Saturday, May 27, 2017

Jolly School Party

Little despots running around in red neckties, aiding the state to enact new forms of oppression. This is how totalitarianism thrives, with shiny gold stars and delighted murmurs of parental assent -- at once self-serving and willfully ignorant. 

Encourage budding torturers, fete future informants, coo at the precocious operators who will one day run the guillotines. Baby steps!

Cultivate a sophisticated cadre of censors, with vision so skewed they don't even see their own excisions, much less their scissors.

Celebrate new innovations in state brutality; pioneer brilliant modes of creative suppression. Laud random violence, egg on self-styled vigilantes, three cheers for ratting out your no-good, treacherous neighbors.

Report on your parents, turn in your friends, indict your uppity teachers with a fabricated revelation. Disown those relatives, wash your hands of them and wish them well as they are shipped off to labor camps -- you are competing to fulfill the revolution.

Doused in patriotism, transmitting empty words, painted with unseeing allegiance: a tall national tale draped in a cherry-hued banner, dyed in a missionary zeal.

Let's look for more villains to stab! More public enemies to expose! Black classes against whom we rave and rant, categorical criminals against whom we can chant. More guilty civilians to condemn and jail, beat, impale, and perhaps even investigate.

Martial shouts as we drag out bookcases, full of tomes, to build a bonfire, gleefully tossing wooden instruments atop the crackling blaze. More sheafs of poems for kindling, more etudes to feed the flames, more lemmings to follow over the cliff's sheer edge -- vanguard to nowhere, smashing the old, it's time to raze the temple, raise the flag, and burn down everything behind us.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Our home in the world

Looks like we are going to get rid of much of what makes America an amazing place to live. How tragic.

Great countries don't do this. They don't destroy their scientific, medical and cultural edifices to fund fictional conflicts, while deceiving their populace about the necessity of militarized borders.

Yes, they provide security -- but they do this out in the world. Recognize that every dollar spent fighting an imaginary enemy for political gains means less preparedness and less funding for combating our real foes. These foes include hostile countries and militant organizations that would do us harm -- but they also include ignorance, deprivation, oppression and hatred.

Great countries have educated people. They raise informed citizens who care about the fate of the nation, and who understand how events in places near and far are connected. They are curious about societies around the world, recognizing that there are many ways to live.

Great countries practice empathy. There is a sense of solidarity and community. People are dedicated to a set of shared norms and principles; they care about their neighbors. "Out of many one."

Great countries enable opportunity. There is vibrant commerce that is available to all, not only to a select few. People have social and economic mobility and can choose dignified work. They are free to create amazing things, and to invite others along on the journey.

Great countries have art and culture. There is a sense of connectedness to the sacred and the secular from our past, and an understanding of how these define our future. They tell stories, create art, express emotions, and illuminate the human experience. There is freedom to give voice to the voiceless, to experiment with new ideas, to explore uncharted territory.

Great countries seek knowledge. They strive to understand our world and what animates it. They use science to analyze reality, research new cures and novel technologies, to "boldly go" where they have not yet gone before, to unlock the secrets of the universe. They are not afraid of truth; they are inspired by it.

Great countries enact compassion. They provide care for body and mind to all, including those most vulnerable among us. They promote access to medicine and wellness, not only for individuals, but also for communities. They don't restrict treatments to only the rich or the powerful.

Great countries honor Mother Earth. They care for the land, the air, the water. They understand their impact on the plants and animals, the great unseen web of life that exists all around us. They seek to live in balance with these complex systems, so that not only this generation, but their children, and the children of their children, will all be able to enjoy the privilege and beauty of being residents on this planet.

Great countries are idealistic. They aren't bogged down by petty material gains or held hostage by acquisition and greed. They believe in things other than power or wealth. They have a vision for international order that is not simply "might makes right" -- but instead look for ways of coexisting built upon the "better angels of human nature."

These countries believe in the human spirit, in collective action, in the greater good. They strive to put this into practice in their own words and actions -- not only for themselves, but for all human beings. They are not perfect, but damn if they don't try.

Great countries inspire. They don't back away from the world and look out only for themselves. They are committed to serving an idea bigger than themselves -- beliefs that can unite humanity and incite multitudes and generations into action.

Not only do they empower their own citizens to achieve more of their human potential, they extend a hand in friendship to share the fruits of their achievements, so that people in other societies might also one day enjoy these same rights and benefits, and freely choose how they exist.

While striving to improve themselves, great countries lead others to do better. By celebrating freedom, practicing empathy, and engaging in acts of mutual responsibility, they produce a sense of great harmony, at home and in the world.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Through this Grove

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

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

Here comes the creeping
enfolding dark.

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

Breathe out bleak dust.
Exhale black air.

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

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

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

Go forth,
run nimble along fallen trunks,
dance atop swirling leaves.
Silent, swift, sure-footed,
pass through groves of swaying trees.

Leap an arc across this land,
for this world that once
evaded your glance
now shines out in all its invisible glory.

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

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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

San Francisco: A Trashy Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

The American Saga Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Who are the people here? (Source: PRI)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the 21st century!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Overture for the 丙申 Year (Gregorian 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Write Map Illumine Draw

“I don’t do poetry."

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

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

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

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

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

then paper becomes cartography,
our orthography,

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

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