the power of belief

December 30, 2008

I am looking for something to believe in.

Now this is a broad statement, one with lots of implications, so I will try to narrow it down and define my point. The problem is that I’m not sure of my point because that is really what I am searching for. I do believe in things, some things I believe in more than others, and I believe in them for different reasons. I believe in evolution, prime numbers, the Incompleteness theorem and harmonics. I also believe in the basic goodness of people, civil rights and education.

What I think I am looking for though, is more along the lines of this gem by Earl Simmons, “I stand for what I believe in, even, if what I believe in, stops me from breathin’.” I remember when I first heard this statement, surely not an original sentiment, and how it challenged me. It didn’t matter how vulgar the context was, or the rest of his messages, this one line made me question myself. I thought, how many things are there that I would die for? That I would actually go against my natural instinct to fight for? I think for a kid in my position it was and is hard to be honest with myself to answer this question. I live a relatively comfortable lifestyle. My parents aren’t rich, but we certainly have never been poor. I grew up as a white male in America, attending decent public schools and with a caring family at home. I’ve never flown first class but I’ve traveled a lot more than a whole lot of people. There really isn’t much incentive to throw all of that away.

Yet that line bothered me, it had such power, such conviction. I felt like I was missing something because there wasn’t anything I could speak of with such all encompassing passion. Sure, I would give anything for my family and the people I love, but that mental exercise is pointless. We don’t live our lives waiting for someone we care about to get into trouble or fall into misfortune before we can find purpose. I felt like I needed to find a source so I could harness this power too.

I was raised by very rational parents, and I have always considered myself a rational person. The more I learned about the world the harder I found it to accept absolutes. This allowed me to put aside this nagging for a belief, because I could spend my energy trying harder to understand the world around me. After all, it would seem rather silly to die for a belief that turned out to be misguided. This fear of being wrong can be both healthy and hindering. I think while developing it is essential to soak in as many viewpoints as possible and broaden ones horizons, but at a certain point a person is moved to act. At that point it helps if there is direction behind those actions, especially in the context of society. Furthermore, if one is driven to make some sort of difference, to promote a change, then I propose that it helps to believe in what one is doing. This allows other people to subscribe to that belief, to contribute their help and further the movement in the direction of that belief.

That is the kind of belief I am looking for. The kind that when mentioned sets the context for a discussion. The kind that energizes people, inspires them to set aside whatever else they were doing to contribute, that makes them eager to dedicate time from their schedule to organize.

I have two candidates at the moment, both beliefs I have held for a long time, instilled by my parents and nurtured over the years. The first is civil rights, and the second is education. I hold a deep belief in human equality, not that we should all be the same, but by being born as human beings we all have equal rights. I have a great disdain for intolerance and a love for exploring other cultures. I do believe that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. For some reason, however, I don’t see the path. I don’t know where to start. Well, I have an idea, probably law school, but there is another belief that tugs on my thoughts and stirs up my passion.

That belief is education. I believe based on common wisdom and common sense that education plays an incredibly important role in determining the outcome of ones life. The problem is with the word, and all the implications it brings. I believe in more than just tests and degrees, more than certificates and institutions. Education is something personal, essentially it is completely internal, but access to it can be greatly influenced by external factors. Whether it is learning how to count, or learning how to wire a house for electricity, researching ancient texts, the basics of programming, or how to cook ramen noodles. The end result can only be proved by the person doing the learning. What this means to me is that the idea of education is far too broad a subject to be the kind of belief I am looking for. It is too basic a human function to single out. What I want to believe is that improving education, by giving more children access to more paths, by opening the eyes of young adults to more possibilities and more realities will improve the lives of everybody on this planet. This is still too vague a sentiment to die for. But it may be just beautiful enough to live for.

Maybe I just had to write it down to get a clearer understanding. While dying for an idea is a powerful force, living for one seems more constructive, although perhaps more fragile. Fighting for a positive outcome, constructing change is always more difficult than destructive change. The outcome of construction must be maintained, while destruction is the end result. I think this is why I will never subscribe to the idea that the ends justify the means, because there is no end as time is forever.

The next step then is how to embark on this journey of construction, how to develop new systems and expand on existing ones. How to set processes in motion that will continue to grow with time and provide more openings for more people. How to brand this idea of education, or most likely, what books do I need to read that have already inked this concept. It would be presumptious to think that I am the first one to think like this, so if the movement exists, and the belief is already being followed, sign me up!

lil asthma

September 18, 2008

You know how Wayne kicks it, and you ain’t gotta trip, like you lost your plane tickets.

The best selling rapper of the year, and the fastest selling artist since 2005 spoke to Wallstreet Journal (not quite the spread in Forbes, taking a Benjamin bath) about the Carter 3. I thought this part was particularly insightful:

Even the people who did download it [without paying], that’s a sign of respect. Trust me, it’s respect — if you don’t believe me you can call my bank. I don’t have a problem with downloading. I don’t have a problem with anything.

So not only is hip-hop still alive, but so is the record industry… with thanks to pirating. Of course people familiar with hip-hop always knew that. Mixtapes are gaining mindshare in America, but they have been around for a long time. Just more evidence that it’s not music that is in trouble, it’s just the people that aren’t in it for the music that are in trouble.


September 12, 2008

Most sidewalks in China are composed of tiles or cobblestones, and in the major cities there is usually a path with ridges for the convenience of the blind. In all the Chinese cities I’ve walked through, with all the millions of people, I have never seen a blind person walking the street. Even if I were to see a blind person, I could not imagine them utilizing the pathway because they would most certainly be accompanied by a friend or relative. When crossing the street with a Chinese friend I have become accustomed to the physical reassurance they offer by pulling my arm or putting their arm out to stop me from walking. I became used to the sight of Chinese girls walking hand in hand or arm in arm, supporting each other as if they had just stumbled out of a burning building. These observations may seem strange to the Western pedestrian, but they make all too much sense on Chinese roads.

I no longer gripped the “oh shit handles” in the taxi when we made a U-turn across three lanes of traffic at a busy green light. There would be honking, yielding, coming to a stop with our taxi perpendicular to oncoming traffic as we waited for the last lane of traffic to present an opening. The first time my taxi pulled in front of a bus from a stop in second gear it is easy to imagine the panic I felt, a different but just as anxious feeling came up the first time my taxi cut off a police car with its sirens on. It turns out that Chinese police turn on their lights to signify that they are on duty, but the rules of the road are clearly different. Traffic lights seem to be guidelines, the paint that separate lanes are mere decoration and horns see far more use than turn signals. Yet I always got from point A to point B.

Why is it that I got safely to where I was going? How could a system without rules accomplish exactly the results we depend on our laws to provide? There is a subtle and pervasive undercurrent in China that shapes the behavior of its citizens. This force can be described as a tacit mutual understanding between every individual. This understanding must be continuously maintained, constantly updated by being aware of ones surroundings. My friend pulling my arm was a sign that she was paying attention to my welfare, and stopping me with his arm was another friends reaction to the approaching cars. A taxi turning across a full street relies on the understanding held by the oncoming drivers, and when he stops with one lane left, he is considering the Audi speeding down the last lane who can’t slow down enough to accommodate him. It is not the rules of traffic that guide the decisions each driver makes, it is the surrounding environment that dictate the next move.

And traffic is just the metaphor.

This past weekend I went to Gainesville to attend SERCAAL, the South East Regional Conference for Asian American Leaders at the University of Florida. What I took back to Tallahassee was several interesting observations and some re-opened questions for myself. First I want to point out that I am not an Asian American, hell, I even struggle with the concept of being American. I went to this conference because I am an officer in FSU’s Asian American Student Union and I am president of our Chinese Language and Culture Association. So I guess that makes me a leader in organizations that involve Asian Americans, not to mention I traveled with some great people to take part in the conference.

Two of the workshops I attended were given by the same lecturer, a Ryan Takemiya who discussed Asian American popular culture, and the lack thereof. He made very interesting points about identity by looking at the popular culture (the culture of the majority, not necessarily ‘corporate pop’) of other races in America, and of various ethnicities in Asia. He explored how hip-hop has become incredibly popular throughout Asia, and looked at its popularity inside the US. What he illustrated is the way many ethnic groups have unique ways of expressing their culture that they ‘own’. He argued that black people ‘own’ hip-hop in the way that white people ‘own’ alternative rock. That isn’t to say other ethnicities are excluded, but that those forms of expression are manifestations of the identity of each culture. Therefor while members of other cultures may enjoy the art, they won’t truly be able to identify with it. His major point was that Asian Americans are lacking this kind of popular culture. They are missing a shared identity that they ‘own’. There are Asian Americans who are talented at hip-hop or breakdancing or guitar, but there still aren’t any artists, or forms of expression that they can call their own.

His lecture made me think about myself. As a white male who grew up in a generally suburban atmosphere in America one would think I could just identify and fit in with white American culture. Strangely, I have found myself always at odds with it. The fact that I was born in the Netherlands, and was raised speaking a second language at home is probably my first break. I was always taught from an international perspective by my parents, and have visited my motherland every other year since we moved to the U.S. when I was 2 years old. Of course I look like every other white American, so these things were never thrown in my face by the ignorant. I can’t and won’t ever be able to understand what its like to be oppressed for my heritage. In fact the only thing thats been thrown in my face is my heritage of being an oppressor, since Europeans (and the Dutch) were the slave traders. So I can’t be nationalistic, or ‘Patriotic’ to one country due to my ties to the other. What about my popular culture? Since I could afford CDs I’ve bought hip-hop/rap. At first mostly mainstream, but with the explosion of the internet my tastes gradually widened. I find it strange that I’ve always chosen to listen to music that I can’t identify with and I’ve never enjoyed music that I might have been able to identify with. Now I’m learning a language spoken by a billion people who will always know I’m not a native speaker upon site.

Being at SERCAAL opened my eyes a little bit, outwardly to progress, yet also inwardly to emptiness. I was watching the energy of the other students around me. I saw the way they were flirting with each other, nervously discussing their experiences, excitedly predicting the future, smiling and greeting everyone around them. All brought together, united, by the fact that they were Asian Americans. The conference members were in a place where they could identify with everyone else around them. I could feel the comfort around me, the ease with which otherwise shy people were able to relax and communicate. It was truly beautiful to witness, I can imagine how wonderful it feels to experience.

So what is my popular culture? What do I identify with? I won’t claim to have any struggles, I hardly know suffering. I do not wish to be anybody other than myself. I just feel like I’m missing something, something that I can pull strength from. I suppose this something would be a source of pride, something I can share with others, that people who don’t have it would respect, and people who do would know exactly what it was. I need something to call my own.