Saturday, February 24, 2007

A Matter of Mind Sets

After close to two weeks of intermittent reading, whenever I could find the time, I finally finished reading John Naisbitt’s Mind Set (HarperCollins, 2006). Actually, most of the book was covered in the rarefied air of the US airspace enroute from Tampa to Portland and back, each lasting about 7 hrs, but with a mid-stop at Albuquerque (going) and Chicago (returning). [Those from Malaysia would perhaps recall from their history lessons that Malacca was once ruled by the city name sake, Alfonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese General who lived in the 15/16th century. But the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was actually named after the Duke of Alburquerque, viceroy of New Spain from 1653 to 1660 but the first "r" in "Alburquerque" was dropped at some point in the 19th century, according to Wikipedia. But I can assure you that the pronunciations of the same word in US and in Malaysia are as far apart as the two countries are geographically.]

Honestly, I don’t enjoy flying, putting one’s life implicitly in the hands of the pilot, co-pilot, or the imaginary hand of the auto-pilot, not to mention all others that have had a hand in making/ensuring the airworthiness of the aircraft. The feeling of helplessness is boundless, and my muscles will tense up at the slightest vibration of the mammoth contraption. I have always envied air passengers who are able to lapse into a deep slumber just like that.

Thank God with age and with each flying “expedition” that I have chalked up, the anxiety has dissipated somewhat, to the extent that I was even able to read a book, something which I was not able to put my mind to in years gone by. Perhaps I have finally wised up to the serenity of accepting the things I cannot change, and acquired the wisdom to know that flying is one such activity that defies control, by a paying passenger anyway. Or perhaps it has something to do with Naisbitt’s writing, which is crisp, coherent, and cogent.

Now back to the book (the book image is taken from But first the author, John Naisbitt, who of course needs no introduction, but the brief introduction here serves to recap my encounter with the author’s name (I’ve never met the author in person, which is generally true of other books that I’ve read) and his other books.

Prior to his latest book, I’ve come across other titles by him (MegaTrends, High Tech/High Touch) but my reading of them has not progressed beyond the cover (front and back). Later, I became interested in him because he wrote a foreword for the book, The New Asian Way: Rebuilding Asia Through Self-Reliance by Foong Wai Fong, who is a fellow Malaysian. I once attended a forum in the Auditorium of Nan Yang Siang Pau, a Chinese daily newspaper in Malaysia. There’s where I first saw Ms. Foong speak during which she held her ground exchanging views in Chinese with Ong Tee Keat, a full-time politician with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) who is known for his fluency and prowess in the Chinese language.

With the reminiscing out of the way, let’s get back to the book at hand, or rather my reactions to and interpretations of some of the eleven mind sets that he has expounded in the book.

One mind set is “understanding how powerful it is not to have to be right”. While wanting to be right may make one rigorous in one’s approach to the problem, oftentimes it has the opposite effect of letting an opportunity slip by, or causing an impasse, a classic case of paralysis by analysis. This predicament naturally follows from employing time-tested methods, obsessed with the overwhelming drive to be right and fearing to thread into uncharted territory.

On the other hand, no one has exclusivity to all things right. The important lesson is to learn from the mistakes of our very own and others. There is really no shame in learning from others, nor making our own mistakes. In this respect, the saying “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” does ring true.

The other mind set that strikes a chord in me is “you don’t get results by solving problems but by exploiting opportunities”. Now, in the educational context, the teaching of problem solving skills has become a recent emphasis, as opposed to rote learning. What a society wants are problem solvers, and engineers have always prided themselves to be problem solvers first. To effect a change from this in-grained outlook not only requires a clear understanding of the benefits, in consonance with another mind set that “resistance to change falls if benefits are real”, but also reconciling with the imperative that we do not abdicate the problem solving role to somebody less capable to the overall detriment of all. Therefore, solving problem and creating opportunity are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they could be symbiotic as often an opportunity is recognized or surfaces while solving a problem.

Read the book for the other eight mind sets. But here I would like to quote a passage from the book that resonates with me:

For the most part, people all around the world are working to strengthen their cultural identifies. The paradox is that the more universal we become, the more (consciously or unconsciously) concerned we are about our cultural diversity. This is one of the constancies against all the prophecies of homogenization, All over the world, the things that are truly important to each of us are in our bones. Our mother tongue, our family, our community, our cultural heritage, and the strength with which we hold them differ from country to country and person to person. The role of nation-states will increasingly be to celebrate cultural identity and inheritance, and to attend to education.

In that regard, any country that holds steadfast to the vision of celebrating cultural identify and inheritance, both in word and in deed, of her citizenry would be well-positioned to serve up the best stew from the ensuing melting pot.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Blending the Salty's and the Southern Light

When we were back in Malaysia, we had always made it a point to visit the local Buddhist temple on the very first day of the Chinese New Year (CNY) with a view to expressing our thanks for blessings received in the past year and to seeking continuing guidance in the coming year. However, since we moved to Tampa three years ago, we have not been upholding this tradition, until this year, and that also at the other seaboard of US.

On the day after our D's wedding, which fell on the first day of CNY, we feted our in-laws and their family members and friends to a seafood buffet lunch at the Salty’s located along the bank of the mighty Columbia River. Unfortunately, our co-hosts, my wife’s brother and his wife, both domiciled in Portland, could not attend due to unforeseen circumstances.

It was during this occasion that Mike, Dan’s step-dad, seen here offering a toast to the newly wed, informed us of a Buddhist temple nearby when told of our tradition. And Dan knows the location well. So that was where we headed after the sumptuous meal.

It turned out to be a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, smaller than the one we have visited in Clearwater. Right at the entrance gate, we were greeted by a white Buddha statue. In the compound, there are clusters of statues depicting the important phases of the life of Buddha, in much the same way as those put up by its Clearwater counterpart, but more compact as can be readily seen by comparing the pictures here (from top left going clockwise) and here. But both are excellent 3-D renditions of the Buddha's epic journey to enlightenment.

As usual, my wife was the one uttering verses from the sutras, praying, and prostrating before the Buddha for all of us, while we watched in full reverence, pious in heart and thankful for the occasion.

On the way home, my wife suggested visiting the Chinese Garden located in the Portland downtown, but that will be the subject for another occasion.

Oh yes, the Vietnamese Buddhist temple has a Chinese name that translates into the Southern Light Temple. Hence the title of the blog.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Matter of Perspective

I read about the following story in a Chinese paper available for free from a local oriental grocery store.

A couple went searching for an apartment to rent, with a kid in tow. After covering a substantial area, they finally came upon one that they liked: spacious, quiet, and within a good school district. However, they were dumbfounded by the owner’s sole condition, that no kid is allowed.

Just when they were about to leave to continue on their apartment search, the kid knocked on the door. Seeing the same family at the door, the owner reiterated the same condition of no kid in his premises.

"I have no kid, only my parents," the kid explained.

And guess what? The owner agreed.

And the moral of the story? Many obstacles in life only appear so when viewed from a fixed perspective, much like you can view a half glass of water as half full, or half empty, or a crisis as a danger or opportunity, as famously characterized by its twin-Chinese character counterpart, which literally comprises danger (the top) and opportunity (the bottom).

To my mind, this is neither shifting stands nor compromising principles, which only amount to something if they are followed even when inconvenienced. It is also not glib talk playing on semantics.

Often, a lot of things that have not gone our way, that we have been wronged, that we have been unfairly dealt with, are mere inconveniences in the global scale of things. Places like Dafur where everyday is a fine balance between life and death; the tsunami-stricken coasts where having a roof over one’s head is a luxury; and in war-torn regions where dodging a bullet or navigating a mine field is the primary concern.

So next time when you seem to hit an impasse, when all seem lost, be appreciative of what you still have, and whom you still can turn to. Or when you feel slighted, outraged at being bypassed, pay heed to this anecdote in the book The 360degree Leader: Developing your influence from anywhere in the organization by John C. Maxwell:

Someone asked the composer and conductor Leonard Berstein which instrument was most difficult to play. Berstein responded, "Second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who can play second fiddle with enthusiasm -- that's a problem."

Maxwell says, "The whole secret [of paying second fiddle] is to think influence, not position." It means changing from a mindset of "I want a position that will make people follow me" to "I want to become a person whom people will want to follow."

A change of perspective, a mental one, will go a long way in finding gems in your seemingly lost life.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Chinese New Year Greeting to All

Chinese New Year (CNY) is now barely a week away; but here in Tampa, it might as well be just another hohum day. We can only imagine the atmosphere back home: vendors hawking CNY wares/food items, fireworks, and loudspeakers blaring Chinese/Cantonese songs, all featuring Gong Xi Fa Cai, or variants thereof, in some parts of the lyrics.

In fact, the theme of Valentine’s Day, which falls three days ahead of the CNY, is much more prominent here. Such is the reality of life, especially where one is a minority. Not only is any display of the festive mood restricted to establishments operated by ethnic Chinese, be they restaurants or grocery stores, but CNY is not recognized as a public holiday.

It’s during these moments of festivity that we reminisce of the “good” times back home marked by two consecutive public holidays: the prior preparation involving nightly trips to the night market to pick up all things red for good luck (this image, while taken two years ago in January 2005 courtesy of our good friend, Eric Ko, is a typical scene during this time of the year), the reunion dinner on CNY’s eve, the dishing out of ang pows (red packets) to kids of all ages as long as one is unmarried, followed by a visit to the local temple to express gratitude for the good fortune in the past year and to seek blessing for the coming year, and gathering of old friends who have not seen each other for eons, exchanging tall tales and recollecting nostalgic moments. Then there are the fireworks and pyrotechnic display, the acrobatic dragon dance, and machine-gun like blast of fire crackers (at designated localities), as well as CNY celebrations telecast on TV beamed from China, Taiwan, HongKong, Singapore, and the local production, Malaysia, all vying for the viewership of the local Chinese populace.

Another good friend of my wife back home, Nancy Ung, has always made it a point to send us CNY decorative designs, knowing full well that those things are hard to come by here. And they, in the ubiquitous red as seen here, do add some semblance of the impending CNY festive aura to our home.

As is the case during the Christmas season, sending and receiving CNY cards are a “chore” not to be trifled with: careful card selection with the right message tailored to individuals. We can all use some prospitious words, at least to set the mood right while ushering in the new year. This is especially germane for those in the business of making money, to put it bluntly.

Some are Chinese zodiac sign neutral, while others are specific such as the Year of the Boar that is 2007. With the advent of the Internet Age, these printed cards are gradually being replaced by the electronic version. Nowadays, there are many websites that provide free e-greeting card service for all kinds of festive seasons. Here is a sample of some that we have received.

And from the team at Going Global and aPleasant Surprise(s), here's wishing all Chinese bloggers and readers out there a prosperous year of the Boar!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Knowing One’s Heritage

In a multi-racial country, it is often that the language of the most populous race is adopted as the sole national language, ostensibly as a unifying vehicle toward a single national identity. If the said country has gained independence from the shackles of a colonizing power, then it’s plausible that the language of the colonizing power would linger on, especially if that language enjoys the status of a global lingua franca, and become the de facto national language of the former colony, until such time when nationalist imperatives make it untenable.

What about the minority races then? Would their ancestral cultures be integrated into the national one? In full? In part, say, as a compromise via a social contract hammered out as part of the birth pangs of a newly independent nation? Or would the minority races be assimilated into the national culture, shorn of any vestiges of their ancestral cultures, the defining elements of one’s heritage?

What constitute the defining elements of one’s heritage? Language? Spoken or written? Religion? Customs such as ancestral worship? Festivals? Generally, to the extent that religion is often much less race-based than language and social customs, it is fair to say that one’s language would be rated as such. Note that the focus here is on generality, which necessarily permits of exceptions that are not the rule.

I’m ethnic Chinese and hail from Malaysia, a decidedly multi-racial country. Thanks to my parents, who came to Malaysia from China, I was sent to a Chinese school for my primary education. But we had Malay and English taught as subjects too. So, basically, tri-lingual, though the level of proficiency differed as the medium of instruction was Chinese. So that gave me a solid grounding in the Chinese language, and also paved the way for my subsequent forays into the Chinese literature, Chinese culture, Chinese philosophy, and the latest addition, Buddhism that persist till today.

Again thanks to my parents, I enrolled in an English secondary school upon graduation from the primary school. There I first encountered, in hindsight, the disparity of a parallel school system. Before that, I vaguely remembered, on the way to my school, passing by another school where students, though my age, were from more varied racial backgrounds as evident from their skin colors. I learned that students from vernacular schools (be it Chinese, Tamil) and national schools need to spend the first year of their secondary school education in what was called then Remove Class. It was really a transition class for students from primary six to brush up on their English before facing the full rigor of an English education system starting from Form One, except for those from English primary schools who enter straight into Form One.

On reflection, I probably would have achieved the same proficiency in English had I gone straight into Form One based on three factors that were in my favor. Firstly, immersion. The perceived English handicap would have been made good in no time since English was going to be the medium of instruction. My confidence in the “power” of immersion in attaining language fluency is not misguided as I had personally seen its impact at work. In Form One, I found that my classmates who were from the English medium actually speak Mandarin, the most common form of spoken Chinese, fluently, but they don’t write as well except for their own names in Chinese. Later on it hit upon me that my hometown comprised mainly Chinese where mandarin is the primary mode of oral communication. I had even met Indians who speak mandarin. Thus via a state of after school daily exposure and immersion, these classmates of mine from the English medium began to pick up Mandarin, without knowing their written characters.

Secondly, the difference in the level of English taught at the rudimentary level in the Chinese schools and that used in the English secondary school, while admittedly of a higher standard, was not beyond catching up if one really puts one's mind to it.

Lastly, I had always exceled at learning as evident from my near top-of-the-class performance throughout the 6 years of primary school education. Personally I would acknowledge that I did have a slight, OK maybe appreciable, edge over an average student because of my learning disposition and I would hesitant to generalize my case to be representative of my peers.

Then again the level of education dispensed is usually pegged at meeting the aptitude level of the lower echelons of the student populace as opposed to an elitist one that caters for gifted students. So in that sense, my experience, or rather extrapolation of my language learning performance, may not be exclusive after all.

Subsequently, the English primary school system was abolished, and the cessation of the use of English as a medium of instruction gradually but surely migrated upward until finally even the institutions of higher learning were not spared, completing the Malayanization of the public education system and marking me as one of the last few batches of students who had their entire secondary school and university education in English.

What am I driving at, you may ask? Well, I’m coming to it. I’m suggesting that immersion is the best way to learn a language, regardless of a student’s age. So, put in a Chinese school, students of any race would have achieved fluency in Chinese by the time they graduate to secondary schools. By the same token, the students will continue to master another language that is the medium of instruction at the next level, be in English or Malay.

From then on, any disparity in academic performance among students would likely have less to do with language and race, but rather learning disposition and study support environment, especially at home.

Nobody is going to dispute the merits of knowing more than one language beyond one’s mother tongue, or adopted mother tongue as the case may be. I’m certainly fortunate to be trilingual, one of which is my mother tongue, by dint of favorable circumstances.

So reading up on my Chinese heritage, written in Chinese that encompasses all the nuances, the subtlety, the prose and style that is uniquely Chinese and that could only appear in any translation in form but not in spirit, I feel endeared to the Chinese culture and am proud of the heritage that forms one of the early civilizations of the world.

In my mind, that in no way contradicts the demands that attend to being a citizen of a nation, including loyalty. We can be proud of our cultural heritage, and be proud of the country that we were born into in the same breadth.

One deserves to learn one’s cultural heritage the best way possible, through the language that defines and helps propagate the same heritage. The social contract aside, that should be facilitated in the most efficient way, as borne out by keeping the primary school system in the Chinese vernacular, the immersive way.

Giving choices to her citizens is a hallmark of a progressive nation, and learning of one’s cultural heritage certainly ranks among the most basic. No argument of political expediency, nor rationalization based on economic premises should justify anybody but the myopic for advocating otherwise.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Chilling and Warming

For this week, these two apparently diametrically opposite heat sensations become the two sides of the same coin, following the latest update on the state of our climate, or rather climate change, by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the final arbiter on our culpability in inducing global warming through our economic activities here on earth.

That happened in Paris two days ago, and the event was preceded by a total lights out for the Eiffel Tower for 10 minutes. An ominous portent indeed.

Chilling, on the other hand, is the operative word used to describe the contents of the IPCC report, on the Today show, which I watched over the NBC channel yesterday morning.

Among the “doomsday” scenarios:

a) Temperature rising of possibly 1.1 to 6.4 deg Celsius by the end of the present century;

b) Sea level rising of 28 to 43 cm at the conclusion of the same century.

And perhaps the shocker or the wake-up call, depending on your degree of climate skeptisim:

The report is 66 - 90% sure the worsening global warming trend in the past century is man-made, or anthropogenic, to use an oft-applied term, based on unequivocal evidence.

And that warming trend will continue unabated even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases from this minute on, let alone doing nothing about it, or business as usual, in climate parlance.

There is even a link to the intensification of the hurricanes, and the havoc wrought by Katrina may be the harbinger of things to come.

For a primer on climate change and more on the IPCC's role and the periodically updated reports, go to the climate watch website of BBC News from where this depiction of a hazy, smoke stacked airscape is taken.

To use a term appropriate to this age of computerese as heard over the Today show, there is no rewind button.

The rise is already locked in, much like you lock in a mortgage rate within a certain period, except here that we are not only locking in the rising trend, but the rising rate as well, due to the inherent time shift between adding something and feeling the effect.

Not surprisingly, developing countries such as China and India are the primary contributors of greenhouse gases as a result of their feverish pace of development, consuming fossil-based energy in the process.

What China, India, and other developing countries are doing now, bringing development to their people, is no different than what the industrial west countries were doing in the past. It is a necessary stage to a developed status in nation building. There is no bypassing for the developing countries, except perhaps to learn from the throes undergone by these so-called “first to market” nations, and in the process, transiting the journey in more environment-friendly ways.

Undeniably some of this less than wise use of earth resources, the majority of which still reside in the developing countries, waiting to be plundered, is fueled by the demands of the developed nations.

So it makes global sense, and actually behooves the developed nations, to help the developing countries to develop in a sustainable manner, through both technical and financial assistance, and to curb their (the former) wasteful ways as well so as not to drive up the demand for resources.

Shored up by their advanced technological base, the developed nations are also poised to face up to the challenge of innovating for a better world where the only warming is experienced at the heart: a warmth shared by all humanity toward a common destiny, a habitable Planet Earth.