To Avoid the “Stranger=Asshole” View

I was 18 when I began to learn how to drive for the first time. I was very nervous behind the wheel, and I kept asking my driving instructor stupid questions, such as “what if that guy does not stop at the red light?” or “what should I do if I am on the right lane and someone rushes into me head on?” The biggest fear for my young, naive self then was that I could be hurt because the other dude did something stupid. To allay my fear, my instructor told me, “you should know that as you follow traffic rules, so do the other drivers. You should trust people who share the road with you.” I remember I was almost floored by this answer.

Today, I remembered this excellent piece of advice from my driving instructor, because of two small incidents that happened yesterday and this evening. Yesterday, I was checking my Facebook, and I saw a video clip that showed a young couple having sex at an airport lounge.Apparently, preoccupied by their sadness, the couple did not know that their private activity was videotaped. They assumed – wrongly – the opaque lounge walls gave them complete privacy. But the lounge was on the second floor, and people on the first floor could look up and see the young couple in the room. I was extremely annoyed, not so much by the young couple as by the person who videotaped it and posted it on Facebook. What is this person up to, I thought.

I totally forgot about this post until this evening, when I was changing in my gym’s locker room and noticed that the lady behind me was using her cell phone. All of a sudden, I became uncomfortable. “What if she takes a picture of me and posts it online?” Not that this particular lady looked crazy enough to do such a crass thing, but that you never know. I was debating between talking to her and not talking to her, secretly hoping that she remembered that it is the gym’s rule not to use cell phones in the locker room and noticed that I kept looking back at her. But she didn’t notice anything. Finally, I asked her if she could use her cell phone outside the locker room. Thankfully, she accepted my request and left the locker room.

At home, I am thinking about these two episodes in relation to my driving instructor’s advice. He taught me the important lesson on trust. It is so easy to question and suspect strangers. After all, we don’t know them, and life experience teaches us that it takes just one crazy person for a bad thing to happen. Nevertheless, I think it is important to trust other people. I think the foundation of a healthy, strong society is laid on the constituents’ trust and respect of each other. So,let’s avoid any action that leads the other person into asking, “what if that stranger is a wacko?” When you do so, chances are you will be the first beneficiary of such trust of strangers, just as I became immediately comfortable driving, as soon as I began to trust other drivers as law-abiding citizens.

So, let’s not use cell phones in locker rooms.

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The Dumbing Down Effect of Donald Trump

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I really do not want to see this guy ever again after Nov. 8. He did so much harm to American politics. Throughout this election campaign, I didn’t criticize this guy vocally, not because I am okay with his views (no way!) but because I felt that he sets such a low bar that criticizing him does not express my political thought. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we should have left him alone. I do believe that he should be called out and criticized for his racist, sexist, and hateful statements (we will be really fucked up if he isn’t), and I appreciate everyone who took his or her time to criticize him. But all the time we spend to criticize Trump is the time we could have spent to discuss ideas above the bare minimum. For example, if we are discussing how to be a good person, it is not enough to say that we should not commit crimes. Not committing crimes is a bare minimum requirement, and on top of that, we need to add such  virtues as kindness, respect, responsibilities, etc. I resent Trump for pulling down our discussion during the 2016 election cycle to the level of mud, dirt, and scum.

Watching the last presidential debate last night, I thought about another way Trump harms the American public: he really threatens the American voting population’s critical thinking abilities. It is my experience that in the classroom, it is always harder to have students criticize the status quo than explaining to them the working of the current system. In other words, when I say, “it is simply the way it works,” most students accept it. Difficulties begin when I have them criticize what’s wrong with it. Then they really have to think hard. And a lot of them are not up for it. Here is a similar example. Most students accept the idea of liberty. They say,”yeah, I should be able to do whatever I want to do without worrying about that dude down the street.” They understand it. They accept the concept of liberty in 2 minutes. But the concept of equality? Whew. The students begin to protest. “Why should I consider that dude down the street? I don’t know him. And I sacrifice what I want to do for that guy? Why?” To answer these questions, they should study first the ideas of communities and human dignity and the causes of uneven distribution of resources. Hard stuff. Stuff you won’t get until you really try to think carefully and seriously.

It is human nature to avoid hard core critical thinking. We all prefer chilling over a glass of wine. I do. And it is exactly this human penchant of wine over serious thinking that Trump exploits and tries to use to his advantage. Listen to him carefully. I hate his sentence structures. “Look, folks, what she suggests (vague reference. What, exactly? She said many different things. Which one are you exactly referring to?) will take us to a disaster (okay. Complete your sentence. Disaster because of what? And define your term. Disaster in what ways?). Believe me, it will be a disaster, DISASTER (unnecessary repetition?). But don’t worry, we will win big (any idea that technically, this grammar is wrong?)” In this sentence structures appropriate for 3rd graders, he pours simplistic thought that takes away the burden of critical thinking. Yes, it is true that a lot of jobs in America are relocated to China, Mexico, and any country with cheap labor. Now, why did this happen and what could we do? Hellish difficult questions to answer. But why bother to answer them? Trump says, “I will bring the jobs back.” Easy and simply. No more question. Case closed. Or he leads his audience into thinking so.

It is okay that he is an idiot, but I get angry when he tries to make all of us idiots. Trump, please be gone from the public view after Nov.8th. Enjoy your life in Trump Towers. But please don’t bring us down to the level of your idiocy. Thank you.

When a good intention does not make you less imperialist

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Years ago, when I studied in Canada, my Canadian friend got so riled up about an American TV program that surveyed Americans’ perception of Canada. One of the questions was “what do you like best about Canada?” and #1 answer was “its beautiful, vast nature symbolized by polar bears.” I had a similar experience recently, so I’d like to think with you why my Canadian friend got upset and why the Americans’ “positive” perception of Canadian nature feels like an insult to Canadians.

Here is what I experienced recently. I visited my friend Jane’s (not real name, of course) campsite the other day. Jane had a nice camping car, but next to her camping ground, someone put up a tent. The temperature was dropping to the 40s, and it began to rain. Our conversation went like this:

I: I am afraid that people in the tent get cold tonight.

Person 1: Well, I don’t sleep well in a tent anyway. The ground is rocky and bumpy, and I have a hard time.

Jane: The same here. But I think Koreans can sleep well on the ground. They sleep on the floor!

Person 2: No, the Korean floor is totally different. It is flat and heated, and it is comfortable to sleep on the floor.

Jane: Really?

Person 2: Yes. And, one is a living arrangement and the other is not. When they look similar in your eyes, it doesn’t mean that they are the same.

Later, Jane said that she saw nothing wrong with her statement. After all, she tried to make a positive statement about Koreans, she protested. She said that it is unfair that she is accused of cultural arrogance, ignorance, and insensitivity, when all she tried to do was to say something nice about Koreans.

Okay. What’s wrong, then? A quick answer is that Jane reduced Korean culture to nature.

To understand what nature and culture have to do with Jane, we need to imagine 600 years ago when Europeans first arrived in Americas. I think it is accepted almost unanimously now to call these European settlers imperialists. They dominated and subjugated Native Americans, took away their lands, and destroyed their culture. What enabled and undergirded their imperialist actions was their perception of native Americans and native American culture. When they arrived, they saw terra nullius, meaning empty land. They saw no culture, no society, no civilization. They saw instead idle lands and people who lived in natural conditions, blindly obeying the laws of nature. Did Native Indians have no culture, no society, no civilization? Of course they did. But in the eyes of the European settlers, the native Indians didn’t seem to have culture, because it was so different from its European counterpart. It is this failure to recognize native Indian culture as such that enabled and undergirded the setters’ imperialist domination and brutal massacres of Native Indians. By seeing terra nullius, Europeans reduced a culture, which deserves respect on its own terms, to nature.

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This is culture

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This is nature

Now, it is more understandable why my Canadian friend got upset by Americans’ perception of Canada as a country of vast nature. Associating Canada with snow and polar bears may seem benign, but we need to think carefully where this association is coming from and what it is oblivious to. Similarly, yes, it is an act of cultural imperialism to say that the Korean floor and the ground look the same and that if Koreans can sleep well on the floor, they can sleep well on the ground. Why? Because you’re reducing Korean culture to nature. As Person 1 said in the dialogue above, one is a living arrangement, and the other is not. By conflating the two, you’re committing the same crime as early European settlers, who saw empty land and pre-culture in Native Americans.

Jane kept protesting that she meant well. Unlike European settlers, she didn’t mean to rob and subjugate Koreans, she would add. I hear her. In her defense, I add that everyone makes mistakes. But let me say that there is one good way to avoid making mistakes about different cultures you don’t understand. When you don’t understand Asian or African cultures, it is not necessarily your fault. Rather it is a social effect of living in a world where western cultures are dominant and influential and non-Western cultures are pushed to the background. So, when you don’t know a thing about a non-western culture, that’s okay (although I would argue you owe it to yourself to push your limits and try to enlarge your cultural knowledge). But at least, know that you don’t know. When your cultural knowledge is of a level where you can’t tell apart Korean, Japanese, Chinese cultures, for example (I can’t tell apart Malaysian and Philippines cultures, Sudanese and Zimbabwean cultures, and so many other cultures!), that’s okay, but don’t make a judgment about what you think is acceptable to Koreans and what is not. Even when you think that you mean well, there is a 99% chance that such statement reveals nothing but your ignorance and insensitivity to a culture that you don’t know. Furthermore, you may deeply hurt people who adopt Korean, Japanese, Chinese cultures for their way of life. Reducing culture to nature and saying that the rocky, bumpy surface of the ground bothers your soft body but probably not Koreans’ because they sleep on the floor, yes, that’s bad. Pretty bad.

Movie Review: The Wailing (2016)

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Last night, I watched the 2016 Korean horror movie The Wailing. It is currently running in theaters in Korea, and the general consensus of the audiences is that they don’t get it. The movie is purposefully confusing, and the director left huge room for multiple interpretations, hoping that the audiences leave the theatre with a lot of questions on what they watched. In this post, I would like to suggest one reading of the movie for people who already watched the movie. If you didn’t watch it, read this post after you watch it. Also, I emphasize that everything I say here is subject to change. I definitely want to watch it one more time, to test my interpretation, and also to make sure that I heard everything that is said in the movie accurately. The subtitles were bad and often inaccurate, and I had a hard time understanding the heavy regional accent spoken in the movie.

Let me start with the director’s understanding of his own movie. He says that he wanted to explore such questions as human suffering and God. Like Job in the Bible, people suffer and get punished. When innocent people suffer, especially, we wonder why they should be inflicted the pain, and when we can’t find an acceptable explanation, we turn to God. God, if there is one, should be able to offer an explanation on the suffering of innocent people. In the movie, the cop’s daughter falls ill, and in the process of trying to understand the cause of her illness and fixing it, the father encounters God. In exploring humans’ relation to God, one essential question concerns faith. When non-believers ask, “how can I believe something I don’t see?” believers respond, “once you believe, you will see.” To support his theological underpinning of the movie, the director borrows a phrase from Luke for an epigraph: Jesus resurrects three days after crucification, and to his disciples who question his resurrection, he announces, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

To me, the movie didn’t feel this theological. Or, to see the movie in theological terms is rather limiting. What I saw instead was everyday people who have to make difficult choices in their lives, and once they make a decision, they go back and keep asking if they made a right choice. The reason why a certain decision is difficult is because the options available are equally good or comparably bad. If one option is clearly superior to the other (a cheap, powerful vacuum cleaner as opposed to an expensive but weak vacuum cleaner), it will be an easy decision. But, when we debate between this job or that job, it is a difficult decision, because this job is good in these regards, but the other job is good in other regards. And when we eventually choose this job and work at it, we often wonder if the other job might have been better. It is when problems arise in this job that we get overwhelmed by self-skepticism and regret that we didn’t choose  the other one.

In the movie, the cop’s daughter falls sick, and he sets out to gain an understanding of why she got sick and what should be done. The director seems to think that the three mythical entities (the stranger, Il-gwang, and the woman spirit) represent different things in an hierarchical order (Jesus, mediator, evil, respectively), but in my view, they offer an equally valid explanation and solution of their own, although they are in conflict with each other. For instance, during the shamanistic ritual that Il-gwang performs to exorcise the daughter, the father questions his decision to heal his daughter through Il-gwang. When she writhes in extreme pain at the climax of the exorcising ritual, the father’s self-skepticism makes him overturn his decision. He orders Il-gwang to stop. The audiences are led to believe that the spirit that entered the daughter would be successfully kicked out if the ritual had run its course. Because the exorcism came to an abrupt stop, however, she was not completely set free.

But do we know certainly that she would be healed if the father sustained his trust of Il-gwang throughout? I think this is the point where the believers’ and non-believers’ different attitudes towards faith become relevant. The “I don’t believe what I don’t see” and the “you will see what you believe”are equally valid, although in different ways. What is certain is that these two attitudes will lead to different consequences. Three days after Jesus’s crucification, his disciples must have seen things that suggest Jesus’s resurrection and also things that suggest his death. To choose one interpretation over the other in the face of conflicting evidences depends on each disciple’s faith. Put differently, we believe something, if we want to believe it, and we don’t believe it, if we don’t want to. Different choices entail different consequences. It is really difficult to say one choice is correct or even better than the other. Once we make a decision, therefore, maintaining our faith in it and bearing consequences is the best things we can do. Nonetheless, it is human nature to go back to the past and ask, “what if I had chosen differently?” Nobody can answer this question, but we keep asking.

I think that the movie the Wailing does a good job at describing the delicate human condition in which a faith in our decisions gets consistently eroded by competing theories and evidence. In the last scene, Il-gwang says that the father should go back to his house immediately. Otherwise, his family will all die. The woman spirit insists the opposite. He should wait for the three morning cries of a rooster. Otherwise, his family will all die. And both Il-gwang and the woman insist that he does not listen to the other person. How does he determine his course of action in these two competing demands? He does make a decision, not a carefully calculated one but one made out of desperation ad hoc, and consequences await for his decision. Do these consequences suggest that who was right between Il-gwang and the woman? No. He will probably never figure it out. All he can do is to accept the consequences of his action. Not being able to precisely predict the consequences of our choice but having to go on relentlessly – perhaps this is the horror of life that the movie Wailing wants to portray.

 

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

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The last pages of Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection include a quick reference to the well-known biblical story, the parable of the lost sheep. Here are the relevant lines from Luke 15:

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’

How do we understand this parable, especially the shepherd’s behavior? It seems that the Bible irrefutably fixes what lesson we are learning from the parable. Following the lines above, it reads,  “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Hence, the lesson is, apparently, repent!

But this parable is not as simple as it looks, I think. In this post, I want to explore another plausible interpretation that we can tease out from this parable. I think that the parable can be read as a refutation of utilitarian thinking. Utilitarian thinking, when simply put, emphasizes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. When viewed in utilitarian light, the shepherd’s behavior is irrational. A utilitarian thinker will ask, “come on, do you want to sacrifice the happiness of the 99 sheep, for the happiness of one sheep? The combined value of 99 sheep is much larger than the value of 1 sheep.” The utilitarian criticism of the shepherd’s decision will be more persuasive, if we assume 99 healthy, handsome, Grade A sheep and one weak, ugly, cripple sheep. Why bother with that cripple sheep? He produces neither delicious milk nor soft fur. He is useless anyway. Forget about him. However, the shepherd contradicts the utilitarian thinker’s justification to abandon the lost sheep and instead sets out to retrieve the lost sheep. Aww. Such a heartwarming moment. But it is not just a sentimental moment. By saving the lost sheep, the shepherd points out the limits of utilitarian thinking. He eloquently shows that values cannot be always quantified and compared and that there are things that may not be conventionally deemed as a “value” but are still valuable and thus worthy to be saved and cared for.

When I was in college, I took a class with a theology professor, who interpreted this parable politically in a similar vein, with reference to welfare. According to her interpretation, 99 sheep refer to a majority of society’s members, who are able, healthy, functioning, and self-sustaining. And 1 sheep refers to a minority who needs the society’s safety net, such as welfare. While utilitarian thinking invalidates the idea of welfare without qualms, the shepherd suggests that the weak of the society need to be cared for, because the 100 sheep live in a community, not a jungle where the survival of the fittest prevails. To sustain a community, and to prevent a community from deteriorating into a jungle, the stronger has collective responsibility to care and provide for the weaker, so that the latter can participate in communal matters on equal footing. According to my professor, when the Bible says that Jesus is love, the parable of the lost sheep sums up what kind of love Jesus is. It is a love of social equity and justice.

I hope my and my professor’s interpretation of the parable makes some sense to you. But here is a difficulty. The difficulty concerns a perspective, or from where to look at the shepherds and the sheep. I realize that in reading the story, I assume a high vantage point from which to look down on the shepherd and the sheep. From such perspective, it is relatively easy to say, “yeah, you 100 sheep live together. So, take care of each other.” But what if I am one of the 99 sheep? I will be probably kicking my feet, throw a fit, and scream, “why should I stand in cold rain and wait for the idiot sheep????”  Well, I ‘d better remember that Jesus is love.

 

How to find the best home contractors

Construction

This spring, I and my husband are pursuing some home improvement projects. After we very roughly set our budget, we set out to find the right contractors for us. Alas, as you can imagine, this process is tedious and very time consuming. We make a lot of phone calls and shoot multiple emails to briefly introduce our projects, patiently wait for their responses (some never respond, however), meet with the potential contractors individually, show our premise, and get their professional feedback and an estimate.

At this point, my husband and I are quite confused. Three contractors who look at the same thing give three different opinions and three vastly different estimates. For example, one person says, “you have to rip off what you have and start afresh.” Another says, “the foundation is good, so let’s save it and do some retouching.” Understandably, the second person’s quote is about half of the first person’s. So far, it makes sense. Now, the third person comes along and agrees with the second person. But the third person’s quote is even more than the first person’s. Why? How can I understand these differences? What do I make out of them? How do I process information about a field I am totally ignorant of? I don’t have an answer to these questions, and they will probably haunt us until the day when we pick our builder. So, in today’s post, I want to write about something else. While negotiating with different contractors is confusing and tedious, it is also fun in some regards. Fun because it helps me to understand who I am and where my values lie. Here are some of my random thoughts.

  1. As there are designer bags and non-designer bags and you pay extra for the name value of the former, there are designer contractors as well. People suggest that in order to find best home builders, we seek referrals. We did. Who is the best roofing company in the area? We asked, and people usually picked one company. And yeah, this company’s quote vastly exceeds other lesser known companies’ quotes by a huge margin. I guess that it costs money to have people say that XX is a good roofing company (advertising, marketing, etc.), and when you hire them, yes, you do pay extra for their name value. Personally, I don’t own a designer bag, because I don’t want to pay for the “Prada” part of a Prada bag. I just want to pay for the “bag” part. Similarly, I and my husband find that when people unanimously say “XX is THE company for roofing,” we almost see an imaginary red flag. I almost mutter, “it doesn’t mean anything.” I find that I have a tendency to lean towards lesser-known but smart and enthusastic start-ups.
  2. I think that construction companies with elaborate labor division charge more. For example, you can speak to a woman to schedule an appointment, talk to a salesman to show your premise and get an estimate, and have a carpenter to come and work on your steps. By contrast, there are independent contractors. They pick up the phone, schedule meetings, give an estimate, promote their service, and grab a saw and a hammer to repair your steps. I am definitely in favor of the second kind. Who matters in construction? The carpenter, the roofer, and the laborer. Yes, the phone lady and the salesperson should be paid, but I want the people who get dirty and sweat under the fierce sun with a hammer in one hand and the saw in the other to get the lion share of my money. According to my quick research, however, these people are paid the least. They make around $20 per hour only (sources: http://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/construction-worker/salary, http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Industry=Construction/Hourly_Rate)
  3. Different contractors have different styles in giving estimates, and I like those who are willing to give itemized quotes. Some contractors suggest only a grand total. “We will do the jobs ABC, and you will owe us this much.” My immediate questions are, how much is material, and how much is labor? How much does the job A cost, and how much for B and C?” Some contractors are willing to give breakdowns upon request, but others aren’t. I am sorry to say, but I think this is a muddy part where a number of home owners are ripped off. Sometimes, material costs are set unrealistically. When I am given information on which material will be used for my project, I check its market price myself. Less than 20% of mark-up is understandable, I think, but 50% is ridiculous, I think. And if they are honest constructors, why can’t they give me breakdowns? Also, by knowing how much labor costs, I can be faithful to my earlier philosophy: that is, people who do the real work should be paid fairly.

 

 

 

 

About a year ago, I wrote a post titled “You don’t know you don’t know.” Today’s post is a continuation of my thought in that post. I want to think about how to respond to people who don’t know they don’t know.

This week, I had a chance to spend time with one of my old best friends. Because she is finishing her degree, I asked her if she was applying for jobs this year. Her answer was negative. I asked her why. She said she didn’t feel that she was ready yet. There are still so many things that she needs to learn, she explained, and she’s not sure if she could teach someone else. I totally heard her. From her statement “I am not ready yet,” what I heard was her awareness of overwhelmingly limitless knowledge, the apparent limits of knowledge she currently possesses, and her intense hunger to overcome the limits and learn more.

Then I got curious about what other people would hear from the same statement. Would some people take my friend’s words at face value and think that she is really not ready to teach? A woman who did nothing but study philosophy all her life, is getting a Ph.D from two universities on both sides of the Atlantic, and taught philosophy classes in the past, is not ready to teach Introduction to Philosophy to 17 year olds? To me, to think so is ridiculous. Well, if your argument is that being a scholar and being a teacher are two different tasks and the former does not necessarily lead to the latter, and if that’s the reason why you accept my friend’s statement at face value, I understand. That’s a valid response. We can talk about your point more in detail. But, if you take my friend’s words at face value because you don’t know you don’t know – in this case, your response will be like,”oh, I’ve been teaching 10+ years. I know how to teach. Too bad you don’t know how to teach yet” – then, your response reveals nothing but your deplorable ignorance. It clarifies that you shut off yourself in the narrow world of your minuscule knowledge and turn blind eyes to the vast expanse that exists outside your ken.

Today I am thinking about how to respond to this kind of self-righteous knowers. Usually I try to ignore them. First, it is their problem, not mine. I am sure they are denying themselves a lot by being self-complacent, but I don’t care about your loss, unless you are my students. Second,   talking to them and trying to reason with them – without avail, of course – makes me feel like I am brought down to their level. Yes, I advise myself to expose myself to deep thought. Then I will forget tedious, trivial, time- and emotion-consuming negative feelings that these self-claimed knowers create. But I am human, and I confess that it does not feel good to be treated like an idiot by someone who is clearly more idiot than me. Ugh.