Friday, August 21, 2009

Together (There are heroes!)

In my previous post, the one below that addresses the national health care reform debate now taking place in the United States, I made a fairly sweeping attack against what I see as the degradation of American values. What are values? Those ideals that we hold dear. Values that Americans, Singaporeans, Vietnamese, Chinese and others the world over consider important include friendship, work, nation, education, technology and material gain, just to name a few. This is not to say that all citizens of our respective countries, or that you and I, or that my brothers and I have exactly the same views of these areas, but we do generally see the worth of each.

Similarly, "family" is a core value in all societies. However, the way family is defined and value that family is given by different individuals, and within different societies, can and does differ. Here are some "funneling questions" I have on the matter of family:

What exactly is meant by the term family? How does one's family differ from, say, one's tribe? Where are the boundaries of our family? In short, are we all brothers and sisters or not?

There are related issues and questions:

Most of the so-called "great" religions of the world espouse the view that we should extend a helping hand to others, not just to family members. But does that happen? To whom and in what way do we typically extend help? Am I or am I not my mother's, sister's, brother's, son's and/or neighbor's "keeper"?

And just how powerful can the love of family -- be that nuclear or planetary -- be?

In that previous post, I made the claim that for many Americans (not all, of course), individual material gain is more important than social equality/justice. I also wrote that this translates into the widespread belief that it's a dog-eat-dog world where only the fittest survive, and that the government should stay out of the fray.

That is one of my worries about American society (and any society, for that matter). That while we are often far too familial, tribal, national (in short, in-group) focused, the even bigger problem is that we are too individualistic or self-serving, and that we don't envision ourselves sharing this planet and facing challenges together enough.

An e-mail from a friend made me think about this on a different level. She sent a link to a video that, upon viewing, made me reflect on my own ideas of family, support and togetherness (or teamwork) again. It also forced me to reevaluate my sweeping generalization about Americans.

Check out this inspiring Youtube video about Dick and Rick Hoyt, an American father and son team with an exceptional bond, and see what I mean.

If you'd like to see another 10-minute documentary (with audio) about Rick and Dick Hoyt, click here.

There are real heroes in this world after all.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Too Much Fat in the Health Care Reform Debate in America

I wrote the message that follows below and posted part of it in response to a blog article in the online journal, The Huffington Post. The article, entitled "Obama's New Hampshire Town Hall Brings Out Birthers, Deathers and More," relates the sad and truly violent situation that has arisen in America as a result of the health care reform debate.

One reader of the article mentions in a "blog comment" how Americans have been "left behind" because of their poor education, and as a result, they don't understand complex issues such as those involved in the health care reform discussion. An example of such ignorance is the number of public statements that have been made by anti-reform advocates who warn that the government should stay clear of their Medicare, itself a government-run medical assistance program for the elderly.

This same ignorance has led to an uninformed, irrational and potentially dangerous reaction to the Obama Administration's proposal for national health care reform. (See the article and the video that accompanies it here to get a clear idea of how dangerous the right wing in America is making this issue.)
Here's my rant on the issue:

Many Americans have been left behind. We have nurtured a society where sports worship and "American idols," TV dramas and superstardom are elevated to the highest level. Goals and values are skewed toward competition, acquisition and materialism in the extreme and away from fairness and empathy. In many neighborhoods kids learn the importance of money, and they are inculcated with the idea that the real heroes are of three types: gun-toting soldiers, flashy TV/movie stars and rich sports idols. Period. The time when being an astronaut or a doctor, an explorer or a teacher or a humanitarian was viewed as a heroic profession has seemingly passed. It's now all about the image and the cash. The more the merrier. Big is beautiful: big house, big car, big boat, big screen, big slice of pizza, big salary, big abs, big boobs, big get the picture.

High schools have bigger budgets for football and basketball than for their libraries. University coaches make more money than the professors. (In the rest of the world, this would be an absurdity.)

The result: the mentality, both corporate and individual, that what's most important in life is getting all you can get, getting the biggest slice possible from society, hoarding what is yours, with little sense of payback or sharing. It's based on a recipe, maligned though it may be, from the survival of the fittest manual. (You see the results of that in the way that many on Wall Street, during the recent economic crisis, were so clearly in it just for the money, and achieving that end made any means justifiable.) For many Americans, the very idea of government is bad because it represents an intrusion into that process, a chink on the armor of that ethos.

Meanwhile, in countries like Singapore, like China, like Japan, hard work and study are highly valued (maybe to an exaggerated extent!), and egalitarianism is not scorned. Sure, ownership/ materialism is alive and well even in Asia, but there also seems to be a focus on developing in kids and supporting in other citizens a set of social values that exists for the sake of conscientious economic development, a better/safer neighborhood, more lucrative opportunities for the youth and for future generations, not just more money and power and glory for the winners.

A former student of mine, a university graduate now doing an education diploma at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, recently told me that one of her main first-year teacher training courses is "service learning," in which she needs to develop a project that serves some particular community. That sort of focus is precisely what I'm talking about.

I grew up in Ohio and love my homeland for many reasons--but having lived and taught in several different countries in Asia for many years (and in the US before that), I see the difference between "us and them," and the fact is, it's glaring. Individualism in America has finally gone over the top. So much of it is so clearly about ME ME ME getting as MUCH as I possibly can. (Even Michelangelo's David, after doing a tour of the US, returned to Europe looking overfed. See photo above!)

For many in the US, education is seen only as a means to that end. To hell with social awareness, to hell with ensuring that society functions to everyone's benefit (which is why the regulatory bodies created by government are so loathesome to so many Americans). To hell with helping out the other(littler) guy (unless I can show off my generosity to my church group or to my friends). To hell with the big picture and the antiquated ideal of making America a place where even the "tired and the poor" can have a good, clean and safe home, top-notch educational opportunities, and affordable health care!

Where this will lead I don't know. But things aren't looking good.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

World Without Walls

Many of us tend to inhabit a very narrow slice of real estate and we do not think globally. For those of us living in Singapore, that's very easy to do. We tend to get caught up in our own lives here on the "wired island," we focus on our own work, study, family and friends and we forget about the other six billion plus inhabitants of this planet.

Why is thinking globally important? Well, for starters, just consider the old cliche: no man is an island. We all depend on each other, and in many ways, are affected by the actions of others. The recent H1N1 outbreak and our vulnerability should demonstrate this very clearly. Add to that the fact that Singapore is dependent on Malaysia for its fresh water and food stuffs and on China and a number of ASEAN countries for the bulk of its other raw materials, and then on places like the US and Japan for its export market, and you get the picture. And then of course there's our obvious interconnectedness via the World Wide Web. No island is even really an island in today's world.

There is another reason why thinking globally is important that I'd like you to consider: Doing so for the sake of improving the lives of others, and in that way, enhancing your own humanity. Those readers who are NUS students may wonder how they can do this, but within our "global university" (or so the advertising goes) there really are a number of ways. For one, there are numerous university programs that allow you to visit countries in the region to do volunteer activities. Some of you may have already been on one of these. As an example, at least one of my former students went to Sumatra after the Boxer Day Tsunami and contributed time and energy in that major relief effort. Others have gone on trips to Cambodia, China or Myanmar and participated in community development projects. In a very real sense, your NUS education puts you in a good position to gain the experience and develop the understanding and skills necessary for helping better the lives of the less fortunate among our global neighbors.

For volunteer programs outside Singapore, cleck out these sites: International Student Volunteers, the Habitat for Humanity, and Doctors Without Borders. If you're reading this and you happen to be an NUS student, and you're looking for a way to study abroad, check out this link.

One platform for developing the skills and understanding needed for being a more complete world citizen is the course that I am fortunate to teach: ES2007S, Professional Communication -- Principles and Practice. For those of you soon to be or now enrolled in the course, I welcome you. It really is a world without walls that we're talking about when we start our journey in refining communication skills. But that is a journey whose very first step begins with you acknowledging that there is a heck of a lot more to life than what we see out our own front door.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Smashing Stereotypes

When we hear the phrase mail-order bride, we usually have a negative image in our mind. The article linked here is written by a Ukrainian-American woman and her story smashes the stereotypes and shows what happiness and fulfillment can be achieved through courage and initiative. Dream the dream!