Thursday, December 25, 2014

Disrupt away, oh Silicon Friends!

"Rah-rah Stanford, it's so great! F-ck Cal, their protestors are full of hate! We love tech, it's just so awesome—let's build more apps, that's the way to innovate!"

A group of protestors rushed into the auditorium where tech investor Peter Thiel was speaking as the event neared the Q&A portion of the night. In an unfortunate bit of reporting by The Daily Cal, where the reporter didn't quote any of the protestors, we have a succession of three Berkeley students decrying the intrusion (emphasis added):
“We honestly didn’t think the protests would interfere,” said Pierre Bourbonnais, president of the Berkeley Forum and former marketing manager at The Daily Californian. “It’s pretty unimaginable and unfortunate. I’m in support of free speech, but this is not the right venue for that. I’m very disappointed.”

“I can’t believe that (the protesters) thought that this was a politically acceptable way (to protest),” said Jacob Bergquist, a UC Berkeley freshman. “It made me very angry, because some of the people (in the audience) came because they’re just trying to make an impact on the the world.”

... “we feel that it was inappropriate for them to come in and disrupt an event, said Jonathan Lin, a UC Berkeley junior. “It was disrespectful for them to disrupt Mr. Thiel."
First of all, some caveats: I don't necessarily have a strong opinion on Peter Thiel or his political views. He actually comes from an earlier generation of tech entrepreneurs, though he is now an investor in the current startup scene. The protestors appear to have taken advantage of the visibility of the event to put a spotlight on Ferguson and the treatment of African Americans by police, though there were reportedly also shouts of "No NSA, no police state," perhaps a reference to his role in founding Palantir. However, in this particular situation, the protests—and more tellingly, the student reactions—provide a commentary about "the tech sector" more broadly. In this standoff, Thiel serves as a totem of the the warped shape things have taken in Silicon Valley in recent years.

According to one UC Berkeley student in the audience, “It was disrespectful for them to disrupt Mr. Thiel." Is it disrespectful because we worship him? Maybe it's disrespectful for Silicon Valley brogrammers to disrupt people's neighborhoods, livelihoods, and lives. It was very disappointing to see the lack of support in the UC Berkeley crowd to the moment—and an insensitivity to the "people-matter" zeitgeist of recent months (also here). This is UC Berkeley we're talking about, the home of the Free Speech Movement, for cryin' out loud! Protest, public debate, cracking open tough issues to force public discourse—that's a central part of the campus identity. Instead, we see a crowd of UC kids lapping at the feet of technologists, insisting that social activists be thrown out.

In this particular situation, it appears that a good number of Berkeley folks have become part of the unfeeling tech crowd, or aspire to join the ranks of the "entrepreneurs." The sentiment seems to be something akin to, "Let's run the poor people out of town. They should just 'train themselves' to work in the new economy after all ... and who the hell are these rioters complaining about 'systemic' issues? They should just pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get out of the way, they're blocking my tech bus." These sycophantic Berkeley kids are metaphorically sucking Stanford's **** [I suppose I could rephrase that using the more PC "lapping at Stanford's bowl."]

How disturbing! I wish they were proud of who they are, because we need alternatives: other modes of development, different definitions of achievement. Don’t all come worship at the altar of tech. The world deserves better. You are better.

After all, this is the Berkeley where last night, two architecture and engineering students were talking to me about the Global Poverty & Practice minor, which requires students to go out into the world and work with NGOs in the field to gain practical experience with poverty alleviation and development. Do you know how amazing that is?

(By the way, I’m not against Stanford—I teach there, and I have great love and appreciation for this institution that is my home. It’s just that in some respects, the university is not living up to its ideals—its own professed values, the dream of this place.)

As for the following freshman—I'm sure he'll proud of that quote in 4 years: “I can’t believe that (the protesters) thought that this was a politically acceptable way (to protest) ... It made me very angry, because some of the people (in the audience) came because they’re just trying to make an impact on the the world." And clearly none of the protestors care about making an impact on the world, they are just no-good anarchists who need to mind their own business? Or are you just annoyed they don't believe in the same vision for the world? Perhaps we just gotta let the brogrammers get to work innovatin' and changin' the world.

The lack of appreciation for Cal's spirit of protest, rebellion and refusal to politely stand by while authorities crack down or systematically oppress minorities, vulnerable populations, and the weak and outcast ... THAT is far more offensive.

Perhaps these students come from households where they didn't talk about politics, and are going to Berkeley to be computer engineers. But the good thing is that by being in that ferment, they'll learn and pick up a thing or two about social justice. My own sensitization to issues of social justice was greatly heightened when I began visiting Berkeley semi-regularly in 2013. The folks there helped to sharpen my awareness of these issues and how they can be part of our everyday lives, in how we speak and interact, not just something that happens at the ballot box.

I used to be so proud of Stanford and Silicon Valley—that unlike Wall Street, we could innovate, put creativity and people first; that we could care about society and still succeed in the world. But now, we have occupied the role that Wall Street formerly did in the public imagination—a rancidly disappointing outcome. With the uncaring brogrammers, the oblivious techies, the misogyny, the self-arrogating privilege that comes with wealth but without social responsibility ... it’s really sad, because we were supposed to be better.

As for the "Berkeley" students: you're barking up the wrong‪ #‎tree‬. I didn't think I'd see the day when you were on your knees in front of Palm Drive. You can't respect yourself enough to realize that you are inheritors of a unique and proud tradition. On the eve of the Free Speech Movement's fiftieth anniversary, you've bought into something else entirely.

Don't. Please awaken to the spirit of your home. We need you.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Oldies but goodies

Though we live in an age of iPhones and iPads, from time to time, I still think about the music devices from our youth: CD players. This was how we carried songs in our pocket, after the Walkman started to fade from the scene.

It's not about nostalgia. This device generates very different sensations. There's something very solid and immediate about having your music on a CD. Though services like Pandora or Spotify promise limitless access, perhaps you don't really need "the whole world of music" at your fingertips. Even if it's somewhat winnowed down with dedicated music devices like the iPod, which has limited storage, there are still too many choices and endless scrolling.

With the CD, you choose an album and settle down to comfortably listen to it. I like the sensation of pushing "forward" or "reverse" on a player; it feels more real, more responsive. There are a set number of tracks, either as part of an artist's selection, or one that you have assembled yourself with a CD mix. Like a book, listening to the CD is a complete experience: it has a finite beginning and an end.

I listened to the new Taylor Swift album 1989 on my CD player, during a BART ride yesterday. It was satisfying. At risk of seeming old school, I think I might walk around with this as my music player for the foreseeable future. 

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Everyone Else is Doing It

The New Republic is an amazing publication, and its gutting seems to be a tragedy. It didn't really have the same updated web presence that The Atlantic, The Wire (RIP), plus some of the new media outlets (Vox, 538) did, so perhaps it was in need of a bit of a digital boost. (Anecdotally, The TNR's voice was absent from my social media, factoring in a lot less on my Facebook feed than the above publications, or even traditional outfits like The New York Time and The Guardian. But when you made your way to the site, the pieces featured there were exceptionally thoughtful, gracefully crafted with a real seriousness and meticulousness.) I just wish this attempt at transformation could have been done in a way that respects the venerable tradition and intellectual vitality of the publication.

I'm tired of the fetishistic "Silicon"izing of everything. We need to stop bowing dow and worshipping "digital" and the Valley, and start thinking about how we fit into a larger ecosystem—of society, of values—and how we shape the deep, underlying, humming song of the world, not just the flashy surface.

Let's stop conforming to someone else's paradigm shift, and start making our own: one that has a true ethical core. The role of media isn't to get clicks—that's instrumental, not a raison d'etre. The role of media is to change thinking—to build an educated citizenry, provide truthful reporting, while pushing back against falsehoods, giving voice to the voiceless, to engage and provoke, to be both a gadfly and a pillar, to be the relentless critic and the sagacious teacher ... It is to create a collection of insights, and a world view (or many world views) ... It has a mission, and it keeps our democracy rolling. Fine, maybe not all media—the world has its gossip rags and its polemics. But this it The New Republic, for God's sake. Can we not let it do its job? Can we not nurture these writers and support them as they carry out a spectacularly pro-social mission of opening minds, challenging assumptions and inspiring more critical thinking?

If you have fabulous wealth from the Second Web Era, you would think you could purchase your way out of that life—to transcend. Instead, this dude—and dude really isn't a wrong appellation for someone of our Internet-fueled generation—is buying into the world of Internet hype. He is embodying the social media generation instead of finding a way of stepping up and rising above. He isn't interested in evolution, but retrogression. It's worse a violation than any "old media" outfit could ever commit of being limp or anachronistic, because this generation is supposed to be better than that. There are greater expectations, we should show more promise, because we know, because we are digital natives. He's sinking down to the level of the extant world, not looking into what could be. He's accepting status quo, when the status quo is meaningless "disruption". He never asks those around him, whether it's his immediate circle of friends, his band of writers and employees, or his wide assemblage of of readers and society at large, to do anything other than conform. Instead, he could be inviting us all to do better.

With this outcome, The New Republic has given up the opportunity for new technology mavens to build a true partnership, friendship, alliance with the world of old and imagine a joint future together. A publication is not only its public face, nor the archive of articles, but the ensemble of people who write, build, shape and paint it, as well as the long heritage that has built its reputation, its character, its place in the cultural sphere. He's taken hostage the palace, and instead of reimagining-while-preserving, he's dynamited the tower, collapsed the chapel, leveled the walls and gates, so we all fall down the crevasse to a newly "flat" future. It will be a long time before we rebuild an architecture so elegant as that, and the city landscape will be the poorer for it.

This episode reminds me of the hutong-demolishing, resident-evicting, temple-bulldozing attitude—that cultural theft carried out by the skyscraper-and-condo building developers. They suffer from a narrowed field of vision, and what at the end of the day amounts to a real lack of imagination. The attitude seems to be that "everyone else is doing it," and so we must do the same to survive.

"Everyone else is doing it." That's what you want to do with our cultural heritage? "Everyone else is doing it." That's the best response you can give? From the intellectual heirs and beneficiaries of Silicon Valley—once the heart of innovation—I expected better. New shopping mall indeed.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Waiting for 包公 to visit the earthly world

Horrific story of police and judicial system malfeasance in China, from The Washington Post. In this piece, a group of former law enforcement officials who have witnessed and experienced abuse—and tried to do something about it—were sacked or jailed, and subsequently persecuted when they tried to press their cases. It's deeply unfair, revealing the darkness of a system rotting from the inside.

If only 包青天, Lord Bao, the historical judge renowned for fairness and ethics, could descend from Heaven and put a halt to the corrupt and unethical officials who are currently stacking the "justice" system.

The article and even some of the petitioners seem resigned to the fact that the petitioning won't achieve anything in the end. The local forces have all the power, and personal patronage linked with political insider status run the game. "It won't change," seems to be the message. If so, then we really need a divine clean sweep to dismantle this broken system.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Hong Kong democracy debate also a question of the Chinese Diaspora

The Wall Street Journal recently published two pieces on the different responses of older generations of Hong Kongers and the youth of the city.

China’s World: The View on Protests From Old Hong Kong
A Walk to the Past: Some Veterans Remember Having a Lot Less Say in City’s Fate

In Hong Kong, a Family Divided
After Pro-Democracy Protests, a Son Faces Arguments at Home

According to a community elder in the first article, "there’s freedom to work and freedom to live. 'How can people criticize?'"

Perhaps that was enough for our parents' or grandparents' generation—but it's not enough for people coming of age today. Those who came before struggled, bled, and worked themselves to the bone to give us, their 後代, a better future.

But what does a "better future" mean? It means we have an opportunity to become ourselves. We have a choice of being anything we want to be—doctors and lawyers, artists and designers, or even politicians and social activists. To love whomever we want to love. To lead a life that matches our principles and values and our vision for society.

Their struggle was, in large part, about economic security—something elusive when they were growing up in developing country (literally Third World) conditions. That is why so many of them chose to immigrate to the United States, Canada, Australia, or other countries in search of jobs and opportunity.

However, going abroad wasn't just an economic decision—it was also about human dignity. They worked hard to provide for us, not just so we could live comfortably, but also so we could choose our own future, in a way they might not have been able to. They had to take secure jobs (hi there, engineers!) and work long hours. They had to look for stable income to support a family. They had to stay silent and not express themselves fully. They had to make the conventional and "safe" choices—often under authoritarian threat and political monitoring in Nationalist-ruled Taiwan, or colonial disdain in British-ruled Hong Kong, or immense social pressure in LKY's Singapore, or outright persecution in Maoist China. All this just to live in peace and safety, and have a shot at life.

Now, because of their struggle and sacrifice, we-the-next-generation have the ability to make different choices.

These debates about democracy, activism and social change are not only an issue among Hong Kong's citizenry, though they are literally at the front lines of battle. These debates are manifested between Chinese generations— old and young, parent and child, foreign and native-born—all around the world. It is the ongoing transition from traditional culture to modernity, the ever-present question of the Diaspora, of immigrant families, of pioneering generations, whether in the 19th century, or the 20th, or the 21st.

It is why all of us in the Diaspora must watch what happens in Hong Kong. It is why we should care about the fate of Taiwan's democracy, or whether Singapore fully liberalizes and empowers its opposition. It's why we must be concerned with what happens in China itself. In every Sinic community around the world, the same questions resonate. These struggles and negotiations happen on a daily basis, in the family unit, but also in society more broadly.

Today, I sincerely believe that our parents support us in working for and achieving a better future, because we all ought to have the right to choose.

It's not just about choosing political leadership, though that might be part of the equation. It's about the right to go to the streets. The right to ask for change. It's about having greater agency over the life we wish to live. That right was not available to them. Some would prefer to call this ability to choose a "privilege"—something belonging only to the wealthy or the connected, to those who need not fear social repercussions. However, just because this right was denied to our parents and grandparents does not diminish its worth. It means we ought to cherish it all the more.

Their gift to us was to open a door, to point us toward something different: a world that is less subject to social pressure or familial coercion or political suppression. A world that is freer and truer, that is more benevolent and caring. A world that lets us be who we wish to be.

In our own ways, whether through street protest, or volunteering in the community; through the creation of literature and art, or through political engagement and voting, we can move our society toward that dream. It is not just for us; it is for our 後代 too.

We've been given the opportunity to look upon a better future. We would be remiss not to struggle for it.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Rhetoric & Reframing

In Larry Diamond's TIME magazine article about the peaceful demonstrations in Hong Kong, he notes that:
"The mammoth protests that have gripped Hong Kong for the past several days have implications far beyond this Special Administrative Region of more than 7 million people ... the youth-led demonstrators have posed the most serious challenge to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party since the massacre in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago."
As momentous and unprecedented as these events are, if the goal is to create a framework for negotiations that helps to reach a democratic resolution without the use of force, I wonder if it is helpful to be using cataclysmic terms that presage the end of the Communist Party. (Maybe that fear is precisely why they don't want Hong Kong to be free?)

Is it possible to reach a more desirable outcome if we lower the stakes and start calling this a "local issue" or a "small thing" with few implications for the CCP? If Hong Kong's fate—in this particular pitched battle, or in general—is seen as "not such a big deal," not an existential threat, then it will be easier for Xi to back down. He will not have to take a hard line because it's ostensibly small potatoes—something on the margin that people shouldn't pay too much attention to.

Of course, the outcome in Hong Kong is a deeply meaningful issue, and there will obviously be implications for liberalization on the Mainland. But could there be some utility to backing off the rhetoric of "make-or-break", "pivot-point", "history in the making" and reframing this as a kind of "business as usual"? Then Xi Jinping will have more space to maneuver. He can grant concessions without seeming weak. He can back down and negotiate without seeming to capitulate to a fundamental threat to the CCP.

On the other hand, diminishing or removing the spotlight from Hong Kong could simply be an invitation for the Beijing (and its HK proxies) to crush the demonstrations by force. Beyond the immense courage, determined conviction, and sheer decency shown by the protestors, there is an additional protective halo of international media coverage, which will amplify the business and economic costs for Beijing should it resort violence.

Finally, another random thought is that while the CCP and its shock troops People's Armed Police may have practiced intensely for Tiananmen-style demonstrations in China itself, all that preparation and war-gaming goes out the window when the massive protests are taking place in Hong Kong—a society with free speech and free press, and importantly, people used to regularly taking to the streets,to assemble in an orderly fashion and express their dissatisfaction with poor governance.


Also check out Prof. Diamond's video remarks about the democracy movement, including messages directly addressed to the people of Hong Kong and to democrats worldwide:

Remarks on Hong Kong's Pro-Democracy Movement (source)

(Excerpt) Message to People in Hong Kong and Democrats Worldwide (source)

The Goddess Returns

Do you know why a 17-year-old boy can rattle Beijing? Because the force of truth flows behind his words. Because his cause is just, so he can rally the public. Because when he speaks, he gives voice to an entire generation that believes in democracy and universal suffrage—that basic human rights are fundamental values that cannot be bought or sold.

Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old student activist, has been at the center of the democracy movement
that has rattled the Chinese government’s hold on this city. (Source: Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Sixty-year-old men in Zhongnanhai are quaking because of a child. They call him radical, crazed, deranged, extremist. In their flurry of condemnation, they fail to see the walls of calm, peaceable, everyday people who stand up beside him, coalescing into a broad tidal wave of humanity.

These old, tired, brittle men stand atop the fearsome machinery of state control. They threaten violence—wield brutal power. Yet they fear today the goddess of victory, carried aloft by wings of truth.

Oh this goddess! She wears the cloak of democracy and raises the shield of freedom. Her hair shines with human solidarity; her eyes become beacons of liberation.

Oh this goddess!—who bears the torch of sincere and idealistic hope, blazing forth the memories of history, eliciting our most humble sense of gratitude.

Welcome back, goddess! You had gone for 25 years, but we are glad to see you astride the earth once more. Protect our brothers and sisters. Ferry them to freedom and safety. Let them and their democratic dreams take flight.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


1:20 AM and pounding it out. My currency is words; I draw the world with language. Breathe in, breathe out. Emotional volleys arcing through the air, targeting me in their searing blaze—they fade into dim sparks. They are held at bay because I refuse to obey the twisted logic of enforced guilt. I know who I am and I do my job. I do it well. This moment of victory will remain aloft; it soars into the light of the sun. The clouds are my friends and they shield me from harm. The wind carries my weight and cleanses my skin. We fly away from you and your foul slings and arrows. They fall back onto yourself. I will not torture myself with your barbs. I will not allow myself to harm myself by allowing your toxic worry to infect me. No credence. I fling you away, I brush you away, your words are dust and crumble and dissipate.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Concluding IWHHR

Dear IWHHR Community,

Congratulations! We are now at the end of our course. This week, Professor Murray concludes with a final tea time, commenting on Week 8: Aging and giving reminders about how you can receive a Statement of Accomplishment from Stanford University for completing this course. We encourage you to continue building our community at after the end of this online class.

Statement of Accomplishment

As Anne announced in Tea Time, while the class "closed" on September 4, we have given you until 11:59 PM PST on September 10 to turn in all written work for the class. Click on "Requirements to Receive a Statement of Accomplishment" on our Course Info page. That downloadable PDF file will list the different items needed to obtain a Statement of Accomplishment from Stanford University.

In our class materials, there is a section labeled "Submit Writing Assignments (Statement of Accomplishment)." That is where you should submit all your written work for the SoA (in addition to other places you may have shared it. Check your completion of the different SoA elements by clicking on "Progress" at the top of the page.

Post-Course Survey

Please be sure to take our post-course survey. We want to hear your voice and find out what went well, and how can we improve this course. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Bonus Talkabouts

We had wonderful attendance at the Talkabout session last week. We may offer future Talkabout sessions so you can connect with other participants in the IWHHR community even after the course concludes.

It has been a distinct pleasure interacting with you through this online experience, and we hope you will take what you learned about international women's health and human rights, and apply these ideas in your own community. Please also be sure to stay in touch with us at

Anne Firth Murray, Kevin Hsu, and the IWHHR Team

Build our community! Tumblr  Facebook  Twitter  #iwhhr

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

So that's Paternalism

It dawned on me today: sometimes, the Chinese government (or its Hong Kong cronies) acts like a really terrible Asian parent. The father insists that he knows best, and the kids need sit down, be silent, and obey. Suddenly, the phrase "Asian paternalism" is starting to make sense!!!

As an Asian American son of immigrants—as part of that generation living at the intersection between the old world and new, between tradition and modernity—the deep need for cultural negotiation really hits home.

Maybe that's why the CCP's rhetoric and actions (and also the present HK government, and sometimes the KMT in its less democratic moments) are particularly offensive. It's also why the Asian American community needs to care about these issues. This isn't happening to some far-off country to which you have no ties; it affects your homeland, and it affects the discourse for future generations of 華人, people of Chinese descent: both 華僑 and 華裔.

How you speak to your children; how they view their heritage, their culture, their linguistic upbringing; how they relate to their family history—all of that will be impacted by the polity, and the narrative, and the image of one's ancestral homeland.

P.S. Mayoral elections in Shenyang would be extremely entertaining. (Real elections, not rubber-stamping.) I just can't get it out of my head that this kind of contest will happen in the future, with active campaigning, lively speeches, and open polls. It's going to be a carnival!

Pondering Democracy in Hong Kong

From The Diplomat today comes an article on "The Battle for the Soul of Hong Kong." Though dramatic, it's not too hyperbolic, because it truly is a question of self-determination or allowing outside powers to dictate the fate of one's own society. As I was reading the piece and its characterization of the different actors, questions about the motivation(s) of the Hong Kong government and rationales for/against democracy piqued my interest.

The government can choose a moderate path with an eye on a sustainable outcome by respecting public opinion for greater rights and participation; or it can ram through its own decision, at the behest of Beijing, and continue a policy of slowly suffocating Hong Kong and its people's aspirations. It's just too bad the government won't pay attention to what the citizens want, and will likely insist on its own approach.

Doesn't it kind of sound like terrible Asian parenting? Where the father insists that he knows what's best, and the kids need to be quiet and obey? Where the mother won't even listen when the kids try to explain why the decision being forced on them isn't necessarily the right one? Where the parents don't even bother explaining or give patronizing answers that are more like self-fulfilling prophecies?
And now I'm getting angry ... but more on this visceral reaction later.

A leader of Hong Kong who stands for the people would be regarded as a popular hero. S/he would go down in the history books as the woman or man who stood up to Beijing.
We'll see if anybody has the guts. It's like Yanukovych in Ukraine: he had the opportunity to be the visionary leader who transcended his Moscow-oriented instincts and brought Ukraine fully into Europe, according to the popular will. Instead, he kow-towed to Putin, resulting in massive unrest and democratic protest (unfortunately followed by civil conflict goaded by Russia).

By the way, if you say, "Hong Kong people aren't _____ enough to elect their own leaders" you should probably check with the HK students at your nearest British or American university and see if they're _____ enough. Otherwise, you are in effect denying your peers the very rights you have as an American. Just try telling them that to their face.

In this day and age, there's a growing consensus that democracy and universal suffrage are the only legitimate means for governments to be empowered. (I'm pretty sure in the aftermath of any multilateral intervention, the UN would have to set a timetable for democratic elections. International missions would simply not be able to authorize dictatorship. The resistance from governments across the world would be fierce on purely normative grounds; even dictatorships have to pay lip service to democracy.)

Even if we're being pragmatic about the chances of success for democracy and only wish to selectively apply it in societies "ready" for it to take root, Hong Kong is not even a marginal case. It's highly-developed, well-educated, has extensive experience with rule of law and civil liberties, features amazing infrastructure and municipal services; enjoys a strong court system and an active counter-corruption agency; and is internationally oriented. The warning klaxon goes off: if not here, then where? If not at this level of development, then when? It should have a functional government and, one would suspect, a relatively orderly democracy.

In these situations, there wouldn't be chaos or violence unless the authorities force things to the extreme—when they undercut the moderates by refusing to listen or negotiate, when radicalization is the only outlet left. Why would you go down that road when you could have a smart, safe landing through measured, effective liberalization with hope at the end of the road? That is, unless you think suppression is a long-term solution, and democratic aspirations can be regularly tamped down, bought out and co-opted, or eliminated. In that rather cynical future, the government doesn't just believe it can manage the demand for political participation, but has convinced (deluded?) itself into thinking it can fundamentally alter norms and construct a mindset where public voice no longer manifests, and where democratic values no longer matter.

At the local level, at least, participation matters. It increases patience and buy-in. How much more important for that to happen at the national level, where broad social consensus is even more important to weave identity and hold a polity together.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Making, Moments

Perhaps taking Polaroid shots is a kind of "making," a bit of physical creation in a mostly-digital world. Hold the artistic work in your hands. Cradle the tools of production and of imagination. It's not just "media"—it's the thing itself. There's something lyrical in there being only one of an object, and then pressing your fingertips against it.

The idea of an "image" is so different today than in any preceding century. Images in the cloud are ubiquitous, universally accessible, perhaps expected to last forever. In contrast, physical things are linked to a moment, emblazoned with now. In this Age, the logic of permanence has been turned on its head: by the very fact that something is corporeal, it is consequently more ephemeral. An object can be worn away by the elements or eaten by flames. It can be lost to history. It can disappear in time.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Another Land

Arriving in Los Angeles, it feels like I’ve stepped into another era. The architecture, the boulevards, the landscaping and form—low-slung walls expanding away from you toward the horizon. It’s an age of trains and motorcars, but with an overlay of modern convenience, as if we brought digital technologies back into the 1950s.

Outside Union Station, a golden boy in tank top, shorts, and sunglasses leans back against the handrail. Classic SoCal. A girl waits for the stoplight in an open-backed blue dress. It's cut like a bathing suit and covered in white polka dots. Everyone looks sun-kissed. She smiles easily, her wavy, brown hair playing in the breeze. 

I drift down the street in the afternoon heat. The air is filled with Hollywood, as if we were standing on a constructed set. The building facades simultaneously cry artifice and craftsmanship.

I reach the cafe where cool respite awaits. Standing ahead of me in line: an Asian male mixing earrings and dyed hair with a v-neck sweater and boat shoes. What planet is this?! 

Urth Caffe: brick and tile, the room daylit up to the rafters, bordered by a turquoise and ruby art deco fireplace. No one here is on their laptop. Siri, I don't think we're in NorCal anymore! 

Though I’m wearing a respectable shirt with a collar above skinny jeans and canvas shoes—a veritable half-step up in Silicon Valley, the land of the hoodie—I feel positively frumpy amid the smooth lines, fitted curves, and flowing fashion.

The cafe pipes in operatic music, interspersed with an occasional salsa groove. It is unabashedly dramatic!

When I inquire about wi-fi, the server says they have it but it might broken. He seems unconcerned.

The smiles are sunlight: radiant and bold.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Taiwan's Invention: Instant Noodles

I didn’t realize someone Taiwanese invented instant noodles. WHAT?!?? This is the most mind-blowing factoid I've come across this week, as this creation has changed culinary history. Instant ramen noodles (泡麵) have filled the bellies of countless students and constitute a steady source of calories for hungry workers on a budget.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, "Since they were invented in 1958 by Momofuku Ando, a Taiwanese immigrant to Japan, instant noodles have become a beloved food item, both in and outside of Taiwan."

Image via the Los Angeles Times

I was alerted to this fact by an article talking about the latest ramen craze in Taiwan: combining pudding with instant noodles. As someone who mixes/matches flavors, this seems perfectly tasty to me!

Choosing Sides

When she's taking a break from her gig in Los Angeles, one of the presidential teenagers has been touring West Coast schools. According to media reports, "Malia Obama was spotted taking in a tour of the UC Berkeley campus and may have also visited Stanford."

There's an interesting opportunity here: if she went to Berkeley, she could learn more about social justice and a culture of activism. She’d experience what it’s like to have to navigate, struggle, and succeed at a public institution of higher education. Maybe she could then help create conditions in this country where the culture of the UC is representative of our national ethos.

Mom might want her to go to Princeton: resist!

Indeed, one source claims she made it clear Berkeley compared very favorably with Stanford. If so, good for her! Stanford needs to get a good kick in its complacent, self-satisfied memorial arch once in a while.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Sowing C++ Seeds, Growing a Java Garden

Brogramming comes about not because it's actively promoted, but because our school isn't doing the careful gardening and cultivation required to produce good fruit, dispel weeds, and grow respectful, humanistic, open-minded citizens.

Racial discrimination, misogyny, and other forms of intolerance that number among the tech industry's rather more problematic traits arise when you aren't paying attention to social and human factors, and are only looking at so-called "outputs." (The distortion is especially acute when these outputs are being valued by Wall Street and its standards, and not even by our Valley's own standards for creative output).

It's not that the university administration is malicious; it's just that it doesn't care enough, whether through obliviousness, neglect, or low priority.

Developing a healthy culture of technology innovation doesn't just mean producing more patents, more apps, more investment. It means developing a culture that recognizes both the role technology plays in society and the responsibilities we have to that society; and in turn, ensuring that technology is shaped by meaningful social norms and in accordance with our deeply-held ideals.

Prof. Mehran Sahami talks about "good coding practices" in CS106A as a crucial first step in an engineer's education. Beyond that, we have to develop "good cultural practices" too. As the producer of so many engineering and tech minds, Stanford has a responsibility to "get the culture right" and inculcate appropriate ways of treating other human beings into all its students, CS students included. There should be a Stanford CS ethos—not just how to code, but how to interact respectfully; how to coexist; how to support others; how to empathize.

Beyond issues of etiquette and human decency, it would be amazing if more Stanford CS graduates were also motivated to work on social issues—education, environmental challenges, development aid, justice. (This is a separate, but linked issue, so more on this at another time).

What if Stanford CS folks were committed to human rights, cared about privacy, and felt inequality and institutional racism were problems that should be tackled and rooted out anywhere and everywhere? That these issues affect them and solving them matters? What if "community" and "organizing" and "solidarity" were ideas that meant something, so we weren't just in it for ourselves, but because we cared about a larger cause? Maybe we should take a page out of UC Berkeley's book here on social justice and strive to develop an equally vibrant culture of caring.

That should be Stanford's mission: to humanize its citizens. Otherwise it might as well be a coding trade school.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Since Tiananmen

It has been 25 years since students stood on the Square. Joined by citizens from all walks of life, they sought greater freedom and justice, a more humane country, a brighter future.

They came for spring.

It has been 25 years since troops and tanks were sent to crush the protests, arrest demonstrators, and strangle the movement for democracy.

The goddess came tumbling down.

It has been 25 years, and no public accounting has happened in China. Historical memory continues to be suppressed.

But one day, truth will win out.

It has been 25 years, but we will not forget what happened in Tiananmen Square: the searing reports and brave stories that ignited the hearts of so many and created some of the most indelible images of the 20th century.

We still stand inspired.

Today, we mourn and shed tears at the enormity of it all: the innocent lives lost, the possibility of change so stirring and vibrant in the air of May, that dissolved on that June day.


It has been 25 years, but we remember. The world remembers.

One day, China will remember.

When that day comes, we will celebrate the idealism that brought the students to the Square, the moral conviction that made them stay. We will honor the profound courage, the tireless commitment, the utter perseverance by all those who have worked for freedom since the dark shadows descended. We will marvel at the human spirit, at how democratic dreams stay alive, from year to year, person to person, generation to generation.

We take to paper, penning columns, reclaiming hope. We build memorials, we sing songs. We author ballads, we scribble notes.

It has been 25 years, but the flames still flicker and refuse to die.

We light our candles. We hold the torch aloft.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Removing varnish, applying lacquer

In the popular imagination, Stanford luminesces with ideals and innovation; but if you take a closer look, the eye-numbing, headache-inducing glare of doltish reality periodically wipes out my (admittedly naive) sense of idealism.

A highly-regarded professor, someone influential in the budding field of Asian American studies, and remarkably active in engaging students as both a teacher and mentor since 2007, was denied tenure by the University. Beyond excellent scholarship, which we all recognize as a baseline for academia (i.e. life at a first-rate research institution), the high caliber of his teaching and the profound difference he has made in the lives of many students ought to matter. By all accounts, this is what Professor Sohn contributes to the Stanford community, and it is what Stanford is rejecting.
My friend Thanh wrote a plaintive and extremely incisive appeal:
Hi everyone,
Please consider signing the petition below. The petition asks that Stanford’s Provost reconsider Professor Stephen Hong Sohn’s recent tenure denial. Professor Sohn is considered one of the leading scholars of Asian American literature today. The petition text gives more detail.
However, what I take issue with is the tenure process itself, especially the rubric with which Professor Sohn was evaluated. Stanford’s Department of English had already approved Professor Sohn’s file, which meant that the English faculty had determined his scholarship was rigorous, innovative, and “enough” to consider him a peer among the other literary scholars at Stanford. This is not an easy task to pull off.
When placed up for evaluation by the School of Humanities and Natural Sciences, he was evaluated by an external committee and internal committee, which “ranks” Professor Sohn among other scholars “in his field” to determine if he really IS the top in his field. If Professor Sohn was ranked as an Asian American literary scholar—perhaps this petition would not exist. I would like to think that he would have passed evaluation at this level. If he did not—well, I suppose if the society of Asian American literary scholars out there did not consider his scholarship “good enough,” that’s an actual debate to be had.
However, Professor Sohn was ranked as an “Americanist” scholar. Think Melville, Hemingway, Whitman, Steinbeck, as opposed to Chang, Chow, Mukherjee, Tagore, Lim, Lin, Nguyen, Le, Shin, or Park. Of course, since Professor Sohn’s work also looks at queer theory, feminist theory, critical race studies, kinship, transnationalism, and the cyberpunk genre, his “ranking” was poor among other scholars who are “Americanist.” Does the School of H&NS expect one of our few Asian American professors at Stanford to “play the game” and write thousands of pages about dead white men, whose literary value does not need any more boosting? Or does the University, one that considers itself cutting edge, concerned with constantly pushing disciplinary boundaries, and destabilizing established fields, want to invest in someone who is, oh, I don’t know—doing exactly that?
This rubric demonstrates how Stanford does not really value ethnic studies and minority literature as legitimate forms of scholarship. Even though the university has a Faculty Diversity Initiative, toots its horns for having a diverse student body, and boasts itself on increasing the numbers of faculty who are women and under-represented minorities (URM), Stanford (at its highest levels) really is only invested in these endeavors so long as it suits its public persona. The University will increase the percentage of women and URM faculty, but it will not give them an opportunity for promotion, perceive their inquiries as legitimate, and subsequently, keep them. I don’t know how else to say this, but frankly, this is some dumb shit.
Please consider signing the petition below, whether you are a Stanford student or not, whether you attend school in California or not, whether you are an Ethnic Studies major or not—you really do not need an “official” affiliation to care about these kinds of issues. These issues have real effects on students you will never meet, but whose wellbeing and quality of experience should matter to you anyways. It effects entire disciplines, entire universities, and, what is most important to me at the moment: Professor Sohn, one of my favorite people on earth.
In the silliest of appeals, this petition has a real effect on me. I have taken 4 classes with him—one as a baby frosh, and three as a graduate student. When he writes a letter for me—I get accepted to things. He is an amazing honors thesis advisor, who helped me pull through my “I am too dumb to do this, I shouldn’t consider myself remotely smart enough to research and write 60 pages.” He is also a cherished advisor for my Master’s degree.
Anyways, the link is below.
I say this with some hesitation, but this institutional decision makes it feel like we are in a “white boys club.” These types of situations are always complex, but the more I stare at it, the more it feels like a delegitimation of Asian American scholarship, which ultimately translates into denigration of an ethnic community. I doubt the review committee intended to be racially motivated, but this outcome broadcasts the message that “people like you don’t fit in here, because you aren’t getting with our program.” And “our program” is what mainstream white people know, are familiar with, and want. That seems more like a Hollywood mentality.
What strikes me as particularly ironic is that if this were the School of Engineering and some prof was doing weird, cool things analogous to “queer theory, feminist theory, critical race studies, kinship, transnationalism, and the cyberpunk genre” they would be like HELL YEAH, WE WANT YOU! Going off the beaten path and connecting different dots are hallmarks of the “cutting edge” in technical disciplines. In contrast, Humanities & Sciences, which ought to be the home for social justice, the school most sensitive to struggles for identity, appears to be a place where “traditional” understandings (perhaps we might call them mainstream and privileged understandings?) are superior, while approaches that are “queer/oddball/offbeat” constitute a liability.
Why is it that achievement in Asian American literature scholarship is easier to brush off? This brings to mind the recent ruckus about the Colbert Show and its use of ethnic slurs for satire. Regardless of your views on the incident, the #cancelcolbert conflict highlights a problematic feature of life for Asians in America: we get steamrolled because we are the “quiet” minority, because we don’t protest. Jay Caspian King writes about this larger issue in The New Yorker, forcing some hard questions beyond just the value of Twitter activism and the overreach of political correctness. So with regard to Professor Sohn, I wonder if this decision came down because in the eyes of these folks on the review committee, Asian American literature isn’t “part of America” yet — and therefore his work in this area does not merit him entry into this “prestigious” Stanford circle.
I don’t claim special insight on this issue. Nor do I contend that the problem is more or less prevalent at Stanford than at other institutions, though the fact that it happened is already an undeniable disappointment. I’m simply expressing a few emotions evoked by this frustrating turn of events.
Perhaps it resonates more strongly because of my life as an Asian American — a person of Asian descent in America. When the redacted review file comes out in June, we may also find other considerations at play. But for right now, the whole scenario feels, in some fashion, like the continued marginalization of an already quiet and pliant minority.
What is America? Are we, Asians and Asian Americans, part of the national fabric? One would hope an institution like Stanford University — founded by a fortune that was built on the backs of Asian immigrant labor — would be the most progressive leader on that question. At least we now have a chance to discuss it.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Childhood, On the Inside

A moving multimedia piece was featured in The New York Times yesterday, entitled "Chinese, On the Inside." It features Catie and Kimberly, 11 and 9, who were adopted from China by a couple in Maine, and the family's attempt to keep them connected to their Chinese cultural background.

Wow, I don't even know what to think. This video stirs up plenty of intriguing emotions: heartache for sure -- 心酸 -- but also great affection. There are inklings of commonality, as well as immense difference.

My first reaction (and it is only a first stirring): something has been taken from them. Can they be whole without that part of their identity? Who are the individuals who purport to be their parents? What would it be like for a child to live in such a household, and was it a responsible choice to make?

I want them to have what we had growing up -- a household with immigrant parents, filled with a mixture of English and a tongue from a homeland, a place at once distant and near; the clash and negotiation of cultures; parental expectations rubbing roughly against American life; meals and habits and norms both tacit and spoken, governing cleaning and prayer and responsibility; no need to explain, it just is.

Maybe they had a wholly American experience with non-immigrant parents; maybe they're better for it in some ways, raised by someone other than Amy Chua's tiger mother (but that's an issue for another day. I'm grateful I didn't have a tiger mother either).

They certainly wouldn't have either experience -- the Asian American or the Protestant American one -- if they had stayed in China, consigned to an orphanage upbringing. That alternative future would have been far bleaker. So I cannot begrudge their parents, and wish to commend them: there are in this world, generous hearts such as theirs.

Moreover, these parents from Maine are trying; they are seeking some way for that Chinese cultural spark to stay alive, stay valid, stay meaningful. How much harder it must be when it is not second nature, but second hand, when trying to convey an upbringing that is not your own!

This video struck a note piercingly clear: we are Asian Americans. Those of us who live here, who grew up here -- we aren't Chinese. Chinese people don't talk like Kimberly. There's one scene in particular, where she talks about how she feels about Chinese identity and relating to her classmates, that really struck me. The reason I identify with that child so strongly is because she sounds like my childhood friends, she sounds like me. She is utterly, desperately familiar, and even if she grew up in a Caucasian household, the way she speaks, her cadence and tone and voice is is so achingly familiar, and all I can think is love, and love, and love.

At the same time, I know there must be distance, a separateness born of experience so markedly different. The author of the article brings this into focus: she is from LA and grew up in a community like ours, so for her to see these lives unfolding is the same confusion that pushes us to introspection.

This dear child! I wonder if she will laugh when she watches Wong Fu videos. Do Phil, Wes and Ted speak to her the way they speak to us? I wonder if she saw Totoro at age 4 and was in love with Miyazaki for the rest of her life. I wonder if she knows to address visitors as 阿姨, to call her maternal grandparents 公公 and 婆婆 when they visit. Does she take her shoes off at the door? Does she know that wide rubber bands open jars, that napkins and ketchup packets can be saved?

I wonder if she feels any obligation to a distant entity in Asia, not only as a locale to visit one day, but because what happens to that country matters -- that nagging concern of cultural loyalty borne into national feeling. I wonder if she knows that "Chinese New Year" is in January or February every year, but doesn't want to feel obligated to translate or elucidate or explain "all those customs" just because she is the token Asian kid, would you goddamn stop orientalizing us, she just wants to go home and be Asian and not have to parade it out in front of the class as a paean to diversity. Can she walk down a Cupertino or Arcadia or Flushing street and feel at ease, even if she's never been before, because this is a world already known? I wonder when she first tried pearl milk tea, or 叉燒包, or siu mai, and even in its wondrous newness, this dish was never "exotic", it was always "home."

I can hardly imagine the non-immigrant Asian American experience, but I think that scenario is what our kids will have to live. The process of adaptation and assimilation ... these words chill me, because I wonder if it means forgetting and overlooking and dispensing with the past; if the line stops here, and cultural memory fades into the background. Once a vibrant part of life, can it persist if it isn't lived?

I want her to have what we have, for now at least -- to be part of a community of understanding, a cultural nod, a knowing wink, a billowing sense of "Yes, I know what you mean!" As should be for any human being, she is free to choose to live the life she wishes, but that means having a choice in the first place. Different paths, possibilities, options, opportunities, must exist for choice to exist.

From there, she can navigate streams of identity -- to recognize what animates her, to choose to hold on to what matters, what resonates and gives meaning at the core of things; and conversely, what to discard and release into a world of temporal stardust. It's finding "her", and realizing that sense of "her" is a note in a chord in the chorus of a song that stretches across time, across generations, across oceans.

Some day, she may have these questions, even if she doesn't grow up with the same concepts or stories. For now, there's life, and that's a start. There is time, still, to link the past to the present -- to be connected, to feel rooted, to have a sense of belonging -- peering back, leaning in, hurtling forward, enroute to the future.

She shouldn't have to be Chinese; but she should have the chance to be Chinese American.

*The English word "Chinese" doesn't have enough nuance to capture these distinctions. We are 華人 (our parents 華僑, our generation 華裔); but we aren't 中國人. Yet 華 hua identity matters -- the customs, ideas, ways of thinking and behaving, norms and expectations, because it's what connects us all across the world, whether we are people of Chinese descent in Malaysia or Canada or Hong Kong or Taiwan or Singapore. 華 has diverse expressions in all these places, but at its core, when exploring issues of culture and identity, can still unite us.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

International Urbanization Seminar (China)

This is the poster for a course I am co-teaching with Deland Chan in the spring (URBANST145 / EARTHSYS138). Find out more at

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Turn of the Century

There are moments when I wonder if I'd be better off living a hundred years ago. Time to think, to write, to read. Where crafting a thoughtful letter is considered a good day's work. Where you can take the evening to play a string sextet, and people don't think you're being "inefficient." Where cooking is allowed, and conversation welcome. I am a digital native, but sometimes in the bioware mishmash of blood and transistors, bile and circuits, I think I have an analog soul.