Sat, 28 Feb 2015 05:23:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Future of Occupy and Hong Kong lies in China Fri, 27 Feb 2015 20:19:12 +0000

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You’ve probably heard of what happened in Hong Kong last year, when Occupy protestors took over some of the city-state’s busiest streets, calling for the right to vote freely and fairly. The protests were shut down by police in early 2015, but, last week, activists took to the streets again to send both the Hong Kong Government and the mighty Chinese Government that they were in it for the long haul.
Occupy’s goal is for Hong Kong to gain its long-promised Democracy, on par with other developed economic around the world. Behind the protests are concerns about living costs, limited infrastructure, and rising inequality in the tiny nation-state.

This article also appeared in The News Hub

Thus far, Occupy Hong Kong, also known as the Umbrella Movement, has remained in the city. The protests have not spread to mainland China – but Hong Kong is not the only place in China where discontent is leading to action. In Chinese-occupied Tibet, which has been under de-facto martial law for years, and remains a no-man’s land for foreign journalists and NGOs, there has a been a spurt of horrific self-immolations, which experts cite as a reaction to massive public anger at Chinese oppression combined with nearly no space for safe civic discourse.

Nearby, in occupied East Turkestan (in Chinese Xinjiang) the shift has, sadly, turned violent with the deadly knife attack by Uighur militants in Kunming, Yunnan the most noteworthy example, an attack that was followed by mass public convictions in Urumqi, the latest in what is becoming an even more vicious cycle of violence and repression.

China’s Role

China’s shadow looms large not just within its borders, but abroad as well. The authoritarian superpower, who has been accused of propping up dictatorial regimes across the world, has been a focal point for protests not only in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also in South Korea, where activists have cited the recently announced free trade deal with China as an example of President Park Park Geun-hye’s incessant, possibly corrupt collusion with business and disregard for regular Korean peoples interests, especially those of farmers who stand to lose greatly.

In Thailand, where the recent coup created a new, Military-led, Constitution-less Government which subsequently took steps to curb public debate, media freedom, and citizen power, Thailand new military leaders met with officials from China, one of the few countries to not denounce the blatantly anti-Democratic steps taken by the Thai elite.

This demonstrates a key point – the protests in Hong Kong do not exist in a bubble. They are intimately connected to what is happening throughout the region.

The Future

What does this mean for the future of not only Occupy, but China and Asia has a whole? Being the world’s most populous continent, Asia’s vast geographic, cultural, and economic differences between OECD members South Korea and Japan, Hong Kong’s hybrid status, still developing Indonesia and Thailand and still-occupied Tibet and East Turkestan, make comparisons challenging and coordination nearly impossible.

And therein lies the problem.

Protests can take place in Hong Kong partly due to the city-state’s special status, which allows for an enlarged civic space that fellow “Chinese” citizens in Tibet and East Turkestan, not to mention Beijing, can only dream off. Remember, it was only 25 years ago that China had its own youth uprising, when students took to the streets across the country and, most famously, in Tiananmen square.
On a recent trip to Chengdu, also a hotspot in 1989, the author noticed buses of police at all of the city’s main gathering spots, which local observers stated was a recent phenomenon related both to Occupy Hong Kong, and the turmoil in East Turkestan. The Chinese Communist Party obviously fears something. But ask students at Occupy Central if they believe their movement will spread to the mainland and the answer is “China will never allow it.” Or, worse, “Chinese don’t care.”

Hong Kong protests because it fears it will become China, or, worse, like occupied Tibet. But it won’t stand up for Chinese or Tibetans. Yet, Hong Kong cannot win unless China changes, which means it cannot win until Tibet is free.

In the end, this may be the movement’s downfall – the lack of solidarity throughout the region.

Youth and Hope

Nevertheless, this is only the start. Occupy’s 2014 movement galvanized the world, and was focused not on building revolutions to sweep aside old powers, but to bring concrete changes to a society and increase citizens ability to have a say in that society. Change rarely happens in a year, and a greater role of youth and technology could bridge the gaps between the movements ‘goals and its current capacity.

Young people throughout Asia have access to new ideas through the Internet and more readily share information on a global scale through social media. Changing demographics such as the “youth bulge” will have a large impact on Asia and programs that engage young people in the political process will be essential in the years ahead.

Remember, Hong Kong is tiny. Its population is just 7.2 million, barely .5% of China. Moreover, its economy, which, in 1998, when it rejoined the mainland, was 18% of China, is now just 3%. China does not fear Hong Kong on its own – it is no longer big enough to effect the mainland – but what it does fear is a broader social movement connecting Hong Kong, Tibet, East Turkestan along with migrant workers in Guangdong province, students in Beijing, and the millions who were oppressed by the Communist parties during the Cultural Revolution or the recent purges against Human Rights activists. That is what China fears. But keeping the movement focused on Hong Kong, Occupy leaders are foreshadowing its own failure.

There is still time, of course, for the movement to grow. This is Asia’s century, and China is on everyone’s radar. Watch the protests closely, because whether they succeed or fail will show what type of Asia China will lead the world in the decades to come.

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A Tale of Three Cities: Kabul, Seoul, and Damascus Mon, 13 Oct 2014 03:56:12 +0000

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Thoughts based on Omar Akbar Qais phenomenal book, A Fort of Nine Towers

Afghanistan. A country of deep beauty, a rich, multi-ethnic and multi-faith culture, and, conversely, atrocious brutality. In Qais Akbar Omar’s book A Fort of Nine Towers the three are presented as one, coexisting in disharmony through the oft-confused eyes of a young boy who loves his Grandpa.

Afghanistan has a unique history. It was never colonized alongside the rest of South Asia, three times fighting off the British, but it was never peaceful either. It was long the crossroads connecting the kingdoms of India, central Asia, and the Middle East when this was the most advanced region in the world. Its people are a mix of Aryan, Turkic, Persian, and Arab cultures. It was also a crucial piece in Europe’s disastrous quest to control the world, fought over by the French, British, and Russians, whose disregard for the Afghan people created the instability that has led to the country now being a symbol of destruction and chaos.

As Qais reminds us, it wasn’t always like this. The book starts with a beautiful image of Kabul, Afghanistan’s wondrous royal capital, a city of less than 100,000 filled with gardens and trees. Images of kite flying, apple trees, and a culture in which people trusted and loved each other – though with the subsets of racial tensions that would explode during the civil war – made me ache to visit this Kabul. A Kabul that has been completely destroyed by war.

A view of the Haji Abdul Rahman Mosque in Kabu...

It is a beautiful story, but one, like many others I’ve read [links], that should never have been written. Throughout the book, my thoughts went to another part of the world, where Civil War rages today, and millions of refugees, in situations like Qais and his family, are suffering through factional battles, snipers, the victims of a conflict that is ruining their lives. Meanwhile, the world just watches, unable, or unwilling, to act.

Meanwhile, I walk though the streets of another country, South Korea, that, just five decades ago, was also in the throes of a deadly conflict. Over 3 million people died during the Korean War. Seoul, a centuries old, proud, historical capital surrounded by green hills, sounds like the Kabul of Qais’ youth. Cities of gardens, protected by beautiful mountains. Seoul was reduced to rubble by fighting during the Korean War, much like what happened to Kabul decades later during the Afghan Civil War that Qais lived through.

English: An aged Korean woman pauses in her se...

Both were preventable. We could have done more to help Korea during its 37 year subjugation by the Japanese, which, with collusion from America and Russia, led to the devastating war that left more then 3 million Koreans – 10% of the population – dead. How many families lost their homes like Qais’? How many were tortured by the invading North Korea, and later, Chinese forces (tens of thousands were kidnapped and forced to live in the North, their stories still untold).

Every stories is unique, and many are full of moments of beauty. For example, the family that, after they hear Qais trying to steal Pomegranates from their garden when his family, living in a car, has no food, invite them into their home and provide them food and shelter for as long as they need. They do it because of their faith, true Muslims, a stark contrast to the rapes, killing, and mindless atrocities Qais witnessed the Mujahadeen and Taliban commit in the name of Allah.

As I read the book, my thoughts wandered to another city. One that, just four years ago, I was invited to visit, a pearl of the Mediterranean and, like Seoul and Kabul, a ancient city of beauty and history. Today, it is being devastated by a civil war that has left Syria in shambles and millions homeless.

Fate changes fast. South Korea, once devastated, is today prosperous, one of the consumer capitals of the world, rebuilt and vibrant, though lacking its former beauty. That is where I am now, and I finished the book while sitting alone at the top of one of the many peaks that make up Gayasan National Park in South Korea. In front of me was a peaceful vista of green mountains, as far as the eye could see. I had just visited one of the country’s most famous Buddhist Temples, Hainsa, which hosts one of the world’s grandest collection of Buddhist texts in Classical Chinese script.

Afghanistan once was home to a vibrant Buddhist Kingdom too, which build one of the grandest monuments in human history, the giant Buddha statue of Bamiyan, destroyed, as Qais puts it, by ignorance. In fact, Qais and his family, for a time, lived in one of the caves that made up the head of Buddha, representing a religion that had long left Afghanistan but the respect for which remained, as Qais’s devout Muslim Grandfather, a source of strength and inspiration, wisely states when he tells his grandson that one who truly understands Buddha and Jesus will understand Islam even more.

Is it this knowledge that I seek – to understand not only the world’s religions, but also its history and through that, my place in the world. I am inspired by the moments of love in Qais book, how many times his family is helped by strangers and how their past – when they treated everyone with respect – helps them survive through. It is a story of innocent people caught up in global turmoil, but whose love for their country remains strong.

Today, at this moment, there are probably thousands of Qais, young boys and girls fleeing terror in Syria. Many will not survive to tell their stories, but some will. Maybe in a decade, I will pick up a book by a Syrian Qais, of another tragedy that I could have done more to prevent.

Why didn’t we do enough to help Korea earlier this century? Why didn’t we do enough to help Afghanistan just a few decades ago? And why won’t we do more to help Syria right now, when books and stories from Korea, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and the countless other places in the world tell us all we need to know about horror and pain.

As I walk through the bright, loud streets of urban, modern Korea, one thought remains in my mind. How can the very people who build their present after such horrific collective suffering, not have empathy for those going through suffering today? Not so long ago, Damascus was a beautiful, prosperous city, and Seoul was the city being bombed and destroyed, leaving millions homeless. It might be so long before the situation becomes reversed again.

After all, that war never really ended.

Omar Akbar Qais’ book is available for sale on Amazon.

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Don’t Love me (just) Cause I’m Brown Mon, 25 Aug 2014 05:56:13 +0000

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My first ever date was with a Vietnamese-American from the same summer program at Brown University during high school. She came up to me at the end of the first day of class, me, frozen, I watching in slow motion. Petite, baby faced, wearing a tight fitting yellow tank-top, with a big smile on her face.

“Hey, you’re in both my classes, aren’t you? Isn’t that crazy!”

Right behind her, I could see, in the hall, five others also in both classes.

The date was a disaster. Part of it was my nervousness, trying too hard to fit what I thought was the standard of how a date “should go.” But the rest was something else. At dinner – in a cafe on campus, she asked me about Bollywood movies, but, I had actually never seen one. She wanted to know about Diwali, but, my family didn’t celebrate it so I didn’t know anything. She was thrilled at the idea of going to an Indian wedding, talking about the colors and the festive dancing, but the one I had been to didn’t have any dancing and was, in fact, quite boring. When I tried to turn the conversation in another direction – travel, college majors, or politics – it faltered.

Within a week, she was dating someone else. The other Indian-American in the program. It suddenly clicked. Why she approached me, why she asked those questions. She was into me only because I was Indian, and the date went badly because, I didn’t fit her image of what an “Indian” should be like.

That was 10 years ago, but to this day, anyone attracted to me because of my parents nationality is in for a disappointment. I am unable to fit into the narrow stereotype of an “Indian,” one among many that affects Asian-Americans. Sadly, as Bollywood movies and Indian pop music become more well-known globally, Indian stereotypes are not only becoming more widespread, but more constraining.

The next year, I moved to California for College and saw, all around me, couples based on stereotypes. Walk around the campus of UCI or UCLA and you’ll see many white males in arms with an Asian girl, and none the other way around. Then, even more perplexing, Asian-Americans, including Indians, who only date within their own race, preferring someone of the same culture, but then refusing to befriend or date international students directly from Asia.

I don’t fit in anywhere, caught in the middle. Proud of my South Indian, non-Bollywood/Diwali heritage and my family, but also a globalist seeking friends from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Nor did I find at all attractive, anyone who fit into preconceived societal stereotypes.

As an anomaly, you become defined by what you are not. Terms get thrown around like “Banana”, “Oreo”, based not on reality but on the stereotypes, which then get reinforced and self-fulfilling. Am I a “coconut” (an Indian “banana”) because I don’t watch Bollywood Films? But what about the fact that I know about the history of the Maurya and Chola empires, and am studying South Indian poetry? In many ways, I’m more “Indian” (whatever that means) than them, just not in the “image” we expect.

So when anyone tells me, “I really love Indian culture,” I get turned off. It’s not me they’re interested in, but that image of an Indian in their mind. The other day, at a networking event, a girl, when she heard I freelance, immediately responded, “IT right?” I didn’t respond. Because all I’ll ever be to her, or to the Vietnamese girl from Brown, is an exception to a stereotype, an anomaly, defined not by who I am, but what I should be and how I am not that.

Stereotypes dominate dating, especially among Asians and minorities in general. People tell me to avoid entire nationalities (“never date a Korean girl”) and it makes me wonder, how many don’t date me because of the stereotypes they have of Indian guys?

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. I’m going to continue being who I am, and surrounding myself with friends who don’t judge by race, who don’t assume that others will treat them a certain way because of how they look, and embrace the opportunity to learn from our differences. That was my dream when I first moved to California a decade ago, and it, eventually, after many trials and failures, came true.

Today, if a girl is attracted to me again solely because of my skin color? Not worth it. Because multicultural dating can, and should be, enlightening. There’s no better way to peel through the layers and discover the intricacies of culture, cuisines, history, through the eyes of someone who is, at their core, a unique individual. There are challenges, of course – misunderstandings, taboos, and always, prejudice, whether it comes from family, or the outside world. Stereotypes only blind you to the true richness of culture, in all its depth and varieties. India is more than Bollywood. China is more than Tai Chi. Japan is more than Anime. Culture can’t be defined, but it can be experienced.

Moreover, much of who we are as individuals is more than our ethnicity. What about my global travels, the fact I speak French, am learning Indonesian, and currently work in Southeast Asia for an anti-slavery NGO? What about the fact that my first book was just published? That is who I am, and it is all beyond my identity as a South Indian-America.

Take a step back and break away from your prejudices, and then, perhaps, we can all discover the richness of diversity in our globalized world.

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How History Repeats Itself: Hiroshima and American Rhetoric Tue, 05 Aug 2014 11:39:32 +0000

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69 years. Have we learned from the past? I wondered that when, recently, I had an enlightening conversation with an elderly American social worker in Kansas City, my hometown. Talking about traveling in Asia turned into a discussion on the Pacific theater of World War II. And the bomb.

“It’s terrible we had to do it, but, we had no choice,” she told me “Japanese culture is just like that. They would never give up otherwise. That is how they are.”

Kamikazes, imperial spirit, a “love of their homeland” for which they would fight, inch-by-inch, the rhetoric has been flowing non-stop for decades. It was embodied in the racially driven propaganda of the 1940’s, the same propaganda that led to Japanese Internment Camps.

We had to kill 120,000 innocent civilians, mostly women and children. We had no choice. Because they were Japanese.

“You’re too young. You wouldn’t understand,” she said, a look of pity on her face.


Would I not? A year earlier, I saw the other side, and found a refreshingly humane people who have not only discovered the power of forgiveness, but also compassion.

I was in Hiroshima as a fellow for US Future Leaders Travel Program, run by the Japan Foundation, a week of cultural exchange focused on building ties around commonalities, not propaganda or rhetoric. Understanding America’s history in Japan was a key step, so we made our first stop at the Hiroshima Peace Park, built right below the spot where the bomb exploded. At its center, the iconic dome building, its hallowed shell a ghostly memorial to the power the world felt that sunny, August day, when everything changed.

Our Japanese guide, Kazumi, led us into a small room in the adjacent Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall. A few minutes later, a surprisingly swift, 85 year old woman with thining white hair, walked in with two translators, and, to a silent audience of Americans, told us her story, aided by paintings based on her memories that she held up, vividly showing us what happened.

In 1945, she was just a teenager, one who knew there was a war going on, but besides the absence of men in her small city, she didn’t really have an opinion about. Her view of reality was shaped by Japanese propaganda, but not by some innate cultural “spirit.” She certainly wasn’t going to give up her life for Japan’s honor.

After a short school day, all the women from her school went to a factory, where they sewed uniforms for the military. It was here when she saw a bright flash. Then, a loud noise, darkness. Rubble, a few moans, but, most terrifyingly, silence.

She was able to escape, with only light injuries, but most of the girls in her factory were dead. As she walked outside, she saw red, burned people, their skin melting, their faces hallow, their gender indiscernible. They begged her for water. She saw some collapse onto the ground, dead. The formally blue sky was now an apocalyptic red, and she could see fires burning on the hills around the city – the cupped valley having been specifically chosen because it would maximize impact. Black rain began to fall as she found her way to a shelter. She had no idea where to go – the city was devastated, completely unrecognizable – home could be anywhere.

Miraculously, her father has survived, and hoping she was alive too, walked all around Hiroshima looking for her. Two days later, when they found each other, they had a tearful reunion. It seemed like a miracle.

Then, suddenly, a few months later, he was dead. Cancer, caused by all the radiation he absorbed from wandering outdoors. Side effects that the America military knew about, but never bothered to even attempt to inform the Japanese even after they surrendered. Thousands more would die from this willful negligence, the effects of which are still being felt today.

Even she wasn’t spared, and twice has had cancerous tumors removed, luckily, both caught early. Japan has provided extensive, free healthcare to all bomb victims, one reason that so many are still alive today, though that number drops every day. Hiroshima has been rebuilt, but the memories of tragedy are strong. That is why, she told us, even at 85, she comes and speaks to visitors like us, talks about memories and images that would traumatize any of us. Because soon, survivors like her will be gone. Then, its up to us to make sure that no other city in the world goes through what Hiroshima went through in 1945. We must continue telling her story.


Rhetoric leads to action. Words have power. Japanese internment camps were setup because “Asian blood is strong” while nothing similar was done for German-Americans or German speakers (President Franklin Roosevelt, of course, spoke German himself). A military invasion of Germany was horrendous, and the firebombing of Dresden (led by British, not American air forces) was horrific, but the scale of what happened in Japan far ellipses anything in Europe. The intentional firebombing of dense, wooden Japanese cities created hundreds of Dresdens, few of which got any media attention. One attack, the burning and destruction of historic Tokyo, killed more people than in any other event in World War II, an estimated 140,000 people, nearly all civilians.

More than the two whose anniversary we commemorate this week, the events which changed the world. Soviet Russia, of course, was watching, and the bomb would be the first halo of another, more psychological, but just as destructive, war.

The decision was made in, what former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara called the “fog of war,” a fog in which there are no winners. Only losers.

Have things changed? There have been no Atomic attacks since Nagasaki, but countless wars in places like Indonesia, the Congo, Korea, Iraq, and, today, Syria and Gaza, have made the preceding decades just as deadly as the 1940’s.

Here in the United States, Asian-Americans may be more integrated into mainstream society than Japanese-Americans in the 1940’s, but we are still subject to harmful stereotypes, and we also have plenty of generalizing rhetoric about Asian nations and their culture. Japan is now our ally (and their culture is now “industrious” and “hard-working”), but the new enemy and source of fear and anger is China. And the rhetoric scarily similar.

Take a look at these quotes and see if you can tell which ones are from the 1940’s, and which are from the past decade.

“Author was strongly opposed to [country] migration to America because it might lead to [country dominance. He argued that, as [country] grew, its prestige would rise and intermarriage might occur. This was seen, argues the author, as snuffing out “the individualism that had made us great.”

“[Country] study like robots and can’t think for themselves. They are very hard working people.”

“Pulsing with…martial energy, and boasting a peasantry that, unlike others in history, is overwhelmingly literate, [blank] constitutes the principal threat to America.”

“Your [blank] are different. They go into the parts of the city that they like…and buy. They will pay any price that the owner demands, perhaps up to five times its value. The instant the sale is announced the value of the other property in that block begins to decline. They will probably pick up an adjoining house or two at about its assessed value. After that [country] can have the remainder of the block at their own price.”

Even if Chinese-Americans are in better situation today than Japanese-Americans in the 1940’s, are we sure that heightened tensions wouldn’t change that? Tensions are rising in the South China Sea. Many of China’s neighbors believe that a regional war is inevitable. There have already been a few spy cases involving Chinese nationals in the United States. Imagine what happens after China overtakes the United States as the world largest economic power in 2018, and its military begins to threaten US bases in Asia. It might not take much for the entire house of cards to fall.

I believe it was our belief in Japan’s “alien” culture allowed us to drop a bomb that killed over a 100,000 civilians, without any warming, as our militarism required us to destroy them first. After all, it was only Japanese lives who perished in the attack. And what if the surrender terms eventually agreed to were identical to ones that Japan accepted, in principal, before Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It wasn’t the point. We had to do it. If we keep telling ourselves that, perhaps it will become true, because, history is written by the winners. Us.

Arbeit Macht Frei

When the Dalai Lama visited Auschwitz, the horrific Nazi death camp in Poland where tens of thousands perished, his first reaction was to feel pity for the victims, but, then, to feel even more pity for the perpetrators of the crime. Because it is they who truly suffered in their souls, and it was they who had to live with the conscience of what they had done for the rest of their lives.

Hiroshima has suffered, but its people are working to build a better, peaceful world, where no one goes through what they did. Every year, on the anniversary of the bombing, a giant peace festival is held, with hundreds of thousands attending from around the world. In the middle of the Atomic Bomb Museum, which, to my surprise, has a section on the atrocities committed by Japanese troops during World War II, are the many letters sent by Hiroshima’s mayors to any country in the world that conducted Nuclear testing. Instead of calling for Americans to be tried for war crimes, the city has called for the abolition of all Nuclear weapons globally.

America, unfortunately, hasn’t yet been able to come to terms with the decisions of our past. We still cling to the belief that “we had to do it.” There’s a lot we could learn from Hiroshima’s far more humane response to suffering and move beyond the false idea that the bomb saved American lives. We claim we had no choice, but we did, as did the victims of Hiroshima. If we let rhetoric make decisions for us, I fear history might just repeat itself somewhere else. If Japanese culture would not allow them to quite in 1945, what is it about American culture that does not allow us to admit we made a mistake 69 years later?

Oh, those quotes above? All, except the last one, are recent, and about China.

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7 Books that Changed my Life Fri, 11 Jul 2014 08:25:48 +0000

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Stories have incredible power. Even before there was a written word, tales passed orally, from person to person, generation to generation, connecting people through the long eons of human history. It is narratives, whether it be narratives about lives, or stories about fantastic world ,that exists just beyond reality as we experience it, and help define our very humanity. Life is literature.

These seven books touched me and drove me. They were stories that connected with my life, or exposed me a larger, wider world, one where I could fulfill my desire to make a difference.


The Autobiography of Malcolm XAlex Haley – Freshman Year, High School

I went to high school in the suburbs of Kansas City, true Americana, and my graduating class was 96% white. The Civil Rights battles of the not-so-distant past seemed far, far away from our idyllic, but segregated, upper-middle class world. So when I opened the pages of this book as a naïve Freshman to the stark words of a child fighting hunger, living in a single-mother household after his father was lynched for speaking his mind, I was transported to an alternate version of what could easily be my reality. Poor, urban, black, from rural poor to the hard life of the urban ghetto. Through Malcolm X’s search for meaning and, eventually, religion I discovered what it means to have a purpose. Through the struggles of the Nation of Islam I learned about the power – and danger – of ideology and leaders.

Today, Afrrican-American writers, from Richard Wright, Maya Angelou, to Ralph Ellison, remain among my favorite, any every time I read their words, I feel strength from their struggles for justice. A struggle that I know, affects my own life daily.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich William Shirer - Summer before College

That led to, eventually, this summer before College, when I was eager to get out of suburban Kansas City and off to California, where, I believed, my destiny lay.

I was about to get out and explore the world, but, I knew little of that world. History in high school had always been boring, exams and classes that focused on date memorizations and re-learning the Civil War again and again.

This book was different. In it, I saw that history was not just numbers and dates, but a deep narrative with many different, sometimes contradictory interpretations. The past directly affects the present, and that nothing is ever as clear cut as it seems. I knew about World War II and the atrocities of Nazi Germany, but not this level of complexity. Through [authors] rich, detailed text, I understood how Germans voted for the Nazis freely, felt empathy for young Adolf, and was in awe of his brilliant military strategy and horrified by his racial policies.

It was also where I began to wonder – had I been living in that past, would I be a followed, or a leader. I stroke that, in this life, I would be the latter.


Revolt of the Cockroach People Oscar Acosta – Freshman Year of College.

The next year, as a college Freshmen, I read a book by an extraordinary, accidental leader. Like Malcolm X, Acosta, aka Zeta, Brown Buffalo, Cabeza de Vaca, wrote in a voice unlike any I’d ever head before. This was Gonzo literature, with a narrator who didn’t just influence every situation, he transformed it with a mix of guts, bravado, and incompetence. His lies weren’t lies because, in the moment, they became reality. Drugs, sex, women, friends, all mixed together in a story that illuminated the city I had just moved to, Los Angeles, and the Chicano rights movement that had never been mentioned, not once, in high school.

I recently re-read this book and while Zeta’s voice is not longer as shocking, I appreciated even more his courage and ability to blend into so many situations, to bullshit with a purpose, to fight for causes he did believe in, but without any moral authority. As a wide-eyed Freshman still unsure of what exactly he wanted to study, I felt deep in my hear a desire to be like him.

The McDonalization of SocietyGeorge Ritzer -  Summer after Freshman Year

It was time for me to put my ideas into action. So that summer after Freshmen year, I stayed in California and checked out dozens of books from the library, wanting to make it a summer of knowledge. I barely finished ¼ of those books, but one stood out. This book about one of the defining industries of my country: Fast food.

To create the monotony that is fast food, where everything tastes as is expected, requires huge amounts of chemicals, factory farming, and flavor manipulation. What’s even more important is how fast food has literally changed our society. We expect standard food in abnormally fast times. McDonald’s wasn’t natural, but its spread is now destroying the uniqueness and diversity of global cuisines and agriculture.

This book opened the door to new knowledge. I began to be more interested in organic food, factory farming, GMOs, and agriculture. This book connected the problems in society around me to the responsible structures – the fast food industry and big agriculture. I also stopped eating Fast Food this summer. Today, I try to get only food from Farmer’s Markets, have gone vegetarian and believe that transforming our food system is a key step towards sustainability worldwide.

Exterminate all the Brutes – Sven Lindqvist –  Junior Year of College

It was an election year, and America had just gone through the expensive and unnecessary invasion of Iraq. But I had little knowledge, then, of the vast dynamics of history that had created countries like Iraq, despite being a child of India, once the world largest colonial possession.

Colonialism, a dark era in which wealth flowed directly from countries like India directly to the coffers of European capitals. Sven Lindqvist took this a step further, connecting the racial theories that underpinned colonialism to its logical outcome – racially driven policies in Europe, used by Germany against its minorities during World War II. He shows how this was only an extension of what the British, French, Belgians, and Dutch had done in its overseas empires. The only difference – Germany did it in Europe, with methodical precision that was haunting in ways the invisible genocides of black Africans were not.

His argument – Europe as a whole is to blame for what happened in World War II. I believe that the modern, capitalist world that grew out of Colonialism, which was, at its heart, driven by need for capital, has yet to cut ties with the atrocities of the past. This is why, even today, indigenous people suffer at the hands of foreign corporations, and oligarchical elites dominate politics in countries like Malaysia. Racial theories may not be in vogue, but exploitation continues just as before, under a new name. That is the world I seek to change.

Roots Alex Haley - Professional Life

When I finished reading this book, I sat there, book closed, and didn’t move for 30 minutes. I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I had to just let it wash over me. Haley had written a story for millions of Americans who were descendants of men and women like Kunta Kinte, of the horrific period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It was gripping, powerful, and, many times, brought me to tears. To be forced to travel across the ocean, to dream of seeing your family again but, literally, unable to achieve that dream. Your language, your religion, your identity taken from you. To grow up, live, and die a slave. It was powerful and helped me connect to deep, inter-generational suffering.

If you put a gun to my head and force me to choose a favorite book of all time, this is probably it. An epic masterpiece of American literature that ALL Americans should be required to read.

The Glass Palace Amitav Ghosh – Living in Asia

You’ll notice that most of the books on this list are non-fiction. I was knowledge, and, for years, mistakenly thought that knowledge only lay in serious books.

Then I picked up this book at an airport in Malaysia, and immediately whisked on the remarkable journey of Rajkumar, an orphan working in Burma when British ships sailed up the Urawaddy and conquered one of Asia’s most ancient kingdom’s. It was written in a voice that described love, pain, and culture through numerous, beautiful voices and characters.

With this book, I began to read novels by international authors as possible. There were a plethora of voices telling unique, fascinating stories from perspectives not often found in mainstream western writing. Today, I count Tash Aw, Rohinton Mistry, Tan Tew Eng, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Ma Jian, Aminatta Forna, and others as favorite writers. Glass Palace opened up a whole new world of literate that is enriching my life.

K-Ido Tapas Bar, largest tapas in Granada, not best quality

My journey from high school in the midwest to work in Southeast Asia has been extraordinary. That is life; an adventure, and reading was the key to the new world I’ve explored. My desire to travel, to help change the world, to work for social causes, all came from the books above, which taught me about the world and how to change it. Today, I am an author myself, having just finished my first book, Traveling Softly and Quietly, the first of what I hope is many. Perhaps someday, I’ll also be able to inspire others to follow their dreams.

What about you? What books changed you life? Please post them in the comments below – so I can check them out myself.

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A Journal through The Garden of Evening Mists Fri, 16 May 2014 11:05:42 +0000

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There is surprisingly little writing on the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia, especially if you’re looking for local, creative voices. Yet, few regions of the world suffered as much during World War II. Millions were imprisoned and many perished in resource rich countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, forced into slave labor for the Imperial war effort.

Living in Southeast Asia, I often wonder; who were those millions? Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng weaves, through the mists of fading memories, the story of two sisters whose lives were tragically affected by the war. But what is even more impressive is that the story also includes voices of the oppressors, the Japanese, with the entire story told though the images, visible and hidden, of a Japanese garden.

The book captured me immediately – the dry voice of the narrator, the walls she places in her life to survive, and the indelible impression the past has on her present. Underneath it all, a disease slowly tearing away the memories in her brain, enveloping her in fear, of losing her past, and the promises she made but could never keep to her long deceased sister. I felt that I was listening to the shadow of voices that I know must exist all throughout Southeast Asia. Voices of the past that are still beating today, silently, underneath the shopping malls and consumerism that have overtaken the region.

I couldn’t put the book down. The author masterfully connects so many worlds up there in the Cameron Highlands, a tea-plantation checkered, forested, foggy, cool region in the interior of Malaysia. Japan, Malay, Dutch, British, Chinese all intersect – a reality that had been cut by the past, slowly being pieced together but only in a patchwork. It would remain, forever, mysterious. Such is the nature of reality and Eng captures it masterfully in his book.

The present juxtaposes this past – the narrator of Chinese descent, speaking in English, challenges the very idea of Malaysia. The inclusion of Japanese characters as people who also suffered was fitting and true – everyone suffers in war. But some suffered worse, like the narrators sister, a voice that only remains in her memories. Almost forgotten.

The narrator couldn’t keep the promises that she made to her sister, but really, to herself. She never could move beyond the past, and only in this garden, one which she never really understood, could she escape. It was dark but true. Sometimes, we can never move on. We try to let the past be forgotten, and let the voices of those who suffered disappear, but something always remains. A mist, fading into the background of the present. But there.

In the end, the garden would be dedicated for her sister, opened to the public, but, would it remain the same place? The scars of World War II still effect us everyday, we just ignore them, as here, in Asia, a new present is being painted above our dark past. A paint colored with new nations, new ideas, but one stunted because it never learned, nor acknowledged, its own history and suffering.

Purchase The Garden of Evening Mists in print as an ebook at Powell’s.

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Why For-Profit Couchsurfing Failed Sun, 06 Apr 2014 12:07:54 +0000

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Last October, news broke that Couchsurfing CEO Tony Espinosa suddenly stepped down, the latest in a long line of setbacks for the newly private company. In this article, originally published in Bootsnall, I explore how an idea with so much promise lost its foundation – its member-build base – leading to its present day downfall.

When I logged onto Couchsurfing a few months ago in San Francisco, California, and put my couch status as “available,” I expected to be bombarded. That was how it was four years ago, when there were only a fraction of the members on the site. Now, with 7 million members, and, me, hosting in one of the most popular travel destinations in the world? I braced myself.

Days passed. Then a week. Not a single request, Despite 183 positive references and 42 vouches, no one wanted to surf with me. My long-time Couchsurfing friends in the city told me it was the same for them. Sparse requests, and those that came, poorly-written, often from empty profiles. Guests who never showed up, messages that were never responded too.

The site had changed.

I knew the situation was bad. The heart of Couchsurfing – hosting and surfing – was disappearing, the very same city where the site itself has its Corporate headquarters. But once management put the values of venture capital funders over the organic, self-organized traveler base, and reorganized with a top-down, “start-up” mentality, it was, to me inevitable.


An Idea that Could Change the World

What Couchsurfing did was utilize the power of the internet to enable and expand the natural human spirit of openness. It allowed people with similar worldviews to connect over vast distances. Knocking on a stranger’s door turned into sending a couch request. Seeking friendly locals on the streets turned into travelers coming to weekly potlucks or cafe gatherings. The positivity was incredible – in the first few years as a Couchsurfer, I never heard a single negative experience.

Couchsurfing was Globalization done right; sharing culture, ideas, with no or little financial transaction. Uniting over commonalities across cultures, that, itself, could change the world. That’s why I organized my first event, in 2008, as a potluck in a San Francisco park – so that everyone could attend. That was why, then, I accepted every single request, regardless of profile, gender, or age. Because it was the right thing to do, true globalism.

We built Couchsurfing, not management, who, in those days, did little more than provide a basic, buggy, but functional website. We, who believed in the idea, the Couchsurfing spirit of sharing, setup local groups, potlucks, events, and told our friends about this new, radical, powerful social network. It wasn’t perfect; Couchsurfing had its turf battles, conflicts, and, too often, an elitism exhibited by long-time members, but despite that, it was revolutionizing travel. The sky seemed the limit.

Warning Signs

After my yearlong trip around the world – during which the discovery of Couchsurfing, as a host and surfer in Spain, Germany, Hungary, Turkey, Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan, made my trip what it was, I donated $50 to the site to become a verified member, hoping to donate more once I had a steady income.

Five months later, Couchsurfing announced that it was opening a “basecamp” in the Bay Area, a place for volunteers to gather to help develop the site. The local community buzzed – this was a city was some of the brightest people in both technology and non-profit management. There was so much potential to work and build a stronger, better Couchsurfing that could, finally, meet its true potential.

That hope quickly faded, as basecamp became a metaphor for the disconnect between management and members. Tucked away in a house in posh Berkeley, basecamp showed little interest in either the local community, or San Francisco’s vast knowledge network. Techie friends of mine tried to contact basecamp, eager to help fix some glaring holes in code or database structure, but were rebuffed. Basecamp members turned out to be Casey Fenton’s, Couchsurfing founder, inner clique, unaccountable, and, even more amazingly, invisible. They almost never came to San Francisco events, rarely had the community over, and gave little inkling of what was happening inside. Even more shocking – they were getting free rent, a generous per-diem, and even had an in-house chef with a generous budget. My donation was going to fund their vacations in comfortable California digs.

This lack of transparency, sadly, continues to this day. I never donated to Couchsurfing again.


Stealing Couchsurfing from its Members

Couchsurfing announced in 2012 they had failed to receive non-profit charity status and were going to reorganize as a B Corporation. In fact, they already had $7.6 million in funding from venture capitalists, and without any consultation with members, a new CEO, Espinoza, had been hired.

It was a coup. The site we had built and organized was suddenly under the control of a CEO who had never before used Couchsurfing and investors who were interested more in the site’s monetary potential than its power to break barriers between cultures.

Immediately, with money flowing in, member input became irrelevant. The wiki was removed, group pages were transformed, statistics about the site became “private information,” and the Ambassador program was revamped. Couchsurfing was now a start-up. Millions of new members created empty profiles, while thousands of older ones stopped logging in at all. As a “service,” CS even experimented charging customers. The problem was that WE, the members, were what management was trying to sell, the connections, networks, and communities we had built. They couldn’t profit off of our work because money was rarely a motivation. Not surprisingly, Couchsurfing Inc failed to monetize the site, leading to Espinoza’s resignation and the uncertainty the site finds itself in today.

The Future of a Nine-year old “Start-Up”

That CS was having problems was no secret. My article on the Rise and Fall of Couchsurfing struck a cord – getting nearly 7,000 Facebook likes and hundreds of comments. Couchsurfing inc. responded as a Corporation would – with boilerplate PR talking points, copied and pasted to forums all around the web. One staffer, however, sent me a personal message, expressing surprise at my opinions and wondering if we would talk more about my concerns. Was this Couchsurfing finally listening? Was there hope?

We met at a cafe, and, for nearly 45 minutes, I was subject to being talked at about all the great things going on at CSHQ, why my article was wrong, and how all the Couchsurfers she knew (later I saw her profile only had 14 references, almost all from fellow staffers) were happy about the changes. It wasn’t a meeting to understand the frustrations and anger of members, but to convince me that HQ was right, and that we should trust in their opaque vision.

Like my articles, anything I said would not be taken seriously. Members, like me, would have been willing to donate to the site if they could show, with full transparency, how money was being spent, and allow for greater participation in development. Instead, they rebuffed our attempts to help, ignored our concerns, and kept spending money in secret.

Couchsurfing made a deal with the devil – venture capital money – and lost its base. It’s a lesson to any social network that aims to connect people in meaningful ways. Empower your members. Be transparent and collaborative. As my experience in non-profit social activism has shown me, people want to be part of something big, to have ownership. Couchsurfing was built on that collaboration, and once that was taken away, everything we had built came crumbling down.

As any civil engineer knows, a building needs its foundation to stand strong. Likewise Couchsurfing needed its foundation – members – to survive.

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Singapore Fragile Balance: Rich Expats, Poor Migrants, and Unhappy Locals Wed, 12 Feb 2014 10:17:12 +0000

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In most countries, a man getting killed by a bus would be a tragedy, but quickly forgotten after a few days. In Singapore, this exact event resulted in a riot in Singapore’s vibrant, crowded Little India neighborhood, where low-wage South Asian migrant workers gather on Sundays, usually their only day off, to drink and socialize. The riot, first such one in 40 years, shocked the nation and is bringing to the surface thorny issues of migration, assimilation, and social cohesion. Issues which the city-state has been able to, for the most part, avoid.

However, blaming migrants, the Government, or even Singaporeans is missing the point. The reality is that the discontent’s source may come from the other end of the spectrum, far from Little India: high paid, expats who are driving up living costs in this small, island nation of five million and counting.

demographics singapore

Expats” vs. Migrants

No one ever calls the legions of foreign workers from developed countries in Europe, North America, and East Asia migrants. They are “expats” who form the elite echelon of Singaporean society. They earn the highest wages, live in the most exclusive Central Business District (CBD) high-rises, and dominate the middle and high management positions in Singapore.

It makes sense. As a small country that aspired to become a regional business hub, Singapore knew that it lacked the manpower to develop a diverse economy. The solution – incentive companies to setup headquarters in the region’s most stable, safe country, and allow them to bring in their own staff to fill the roles that Singaporeans could not. And come they did, bringing expats who received generous pay packages that, event today, remain far above the average income of a Singaporean. A survey from HSBC found that 54% of expats in Singapore make more than $200,000 a year. Many work for foreign companies but, increasingly, even Singaporean companies are hiring expats – and paying them premium wages.

On many levels, it worked – Singapore was an Asian Tiger, rapidly growing through the 80’s and 90’s, and, to the surprise of many, maintaining high growth throughout the past decade as well. No developed economy in the world has performed as well as Singapore since the turn of the century.

Asia’s emergence as a global engine of growth as only solidified Singapore’s position as a financial center. As business increased and the expat population grew, it quickly became necessary to import migrant workers to build the rail lines, the high-rises, and work in the service industry. The 2000’s transformed Singapore. According to the World Bank, from 2000 to 2010, population grew by over 1 million, from 4.02 to 5.31 million, far eclipsing the previous decade.

Rapidly Rising Cost of Living

For much of Singapore’s history, though, expat salaries and migrant laborers were an annoyance, but, most Singaporeans were benefiting from the city-state’s rapid growth too. Government policies succeeded in keeping costs down. Today, however, with the last decade’s unprecedented population and economic book, apartments, food, and goods are expensive, and salaries for Singaporeans haven’t kept up.

The average rent for a 120 m2 apartment is over $4000 USD, and for those purchasing property, down-payments of 40% aren’t uncommon, as property prices surged 50% from 2007-2012, mostly due to foreign purchasers. In little more than a decade, an affordable city has rapidly transformed into a costly one. According to the Economist, Singapore is the sixth most expensive city in the world, above New York, Paris, and Zurich. In 2001? It ranked #97. That is Singapore’s latest economic miracle.

Full Speed Ahead

In light of the riots, some Singaporeans lament that low-wage migrants are unappreciative of the opportunities that Singapore is giving them, but they also disdain the growing legions of expats. Many feel that they are 2nd class citizens, below, in salaries, status, and access to jobs, to mostly white expats from abroad.

So what now? At a glance, it may seem that Singapore is unsure of what direction to go. On on side, companies are being encouraged to hire more locals instead of expats. On the other hand, the Government wants to increase the islands population by 30% by 2030 to maintain economic growth and, by association, the ruling People’s Action Party’s hold on power. With birthrates among the lowest in the world, there’s only one way to do this.

Perhaps the true answer lies in the surprising statements made by Singapore’s Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin. Instead of demonizing South Asian migrants in lieu of the riot, he stated that there would be no clampdown on migration. It was a refreshingly honest acknowledgment that the vast majority of South Asians were peaceful and would never resort to violence, and, tactfully, an acceptance that the policy of migration and growth is here to stay.

Thus, the future will be more migration. More expats. Higher living costs, and, seemingly, an even more diminished role for Singaporeans in their own country. Will migrants, expats, and locals together accept more of the same?

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Alone on New Years Thu, 02 Jan 2014 02:11:47 +0000

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The following is a letter I sent to my close friends on New Years and I wanted to share it with the world as well. Happy 2014 everyone!

To my friends, scattered all around the world.

New Year’s is supposed to be a time of joy, festivity. But here I am, in Bangkok, Thailand, alone in a hotel room, looking over the city as a new year enters, into the third decade of my life.

For those who know me well, this isn’t a strange scene. I’m a vagabond, a vagrant, someone who doesn’t know my home anymore because, for most of my life, I’ve been moving. As a child, this type of life pained me incredibly, each move a burden as I struggled to make new friends in new cities and lamented as the old ones from across the country never kept in touch. But then, I kept my anger, fears, and pain inside, locked away from the outside world.

But also in there was a desire. To know the world better. To be a part of something greater than myself, my school, or even my country. There was more out there than I was seeing in my suburban American life.


Yes, I am alone today. But I am not lonely. Instead, looking over the golden spires of Thai temples lost among the high rises and malls of consumerism, I am happier and more optimistic than ever before.

Why? As a child, I craved nothing more than a good friend. Someone who would help me when I needed it, who wouldn’t abandon me for someone else. Someone smart, intelligent, who would push me forward. So, that is why, despite the fact that I was so shy, so scared of meeting people, that I left home and began my journey.

My journey has taken me all around the world. It hasn’t been easy – my first semester in California was full of depression and questioning of my life’s goals and ability to accomplish them. Traveling around the world involved many, many lonely nights in an empty, quiet guesthouses, followed by days aimlessly wandering streets searching for something – what? – that would give my journey meaning. Yet, along the way, though, I met all of you. Perhaps its was at a LRT station in Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps we bumped into each other after I switched rooms three times in a hostel in San Francisco. Or maybe your unique “free” dancing grabbed my attention at the Gay Pride parade. So many stories, so many chance encounters, so much fate. Every life is so complex, full of so many choices that could have changed everything.

Every meeting is an extraordinary event. That is why I remain, to this day, spiritual, believing in the power of a universe that for such encounters in a world so complex, so diverse, so large and overwhelming.

In this past month and a half, this formally shy, awkward, introvert has spend nearly every single day with close friends. It was, by far, the most social I’ve ever been in my life.

Somewhere along the line, the shy boy who traveled solo so he could do his own thing grew into a confident man who understands that sharing a moment with someone close to you is far more special than experiencing it alone.

Because of you, I am who I am. Because of you I have the courage to go to a place like Indonesia, and work to end modern slavery. Because of you I am slowly building my writing career. My dreams are being achieved. You give me the strength to do what I do.

Of course, I miss you all. Tears are coming to my eyes as I write this. Had I never left my comfort zone, I would never feel this pain of being so distant from the people that I love. But I also would never have met such incredible people who helped me maintain my idealism and hope in humanity all these years. Only through pain can you understand love. Only through love can you understand the world.

So, this New Years, I want to thank you all. Nothing in life is more valuable than true friends and today, despite being alone, I can feel your warmth enveloping me. Money will never give me the comfort and safety that you all do every day.


Last night, I visited nine temples in Bangkok, following a traditional Thai Buddhist tradition, and at each temple, I prayed not only for my self and all those suffering in the world, but for all of you to have prosperous, safe, and joyous 2014 and, that, together, we can all achieve our dreams.

May our paths cross again soon,

Your friend,

Nithin Coca

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Freedom from Assimilation: Learning from Einstein Mon, 09 Dec 2013 11:56:49 +0000

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    “The undignified mania of trying to adapt and assimilate, which happens among many of my social standing, has always been very repulsive to me.” Albert Einstein

Einstein – a celebrity among Asians – is the most famous scientist in modern history, who used his splendid mind to destroy preconceptions. Among his many contributions to science are the discovery of the photoelectric effect, proof the existence of the atom, and the development of the special and general theories of relativity in early 1900′s Germany. He was also Jewish, a minority in an increasingly intolerant society. 

His strengths came not from an addiction to study, but from his anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchy beliefs that grew from his ability to think outside the box. Though he never followed any religion, creed, or joined a political movement, he was avidly pacifist and anti-nationalist. He never gave up his identity, unlike many of his fellow Jews who, like Einstein, were from families who had lived in Germany for many generations, and felt completely German. They served in World War I, converted to Christianity, changed their names to sound more Aryan, and consumed pork and beer like any proud Prussian.

Einstein was smarter than that. He saw that any society that pressures people, even covertly, to assimilate to fit the national identity, lacks genuine openness and tolerance. As Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein left Germany, whereas many of his Jewish peers stayed, certain that the Germany they knew and loved would never persecute its most prosperous, proud minority.

This piece is the third in a series of articles on Asian culture and identity – starting with my experiences growing in America. Originally appeared in 8Asians.

English: receiving from Judge his certificate ...

English: receiving from Judge his certificate of American citizenship










Assimilation is the creed of modern America. It is the ingredients that go into our so-called melting pot.

Is it the choices our parents or grandparents made to educate us many of us in English, to not teach us to write or read our native languages, so that we could thrive in American society.

It is our acceptance of an economic system in which we are judged by how much we make, not how we make it, and only allows a narrow set of behaviors in identifying success.

For many of us, these choices were made before we were born, and were often done in constraining situations. To immigrate to a new country is incredibly tough. I don’t blame those who came before us, but find that a society that forces assimilation as the sole path toward prosperity is one that, like pre-war Germany, isn’t nearly as open as it seems.

When I was in Thailand this past winter, I was invited to a wedding of a friend, where I sat at the only table with English speakers. It was a colorful ceremony, with eight courses of amazing Chinese-Thai cuisine. Next to me was a fellow American from Oklahoma who’d been living in Thailand for nearly four years and was fluent in Thai. It is incredibly rare to meet a Westerner who took the time and effort to learn an Asian language, so I was impressed, and wanted to understand his motivation.

“Why did you decide to come to Thailand? Why here in particular?”

“Well,” he said, pausing, “my mother is Thai. Its hard to tell, huh.”

Like magic his subtle Asian features – a slightly narrower nose, long eyelashes, dark straight hair – became glaringly apparent. But the story wasn’t so simple. As I found out, his mom had never taught him Thai or raised him Buddhist. Emigrating from Thailand before he was born, she gave up her culture to try and assimilate in a difficult situation. He grew up completely American, and only in college did he begin to wonder why he knew so little about his other identity, and, thus, came to Thailand, alone.

This is how assimilation benefits American society, but doesn’t necessarily benefit us. We lose a piece of ourselves when we give up our culture, language, or beliefs. We lose our connection to our heritage country, to the long line of cultures and traditions passed from generation to generation.

Jews in Germany rarely spoke Yiddish or Hebrew, and were mostly non-religious. To the south, the situation in Bulgaria was completely different. There, Jews spoke Ladano (a Semitic-Romance dialect dating from Moorish Spain), and practiced Judaism freely, while at the same time, feeling connected to cosmopolitan Bulgarian society. When Bulgaria fell into nominal Nazi control, orders were made to deport all of the country’s 50,000 Jews. Unlike what happened in Germany, here, there was an uprising. Bulgarians of all creeds rose to protect their Jewish brethren, despite their different language and religion. Priests from Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church stood with Rabbis in the city’s synagogues. In the end, Bulgaria was the only country in Nazi-controlled Europe to maintain and protect a large Jewish population.

The problem is that identity is hard to define. What makes you German? What makes one American? More often than not, identity becomes defined negatively – by what it is not. Being German is easier to define as not French or, especially, not Slavic. An American is not a FOB, and necessitates discarding, as quickly as possible, those behavioral elements that tie you to your place of birth. Asia, as more “foreign” than mainstream western culture, becomes “less” American. Assimilation, thus, forces one in a certain direction, as American is better than Foreign, or, “American” is NOT “foreign.”

Bulgaria didn’t have a strong national identity and thus protected its minorities better (aided by several quirks of history). I’ve been to Bulgaria, and it is a warm, welcoming place, the first country in Eastern Europe where people looked beyond my skin color and didn’t judge based on where I was from.

America today isn’t Germany in the 1920′s, but it also isn’t Bulgaria in the 1930′s. We’re in the middle, stuck between debates about making English the national language and comprehensive immigration reform. We’re accepting, but we could also do a whole lot better.

The answer is us,  in how we define ourselves and our identities, beyond the narrow mold of assimilation. Bulgarian Jews maintained Ladano for several generations – how many third Generation Asian-Americans can speak their Grandparents mother tongue? Is that Freedom?

Had Einstein assimilated into rigid German society, it’s certain his brilliance would have been squashed. Thankfully, he maintained the tradition of Jewish intellectual freedom and never sacrificed his values to get a job (dooming him, for years, into patent office obscurity). He clearly saw the folly of assimilation. If we want our children to be like Einstein, then we should look at his moral character too, because it is this, more so than his scientific theories, that made him the iconic figure he is today.


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