Sunday, November 27, 2011

On Privilege (Education)

When you are born in a position of privilege, it can be easy to forget how much that privilege how much that privilege affects our opportunities in life. Especially if all those in your social group also benefited from the same kind of privilege that you did, it's not at all hard to fall into the trap of thinking that your experiences are normal, and that the benefits you receive are universal.

I was fortunate in a way to have been exposed to the fallacy of this assumption from a young age. At the age of five, I moved with my parents from the leafy eastern suburbs of the capital city to a country town, with a population of around about 3,000. Despite the fact that I had not even moved to a different state, the cultural differences were striking. During the half year of school that I had attended in the city, most of my classmates had, like myself, a fundamental knowledge of reading and writing taught to them by their parents before they attended school. "Problem students" - well, I suppose they existed, but I do not remember many. Most of my classmates from that school were destined to attend either a private school or one of the state's top public schools. Almost all had parents who valued education.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Things You Learn

When away from home, you learn about things that you possibly never would had you just stayed in the same place. It's inevitable in a way. Things like the intricacies (or lack thereof) of foreign transport systems, the taste of different kinds of food and some basic features of common life are all things that you can't help but learn when travelling. One can learn more than that, though.

For example, how many people can say (without looking it up first) what the third tallest building in the ancient world was? I certainly couldn't - not until the same day I went to see it recently. The first two are easy to name: at 146 and 142m in height respectively, the Pyramids of Cheops and Chefren are world-famous, and easily the most distinctive structures in Egypt. Even if people cannot remember the names of the Pharaohs interred within, most people would at least be able to point out their location. Ask people to name the third tallest structure, however, and it's a bit like asking them to name the full crew of Apollo 11: they remember that there was Neil Armstrong, Buzz Alrdin and some other guy.

Given a chance to guess, most people would throw out a few possibilities: perhaps it was a pyramid in Peru? Those knowledgeable about their Ancient Wonders might suggest the Pharos at Alexandria, which would earn them a cookie for being almost right, however even before its destruction in the early 14th century, the Pharos was eclipsed as the third tallest building in the world by a country far removed from Egypt.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

More Communist Propaganda

My last post had a look at some modern Chinese "Communist propaganda". It seems pretty childish to western minds, but I get the feeling it works for China. What I want to talk about now, though is another, far more subtly crafted form of propaganda that I noticed in North Korea. I'm not talking about the Arirang games here, either. The Arirang games are ceratainly elaborate, and a fine piece of propaganda, but there is nothing subtle about them.

In Pyongyang, there is, amongst other sights, a memorial to the Chinese soldiers who fell during the Korean war. It's a decent size, though not huge, but it's also quite prominent on a hill. And it gets a constant stream of Chinese visitors.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Communist Propaganda

The Chinese government likes to engage in propaganda in order to keep the population in line. Here are some example of a long-running propaganda campaign in my city:

Be dedicated and love your work!

Be friendly and harmonious!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Things Could Always Be Worse

When I went to Japan early last year, I found myself in a bit of a situation.

I'd gone over by ferry from Shanghai, rather than by plane, which meant that rather than arriving at an airport, I arrived at the Osaka ferry terminal. Through a series of mishaps, I had not brought any Yen with me from China, so when I arrived at the ferry terminal, I had with me not a single coin of the local currency. There was also no ATM or money changing facilities at the ferry terminal.

"Oh, that's ok," I thought naively. "Japan's a developed country. I'll be able to get some money out at any ATM just like I can in China. There's a subway station about 10 minutes walk away. I can get some cash out there."

Those who are familiar with the Japanese ATM withdrawal "facilities" can already see that I clearly hadn't researched my destination country carefully enough. I had fallen into the classic rookie error of assuming that a country with a GDP of $33,000 per capita and was world renowned for its creation of high-tech technology goods would have at least the same kind of banking convenience that could be found in a country with less than a quarter of that per capita GDP, and which had only been opened to the west for about 30 years. Silly me. Japan sure showed me what I deserved for making assumptions, when I tried using the ATM by the subway station, only to discover that it didn't accept my card.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Tourism in Developing Countries

Personally, I'm not hugely keen on the "tourist Meccas", such as Thailand, Bali, and so on: I've been to Thailand, and while I enjoyed myself, and my trip definitely met my requirement of "being warmer than the 1 degree average temperature with no heating that I had to deal with in China", I found the trip somewhat lacking in general, due to the large number of tourists everywhere. Now, I'm certainly not begrudging the Thai people their tourist industry, and Thailand does certainly have natural beauty and a culture that is worth exploring as a tourist, however when a country is as devoted to tourism as Thailand is, I see two problems.

First of all, when such a large amount of your cultural traditions become intertwined with the tourism industry, it's very easy for the traditions to (at least to an outside observer) appear to be mainly for show. At least in Thailand it's obvious that the people there still embrace much of their traditional culture in their daily lives - I loved seeing people pray at Buddhist shrines, and seeing Elephants walking down the street doing the shopping. Too much commercialisation of a culture, however, serves only to turn those commercialised aspects into a caricature of their former selves. The culture ends up being known and recognised not for its philosophy and literature, but rather for consumer-friendly dances and songs. Now, I was born and raised in a dominant culture, so I can only imagine how those from less dominant cultures must feel, however it seems to me that it would be in many ways demoralising to those from developing, tourist-industry oriented countries to see their remaining culture being seen as a sideshow to those from richer nations who come to visit at their leisure. It's a question that I really should ask some of the locals next time I go to a tourist resort region.