A Nation Which Dreams No Longer

Progressives: Don’t back down from defending multiculturalism

When I decided to spend a day visiting the National Museum of Singapore, the last thing I expected was to be brought to tears.

I went in with no preconceptions of what I would find there. See, I am the type of traveler who does little research before I jet off on my half-formed adventures, preferring instead to let myself soak in a bath of unfamiliarity. I have no desire to enter a place staring through a lens of judgement constructed based on someone’s whiny TripAdvisor reviews on topics like basic cultural differences or a lack of KFCs. Instead, in the spirit of my blog and brand I try and show up and see a place through the eyes of its own citizens, and so I visit national museums as much as I can; not because they are trustworthy sources, but because I believe it is important to understand a place’s self-narrative.

The National Museum of Singapore exhibits great nationalistic pride, which makes sense as every Singaporean I met acted the same. Singapore was a British colony until World War 2, when the Japanese military triumphed and claimed Singapore as its own. The museum claimed that this British military defeat “shattered the myth of British superiority” and that from then on, Singaporeans began asking for independence. When it was granted, the country became part of Malaysia. But there were differences. According to the museum, Malaysia wanted to focus on forming a “Malay society,” while Singapore had a different vision in mind.

It was in this part of the museum where I sat down to watch a video of Lee Kuan-Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, on the day that he announced to all Singaporeans that they would no longer be a part of Malaysia, and would instead become an independent new nation. It was the moment where, for the first time, a definitive identity was assigned to this unclear concept of what “Singapore” meant.

The video was emotional, with Lee Kuan-Yew himself breaking down in tears on multiple occasions. That alone would’ve made it tough for me to leave with a dry eye. But the part that cut me deep in my soul, was when he looked directly into the camera, and said the following words:

“We are going to be a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion.”

After hearing those words, after everything that has been going on in America since the election and inauguration, I went to the bathroom, hid myself inside, and let myself cry.

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Up until this year, I would have told you that those words were the voice of the American Dream too. In fact, I remember being asked a few years ago what my favorite thing about America was, and I remember answering, “diversity.” I didn’t realize that in some corners of the nation, this is a disputed fact.

And yes, that ignorance was painfully naïve. Thinking about it now, I don’t know that we’ve ever actually had a president look directly at us and tell us all that this was our intention as a nation. And in fact, we’ve had so many in power throughout our history that have voiced the exact opposite. That Native Americans must be removed from their homelands. That slaves must go on being slaves. That Japanese Americans should be moved to internment camps. That Muslims should be banned.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are American idealists who have believed in America as a united and multi-racial nation from its earliest days, and fought for that dream even when it was so far-fetched their efforts must have looked insane. Like Harriet Tubman, an enslaved black woman who was so inexplicably convicted in her right to freedom that she was willing to risk her life to go gain it for herself, and then return and risk it over and over again to guarantee that same freedom for others. We are honoring her by putting her on the $20 bill, notably, to replace the guy famous for kicking Native Americans off of their homelands—does that not say something about who some of us believe truly represents what it means to be an American?

Maybe we have just never vocalized clearly enough that the dream of people like Tubman, this idealistic, impossible yearning for freedom and equal treatment, this idea that no matter who we are we must be respected as human beings, is the American dream, and we must protect all those who dream it.

The current presidency has called our national identity into question, and it needs to be redefined. I believe that there is only one path forward for progressives looking toward how to heal the nation in post-Trump America: the path where we finally institutionalize multiculturalism and racial equality as mainstream American values.

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Trump’s victory in the 2016 election was a lot like the proverbial broken clock that is right twice a day. It’s not that the things he was saying represented any true understanding of external circumstances; it is that external circumstances happened to align with the things he was saying, and to many people, that made him sound right.

Our nation is changing. As usual politics is struggling to keep up, while Trump is someone who does not even try to keep up. I believe Trump may actually sound more coherent to conservatives on the right who have “not kept up,” than the liberal politicians who are actually behind the times sound to young liberal voters.

As I said, our nation is changing, and quickly. It is simply impossible to label modern-day America a white nation. For the last 50 years or so, there has really been a major cultural shift. Black artists, athletes, and politicians have gone from groundbreaking to mainstream. Asian actors write and star in their own TV shows, while Asian doctors perform our surgeries. Tacos are as familiar to American kids as hamburgers, and all of us know how to count to ten in Spanish. People of color, while too underrepresented in too many areas, are still far more visible and empowered than they were in the 1950s.

So many of our defining elements, our best technology, celebrities, athletes, scientific advancements, and even food have nothing at all to do with white America. But white America, or at least liberal, urban, East and West coast white America, has also increasingly embraced these elements as part of our own culture. We all eat sushi, we all listen to Beyoncé, we all use iPhones. We make little distinction between who invented what.

I didn’t realize until this year that this diverse, fusion culture which has always defined America for me has barely trickled into certain parts of the country. I didn’t realize that not all politicians celebrated diversity in politics. In fact, I guess I didn’t even realize that championing diversity and working for greater equality of treatment was something critically necessary for politicians to focus on promoting… until I spent about six seconds on the internet during Trump’s campaign and was horrified by what I found. That not only do people misunderstand concepts like inherent bias, but that they actually actively flaunt their biases and judgments of their fellow Americans. And yes, internet harassment was going on way before Trump—but that harassment is increasingly making its way off of the internet and into real-life acts of violence too.

With all this discontent, should the left back down from our already light-weight treatment of racial justice issues? I have already seen too many articles claiming liberals must “do away with identity politics” or “listen more to working class white folks.” This sure seems misguided. Did America wait around after the Civil War to make sure the white working class “felt okay” with ending slavery? No, we just eliminated slavery, because let’s be real—they were never going to come around to it.

Similarly, I believe that after Trump, we should move forward by stating the goal of forming a just, multicultural America, without stopping to cater to anyone who doesn’t believe in that need. It’s just not, and never has been, something we should “wait on”—we need to do the legwork first, and lay the groundwork to make people believe in that vision only after we’ve jumped.

It is difficult to open minds, but it is impossible to close them. Once a person has accepted that they do not need to be afraid of Muslims, all the terror attacks in the world won’t change that view, because it is obvious to them that these are isolated attacks unrelated to Muslims in general. Our cities will not move backwards, and so our cities, and those with the power in this nation, must take the next crucial steps forward in adopting serious policies that protect our diversity.

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For decades on decades now, equal rights have been labeled the cause of activists and fringe actors, not a mainstream political position. But while the Democratic Party has faltered and fumbled, look at the horrifying fringe positions on the right which have slowly drifted into the mainstream. Only 27% of Republicans believe Obama was born in the USA. Our Attorney General was ruled “too racist” to be a judge in the 1980s. Our current president retweets actual white supremacists and was endorsed by the leader of the KKK.

The Democratic Party cannot wait any longer. It’ll take a lot more than getting Obama elected; it will take every politician in the Party, white or not, building a platform to prove their conviction to racial justice.

Too often, the Democratic Party has used “equality” as something that is self-evident and brag-worthy, rather than a policy goal. But just seeing diversity is not enough to change the hearts and minds of those who do not actively feel a part of this diversity. There needs to be serious policy set in place. Policy that addresses inherent individual biases and larger systemic biases, that fairly restructures the criminal justice system, that encourages more open dialogue between sectors of society that would normally not interact. And Democrats themselves (and particularly white Democrats) need to start speaking out and demanding that this become a part of the platform, or it will never happen—and people of color will continue to suffer.

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I think many older adults believe millennials are not as nationalistic or loyal to the country as they are. As for me, I am an International Affairs graduate, I have my own travel blog, and I jet off to solo travel whenever I financially can; so yes, I’m certainly globally-minded. But I am also extremely proud to be an American, so long as “America” offers the promise of inclusion. I want nothing to do with some nation which walls itself off and expects everyone to look up to it, or which only allows one “type” of people to have a voice while everyone else is silenced. I want a nation which represents all the best parts of the world mashed together to make things that are even better than before. A nation of ideas and dreams and innovators, open to anyone who wants to be a part of it. That is the nation I’m proud of. It’s a type of patriotism that may be unfamiliar to my elders, but it is just as strong as theirs.

To be fair, America was not originally founded as this great multicultural nation. America was originally founded as a slave state unafraid of terrorizing its own native populations so long as rich, educated white men got to have a bigger say in politics. We weren’t created perfect, but we were created with a perfect, simple goal: to form a nation that was good. And this is what must drive us forward in redefining America for the future.

The older I get, the more I realize how difficult simply being ‘good’ is. It takes every ounce of effort and willpower to forgive, to be generous, and to love those who you want to hate. It takes the vulnerability and humility to seriously look at oneself and transform one’s actions when necessary. And believing that reaching a greater good is even possible takes quite a large amount of idealism, which is no weak-kneed cowards’ attitude, but the difficult daily work of waking up still believing in the possibility of something that is so outside the realm of reality that most people can’t even properly imagine it.

Those who practice a religion will be familiar with this struggle of faith, with the difficulty of explaining to outsiders why they still believe in the things they cannot see, and how bad things happen because they more often than not lead to much greater things down the line. And so I hope it is with modern-day America. For from this day on, our politicians must work in the business of faith and dreams, and stand firm in their belief that America can be a multicultural nation with justice for all.

From now on, either we will continue to move forward in our pursuit of the American dream, this idea of a nation that rises above the rest to be good in the face of great global hatred and corruption… or we will become a nation which dreams no longer, a nation with no hope or imagination past the imperfect edges of our reality.

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If we stop with Trump, I really believe we will have fallen far short of achieving that ultimate ‘good’ that at the time was so beyond the realm of our understanding that our Founding Fathers could not even fully define what it should look like today: a good so strong it is able to pull the best people and cultures from the entire world into our orbit and make them our own. A good so strong it proves once and for all that people do not have to hate each other. A good that shows the rest of the world how people from anywhere and everywhere can learn to love and respect one another, and can work together to go farther than any homogeneous nation ever could.

I am white, but I don’t care whether I live in a “white society.” I just want to live in America, with other Americans who share my values and dreams. And if white people become a minority, so be it. I will proudly live as a minority in the greatest nation on Earth, so long as I am treated with the same level of respect as everyone else gets.

And really, I think that is all any true American has ever asked.

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Does Reality Matter?

The National Palace Museum of Taipei holds one of the largest collections of Chinese art in the world. It is also one of the world’s five most visited museums. In its cool, quiet exhibition rooms one can wander alongside strangers, pondering the meanings of ancient shapes and inspirations. Visitors are Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, European, American, Indian… but in the hallways of the museum we are merely fellow humans enjoying the art.

The National Palace Museum of Taipei is either the result of a rogue looting of Communist Party property, or the result of a noble effort to protect and preserve China’s ancient artifacts. It depends on one’s reading of the history of China after the fall of the last dynasty, whether one sees Taiwan as a state in rebellion, or if the true state in rebellion is the People’s Republic of China governing the mainland. It is a situation where two places with the same origins have two totally different ideas about what the facts of their relationship are. Both truly and honestly believe that their position on the autonomy of Taiwan is the only one based on fact, and that any suggestion to the contrary is insane.

This should not be confused with a “difference of opinion,” by the way. This is an actual disagreement over what is factually true.

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Those not familiar with the conflict may think this disagreement over reality to be silly or strange, but they would be wrong. In almost every conflict situation on Earth, people are wrestling with this same struggle every day—a struggle of contesting narratives which do not add up to a coherent truth. In Israel and Palestine, in India and Pakistan, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, in Turkey and Armenia, narratives are split about what things really happened and what did not.

Yet another example is Chinese and Japanese narratives on what really happened during the Nanjing Massacre. “300,000 dead,” read the signs in the museum in Nanjing, China, whereas the Japanese claim it was closer to the 50,000-100,000 range. How can something as concrete as 200,000 human lives become a disputed fact? I’m not sure I understood until America spent a week arguing over what we could all plainly see with our own eyes: whether Obama’s or Trump’s inauguration photo showed more attendees.

For in the wake of the 2016 US election, it has become popular to talk about Americans’ “bubbles.” We grow up in certain neighborhoods, surround ourselves with similar friends, and only read newspapers that confirm our original beliefs, therefore we live in bubbles which need to be popped.

I agree to some extent, but “bubbles” is a bit of a weak word for something that is more like “alternate realities.” And it shouldn’t exactly be treated as something unprecedented. All it proves is that America has joined the “society-in-conflict” party, alongside places like Taiwan and China.

In other words we are not alone, but it is not exactly good company.

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Calligraphy art

Some people like to treat differences in interpretations of reality as though they are differences in interpretations of art. As a dreamer and idealist myself one might think I would count myself among their ranks. And believe me I have tried. During election season I lapped up every single article I saw about the perspectives and characteristics of Trump supporters, hoping to at last find the key that would unlock a comfortable understanding of them. As someone with a relentless desire to understand absolutely everything it filled me with so much frustration when every article seemed to fall just short of enlightening me as to what exactly their reality is constructed of.

Art can be so peaceful because of both its connection to, and separation from, genuine reality. With a friend, you can stand in front of an abstract painting and give your own opinions, considering each other’s viewpoints equally.

“I think it’s a horse,” your friend whispers.

“No, I think it’s a birthday cake,” you whisper back. But you still leave laughing and walking together, no matter how strong your disagreements on the painting.

Why can’t the real world just be like this? I suppose it’s because art may either inspire or depress, but rarely does one leave the halls of a museum totally changed. Rarely therefore does art affect one’s actions in real life… but a person’s view of reality does matter, and it deeply and severely affects real life, especially for those whom that worldview hurts.

Whether the police shot an innocent man or a dangerous criminal is of huge importance; whether a woman was saying yes or no is a matter of serious gravity; whether climate change is genuine or a big coordinated hoax is a matter of the actual survival of our planet.

In these types of situations, it is absolutely imperative that we know the real truth, and cannot leave room for “interpretation.”  So yes, reality matters, and reality is a matter of life and death.

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Palace Museum Interior

The real truth can be hard to come by. As humans with the capacity for logical thought, our instinct is strong to always use facts in our arguments, assuming they are more accurate than emotions. This can be a problem. While most humans agree that emotions are fallible and should always be taken with a grain of salt, we do not exercise the same amount of caution in trusting the facts we see on the Internet or even the ones we hold in our own heads. Facts are seen as iron-clad and argument-ending, while in reality, facts are just as slippery as emotions in that we need lots of context to fully understand where they’ve come from and why they exist. Our understanding of the world will never be objective and uncolored, because we all are susceptible to fallible emotions—and we all are susceptible to fallible logic, too.

I wish I could be more kind and forgiving towards alternative viewpoints on reality, recognizing that all of us struggle with finding the truth at some time or another. And yet reality deserves urgency. A potential genocide is going on in Syria. Am I supposed to nod and listen mildly when someone suggests with “purity of intent” that letting people die there is safer than letting them into the US as refugees?

Am I supposed to be cordial and accepting of the reality that my fellow citizens voted for a man who bragged about sexual assault? Am I supposed to accept that in their realities where the same words were said, somehow those words didn’t reek of the same grotesque meaning, the feeling of being grabbed in a dark bar or catcalled on an empty street? Am I supposed to pretend it’s okay and acceptable to me that so-called “alternate interpretations” exist where either I’m being silly, those words don’t mean what you think they mean, or the worst, the reality where all men just go around saying and doing those things? Is that really something I’m supposed to hear with an open mind, like Trump is not disgusting because all men are absolute pigs, and both men and women are allowed to live in a world where they believe this to be true and unchangeable?

Don’t people want something better?

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Me and Blurred Reality

In a way we all have the power to create the realities we want and then inhabit them. Social media makes it even easier. We can curate our experiences on Instagram and Facebook to make glorified lives for ourselves. In a more tangible sense, the way we act often dictates how others act to us. Those who believe no one can be trusted are generally not trustworthy themselves, and those who believe the world is beautiful seem to find the most beauty.

Those who don’t want to believe their own clothes are on fire can stand there grinning in denial until they die, if they so choose. Those who don’t want to believe Trump is a bad guy can create a reality where everyone else is somehow worse. But honestly, what good is that doing anyone? Shouldn’t the opposite also be true, that if we dream up a reality where the world is peaceful and loving we could live there too?

I still believe we can. I believe in a reality where people first and foremost respect other people. Where we all fight together to understand the absurd complexity of this world. Key emphasis on together, because some of the few things I know to be true are that human beings all want mostly the same things, life is kinda scary, and all of us are super confused.

Look, I wish we could live in a world where looking at reality was like looking at a painting, and we could all see something different and that would be okay. But in real life, if we build the wrong reality people get hurt.

At the very least, can we agree to show ourselves some respect by believing in a reality that’s better than this?

Taiwan: A Tale of Two Narratives

Disclaimer: I realize the political history of China and Taiwan is controversial and emotional for those invested in the conflict, and so I want to be clear that none of my words should be interpreted as a political statement on who I believe is “right” or “wrong”… it is not my conflict, I’m not trying to make a personal statement, I just try and get the facts as straight as possible.

Taiwan is an island off the coast of southeastern China and its capital is Taipei. Taiwan is also called the Republic of China, but should not be confused with the People’s Republic of China, which is the official name of mainland China. The exact relationship between mainland China and Taiwan remains a matter of dispute.

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The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds thousands of ancient Chinese artifacts

A Brief History____________________               

The last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, fell in 1912, an event which can be seen as the turning point between ancient and modern Chinese civilization. The Republic of China (ROC) was the first government which emerged from the chaos. Through the 1920s the ROC government (led by the Kuomintang Party, or KMT) worked to unify China and establish itself as a legitimate government. Specifically, the KMT claimed it would make China a modern democratic society.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, was also growing in popularity as an opposition party which craved a revolution. They attempted to fight back against the government in the 1920s, but were too weak to pose a serious threat at the time. While the two parties were able to cooperate in fighting the Japanese invasion of the mainland during the 1930s and WWII, this truce collapsed as the war ended and the two were once again on different sides.

The parties entered an all-out civil war in around 1946, but this time around the Communists were better prepared. By 1949 the CCP had emerged from the war victorious. As the KMT retreated to Taiwan (along with two million refugees) and declared Taipei the “temporary capital” of the ROC until they could return to the mainland, Chairman Mao stood in Tiananmen Square and proclaimed the formation of the CCP-led, Communist, People’s Republic of China (PRC) with Beijing as the capital. The PRC is now the state most closely associated with the name “China,” although as you can see from the above, Taiwan also emerged from the same civilization.

Taiwan Today                                                                    

There is a split narrative between mainland Chinese and Taiwanese views of the current situation. In the PRC, the government position is that when Mao and the CCP won control over the mainland they also gained jurisdiction over all territories which constituted the historical civilization of China—including Taiwan—and therefore believe Taiwan is under their control. However, in Taiwan the government claims that the PRC has never had jurisdiction over Taiwan, the CCP is an illegitimate government occupying China, and the ROC is the only legitimate representative of the nation of China.

In terms of international recognition, the majority of nations now recognize the PRC as the official representative of China. In the United Nations, the ROC represented China until 1971, when member states voted that the PRC should represent China instead, which basically cancelled Taiwan’s UN membership. Due to its contested status and a desire to preserve the relationship with China, few nations have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. However, a number of nations conduct unofficial relations with Taiwan (and China turns a blind eye, but still does not want to hear about it).

What do the people think?                                           

The KMT succeeded in leading Taiwan down the path to democracy, and so there is an active debate amongst the Taiwanese population over this issue. While the mainstream position in Taiwan is that it does not belong to China, the question is whether it should go on being the Republic of China and claiming the mainland as its own, or if it should relinquish the claim and officially become the independent Republic of Taiwan.

Meanwhile in the PRC, the mainstream position is most definitely that Taiwan does belong to China… and I personally have never met a mainland Chinese person who was in any way willing to question that position.

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Chinese map of China… that ocean boundary is also controversial

On Political Correctness                                                 

  • On my blog I may occasionally refer to Taiwanese people, culture, or food as being “Chinese” and I want to be clear that I mean this ethnically, not politically. In Mandarin there a useful distinction between the two concepts; if one is a 中国人 / Zhongguo ren one belongs to the country of 中国, or the PRC; if one is a 华人 / hua ren one belongs to the 中华民族 which is more like “Chinese ethnic group.” When I say Chinese in the context of Taiwan I mean the ethnic 华人 not the political 中国人.
  • There are three topics mainland Chinese hate talking about, called the three T’s: Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan. All of these topics make Chinese people visibly uncomfortable when brought up. If you try and talk politics on these themes you should expect either a fiercely political answer or a very Chinese-textbook sounding rehearsed answer and then closed lips. Talking about these topics in China feels as rude and uncomfortable as telling someone in America that they’re fat (something which is actually totally okay in China!) In short, every society has things which make people uncomfortable. Don’t make people uncomfortable.
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Don’t mention it…

The City With Three Heads

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The best view in Hong Kong is from the top of Victoria Peak, which is the highest point on Hong Kong island. In the area called Midlevels, Hong Kong’s ultra-rich experience this world-famous view on a daily basis, in apartments which dot the sides of the slope all the way up.

On a humid Monday morning, I was sent to teach a private English lesson in one of the area’s luxury apartment buildings. I’d tried to look a bit nicer that day in an attempt to fit in, throwing on some cheap pearls and my black heels (though I was still pretty sure that with my grey cardigan from Target on, I wasn’t really fooling anyone). I took the subway to a bus station and hopped on a rickety minibus which wound its way alarmingly quickly up the hill. The man in the lobby gave my client a call to make sure she was ready for me, and I was whizzed right up to the 50th floor.

I stepped into a flat that looked like a model home. The furniture was so pristine it had either been delivered a day earlier, or had never been used. Not a single speck of dust sat on the floor, which was a gleaming dark wood. Blanketing the walls were giant windows, overlooking the expanse of the city, the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, and the boats of Victoria Harbour. I could barely breathe just looking at it.

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The view from the top of the Peak AKA about the same as the view from my client’s apartment…

A maid offered to take my shoes and I immediately kicked them off, not wanting to damage a thing. She got me water, then coffee, as I tried to make myself comfortable around the ridiculously elaborate dining table. My client walked out, a middle-aged woman wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

“How are you?” I asked her.

“Yes?” she replied, blinking. Apparently that was the only English she knew.

We spoke a bit in Mandarin, her native language, first, as she was from mainland China. I taught her basic greetings in English, and then watched her struggle to communicate with her maid in Cantonese. After about an hour, I returned to the lobby. There, in fluent English, the doorman led me to a parking attendant who, in fluent English, directed me on how to take the minibus back to the metro.

While speaking English is not the only marker of educational attainment, and I’m sure my client is a very shrewd businesswoman in her native tongue, the situation still doesn’t feel 100% fair. It’s because the parking attendant and doorman, likely fluent in at least Cantonese and English and possibly Mandarin too, actually had to gain more skills growing up to attain their service positions than my client did to attain her phenomenal wealth. They had to gain more skills than even I did to obtain my job as a teacher of that same client, which most would agree is a higher-class job than a parking attendant, even if it’s at a luxury building.

The scenario is a good representation of the different parties who coexist in Hong Kong today, and in particular, the extreme lengths Hong Kongers need to go to just to stay afloat in their own city.

Still pretty British (Photo Credit: BBC)

After over a century of British rule, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, and ever since, wealth from the mainland has been pouring into the city. Offices have moved across the border, creating jobs for people fluent in Mandarin. Beautiful properties have been purchased by those who can afford them, and hordes of tourists from the mainland flock over and fill the already crowded streets, buying up all the luxury goods in sight.

While the culture of Hong Kong is similar to China in that people tend to be polite and indirect about addressing concerns, somehow when Hong Kongers talk about Chinese people all of this goes out the window. It’s not just the sheer size of the crowds that is a nuisance, but the fact that Hong Kongers believe the Chinese to be uncivilized. “They walk too slowly, talk too loudly, and don’t dress fashionably,” they’ll say. “And they don’t even speak English!” It seems most of Hong Kong’s ideas about “civilization” have come directly from the British colonial attitudes which governed their city up until the 1990s, but the irony of looking down on China as “uncivilized” when there was previously no border there seems to be lost on most Hong Kongers.

Instead, what people here seem to understand is that Hong Kong’s relative Britishness always gave it a competitive advantage in the international business arena, as it made it easier for foreigners to set up shop—that is, until businesses started flocking to mainland China instead. Hong Kongers can laugh at the Chinese all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that they have achieved extraordinary success without having to jump through the long list of “civilization” hoops that Hong Kongers have spent centuries clearing to engage with the world. Now, mainland China is where big business prefers to go, despite the large cultural gaps there that are not shifting, and despite the skills that most Chinese do not have, such as speaking English.

The irony in that is not lost on Hong Kongers at all.

Now, the region is in a state of cultural whiplash. The rules about what is necessary to be successful have all been scratched, and Hong Kong is scrambling to figure out how to regain its footing. Should it deepen its ties to the Western world and ensure all students speak fluent English? Should it begin using Mandarin as the main language of instruction, while adopting more Chinese-style classes on mainland values and history? Should it forget the rest of the world and double down on local investment, Cantonese, and Hong Kong culture? Or will some combination of the three provide the perfect way forward?

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My favorite picture of the collision of China, the West, and Hong Kong

Like most exam questions, Hong Kong has decided “all of the above” is the best answer here. In an effort not to leave anything out, as it could damage their students’ chances later in life, Hong Kong schools are teaching everything, and students are feeling the pressure. By the time students are in high school, they can speak three languages. They have one class dedicated to Hong Kong society, another dedicated to Chinese history, and a third where they must slog through Shakespeare. In terms of raw skill-building, the students are knowledgeable about an impressive variety of topics. The downside is that there seems to be little room left to teach skills like critically thinking about these ideas, or even firmly arguing an opinion, which is actually what most of my adult students want to work on. Perhaps it’s the great diversity of cultures the students are made to encounter, and the great uncertainty about their city’s own future, which seems to say that every angle is worth considering and every skill is worth having. I guess no one really knows what will come in handy.

Hong Kongers are trying to gain enough knowledge to fill three heads, to keep up with the mainlanders and expats who generally only need to fill one. No matter how competitive Hong Kongers are compared to the other parties, the game is already stacked against them.

I believe this won’t last forever—eventually, things will boil over, and there will be a new status quo as far as what skills are really necessary to get a job here. But what exactly this will look like is uncertain. All I know for sure is that in a city with three heads, only one will be allowed to tell the body—and that includes all three pieces of it—where to go next.

Starving Elitists

How does the art of politics affect the politics of art?

This article was inspired by my travels to: Montreal, Canada

For Christmas this year, my siblings and I headed up to Montreal to spend a few days together. As two of us are college students and one is a travel addict (hi), we set out into the city trying to be as cheap as possible by seeking out all the free activities we could.

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Luminotherapie is an annual glow-in-the-dark contemporary art exhibit!

One of the cheapest and best things to do in Montreal, it turns out, is immerse oneself in the arts. Though it was the dead of winter, and the night was freezing cold, we were drawn outside by the soft glow of an annual contemporary art exhibit called Luminothérapie. Its aim is to bring light to the darkness of winter, and in this exhibit were a series of glowing purple rings, scattered across a wide open area, free to sit in and snap pictures with. Surrounding the exhibit were a series of projected short films, lighting up the skyscrapers around us.

During the daytime, my siblings and I were able to visit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which had just opened a brand new pavilion called the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace. The pavilion cost $25 million dollars to build, holds 750 works of art, is six levels high, and offered completely free admission until the end of January 2017.

It was cool to see so much contemporary artwork so publicly available in the city, and it led me to start researching how Montreal had the money for so much new artwork when many other cities these days seemingly do not. As is usual for me, I was basically led into a deep research black hole, this time on the murky relationship between education, art, politics, and democracy, and in conclusion I have come to understand that:

1) Despite the fact that art is a means of expressing free speech, there is a growing current of criticism or even resentment of the arts among Western politicians.

2) This has led to changes in art funding, producing unequal and insufficient distribution–and it is resulting in a crisis for the arts in several different countries.

3) In the Anglophone arts world, Canada has pledged by far the most investment in the arts for the coming years. 

Still with me? Let’s go…

 

The Politics of Art

When Meryl Streep got up at the Golden Globes this year and accepted her award with a lengthy and overtly political speech, the response, as the response to everything these days tends to be, was highly bipartisan. While it may be easy to say this was a consequence of her speech’s content, it is important to recognize that the adjectives used to describe Meryl’s speech are actually part of a broader conservative lexicon regarding the arts, one which has been repeated in multiple countries in recent years.

Disagreeing with artists these days means generally honing in on two points. Either critics state that the artist is a member of the “elite,” this so-called out of touch class of folks who is irrelevant to the common people anyways. Or, they suggest that artists should not speak out against politics at all, either to avoid being controversial, or because there is a lack of talent on their part and their voice therefore has no authority.

This delicate balance between politics and art is a unique struggle of democratic societies. I spent the past year of my life in China, where journalism, visual art, dance, and music are kept completely separate from political topics, so there, art may mean something different. But in societies which guarantee the right to freedom of speech, we are also guaranteed the right—not the privilege—to mix art and politics. Calls to discredit and devalue the words of artists within my own country are nothing short of terrifying to me, and yet through reading more about art around the world, I was able to understand some reasons why they may happen.

 

Reason: The Deprioritization of Art

Arts education holds life-long benefits for students. For example, low-income students who have arts-rich experiences in high school are more than three times as likely to earn a B.A. as low-income students without those experiences. Arts education helps to improve standardized test scores; College Board found that students who take four years of art and music classes in high school score 91 points better on the SAT than students who take half a year or less. Studies have shown that musical training can increase connectivity between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and that adults who take music lessons at a young age can process the sounds of speech faster in their old age than those who do not.

And yet ‘art’, and by this I mean everything from theater to music to dance to opera, has been branded as unimportant by the American education system—and for that matter, most other systems around the world have done the same. When times are tough and budget cuts need to be made in public education, it is almost always arts and music classes which get their budgets slashed first.

From a young age, this attitude is ingrained in us—that arts are a “privilege.” We see that it is something we only study when there is extra money available, something that the nice private school down the road has but that our struggling public school simply cannot make room for. By the time we grow up, we seem to inherently know that math and science are ‘real’ subjects, necessary for a career, but painting is not (despite the fact that it is a career for many!)

Government investment even beyond the public education system often reflects this same assumption that art is a privilege for the rich. This has massive consequences for the development of the arts worldwide. Government funding helps to create new arts organizations and give career options to new artists. It is responsible for designating where art happens, and who has access to it. It is a major way for people to utilize their right to free speech, and should be enthusiastically supported by any democratic government.

Unfortunately it is not, and arts funding is under threat worldwide. Here are the particular challenges going on, listed by country:

 

Arts in the UK

The biggest threats to art in the UK are unequal distribution and a government focus on cutting “unnecessary” spending.

The government is responsible for the majority of arts spending in the UK, and this has led to a vast gap in arts funding between London and, well… everywhere else. Cultural spending on the arts is about £69 per head in London, and £4.50 elsewhere. This is supposedly justified by the fact that the arts in London bring back the highest revenues, but of course, what it really looks like to most people is just another example of the huge gap between “elites” and “non-elites,” which has manifested in larger political conflicts (Brexit, for example). About 86% of the UK’s population does not live in the London area, severely restricting their access to the arts and contributing to the perception that art is only for elite city-dwellers.

National Gallery, London

It can lead to other problems as well; in 2015, much of the National Gallery in London was shut down due to a massive employee strike. The reason for the resistance was that the government had disclosed its plans to privatize the jobs of the museum’s employees—taking them from art-knowledgeable employees who specifically signed up to work for the museum, and outsourcing them to generic security guards, all in an effort to cut costs for the government.

With the current government of the UK struggling to negotiate the large, time-consuming questions of Brexit, it is not likely that fixing these issues of arts funding will be prioritized in the near future. The UK’s government-based arts spending has resulted in both restricted access to the arts for citizens, and debates about whether arts-knowledgeable employees are even worth paying at all.

 

Arts in Australia

The biggest threat to art in Australia is a government focus on cutting “unnecessary” spending.

Around 65 arts companies and organizations lost government funding last year with the release of the government’s latest budget. This has created a crisis, as most small-to-medium arts organizations in the country rely on government funding rather than individual donors to stay afloat. Many have been left struggling in the wake of the cuts, with uncertain futures; in fact, the artistic directors of theatre companies across the country penned an open letter calling the spending cuts an ‘unprecedented assault’ on the arts.

Possibly even more concerning are the massive spending cuts in giving grants to individual artists and projects. From funding 1,340 individual artists in 2013-14, the budget in 2015-16 only made room to fund 405 Australian artists. This will severely restrict career development for many new artists trying to gain recognition.

Art is not being prioritized in Australia either, and opportunities for new or underprivileged artists are actually being actively cut back on. Alright, what about the USA?

 

Arts in America

The biggest threat to art in the USA is the political call to eliminate government funding for it.

The arts in America rely strongly on individual donors to keep them afloat. However there are also many government and non-profit agencies which assist with grants. The most major one is the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federal agency funded with government money. Between 1965 and 2008, it gave out more than $5 billion in arts grants.

The NEA has come under threat a few times in recent years, however. One politician who has pushed hard for the organization’s complete elimination is Newt Gingrich. In the 1990s, he called for the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to all be completely eliminated. He insisted the NEA funded artists that were “too controversial,” and that it was, once again, “too elitist.”

Even more troubling is that in 2009, the NEA came under controversy when Breitbart News published an article claiming the NEA was telling artists to create “pro-Obama propaganda” rather than art. Despite the fact that the NEA is a federally-run, bipartisan organization, and there is zero evidence to support their story, Breitbart was able to run this and stir up serious controversy.

So both Newt Gingrich and Steve Bannon, former CEO of Breitbart, are expected to be prominent figures in our new president’s administration, and both have called loudly in past years to defund the arts. Not to mention that public broadcasting corporations such as NPR are also generally lumped in with arts funding, and the president has literally said that the media is his “opposition party.”

If government arts funding is eliminated in America, we will see a widespread lack of arts funding for, again, those small-to-medium arts organizations and individuals who rely on grants to support their existence. We would also see increasing gaps in access to art–while large, wealthy cities like NYC may be able to rely on individual donors to fund all that elite culture, smaller cities would simply not be able to do the same.

 

Arts in Canada

While prior Canadian PMs have not embraced the arts, Justin Trudeau is saving the day.

Canada may be the Anglophone world’s beacon of hope as far as arts funding goes, but it is only in recent years that it has become this way.

In fact in just 2012, then-PM Stephen Harper was lambasted for a comment he made equating artists and elitists (sound familiar?) His specific words on art were: “I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.”

Not only did Harper attack the arts in word, but in deed. His government slashed funds for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC—Canada’s national radio and television broadcaster), along with the funding for the National Film Board, the Department of Canadian Heritage and Library, and Archives Canada.

Thank you Justin Trudeau for funding the arts!

However, things have changed under Justin Trudeau’s new government. In his campaign, he promised to deliver more funding to the arts—and luckily, he has kept that promise. His government is investing a massive $1.9 billion CAD ($1.4 billion USD) in the arts over the next five years. That includes $675 milion for CBC alone, to help the organization recover from its budget cuts under Harper.

Says Trudeau on the arts: “Culture is what defines us. It brings us together. Yet for a decade, our cultural and creative industries have been under attack by Harper. I want our creators, in all fields, in all communities—including Indigenous Peoples and linguistic minorities—to feel supported and valued by their government. Cultural investment creates jobs, stimulates tourism, and improves our overall quality of life and sense of community.”

 

Why Should I Care?

You don’t have to be an art fanatic to believe that the arts should be protected, as arts and media are just some of the fundamental ways in which a democratic society’s freedom of speech can be expressed. Living in a society where free speech is guaranteed by law, but the means of producing this speech is actually restricted to a lucky few, is just as useless as living in a society with free health care but a huge shortage of doctors. If the government isn’t actively working to provide for and distribute your rights effectively, then your rights cease to matter, because in reality they do not exist.

To hear politicians claim that only elitists practice art, while simultaneously failing to provide enough arts education and funding to support non-wealthy artists, seems to me that the whole thing is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. How could a fresh graduate from a disadvantaged background possibly enter the arts world in the UK, Australia, or the USA, if they no longer have access to grants or small organizations to practice performing with? If you want art to be for “ordinary people,” then you are obligated to make art accessible for ordinary people. The Western world can’t honestly expect to uphold the right to free speech for everyone while it slashes funding left and right for media and the arts, and replaces those cuts with no alternative means for free expression.

I hope that all of you will help in standing up to support access to these cultural institutions—our museums, our concert halls, our theaters, our artists and singers and songwriters and dancers—for all citizens. If there is a cultural gap here, it is not the fault of artists like Meryl Streep, but the fault of politicians for failing to protect our right to access and create art.

 

For Further Reading…

Benefits of Arts Education

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/therootdc/post/will-less-art-and-music-in-the-classroom-really-help-students-soar-academically/2012/12/28/e18a2da0-4e02-11e2-839d-d54cc6e49b63_blog.html?utm_term=.70893233c3a6

http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2014/04/28/music-art-and-language-programs-in-schools-have-long-lasting-benefits

 

UK

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/aug/11/national-gallery-staff-strike-exhibitions-privatisation

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/nov/05/arts-spending-london-bias

 

Australia

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/may/19/the-70-drop-australia-council-grants-artists-funding-cuts

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/theatre/comment-australia-council-funding-loss-hits-home-for-arena-theatre-company-20160515-govjya.html

 

America

http://www.npr.org/2014/05/15/312779821/in-pricey-cities-being-a-bohemian-starving-artist-gets-old-fast

http://articles.latimes.com/1995-12-31/entertainment/ca-19460_1_nea-funding

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Endowment_for_the_Arts

 

Canada

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/arts-federal-budget-canada-council-heritage-1.3501480

https://www.thestar.com/news/politics/federalelection/2008/09/24/ordinary_folks_dont_care_about_arts_harper.html

http://hyperallergic.com/246967/why-canadas-new-prime-minister-might-be-good-for-the-arts-eh/