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.

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.