Archive for the 'general' Category


i’m not dead. i just moved.

My blog is now:



Thoughts on Tibet from a Chinese-American

I’ve been a fan of Tibetan culture ever since grad school. One night while I was supposed to be studying, I was just bored out of my mind from quantum physics / communication theory / whatever, and went looking for an interesting book to read instead. I picked up from the stacks the oldest book I could find, complete with loose pages and crooked typesetting. The book I picked up happened to be about the mythology of Tibetan culture. The tales of how each reincarnated Dalai Lama is identified when just a child was endlessly fascinating. The Oracles and the mystical events that led to the Golden Child was incredibly exotic and rich in culture. I thought to myself how shameful it is to have this disappear from humanity. Over time I learned more about the culture through Western press, learned about Tibetan Buddhism and became increasingly sure that the culture should and must be protected against Han-washing that the Chinese government are intent on carrying out.


The systemic destruction of any culture, indigenous or not, is one of the worst crime in the world. What the European settlers did to the Native Americans, the Australians did with the Aborigines, the Spanish to the Incas, were all despicable acts, acts that turned humanity further down the road to a monocultural wasteland. The Nazis obviously take that crime to the extreme in the modern era, trying to destroy not only the culture but went on to murdering the Jewish people. In the names of religion and civilization, cultural destruction have been carried out all over the globe by Christian missionaries, from the Pacific Islands to South America to Africa. Not unlike what the Moors did in the name of Islam during the Dark Ages, actually.

Anyway, I’ve long held the belief that the Dalai Lama’s position, of not seeking independence but autonomy, is the right middle ground. China will never willingly give up the Tibetan plateau because of its military significance. Throughout Chinese history, the majority Han Chinese empires has been subject to invasions and attacks from neighboring states such as Mongolia, Manchuria, and, yes Tibet. The first two groups succeed and established their own empire for a time, establishing minority rule over the Han Chinese. For bad or good, weariness over the neighboring state is just part of the Chinese cultural consciousness. After all, they wasted millions of lives building a giant wall to protect themselves; that should tell you something.

Add to it that Tibet as an independent state is not the predominant stance throughout modern Asian history, and I can see why the Dalai Lama took the position that he still holds.

But somehow, the protests and anger over the Chinese treatment of Tibetan protestors has me on the fence. I couldn’t quite put a finger on what it is, but I’m not as strongly protective on the Tibetan side as I usually am. Was it because in some small way I identify with the Chinese authority? Maybe, but that’s not my usual norm and it would be a bit surprising. I really couldn’t put my pulse on it. When asked by my Korean in-law’s how I feel about Tibetan situation, I stuttered and couldn’t quite articulate the complexity of my thinking. And that really got me thinking.

I came to two realizations:

First: There is a new element in the conflict/impasse, and that is the young Tibetans that are not only yearning for autonomy, but for an independent Tibetan state. As with young people everywhere, they are more aggressive than the older generations, and it’s hard to blame them. But it went beyond what I think is the solution, and I felt it hard to support their position. This takes away some of my enthusiasm for supporting this particular round of movement.

Second: I think that there is more than a tinge of Anti-Chinese sentiment in these protests against China, outside of the Tibet issue. The rise of China in the last two decades has surprised a lot of people around the globe, putting them increasingly at odds with the Chinese economic behemoth. Issues of job security, product safety, environmental pollution, energy consumption and price increases, food shortages, and concerns about their military spending are all reactions to their rise in global stature. Some of them are legit issues that the world should be concerned about, such as job security, product safety and environmental issues that affects everyone in the world. Others, in particular their military modernization, I feel is completely ignorant of the Chinese history and culture, and is driven by the zero-sum, they-are-winning-we-must-be-losing mindset of the developed world.

In some ways, it is this “holier than thou attitude” that turns me off about this round of protest against China, confusing me for a moment from my real position on Tibet. The Dalai Lama has wisely chosen the middle way, one that both the young Tibetans and the Chinese authority should follow. In particular, I don’t understand why the Chinese authority is so stupid as to let this opportunity pass. But when people from around the world attack China, fanned by their national and economic insecurity and supposed moral superiority, yet little sense of Tibetan and Chinese political history, I do take issue with the sentiment behind the attacks.

So to be clear: I support the Dalai Lama’s stance for Tibetan automonmy, but believe the current round of protests smack of cultural and economic bias. I hope cooler head prevails before we get into a us-vs-them contest.


My Numbers Experience

The New Yorker had a great article, titled Numbers Guy. The author, Jim Holt, wrote about the brain research into how humans experience and work with numbers. There are alot of interesting data here, including how it seems that there are two parts to the brain, one doing rough approximation, and a separate part doing precise ordering and calculation. Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist in Paris, was working with a subject who had sustained a brain hemorrhage that left him with an enormous lesion in the rear half of his brain’s left hemisphere:

Dehaene….showed him the numerals 7 and 8. Mr. N was able to answer quickly that 8 was the larger number—far more quickly than if he had had to identify them by counting up to the right quantities. He could also judge whether various numbers were bigger or smaller than 55, slipping up only when they were very close to 55. Dehaene dubbed Mr. N “the Approximate Man.” The Approximate Man lived in a world where a year comprised “about 350 days” and an hour “about fifty minutes,” where there were five seasons, and where a dozen eggs amounted to “six or ten.” Dehaene asked him to add 2 and 2 several times and received answers ranging from three to five. But, he noted, “he never offers a result as absurd as 9.”

Somehow, the damaged part of the subject’s brain had taken away his ability to do precise number handling, but the rough approximation function is in some other part of the brain and it’s left intact.

To me, the most interesting observations about the article has to do with bilingualism, as I’m bilingual (more precisely semi-bi-lingual since my Chinese has regressed so much, which would make me more of a “lingual”). In particular:

  • To this day when I have to multiply in my head, I recite the Chinese multiplication table because that’s how I learned it. This is different from addition, which I do without having to think in terms of linguistic languages. Dehaene’s research confirms my own observation, in that multiplication, unlike addition, is “unnatural practice” because our brains are wired exactly wrong for it, whereas there’s evidence that addiction activity is evident even in babies who haven’t acquired language skills. Since there is no neurological circuitry for multiplication, all of us has to memorize the multiplication table verbally, as a string of words.
  • Similar to multiplication, but to a lesser degree, I tend to remember long series of numbers in Chinese, specifically in Cantonese. I thought it was the same phenomenon as the multiplication table, because I learned to count in Chinese. But Dehaene noted that linguistically Chinese number words are just more brief, and take less than a quarter of a second to say compared to a third of a second for English. This resulted in the average Chinese speaker has a memory span of nine digits vs seven for English speakers. And apparently, the Cantonese dialet is even more efficient in that Hong Kong people can juggle ten digits with no problem. Who knew I have been enjoying a cultural advantage all along!
  • My three year old is learning to count, but she frequently counts “…13, 14, 16, 17…” I had concluded that “fifteen” doesn’t follow the “-teen” rule, in that it doesn’t sound like “four-teen” or “six-teen” and was causing her problem. Turns out that my hunch is correct. Dehane has noted that we use special words for numbers from 11 to 19, and for decades 20-90, and thus it’s more challenging to learn to count in English. (French is even worse, working in base of 20, so 98 is “four twenty ten nine.” That explains so much about the French :-)) Not only that, Chinese is great for counting, because it’s modular, in that all the digits are based on ten. So 54 is “five-ten-four” and 291 is “two-hundred-nine-ten-one”. And the sound for “hundred” “thousand” “million” and so on are all single syllable, so it’s easy to say as well. Dehaene believes that this is one of the reasons why the Asian students are better at math than Western students.

So maybe I better gear up to teach my kids math in Chinese so they can sustain an advantage in math over her friends :-)