Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Can the Soul of a City be Found in Its Taxi Drivers?

December 19th, 2008

You know, I actually like taking cabs in Singapore, even though the price is higher than ever. The cars are clean, they're large enough for three people in the back seat (Toyota Crowns and other similarly-sized autos), they generally smell okay, and the drivers---compared to the ones in KL **especially**--are a delight. Just this Friday morning I had taken one from Toh Tuck Road to my office in the CELC building at NUS, and all along the way the driver and I had a pleasant chat about the state of the Singapore economy. I felt inspired as I exited the guy's car. Later in the day, I took another couple cabs (since I was rushing home, and then to the bus.) Both rides were very pleasant, and the one to the Nice Bus, with all our bags, courteous as the driver gave the usual assistance.

I've been ready for a holiday for weeks now, but was I ready for the KL taxi? After a lethargic five-hour Nice bus ride from Singapore's Copthorne Orchid Hotel, I arrived at the edge of KL last Friday evening. It was just after 8pm and the traffic, once we had passed the interchange by the Palace of the Golden Horses, was rather heavy but never bumper to bumper. Twenty minutes later our bus hugged the roundabout by the National Mosque, and we pulled curbside of the majestic Old Railway Station.

Billie and I got our stuff, bid farewell to the smiley bus driver (wearing a funny pink knit hat) and, after securing our suitcase from the belly of the bus, we moved up the sidewalk toward the street. Before I had a chance to try and flag any taxi though, an Indian gentleman with silver hair called from behind me, skirting the idling bus with the question: "Taxi, sir?"

"How much to Robson Heights?" I asked, knowing he wouldn't use his meter.

"Twenty," he said, bright earnings from the potentially ignorant mat salleh already twinkling in his eye.

"No way. Ten," I shot back.

"No, sir. Very busy now," he said.

I waved him off with shrug and drug my bag off the curb streetside. I was already impatient, thinking it would have been nicer to have someone pick us up. But what to do? Billie and I then stood by the fuming roadside for five minutes before the requisite rickety red & white Proton "Comfort Cab" pulled over in front of us. A middle-aged Chinese fellow exited, walked to our side and sat confidently back against his car's hood, where he made the same offer, wanting the same amount.

"Look," I told him, "I know that if you used your meter, it would only cost five dollars. So ten...can?"

"Cannot! Tonight very jam. Twenty dolla," he insisted.

"What jam? Look man, I'll give you ten."

"Cannot," he repeated, obstinate with folded arms. That inspired me to lecture him that KL was renowned for having the worst taxi service in the world. In the world, I repeated. He didn't hear what I said, repeating his own mantra of "Twenty dollars."

No frigging way. I pulled my bag up the street, not looking back. Within five minutes another Proton had pulled up beside us and a young Malay fella leaned over to manually roll down the passenger-side window, looking at us thru mirrored shades.

"Robson Heights," I said. "I'll give ya fifteen." Without a word he motioned for us to get in. "Can you give me a hand with my bag?" I continued, then pulled it to the trunk area. He popped the trunk, but stayed in the car. Welcome to KL, I thought.

Billie and I made it to Robson Heights that night, though as the taxi had turned off Jalan Robson onto the 30 degree grade that's Persiaran Endah, I thought the dude's dog of an auto was gonna die. In any case, the guy was pleasant enough, with no complaints and a "thanks" at the end, then we arrived unscathed. Would our luck hold out on a busy run-around town Saturday?


Saturday, December 20th, long gone. Over. Kaput. Habis. Since that time last year, I've attended the 10th Anniversary of the E.G.G. Club in KL, flown in clouds high above the earth, and cruised the mighty Mekong in the Land of the Lao. Taxis? How about tuk-tuks and bicycles? Oh, there were vans to and from the low cost Air Asia terminal in Sepang and the van rides in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. But for ten glorious days, I was simply walking... between yet another temple and one more Beer Lao at such and such cafe, from the clutches of another traditional Lao massage to the next best bargain in the Hmong street market. For that reason, the Laos trip was peaceful, meditative, reflective and relatively cheap. It all helped me forget this silly topic. Rip offs in KL taxis.

And I say that with good reason, for that next Saturday past, the day after Billie and I had arrived in KL, it happened: The worst taxi ride ever (since another similar incident in KL years ago).

I won't go into great detail. Suffice it to say that following a little Christmas shopping at the Mid Valley Megamall, Billie and I were forced to ask a taxi driver who insisted on driving us in the wrong direction to stop at the entrance to the Federal Highway so that we could exit his cab. When I then assumed that the big round he had given us of the entire mall before heading to PJ when we'd wanted to go toward KL was complimentary -- and therefore free -- he freaked, jumping out of his car brandishing a club. The communications specialist part of me, the guy who wants to insure win-win solutions, the idealist, thought we could work things out amicably...until said club was waved in my daughter's face.

What do they say about never getting between a mother bear and her cub? What followed was a bit traumatic for everyone involved, not physically, but emotionally. I don't like that sort of situation, I don't like being forced to make a stand. Most of all, I don't like to bark and growl and spew lava. But I can if I have to.

What makes for these situations? Why are KL taxis so renowned? As is often true, it is most likely a case of sound government policies not being enforced. Obviously, taxis have meters for a reason. The fact that in KL the meter is so often ignored shows that A) the fare structure is probably inappropriate, and B) there is no government oversight. The very idea that a cab driver can tell a customer that the best way to go west (KL) is via the east (PJ) and then become so offended when the customer declines the service that he makes physical threats is cause for some serious alarm. I guess it is time for me to practice some of my letter writing skills and alert the relevant authorities. The question is, could anything that I write matter to the government clerk who has heard it all before?

What do you think?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Here, There, Anywhere

I went to a lecture today at Singapore's National Institute of Education, given by B. Kumaravadivelu, a "famous" applied linguist from San Jose State University in California.

The essence of his talk was that in light of globalization, educators must adopt a new view of the educational process. Because today's learners are "digital natives" (a phrase that he didn't use) who are "internetized" (one that he did use), there should be a paradigm shift, "beyond methods." He also claimed that "multiculturalism" is passe, as outdated as the racist concept of assimilation. For this reason, educators, whether teachers, teacher trainers or scholars, need to look for new ways to interpret the contexts of their charges' lives, need to understand the complexity of their evolving identities, in order to inspire their learning. (He also leveled a well-worn charge at the sort of assessment methods considered paramount and used widely in Singapore, stating that, essentially, there is no good reason to believe that such methods measure what many folks might hope that they are measuring.) He sees the present not as multiculturalism, but as "cultural realism." (no drum roll please!)

I basically agreed with everything the speaker said, finding his ideas enlightened, but neither novel nor revolutionary. In fact, what struck me most about the talk was how self-evident most of the information was. Here was a guy (I guess) who, as an "Indian" living in the US, experiences the world much like I do as an "American" living in Asia: he identifies with what he is doing (teaching, researching, eating pasta one day and curry the next) and with many aspects of the life he has lived, but not always with the community where he lives. That community seems narrow at times, attached to hardened definitions. However, his "house" is wide open, and the winds of culture blow through it, giving a shape to an existence that is far grander (in his eyes) than that felt by those among us who still limit themselves to a highly defined and a specific ethnic/ racial/ religious/ gender-centered/job-affiliated universe.

Yes, I can relate to these ideas, because my house is also wide open, and it has been like that for a very long time. I have a US passport, can vote for the president, am required to file an annual tax form, can sing the Star-Spangled Banner, follow US college football, etc., but do I feel "only" American. Am I limited by that concept of identity?


Was I a victim of the tribalism that gripped so many Americans when 9/11 came crashing down? Did I want blood for the attacks? Did I see an inevitable "clash of civilizations"?

Not really. If anything, I see humans as organisms first, then as an individuals both unique and common. My own citizenship, or national identity, and my ethnicity, are both very far down on the list of what makes me who I am. (Which is not to say these factors wouldn't influence the way I'm viewed by others. To wit: the group of ethnic Indians killed in Mumbai recently because they carried American passports!)

Frankly though, I have a hard time seeing any of us as so different from the monkeys that collect garbage on Toh Tuck Road. Of course, there are recognizable differences. But generally, this is a case of SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT. (Read Jane Goodall's Through a Window, before you argue with me.)

In the same way that the skin I now inhabit is different from the skin I wore when I was 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, and so on, the values, beliefs, norms, habits, ways I spend my day have been altered, even from two years ago. Two years ago I was a member of a small town community in rural northern Japan, I lived in a well-worn traditional-style house facing padi fields, in a cedar forest, with a "silver-singing" river a one-minute bike ride from my doorstep. I saw mostly Japanese faces and heard and spoke some form of Japanese every day---and I felt comfortable there generally, even when I didn't fully understand the language used around me, because I felt in context, thanks to an acclimatization process that evolved over 17 years. At the same time, in Japan I always remained very "outside," mainly because I was an "eigo" (English)-centric human who had been dropped into the Land of the Rising Sun in the same way that Bowie appeared as alien on the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Today, my reality is very different, and I have changed. I could hardly see a rising sun even if I tried. I live in a concrete box beside a concrete pool towered over by other boxes by other pools, in a city of tens of thousands of such boxes. There are people all around me speaking in various Englishes, speaking in myriad other tongues, through faces of every conceivable human color and shape. Part of me continues to be the organism that was living in Mukaino, Yuwa, Akita, Tohoku, Nihon. But part not. There is a spirit blowing through me now that is more trade wind than shakuhachi breath, more urban guerilla than ploughman. And though I may "communicate" in spoken sounds and nonverbal acts that make me comprehensible to a broad range of others who understand those as well as they understand the fingers on their hands, we may or may not fully comprehend each other. For the words and spaces we inhabit may seem the same but can be very different in meaning.

Case in point, I have been communicating regularly with students from the National University of Singapore. At times, we speak the same language, watch the same movies, read the same books, laugh at the same jokes, eat the same foods, hear the same songs, know many of the same things---share many tidbits of information, via face to face discussions in class and in writing on blogs, Facebook, e-mails, whatever. I really really like many of these guys. But are we on the same plain? Do we share a vibe? Are we, or could we ever be, soul brothers/sisters/mates? Homies? Are they members of what writer Kurt Vonnegut called my "kurass."

Well, of course, to different degrees with different people. But overall I'd answer "Not really." It takes me having dinner at a Peranakan place with a guy from Toledo, Ohio, who just happens to teach at NIE, who just happens to have also lived in Japan, who just happens to have also lived in Malaysia, who just happens to be married, like me, to a Malaysian, who similar to me likes particular musics and films, and who has the sort of personality that I feel comfortable with, for me to feel "home." He and I share so many variables that we give "context" to each other. The same can be said for my spouse and my youngest daughter. (Of course, even they and I are different, in many ways.)

There is a clear "cultural realism" in all of this, with an emphasis on shared values and experiences determining closeness in interpersonal relations. There is also a "gumption" that has carried me to this point, that has fed my various "dreams", allowing me to be here and there at the same time. It has been that gumption and those dreams that have propelled me on this particular journey of world exploration and self-discovery. (And in a very real sense, I can never go home. I am now beyond culture.)

As a teacher, would I recommend this path to everyone? Absolutely not. Is travel and shucking one's original cultural skin a must for everyone? Nah. In fact, it can be damn disconcerting. (ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!) There is a reason "comfort zones" are called comfort zones.

A conclusion? As a well-travelled hillbilly friend once told me: If ya can't run with the big dogs, don't get off the porch. (That may be a bit overwrought though, since it implies "bigger" is better.)

It may be better to sum it up this way: Each person's path is unique. What seems important in education (and I think Kumara would agree) is for each learner, each of us to come to reflect upon the options before us and on the consequences of those, and to make an informed choice.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Meditation on the Instructions to Make a List of 10 Random Things about Myself

It's late. I'm tired. And so much in life seems random.

1. As a kid in Thornville I attended the Trinity United Church of Christ (UCC), the same Protestant denomination that Barack Obama famously attended with Jeremiah Wright as his pastor. What I remember most from "church," aside from all the Bible stuff, is that, in the 60s and early 70s, the UCC's national leaders opposed the Vietnam War, welcomed racial integration and were called "ultra-liberals" by many in the "religious establishment." Ironically, my family was rather conservative and generally supported the US war effort, but in church at least I learned of different perspectives. Narrowly missing the draft (by one year), I grew up to strongly oppose the war. In 2008 I would go to Vietnam for the first time, and while visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I felt such great shame at my country's military actions that I actually shed tears. What weighs more on the scale of human atrocities: random acts of violence or well planned ones?

2. I was delivered into this world by a Japanese doctor working for the US Air Force, one Dr. Suzuki, at Shepherd Air Force Base Hospital in Wichita Falls, Texas. According to my mother, the first words I heard were Japanese. The hospital building where I was born was destroyed several years later by a tornado. 

3. The first childhood fantasy that I remember having is this: I was standing under a tree in the yard of my kindergarten, a one-room former church/then school house in Washington Court House, Ohio. The old wooden building began belching flames, and I ran in and heroically pulled my teacher, my first love, to safety. How random are dreams?

4. In sixth grade (Primary Six) I was randomly asked by my teacher, Mrs. Redd, to help a visiting teacher carry a slide projector and a large screen from his car into the school auditorium. The man I helped that day was gentle, good-natured and talkative. (I can still remember taking the equipment out of his car's trunk.) His presentation was about a trip he had made recently to the then Soviet Union. I watched with great interest. Four years later, as a first-year high school student, I signed up for Russian language class taught by the same man. On the first day of class, the guy, Mr. Ed Taylor, said my name had no Russian equivalent and so jokingly he called me "Viktor" with the patronymic "Venovich" (My father's name was Wayne). When I later studied at Ohio State University, I majored in Russian language and literature, thanks largely to the enthusiasm I had developed for many things Russian (including the Cold War mystique). To what degree was any of this random?

5. As a young kid, I had a cow lick in the front of my short hair that was impossible to comb and it always embarrassed me. As a high school student, I had heroes who included the British rock singers Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey and Robert Plant. One thing I liked about them was their wild manes of hair. Though I was "by training" quite the jock (lettering in high school cross country, basketball and track), I really wanted to look like a hippie. This was a point of contention between my father and me. He said his friends called me "a girl," and we had numerous "knock down drag out" fights over my hair's length. For university, I moved away from home, and with my newfound freedom, I grew my hair down the middle of my back. At some point though, just into my second year, I suddenly had the urge to cut my hair, so I went to a stylist, and I had my hair curled. For two years I sported an afro and had to "pick" my hair. Eventually, I grew it straight and down my back again. In the early 80s, living in Portugal, I started teaching for GM and so had my locks cut in a style that a friend said made me look like a fisherman. Today, my head is clean shaven, some folks calling me "a skinhead." I've had it every which way.

6. I lived in Japan for 17 years, and drove to work, but never managed to get a Japanese driver's license (which is a long story). I've never paid US income taxes, aside from Social Security (which is a longer story). I don't much like to cook, but I can eat virtually anything. Does that mean I'm "easily fed"?

7. My great-grandfather, Ira Cooperider, a small-time farmer and lifelong factory worker, collected native American artifacts throughout his life. First with his kids, then his grandkids, then us his great-grandkids in tow, he would walk through the fields between Thornville and Bruno Grange, between New Reading and Cramer's Corner, and all along High Point Road, looking for and salvaging flint pieces and "arrowheads." His collection of scrapers, lances, bird and spear points, adzes, knives and hammers would eventually number three thousand. He meticulously organized many of these suspending them by wires on thick cardboard panels. Along with a collection of old guns, tools, toys and various oddities, they were all stored in a large room above his garage.

Of all of Ira's great grandchildren (over 20 or so), maybe I lusted for his collection the most. Unfortunately, he died before producing a will, and when I was living in Malaysia, his "museum" was auctioned off. With my grandmother's help, I managed to purchase one panel though, with some 50 well worked flints on it, which is now hanging in the room across from me as I sit here typing. What ancient warriors' charms have ended up in this place?

8. Like Louis Armstrong said, I'd agree there are two types of music: good and bad. But I've never met a genre that I didn't like: blues, jazz (New Orleans, big band, bop, West Coast, whatever), rock, punk, hip hop, trip hop, eletronica, Cajun, Karnatic, rembetika, gypsy swing, fado, enka, waltzes, chant, spirituals, bluegrass, folk & pop. Billie was surprised recently when she bought and brought a Katy Perry CD home, and I liked it. I also like Prince, Tupac, Radiohead, Green Day and Duffy. I don't quite like the music of Madonna and Michael Jackson, but I recognize their talents. Still, some bands bore me. Bon Jovi, Guns N Roses and 99% of the metal bands, and smoothies like Kenny G never did it for me. So-called Christian rock? Give me a break. And Japanese pop may be one of my least favorite types. But even there, I could occasionally find myself humming along with Hikaru Utada and some other syrupy songstress. Soundtracks are hard to escape anymore. So what to do?

9. I could never "clean" fish. When I was young my family would make yearly pilgrimages to a rustic cabin on Crow Lake in southeastern Ontario. It was an idyllic place for kids to race through the woods, practice oaring skills, and catch frogs, snakes and turtles. Though the cabins had no modern amenities (we even had to toilet in an outhouse), we all loved that time of the year. My father and grandmother were ace fishermen and fish cleaners, able to whip out fillets from a keep full of perch and blue gills in a heartbeat; my granddad was the king of quiet nights on the lake and the big fish stories ("whoppers"), and us "youngins" --hearing the loons, chasing down raccoons with flashlights, playing cards after dark by Coleman lantern--were forever imbued with a taste for the outdoors.

One year, when I was 12 or 13, I went out early morning fishing with my dad and brought in a three-pound largemouth bass. That was my trophy of trophies. I have a black and white photo of me holding that baby. But to this day I cannot and will not clean a fish. (Why did I evolve into the person I became? Just a matter of socialization? The hand of God? Hard wiring? Random combinations of this strand and that? Why on earth can't I clean fish?)

10. & Rules? It's ironic that a guy who by nature has made a point of questioning the norms, the rules, the ways and means, would become a bit of a grammarian, an occasional pedant and a teacher at a university in Singapore. What's the message here?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Know thyself: A reflection on teaching and learning

Another semester of teaching has come to an end. How many have I been through? Let me see: At NUS, only three. But as a full-time teacher/ lecturer/ professor at a university in Asia? Oh my. Nine in the last four and half years? Before that, 13 years worth of quarters and then semesters for the Minnesota program in Japan. Then there were five years in Malaysia. Before that, back in the US at Ohio State. Etc.

So what have I learned through these decades? On the macro level, what has this experience taught me about university education?

That's an odd question, when one considers that when I reflect upon my own education, from about sixth grade in elementary school to my third or fourth year in the university, I feel a terrible void. That feeling comes from a remembrance of too many mediocre classroom experiences, where bored teachers talked sports rather than academics, where naughty students set the rules, or where an esteemed professor read from yellow note cards, or forced me to memorize page after page of vocabulary items, or assigned homework that was labored over and submitted but never commented upon. As a wee lad, I had been encouraged and was anxious to study and to learn. I was as hungry for knowledge as I was for any sweet. But at some point playing "the game" and gaining "social acceptance" became more imperative. My tolerance for mediocrity became deeply ingrained.

My experience jumps back to my own teaching, which--- just in the last 23 years in Asia---has presented me with a huge mixed bag of experience.

How can I be so tentative about a university education? Quite simply, because I have seen it all, from enlightenment to tomfoolery, from excellence to the insane. In some of the first classes I worked in back in Japan, at the entry stage of the language program, I had students who could not write words in English any more accurately than American kindergarten students could. They couldn't read the lowest level of the SRA Reading Lab. But they and their parents had been guaranteed by the university administration that they would get an American university degree in four to five years. "Okay, kiddies, now let me hear you pronounce the phrase 'sell out'...."

Earlier, in Malaysia, in yet another American degree program, when teaching in an English for academic purposes course focused on the history of science, I once had a male "Bumi" student tell me that Americans could not have really reached the moon , because the earth was surrounded by glass spheres, and no mortal object could have pierced them. (Celestial spheres was not a novel idea, mind you. Eudoxus supposedly originated this thought some 2000 years ago, and it was further articulated by Aristotle and Ptolemy, among others.) The earnest young fellow, as adamant of his beliefs as I was of mine, was one of thousands on full government scholarship. He was also being prepped for studies in, imagine this, aeronautical engineering --and he may very well be one today! (That was the same program where, in a first-day icebreaker activity, a student reported that he had two heroes: Ayatollah Khomeini was the male, and Brooke Shields was the female!)

Though I have this deep archive of the absurd in my background, I have also witnessed amazing educational strides. For example, one young lady I taught in Akita, a girl who had never graduated from a Japanese high school because of unspecified "social and psychological problems" within the Japanese system, worked with such determination that I feared for her well being. After frequent counseling sessions, she got control over her study habits, and she excelled; the last thing I heard of her, she had been accepted into the University of Minnesota's medical school.

The truth is that what I have witnessed in university education in Asia has largely been success stories. In Akita I knew hundreds of students who had arrived on an American-style university branch campus with very modest English language skills (and evident gaps in cultural understanding), only to slave away on grammar exercises, readings, writing assignments and other activities, for thousands of hours over the course of many years, to the point where they could eventually read and discuss articles from the New York Times and Newsweek, participate in academic lectures and take exams, and even write research papers with the same level of accomplishment as the typical undergraduate at a state university in the US. I finally saw many of these same students beam with a grand sense of accomplishment upon graduation, and then get jobs with multinational corporations where they would communicate in English every day.

Now in Singapore, my wonder at the intellectual curiosity, diligence, ambition and raw talent of students from a dozen countries where English is either a "second" or "foreign" language has become commonplace. I interact with young people on a daily basis whose command of concepts is stronger and display of tech and critical thinking skills broader than that of many of the American working adults I have known over the last thirty years. Sadly, this may be because I come from a country where sports are given more weight in many local schools than science labs, where mathematics plays second fiddle to cheerleading, and where study has become something only geeks do.

Over the years, I've been pushed by the demands of those students in my courses, I've been moved by their stories and dreams in a way that, if my wilting memory serves me correctly, I was rarely stimulated as a student back in Ohio. Ironically, surrounded by these teachers, I have become the student I was once encouraged to be, I've been inspired to become the teacher I always wanted.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sunday, November 02, 2008

US National Election 2008

The election is here. With all the expectations of so many people on the line, this is like Christmas, Hari Raya and Deepavali all wrapped into one. Wednesday of this week will bring about either a new era of hope, or one of total disbelief and dread for those of us who feel like we have had to suffer 8 years of mediocre leadership--no--bad leadership in America since the year 2000.

As a guy from one of the so-called swing states, Ohio, I'm biting my fingernails in anticipation. Can we voters make a difference?
For many years, something like 20, I didn't think so and I didn't vote. Not since Jimmy Carter was elected. When Reagan was elected in 1980, while I was in Portugal, I couldn't believe it, I doubted that an actor had the skills to lead our nation (and the world), and I decided to stay outside the US as long as possible (for that and other reasons).

Then Bush was elected in 2000, and I knew we were in trouble. Everything I had read about him made me think Americans had lost their better judgement. What followed under his "leadership" confirmed my beliefs, and so when 2004 rolled around, I registered to vote. Alas....

And as we have all seen, Bush has proven to be the worst of the worst: not just mediocre, not just bad, but a disaster, for us, for Iraqis, for most folks worldwide. Proof again of the statement that Churchill allegedly made: The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation on the street with the average citizen.

So why should I have hope now? Have things changed?

With that thought in mind, I went to one of my favorite web sites this morning,, and found the following article, one calling my rural county in southern Ohio a bellwether of voting within the state of Ohio.

Read the article and see why I still have hope, why we can even imagine....

Overcoming in Ohio

And see you on Wednesday morning, November 5th, 2008!

Friday, October 17, 2008

ssssshhh....Do something!

Which presidential candidate did this expat American support on his 2008 absentee ballot?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What Obama Stands For

"Sometimes we need both cultural transformation and government action--a change in values and a change in policy--to promote the kind of society we want. The state of our inner-city schools is a case in point. All the money in the world won't boost student achievement if parents make no effort to instill in their children the values of hard work and delayed gratification. But when we as a society pretend that poor children will fulfill their potential in dilapidated, unsafe schools with outdated equipment and teachers who aren't trained in the subjects they teach, we are perpetrating a lie on these children, and on ourselves. We are betraying our values.

"That is one of the things that makes me a Democrat, I suppose--this idea that our communal values, our sense of mutual responsibility and social solidarity, should express themselves not just in the church or the mosque or the synagogue; not just on the blocks where we live, in the places where we work, or within our own families; but also through our government. Like many conservatives, I believe in the power of culture to determine both individual success and social cohesion, and I believe we ignore cultural factors at our own peril. But I also believe that our government can play a role in shaping that culture for the better--or for the worse."

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What Palin Means

Usually I prefer paraphrases. But in this case, a direct quote is not just fitting, it's poetic justice:

"So, sure, Barack Obama might be every bit as much a slick piece of imageering as Sarah Palin. The difference is in what the image represents. The Obama image represents tolerance, intelligence, education, patience with the notion of compromise and negotiation, and a willingness to stare ugly facts right in the face, all qualities we're actually going to need in government if we're going to get out of this huge mess we're in.

Here's what Sarah Palin represents: being a fat fucking pig who pins 'Country First' buttons on his man titties and chants 'U-S-A! U-S-A!' at the top of his lungs while his kids live off credit cards and Saudis buy up all the mortgages in Kansas.

The truly disgusting thing about Sarah Palin isn't that she's totally unqualified, or a religious zealot, or married to a secessionist, or unable to educate her own daughter about sex, or a fake conservative who raised taxes and horked up earmark millions every chance she got. No, the most disgusting thing about her is what she says about us: that you can ram us in the ass for eight solid years, and we'll not only thank you for your trouble, we'll sign you up for eight more years, if only you promise to stroke us in the right spot for a few hours around election time.

Democracy doesn't require a whole lot of work of its citizens, but it requires some: It requires taking a good look outside once in a while, and considering the bad news and what it might mean, and making the occasional tough choice, and soberly taking stock of what your real interests are..."

--Matt Taibi, Rolling Stone

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why do we compete?

Why do we push ourselves so hard?

To challenge ourselves?

Or to promote ourselves?

For the thrill of victory...

while risking the agony of defeat?

Why do we compete?

Whether as amateurs or professionals, whether as future medalists or worthy opponents, what inspires our goal-setting, our concentration and dedication, our hard work? What makes all the difference?

And how might these questions relate to a discussion of communication?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Mother Ship

If life on Earth becomes a bit tedious at times, then dream of greater heights, new horizons. Dream big! That's what Richard Branson did. He says that his inspiration for financing space tourism was his experience as a child following NASA. When he realized that he would never fly with NASA, and when he became rich enough, he created his own means of reaching space.

Take us along for a ride, pretty please!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Citizen of the World

In response to Barack Obama's recent speech in Berlin, John McCain and his spokespeople offered striking criticism. They said Mr. Obama should be speaking not to Europeans but to Americans (at least until he becomes president). They also derided his calling himself a "citizen of the world."

Here is my question: How can any person profess to be, as many Americans see in their president, “the leader of the ‘free world’” and not be at the same time a citizen of that world?

Mr. Obama articulated in his Berlin speech values that should simply be considered basic for leadership by any conscientious citizen concerned with the affairs of our time. And it seems he has proven himself intellectually able, at the very least, to imagine the scope of the challenges that he faces as a world leader in the 21st century. McCain, even in his most recent public statements, has shown again and again that he is a man imprisoned by the values of a different time, one whose narrow dimensions cloud his vision and make his judgments questionable.

Let’s hope that there are enough citizens of the world living in America to recognize the difference between the two men (and that the election this November can be a fair one).

Read Barack Obama's speech in Berlin here:

Citizen of the World

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Location location location: Place and the appropriateness of nonverbal behavior

A young American is living in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and is working as a trainer/teacher at General Motors and a local university. His good friends include many young and hip urban professionals (a dentist, a manager from a multinational corporation, a university administrator, and a PhD candidate), not the sort of folks you'd expect to lead him down the primrose path. One day he accompanies two of these friends, a couple with their two young sons, to Costa da Caparica, a 10-mile stretch of fine beach just south of Lisbon.

They head for a specific beach, Praia do Meco, a nudist beach. Being an American from the conservative Midwest, he is a bit skeptical about being butt-naked in public, even at a beach. His friends convince him that it's perfectly acceptable and that he has nothing to fear. When they arrive at the parking lot of the beach, which is set in a pine grove with a sandy floor, he wonders if he can really get nude with strangers. In fact, as they all walk to the beach with bathing suits and baggy T-shirts still on, he decides he won't completely undress. But when the group walks over a sand dune and onto the main Meco beach, and he sees at least 100 unclad male and female bodies before him, many of them laid casually across towels, others swimming in the sea, and others frolicking in the waves, he loses his fear.

His hosts take off their T-shirts, then their bathing suits, and join the nude crowd. The American, still clothed, sits quickly on a towel, and only after some time, decides to wiggle out of his suit. He doesn't want to be considered uncool or unadventurous, but he is cautious. What he eventually notices though is that everyone on the beach that day is nonchalant about their nudity. Noone is showing off. They are acting normal---just without clothing. The American starts to understand the point: it is liberating to be on a beach sunning oneself, swimming and sunning oneself again without clothes. He even develops the feeling that it is healthy, almost spiritual.

And so begins this American's adaptation to a very particular cultural norm, nude bathing, one that is much more prevalent amongst the young and hip in Europe than amongst their peers in most of the rest of the world. An exception to that is in Japan, where nude bathing in onsens, or spas, is firmly traditional, familial and common among all social classes.

For the young American, this trip to Praia do Meco is the first of many. He returns with the same family he has started the adventure with, and he goes with other friends. One day he visits with a Brazilian male friend. They go through the usual routine of wearing bathing suits to the beach, then stripping, then laying on their towels sunning themselves, then swimming, then sunning themselves again. It has all become rather commonplace.

At some point in the afternoon, the Brazilian friend points out a cabana that stands at the end of a nearby path that ascends the clay rise just behind the beach. It's a makeshift snack bar, with soft drinks and beer for sale. The two friends decide to visit, then mull over whether or not they should put their suits back on for the trip up the hill. The Brazilian dresses in his jean shorts; the young American decides to walk up the nearby slope in the nude. After all, it's a hot afternoon.

When they arrive in the cabana, it's empty, except for the dozen or so small wooden tables and benches in neat rows. There's one middle-aged woman, fully clothed, behind a big table where coolers and cases of drinks of various sorts are piled high. She doesn't flinch at the two customers, though one is naked. The guys buy drinks and take seats on a bench in the back of the place. Within the next 20 minutes or so, as the two beach goers sit and chat, others arrive from down the hill to escape the sun and to buy drinks: a young couple, a group of three, another couple with a child, and another small group. Soon the Brazilian and the young American notice that the place has filled up. Nearly every table is taken, with the cabana now holding 25 or 30 refreshment seekers. Aside from that, there is one more glaring fact: everyone except the young American is wearing some sort of beach wear (even though some are only sporting spartan bathing suits).

Suddenly, being nude has become an oddity again. In this shop so near to the nudist beach, the norms have changed. The young American becomes worried, wondering how to escape unseen. But it seems there's no way out. At last, he garners the courage to get up and leave, yet he does so while covering his private parts with his hands, something he didn't have to do down on the beach.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Searching for the Spirit of Patriotism

Recently, sometime during the first weekend of July, when Americans were celebrating the holiday Independence Day, I read Bush used phony patriotism to start war, a newly released article by Father Andrew Greeley, the American priest/writer, scholar and social critic. In the article Greeley questioned the use of patriotism by George Bush to incite uninformed Americans to support his administration's invasion of Iraq. The main thrust of the article was that after the attacks of 9/11, most Americans were so incensed that they wanted revenge and could be easily manipulated. Under those circumstances, a leader who could connect dots between the hijackings of airliners and any whiff of anti-American feelings in the Middle East was bound to captivate an audience, and that was exactly what Bush did.

Greeley demonstrates convincingly what most concerned, informed and thinking individuals on earth today see as a fact: Bush wanted to punish Saddam and he wanted oil, and he believed that by connecting the dots and making war (even when Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11), he could have both of those AND he could reshape the politics of the Middle East to his and his neo-con buddies' liking. By using the patriotism card, i.e., by calling anyone who questioned him a traitor, Bush was able to conjure up all the support he needed and he got his war.

Patriotism is an important value for many people. But just how can we recognize it in the flesh? Some would have you believe that it is unquestioning support of a country's leaders and those leaders' whims. In Malaysia for many years that meant supporting Prime Minister Mahathir and his administration's views wholeheartedly. It meant turning a blind eye to any corruption in government, to any inequity in society, to any contested government policy or action and saying "If you're a patriot, you support the government. Period."

In America in the 1960s, patriotism meant supporting the Vietnam War, 100%. There was a bumper sticker that I remember from that time that read: AMERICA, RIGHT OR WRONG.

When Bush and his cronies started to try to sell an invasion of Iraq by saying that Saddam was researching a nuclear weapon that he would then surely turn over to "the terrorists," many people questioned that specific assertion and the general logic. Even Scott Ritter, a man who had been the lead UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, had questioned it. Bush, Cheney and their dearest supporters nationwide were very quick to label Ritter and anyone else who had questions as crazy, or worse, as people who were supporting the enemies.

Sadly, these accusations have not disappeared. After reading the Greeley article, I read comments that had been posted beneath it. I was shocked at the number who not only questioned Greeley's patriotism but who also said he would "burn in hell." After checking the websites of a few of these commentators I discovered an even more serious problem. Some of these guys aren't just out for Greeley's head, they want an entire religious war. For them it's not just America:Right or Wrong, it's a bigger fight, a clash of civilizations. They believe that they alone on earth are amongst the chosen few; that they alone on earth know God and know good from bad, right from wrong. They are the American Taliban.

It's for these people that I would like to propose a course in the ideas of one of America's founding fathers: Thomas Jefferson. Of course, the likelihood that members of the American Taliban would read anything by Jefferson is the same as them taking a trip to Singapore and visiting one of my classes. Zero.

For the rest of us, it might be good at this time of year to pay a visit to Jeff's former mountaintop home, Monticello, or to simply visit the White House website and read this wonderful quote: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Back from Big Ohio

"For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."
John Winthrop, 1630

Once you have been away from "home" as long as I have, the very image of that place might take on nearly mythical proportions, both positively and negatively. Here in Singapore, many expatriate Americans like myself tend to see America in exaggerated terms, like headlines, and we forget the nuances: The Bush White House. The Iraq War. The Falling Dollar. Bulging Oil Prices. Global Warming. The Celtics as NBA champions.

When I'm in America, a horizon of other, finer details makes itself known, rekindling my emotional connection (and in some cases disconnection) to the place and people. In the airport in Chicago, I'm suddenly struck by all the white people and how once again I'm not a minority. (It's an odd feeling for me, actually.) In the airport in Columbus, Ohio, I note all the stores selling clothes, bags and other items with the name Ohio State University emblazoned on them, and I think about how university branding more so than intellectual development and often connected with college sports teams is so "huge." As I drive 30 miles east down I-70 (Interstate Highway) from the airport in Columbus to my hometown of Thornville, waves of other impressions and emotions greet me. In June the landscape is verdant, the trees and fields myriad hues of green, but there is so much less humidity here in central Ohio than there is in the tropics. On the road I'm also shocked yet again by the size of the cars, the number of SUVs, the speed of the semis (big trucks), and the wide median strips.

18 days in Ohio gives me one remembrance and discovery after another. The size of people is one of those. In Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and elsewhere in Asia, one rarely sees people who are "overweight." In teaching at NUS for one year, I have only had two or three students who seemed even slightly "weight challenged." In America, the large number of obese people becomes apparent the minute you walk through an airport. I remember entering a store, a "supermarket," and noting immediately that virtually *everyone*, every shopper and every check out girl, was heavier than they should be. Some ladies I saw were as wide as their shopping carts, which were invariably overflowing with meats, bread, giant bags of chip snacks and cartons of diet drinks! In fact, Ohio has been ranked as the 17th most obese American state by the Trust for America's Health, with 27% of its population being obese.

How does this happen? Why are so many Americans notoriously big? Well, a visit with my own family tells the story. I've seen family members bake a pan of brownies, then finish them all off within a couple days. I'm generously offered cookies, pie, cake and "soft" drinks at every turn. Dessert, like rice in much of Asia, is the staple, and ice cream a daily pleasure. Maybe what surprises me most though is how little water people drink and how, instead, it's Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Coors Light and Busch Light, and other "light" drinks. At some point though I stop noticing body size and see mainly the wide smiles. I start to feel like a coherent part of the scenery again.

Of course, I do get shocked back to reality: I'm especially struck by how overtly patriotic people are. We all have heard politicians, no matter where they are from, praise their own country as "great." Citizens of most countries can sing their national anthem, recite the names of past leaders and list great accomplishments, and they feel strong affection for their homeland. But in America it takes on a religious fervency. In my mother's neighborhood, a "subdivision" of Thornville called Foster Manor, many homes have flagpoles with the Stars and Stripes held high aloft. On one of my last days in America I even saw a motorcyclist, a guy on a big Harley, cruising nonchalantly down a street with a beach-towel-size flag fluttering above his muffler. On American TV talk shows, pundits routinely extol the "greatness" of America and discuss how that is being threatened by today's oil prices. Such patriotism is not just about celebrating America's history and tradition though, but about deeply believing in its exclusivity. It is also about economic privilege, and some may say "dominance." The age-old myth of America as the shining "city on a hill" for all of humanity to envy and emulate is still alive and well (though this may be mostly in the minds of Americans these days).

When I'm in Ohio, in fact, many people ask me if I'm going to stay away "over there" forever, as if no one really wants to live on a small island with small people. That's a funny question for me, because while I enjoy living in Singapore (and generally out of the USA), while I do view excess quite negatively, I continue to feel rooted in the "American experience."

A social psychologist might say that I have become the person I am because of the opportunities afforded by my social (more so than national) background and by the "big" allowances made in upbringing. And it is true that as a kid I was given a tremendous amount of leeway, or space, to spread my wings. I was encouraged to be independent, self reliant, and exploratory. I was pointed toward the big horizon, and through a childhood appetite for travel books, TV programs and films (Moby Dick, Gulliver's Travels, Call of the Wild, Around the World in 80 Days, Star Trek, Easy Rider) that described other places and other ways of life , I developed a desire to venture to the end of the highway, to dream "big," to think beyond my backyard. Those influences also became a motivation for me to give up the creature comforts and travel. I have no doubt that kids in other places in the world have been given the same sort of support and were instilled with the same values. In my case, it just happens to be an American background.

Of course, there is much to gain from America, too. A person only needs to consider American "contributions" to see that really a sort of "greatness" abounds there, in scientific discoveries, technological advances, scholarship. There have been Olympian achievements in nearly every field. Yes, there are opportunities that life in America can afford to many of its citizens (and many visitors!). Think university education!

There is also that material availability. One also only needs to look at the availability of consumer goods and take note of the relatively low cost of food, books, computers and other appliances, cars, land and houses (especially now!). In America, a working class couple, like a mailman married to a store clerk, can own their own house, have a couple cars in the garage and computers for their kids and they can spend at least one day every weekend boating, horseback riding or cruising on their Harley.

There's also quite a bit individual freedom (some might argue too much). The freedom to vote, voice political opinion (well...), the freedom to worship as you wish. The freedom to act "crazy." Look at the Youtube videos "Amish Paradise" and "White and Nerdy" by parody singer/ songwriter "Weird Al" Yankovic, and see what a wide berth the "freedom of speech" principle of America is given, and think about how such freedom is often pushed to the limit in song lyrics or TV scripts. (I guess you can see that in many Hollywood films and in the wide availability of written social criticism as well.) In a positive sense, look at how many Americans "largely" do their own thing.

Big isn't always better though, not even for Americans. Witness how now they are complaining about gas that costs 4 dollars a gallon. (That's because they remember that recently it was half that price. My mom remembers it being 25 cents a gallon!) Big is also bad when we think of military spending, health care costs, and national debt.

So I guess big is not just a physical form, and Ohio is not only a place but also the mental image that I've come to discover!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mowing: On An American Odyssey

I'm lying in a reclining chair on the deck of my mom's house. My eyes are closed. But my senses are being bombarded, by the hot sun and the feeling of being home. How comfortable it seems. Crystal blue sky, perfect temperature. When I look up I see the tops of maples planted by my father 40 years earlier. The air is fresh. All is well with the world. Then I hear it, a low humming motorized rumble. Like the buzz of a 300-pound gas-guzzling mosquito. It's the power mower. My mom's seen fit to cut the yard's grass again. There she goes, riding high and tight on the soft cushion seat of the yellow and white machine. Her bonding with backyard nature is outlined in a fit of starts and stops, then a drop of the rotary blades.

And now my meditation has been broken by the kiss of those blades bearing down on the inch-high grass cover.

Just three days earlier, I had my own turn with the mower. Mom had been mowing then as well. Before I knew it, daughter Billie was on the beast, a Cub Cadet, lifting her foot off the clutch, moving forward, easing into reverse and across my camera shots. Then I climbed aboard and helped out by mowing a large swath of the yard myself. It brought back memories of cutting the same grass when I was a teenager, the only difference being that my brothers and I didn't ride then; we pushed the mower, and it would take hours to do our weekly yard chore.

Not anymore. My mom can whack the whole quarter-acre yard, neatly circumnavigating the house and a wide range of furs, maples and bushes, and Dad's old pigeon house, in a matter of ninety minutes or so.

But the act of cutting the grass three days after it was last cut now strikes me as a huge waste of energy, and time. I look down at the neighbor's place, the broad yard of another happy gardner. Yep, his grass is golf-course-green cut, looking like the fairway! How had I missed that happening?

I look up at the other neighbor's, the Micks' yard. It's longer, perfectly fine at an inch-an-a-half in height. Then I note the rumble of the mower again, smile at the wide brim of my mom's straw hat and her fixed look of concentration. Or is that accomplishment?

America is said to have 4% of the world's population, but it uses 25% of the Earth's resources. 5 days at my mom's place in suburban Thornvile, Ohio, shows me how that is possible. Every house in the neighborhood has at least 2,500 square feet of floor space, and each is now fully engaging its whole-home air conditioning unit. Each broad driveway has a fuel-inefficient pick up truck in it, in addition to two or three other vehicles, one of which is probably an SUV.

Mom cruises by the edge of the deck, the mower's audio force splitting my solice. She looks quite stately as she turns the Cadet's steering wheel with calm know-how.

If she wasn't doing this, I guess, she'd be watching Oprah or driving us to the mall again. (God love her!) Yep, most likely we'd all be back down in Lancaster, or back up in Newark, perusing the bargains that seem inescapable in America today: from jeans for seven bucks and a pair of BBQ sandwiches for five dollars to half-price luxury rental cars and mansions for 30% off.

The mower roars past my head again, Mom on yet another sonic round, and I feel like I know why, many years ago, I began questioning some of the values of small town Ohio in the first place. (God bless this home!)

Quite a few Americans, people who have grown up in hometowns like mine, don't "question" mowing, or the way many things are done; many of them don't consider conservation of resources so important, unless it's good for their wallet. That's just not part of their grammar. What they do know and value is the "good life," which means, basically, material well being: i.e., achieving as much as they can achieve, obtaining the things that represent the good life ---and more. Finish school. Jump on a career path. Make money. Buy a car, a house, whatever. (At a family reunion this week a cousin praised her stepson, aged 23, for just putting down the money for his first house.) The bigger the better. To be in the real in group, landscape a BIG YARD. Even if it means cutting the grass 2, or 3 times a week: so be it.

Of course, America is not the only country where people value financial security. It is a place, however, where the value of ownership, or being a proprietor, is very strong. Just look at the yards, and the mowers!

Oops! My mother has lifted her blades and looks in my direction to ask whether or not I want to give a hand!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

On Vietnam: Reflection and Rejuvenation

What is Vietnam? The word still means "war" for those who, like many Americans, see it through the prism of military defeat. For others, like some of my generally well informed friends in academe back in America, it is a third world police state, thanks to it's one-party system and alleged suppression of the opposition. For millions of others though, like the 80 plus million Vietnamese and many of of those in its diaspora, it is family, friends, culture, nation and a society undergoing radical change.

What is Vietnam for me? Why do I care?

I grew up in Ohio in the 1960s and 70s, but also always with an "image" of Vietnam. That image was constructed by nightly news reports on what the Vietnamese now call the "American War." I saw "Vietnam" with amazing regularity on the family TV at dinner time, from the other side of the ocean. But it was Vietnam by numbers: the number of North Vietnamese Army regulars killed, the number of Viet Cong killed, the number of South Vietnamese soldiers killed, and lastly, the number of Americans who had died. I remember Walter Cronkite making this announcement solemnly, but almost as if it were a daily sports score.

I learned that the Vietnamese had also fought against other "good guys," the French (or so we were told). The French had lost Vietnam in a battle called Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and since that time, the story went, America had stepped in and was there to stop the spread of communism. America had to help countries like the Soviet Union throw off the "yoke of communism" and we had to help Vietnam from embracing it (or so we were told).

Communism. That was the key word. That was why we American kids in the 1960s had to hide in the basement of our school during nuclear bomb drills. Since the start of the so-called "Cold War," after the end of real fighting in World War II, it had become America's duty-- or so we young Americans learned in school, from TV, from our families -- to fight the "Evil Red Empire" led by China and the Soviet Union. Vietnam was just one more "domino" on the board in that struggle, it was a place for America to contain communism's global expansion (or so we were told).

I learned to see that situation differently though, starting sometime between 1965 and 1966. I was in third grade (primary three). The girl in my class who I fancied the most -- I can't remember her name -- was sweet, cute, and smart. But what I remember most about her now, 40 years into the future, is how our lady teacher entered class one morning and announced that this classmate's daddy, a pilot, had been shot down over North Vietnam. Now he was dead. But, of course, he was also a hero (or so we were told).

I guess some boys would have found cause in that story to dream of being a pilot themselves, or of being a president who could one day say "bring 'em on" and help to kill "all them bad guys." But not me. I was at a loss. My friend's daddy was DEAD. Gone forever. Killed in Vietnam. And yet he was a hero.

So? I asked myself. What was the point in having a daddy who was a hero if he was dead, never to be seen again? ( Yes, war really is hell, heroically fought or not.)

Well, the rest is history. I grew up to hate war, question my country's leaders' motives and develop an opinion about who the real bad guys in Vietnam were. I came to see Vietnam as not just a war but as a place where real people lived, and where, between the time that America got involved in the conflict there and then left in 1975, some 50,000 American daddies, sons, and brothers got killed, and over 3,000,000 Vietnamese died. (How did General Curtis Le May put it? We should bomb them back into the Stone Age.)

All because of that "ugly" word, communism. Or thanks to the American leadership's misinterpretation of it!

Last night, I was in Vietnam. In fact, at about this same time, I was riding in a bus back to Saigon from Can Tho, the main city in the Mekong Delta. (Together with colleagues from my university program, I had just spent a wonderful afternoon meeting and conversing with 30 fellow teachers from Can Tho University in a colloquium on issues in English language teaching.) We visitors left enthused by the welcome we had received, then we watched the sun set from the ferry dock beside the Mekong, then we'd been on the road a couple hours when we finally stopped at a large outdoor roadside restaurant for a break.

A group of us wandered back to the toilet we'd used on the four-hour morning ride down to Can Tho only to discover that it was closed. So in dire need, I walked into an unused back section of the eatery, which was just next to a dark canal. There I stood, alone, in the dark, on concrete steps overlooking the canal, staring at the jungled river bank opposite the restaurant. Then and there it hit me. Mekong Delta? Wouldn't this very place, this spot have been a potential venue for a scene from Apocalypse Now, just 40 years earlier? Might not this canal have been in the war zone? And now look at it. Look at Vietnam today.

Sure, there were pictures, or paintings, or photographs of long gone Uncle Ho in almost every classroom of the five universities we visited this past week, from Hanoi to Saigon to Can Tho. But there is also a vibrancy in Vietnam that defies anyone with thoughts of the "yoke of communism" today, that even defies the country's recent description as one of the new "tigers" of Asia. You can see it in the tour buses and taxis lined up outside Ho Chi Minh City's sparkling new airport, in the entrepreneurial skills of the tour guides, bellboys, waitresses, shop clerks and roadside hawkers; you can see it in the countless shops selling limitless consumer goods; you can see it in the luxury hotels with fully stocked buffets, health salons and roof top bars over million dollar views; you can see it in all the new building projects, including massive bridges, widening highways and shiny new housing estates; you can hear it in the buzz of the 4.5 million motorcycles of Ho Chi Minh City and in the showroom of one of that same city's many auto dealerships, Luxury Motors; you can also sense it every time you see an amazingly professional research presentation made by young academics who articulate in flawless English first rate practical methods based on sound theory --- and you can be humbled by how well they have succeeded, after doing their graduate degrees locally or abroad with fellowships from their own government or from others (some from the repentant Ford & Fulbright Foundations). You can also stand equally impressed by the country's latest educational policy goal: 10,000 PhDs!

Communism? Well, there may be a central command for the country's development, I guess, and the ministries and party cadres probably do play an important part in shaping policy direction. But state control of every aspect of Vietnamese life? I don't think so. That wouldn't make economic sense. And Vietnam, now a member of ASEAN, the WTO, and other formidable organizations, seems to want more than anything to be taken seriously as a major economic player in Asia today. Its social and philosophical "doctrines" notwithstanding.

Over an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch, I asked a vice dean from one of the prestigious universities that we visited if he had to be a member of the Communist Party to secure his position. With a smile he gave me an emphatic "no," and then he explained in excellent Aussie-inflected English that he had never been a party member and maybe never would be. As for the "American War," he confided that what was past was past, and that the Vietnamese are a very forgiving people. He added to that saying,"We Vietnamese are looking to the future."

What an understatement -- and like many of Vietnam's current success stories, he was full of charm, intelligence and enthusiasm, all of which are more prevalent in Vietnam today than even the pictures of Ho Chi Minh I'd come to admire.

Monday, May 12, 2008

My first circle of communication

My great grandparents -- Ira & Rachel Cooperider -- my mother, Martha Elder Blackstone -- my father, Wayne Blackstone -- and my grandmother, Carrie Elizabeth Cooperider Blackstone (My grandfather Jerry Blackstone took the photo.)

My grandfather Jerry and my father Wayne

My mother, father, my younger brother Brent and I