, even among the Korean-American population. When a prominent Korean-American (and US Beef eater) in the L.A. area spoke up to disprove the claim, he was quickly labeled as a puppet of American ideals and a hater of the interests of the Motherland. I've also heard accounts (though I haven't seen the source myself) that the media has purported that this is a Washington scheme to weaken the Korean race, and slowly eliminating them. Now, if that were true, I would join the riots myself.

How serious has it gotten? Well, people have been protesting and demanding changes since April. The Prime Minister and his cabinet offered to quit in order to take the blame away from the President. President Lee's approval rating dropped under 20% after only four months in office. Just yesterday, President Lee finally dismissed three top ministers in a desperate grab for an image change. The media has accomplished their goal in cunningly directing the public to fight their political battles. Seoul is in chaos. The riot police have gotten a lot of practice in crowd control. Koreans feel empowered in their anti-American sentiment. I am determined never to live in Korea. Their country is safe from Mad Cow Disease.

The following sentences are quotes from my writing students about the issue. While I understand that they are only high school students, their attitudes echo that of their countrymen. These convictions have infiltrated the entire education system and are not questioned by any other Koreans.

"As the government is asserting to harm the health of the citizens and the economy of Korean beef, Korean people will not stop to parade on the street until their requirements would be accepted."
"It is very dangerous to people. If you eat American beef, you must die."
"Korean's DNA is clearly weak with mad cow disease. Scientists found that Koreans have more opportunities to get mad cow disease."
"Koreans are the easiest to suffer mad cow disease of the world people." "Therefore, Korea population will be less and less."
"Korean's DNA is weak with mad cow disease."
"People won't import American beef because it is not safe at all."
"First of all, American beef contains BSE which causes mad cow disease."
"In addition, these imported cows are not only used in the restaurant, but also in daily necessities, for example, in spices and diapers." (huh???)
"According to the scientists, Koreans have the highest rate of getting mad cow disease than any other people."
"At least 300 people have died out of MCD in America, but if they import it to Korea--who has the highest rate of getting mad cow disease--there is no guarantee that they will not get disease." (really only 208 in the world)
"Most American beef which comes to Korea has mad cow disease."
"The government said that they will spread American beef because lots of kitchens in schools, companies and restaurants."
"American beef can keep friendly relationship with America, but it can't defend the country and citizens."
"They are mad cows; it will kill many people."
"The cows that we plan to import have mad cow disease. It will give the disease to many people."
"Korea is the only country that still imports American beef."
"Koreans have the highest percentage of getting mad cow disease."

pictures are taken from (a great article!):

Saturday, July 05, 2008

This can't be right...

Kyle's ice cream flavor personality is:

Is this what my life has come to? The way I see it, the only connection I have to Vanilla ice cream is a shameful yet persistent urge to buy to Rapper Vanilla Ice's 1991 big screen cult classic,"Cool as Ice."

So, how can this be? Vanilla ice cream is not only boring, but also completely dependent on other flavors and add-ins to truly be enjoyable (with the exception of Breyer's Vanilla Bean recipe). I guarantee that if I took this scientific Internet survey 5 years ago, I would be something much more exciting and in-your-face like...

...a 4-gallon tub of Birthday Cake flavored ice cream with frosting swirls, sprinkles, and other sugary goodness. I would be so potent that one spoonful of my delight erases all signs of sleepiness for another 5-6 hours, at least, when taken late in the night, and may even temporarily cure my narcoleptic compatriots. Of course, there would be a Mr. T design on top when you open the delicious, energetic, and motivational tub of inspiration. There's no way I'm plain vanilla, right? I'm way more complex than that.

I need some encouragement... and not that "there's a lot of great things about vanilla" bologna. I'm looking for the truth-mingled lying variety that will falsely build my self-esteem until I can come to terms with my current boring personality traits on my own time table. Sorry, Tiffany. Sorry to all of you, for what I have become.