Twofish's Blog

February 9, 2007

Why the Dalai Lama is wrong

Filed under: asian am, china, law, tibet — twofish @ 5:53 am

Here is a very sad article on the end of Tibet

There is a deep connection between Tibetan Buddhism and the anti-war hippie culture of the 1960’s.  The Dalai Lama has this very attractive message about how non-violence and ideas can overcome political repression.

It’s unfortunately that his message is not consistent with reality.

The reality is that power matters, and power comes from guns, money, and ideas.  War and violence is horrible, and peace is a wonderful goal.  But to have a just peace, you need to be constantly thinking and preparing for war.  If you don’t have guns, you don’t have money, and you don’t have ideas, then you end up at the sufference of others, and this is not a good thing because you’ll be subject to their agendas which may not be your own.

Power is scary.  Power is dangerous.  There is a very real possibility that by picking up the gun, and figuring out how to make the money, and thinking about the ideology of power, you end up destroying yourself.  But the alternative of rejecting power, leads only to subservience at the hands of others.  It is unfortunately that the world works this way, but it is true.

One more insight….

I’m Han Chinese, and not Tibetan, and it’s not my responsiblity to figure out what it means to be Tibetan in the 21st century.  I do have a lot of sympathy for ethnic minorities figuring out how they fit in a majority society, because that’s one of the big struggles of my life.  There are two dangers which I’ve had to deal with.  One is this idea that one can “preserve” a culture.  One preserves dead bodies.  If something is alive, it changes and grows and adapts.  If you don’t change and grow then what happens is that your culture simply becomes a museum piece for tourist to gawk at, meanwhile the skills and ideas that are powerful get held by others.  To be Chinese-American means more than eating dim sum and having dragon dances, it means learning to coding C++ so that you can make money.

The other danger that I’ve had to deal with is the temptation of thinking that you can separate yourself from the majority community or the idea that by being involved with the majority community one becomes “less” of a minority.  In the United States, Chinese-Americans make up such a small minority that an effort at “separatism” would be suicidal.  Instead, by learning English, by learning American history, by becoming part of the national community, one has more social resources to develop and grow a minority culture, and being part of a national community which is a part of the global community, one strengthens the culture rather than weakens it.

January 1, 2007

Thoughts on Peter Perdue’s “China Marches West”

Filed under: academia, asian am, china, hayek, massachusetts institute of technology, taiwan — twofish @ 1:45 am

I had the pleasure of reading Peter Perdue’s book “China Marches West – The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia” this afternoon. One of the things that I found most useful about the book was the last chapter in which Perdue summarizes a lot of the recent scholarship in the Qing dynasty, and then tries to connect them with recent scholarship on nationalism. Perdue points out (correctly) that nationalist readings of history tend to have several characteristics, one of which is that they are telelogical, in that they imply that the present is the inevitable result of the past, and they imply the existence of “natural boundaries.” Unlike a series of what I call “China-debunking” literature, Perdue even-handed (and I think correctly) points out that these characteristics are common across all nationalisms.

Personally, I tend to agree that nationalist histories are “constructed products” and my own thinking on this is borrowed from Benedict Anderson’s work “Imagined Communities.” By “constructed” I don’t (and I don’t think either Anderson or Perdue) mean “fake.” But rather than a natural outcome of facts, to create a history and nationalistic narrative or national identity requires conscious effort.

I know, since I’ve had to create my own narrative.

One of the interesting connections was that one of the first classes I took at MIT was a seminar on the Asian-American identity given by Professor Perdue and Professor Sally Deutsch. Creating an identity has been a struggle for me, and it has also been increasingly important now that I have kids, and am trying to figure out what to teach them. National identity has touched every aspect of my life. It touches who I married, what I teach my kids, what jobs I take or don’t take, where I live, and every other decision I make. And the discovery that I made was that none of the “off the shelf” identities really worked for me. So it was a liberating discovery to learn that national boundaries, national histories, and national identities, were constructed. If the “off the shelf” identities don’t work, then I can create my own, and I have proceeded to do so out of Chinese nationalism, American nationalism, combining with the “nationalisms or sub-nationalisms” of Taiwan and Texas. I’ve come up with something that works……

As long as war doesn’t break out in the Taiwan straits….. Fortunately that is looking less likely, and one thing that I figured out a few years ago, was that if a war did break out in the Taiwan straits, my life would be in shambles, and so would the lives of the people around me even if they had blonde hair and blue eyes and ancestors that came from Ireland.

One thing that is very different in 2006 than in 1987 is how far progressed globalization has progressed. In 1987, I was a little embarassed to have as strong feelings for Chinese nationalism as I did. The dominant paradigm was the “melting pot” in which I and my kids would lose their Chinese characteristics and assimilate into the American mainstream much as the immigrants of Eastern Europe did. This made me uncomfortable because I felt as if I’d lose some precious if that happened, even if I was unable to articulate exactly what. At the same time, I had this deep fear that I’d be completely out of place in “China” and find it totally alien and different.

Those fears are still there, but globalization has lessened a lot of it. It is becoming more and more obvious that being able to more or less move between a Chinese and an American identity is not a handicap, but it is something in fact that multi-national corporations find desirable. There is still the fear of being seen as a “traitor” or a “foreigner” but that is increasingly being lessened by the fact that more and more of the world is becoming like me. A person with connections to various parts of the world, and has to figure out how to integrate these different parts of themselves.

And in this all, I find one commonality between Qing China and the United States which is very touching and gets back to MIT. Both societies faced the difficulty of trying to integrate people of very different languages and ethnicities into a functioning whole, and in both cases, part of the solution involved creating an academic system. In the case of Qing China, it was to use the system of Imperial examinations to create a shared sense of communal values. In the case of the United States, it was through the use of public schools and an excellent university system. In the case of Qing China, the value system that was promoted was one based on classical Confucian learning. In the case of the United States, the value system is a civic religion based on the Constitution and the values that underlie it. Ultimately, these two value systems are not in conflict (I would hope).

And looking at history, this correspondence is not accidental. My great-grandparents adopted the value system that was promoted by the Imperial examination system. Those values were transmitted to me, which is why I was attracted to something similar and feel such a strong attraction to academia and why I ended up at MIT.

But in trying to puzzle all of this out, I had to cross a lot of boundaries, which made me question the “naturalness” of the historical boundaries, and made me realize that they were as “constructed” as the national histories.

One final thing. One characteristic of national histories is their telelogical nature (which is known as the Whig view of history), every event is portrayed as being the inevitable set of events which leads up to the present. In giving up the sense of historical inevitablity, one gives up a lot of security, but one gains something far greater. Freedom and the scary realization that people’s decisions matter.

If the present is not the inevitable result of the past, then it follows that the future is not the inevitable result of the present. The world we see today is the result of people’s decisions and random events mixed together. If people had decided to do different things, the world would be different, but that means that the decisions we make today will influence the future. This puts an awesome and scary responsibility on us to make correct decisions.

And on what basis should those decisions be made???

One thing that I’ve learned in looking at history is that the decision about what flag you wave or what uniform you wear is largely out of your hands. I find myself a deep blue supporter of the Kuomintang because of who my parents where. There is some scope for choice, but that is limited.

December 12, 2006

Overachievers anonymous

To whom it my concern:

So tell me, what does it feel like to be perfect?  I’m really curious, since that might give me some insight in what I need to do in my own imperfect life…..




That’s actually what all of this is about.  I’m one of the first generation of Chinese-American overachievers, and I’ve reached a point in which there are very few guideposts, and the closest thing that I have to a role model is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, which should  be obvious given if you read the rest of my posts.

I’m actually trying to go back and find some historical analogues to figure out what to do.  The Jews of central Europe and the Middle East.  The Sheng-yuan scholars of the mid-Qing dynasty.  Earlier waves of Chinese immigration.  The Romans.  All are useful, but none of them quite exactly fit my current situation.  Which is not surprising since history doesn’t repeat.  I am sure I’ll figure out something.

The thing that keeps me in good shape is that I had a very strong liberal arts education when I was younger.  This focus on learning the liberal arts seemed merely interesting at the time, and it actually seriously hurt me when I tried applying for grad school, but it’s become very, very useful now, that I’m in a new situation for which there are no roadmaps and no guides.

Let me give you an example of a “real ethical dilemma.”  Suppose (hypothetically of course) I work at a company.  I don’t think that the company treats me particularly well.  I want to leave, however I believe that my leaving the company will cause extreme hardship to my co-workers.  What should I do?  Similarly, trying to figure out what to say on a blog and what not to blog brings up a whole host of ethical issues.  I will go insane if I don’t say certain things and I think I also have a moral duty to help 20 year olds realize that their problems won’t disappear when they reach 40.  However, I also have moral duties not to impose in other people’s privacy, and not to hurt other people.  But I also have moral duties to speak the truth.  So what do I do?  Every sentence is basically a balancing act.

It’s trying to figure out what to do with those issues, that is why I’m thankful that I have a liberal arts education so that I can at least begin to think through what should I do.  Now here is the problem…..

I had to fight the system in order to get a good liberal arts education.  Most of what I’ve read about history and philosophy, I’ve read outside of formal class.  Reading these sorts of things has actually hurt me in my academic career, because being interested in things other than the things that you are supposed to be interested in is the kiss of death in academia.  Academia has this industrial assembly line model of education which is just deadly for any sort of real education and research.  In fact the irony is that the industrial approach to education, really runs counter to the need for liberal arts.

A lot of twenty year olds think that they don’t need philosophy, and they are for the most part right.  If you are in a structured environment like the university, most of the decisions are made for you, and the number of real decisions that you make are limited.  Even the decisions you *can* make are hidden, because if everything is doing X, it makes it unobvious that you can do Y.  All of this philosophy stuff is not useful, if you can’t decide, which is why philosophy is not considered useful for slaves (and it is dangerous for slaves to learn philosophy since they start questioning the ideas that keep them chained).

It’s only after you end up in an unstructured environment where it is clear that there are real decisions with real consequences, that you find all of this liberal arts stuff useful.

December 11, 2006

Protected: Utterly implausible

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Protected: Putting back on the blinders

Filed under: academia, asian am, Career, china, father, wikipedia — twofish @ 7:39 am

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December 9, 2006

Protected: It’s not about her, it’s about me

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December 2, 2006

Leo Strauss and Blogs

Filed under: academia, asian am, personal — twofish @ 7:57 am

I’m finding that the ideas of Leo Strauss are useful in writing a blog.  Strauss argued that to avoid persecution, ancient Greek writers would include a reading which is esoteric and another which is exoteric.  This is also a common trick in Chinese writing.  The nice thing about allusions and code words is that it lets you discuss issues in public that would be too sensitive to talk about in public.

The critique of this is that it creates the “insiders” and “outsiders” and discourages public discourse.

But ironically I’m using codes and code words actually can help public discourse.  There is stuff about myself that I want to talk about, but can’t directly, so I talk about something like the situation I’m facing, and that let’s me thinking outloud.  I’ve done this before.  I’ve never been in a literal car accident, but I’m not lying when I talk about being in one.  Because you don’t have to know what actually happened to me, and I don’t want to think about what happened to me.  But if we talk about car accidents, and how people deal with them, then I can apply that knowledge to my situation without letting you know what that situation is.

The problem with this is that it leads to suspicion.  When do you know that I’m talking in code, and when am I not talking in code.  I suppose the solution is to be honest about when I’m being slightly dishonest.  I like to think that when I write something, it contains the essential truth of a situation the best I can describe it.

And in some ways talking in metaphors and symbols is what I do in physics and mathematics.  When I write an integral equation, that represents something in a form that I deal with and think about, and by writing it done, I do so in a form that other people can critique what I’m thinking.

Doctors and lawyers versus physicists and farmers

Filed under: asian am, china, personal — twofish @ 7:35 am

There is another duality which is different from land and water, but it has to do with memory and forgetting. Doctors and lawyers versuses physicists and farmers. There is a certain detachment that doctors and lawyers have to have from their work. Doctors and lawyers have to keep a separation between the personal and the professional whereas physicists and farmers, can’t and don’t.

You look through thousands of X-rays and MRI’s each day, and each of them has a story. A human being who is on the verge of living or dying. A law professor does the same thing. There are dozens of cases he could consult on, and each one could be a matter of life or death. And the better you are, the more likely it is that it is a matter of life or death.

You can’t feel about them. You will go insane if you even try to emotionally connect with the people you are trying to help. Just imagine hundred of lives, each one a son or daugther, each person with a mother and father. Imagine the pain of a hundred people as if it were your pain, or the joy of a hundred people as if it were your joy. You can’t. At the end of the day, you have to do your job, and stop seeing the human being. It’s a picture on the computer screen or a case file. You do the job, you make the consult, you help someone, and then you go home.

Physicists and farmers are different. You can leave the hospital or the courtroom and go home. You can separate the personal and the professional. I can’t. Where does a physicist go where he isn’t surrounded by physics? Where does a historian go where he isn’t surrounded by history? Where does a farmer go where she isn’t surrounded by life?

Physics is about feeling. I feel equations. I smell patterns, and I find it just difficult to connect and reconnect my feelings in the way that doctors and lawyers can.

December 1, 2006

February 13, 1991

Filed under: academia, asian am, china — twofish @ 1:12 pm

I’ve been looking around myself thinking about models of how to behave as a Chinese-American child of academic parents living in the age of globalization.  This forms a duality.  There is the water model and the land model.  The water/internationalist model seeks to be a “citizen of the world” who is detached from the nation-state.  “Being Chinese” is part of your heritage but it isn’t something that you embrace specifically.  The land/multinationalist model seeks to reconcile the desires of the nation-state but instead of running away from nationalism and history, one embraces it.

The internationalist sees the nation-state and history as a parochial relic.   The multinationalist embraces the nation-state and history as a sorts of identity.  The internationalist waves no flag.  The multinationalist tries to wave many.  The model for the internationalist is influenced by Cecil Rhodes and the British Empire.  The multinationalist gets inspiration from Fredrich List and the process of German unification.

The difference between the land and water, is that land remembers whereas water does not.  Drop a seed onto land, it turns into a tree.  Drop a seed into water, and it disappears and is forgotten.  The internationalist tries to forget, whereas the multinationalist tries to remember.

Memory is difficult, because in embracing the past one remembers the tragedies and conflicts of times past.  But for me the loss of memory is even more difficult, because with memory, with all of the tragedies and difficulties of the past, I know who I am, and I have hope that I will be remembered.  Loss of memory brings freedom, but without memory, who am I?

This is why I’ve ended up a multinationalist with facing the future with the scars and tragedies of the past, managing, coping, but not forgetting.   But memory has its costs, and sometimes I stand on the land and stare at the water, and wonder if I would be better off forgeting.  Pain creates resentment, and resentment is dangerous.  In the late 19th century, Germany resented Britain and this created a horrific war and horrific consequences.

But I’m a multinationalist, one you set out on a path, external events take over, and freedom of action decreases.

In every life, there are a few decisions that have extreme ramifications that one does not forsee, the path that I’ve taken was set on the evening February 13, 1991 when I made a very simple decision that bound me to the land instead of sweeping me into the water.

I remember.  Do you?

August 1, 2006

Calling the children of the Immigration Act of 1965….

Filed under: asian am, china, globalization, taiwan — twofish @ 12:06 am

I’m wondering how the other kids who were children of the Immigration Act of 1965.  As far as I can tell, the “model” for what we were suppose to do was what the massive burst of Eastern European immigration did, (i.e. forget were you came from, and become white).  The trouble with this is globalization.

When I was an undergrad, the reason for studying Mandarin Chinese was “to get in touch with your roots.”  The problem with nostalgia is that it isn’t that strong of a motivator.  (And ironically, it isn’t historically accurate, none of my great-grandparents could likely speak Mandarin well.)  The reason that I think will drive my kids to learn Mandarin is that it will help them get jobs.  Learning how to speak multiple languages gives you many more options for employment.  Learning Mandarin is not about the past.  It’s about the future.  This is very different in 2006 than in 1991.

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