Monday, December 29, 2008

hard-edged fast food

these two places are near my parents' apartment in baltimore, and they share something hard-edged. "cluck-U chicken" is an obvious pun on F-U, delivering a visual kick to consumers or innocent bystanders. "polock johnny's" is more passive-aggressive, draping itself in self-labelling. when i was little, "polock" was synonymous with "stupid." it refers to people from poland. note, too, that this proudly ethnic sausage has draped itself in an american flag -- echoes of pro-war protests in the vietnam war era? -- and is squirting itself with ketchup. hmm. it is even lewd in some odd way.

in the downtown we passed another self-deprecating restaurant, an italian or greek place with the ephithet "good'a'food" on the awning (imitating the supposed ethnic accent).

frankly, the whole neighborhood -- no, "zone" -- feels hard and cruel. the cars drive fast and there is no place for walkers to walk. large warehouses stand between residential streets and large avenues. the little houses are hunched in on themselves, away from a harsh reality. like pottersville in "its a wonderful life," actually. hey, george bailey -- it all came true! your hallucination was really a vision of the future!

operation fish in a barrel

the newspapers are full of word of israel's "operations" against Gaza. a massacre has never been so handsomely rewarded with bureaucratic euphemism. 300 dead arabs is just fine for the US government: what really matters is those pesky rockets buzzing out of gaza, killing a person every few weeks. israel has no answer to arabs but violence. if they are trying to restore their air of invincibility and military potency, they are off base: no one has ever questioned their manly willingness to kill. by killing arabs, what they are after is the fissures and uncertainties in their own psyche: they want to restore their own belief in their invincibility.

alas, hundreds more will die in this narcissistic little experiment before it, too, inevitably fails.

peace will come only through palestinian independence and a withdrawal from land stolen in the 1967 war.

for the US and israel to foment palestinian civil war, as they have done these past few years, is only to work against this necessary and doable outcome.

we shall see if Obama has the guts to stand up for these principles and renounce this divide and conquer policy -- a policy which has failed, failed, and failed some more over the decades. but americans have an endless appetite for failure, it appears.

passive house

this (pasifhaus in german) is the name given to the german creators of a low-energy-consuming house. it requires little or no energy inputs, relying on the heat of the sun, directly shining into the house, or on the internal heat put out by people. it is sealed against the outside air, except for a special heat-exchange ventilation system. the cool air coming in from outside passes right next to the tube carrying the warm inside air out. 90 percent of the heat is conserved by passing to the incoming air and returning to the house. these houses are a bit more expensive to build than normal houses, because there are special fittings and seals around windows and doors. and there is a possibility they can be created for staying cool in hot places, too.

to catch on in the US the term "passive house" will never do. anything that reeks of passivity or the natural (or any diminishment of the heroic individual) is morally repugnant to americans. "tough house" or "success house" might work, however.

passive houses were written up in the new york times on sunday, i think.

there is another kind of alternative heating using air shafts into the earth and convection currents inside and around the house, but i forget what this is called.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


apparently, in 1883, the year "dude" was coined in new york city to refer to that era's decadent fashionistas, the word "dudine" was also coined for women.

two years later, "dudess" was unveiled. funny that neither made it to the present. although i would guess "dude" only made it to us because it was pulled into a bit of social satire -- to describe eastern city slickers playing cowboy in the West.

shadow tail

"shadow tail" is the literal translation of the old greek word which forms the base of our word "squirrel." it was taken into latin, then into old french, and finally into english. the meaning seemed to be, "animal whose tail is so big it can shade itself." i looked up this and other words for fun on the online etymology dictionary over christmas.

"squirrel" used as a verb first appeared in 1939.


i wonder if being shut up in a modest apartment made christmas better this year. passed in the suburbs, it is so easy on christmas to crawl into one's own space, in one's room, or on a sofa, or in front of a TV in the basement. but there in my parents' apartment, in an ugly unzoned area of baltimore, there were only two spaces: the kitchen and the living room.

so christmas was wonderful. dad and i took a walk before noon, past hundreds of small houses, and talked about politics and society. he said he did not know how society could ever heal the wounds and tears suffered by people in those poor neighborhoods. actually, these urban social disasters have been there since the 50s, when white middle classes emptied the cities for the suburbs and left them to rot. but one is insulated in the suburbs, away from the damage.

we opened presents, seated in a semicircle. sara and i got a rice cooker, which we had to carry on the greyhound bus yesterday.

then we put on "its a wonderful life," which sara had not seen before.

then we threw ourselves into cooking christmas dinner.

after stuffing myself i was exhausted, hit by a calorie bomb. i slept for an hour or two.

we sang christmas songs from the hymnal, with mom playing along on the piano. then we read the story from the bible.

around the kitchen table over more pie we talked about the old house on hickory lane, its curious details so obvious to kids: the venice canal scene on the formica shower enclosure, the black fridge in the basement, the musty smell there. and what was obvious to adults: the flooding problem. despite our investment in the old place, we left it behind so easily. even karen, who despised its discomforts (and its memories of an overcrowded youth), still dreams of it.

in short, rather than slipping into a bored malaise, we connected with each other. and with cranberry and rhubarb pie.

turkey + kimchi tacos

back from baltimore, where we visited my parents for 3 days, sara and i heated up leftover turkey, whipped up a sauce, and heated corn tortillas. we were out of jalapenos, so we took out a jar of kim chi. the sauce we took from scott's fish taco recipe, which we all gorged on so gorgeously in baltimore.

they were delicious. but there was no denying the odd sense that we were creating a crazy bricolage of this and that, here and there.

Monday, December 22, 2008


did VP Joe Biden really say on a Sunday television talk show, "and I will be honchoing the task force" for the middle class? I heard the quote on the radio, and thought, wow, our VP is showing innovative verbiage. i have never heard "honcho" used as a verb -- especially not in a serious political discussion in mass media. i looked up the word and found it is of Japanese origin, meaning "squad leader," the same word as the Chinese "tuanzhang." it was brought into English when US soldiers occupied Japan in the late 40s.

did Biden really say that?

it turns out he did. i checked the ABC website for the transcript, which reads, "I'm just the guy that's hunchoing this baseline study." who has ever seen a word spelled "huncho"?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

president bir qanbar

we just saw this movie on link tv. it is iranian, a documentary, though not a "pure" one. the director posed and arranged things.

it follows two men. one of them is running for parliament; the other is helping him. the former has run several times, (and for president, too) and has never come close. he has no money, but quixotically bikes about the countryside with a bullhorn. his friend and sidekick helps him. the director planted the red victory flag on the candidate's bicycle to make it more visually appealing in the dusty, cloudy landscape.

the technique i like best in the film is what i think of as a "moving portrait." he sets up the camera on several people and lets it run. periodically new people come in, or people shift places. he edits it so it appears time-elapsed: people appear and disappear instantaneously. he shrinks a long process into a shorter time.

he introduced qanbar's family. he is old, so it was his wife and kids and grandkids. he stood qanbar and wife, in her long veil, in front of a wall outside their house. then a woman appears at his side. then a man at her side. and one by one, more people appearing. and as they wait they shift, they move about, pat their hair or hitch up their pants, talk to each other. it is really a magical appearing, endearing and real, but not unstaged or unposed. then we see the old man with his back turned and fingers in his ears, as each person talks about him and his chances. the youngest granddaughter says, 'he always brings me things when he visits. i would definitely vote for him." her older sister is very objective. "he is very good, but is he best for the presidency? maybe he would make a good PM." etc.

i remember the director of the movie on pinochet's torture victims did a simpler version of this moving portrait. he had everyone already arranged, and then let the camera play over them slowly. i like it a lot.

the movie makes one want to own a donkey. qanbar rides one across a river. their ears switch about above their big eyes.

new regime in China?

I found the essay below on the blog Zonaeuropa. While not translated very well, it supports points I have made to American friends and acquaintances: do not hope for a magical change of regime in China. There is no Solidarity labor union (as in Poland), there is no Catholic Church, there is no network of mosques, there is no nationwide alternative power structure from which any campaign could be mounted.
So stop dreaming!

Wang Lixiong: Political Power Can No Longer Come Out Of The Gun Barrel

We need to recognize that there is a fundamental difference between today's China and the one of the past. Due to the lack of support from a cultural framework and the loss of the ecological foundation, China no longer has the basis for having a rebellious revolution or a war for political power.

Revolts and wars used to be the principal means by which political power changed hands in China. The collapse of political authority had occurred time and again. Usually, there would emerge all sorts of armed groups carrying different names, but they were basically warlords and bandits who attacked each other until the strongest bandit ascended the throne of the Emperor and became the legitimized ruler who would re-establish law and order. The reason that the warlords and bandits could keep fighting each other was because China had a cultural framework for support or the ecological foundation can sustain the population through the troubles. Therefore, society was not going to fall into the abyss altogether.

Rebellions and wars break down order and disrupt administration, and this actually lowers the exploitation of the ecological resources by society. Yet in China today, these types of exploitation has reached right to the maximum edge. For many years, the government has spent all its efforts on patching things up, because the moment that the speed of development (=degree of exploitation of the ecology) slows down, various social crises will explode. The increasing way by which everything is linked together made such shocks echo throughout the adminstrative system. Once a crisis starts, it will become "administrative crisis -> decreased production -> social disturbance' repeating itself deeper and deeper. By that time, even if the established power is overthrown, society will continue to be stuck in a vicious downward spiral from which it cannot extract itself.

The analogy is that a society without a cultural framework and an ecological foundation is like walking on a steel wire. Once you lose your balance, you will fall right down to the bottom. There is no chance of falling down half way and then getting back up on the steel wire. So let us not even talk about whether China has the conditions ripe for a revolution. If there were a real revolution, everyone will be brought to ruin together.

The war for the power is the same, and the effectiveness of violence is not unlimited. Once a society loses the support by a cultural framework, there would be more conflicts than cooperation between people and between groups. The fight over the limited ecological resources will increase the competition for them and the conflicts will increase while productions will continue to shrink. By that time, the world will be full of starving people running around looking for food, so what power is there left to fight for? To win the country and win over territory is just seeking more trouble for oneself.

I have asked Qin Hui what the bandits were looting for during the historical times when it was said that all the houses were emptied and corpses were strewn everywhere. Qin Hui said they were collecting people -- for food. In those days, production was about preserving human meat in big vats for later consumption.

But the population back then was not more than one third of the population today and the ecological conditions were a lot of better than now. Still, they fell into that kind of conditions. Therefore, we cannot think that "when the car reaches the mountain, the road will appear on its own." To blindly believe that "Great Order will emerge after Great Chaos (大乱达到大治)" is just wishful thinking. Once we embark on "change things first and then let us see (先变再说)", we will push China over the track of political unity onto another track which may bring us and all of China down the abyss of destruction.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

you son of a shoe!

apparently, the above is a curse in arabic.

the act of throwing shoes at bush was rude. but it was entirely proper, i think. after all, iraqis lost hundreds of thousands of dead to this war that they did not ask for. if the war was really waged for iraqis, then why did iraqis not ask for it? if it was all done for the good of iraq, why did the american occupiers refuse to count the iraqi dead when they began piling up?

bush did not accord iraqis the respect to think that they might have their own sovereign destiny, their own will. (the excuse, of course, is that under saddam, they had no voice. but then we ought to have helped them have a voice, by removing the sanctions that were starving them). why, then, being so disrespected, should iraqis accord bush respect? he chose violence to be their fate. his decision, taken in the comfort and quiet of his washington residence, sucked them into a vortex of killing and suffering (imagine the mental health problems among the children of baghdad) from which they have still not recovered. the violent must be clearly criticized and condemned.

bush is a violent but insecure man in search of validation and applause.

but the violent are always insecure, aren't they?

thomas tamm, hero

he is the man on the cover of the latest newsweek magazine. in 2005, he told the press (from a subway payphone) about the National Security Agency's illegal wiretapping of american phones. this heroic act in defense of the law was called "shameful" by president bush.

tamm was a justice department lawyer. he recalls his shock when he saw the text of the 4th amendment, which guarantees all americans against arbitrary search and seizure, removed from the NSA website. so, he thought, the best protection for americans is no longer law, but a government willing to break laws?

in a democracy, secrecy always indicates weakness and fear. democracy dies in secrecy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

people's temple agricultural project

this was the name above the road leading to Jim Jones' commune in Guyana in the 1970s. last night i watched an NBC documentary about the commune's horrific end: about ordinary people struggling to make themselves submit to a mad order. most haunting, i think, was audio recording of a woman challenging Jones' directive. "but i think we all have our individual destinies," she asserted. quickly a man challenges her, saying that there is no individual life, that they all lived up to that point due to the grace of Jim Jones. minutes later they were lining up to drink poison. even the woman who recognized what was happening in those last minutes lined up. was it the armed men outside the pavilion that dissuaded her? or was it a moral despair, to see not one other person standing beside her, that made her give up?

the name on the sign is an amazing amalgamation of marxist (people's), temple (religious) and bureaucratic/scientific (agricultural project). Jones' claim at the end that "this is a revolutionary act" also shows how in the 70s religion itself was overlapping with Marxist politics. but this is not so surprising: both revolution and religion, or some religion, seek an overturning of the social order.

but how, how could such a thing occur?

the sardonic, "don't drink the kool aid" has been the massacre's legacy to American english. this phrase depicts a knowing, jaded, experienced speaker and a naive listener, and shows well the cynicism that has permeated american life since the 1970s. even the superheroes in movies are fallen, dark men; the typical hero (james bond) is not considered realistic unless he or she is "dark" and "edgy."

what about the reality of hope, desire, aspiration? the "realism" of pop culture is a degraded, defeatist version, i am afraid, reflecting not the wisdom of deep experience but the last few decades of american politics.

Friday, December 12, 2008

winter noon, east wharf beach

this is my favorite beach in madison. madison is a bland town, carefully controlled to keep up property values at the expense of life, vitality, change, and the poor. it is true, i have to admit, that if madison opened the town to the poor to live and go to school this beach might not be so perfectly maintained. not because of poor people directly, but because town revenues would slip, and maintenance would suffer, and more people would be using the same facilities. but let me tell you: opening the town to the poor would still make it a better place. a scruffier parking lot or a dirtier bathroom would not detract one iota from the beauty of the beach. beauty cannot be touched by small things; it soars above. and morally the town would gain. democracy would be advanced. apartheid systems of any type militate against democracy, because people of different "kinds" (as in, "i know your kind!") are kept apart and instilled with mutual hatred and mistrust. who wins then? the ones in charge.

lets use a metaphor: i would rather be on a crappy bus, with no shock absorbers, a rank toilet, crowded, and a driver who gets lost --- but all riders are equal and respected -- than on a swift train or plane in which a majority are forced into second class and held there. just because most people simply decide it is better to shut up and put up does not make the system right.

oh yeah -- i DO ride on a crappy bus! all the time! but i stand by the point.

port authority station, 5:30 am

i know port authority is better than it used to be -- it is no longer dangerous -- but can anything ever wipe away the deep sense of weary endurance and oppression? the crazies may be locked up or out on the streets, but down underground in port authority bus station, the exhausted are dozing, chins on their chests. there is a camera keeping watch on them or over them, or both, or neither (is there always film in those cameras? aren't some of them placebo cameras, meant only to warn, like a car with windows tinted so dark you cannot see inside?). and look through the glass partition, there on the wall ahead of you, pictures of greyhound's storied past, when its name was not synonymous with poverty. you can just see the celebrities or beauty queens of their day, the dignitary in a long coat, with an aristocratically slim, clothed, greyhound dog. a mascot.

but i admit, there have been a few encouraging signs over the last trip. is the company on an upturn? i do hope so. if so many people ride grey-mutt even being treated like cargo, think what the market would be for a company treating riders like people! saint louis station is no longer housed in an old bank which, despite the beautiful ceiling and greek columns, was a horrific vision of all against all when the time came to board the bus -- without a line. yeah. i remember seeing the amish people, originally right behind me, getting shoved and out-vicioused until they were way at the end of the line. i remember telling the bus driver angrily, and his chin jutting out in indignation, his finger pointing at the gentle people, their startled looks and eager scrambling to the front of the line. . . so there is a new station there. and in several stations i was amazed to see a staff person present when boarding happened. boarding is always the time of maximum confusion, of questions simple and complex. and there is never anyone there but the harried, late, driver. so. . .is the english company actually trying to make riders feel like people? well, i hate to say this, but a recession might not be a bad time for a bus company to actually grow business.

but the scent of weariness will never go from port authority station.

and by the way -- i actually like riding the bus. if intensity and variety of experience is your thing, greyhound is for you. you bounce back and forth between rage, aches, serenity, anomie and companionship so fast you hardly know if you are coming or going. by the third day you are in a trance, a soft state where sleep is voluntary and immediate, at any time. or you can float across the face of the earth awake.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

morning walk

sara and i walked with sisters suzanne and kathleen and cousin lori on suzanne's usual walking route above cedar hills, utah. a cold cloud blew over the upper end of the valley as we returned, blowing snowflakes down on us.

other pictures

note that little alexandra seems to be showing real fear in the middle photo. sara's teeth are sharp.

leaving taiwan

rabbit ears in berkeley

in utah

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

gym-bag DVDs

last night my brother Rob checked out some DVDs of Hong Kong movies from the Southern Connecticut library. as we ate dinner, Scott looked over them. "these DVDs smell kind of funny," he said. he passed one over to me, and then to Rob.

"whew," said Rob. "smells like someone stuck this in their arm pit."

"or their butt," i said.

we contemplated this odd occurrence. how could every one of them smell like body odor? and how does plastic take on such a smell? i sniffed again, closely.

"i got it," i said. "its curry, or cumin. some Indian grad student, mad about Hong Kong, checked them out repeatedly, and kept them in a cabinet right over his stove."

"i don't know," said Rob. "That one i smelled was pretty rank."

so maybe it is a curry-loving Indian grad student, mad about Hong Kong, who also spends hours in the gym. and in his gym bag he carries half a dozen DVDs.

we laughed. one of the curious, tiny mysteries of modern life.

Monday, December 8, 2008

aunt lillian and the cat

among all the moments i cherish of those two days in utah, is this one: sara, kathleen and i have retreated from the Harmon's home on Apple Avenue in Provo. Aunt Lillian follows us out into the cold in shirt sleeves. she points out the fat, but shy, cat crouching nearby. he came to her hungry, she explains, and he has stayed. but he has made up for that hungry time, she smiles. we wave our last good byes and climb in the car, but Lillian is still gazing contemplatively at the furry beast, still talking gently to him, leaning on the railing looking down at him, sun shining on her white hair and lank arms, not moving even as we drive out of sight down the hill, in quiet communion . . . .

utah sky

we stayed two days in the Beehive State. i was thankful, to myself, that the housing boom has ended: selfishly i am glad that here and there, meadows and horse pastures and haphazard houses remain, amongst the uniform housing developments. while the industry of bees is an admirable thing, isn't it lacking without the beauty of indolence and mere being, of flowers and clouds and other phenomena which are not born of industry? i was happy to think, as we drove past those scruffy patches of old Utah, that maybe the next time i come through these pastures and modest homes will still be here.

but regardless of all this: that sky can never be defeated. the Beehive State could pour every inch of land with concrete, and that sky would carry on triumphant, soaring above every paltry effort at civilization.

how many times have i arrived in Utah? dozens and dozens. why, then, was i stunned by the sky's grandeur as clouds collided with sun? it was as if i had just been born, not having seen any sky but that one. sara and i pointed the digital camera out the window of Suzanne's big car, impotent gestures of awe at the majestic ocean flowing and boiling above us.

this double reaction of mine points to the twin philosophies i hold: i resist, in my heart if nowhere else, the relentless consumption of nature for a few paltry pennies, for national power that evaporates in mere decades. but regardless of the result of these political struggles, i also am well aware of nature's infinite power, flowing on and on like the clouds above the Wasatch Range, power which submerges all our puny attempts at destruction.

but the destruction of even one iota of this majesty is still wrong. because, for one thing, we humans are that iota. when we rape nature we are not subjecting some foreign thing to our plans: no, we are ruining ourselves. and suicide must be resisted.

trees of white coral

sunday morning sara and i sat watching snow-frosted trees go by our bus window. we were arriving in connecticut after almost a week on greyhound buses. and after such a raucous and extreme experience, from the hellish rage of missing the bus in reno to the joy of seeing family in utah, the ecstasy of colorado rockies at dawn and the madness of voices that is a night bus, this vision of delicate white trees under a white sky was a gentle landing indeed. we arrived and found my brother rob there too, waiting for us. and our luggage, which we had thought lost forever, was there too. as we had roamed around reno on tuesday trying to rent a car to utah and then renting a hotel room instead, our three bags had kept stolidly bumping along under bus after bus until it arrived in new haven, days ahead of us.

dawn in reno was cold and beautiful, and sara and i watched the ducks dunking and bobbing in the truckee river out behind the station. my carelessness resulted in us missing our bus. over the next days i kept thinking: how perfect our trip would have been if i had only double checked our departure time! the trip would have been a seamless whole, flowing from ducks and morning sky to a visit in utah and a placid ride back east. but instead, my rage at missing the bus and losing our luggage punched a hole in the following days. our joy at seeing family in utah mixed with frustration and helpless regret.

but gazing at those trees of white, feathery coral, that serene time in reno with ducks was joined by this new serenity, and the hole of rage closed. . .

Juan Cole on Mumbai attacks

Juan Cole is a scholar on the Middle East. The following comes from his blog, "Informed Consent."

India: Please Don't Go Down the Bush- Cheney Road
Many Indians have called the attacks in Mumbai "India's 9/11." As an American who lived in India, I can feel that country's anguish over these horrific and indiscriminate acts of terror.

Most Indian observers, however, were critical in 2001 (and after) of how exactly the Bush administration (i.e. Dick Cheney) responded to September 11. They were right, and they would do well to remember their own critique at this fateful moment.

What where the major mistakes of the United States government, and how might India avoid repeating them?

1) Remember asymmetry

The Bush administration was convinced that 9/11 could not have been the work of a small, independent terrorist organization. They insisted that Iraq must somehow have been behind it. States are used to dealing with other states, and military and intelligence agencies are fixated on state rivals. But Bush and Cheney were wrong. We have entered an era of asymmetrical terrorism threats, in which relatively small groups can inflict substantial damage.

The Bush administration clung to its conviction of an Iraq-al-Qaeda operational cooperation despite the excellent evidence, which the FBI and CIA quickly uncovered, that the money had all come via the UAE from Pakistan and Afghanistan. There was never any money trail back to the Iraqi government.

Many Indian officials and much of the Indian public is falling into the Cheney fallacy. It is being argued that the terrorists fought as trained guerrillas, and implied that only a state (i.e. Pakistan) could have given them that sort of training.

But to the extent that the terrorists were professional fighters, they could have come by their training in many ways. Some might have been ex-military in Britain or Pakistan. Or they might have interned in some training camp somewhere. Some could have fought as vigilantes in Afghanistan or Iraq. They needn't be state-backed.

Keep your eye on the ball.

The Bush administration took its eye off al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and instead put most of its resources into confronting Iraq. But Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Eventually this American fickleness allowed both al-Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup.

Likewise, India should not allow itself to be distracted by implausible conspiracy theories about high Pakistani officials wanting to destroy the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai. (Does that even make any sense?) Focusing on a conventional state threat alone will leave the country unprepared to meet further asymmetrical, guerrilla-style attacks.

Avoid Easy Bigotry about National Character

Many Americans decided after 9/11 that since 13 of the hijackers were Saudi Wahhabis, there is something evil about Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia itself was attacked repeatedly by al-Qaeda in 2003-2006 and waged a major national struggle against it. You can't tar a whole people with the brush of a few nationals that turn to terrorism.

Worse, a whole industry of Islamphobia grew up, with dedicated television programs (0'Reilly, Glen Beck), specialized sermonizers, and political hatchetmen (Giuliani). Persons born in the Middle East or Pakistan were systematically harassed at airports. And the stigmatization of Muslim Americans and Arab Americans was used as a wedge to attack liberals and leftists, as well, however illogical the juxtaposition may seem.

There is a danger in India as we speak of mob action against Muslims, which will ineluctably drag the country into communal violence. The terrorists that attacked Mumbai were not Muslims in any meaningful sense of the word. They were cultists. Some of them brought stocks of alcohol for the siege they knew they would provoke. They were not pious.
They killed and wounded Muslims along with other kinds of Indians.

Muslims in general must not be punished for the actions of a handful of unbalanced fanatics. Down that road lies the end of civilization. It should be remembered that Hindu extremists have killed 100 Christians in eastern India in recent weeks. But that would be no excuse for a Christian crusade against Hindus or Hinduism.

Likewise, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as a Sikh, will remember the dark days when PM Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards after she had sent the Indian security forces into the Golden Temple-- and the mob attacks on Sikhs in Delhi that took place in the aftermath. Blaming all Sikhs for the actions of a few was wrong then. It would be wrong now if applied to Muslims.

Address Security Flaws, but Keep Civil Liberties Strong

The 9/11 hijackings exploited three simple flaws in airline security of a procedural sort. Cockpit doors were not thought to need strengthening. It was assumed that hijackers could not fly planes. And no one expected hijackers to kill themselves. Once those assumptions are no longer made, security is already much better. Likewise, the Mumbai terrorists exploited flaws in coastal, urban and hotel security, which need to be addressed.

But Bush and Cheney hardly contented themselves with counter-terrorism measures. They dropped a thousand-page "p.a.t.r.i.o.t. act" on Congress one night and insisted they vote on it the next day. They created outlaw spaces like Guantanamo and engaged in torture (or encouraged allies to torture for them). They railroaded innocent people. They deeply damaged American democracy.

India's own democracy has all along been fragile. I actually travelled in India in summer of 1976 when Indira Gandhi had declared "Emergency," i.e., had suspended civil liberties and democracy (the only such period in Indian history since 1947). India's leadership must not allow a handful of terrorists to push the country into another Emergency. It is not always possible for lapsed democracies to recover their liberties once they are undermined.

Avoid War

The Bush administration fought two major wars in the aftermath of 9/11 but was never able to kill or capture the top al-Qaeda leadership. Conventional warfare did not actually destroy the Taliban, who later experienced a resurgence. The attack on Iraq destabilized the eastern stretches of the Middle East, which will be fragile and will face the threat of further wars for some time to come.

War with Pakistan over the Mumbai attacks would be a huge error. President Asaf Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani certainly did not have anything to do with those attacks. Indeed, the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott, which was intended to kill them, was done by exactly the same sort of people as attacked Mumbai. Nor was Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kiyani involved. Is it possible that a military cell under Gen. Pervez Musharraf trained Lashkar-e Tayiba terrorists for attacks in Kashmir, and then some of the LET went rogue and decided to hit Mumbai instead? Yes. But to interpret such a thing as a Pakistan government operation would be incorrect.

With a new civilian government, headed by politicians who have themselves suffered from Muslim extremism and terrorism, Pakistan could be an increasingly important security partner for India. Allowing past enmities to derail these potentialities for detente would be most unwise.

Don't Swing to the Right

The American public, traumatized by 9/11 and misled by propaganda from corporate media, swung right. Instead of rebuking Bush and Cheney for their sins against the Republic, for their illegal war on Iraq, for their gutting of the Bill of Rights, for their Orwellian techniques of governance, the public gave them another 4 years in 2004. This Himalayan error of judgment allowed Bush and Cheney to go on, like giant termites, undermining the economic and legal foundations of American values and prosperity.

The fundamentalist, rightwing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, which has extensive links with Hindu extremist groups, is already attacking the secular, left-of-center Congress Party for allegedly being soft on Muslim terrorism. The BJP almost dragged India into a nuclear war with Pakistan in 2002, and it seeded RSS extremists in the civil bureaucracy, and for the Indian public to return it to power now would risk further geopolitical and domestic tensions.

India may well become a global superpower during the coming century. The choices it makes now on how it will deal with this threat of terrorism will help determine what kind of country it will be, and what kind of global impact it will have. While it may be hypocritical of an American to hope that New Delhi deals with its crisis better than we did, it bespeaks my confidence in the country that I believe it can.

Friday, November 28, 2008

sending a chicken

yet another linguistic mixup. this past week Sara said to me, (in Chinese), "no one is going to 'songji' for us." not knowing the word 'songji,' i put to use my mighty imagination, and within a second or two figured it meant "to send a chicken." i imagined that sending a chicken was some sort of taiwanese wedding gift, symbolizing the hope that the recipient gives birth to dozens of children (hopefully sons).

sara explained that she had expected some people to "songji" -- or "see us off at the airport." see how concise chinese can be? a mere two syllables. which of course leads to some crazy misunderstandings.

it turns out a couple of relatives/family members will send us chickens off at the airport. or whatever.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nov. 29 to SF!

and it was a crazy week. Obama won. DPP activists and other protesters clashed with police while Chen wined and dined with Nationalist Party leaders inside hotels. and Sara got her interview -- an anticlimactic few minutes with each of the 3 interviewers. i think they looked at our case file and thought, "this is too absurd to be made up."

the following week was crazy too. we taught that friday night in Hsinchu. saturday sara and i took the 3 pm train to taipei to take in a dance performance with Brian U. and Louise. it was great, especially the abstract, slow-moving first performance. then we got the high speed train back to Hsinchu, and when we found all the trains had left for the south, Brian offered to let us sleep in a lounge of a friend's business. it was curious, sleeping on sofas with rain pelting the tin roof overhead (we were the top floor), but fun in a strange way. then we met sara's uncle and aunt, who were driving back to her grandparents' house in tonghsiao. we spent a lazy day there. monday we taught. tuesday ex president chen was detained, which the media was all over. wednesday we taught again. thursday was windy and clear: i rode with little skin (i riding a bike, she on paw) to a beautiful beach nearby and watched her scamper madly all over the sand dunes. then she continued following me all the way to grandma's house, where i met sara for dinner. she ran with me all the way home: marathon dog. last week we also bought plane tickets and extended my taiwan visa.

i wrote quite a bit that week too, since i was still in limbo dissertation-wise. my lazy advisor is still stringing me along. but this has been good for "Year Two of the Connecticut Republic." one day i wrote on a desolate riverside. another day i wrote out front of a small hospital in Yuanli. yet another day i sat in a pavilion next to an old neighborhood nearby. and last night in Hsinchu i wrote more good stuff in the Costco-like RT Mart food court.

today is Sara's birthday. she is 33. i bought her milk and tea for milk tea, and am still wondering what else to do. . .

maybe i will wait til we are in San Francisco to give her presents. we will land there November 29. then by bus to the east coast.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

what a week. . .

it will be a doozy. tuesday night here in taiwan will be the opening of polls in the US. it will be hard for me to sleep, knowing that CNN will be broadcasting on the election all night. i sent my ballot in weeks ago. i hope Obama wins, not because i think he will change everything or turn over the established order, but because he will carefully and pragmatically shepherd this very order. he will not lead us into war out of an egotistical belief that he is qualified to teach another country a lesson. he will make decisions based on cool reason, not a buddy-film emotion, the way Bush so wisely judged Putin. i wish he were further to the Left. but he does have a mainstream notion of fairness which will lead, if elected, to some modest rollbacks of the worst "soak the poor" policies of Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush.

i harbor hopes that he will take seriously the need to address global warming and nuclear disarmament -- not just reduction -- for these are the biggest threats to global security. he has the wisdom of judgment. but will enough Americans be shaken out of complacent support of our current system to support radical, brave measures?

the day before, Monday, Chen Yun-lin, China's top Taiwan Affairs official, will arrive in Taipei for negotiations on a list of issues, such as direct shipping links and food inspection. a few weeks ago i was hearing word that the opposition DPP party had vowed to besiege the talks with protests, but since then i have heard little. it could be a chaotic scene.

and finally, on friday morning, Sara will finally get her interview at the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto embassy, in Taipei. Which means we could be on our way to the US this very month! Just as the weather begins to turn nice. . .

Jose Carreras in Miaoli

The Miaoli County government (in Taiwan, where I am living), invited the famous tenor Jose Carreras to perform last night at the Miaoli Stadium. I had never seen the man's face until it was all over the main roads on banners. "County Head Liu's name is almost as big as Carreras', commented my wife acidly when she saw the banners.

My father in law got some tickets for us from some nice subdistrict leaders he knows through his work in the town office. I drove my wife, mother-in-law, and cousin-in-law (is this a term?), and we met my friend Brian, who took the train down from Hsinchu. We had some laughs driving over. I practiced cursing out slow drivers in Taiwanese with the term "seh-gu," or dawdling turtle, which made everyone laugh. "You sound like you are selling turtles," said Sara.

The stadium was, as is usual in these affairs, set up for maximum inconvenience for all the 30,000 non-VIPs. One long, long line stretched out away from the stadium. After walking for 10 minutes to find the end, we gave up and sat near the entrance with a lot of other people. I went to fetch cheap corn-dogs for us, as well as some stinky tofu for mom -- without knowing she hates the stuff. Worse, I spilled the oily sauce all over my nice clean dress pants. The corn dogs were warm, sweet, soft -- like a fresh donut with a hot dog inside. Yum.

When Brian arrived he insisted we could enter anywhere we wanted without tickets, and showed us the trick. But I think the police just didn't want to speak English. We found another, unused, gate and walked through -- while the main gate was slowly processing all the second-level spectators. It was starting as we climbed up and found seats from which we could just see the very tip of the stage and a severely foreshortened screen. We could hear the massive voice but barely see anything.

Near the end we moved over another entrance to where we could see. The voices, of Carreras and the soprano, were amazing. Especially the woman's. It was too bad we were given no song titles, or notes on the story background for each song. How odd it was to be hearing this peculiar Italian invention, full of rolled "R"s, open air in Taiwan with thousands of rapt spectators. How odd too at this man's god-like status, cloistered from ordinary life, his voice a virtual global treasure or protected anatomical heritage site. He stood back from the front of the stage, movements spare, only a slight bow and a raised hand at the applause. He himself was slight, with a wattle under his chin which I could see working when he paused, swallowing.

But I was glad for this strange cloistering and worshipping, which he has used to good effect, husbanding his strength into his 60s or 70s. This cloister-effect of media superstardom brought him to Miaoli stadium, for us to see, bathing in his voice's rich tones.

The audience was a bit unsure, a bit reserved. A host had to come out at the end to lead them in a chant of "encore" for them to call out for more. And they did come out, to our delight. Even not knowing the words, hearing them sing was to soak in an alienness, a beautiful, distant strangeness.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

unlikely oracle: taipei blues band

This is a year wheels have been coming off the tracks. The tracks themselves are groaning and twisting as strains on the American world order become unbearable. Oil reached 147.00 a barrel over the summer. Food prices rose: a bowl of dry noodles normally 30 reached 50, 60 yuan in Taiwan. Even as Iraq quieted in relative terms (not for the families of the murdered, or course, but for the world media), the tracks groaned louder. China put stars in our eyes with monumental performance engineering in the Olympics’ opening ceremony.

In October came the avalanche, a cascade of stock crashes echoing from one country to the next: losses in the night on the other side of the globe inspiring fear in the morning on our side, and vice-versa, night and day and day and night. Night was only a time for news nightmares from the other side. News anchors appeared peculiarly animated. For once their reports were not about tiny glitches in the machine’s operation, and their predictable solutions, but about real events. There was a sense, with the fear, of other possibilities. The future was, for once in a long time, not dictated by the monotonous ticking of a market metronome.

By chance watching a jug band perform one late October Saturday night in Taipei, this innocuous happening was infused with an uncanny historical mirage. Brian had insisted we go by high-speed rail in order to catch their performance; we chewed Japanese-style hamburgers and saw lights whizzing below like from a plane coming in for a night landing. “I asked Louise if she wanted to come,” he said, laughing, “and she said, ‘don’t you know there’s an economic disaster happening?’” He told me about the band’s leader, a young Taiwanese man whose mother had sent him to a middle class household in Mississippi as an exchange student. She hoped he would learn good English and become a doctor. He fell in love with early blues music.

We sat in a big room in the Taipei Artists’ Village after the performance as the musicians, some attired in antique, early 20th century hats and suspenders, played and frolicked in spontaneous combinations. Their instruments talked back and forth delightfully. People danced, clapped, stared, gathered close, hooted, sang. “This is what music used to be,” said Brian, “about people getting together – simple and alive. Once music was recorded, it was removed from this energy.” I thought of accounts I had read of literary and artistic circles, and of all the romance accumulated around these soap operas and their late-night music and affairs. The example I know best is of the American expatriates in Paris after World War One.

So this is why these circles are hung with such nostalgia, I thought as the musicians played, mingled, stamped their feet, whirled. They were not just emitters of sound, as they are in recordings, but human presences, heated, rollicking, generous, free, instantaneous. Those storied circles’ rarity makes their memory persist out of all proportion to their tiny size and duration. But why should only those past generations be so blessed with this vitality? Is it not available to us, here and now?

Looking at the man grating the washboard on his chest, or at David Chen, the bandleader, cradling the banjo, and thinking of economic crisis and the Paris circle, and musical energy in general, I had a tiny hallucination. An old-time dress-up band’s performance suddenly became a portentous oracle for the future: a period of cultural vitality and economic chaos last seen in the 1930s is upon us once again. Conversations will feel laden with meaning again, and there will be a zest of danger in the air as things teeter on the brink, refreshingly undetermined.

The world awakens, and hundreds of cities will see a rich ferment of music and thought and politics, freed of the stale repetitions of fashion and political stasis. The air will clear a little as factories close down. The earth will breathe. People will suffer – and ponder.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

the word "den"

the word refers in general to an animal's lair. but in the US after world war 2, it took on another meaning: a study in a house. growing up in suburban connecticut, i learned the word by visiting friend's homes or overhearing them talk. the impression i had was clear: the den was a place for dad, his books, his computer.

i wonder how "study" got to be associated with the word "den." isn't it odd? my theory is this: that the word was created by marketers for suburban housing developers to spice up an old concept. for a more current example, think of the odd (to me) word "breakfast nook." this word did not just come out of nowhere: marketers made it. and some ordinary people actually use it.

but why did marketers use the word "den" and not something else? i guess it had to do with the obsession with gender after world war 2. war and depression and industrialization had rendered old gender categories more and more irrelevant. corporations and citizens after the war found ways to recreate gender lines. even if it was clear that with machines, for example, women could do the exact amount of work as a man, male-dominated society (with the acquiescence of most women) found new ways to prove that women were essentially "different" from men: their "natures" were domestic. they were born to be inside. they were not as rational. etc etc.

so i think the word "den" was a way for marketers to link maleness to a certain special space within the female space of the home. a den is for animals. it was also to be for men looking to retreat to a more primal identity. in the "den" he would not be feminized, but retain his power in splendid isolation. isn't it funny that a place for books, associated with civilization, should be relabelled as savage and animalistic? but savage and primordial in a good way. . .

i wonder if the word is still used by builders or by suburbanites themselves. or was it just a transient usage from the 80s that disappeared later.

am i wrong? i would look in the OED online, but i do not have a subscription.

spirit guard

this fierce dude is standing just inside the doorway of a small mazu temple in an old settlement not far from my in-law's house. Mazu is a goddess worshipped on the south china coast especially by seafarers. she was originally a mere mortal, many centuries ago, who stood on the shore with a light after her father and brother were lost at sea. these guards are used in processions during ghost month; men hoist them on their shoulders and walk with them, the long arms swinging imposingly. the carrier looks out through a small opening in the belly.

taiwan coast

this is the coast i saw with geoff last week in Da'an village. the cement wave-breaks have an odd beauty when lined up this way. the coast is lined with windmills, which sound like a plane overhead when you get near.

pipi, eating

little skin has given birth, but her pups are still squirreled away somewhere unknown. we don't hear any yaps from the empty ground out on the other side of the complex. she is suffering a lot now; her skin condition is worse. i am now feeding her medicine, but am not sure it is the right one. i told the vet i think it might be scabies, but i am just guessing.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sister Gozuwa

last night Sara's mom got a call from the Great Love television channel, which is run by the Ciji Buddhist Charitable Foundation. Sara's mom is an active member of Ciji. they wanted to do an interview with her on her involvement with Ciji.

but mother-in-law did not like this idea. "Why don't you interview Sister Gozuwa?"
she said. "She is out there doing recycling 12 hours a day, every day! Why am I more qualified than her?" i admired her for making this point with them, but is she really in the dark about media people's motives? the people in charge of publicity for any organization are going to choose people deemed "attractive" to represent the organization. they care nothing for the truth. Sister Gozuwa, an old, humble, poor woman unskilled with words, will never get an interview with Great Love. Eddie Klaus senior will never become a Mormon bishop: he is small of stature and working-class. it does not matter that these people are backbones of their respective religious organizations. they do not fit the (image) bill.

i assume the interview will go ahead. maybe they will squeeze Gozuwa into some shots.

recent pictures

the top photo was taken at the Italian restaurant where we had dinner with our friends in Hsinchu. my friend Brian, who i roomed with in Taiwan 8 years ago, pushed a red envelope with money in it into my hands. giving red envelopes is a Chinese practice for events like weddings. even though this was not a wedding, Brian is no traditionalist. i resisted very properly, and we pushed back and forth. it was funny, two white men in an Italian restaurant, enacting a Chinese custom. Sara was not in good health, but as soon as her friends and students arrived, she was in high spirits.

the bottom photo is a doorway in a temple in Chingshui Geoff and I visited on our bike trip.

the middle photo was taken in the mountains east of Dongshi a couple of days ago.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

end of history?. . .

Fukuyama was the ultimate triumphalist of the neoliberal order, proclaiming liberal democracies under "free markets" as the "end of history." not so fast. here is his article in newsweek.

The implosion of America's most storied investment banks. The vanishing of more than a trillion dollars in stock-market wealth in a day. A $700 billion tab for U.S. taxpayers. The scale of the Wall Street crackup could scarcely be more gargantuan. Yet even as Americans ask why they're having to pay such mind-bending sums to prevent the economy from imploding, few are discussing a more intangible, yet potentially much greater cost to the United States—the damage that the financial meltdown is doing to America's "brand."

Ideas are one of our most important exports, and two fundamentally American ideas have dominated global thinking since the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was elected president. The first was a certain vision of capitalism—one that argued low taxes, light regulation and a pared-back government would be the engine for economic growth. Reaganism reversed a century-long trend toward ever-larger government. Deregulation became the order of the day not just in the United States but around the world.

The second big idea was America as a promoter of liberal democracy around the world, which was seen as the best path to a more prosperous and open international order. America's power and influence rested not just on our tanks and dollars, but on the fact that most people found the American form of self-government attractive and wanted to reshape their societies along the same lines—what political scientist Joseph Nye has labeled our "soft power."

It's hard to fathom just how badly these signature features of the American brand have been discredited. Between 2002 and 2007, while the world was enjoying an unprecedented period of growth, it was easy to ignore those European socialists and Latin American populists who denounced the U.S. economic model as "cowboy capitalism." But now the engine of that growth, the American economy, has gone off the rails and threatens to drag the rest of the world down with it. Worse, the culprit is the American model itself: under the mantra of less government, Washington failed to adequately regulate the financial sector and allowed it to do tremendous harm to the rest of the society.

Democracy was tarnished even earlier. Once Saddam was proved not to have WMD, the Bush administration sought to justify the Iraq War by linking it to a broader "freedom agenda"; suddenly the promotion of democracy was a chief weapon in the war against terrorism. To many people around the world, America's rhetoric about democracy sounds a lot like an excuse for furthering U.S. hegemony.

The choice we face now goes well beyond the bailout, or the presidential campaign. The American brand is being sorely tested at a time when other models—whether China's or Russia's—are looking more and more attractive. Restoring our good name and reviving the appeal of our brand is in many ways as great a challenge as stabilizing the financial sector. Barack Obama and John McCain would each bring different strengths to the task. But for either it will be an uphill, years-long struggle. And we cannot even begin until we clearly understand what went wrong—which aspects of the American model are sound, which were poorly implemented, and which need to be discarded altogether.

Many commentators have noted that the Wall Street meltdown marks the end of the Reagan era. In this they are doubtless right, even if McCain manages to get elected president in November. Big ideas are born in the context of a particular historical era. Few survive when the context changes dramatically, which is why politics tends to shift from left to right and back again in generation-long cycles.

Reaganism (or, in its British form, Thatcherism) was right for its time. Since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s, governments all over the world had only grown bigger and bigger. By the 1970s large welfare states and economies choked by red tape were proving highly dysfunctional. Back then, telephones were expensive and hard to get, air travel was a luxury of the rich, and most people put their savings in bank accounts paying low, regulated rates of interest. Programs like Aid to Families With Dependent Children created disincentives for poor families to work and stay married, and families broke down. The Reagan-Thatcher revolution made it easier to hire and fire workers, causing a huge amount of pain as traditional industries shrank or shut down. But it also laid the groundwork for nearly three decades of growth and the emergence of new sectors like information technology and biotech.

Internationally, the Reagan revolution translated into the "Washington Consensus," under which Washington—and institutions under its influence, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—pushed developing countries to open up their economies. While the Washington Consensus is routinely trashed by populists like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, it successfully eased the pain of the Latin American debt crisis of the early 1980s, when hyperinflation plagued countries such as Argentina and Brazil. Similar market-friendly policies are what turned China and India into the economic powerhouses they are today.

And if anyone needed more proof, they could look at the world's most extreme examples of big government—the centrally planned economies of the former Soviet Union and other communist states. By the 1970s they were falling behind their capitalist rivals in virtually all respects. Their implosion after the fall of the Berlin Wall confirmed that such welfare states on steroids were an historical dead end.

Like all transformative movements, the Reagan revolution lost its way because for many followers it became an unimpeachable ideology, not a pragmatic response to the excesses of the welfare state. Two concepts were sacrosanct: first, that tax cuts would be self-financing, and second, that financial markets could be self-regulating.

Prior to the 1980s, conservatives were fiscally conservative— that is, they were unwilling to spend more than they took in in taxes. But Reaganomics introduced the idea that virtually any tax cut would so stimulate growth that the government would end up taking in more revenue in the end (the so-called Laffer curve). In fact, the traditional view was correct: if you cut taxes without cutting spending, you end up with a damaging deficit. Thus the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s produced a big deficit; the Clinton tax increases of the 1990s produced a surplus; and the Bush tax cuts of the early 21st century produced an even larger deficit. The fact that the American economy grew just as fast in the Clinton years as in the Reagan ones somehow didn't shake the conservative faith in tax cuts as the surefire key to growth.

More important, globalization masked the flaws in this reasoning for several decades. Foreigners seemed endlessly willing to hold American dollars, which allowed the U.S. government to run deficits while still enjoying high growth, something that no developing country could get away with. That's why Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly told President Bush early on that the lesson of the 1980s was that "deficits don't matter."

The second Reagan-era article of faith—financial deregulation—was pushed by an unholy alliance of true believers and Wall Street firms, and by the 1990s had been accepted as gospel by the Democrats as well. They argued that long-standing regulations like the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act (which split up commercial and investment banking) were stifling innovation and undermining the competitiveness of U.S. financial institutions. They were right—only, deregulation produced a flood of innovative new products like collateralized debt obligations, which are at the core of the current crisis. Some Republicans still haven't come to grips with this, as evidenced by their proposed alternative to the bailout bill, which involved yet bigger tax cuts for hedge funds.

The problem is that Wall Street is very different from, say, Silicon Valley, where a light regulatory hand is genuinely beneficial. Financial institutions are based on trust, which can only flourish if governments ensure they are transparent and constrained in the risks they can take with other people's money. The sector is also different because the collapse of a financial institution harms not just its shareholders and employees, but a host of innocent bystanders as well (what economists soberly call "negative externalities").

Signs that the Reagan revolution had drifted dangerously have been clear over the past decade. An early warning was the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. Countries like Thailand and South Korea, following American advice and pressure, liberalized their capital markets in the early 1990s. A lot of hot money started flowing into their economies, creating a speculative bubble, and then rushed out again at the first sign of trouble. Sound familiar? Meanwhile, countries like China and Malaysia that didn't follow American advice and kept their financial markets closed or strictly regulated found themselves much less vulnerable.

A second warning sign lay in America's accumulating structural deficits. China and a number of other countries began buying U.S. dollars after 1997 as part of a deliberate strategy to undervalue their currencies, keep their factories humming and protect themselves from financial shocks. This suited a post-9/11 America just fine; it meant that we could cut taxes, finance a consumption binge, pay for two expensive wars and run a fiscal deficit at the same time. The staggering and mounting trade deficits this produced—$700 billion a year by 2007—were clearly unsustainable; sooner or later the foreigners would decide that America wasn't such a great place to bank their money. The falling U.S. dollar indicates that we have arrived at that point. Clearly, and contrary to Cheney, deficits do matter.

Even at home, the downside of deregulation were clear well before the Wall Street collapse. In California, electricity prices spiraled out of control in 2000-2001 as a result of deregulation in the state energy market, which unscrupulous companies like Enron gamed to their advantage. Enron itself, along with a host of other firms, collapsed in 2004 because accounting standards had not been enforced adequately. Inequality in the United States rose throughout the past decade, because the gains from economic growth went disproportionately to wealthier and better-educated Americans, while the incomes of working-class people stagnated. And finally, the bungled occupation of Iraq and the response to Hurricane Katrina exposed the top-to-bottom weakness of the public sector, a result of decades of underfunding and the low prestige accorded civil servants from the Reagan years on.

All this suggests that the Reagan era should have ended some time ago. It didn't partly because the Democratic Party failed to come up with convincing candidates and arguments, but also because of a particular aspect of America that makes our country very different from Europe. There, less-educated, working-class citizens vote reliably for socialist, communist and other left-learning parties, based on their economic interests. In the United States, they can swing either left or right. They were part of Roosevelt's grand Democratic coalition during the New Deal, a coalition that held through Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s. But they started voting Republican during the Nixon and Reagan years, swung to Clinton in the 1990s, and returned to the Republican fold under George W. Bush. When they vote Republican, it's because cultural issues like religion, patriotism, family values and gun ownership trump economic ones.

This group of voters will decide November's election, not least because of their concentration in a handful of swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Will they tilt toward the more distant, Harvard-educated Obama, who more accurately reflects their economic interests? Or will they stick with people they can better identify with, like McCain and Sarah Palin? It took an economic crisis of massive proportions from 1929 to 1931 to bring a Democratic administration to power. Polls indicate we may have arrived again at that point in October 2008.

The other critical component of the American brand is democracy, and the willingness of the United States to support other democracies around the world. This idealistic streak in U.S. foreign policy has been constant over the past century, from Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations through Roosevelt's Four Freedoms to Reagan's call for Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."

Promoting democracy—through diplomacy, aid to civil society groups, free media and the like—has never been controversial. The problem now is that by using democracy to justify the Iraq War, the Bush administration suggested to many that "democracy" was a code word for military intervention and regime change. (The chaos that ensued in Iraq didn't exactly help democracy's image either.) The Middle East in particular is a minefield for any U.S. administration, since America supports nondemocratic allies like the Saudis, and refuses to work with groups like Hamas and Hizbullah that came to power through elections. We don't have much credibility when we champion a "freedom agenda."

The American model has also been seriously tarnished by the Bush administration's use of torture. After 9/11 Americans proved distressingly ready to give up constitutional protections for the sake of security. Guantánamo Bay and the hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib have since replaced the Statue of Liberty as symbols of America in the eyes of many non-Americans.

No matter who wins the presidency a month from now, the shift into a new cycle of American and world politics will have begun. The Democrats are likely to increase their majorities in the House and Senate. A huge amount of populist anger is brewing as the Wall Street meltdown spreads to Main Street. Already there is a growing consensus on the need to re-regulate many parts of the economy.

Globally the United States will not enjoy the hegemonic position it has occupied until now, something underscored by Russia's Aug. 7 invasion of Georgia. America's ability to shape the global economy through trade pacts and the IMF and World Bank will be diminished, as will our financial resources. And in many parts of the world, American ideas, advice and even aid will be less welcome than they are now.

Under such circumstances, which candidate is better positioned to rebrand America? Barack Obama obviously carries the least baggage from the recent past, and his postpartisan style seeks to move beyond today's political divisions. At heart he seems a pragmatist, not an ideologue. But his consensus-forming skills will be sorely tested when he has to make tough choices, bringing not just Republicans but unruly Democrats into the fold. McCain, for his part, has talked like Teddy Roosevelt in recent weeks, railing against Wall Street and calling for SEC chairman Chris Cox's head. He may be the only Republican who can bring his party, kicking and screaming, into a post-Reagan era. But one gets the sense that he hasn't fully made up his mind what kind of Republican he really is, or what principles should define the new America.

American influence can and will eventually be restored. Since the world as a whole is likely to suffer an economic downturn, it is not clear that the Chinese or Russian models will fare appreciably better than the American version. The United States has come back from serious setbacks during the 1930s and 1970s, due to the adaptability of our system and the resilience of our people.

Still, another comeback rests on our ability to make some fundamental changes. First, we must break out of the Reagan-era straitjacket concerning taxes and regulation. Tax cuts feel good but do not necessarily stimulate growth or pay for themselves; given our long-term fiscal situation Americans are going to have to be told honestly that they will have to pay their own way in the future. Deregulation, or the failure of regulators to keep up with fast-moving markets, can become unbelievably costly, as we have seen. The entire American public sector—underfunded, deprofessionalized and demoralized—needs to be rebuilt and be given a new sense of pride. There are certain jobs that only the government can fulfill.

As we undertake these changes, of course, there's a danger of overcorrecting. Financial institutions need strong supervision, but it isn't clear that other sectors of the economy do. Free trade remains a powerful motor for economic growth, as well as an instrument of U.S. diplomacy. We should provide better assistance to workers adjusting to changing global conditions, rather than defend their existing jobs. If tax cutting is not a path to automatic prosperity, neither is unconstrained social spending. The cost of the bailouts and the long-term weakness of the dollar mean that inflation will be a serious threat in the future. An irresponsible fiscal policy could easily add to the problem.

And while fewer non-Americans are likely to listen to our advice, many would still benefit from emulating certain aspects of the Reagan model. Not, certainly, financial-market deregulation. But in continental Europe, workers are still treated to long vacations, short working weeks, job guarantees and a host of other benefits that weaken their productivity and will not be financially sustainable.

The unedifying response to the Wall Street crisis shows that the biggest change we need to make is in our politics. The Reagan revolution broke the 50-year dominance of liberals and Democrats in American politics and opened up room for different approaches to the problems of the time. But as the years have passed, what were once fresh ideas have hardened into hoary dogmas. The quality of political debate has been coarsened by partisans who question not just the ideas but the motives of their opponents. All this makes it harder to adjust to the new and difficult reality we face. So the ultimate test for the American model will be its capacity to reinvent itself once again. Good branding is not, to quote a presidential candidate, a matter of putting lipstick on a pig. It's about having the right product to sell in the first place. American democracy has its work cut out for it.

Fukuyama is professor of International Political Economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Geoff's visit

My Australian friend Geoff visited Sara and I for almost a week. It was great. Best of all was a day-long bike ride we took, 80 kilometers all over the Taiwan countryside. At 56, he was still way ahead of me on the hills -- and there were some big ones. How my pores open to the world when I am out in it, in the open air, sweating, in love with life. How well I eat when I am on my bike. How well I sleep when I get home.

A bridge was out -- victim of a recent typhoon -- meaning we arrived home two hours later than expected, and much tireder. my poor rear end. we had to find an alternate, and much farther, bridge.

privatize the profits. . .

but socialize the losses!

note that Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is now referring to Bush as "Comrade Bush," because he has gone farther to the Left even than Chavez in taking over banks.

the grand illusion of the last 30 years -- of a market, floating free of states and institutions, a magical place where anyone and everyone makes money -- has suddenly collapsed. good riddance, i say. "the end of history" -- what an egotistical dream! as if all of history were just leading up to US. but Vietnam was the beginning of the end of American empire.

there is no such thing as market without governments. the Right's fantasy, pushed successfully all these years (even Clinton loved the market), that the state was the enemy of the market, has finally been shown to be untrue. and in how spectacular a fashion.

so what are we left with? these thirty years of profits have all gone into private hands. the losses these fat cats wrought in recent months, however, have all been shared by taxpayers. in other words, they can get rich off the labor of others. and the government is only allowed to take a small amount of tax money for redistribution to the public. anything more bold -- raising taxes for health care, etc -- is labelled "government interference in the workings of the free market." the moment losses pass a certain line, however, these same fat cats cry out for help from the despised government. which is us, by the way.

so -- we socialize losses, but are not allowed to socialize profits. this is not a fair deal. i wonder how long Americans will put up with it.

if nothing else, this financial crisis is putting paid to the apolitical, lazy, self-centered attitude that characterized the American mainstream for so long. as long as i get my piece of the pie, goes that thinking, i could not care less for the evils wrought by this system. how tired i have been of this know-nothing attitude! how could it be that market proponents could hitch their message of greed up to Christianity, a message of selflessness! and worse, those in love with the system viewed anyone not in love with it with contempt. mere hippies! losers! sour grapes! the cynicism of these market believers, as if to them, life could contain nothing more than the love of material gain and power: that idealists are just hiding their secret lust for money.

they are wrong. and their bubble of a world is gone.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

little skin's bath

today i saw pipi's shadow under the garage door as i raised it. she came to me once i had put down her food, as she usually does. she wants some affection first. i had prepared the bucket of water and bottle of shampoo. i scratched her stinky skin. i lifted the scoop from the bucket and showed it to her. she seemed wary, and walked away. i called her and she came back. i put one hand on her back and lifted up the scoop and poured slowly over her back, talking to her. she quivered, but stayed. i could hardly believe it. i did the whole thing with one hand holding her in place, the other sudsing her up and rinsing her. once she was rinsed she shook herself dry and began rolling in the dirt. no!! i ran over with an old cloth and dried her off. i could hardly believe how nice it was to feel her clean hair under my fingers. she no longer stank!

on bike to the net cafe, she and dabai, another stray, trotted behind me. they clearly enjoyed parading through alleys they never traverse. pipi took the opportunity to bark bombastically at all potential enemies. i had to push them out the door of the cafe several times before they got the message.

to think, when i first saw her she was on the edge of death, a pariah without dog friends, cowering before all other dogs.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

to hong kong

Sara and I flew to Hong Kong on September 9, the exact date my legal six months in Taiwan were up. We flew back on the 15th, two days later than expected, due to Typhoon Sinlaku hitting Taiwan. The first day was all amazement: that this wonderland existed in reality, that we were there, that it was all there for us. I guess that feeling is the child-like, even narcissistic side of travel: this place was made for us, and we happened to drink the lucky potion that brought us here. Except that instead of potion, it was an Eva Airlines jumbo jet. The moment it touched down I pumped my fist in relief.

The fast train from the airport to the downtown was a futuristic fantasy, with glinting blue lights marking the train’s progress in an arc just under the ceiling at either end of the car. The view, too, was futuristic: green-windowed towers rising next to the sea, and more distant buildings foresting the coastline opposite us.

That first day felt like I had never been there before, even though I had, three times. The first time I flew in was with Cheri in 1985, into Kai-Tak Airport, right in the middle of crowded Kowloon, the peninsula just opposite Hong Kong Island. I think I can remember watching rooftops skimming just below us as we landed – or is that just an impression from pictures I have seen? The second time I came in by train from China, at the end of a 24 hour bus trip from Hainan Island, where VIA had held its annual conference in 1997. I stayed two or three days before flying to Indonesia. The thing I remember most about that trip was taking a boat to Macau, the former Portuguese colony, for a day. I must have stayed again on the way back to China, a night maybe, though I don’t really remember. The third time was in 2002, when I flew into the new airport, and stayed two or three days while applying for a new visa for Taiwan to stay the rest of the summer. The thing I remember most about that trip was my surprise that the Taiwanese consulate was disguised as the “Zhong Hua (China) Travel Agency,” on the 40th floor of one of the Lippo Towers in the middle of the financial district. Not even a Taiwanese flag was to be seen,
or the word “consulate,” anywhere in the room.

But even as these memories lingered, everything nonetheless seemed new – especially the first day. How exciting it is to fumble for coins at the bakery or on the bus, and to have to peer carefully at them to make sure you are paying the right amount. Again, I think this feeling is a childish delight at being in a world made new and strange, without regressing to childhood or being on drugs. The money is alien, the street signs are odd, the slightest detail is often the most eye-catching to newcomers: the plastic blue ten dollar note with the transparent spot, the word “strawberry” spelled in Chinese but after the sound of the English word (shituo beili), the touch scan screens on the subway card vending machines. Sara right away wanted to enter every 7-Eleven we passed, to scan the shelves for similarities and differences with Taiwan’s stores. “No tea-leaf eggs,” she said, “lots more milk. No hot dogs.”

We walked from the airport train station to Tsim Tsa Tsui (Jian Sha Zu in Chinese), the very tip of Kowloon, to look for a room. We approached the two hulking buildings known to every budget traveler, the Mirador and Chungking Mansions, with mixed feelings. The guide book material I had printed out in Taiwan had given the odd advice to “avoid these places,” even while describing the bargains to be had. I was not concerned about staying there, but my memory of sharing a narrow dim room with ten Pakistanis in sagging bunk beds made me wonder about Sara. “Black Power,” someone had written in a dingy stairwell. Walking into the “Garden Hostel” on the third floor we were greeted by the sight of a man hitting a punching bag. They shared space with a martial arts studio. We were shown to a room tiny but pretty clean, and left to find the Star Ferry.

We could not walk far through Kowloon without being approached by South Asian tailors offering custom-made suits. I am used to the masses of signs rising above Taiwan’s unzoned roads, but Kowloon’s signs were absurd, reaching out from both sides far enough to touch and overlap in the middle. We passed the white mosque on the corner of Kowloon Park, and a fair number of veiled women and pajama’d men, probably from South Asia.

Getting on the old Star Ferry was a joy, the lower level maintained in the old style, with black-painted iron benches and open to the breeze. An open door gives a look down into the engine room. The ferry was nearly made obsolete with the building of the subway in the 90s, which tunneled under the harbor, but like San Francisco’s cable cars, was saved from elimination. With the coming of evening, digital LED light panels were going on across the Hong Kong skyline across the harbor. Men in blue sailor suits unroped the ferry and we rocked across the water.

On the other side, we found one effect of Hong Kong’s mad density: with space at such a premium, especially on the island, pedestrians are often shunted up onto pedestrian bridges above the complex road network. These bridges are linked into their own networks, going through and around buildings. But without knowing of them, we often bumbled around, not even sure how to cross a road. We bumbled around until we found a bus station – under a shopping mall – that could take us to Taiping Mountain, once called Victoria Peak. The small bus groaned up steep grades, past tall thin apartment towers standing like a pine forest. As we climbed, the driver would place a new plaque in the front window, showing the revised price for the rest of the route. There was no call button. Riders called out “stop please” – most of them in English. Some were wealthy Americans or Europeans, living in exclusive enclaves high above the city. More were Filipino maids or nannies.

At the top we found a spectacular nighttime city-scape crowded with tourists, as well as several malls. We were to find malls all over the city, often combined with transit points like subway stops or ferry terminals. More than once, we would be following signs on the pedestrian bridge toward some destination, only to get lost once the bridge led us into the mall and the signs mysteriously disappeared. Looking for bathrooms was maybe even harder than in American cities: invariably, these luxurious shopping centers placed their bathrooms in some basement tunnel far from the shops, or even outside the premises. Even more remarkable than the skyscrapers of downtown Hong Kong just below the peak are the forests of anonymous white towers out toward the horizons, spreading along the coast in both directions. It is a vision beautiful but a little terrifying, that enough collected money can produce a mad wonderland of buildings.

Walking about the streets in the coming days we were to be reminded of this double-edged uniqueness – that the absolute lack of space and excess of capital had produced both an inhuman system of stacking people up into the air in tiny boxes, as well as an amazing ingenuity in dealing with the tightness. I’ve mentioned the pedestrian walkways all over Hong Kong island. Another is the double decker buses swerving and racing around the tight curves. Still another method for dealing is the almost total lack of street stalls, so different from Taiwan: absolutely nothing can get in the way of traffic, even on the sidewalks (there are some streets dedicated to pedestrian markets, though). So there are tiny shops several feet wide, or stuck in the triangular space under stairwells in building entrances, mere closets for selling fruit juices or changing money. One of our funny moments was trying to maneuver in a closet-sized photo shop as other people were trying to come in the door. The door only opened inward, so as not to knock people off the narrow sidewalk outside. Yet pushing it inward pushed it right into the back of anyone standing at the counter. So there was much struggling and maneuvering as a couple with a small baby tried coming in for passport photos. I set off the copy machine by accident. Yet another sign of the tightness is the poles stuck straight out from apartment windows on which Hong Kongers hang laundry. Even in crowded Taiwan, there is still enough space in houses to hang laundry in the open-air balcony, but in Hong Kong space is too expensive to use for balconies.

Talking about laundry with Sara, I recounted Cheri and I’s memorable first night in Hong Kong, in a tiny apartment in Yuen Long, an industrial suburb. We were tickled to no end at the bathtub too tiny to squat down in, in the bathroom too small to lie across. The next morning, I think, one of our towels dropped from our laundry pole down to downstairs neighbor’s line. We tried knocking on their door, I think, but ended up using a hanger and a rope to fish it back up. I remember seeing Donald Duck speaking Cantonese in that apartment, as well as our visit to a hair dryer factory where our kind friend was a manager, and buying a “peanut butter bun” at a store – already conveniently spread with peanut butter.

We rode the famous cable tram back down to the downtown. I remembered having ridden it with Cheri, and the shock at the steep grade was the same – riders are seated facing forward as the tram backs down the mountain. At the steepest point, we were leaning so far forward our noses could touch the back of the seats in front of us. Adding to the shock of the grade is the sight of narrow apartment towers rising intrepidly from it. As they are shooting up beanstalk-like, tram-riders are falling, Spider-man-like, down through the city, past the lit windows. At certain points the tram passes under roadways, adding to the illusion.

Besides the ferry and the cable tram, the other archaic transport we rode was the electric tram, which runs most of the north shore of Hong Kong island, the heart of the city. The trams, most of which are now wrapped in advertisements, are as delightful to ride as the ferry. They are double-decked, and their rectangular, spare, tall silhouette is as far from modern design as possible. “Quaint” is the word. So tall and narrow you expect them to wobble at turns, or in the wind; they look like cigarette boxes teetering about. But they don’t wobble. They glide along to a low metal hiss. One enters from the rear door, and immediately on the right is a narrow staircase twisting upwards. All tourists climb up and try to sit in the front, where one can put one’s face into the wind, dog-like, and survey the streets below. On the tram, I feel like a privileged viewer, a voyeur, a spectator. That is what a tourist most wants, isn’t it? To be able to sit and do nothing in a special vantage point which lets you watch life flow past, as if unobserved. Ang Lee’s latest movie, “Lust – Caution,” filmed a scene on one of these trams, in which the female lead is sitting contemplatively, dreamily looking out, and a male character, a fellow student actor, approaches her from behind and tries to talk to her. There is something dreamy about the tram’s slow, mechanical glide, and the second floor view. Just as with the Star Ferry, most of the people riding are not tourists, but locals. I saw a man sitting reading the Chinese-language horse racing news. You pay when you get off.

One time we took the tram bound for “Happy Valley,” which is the horse-race track. We rode a slow loop around the track, and as we headed back for the main street, mountain slopes on our left, we began passing old cemeteries, relics of the colonial era. As was the British custom of dividing people by races and religions (done very efficiently in America, for example), we passed the “Christian Cemetery” first, then the “Catholic Cemetery,” then the “Parsee Cemetery,” then the “Hindoo Cemetery,” and finally the “Moslem Cemetery.” The Parsees, as far as I know, are Iranian Zoroastrians, followers of a 2500-year-old religion, many of whom migrated to Indian cities as merchants, finding in India greater tolerance for religious difference. And I suppose from there, many came with the British to Hong Kong.

I wish we had just got off the tram right then and there, and explored those old cemeteries. I kept hoping we would have time to go back, but we never did. Nor did we make it to the Hong Kong wetlands park, a bird sanctuary near the China border Sara wanted to see. Nor to the Hong Kong Film Archive, which i hoped to tell Rob about. Somehow a combination of exhausting days (especially after shopping or museum viewing) and fights between Sara and I (the most memorable climaxing in me following Sara back and forth through a maze of underground passages connecting two subway stations) meant we never got outside until 10 or 11 am. But in the 6 days we had, we did see (and eat) some great things. The best were: the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Lamma Island, Caine Street, numerous restaurants, and Hong Kong and Kowloon Parks. Oh, and the Mirador Mansion, where we stayed four nights.

At the museum, the best exhibits were on calligraphy and modern ink paintings. Chinese calligraphy is a combination of writing and martial arts technique: you can see the bodily movements in the characters, from blocky muscular ones to flowing, fluid ones that are hardly (or not at all) legible. There was an excellent ceramics exhibit, but by that time we were too tired to do more than rush through it. We even saw ceramic pillows!

Lamma Island was a place I had stayed, foolishly, in 1997 at the tail end of my 24 hour bus trip. An eccentric man named Micheal I knew in Beijing had told me, with total certainty, of an excellent place to stay there. But it wasn’t long after getting off the ferry at 11:30 pm, that I realized his directions (which prominently featured a “big tree”) were not adequate. I ended up wandering around in the dark on narrow paths before giving up and deciding to sleep on the wharf. I found an eatery still open on the main street. I chatted with the owner and his friend, and the friend invited me to sleep at his place.

The 20 minute ferry ride takes you past cargo ships anchored about, many with crane-equipped barges loading or unloading containers. You see the three huge smokestacks of the power plant occupying Lamma Island’s one end approaching. The main street runs along the small harbor, past seafood restaurants and shops selling flip flops, mu-mus, and cold drinks. The island’s popularity with Westerners is obvious in the gourmet cheese shop and wine shop mixed in with the stores selling local things. There are no cars on the island, though I did notice little tractor-trucks for carrying supplies around. The morning we left the island I walked the 20 minutes to the beach on the other side. It was an idyllic spot, with mountains to the left, the power plant to the right, and numerous signs everywhere, forbidding almost everything imaginable. Sara was often tickled at the detailed threats spelled out in these signs: “feeding of wild birds in the park will result in a 1,500.00 fine or 3 weeks in jail.” “Failure to fasten seatbelts on this bus may result in a 5,000.00 fine or 3 months in jail.” I suppose the British are to thank for this sign- and rule-happy trait of Hong Kong. Out to sea were visible many ships anchored. Even in the most idyllic spot in Hong Kong, one is never out of sight of massive buildings, ships, signs of the global economy.

Caine Street, or Shelley Street in one section, is yet another ingenious bit of urban design. It is a steep street running uphill from the flat downtown. I guess it used to be replete with long stairways, but now it is one long series of covered escalators! When one gets to a cross street, the escalator ends, you step out, cross the street, and enter another escalator. Or at major roads, the escalator takes you up to a pedestrian bridge for you to walk across to the next escalator. I wonder if all the restaurant and bar proprietors got the government to install all those escalators. Oh, going down you have to walk. Near the top we passed an old green mosque.

Mirador Mansion is about 15 or so stories and occupies a whole block. What makes it seem more massive, I think, is that the center is empty, a big square shaft of space for air circulation. So from each floor you can poke your head out and see the building rising up in dingy layers, laundry flapping and cooking grease dripping. The bottom few floors are shops, many selling Indian or Nepali clothing, groceries, or music. Some are work spaces where Africans pack up their thousands of cell phones for transport to their countries for sale. We read an article in the South China Morning Post about a local anthropologist studying the next-door Chungking Mansion. He called what he saw, “low-end globalization,” and said Hong Kong’s lax entry visas and closeness to Chinese factories made it attractive to people from developing countries to come and buy things like cell phones for resale. And the reason these dilapidated behemoths have not been demolished, apparently, is because they are owned collectively by hundreds of different owners. There is no single owner. On the third, fourth and fifth floors, Sara and I were amazed to pass many open doorways giving a glimpse of absolutely crammed workspaces – apartments turned into clothing production spaces! As dirty as the building seemed, it was undeniably fascinating, a labyrinth of people from everywhere, rich tourists, illegal workers, small scale manufacturers, and check-in-luggage importers. It was a bit like New York or any big city in microcosm – a massive structure in which people struggle and thrive. Like New York, one can see Hong Kongers rushing around, the weight of the world in their faces.

One night I called Mom and Dad, and it was fun to hear Dad’s memory of the place. He got a suit made at a place named “Jimmy Chan’s” in Kowloon, and he and his fellow soldiers were shown around Hong Kong to sites featured in a Hollywood movie – or was it the novel “The World of Susie Wong”? He said it seemed all they did was buy things, and I am not sure much has changed. Even we on our limited budget could not resist a few presents. Most of our indulgence was in food, however. I loved it; for Sara it was a little heavy and oily. I was surprised how American most restaurants seemed, middle-end restaurants at least. Except for the ducks hanging in the window, most of them looked like the interior of Denny’s, with stalls along the walls, tables in the middle, and uniformed waitresses. There was street food (sold from open store fronts, however, not stalls) that was oily and very tasty, and there were very fancy places. Unfortunately we never got to eat a full-on dim sum meal, though we ate a few things eaten a lot in dim sum. It was only the final day that I figured out, from reading signs, what local people call “dim sum.” Oh, and the hot dogs are amazing. Actually they are some kind of sausage that is much better than a hot dog. Taiwan’s hot dogs seem lifeless by comparison.

One thing we missed was talking to people, which in a city like that, as a tourist, can happen easily. We never talked to an African, or a Hong Konger, or even Indonesian maids strolling the parks in their Ramadan wear. And that is the downside of being at play in a futuristic playground of high buildings and narrow streets. We learned that Hong Kongers voted in some radical lawmakers in the recent elections from reading the newspapers, though we could not have seen the pressures of inflation and cost of living just from looking at people on the street. In their partial democracy, locals seem to be leery of replacing one colonial master (England) for another, China. While China has the support of most of the big business dynasties, it is in the quandary that ordinary people do not like their leaders to appear too obsequious. Another article talked about increased central funding for “national education,” meaning trips for students to the mainland, and more flag-raising ceremonies at primary school. After all, people are liable to forget which country they have been assigned too – it requires constant re-education.

The tainted milk scandal was hitting as we were in Hong Kong. What a sick mess. It is the kind of thing that happens when corporations and governments are in bed together: the farmers, of all people, get the blame! And it is the kind of thing that makes Hong Kongers, I suspect, want to keep China at a distance, even if that distance is more euphemism and down-playing than fact. I saw very few Chinese flags, for example, much fewer than posters of the cute Olympic mascots. And as much as Hong Kong elites, like Indians, have glommed onto the upper-class British education system, I doubt there is much nostalgia for that colonial rule among ordinary people.