Sunday, March 25, 2007

Congratulations, Soon-to-be MITians from Malaysia

[Note: This is a re-post. The first one on March 23, 2007 seemed to have a slight problem in that the comment button did not show up even though I did not do anything differently. Hopefully this one will correct the unintended error, and it did. So I've removed the above earlier post.]

Mention MIT and most people’s eyes will lit up, conjuring up images of a great institution where only the elites among the cream of students are admitted, a haloed ground for world beaters, the academic kind.

It’s one of the toughest, if not the toughest, university to get admitted. Even a perfect high school GPA and SAT score is no guarantee as there are other non-tangibles that enter into the admission decision such as excelling in extra-curricular activities that demonstrate patently a passion for learning, a knack for creativity, and a good fit of what the MIT ideals stand for.

For international applicants, the odds are even higher still. So I was elated to learn that this year, four Malaysian students will be MIT-bound.

It goes to show that talents will be recognized wherever they are. As I said in a congratulatory message to one of the four:

“Your hard work has paid off handsomely. But more of the same will pay great dividends while at MIT.

Now you are like a big fish in a small pond that has been thrust into the vast ocean. But you're not alone.

I recommend highly the book, The Idea Factory: Learning to think at M.I.T.
by Pepper White.

And above all, be yourself.

So gaining a foot into MIT is only the beginning. More great things await from what I could surmise from the Opencourseware website of MIT, and a brief visit I made there in June of 2005. But I’m sure if one is determined enough and have the brain to gain admission into MIT, then surely one would not fritter away the opportunity. Here a female student counselor (yes, girls are brainy too, contrary to the opinion of one former Chancellor of the Harvard University) is seen conducting a campus tour for would-be applicants. Wonder how many of those listening intently got in.

For non-MITians (that sound much better then MIT rejects), do not despair too. Here are some snippets of what I’ve offered in the MIT admission blog last spring in that regard:

Deep in our hearts we know that you and your colleagues [the admission officers who bore the brunt of the rantings from the non-MITians] have done your best to pick the best match for MIT. And therein lies the operative word, best match, which in no way imputes on the academic capability, or the lack thereof, much less the future performance, of those in the rejection pool. And that's all anyone can ask for under the circumstances.”

“As is the common thread in most previous dispensations of advice, many roads do lead to academic success as attested to by the many Nobel laureates who are non-MITians.”

That rejection is part of the learning process - part and parcel of life. One door closes, another one opens."

When the pangs/throes of the rejection are over (the sooner the better), the episode will fade into memory and remain there as one of life's many lessons learned.”

"The dwindling posts indicate that most people have gotten over the initial shock of rejection but should anybody still harbor self doubt, know the important thing that: They didn't reject you. They rejected your resume.

This reminds me of what Marilyn vos Savant once said in the PARADE that her answer was wrong, but never she was wrong. Perhaps we need to instil this kind of detachment when handling rejections and defeats in life. But by all means, be passionate and celebrate success."

So let’s move on, MITians and non-MITians alike.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Flow Behavior

An essential element of basic infrastructure of a country is the road network that links all parts of the country to promote and facilitate the movement of people and goods. US has one, so does Malaysia. The one glaring difference between the two is perhaps the much higher proportion of tolled road in the latter, i.e., roads built with private funds and the expenses are recouped through toll levies via concession agreements between the builders/operators and the government, usually for a fixed period but with provisions for fee hikes if the projected revenues fall short of the projection.

In Malaysia, this is an iron-clad agreement for the concessionaires where profits are guaranteed since by dint of the agreement, which oftentimes is classified under the Official Secrets Act, i.e., not open to public scrutiny, any shortfall in the agreed revenue collection, read profits, will be made up by government funds if a toll hike proves to be politically inexpedient.

What are government funds? Tax revenues. And where do they come from? Tax payers. And who are the tax payers? You and I. Since government funds are finite, that means government expenditure in some other areas will have to be cut and reallocated through virement. So going one big round, and to borrow from a popular Chinese saying, the wool has to come from the sheep no matter what.

Then I read just today the March 9, 2007 issue of Observing China on page B1 (Observing Immigration), an article loosely translated as Living in US: I finally realized that US is one big rural village by an anonymous author. Written in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, the authors observed that [words in parentheses and blue are my running comments]:

"Americans are by comparison simple folks, incapable of displaying the sophistication associated with a developed nation. Take for example, the Inter-state and state road network, criss-crossing the entire country. But no even a single toll booth [I guess the author has not been to the State of Florida where we do have our fair share of tolled road systems], hence letting such a golden commercial opportunity go to waste. I can’t wait to start building all these toll booths, and I’m sure in no time I would be able to afford a beachfront villa with gardens along the west coast or in Miami.”

As I said, this is a tongue-in-cheek comment. And I think the author is actually singing praise on the side of US that delivers a public good, the road network, rather than seeing it fit to enrich a few cronies, a system of largesse endemic in some developing countries.

However, putting that aside as there are other more appropriate forums for dissecting the ills of highway concession agreements as implemented in Malaysia, here I would like to look at something more physical, from the standpoint of a road user, and then of an engineer.

Most of the times the highways, or inter-states as they are often referred to in US, are free-flowing, each individual car moving at its own speed. Then there are times especially during festive seasons when the roads are flooded with cars eager to get from point A to point B. And gridlock ensues. If you are unlucky to be stuck in one, you do have a choice to make: go with the flow, regardless how sluggish it is, or turn into a rest place to catch a nap or whatever.

Then there is something in between. The weather is good, it’s a weekend, and you are seemingly cruising along, thinking ahead of your destination or what you plan to do once you get there. Unconsciously you kind of step harder on the pedal a bit until you realize that you are zooming by everybody, and then you have the good sense to relent your foot pressure just in time to see a blue strobe light dancing not far ahead by the road side. As you drive by the poor soul, whose driver's license is being checked by the Highway Patrolman and who is probably cursing his/her own indiscretion, you feel relieved.

Then you notice that the cars in front are all slowing down, and slowly grinding to a halt. You do the same, wishing that this is temporary. Maybe there has been an accident not to far ahead, and the emergency personnel is closing one lane.

The front car creeps forward for perhaps tens of yards, and stops. You do the same, at a pace that is entirely out of your control, much like a pawn that’s being pulled along by an imaginary tether. The worst part is being kept in the dark, wondering whether to bid one’s time or take the nearest exit.

That stop-creep-stop scenario plays on for another 30 minutes. Then suddenly you begin to see the light of day, cars picking up speed. And you are left to survey left and right, looking for possible clue for the backup. But nothing palpable is in sight. No tire marks on the grass verge. No tell-tale debris/oil slick on the road, and you never overtake a tow truck with a damaged good in tow or on a flatbed. The following day you scan the local papers to look for possible explanation for the “aberration”, finding none.

But something must have precipitated the “bottle-neck” or constriction that leads to cars backing up. Probably the “culprit” has been removed by the time you reach it, leaving behind no vestiges and probably the news has been reported in an inconspicuous corner of the local daily, and you don’t deem it important enough to check with the sheriff/Highway Patrol office. And the event begins to fade from your consciousness, until you bump into it again, even though you are not a frequent Inter-state user.

I had my first such encounter during last Thanksgiving, on Inter-state 75 while driving back from Gainesville. But then it was just a matter of too many cars on the road at the same time since it got better once I turned toward Tampa at the junction of I-75 and the Florida Turnpike (to Orlando and southward).

Then it happened again, also on I-75, but this time toward Gainesville not far after the I-275 junction. The date was March 18, and the time, about 12.30pm, and it started at milestone 285 (I think). I’ve earlier promised my S that I would get him to UF before the scheduled NCAA basketball game between the Gators and the Purdue Boilermakers at 2.15pm. I had everything worked out, with some to spare, until this, this snail’s crawl.

Then I got thinking, traffic flow, constriction, backup. They sound just like those terms I am already familiar with as a hydraulic engineer: fluid flow, flow constriction, backwater curve. So, on a hunch, I googled traffic flow, and sure enough, look what I found here [again, those in parentheses and blue are mine]:

Because traffic involves flows, concentrations, and speeds, there is a natural tendency to attempt to describe traffic in terms of fluid behavior. Car-following models recognize that traffic is made up of discrete particles [as are fluids such as water comprising fluid particles. Even blood flow in our body is a kind of fluid flow] and determine the interactions between these particles. Continuum models are concerned more with the overall statistical behavior of the traffic stream [i.e., bulk characteristics] rather than with the interactions between the two particles.

In the fluid-flow analogy, the traffic stream is treated as a one-dimensional compressible fluid [but water flow is incompressible for all intents and purposes, except in the great depths of oceans]. This leads to two basic assumptions: (1) Traffic flow is conserved, and this leads to the conservation or continuity equation [i.e., no decay]. (2) A one-to-one relationship exits between speed and density or between flow and density.

The simple continuum model consists of the conservation equation and the equation of state (speed-density or flow-density relationship) [the equation of state is not necessary for hydraulic engineers to solve for the flow dynamics of water flow due to the aforesaid incompressibility condition, which together with the equivalent traffic flow equation, the momentum conservation equation, becomes a statement of the conservation of mechanical energy]. If these equations are solved together with the basic traffic-flow equation (flow equals density times speed), we can obtain the speed, flow, and density at any time and at any point in the roadway. By knowing these basic traffic-flow variables, we know the state of the traffic system and can derive measures of effectiveness, such as delays, stops, travel time, total travel, and other measures that allow the analysts to evaluate how well the traffic system is performing [the same way hydraulic engineers predicts river flow condition during a flood event].”

With one important distinction perhaps. The cars are driven by thinking human beings who seldom think alike let alone rationally. So I guess I will be better off as a hydraulic engineer analyzing fluid flow rather than a traffic engineer simulating traffic flow where human behavior is the least controllable and predictable element in the whole shebang.

As a footnote, I did manage to deliver my S to his dorm, on time for the Gators’ game. Also, did anybody experience the same traffic backup on March 18 and if so, do you have anything to share?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Openness Versus Rigor: The Wikipedian Conundrum

Back when I was a college student, literature research was done the hard way by visiting the library, locating the hardcopy publication, and reading it. If the publication was not available, which could be frequent when it is a foreign dissertation, then one had to resort to inter-library loan via the mail system, which might take several days and even weeks. But we persevered, and got the job done.

Today, the Internet has become the preferred source of information because of its immediacy and 24/7 availability. Seizing upon this growing tendency to move from the printed medium to the virtual realm, some enterprising folks came out with the idea of online encyclopedia, which at the beginning was nothing more than a passive document of the same. Then audio tracks were added, following by video bytes, followed by interactivity.

However, any updating and augmenting was still done the conventional way: assembling expert contributors, peer reviewing, proof-reading, then uploading, usually after the hardcopy updates were completed and in circulation. Thus was sown the seed for an online encyclopedia that could be edited/updated on the fly, practically.

Then on a quiet day on 15 January 2001, Wikipedia was born. The day was quiet to me as I came to know about its existence only after I have moved to US three years ago. Since then it has been my online reference of choice.

However, its popularity did not strike me until I read the article, Wikipedia’s Role in Science Education and Outreach, appearing in the 13 March 2007 issue of EOS, a weekly transaction of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) of which I’m a member, several days ago.

According to the article by several US university dons in the earth and space sciences (MB Moldwin, UCLA, N. Gross, Boston U, and T. Miller, UCLA), “an informal survey of 300 University of California, Los Angeles freshmen indicates that Wikipedia is their first stop when researching essentially any topic.”

The purpose of the article is “to inform the community [understood to be the geophysical community] of the popularity of Wikipedia for introducing our field to students and the general public and to urge you to take a look at the Wikipedia entry for your area of experience.” In comparing with other top Google sites, they found that “for many of the space physics key terms and concepts, Wikipedia was the most complete source of information". Hence, they reason that “Wikipedia will appear to students to be an excellent reference for space science topics.”

The quick updates that have become the hallmark of Wikipedia are made possible by the liberal policy that its founders have instituted: “that any one with an Internet connection can write an article about any topic or edit any existing article”, unleashing the power of real-time updating and that latent in the large reservoir of potential authors.

However, as pointed out by the authors and which has been the bone of contention of many well-intentioned critiques, this strength is also its weakness. Anonymity and misrepresentation come to mind.

In academia, anonymity is reserved for the reviewers, but not the authors. This system of peer review has served the academic research community well, helping to ensure that academic honesty and excellence is upheld to the highest standard.

Putting one’s dhoby mark on a published article is a great responsibility, symbolizing a readiness to own up to one’s work. Therefore, one would invest time to pore through the draft for errors, veracity and authenticity being paramount. On the other hand, many an unsubstantiated claim has been made under the cloak of anonymity, virtually a license for irresponsible comment behavior especially in blogosphere. The removal of accountability has emboldened people to display an element of uncouthness that they are normally not wont to.

This in no way implies the absence of unsung heroes, who spend time contributing their time and expertise toward a noble goal as enunciated by the co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, as “to create and distribute a multilingual free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language.” And yet they do not clamor for recognition. The fact of the matter is those in this latter category are in the majority as borne out by the fact that the sometimes sensational revelation of Wikipedia fraudsters is far and between.

A related issue is misrepresentation, claiming expertise when there is none or inadequate. This onerous task of verifying the credentials of the contributors belong to the Wikipedia administrators, and we just have to hope that they do their due diligence, well, diligently.

So whither are we heading? The openness route? Or the peer review complete with full disclosure of the author’s credentials? Expediency versus rigor?

A little of both, and then some, I suppose. Echoing the sentiments of the authors of the EOS article, first, the scientists are urged “to be familiar with how their fields are described on Wikipedia”, and "to write Wikipedia articles or edit articles that contain errors or are incomplete”.

Second, the scientists are called upon “to contribute to Wikipedia”, albeit anonymously, which means no citation reference. And they will have to put aside their “publish or perish” mentality.

Third, the scientists should “invest the time and effort to provide an expert’s alternative to “open source" Wikipedia articles”. I believe this would find wide acceptance in the research community, it being a good outreach effort that would surely endear them to the general populace.

And lastly, though this is implied rather than explicitly stated by the authors, the students and the general public should "develop their information literacy skills", including cultivating the habit of cross-checking and going back to the original source instead of relying on secondary quoted information. It’s not unusual to witness the propagation of mis-quoted information through articles simply because the authors have not bothered to read the original source for themselves. This is part and parcel of academic integrity. Anything less would be unconscionable.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Eight Promises of a Mother

I chanced upon this online article (in Chinese) introducing the book, THE EIGHTH PROMISE: An American Son's Tribute to His Toisanese Mother by William Poy Lee (Publisher Rodale Press, February 6, 2007). According to the article, the author is an ABC (American Born Chinese) whose mother migrated from a rural village in China to US in 1950, a time marked by tumultuous political upheavals in China.

A graduate of UC Berkeley, the author subsequently received a law degree from UC San Francisco and has been practicing law since then until several years ago when he decided to write a memoir about his family, realizing that amassing wealth is not what he wanted to live for.

He went back to his roots, learning first-hand how his ancestors had lived, including interviewing his mother on how she coped with the war-torn neighborhood. And he decided to portray that experience via a dual voice format: his own and his mother’s.

The result is “a beautifully written evocative memoir of a relationship between a mother and son – and the Chinese immigrant experience”.

I have not read the book, so I’m not in a position to offer any commentary. Rather, I would like to relate the genesis of the eight promises, highlighting the 8th that is used as the title in the process, as found in the online article.

Apparently the eight promises were made by the author’s mom to her dad when she was about to leave for US, after she got married to an American Chinese from San Francisco. Here they are, or rather my translation from the online article:

1) Educate the children to become Chinese, understanding Chinese language, culture, and history. When the hard times in the rural village had come to pass, they can return to continue living there [I thought the last part sounded odd, especially vis-a-vis the 3rd promise below. But I guess those days the attachment to one's homeland was still very strong, despite the dire circumstances.]

2) Look for potential husbands for her two younger sisters so that they too could join her in US as soon as possible.

3) Become a US citizen so she could petition her parents and two younger brothers to immigrate to US.

4) Instill in the children the philosophy of Sun Yat-sen [often referred to as the “father of modern China”].

5) Foster link between the children and folks at the rural village in China.

6) Maintain relationship with other sisters from the same clan in US.

7) Eat Chinese meals at home, and prepare nutritious soups for good health.

8) Always have compassion for people both within and outside the home.

And the 8th promise of the title refers to the last one, a constant reminder from his mother to be compassionate toward everyone. And that constitutes the uniqueness of the author’s experience, unlike the bulk of Chinese immigrants who prefer their children to embrace the local customs so as to fit into the mainstream. Instead, his mother had taken the admonitions from his grandfather to heart and brought him up as a Chinese who understands and values his cultural heritage.

I find that very admirable, and are thankful to my late parents, who also emigrated from China, but to Malaysia, and who made sure that I was brought up knowing my roots, speaking my mother tongue, writing in Chinese, and imbuing the Confucian values of filial piety, loyalty, respect, humility, and the Buddhist worldview of compassion and wisdom.

I can't wait to read this highly acclaimed work, his very first, by a fellow clansman and Berkeley Alumnus. Go bears.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Middle Way Session 2: Wisdom, Compassion, and Self-experience

Yesterday, we attended the second session of the Meditation & Dharma Talk and Discussion organized by the Middle Way Buddhist Association . Originally, the session frequency has been decided at bimonthly intervals. But today’s session, coming as it is just one week after the first one held last Saturday, is an ad hoc change to accommodate the planned one-month trip of Bhante Dhammawansha to Asia this month. Also, the organizers have decided to reduce the frequency to a monthly one, it being the second Saturday of each month. So the next session is scheduled on April 14. Do mark your calendar accordingly.

During the pre-meditation address, Bhante stressed the needs:
  • to keep a happy mind and a happy face by thinking universal loving kind thoughts;
  • to sit in a comfortable, relaxed posture, even on a chair if necessary;
  • to close the eyes gently so that we cannot see the world but ourselves;
  • to be mindful but do not get distracted by external sound/noise. Just be familiar with the sound/noise but do not react to it.
On my part, I heard the following but did not react to the hearing:

- cars speeding by (the venue is just next to a road);
- faint ringing of a cell phone (perhaps it was kept in a handbag);
- footsteps;
- chairs creaking;
- sitting pillows being squashed by bodies changing positions;
- Bhante’s soft droning voice;
- my own occasional deep breathing.

I find that it helps me to be mindful but not distracted by assigning a number to any sound that my audio nerves pick up, much like counting my own breaths.

In the ensuing dharma talk and discussion conducted by Bhante for English speaking attendees (Brother Shieh was unable to be present this time and so I gravitated to the English class), Bhante answered an inquiry from an attendee as to whether Buddha is a God by way of a story:

One day, Buddha was accosted by a passer-by who was drawn to him by Buddha’s radiance, his robe, and his overall demeanor portraying him as a sage.

“Will you be God?”
“No,” Buddha answered.

“Will you be a dead person?”
“No,” Buddha replied.

“Will you be a dancer?” [prompted perhaps by the robe that Buddha was wearing.]
“No,” Buddha responded.

“Will you be a human being?”
“No, but I’m a supernatural human being.” Buddha stated and explained using the analogy of a lotus flower that blooms amidst the muddy water of a lotus pond.

The lotus flower does not carry any odor of the muddy environment, i.e., it is unattached to the mud. In that sense, the mud is the mundane world and we sentient beings are anything but the lotus flower, until we discover our Buddha nature. So while Buddha is a human being, the fact that he has attained enlightenment elevated him to the “superman” status. He has understood reality and he has tamed his internal enemies.

We are by nature lazy beings, and keep on postponing the surfacing of our Buddha nature because of worldly enjoyment. We are supposed to be attracted to Buddha, as naturally as iron is to magnet. But by clinging to attachments and being consumed by greed, hatred, and delusion, we are covered by rust.

A more accurate analogy is perhaps our Buddha nature is like gems under the earth strata. These strata are like defilements, covering the gem like an impenetrable cloak over our intrinsic Buddha nature. So by embracing and practicing Dharma (Buddha’s teaching, truth, law, and reality), we are making efforts to let our Buddha nature to come to the fore. In other words, Buddha is the greatest physician for diseases that afflict our mind, and no medicine is similar to Dharma.

Bhante also elaborated on the uniqueness of Buddhism, Buddha, and his teaching as summarized below:
  • Buddha never discovered anything new; he rediscovered ancient paths.
  • Nobody granted Buddha buddhahood; he did it without any external agency.
  • The core values of Buddhism are wisdom, compassion, and self-experience. So Buddhist followers and practitioners are encouraged to think freely and decide for themselves.
  • Buddhist monks are teachers, and not preachers as it is not the aim of Buddhism to convert anyone.
  • The core teaching of Buddhism is enshrined in the Four Noble Truths (the word "Noble" signifying that the four truths are immutable and eternal). And they are:
  1. Life is suffering/misery/distress (the last two are more common terms suggested by Bhante so that westerners may find it easier to relate to. Another connotation of duhkha, the original word in Sanskrit, is unrest).
  2. Causes of suffering/misery/distress.
  3. Cessation of suffering/misery/distress.
  4. Path leading to cessation (“The Middle Way,” Bhante hastened to add.)
  • “If you want to see me, see my teaching.” ---- Buddha
Bhante then brought to our attention several quotes from a western scientist and a western philosopher. The scientist is no other than Albert Einstein, the acknowledged genius whose greatest legacy is the General Theory of Relativity, Einstein’s own popular translation of the physics that shaped our “truths” of space and time.

I googled Einstein and Buddhism and located the relevant quotations here (where this picture is taken from as well) as reproduced below:

Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be
expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and spiritual; and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.
---- Albert Einstein

If there is any religion that would cope
with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.
---- Albert Einstein

And the philosopher is Arthur Schopenhauer, a fellow countryman of Einstein who lived more than a century earlier:

If I were to take the results of my philosophy as
the standard of truth, I would have to consider
Buddhism the finest of all religion.
---- Arthur Schopenhauer

Bhante also referred to H. G. Wells who is perhaps better known for his fiction works, several of which have been adapted into movies, the latest one being the remake of the War of the Worlds directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning (2005). But he was also an imaginative social thinker whose non-fiction works include A Short History of the World (1922). According to, this work is “Wells’s tribute to “the needs of the busy general reader who wishes to refresh and repair his faded or fragmentary conceptions of the great adventure of mankind.”

Two chapters from the book are The Life of Gautama Buddha (Chapter 28) and King Asoka (Chapter 29). The latter was characterized by Wells in the following words:

"In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves 'Their Highnesses', 'Their majesties' and 'Their Exalted Majesties' and so on. They shone for a brief movement and disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star even today."

As his parting words for the second session, Bhante admonished:

Do not get attached, but do your duty, instead of clamoring for rights.”

The image below shows the rapt attention on everyone's face during the post-session interaction while partaking of the vegetarian lunch. See you all on April 14.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Women In My Life

Thanks to a timely “ranting” from Marina Mahathir (MM), I was alerted to the International Woman’s Day, which falls every year without fail on March 8.

Coming from a Chinese family, I’m well aware of the traditional role of women as being subsidiary, if not subservient, to men, both from books and movies. Anecdotes of young girls being snatched away from home to become juvenile brides to the rich, of wives suffering the tyranny of their polygynous and philandering husbands, abound in the literature.

But those were the bygone ages. Nowadays, even in China women are being accorded their rightful place in national development, an economic force to be reckoned with. However, subtle and not so subtle prejudices still exist, even in Malaysia as enumerated in MM’s blog written in celebration of this special occasion.

I was brought up in a gender-neutral environment where both men and women played their chosen roles. Here I would like to single out three women who have influenced me tremendously and helped mold me to what I’m today.

The first woman is of course my late Mom, who carried and nourished me for nine months and had to endure the labor pain to usher me into this world. And for the next fifteen year, my mom had cooked every meal that I had, washed (by hand before washing machines became a household appliance) every piece of clothing that I wore, and shared my achievements and disappointments with me, even though she might not have known the full reasons for my emotional highs and lows.

My Mom came from Southern China to the then Malaya and was a full-time home maker while my Dad labored to provide for the whole family. Other than the occasional rebukes, she had never raised her voice to any of her children. But she could be stern when necessary, even to the extent of using the cane on us if she thought we deserved a spanking. But most of the time the cane remained hung on the wall, acting more like a deterrent than anything else.

While she had had very little education herself, she understood the value of one, and endured the absence of her children while still young in silence for the sake of their education. First, my two elder brothers went to Singapore for their study not long after their primary school education. I followed suit several years later, but to Kluang, Singapore, finally at University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur in successive years.

When I started working, it was also away from home, first in Muar, followed by Raub, Pahang. So I hardly had time to take her places, since she was frugal and did not wish for any material niceties. I think the only true joy that I was able to bring to her was her first grandson, from one of her very own (she had many grand children from my step-brothers and sisters). That was in late October, 1981 when I was domiciled in Raub. She even traveled all the way to Raub from Johore with my younger sister during my wife’s confinement to cradle the grandson in her arms.

She passed away less than two years later and never really got to know her grandson, whose younger siblings have never had the opportunity to be pampered by their doting grandmother as I had. But she continues to live in my memory.

The second woman that I have come to know and respect since I started dating is my wife’s late GrandMa. Like my Mom, she hailed from China too, with one distinct difference. She was one of the products of the feudalistic era when men (in then China under the rule of the Ching Dynasty) coveted women with small feet. So girls from a young age would have their feet lapped in layers and layers of cloth to prevent their natural growth to attain the status of the so-called “three inch golden lotus”. But she moved around in tiny steps without aid, putting many able-bodied and younger adolescents to shame.

She had not had much schooling, but was able to relate many old Chinese tales that extol the many heroics of ancient Chinese personalities such as filial piety, honor, and loyalty, to my wife and her siblings. For four years after her primary (elementary) school days, my wife commuted daily to my hometown for her secondary (middle) school. It was close to an hour’s drive and she had to leave home around five thirty in the morning in order to be at the school in time. Grandma was up every morning in the wee hours, preparing meals for her grand-daughter, without fail. Those days the cooking was done by charcoal, and the fire manually fanned. I could almost imagine a woman of small build with stooping posture, shuffling on her little feet and groping in semi darkness, and laboring in the cold kitchen, all for the love of her grand-children. (Of course I learned of this display of unconditional affection from my wife after I got to know her better.)

While I was dating my wife, Grandma had always treated me as one of her own. She could be from an era when it was taboo for boys and girls to come into physical contact, let alone any open display of affection, but she was nonchalant about us being together. In a way I think she trusted me implicitly that I would always take good care of her little grand-daughter. And I am glad that I did not betray her trust.

She passed away when I was going to grad school here in US, with my wife at my side. Because of logistic difficulties, my wife and I were not able to return home to pay our last respects. May both my Mom and Grandma rest in peace.

The last but not the least of the trio is none other than my wife. Well, what can I say, I’m more than lucky to find a lifelong partner to share life’s journey and to learn life’s lessons. Granted our journey together, like most couples, has not been plain sailing all the way. Misunderstanding surfaced, human foibles unraveled, and squabbles ensued. But through them all, we began to discover the strengths of each other, and learned to be complementary and mutually reinforcing.

During the earlier period of our marriage, I had only adjusted to the needs of a family life financially, but not necessarily in terms of responsibility. I have come to realize that my wife almost single-handedly raised the four kids that we were bestowed with. My assistance was token at best, leading pretty much a life of a married bachelor.

I feel blessed she has stayed long enough for me to realize my folly. While I cannot turn back the clock, I sure can become a family man in the truest sense of the word: a responsible husband and father, and hopefully soon, a grandfather.

Respect begets respect. Never take things for granted. Always tell the other half your pent-up frustrations so both of you can both heal together. And we are thankful that we can grow old together.

My life will never be this meaningful without the women in my life. On this day that holds special significance for more than half of the world’s population, I salute you for all you have contributed, are contributing and will continue to contribute to a better world for all.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Middle Way

This morning we crossed over to Pinellas Park to attend the first of the Meditation and Discussion on Buddhism series organized by the Middle Way Buddhist Association under the able management of Sister Lily and Brother Tom and located at Chinese Community Church, 4600 78th Ave. N., Pinellas Park. Themed “Peace and Harmony”, the sessions are aimed at “Transforming worry, anxiety, and vexation into wisdom”, “Changing our lives to be really happy and living in harmony” through “Meditation” and Buddhist teachings that “help us to have a calm and peaceful mind”. The meditation is taught by Bhante Dhammawansha (an ordained Sri Lankan monk whom we have met previously as blogged here) while the discussion sessions are led by Bhante in English and Brother Shieh from Orlando in Chinese.

The traffic on the Gandy Bridge was light, which was usual on a Saturday morning. Soon we were at our destination, a single storey building set in a quiet neighborhood. We were the first few to arrive and entered into a spacious hall with a raised stage. There were paper-made decorations hung from the ceiling and its walls were lined with Chinese calligraphy in red background reflective of the Chinese New Year mood. A row of class rooms at the back houses the Chinese School which will be used for the discussion sessions. So would the tasty vegetarian lunch, we would find out later.

Bhante, in his pre-meditation address, imparted the following sage advice in consonance with the teaching of Buddha:

You can plan for tomorrow, but live now.

Yesterday is history; tomorrow is a dream; and today is a gift.

If you can defeat the enemies in your mind, you are the greatest victor.

Do not reject negative emotions, address them;
Do not credit positive emotions, observe and let go

There are enough external builders, we need to develop our inside.

I did not stay for the ensuing meditation session, but instead helped arrange for the lunch setting prepared by a French chef and his wife, who are Sister Lily’s students in the Adult Chinese class.

I’m no stranger to Brother Shieh’s delivery of Buddhist lessons, having attended a couple as blogged here and here. In this morning session, he reiterated the three elements of learning Buddhism: learning, thinking, and practicing, each of which is essential to attaining Buddhahood.

On the Middle Way (or Middle Path), Brother Shieh explained that the notion is more than that embodied in the philosophy of moderation as expoused by the Confucian school of thought. The emphasis in moderation is the avoidance of extremes, implying that there exists a middle-of-the-road approach. One example is social drinking, a habit that prevents inebriation and at the same time enjoys the medically supported benefits of promoting blood circulation.

In Buddhism, the Middle Way is to keep away from the edges (extremes) and yet not fixated on being in the middle. It symbolizes stillness, calmness, two mind states that we as laypersons can readily identify with. In the spiritual sense, the Middle Way is an avenue toward nirvana, an enduring, transcendental happiness integral to the calmness attained through enlightenment that is free from suffering and defilements.

Not only do we have to refrain from doing harm, but we need to do good proactively. As Master Hong Yi has forcefully implored:

Doing good/the virtuous is refraining from committing crimes on humanity and the environment when having the power to do so; and
Doing bad is electing not to do good/the virtuous when having the means to do so.

The admonition against clinging is not tantamount to doing nothing, nor is it the right way to contemplate absolute emptiness only; but we should not deny its existence.

In Brother Shieh’s view, we have to know, then understand, and then realize the teaching of Buddha in order to effect a thorough transformation of our inner self manifested through self actualization. In other words, we are to be personally responsible for our own life and action.

The primacy of practicing, of applying the teaching of Buddha in real life was stressed again during the free exchange among the attendees, organizers, and speakers after the vegetarian lunch. As one elderly attendee aptly intoned, algebraically:

K + A = S; K – A = 0

And in words, knowledge with/plus action equal success (or other positive/desired outcome) while knowledge without action amounts to nothing. The mosaic below shows Brother Tom, Brother Shieh and Sister Lily addressing the group in turn. Thus ended the very first Buddhist session under the banner of the Middle Way Buddhist Association on a very encouraging note as marked by the enthusiastic turnout and the stimulating exchange.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Joy of Meeting Old Friends

We are gregarious beings, or to put it more bluntly, social animals, which is not the same as party animals. At home, we have siblings trust upon us. Beyond home, we make friends to communicate, to share, to confide on. In office, we interact with colleagues, consult with each other, and use them as sounding board.

Some are childhood friends whom we part company with later on in pursuit of mutual dreams. Some are bosom friends, comrades in arms so to speak, laboring under the same roof for years.

There is no gathering that does not adjourn, according to one popular Chinese saying, literally translated. As we pass through different phases of our life, primary schools, secondary schools, high schools, colleges, the university of hard knocks, we make a succession of friends. Some seem to have vanished into thin air and never to be seen again. Some remain on email contact, for a while, but soon other priorities surface and the link is severed.

Some friends are destined to be reunited, the circle of life turning in its own mysterious way. Such is the vagary of life’s revolving door that one seldom knows who enters and who exits. And if by chance we bump into each other, it adds that much verve, that much buoyancy, that much bounce, to our life that may seem leaden at times.

I have had two relatively long sojourns in US, both times in a campus environment. On both stints, my wife was with me. Since we stayed in family housing, she got to know a lot of other grad students or their stay-home wives, the friendship forged with some of them having blossomed into lasting ties.

Upon completion of each of my academic studies, we had to leave for home half way around the world. It so happened, actually it is by design, that the two universities that I have graduated from are located on opposite coasts: one on the west (1987), and the other one on the east (1995). So we have made two sets of friends.

While in Malaysia, there were sporadic letter exchanges with some of these friends, but the contact was tenuous at best.

Then in December 1999, my wife made her first return to the US west coast, San Francisco to be precise. There we met up with an old friend, Judy Lou, whom we last saw in 1987. Judy has stayed back in US so that her three children could go to school there while her husband returned to his teaching post in Taiwan after his graduation. It was fortunate that we still had her telephone number, thus making our reunion of sort possible.

She invited us to visit her home where we stayed for a week, a gracious host throughout. It was at her home that we went through the Millennium threshold that in hindsight seemed more hype than anything else.

Then we moved to Tampa three years ago, and the first thing my wife did was to call her and reestablish contact. Then she moved from San Francisco, actually El Cerrito, to around Vancouver, Canada. But she and my wife continued to talk over the phone now and then, until this year.

We flew to Portland for our D’s wedding three days before the Chinese New Year and Judy was scheduled to drive to Seattle to pick up her husband who was due to fly in the next day from Taiwan. On the night before, she had called to inform that if her husband felt up to it, she might just drive all the way to Portland with her husband to meet up with us, at the same time delivering the carrot dumplings and CNY cake that she had made herself to us.

The next day, we waited anxiously for her to deliver the good news, that we would be able to meet up with her and her husband, whom we have not seen since 1987. We were even contemplating changing our schedule for the day so that we could drive up to Seattle to save her the trip. The plan was only aborted after we could not contact her (we only have her home telephone number) and we were afraid that we might just miss each other if she decided to drive further on as well.

Then in mid-afternoon, the call came through. She was at a rest stop, on her way to Portland, her husband ensconced by her side. So we drove to our agreed meeting place in North Portland. On the way we were ensnarled in the Friday evening traffic and practically crawled to the meeting place.

Embrace and hug, those are natural forms of acknowledgment when old friends meet, for my wife. For me, it’s always a firm handshake. Judy’s husband, JC, is just as I remember him, the passing years only leaving their marks in his silvery hair. Judy, on the other hand, looked emaciated, the bout of illness that had afflicted her and that she had recovered from, much to our relief, having taken its toll on her normally vivacious character. But the engaging smile and the warm words, were unmistakable.

We chatted for about half an hour, condensing what transpired during the intervening twenty years into our brief exchange. And for this memorable get-together, at the eve of Our D’s wedding, we have this great shot to share. May Buddha bless them.