Monthly Archives: February 2010


On several occasions, Chinese people have told me that I “look Australian.”  At first, I thought this made no sense, how could I, someone from a nation of immigrants, “look” like someone else from a different nation of immigrants?  Surely nobody could “look Australian” anymore than anybody could “look American,” right?  It turns out that both have distinctive looks, at least to the discerning Chinese eye, and that “Australian” is a much more consistent look than “American.”

I guess it makes sense that I look Australian, since many Ozzies are members of the Irish diaspora, as am I.  I find I get along pretty well with the Ozzies, and that’s largely due to the shared values and culture that the US and Australia share.  But also, they look like me.  And around here, I notice that.  And noticing that gets me thinking about the history of why I look like these people from the other side of the world.  And makes me feel more connected to that history.

My family tree has potato famine written all over it.  This genocidal act by the British empire scattered the Irish people all over the world, and sent my ancestors to Pennsylvania.  Others, the famine sent to Australia, Canada, and even HK.  I think we still carry the legacy of this violence in our genes.  Perhaps that helps explain why we’re known for our petulant personalities, and why I don’t deal well with bankers.  Put it down to genetic PTSD.  Survivors of genocide are not necessarily reluctant to perpetrate it on others, and potato famine survivors and their descendants certainly went on to participate in genocidal acts against Native Americans (and perhaps something similar is happening with the descendants of holocaust survivors in Israel).  Recent research in epigenetics indicates that it may be possible for certain genes to become activated by traumatic histories like these, with unknown consequences for the potential for world peace.

In the US, many white people feel like they lack ethnicity, and I was one of those white people.  I felt like a generic white American with no culture of my own, beyond that supplied to me by my TV.  But now that I’ve regained my ethnicity, I understand the desire to be around people like myself.  It’s not that I don’t get along with Chinese people, but I spend all day with them.   Sometimes it’s nice to be with people who understand me not through something they learned about my culture from a book or the media, but because their culture is my culture.  It’s nice not to have to explain everything.  It’s nice not to need everything explained to me.  I now understand why the minority kids often self-segregated themselves at lunch time.

USA vs. HK #4: Education

By most objective measures, this should be an easy one for HK.  In 2007, HK ranked among the best in the world on most measures of math and science science performance, ranking among the other developed Asian countries like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.  The US is toward the middle of the second tier, not as horrible as the media makes it seem, but not competing with East Asia.  (The US is way ahead of China though.)  So Hong Kong seems to be doing a much better job of teaching math and science to it’s children, at least on average.  But what about higher education?

The US still has the best universities in the world.  But on a per capita basis, the US and HK are pretty comparable.  Because of it’s protection of freedom of expression, and it’s high per capita income, HK is one of the leading centers of education in Asia, and the world.  The US has historically had a big advantage in this area, because there was a long period of time when it was one of the few places where academics could work without fear of the government looking over their shoulders.  This is the primary reason China will never have world class universities under the current regime, and why HK and Japan have such a regional advantage in Asia.  Asia is catching up in higher education and Hong Kong is a big part of that advance.  For a look at the world rankings of universities, according to the Times of London, check out this link:

Since we all know that K-12 education in the US sucks, and the US doesn’t have a big advantage over HK in higher ed, why am I still writing?  Doesn’t HK win?

I guess it depends on what the purpose of education is.  Basically all the school systems in the world were designed to train workers for the industrial age.  The goal was to teach basic literacy and computation skills, and to make people good at following schedules and obedient to authority.  Nobody explains this better than John Taylor Gatto, and his  basic argument is here.

Americans have never been the obedient type, blind obedience to authority is not an American value.  Years ago, I remember crossing a street with no traffic in Berin, watching the Germans wait for the light to give them formal permission to cross, rather than decide for themselves when it was safe.  The Chinese do not wait for the signal, they just go.  Obedience to authority is a Confucian value though, and it can stifle  creativity.  American schools have been much less successful in training obedience than Asian schools, and this helps explain why innovative companies like Apple and Google are located in the US, not Asia or even Europe.  Confucian values teach students not to question their teachers and professors.  So when a Chinese student has a new idea, and it conflicts with what the prof is saying, I have a feeling that student is less likely than an American student to decide that they might be right and the prof might be wrong.

Because of Americans’ issues with authority, they often have difficulty the hierarchical rigid environment created by most schools.  So even though American schools are failing to teach math and science as well as HK schools, they’re also failing to teach blind obedience.  In the age of the Google search and the smartphone, being able to do calculations quickly and memorize information is not a particularly useful skill; it’s creativity that counts.  Since public school systems all over the world teach how not to be creative, American schools succeed by failing.

The winner, in a shocker, is the USA.  It’s all tied up after 4: USA 2, HK 2.

False Dichotomies

dichotomy is a splitting into exactly two non-overlapping parts.  Those two parts must be mutually exclusive (nothing can be in both) and exhaustive (nothing can be in neither).  A false dichotomy is a seeming dichotomy that fails one or both of those criteria.  Hong Kong is full of ’em.  Here’s a quick list.  It’s far from exhaustive.

East vs. West: HK is mostly a Chinese city, but it has considerable Western, Indian, Malyasian, and Filipino influences.  The culture is Chinese, but the economic and political systems are Western.  What’s interesting is how naturally they seem to go together.

New World vs. Old World: China and everything Chinese is about as Old World as you can get.  But HK is a very new city, much newer than NYC.  The architecture is New World, but the culture is very old.

Big vs. Small: people often talk about how HK is a very small big city.  This is particularly true if you’re an expat.  I randomly run into people I know in this city of 7 million much more often than I did in Boulder (population 100,000 or so).

Left vs. Right: except on the streets, where everyone faithfully keeps to the wrong side, HK lacks a left/right convention, and it’s really annoying.  Sometimes you’re expected to keep left, other times right.  The lack of an established convention in this area makes walking considerably more chaotic and difficult than it needs to be.

Freedom vs. Authority: The political system here has some superficial democratic elements, but at the end of the day the only real power players are Big Beijing and big corporations. Mussolini would approve.  On the other hand, freedoms of speech, assembly and religion are protected.  J.S. Mill would approve.

Wasteful vs. Efficient: The amount of trash this city produces is insane, and I think it’s higher per capita than even the extreme wastefulness of a US city.  And recycling bins are so rare that I often find myself throwing plastic bottles away.  But those bottles, along with much of the reusable garbage, gets recycled anyway.  If something has value, Chinese people are loathe to waste it.  There’s a huge array of small businesses and individual poor people who make sure that much less gets wasted here than in HK.  More on this later.

I am e

If you’re in the USA, type the title of this post into Google.  If you’re in HK, go to Google USA and do the same.  Wait for autofill to do the rest.  If you’re in China…well, if you’re in China, you may or may not be able to read this blog or use Google at all.  And that’s because if there’s anyone who’s extremely terrified of Chinese people, it’s Big Beijing.

I went to Shenzhen yesterday.  It was a day trip and I was working, so I didn’t get a chance to see much of the city.  Part of what I did see reminded me of my old home (the USA).  And part of what I saw made me really appreciate my new home (HK).

I’ve mentioned this before, but in Shenzhen I was constantly reminded of how cheap life is in China.  From the wreckless driving and biking to the stories of kidney theft, kidnapping and murder, Shenzhen is a dangerous place.  As far as the crime goes though, I think I’m pretty unlikely to be the victim of anything serious.  Chinese lives are cheap, but diplomatic trouble with the West is expensive.  In other words, killing a honky gets you in more trouble than killing a honkie.  And the people know this because the cops know this.  So yes, my passport and my skin keep me safe.  It’s not fair, but it’s reality.

In the USA, the same legal logic applied whenever I was the only white person in a “minority neighborhood” that white Americans would consider dangerous.

To all the white Americans who get freaked out when they’re suddenly in the minority: Just remember that they’re more afraid of you than you are of them.