NithinCoca.com http://www.nithincoca.com Sat, 12 Jul 2014 04:20:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=158 7 Books that Changed my Lifehttp://www.nithincoca.com/2014/07/11/7-books-changed-life/ http://www.nithincoca.com/2014/07/11/7-books-changed-life/#comments Fri, 11 Jul 2014 08:25:48 +0000 http://www.nithincoca.com/?p=2449

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Stories have incredible power. Even before there was a […]

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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.

Books

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.

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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.

This article 7 Books that Changed my Life first appeared on NithinCoca.com.

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A Journal through The Garden of Evening Mistshttp://www.nithincoca.com/2014/05/16/journal-the-garden-of-evening-mists/ http://www.nithincoca.com/2014/05/16/journal-the-garden-of-evening-mists/#comments Fri, 16 May 2014 11:05:42 +0000 http://nithincoca.com/?p=2431

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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.

This article A Journal through The Garden of Evening Mists first appeared on NithinCoca.com.

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Why For-Profit Couchsurfing Failedhttp://www.nithincoca.com/2014/04/06/profit-couchsurfing-failed/ http://www.nithincoca.com/2014/04/06/profit-couchsurfing-failed/#comments Sun, 06 Apr 2014 12:07:54 +0000 http://nithincoca.com/?p=2412

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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.

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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.

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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 Localshttp://www.nithincoca.com/2014/02/12/singapore-fragile-balance-rich-expats-poor-migrants-unhappy-locals/ http://www.nithincoca.com/2014/02/12/singapore-fragile-balance-rich-expats-poor-migrants-unhappy-locals/#comments Wed, 12 Feb 2014 10:17:12 +0000 http://nithincoca.com/?p=2364

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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?

This article Singapore Fragile Balance: Rich Expats, Poor Migrants, and Unhappy Locals first appeared on NithinCoca.com.

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Alone on New Yearshttp://www.nithincoca.com/2014/01/02/alone-new-years/ http://www.nithincoca.com/2014/01/02/alone-new-years/#comments Thu, 02 Jan 2014 02:11:47 +0000 http://nithincoca.com/?p=2347

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The following is a letter I sent to my close friends on […]

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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.

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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.

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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

This article Alone on New Years first appeared on NithinCoca.com.

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Freedom from Assimilation: Learning from Einsteinhttp://www.nithincoca.com/2013/12/09/freedom-assimilation-learning-einstein/ http://www.nithincoca.com/2013/12/09/freedom-assimilation-learning-einstein/#comments Mon, 09 Dec 2013 11:56:49 +0000 http://nithincoca.com/?p=2270

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    “The undignified mania of trying to adapt and assim […]

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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.

 

This article Freedom from Assimilation: Learning from Einstein first appeared on NithinCoca.com.

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Double Minority: South Indian in Americahttp://www.nithincoca.com/2013/10/27/double-minority-south-indian-america/ http://www.nithincoca.com/2013/10/27/double-minority-south-indian-america/#comments Sun, 27 Oct 2013 10:10:53 +0000 http://nithincoca.com/?p=2263

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This piece is the second in a series of articles on Asi […]

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

As a incoming Freshmen at UC-Irvine, I was amazed to see that more than half the tables at the student activities fair were ethnic, not interest, organizations. There were three Chinese groups, a Korean students association and a Korean Christian association, and tables for nearly every Asian country, along with a few token groups for the 40% non-Asian student population (Hispanic Students Association, Young Baptists). Upperclassman sitting at each booth were scanning the crowd, looking for their ethnic kin, ready to pounce. They didn’t seem to want to have me join.

Then, at the end of the row, a pair of eyes came looking right for me. An Indian from the table with a sign, in English but with horizontal lines above the letters mimicking Hindi script, “Indian Sub-Continental Club.”

“Hey there, come to our first meeting this Wednesday,” he said, thrusting a yellow flyer into my hand.

Initially, I didn’t want to go, but after seeing that all my fellow dormmates were attending their ethnic clubs first meetings, I succumbed to pressure and went. It was in the same lecture hall that my Humanities course was, over 300 Indian-American students. I found an empty seat, already feeling out-of-place.

The President went up on stage and began speaking, smattering random Hindi words that I didn’t understand into his speech, talking about holidays I’d never heard (Diwali?).

“We’re going to pass around sign-up sheets for different activities, put your name down if you are interested” he said. I was near the front, so soon my neighbor, a short, light skinned girl, handed the sheets to me.

One was for Diwali, and the other two bewildered me. Garba? Bhangra? I thought I knew my culture well, after all, I could speak Telugu pretty well, and knew how to cook some Andhra dishes. But what was this?

I turned to the girl sitting next to me.

“You know what this is? Bange..grra?” I asked her.

She turned and looked at me with eyes of amazement.

“You don’t know what Bhangra is?” she said

The guy sitting in front of her turned around, “Are you serious? You don’t know what Bhangra is?” They both started laughing.

“It’s a Punjabi dance,” she said. “How can you not know that?

Punjabi? But now, I was too scared to ask any other questions. I sat there, lost and confused, through the orientation, the events calendar, and the Bollywood movie quiz.

I never went to an Indian club meeting ever again, and didn’t make any Indian friends at UCI.

North India is as foreign of a culture to me as China, Korea, or Russia, because I grew up completely South Indian. Kansas City has a sizable Telugu (my native language) population, so as a child my family would regularly attend Telugu events. Even the priest at the local temple was South Indian, and he spoke Telugu fluently. Our trips to India focused on my mom’s homewtown of Hyderabad and my father’s hometown of Bangalore, both in the South. I knew nothing of Bollywood, Hindi, and, until finishing college, never even had Naan or Tandoori before.

India, as a country, was an invention of the British, as no pre-colonial empire ever controlled the vast subcontinent. An estimated 415 distinct languages are spoken in India, which is also the birthplace of four major world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) and the last home of the world’s oldest religion (Zoroasterism). The ancient name for India, Bharat, denoted a vast land, a continent rather than a country.

In this complexity, though, the biggest divide is between the North and South of the country. Language, culture, cuisine, even gender balances differ between the two regions. South Indian scripts, wavy and circular, look more like those of Southeast Asia than North India. There are even seperate film industries in the South – in an average year, there are as many Telugu and Tamil films made as there are Bollywood Hindi films, and though they make little inroads in the west, they enjoy popularity in parts of Southeast Asia and Africa.

Hindi, Bengali, Nepali, and Punjabi are Indo-European Languages, distinctly related to English, Farsi, Russian, the largest language group in the world. South Indian languages are of distinct Dravidian Family. When I hear Hindi spoken, I understand just as much as I do when I hear Thai or Russian – a stark contrast to Tamil, another South Indian language, of which I can pick up about 20%. This is why, when I was in Nepal several years ago, I found that Nepali had more words in common with Spanish than Telugu.

In America, 90% of Indian Americans in my generation trace their roots to the North, mostly Punjab and Gujarat, where Hindi is the lingua franca. My uniqueness was ridiculed at UCI because I didn’t fit their narrow idea of “Indianess.” I was considered ignorant, or, worse, a “coconut” (A South Asian “Banana”). Instead of conforming to their idea of Indian, I took pride in my own language and culture. I learned that Telugu was one of the oldest written languages in the world, with a rich literature that dated back over 600 years, as long as that of English, and began practising speaking more often with my Grandma, even beginning reading lessons.

In California, though, it wasn’t just Indians who were forcing me to fit a certain image. Non-Indians would come up to me and say Namaskar, a Hindi greeting, or tell me that their favorite Indian dish was channa or daal, neither of which I’d ever heard of (in Telugu, the words are Senaga Puppu and Sambar). Few wanted to hear about how South Indian culture was unique, they were more interested in proving their own cultural knowledge than being open to learning.

It’s common among Asians to feel this pressure from society. But as a minority within a minority, it came in two layers. It forced me to be an outsider.

This shouldn’t be how it is. Few countries in the world are homogenous – in Asia, only Korea has a true, unifying language, every other country is fluid mix of languages, religions, and ethnicities. Double minorities like me exist everywhere, but we seem to be ignored in the overly pervasive – and completely wrong – idea that national identity and culture are interchangeable.

Last year, I met a Chinese-Canadian girl from Quebec from a Hokkien family, and her experiences with Mandarin and Cantonese speaking Chinese students in Montreal paralled my experiences in California. Today, her friends are mostly French-Canadian, and to an outsider, she may seem white-washed, but in reality, she’s still has deep interest in her culture, and plans to someday visit China to better learn Hokkien. Likewise, in the next year or two, will spend time in South India learning classical Telugu.

Instead of narrowly defining identity, a more open attitude could allow for greater expression. I’m happy to learn about North Indian culture just as I was happy to backpack for six months in Southeast Asia and learn Indonesian – but I detest being expected to know it. Thus, I still don’t watch Bollywood Films, but have a strong appreciation for classical Carnatic music and devour readings on Indian cultural history. I still don’t know much Hindi but have improved my Telugu dramatically since Freshmen year.

Does that make me any less of an Indian? Or just more of an Asian? For some reason, I doubt the Indian club would be any more accepting of me now as 10 years ago.

This article Double Minority: South Indian in America first appeared on NithinCoca.com.

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Am I Asian too?http://www.nithincoca.com/2013/10/12/asian/ http://www.nithincoca.com/2013/10/12/asian/#comments Sat, 12 Oct 2013 06:29:54 +0000 http://nithincoca.com/?p=2254

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Let me start on a lighter note – an anecdote from my Freshman year of College, more than 10 years ago. I was at the In-N-Out across the street from the dorms, in bar-seating facing a window towards the campus, with two Asian-Americans dorm-mates I’d just met. It was orientation week at UC-Irvine, so school hadn’t yet started, but I was excited. Finally, after six years living in the Midwest, I was in California, and, happily, already making friends.

“She definitely Chinese,” said the guy sitting next to me, pointing at a short Asian girl with an oversized backpack, on the sidewalk in front of us. 

I looked at her, perplexed. Did they mean ethnically? After all, this was UCI, and though it was majority Asian, it was also 98% Californian. There were very few international students here. And how could they tell her nationality just by looking at her?

“That one, definitely Korean,” said the other guy, pointing at a tall guy in glasses. Was this some sort of game Californians played? Guess-the-ethnicity? Was it a skill?

“Filipino for sure!”

Across the street, I saw two Caucasians males walking towards the In-N-Out. I could play this game too.

“Over there, that guy is definitely German, and the other, Irish,” I said, barely able to not giggle. I turned to them, expecting laughter.

Instead, two faces stared at me with a mix of perplexion and pity, clearly saying – are you mentally troubled?

Hurt, and not sure how to respond, I quietly went back to my burger.
Writer Nithin Coca on Asian Identity

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

 That was my culture shock, and despite traveling to Asia, Africa, and Europe in the following years, nothing was ever as hard as that first move from Kansas City to California and being surrounded by, for the first time, other Asians. Or, at least, that’s what I thought.

Growing in the Midwest, I’d always felt out of place, and, naturally, blamed it on where I was. It wasn’t lack of diversity per se – sure, my high school was mostly white, but within “white” were Irish-Catholics, Southern Baptists, German Protestants, and a large Jewish minority. My best friend, in fact, was Jewish and resoundly rejected being called “white.” Diversity exists everywhere, but only if we want to see it.

No, my dislike was more to do with the bubble my suburban high school was in, disconnected from not only urban Kansas City just up the freeway, but the world as a whole. We were, after all, more than a thousand miles from any border, as Americana as you could get. I knew that there was more out there, and hoped that in California, I would be more connected to it, and find others like me.

Yet, as my intro shows, my return to California was far from smooth. Ethnicty, which I’d tried to ignore my whole life, all of a sudden was in the forefront. My skin color mattered – so much so that people made judgements based on it (“So you must be studying Engineering?”), judgements I’d never been exposed to before, cloacked in so-called cosmpolitan cultural intelligence.

In the Midwest, no one would ever ask your ethnicity – it would be impolite, but students at UCI seemed to have no such qualms. So when my Asian-American roomate first asked me about my race, I answered as I always had.

“I’m Asian,” I said. There was a pause.

“You’re not Asian,” he responded curtly.

For a few seconds, I was too shocked to respond.

“I’m Asian. You’re Indian,” he continued. In his mind, he was both Asian and Chinese. But I was just Indian. We also never became friends.

It got harder from there. On the second day of class, I walked through the student center, where everyone was eating lunch. I froze. Each table in the outdoor plaza was filled with a different ethnicity. Where did I fit into this scheme? As my roomate had showed me, I wasn’t “Asian” enough to hang out with the Chinese, Koreans, or Filipinos, and, conversely, not “Indian” enough for the Indian cliques either. Even the white students were unapprochable, an antagonistic minority, nothing like my mostly white friends in high school.

I was as out of place in California as I had been in Kansas, despite the dramatic increase in diversity. But, it was, as I would later see clearly, diversity in name only, and that the cliquiness I saw was, I’d later learn, a natural reaction to far greater forces in play all across America.

As an antsy 19 year old, I reacted as I always had. I left. The next year, I studied abroad in France, and would, with time, I travel the world to expand my mind. Upon returning to California, at a new University, I formed my own clique with a bunch of diverse misfits, united in our differences, not, like the cliques at UCI, in our common skin color or parents birthplace. They challenged me to think and destroy preconceptions.

The prejudices I was exposed to as a Freshmen have made me resoundedly anti-stereotype, and I pride myself on not only breaking barriers, but not judging others by appearance either. At the same time, my respect and pride in my own culture has grown – South Indian, Hindu, Buddhist, American, and yes, Asian.

It wasn’t an easy journey, and I still have a lot to learn.

And just to be clear. I AM Asian.

This article Am I Asian too? first appeared on NithinCoca.com.

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My Path: Being Vegetarianhttp://www.nithincoca.com/2013/08/26/path-vegetarian/ http://www.nithincoca.com/2013/08/26/path-vegetarian/#comments Mon, 26 Aug 2013 23:36:05 +0000 http://nithincoca.com/?p=2242

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A genuine choice never feels like a sacrifice. If you act from your heart, instead of feeling constrained, following your values is liberating. When your actions match your morals, the strength you gain inside is, I believe, the most powerful force in the world.

That is why, a few months ago, after years of learning, debating, and struggling, I decided to follow my heart and do what I felt was right. I became a Vegetarian.

My choice was natural, spiritual. A few years ago, I did a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat, during which we pledged to not harm any living beings. Thus, we were pure vegetarians, eating delicious cuisines twice a day while meditating in a beautiful location. It was remarkably easy, consuming healthy, nutritious salads, Vietnamese vegetable curries, vegan tacos, the bounty of nature nourishing me thoroughly, putting me closer to mother earth than ever before.

Inspired, I stayed vegetarian for a month, and, for the next two years, was a “90%” vegetarian, only eating meat whenever I ate out, attended potlucks or dinners with friends, or traveled abroad. My own desires, though, began to align with my diet. All I needed was the power to trust my own ability to succeed.

Vipassana Center, North Fork, California

Vipassana teaches that all sensations – cravings, feelings, emotions – arise, and fade away, and this is the only constant in life, change and impermanence. Through deep observation, we can see this inside ourselves, through our own fine-tuned senses. The path of Buddha is to understand this, and live your life without attachment to things that will, inevitably, disappear.

Cravings are powerful, especially to travelers. My first time living abroad, when I studied in France a decade ago, I badly missed Mexican food and Indian food. Later, when traveling around the world, the lack of dairy in Asian cuisine used to have me running to grocery stores to buy small cartons of milk and yogurt. Random smells, images, would erupt into massive cravings that would often overtake my body. Holidays, such as Thanksgiving, or bouts of homesickness, would only make things worse. We accept this is a part of travel, a sacrifice that we make to experience the world.

The longer we travel, the more we think of our cravings, the worse they become.

Yet, cravings are only feelings, within ourselves. So, this past year, I tried something different. When I feel a craving, ignore it. When a meal was in front of me, focus all my senses on it; the unique flavors, texture, color, and not let my mind wander to other foods. Be where I am through what I eat.

I started in Taiwan, where I took breakfast wherever my hosts ate, choosing health rather than recreating home. Thick steamed bread with lightly fried eggs, doughy, Taiwanese pancakes with sweet soy sauce and chives, steamed dumplings with vegetables. Savoring each bite, letting it nourish me. Listening to my body, training my mind. For a month in Taiwan, I ate only local.

In Singapore, my next stop, instead of what I used to do, spend hours searching for the perfect meal, I just sought the first, healthy, local place and ate there. Most hacker food courts, I found, had at least one vegetarian stand. In Thailand I frequented street stalls and night markets instead of Western food courts, enjoying the flavors of lime and chili Tom Yam, friend rice with mushrooms, and mango sticky rice. The cravings came, but they also faded as I focused on the true essence of food.

I wasn’t perfect. A case of food poisoning had me fleeing to a chain pizza place in Bangkok. But in four months, I found that by eating what I could, instead of thinking of what I wanted, I enjoyed where I was more.

I was finally ready.

“We feed almost half the world’s grain to livestock, returning only a fraction in meat … while millions starve.” Frances Moore Lappe

Too often, we define ourselves by what we consume, whether it be food, clothing, or even music and movies. I don’t want consumption to define me, and its the same with being a vegetarian. I want to be defined by my actions.

Thus, it wasn’t really a decision, more of a transition, bringing my diet closer to my pro-environment, spiritual heart. Upon returning, knowing my mom’s South Indian kitchen would easily be able to accommodate my vegetarian desires, I told her to not cook me any meat. That was it.

There will be challenges. Being vegetarian in Taiwan or Indonesia would be much more difficult, so I will allow for occasional cultural exceptions. But I know that I will never go back. I am healthier, my mind clearer these past four months, and it hasn’t been a struggle at all.

But I also refuse to judge those who aren’t ready. I ate meat, in some form or another, for 29 years. To look down on other meat-eaters would be hypocritical. One reason so many are turned off by vegetarianism is the haughty elitism exhibited by too many of us, who look down on meat-eaters as lesser beings, and too often, close ourselves off to meaningful debate and learning. That is defining ourselves by what we consume.

For me, my diet isn’t a lifestyle choice, or a political statement. It is an expression of my experiences, my beliefs, and my spirituality. I am putting my moral values into action, towards my ultimate goal of inner peace. This is who I am. My choices don’t reflect on you, but I’m happy to share my reasoning and will gladly help anyone else interested in following a sustainable, noble path.

But only if you are genuinely ready.

This article My Path: Being Vegetarian first appeared on NithinCoca.com.

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Indonesia’s Languages, an Education Messhttp://www.nithincoca.com/2013/07/24/indonesias-language-education-mess/ http://www.nithincoca.com/2013/07/24/indonesias-language-education-mess/#comments Wed, 24 Jul 2013 20:37:20 +0000 http://nithincoca.com/?p=2215

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Schools across Indonesia are preparing for a huge shift; beginning this next term, English will no longer be a required subject in Government primary schools. The outrage is, justifiably, large and there are fears that this will hurt the ability of Indonesian students to succeed in a globalized world.

This debate reminded me of my original interest in Indonesia. On one hand, there were the environmental riches of the country, the biodiversity, but I was also drawn to the human side. This was the country with the second most languages in the world, with so many religions, ethnicities, and beliefs scattered across its countless islands. I imagined, naturally, that Jakarta was a cultural mixing pot, and wondered if I would be able to tell the difference between Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese if I heard it on the streets.

The history intrigued me too, especially the unique idea to make the national language not the most-spoken tongue, Javanese, but an easy to learn dialect that, for centuries before colonialism, allowed kunlun sailors to trade goods throughout Southeast Asia.

This was Riau Melayu (not related to the Sumatran province). It was an auspicious start. Unlike the similarly diverse Philippines, which made its national language the language of Manila (Tagalog) and created decades of discontent, or the many African countries that maintained colonial tongues, Indonesia choose a language that didn’t empower any particular people, nor the former overlords. In fact, at independence, few spoke the newly coined Bahasa Indonesia. It was, quite possibly, a third, more egalitarian way.

And then nationalism took over. Separatist movements in Aceh, Bali, Papua, and Timor led to the assertion and creation of a strong national identity under both Presidents Sukarno and Suharto.

Remember, the early leaders of Indonesia were European educated elites, who believed in very foreign concepts of Government and identity. The European nation-state was taught as being “natural” and “civilized” and at its base required there to be one, unifying, national language. It was language that drew most of the borders between countries in Europe. This was, of course, not an easy process, as Benedict Andersen’s seminal book, Imagined Communities, demonstrates. Even seemingly linguistically homogenous countries like France once had several competing dialects, and it took decades of education and coercion to invent the idea of a unified French nationhood. Even then, it didn’t succeed fully, as any proudly independent Basque speaker from the Pays Basque region will tell you.

Not surprisingly, this system was an ill-match for Indonesia, a huge, diverse country. What happened here was akin to uniting all of Europe as a single country and replacing all written languages and scripts with a simplified, easy to learn Esperanto. The scale – and the effects – were massive.

indonesian scripts

Did you know that, a century ago, Sundanese, Javanese, Batak, and dozens of other Nusantara languages had their own unique, beautiful scripts based on those still used today in South India? In fact, they look much like modern Khmer, Burmese, and Thai. Today, those scripts as essentially extinct, all replaced by romanized Indonesian. To my dismay, I found that in Jakarta, nearly everyone uses only Bahasa Indonesia, and that my young Indonesian friends often didn’t know, or care about, their parents native tongues. Even those who do, only use it at home, never on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media that Jakartans are addicted to.

As writing disappears, speech will soon follow. Part of the blame is on education, which from the earliest age, is entirely in Bahasa Indonesia. While cursory local studies, including language, exist (less than two hours per week), they never include writing or reading. On top of that, all media is only in Indonesian or, increasingly, imported from abroad. This results is some sad facts, including one that stands out for me – Javanese is the most widely spoken language in the world without a daily newspaper, TV station, or radio outlets.

Why does this matter? There are many reasons. For one thing, ignoring local languages may harm the ability to properly educate youth, as study after study shows that you need to be able to speak one language well in order to learn a second language – and that, without this foundation, brain development can be stunted. By not allowing education in rich native languages, Indonesia is not only hastening the loss of its vibrant culture, but its future generation’s ability to thrive as well. Perhaps this is why the country, despite massive economic development, still ranks only 56th out of 66th in reading ability globally.

A possible solution may be taking shape in a fellow ASEAN country. Today, Vietnam is addressing the low-education attainment of its large minority populations by implementing mother-tongue education in some Hmong, Khmer and Jarai communities, and finding that this is dramatically improving test scores as compared to minority students forced to study in non-native Vietnamese.

There are other benefits to maintaining cultural diversity besides education. As I’ve written about in previous articles, Indonesia is still experiencing massive deforestation, and loss of its unique biodiversity. Studies show that, around the world, the places with high biodiversity also have high human diversity, and when one falls, so does the other. It makes sense – diverse knowledge systems embedded in culture create a strong, symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. Scripts, oral history, even verb tenses and idioms encode information. People and nature can build – and sustain – each other, as the Dayaks have in Central Kalimantan for centuries. It should be no surprise that, as forest cover disappears, Indonesia is also losing its languages. 12 have gone extinct since 1950 and 134 more are endangered according to UNESCO’s language atlas.

My proposal follows the Vietnam example – mandatory mother tongue education in the early years, a reintroduction of old scripts into daily use, followed by Bahasa Nusantara (Indonesian sans nationalism and more integrated with Malay) and English education built on the foundation of Ambonese, Banjar, Tetum, or another of the 400+ Bahasa Daerah. Multiethnic cities like Jakarta can follow a Canadian model, in which language instruction is offered in many (including immigrant) languages when student population reaches a high-enough level.

The alternative – a country of people who speak colloquially, but can’t read or write, their mother tongues, use romanized Indonesian badly, and English not at all. In that scenario, the one we’re currently on, as the trees continue fall, so will Indonesia’s cultural diversity, its two greatest assets slowly fading away.

This piece originally appeared in Jakarta Expat, a print magazine.

This article Indonesia’s Languages, an Education Mess first appeared on NithinCoca.com.

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