Day 70: A Nonism Dictionary

General abstention from activities and substances regarded as damaging to one’s health or well-being.

The above is a dictionary definition of the term “non-ism.” I, in fact, did not know about the existence of this term until a few years back when my colleague asked me whether or not my name had anything to do with the doctrine. Well, it’s a surprise so I looked it up and found that the etymology of term had to do with the Latin word “non,” meaning not (surprise, surprise). So, non-ism is, in essence, minimalism (those who have read my post on minimalism would probably understand this right away).

I like the term “non-ism” for two reasons: My name is in it (duh), and that I think it’s the way of life by which from this very day I would like to live my life. Let me be “super” honest with you here (despite the fact that I am always honest with you), the original idea of this post is simply to lay out some of my thoughts in an aphoristic way (for those who may have forgotten what aphorism means; it means an expressive and poetic observation that contains a general truth).

But then as I’d gotten myself on the plane my seatbelt fasten, I had felt as though, physically and emotionally, I was not going anywhere for a while; hence, something in the back of my head was pushing me to think beyond writing a few aphorisms to writing a post that lays out, in its entirely, concepts that matter to me.

I then thought to myself, these concepts, then, should have an umbrella; and what would be a better conceptual container of the many different concepts I was about to write than an “-ism?”

So, here you are, a lite version of my conceptual dictionary.

A sketch of my portrait wearing Harvard Ph.D. gown by one of Thailand’s most respected architects Dr. Khiensak Saengkrieng. I can’t thank him enough for this wonderful sketch which I will definitely frame and put on my wall.

Architecture: A profession whose primary concern lies in the thinking, planning, and building of humanistic built environment for all, or an edifice that combines such humanistic sense with the understanding of the laws of nature and their phenomenon.

Anthropology: A useless field of study if one is to study it with the sole purpose of preaching it to others, but the most useful form of liberal knowledge if one is to study to enhance “how to be a human” in a society all thanks to its primary concern on how we human beings are more similar than we think.

Anthropology#2: “A comparative study of common sense.” — Michael Herzfeld

Argument: An exchange of diverging or opposite views that could end with an agreement to disagree.

Anxiety: What you cannot avoid when coming to terms with yourself.

Be: The marker of existence that should — and must always — precedes essence.

Belief: An unfortunate result of an often irrational thought process commonly known as a “leap of faith.”

City: A physical place where strangers have to try to live together without killing each other.

Communication: The only thing that which must be effective because the failure to do so is the true cause of almost all problems we have in the world.

Critical Thinking: Often an oxymoron since the only acceptable form of thinking is that of critical (also see Thinking).

Culture: A practice of everyday life that has been repeated so much by a community that it has become both a sensible norm by which the members of such community would like to live their life and sensuality of which those same members would like to make sense of their life — regardless of whether or not they know the origins (often multiple) of such practice.

Design: The process with which all great works and everything that is truly meaningful to our existence begin.

Education: One highly flawed way of getting anyone to learn anything, but, alas, is still one of the few reliable solutions to the problems that we are facing in the world today.

English: The language that one should pretend to use when getting any forms of services in China to avoid being treated like shit.

Enlightenment: “Man and mankind emerge from their own self-imposed immaturity.” — Immanuel Kant

Expectation: The one and only true cause of disappointment.

Existentialism: An admirable way of life focusing on being aware of the strange nature of “conventions” around us and true to oneself by letting your existence precedes the socially-prescribed “conventional” essence.

Freedom: The ability to act by your own moral codes.

God: Often a symbolic entity we human beings create to conveniently explain things for which we do not necessarily want to go through the difficulty to find out the answer.

Grammar: “The difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.” — Anonymous.

Humility: Often the best mechanism in protecting yourself against senseless attacks.

Harvard: A for-profit company in Massachusetts that is authorized by law to act as a single entity that thinks of itself as an educational institution designed for learning named after a square in the city in which it is located.

Idiosyncrasy: A mode of behavior seen by the society as peculiar to an individual but is not, in any ways, harmful to the society.

Joke: A thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter because there is some truth in it.

Knowledge: A body of ideas that personally matter to you. If it doesn’t matter to you that way, it’s just data.

Law: A form of distant control mechanism that has the aura of actuality in preventing human beings from directly killing each other but does not necessarily prevent them from doing so indirectly.

Liberalism: An ideology building on the false belief that human beings can be good to one another if each of them is driven solely by his or her own (broadly and vaguely defined) self-interests.

Life: A biological process that is a reverse of hiccup that, spoiler alert, always end in death and for which there is no cure. Life is like a reverse of a hiccup because, while a hiccup only goes away when you stop thinking about it, you will never get to live a life if you keep thinking about how to live it.

Life#2: “What we live when you are not busy doing something else.” — John Lennon

Love: “Something I would do anything for except THAT (whatever that is).” — Meat Loaf.

Men: Often used as a euphemism for jerks who misleadingly believe in the false sense of masculinity expressed through violence. 

Money: What we want to think is a means of happiness when most of the time it leads to the opposite.

Marriage: The one and only true cause of divorce, and “the main cause for two people to be disgusted by each other.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

Minimalism: The way of life whose underlining idea is to cut the lost cost concerning how we human beings tend to be easily distracted to spend time on things that do not really matter to the productive development of our existence.

Morality: The one thing about which none of us should try to too hard to be creative or unique.

Nation: A community whose members must, in order to survive, remind themselves to believe in the constructed sense of unity despite the obvious differences among them.

Neoliberalism: An idea based on the belief that removing “as long as you don’t hurt other people” from the idea of “you can do whatever you want” would lead to a better society. In other words, it’s a system of belief of sociopaths (Also see Sociopaths).

Non-Action: The way of life preached in the Taoist doctrine in which the practitioners believe in doing nothing in order to leave nothing undone.

Old: In humans, it refers to having the characteristics or showing the signs of age because of the consumption of food and water, and the breathing of the air.

Passion: “The driver of reason; without which there would be nothing to drive the reason alone to act.” — David Hume

Ph.D.: An academic degree that consumes years of life and often ends in unemployment.

Philosophy: The practice of, through careful and rigorous reasoning, not taking everything around you as “had been that way, is that way, and will always be that way.”

PQRST: Not an acronym and simply a string of consecutive alphabets that means nothing to no one else but Michael Herzfeld and Cristina Paul.

Poetics: Something that so dearly resonates with our inner consciousness — to the point that we would break rules to achieve.

Pollution: “A substance or thing that understood to be harmful or having poisonous effects because they are understood as not belonging there — rather than their actual harmful or poisonous effects.” — Mary Douglas

Power: What we human beings want to possess in order to compensate for the lack of sex.

Property: A burden that is often being misunderstood as a possession.

Rights: Something morally intrinsic to an individual that I would fight to the death to protect even if it’s not my own.

Ritual: The process by which meanings are systematically ascribed to the meaningless so that some people could feel as though their lives actually have a meaning.

Religion: A system of faith believed by many to provide normative guidances for those who want to live in the world with a purpose, and a pathological treatment for which rationality as such cannot provide.

Religion#2: “What distracts the poor from the real cause of the problems and therefore keeps the poor from mass murdering that cause, which is the rich.” — (a paraphrase of) Napoleon Bonaparte and Karl Marx

Research: An excuse that by saying you have done it prior to taking an action may help in preventing yourself from being  blamed if the consequence of such action is not the undeniable one.

Self: What we would like to think that we have in order to have an excuse to possess other things (if you don’t even have the self, why would you want to possess anything else?)

Sex: The most overrated mundane activity that most of us human beings cannot suppress the need to engage therefore want to learn more about how to better engage, but at the same time always feel pressured to pretend to not wanting to.

Society: An epitome of a structure in which individuals are contained.

Shanghai: A city known as the largest training ground for neoliberalism (also see Neoliberalism).

Sleep: The state to which we exhaust our body to get back daily.

Sociopaths: What most of us are when we do not think or think but not care about the consequences of our action that we will not directly feel.

Suicide: The most preventable form of death.

Suicide#2: “The most important philosophical question: To exist or to not exist in the world.” — Albert Camus

STDs: Sexually transmitted diseases, among which life itself is the most preventable.

Time: The solution of 99% of the non-physical problems.

Thinking: Where skepticism and open-mindedness overlap.

Utopia: My place because it means, in Greek, a “non-place.” Get it?

Women: The one true cause of tears — as in the song “No Women No Cry” by the reggae legend Bob Marley.

Xenophobia: A symptom expressed in the intense dislike or fear of people from other places often as a result of a problematic anxiety that one is having with oneself.

Yet: An adverb that I always add to the end of the sentence when responding to a question concerning my current inability to do things that I see benefitting to my personal improvement and therefore want to happen in the future, such as “I don’t speak Japanese — yet.”

Zen: The way of life focusing on the inner health by reducing worries brought about by the external possessions and desires that are extraneous to us.

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Writing this post while eating hotpot in Chengdu. Photo credit: Professor Yang (杨青娟) at Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu.

We should have another celebration for reaching, alas, Day 70!

Day 69: The Herzfeld’s Rules Part 2

In this post, I’d like to introduce some more titbits of the Herzfeld’s Rules. I have learned over the years from the man himself that some of these mistakes do have an impact on how you are perceived by your colleagues and superiors. As one anonymous person once said: “Grammar is what about knowing the difference between your shit and you’re shit.” I could not agree more. In fact, also over the years, I have learned the joy of learning about grammar, especially syntax or the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences. Syntax, a topic elaborated in beautiful and great detail by the linguist Noam Chomsky in the classic Syntactic Structure (published in 1957), is definitely a topic that I would like to write more about, but it’s a topic for another time. I’d like to suggest, in this post, an additional 12 easy-to-remember and easy-to-practice rules.

Now, let’s get right into it. 

First (and just that, not Firstly) when you feel the urge of using “scare quotes,” (or “air quotes” when you make a gesture with your fingers in the air as though there’s a pair of quotation marks around the word you’re saying) ask yourself: do you really “need” it? Scare quotes could mislead your readers to think that you are being sarcastic when you might just well be honest. Over the years, I have seen excessive uses of scare quotes. #It’s #almost #as #annoying #as #seeing #excessive #use #of #hastags (#). Only use scare quotes when you want to draw attention to an inaccurate use of a word, or when you are quoting someone directly. Scare quotes, in these two cases, indicates the idea that you are being sarcastic, or that which is not your words. You’d absolutely need it when you are quoting an offensive term used by others to tell your audience that it isn’t you who had said it. The misuse of scare quotes could easily lead to your audience thinking of you as being uncertain about the complexity of the meaning of the world around which you put the scare quotes,  and, the worst of all, being “simple-minded” for not knowing that doing so could lessen the credential of your claim. By the way, you should know by now that the scare quotes around “simple-minded” aren’t actually needed. 

Second, use “due to” only as an adjective and not as a conjunction. So, “it was due to the rain that I come late” and not “it came late due to the rain.” In the second example, use “because” (a beautiful and probably the most useful conjunction) or “owing to.” This is not a matter only obsessed with by a grammarian, but a matter that those with the astute logic of the sequence of actions could make use of in making their expression clearer and, usually, more meaningful.

Third: This is one of my favorite: Fewer/less. Although many grammarians have all agreed that we could be chilled out  about this — both works as long as the core of the message about the quantity  is clear — it’s still good to be able to know the distinction between these two adjectives. Why? Because it had made Stannis Baratheon “the One True King”! Yes, I am talking about (***spoiler alert for those who have not seen but planned to see Game of Thrones — skip this part immediately; knowing the difference between fewer and less doesn’t worth being spoiled of the joy of watching the show uncontaminated).

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Stannis Baratheon was one great fighters who was deprived of the supreme position as the King of the Seven Kingdoms in Westeros by trickery. In an episode of the fifth season of the series, Stannis Baratheon was caught on camera for wanting to secretly correct a part of the speech given by a member of the council of  Night’s Watch. Othell Yarwyck, that A council member, said “Kill the Wildlings. Let them die. Less enemies for us.” Yarwyck was arguing against Jon Snow’s unimaginable (to most of the Night Watch’s at the time) proposal to travel outside of the wall toward the north in order to warn the Wildlings of the dangers that were coming their way. Upon hearing this speech, Stannis whispered almost immediately to himself (but loud enough for his Hand of King Sir Davos Seaworth to hear): “Fewer.”

What’s the fuzz here? Educated people (like Stannis) would know that we must use the determiner fewer, not less, with numbers of individual items or people. So, yes, he’s right to correct Yarwyck that the correct locution was “fewer enemies” and not “less enemies” — because it’s about the numbers of the individuals to be killed rather than a group of an uncountable noun for which less is appropriate. For instance, “less than £200,” “less than 700 tonnes of oil,” “less than a third,” and “less than 5 minutes,” because, according to The Economist’s Style Guide, “these are measured quantities or proportions, not individual items.”

Fourth, avoid saying “of course” and “needless to say” when you are not sure that everyone would agree with that you that there’s no other way of thinking about it. It’s better to not use them altogether. Usually, the proper use of them is when you need to occasionally give your prose a personal tone.

Fifth, indecisive singular gendered pronouns are ugly. In the words of the great anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach writes in his classic Social Anthropology published in 1982:

Humankind is male/female, betwixt and between. However, the English language faily consistently treats “unmarked” nouns as male rather than female. Ordinarily this does not matter but a male anthropologist, writing in the 1980, risks his neck with feminist colleagues if he implies, even by oversight, that either the anthropological observer or the individual who is observed is more likely to be male than female. But I must risk it A text whch is excessively literred with “he(she),” “him(her),” expressions becomes unreable. And anyway, why not “she(he)?” I fairly stick to male pronouncs for unmarked category nouns. I should not on that account be rated as a male chauvinist pig.

It’s also violating Bill Strunk’s “omit needless words” rule. I am talking about the use of “he or she,” “him or her” and “his or hers” in a sentence. Turn them into a plural pronoun. So, instead of “each student needs to think about his or her need,” instead say “students need to think about their needs.” If you absolutely need to use a gendered pronoun, the rule of thumb is to use the male pronoun for a neutral matter (or whatever you are not sure of whether or not it is a good or bad thing), so “each student needs to think independently about his individual and personal need.” And use a female pronoun for the matter that is absolutely more good than bad; for instance, “a great philosopher is consistent with her own words.” It has recently been acceptable to use “they” as a singular generic personal pronoun, although it may seem a bit counterintuitive as “they,” as we all know, is a plural pronoun. So, the advice given by Grammar Girl (my frequent source of knowledge about the topic and one of my favorite podcasts) is to use”he or she” if you want to play it safe, or use “they” — if you feel bold and are prepared to defend yourself.

Sixth, try to not putting anything between the “to” and the verb that follows. The fancy name for this verb form is “infinitive.” We use this kind of verb form all the time, such as “to go,” “to play,” “to drink,” and so on. If you have an adverb that you would like to put before the verb (which, commonsensically, is the most appropriate place to place an adverb) put them after the verb instead. So, instead of “to actively play soccer,” instead say “to play soccer actively.” Many grammarians and language specialists have debunked that this act of “splitting infinitive” is not a crime and the original of the myth that infinitive shall never be splitter comes from the mistranslation of a Latin grammar rule into that of the English language, i.e., verbs in Latin are all one word so by default one can never split an infinite in Latin. Avoiding placing anything before the verb helps to remind the reader what is it that they are being told, as sometimes the adverb can be very long, such as, “I like to occasionally and sometimes thoughtlessly though not that intentionally play soccer.” By the time one gets to the verb play, the meaning of this sentence has already been lost. 

Seventh, avoid using a foreign word when an English word can do the job — and 99% of the time that which is the case. It just gives the sense of pomposity. So, say “blank slate” instead of “a tabula rasa.” Say “masterpiece,” and not “magnum opus.” Say “existing condition,” and not “status quo.”

Eighth, avoid using idioms that you do not know the origin of — because sometimes people can be sensitive about it. It’s easy to hear something that sounds “kind of cool” from the television and want to use it in real life right away. Look it up first, and make sure that you really know what it means. I have met a number of people who use “lo and behold” in lieu of “surprisingly,” which is the opposite meaning of it. Someone I happen to know use “if you’re up for it” as lieu of “if you would like to” without knowing that the former implies, also, a challenging tone which is not her intention. 

Ninth, “like,” in addition to being a verb (as in “I like soccer”) and a noun (as in “the like”) is a preposition and not a conjunction. So, “I feel like having a drink now” is wrong because a proposition can only govern (be followed by) a noun; hence, instead, say “I feel like drinking” (or “I feel as though I’d like to have a drink now”). “Drinking” here is a grammatical element that looks like a participle (a word formed from a verb, such as running, jumping, standing) but is actually a noun (surprise), so “drinking” — and an act concerning how a person take a liquid into the mouth and swallow) is a noun and therefore can be governed by the preposition “like.” Most of the time “as though” and “as if” are interchangeable, so you could substitute them to give your prose a variety. That said, “I want to have a drink now” might also do the trick. Many are saying “like” all the time these days without knowing what its linguistic function is (especially teenagers). We would call this wrong use of “like” a verbal tic. (if you don’t remember what it is anymore, please visit the Herzfeld’s Rule Part 1). 

Tenth, still on the common mistake with gerunds. “Gerunds are nouns” — say this mantra as many as times as it’d take for it to wrap around your nervous system — and therefore should never be preceded by a personal pronoun. For instance, “I was awoken by him snoring” is wrong, and it should be “I was awoken by his snoring.”

Eleventh, think twice before using “zombie nouns.” The linguist Helen Sword has coined the term to explain the kind of nouns formed from other parts of speech. In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Stephen Pinker explains: “The nominalization rule takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like –ance, –ment, –ation, or –ing.” For instance, instead of “he intensifies the situation,” writers who use zombie nouns would instead write “there is a manifestation of the intensification of the situation. “This way of turning parts of speech into nouns has a linguistic jargon: the nominalization. Helen Sword writes:

Academics love using zombie nouns; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.

That’s pretty damn harsh! In The Sense of Style (again, one of my favorite book): Stephen Pinker is no less harsh:

Zombie nouns lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion.21 They can turn prose into a night of the living dead.

Don’t let nouns like that sucking lifeblood from adjectives! So, instead of thinking nominalized nouns, think what exactly you would like to say. It may seem cooler to say “my current introspection of my physicality is imposing a sanction on the optimization of my verbalization of contestation, than simply “I’m too hungry to say anything now,” but we all know which one better convey the message. As Bill Strunk (again) has reminded us: “Write with nouns and verbs.”

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A witty example that Pinker uses in The Sense of Style.

Finally, Restrain yourself from the temptation to write long sentences and from using “weak verbs”: Think of Ernest Hemingway and his writing style. What makes it so profound is that, first, his sentences are always short. And how do you make short sentences meaningful? Hemingway also has an answer for you: Think active verbs that connect the subject with the rest of the sentence. Is/am/are is a weak verb because it doesn’t say much about the action that the subject is engaging let alone how such an action affects the situation. Psychological speaking, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, we have a limited cognitive capacity to understand the linearity of the contents provided to us in a form of verbal communication. The more you remove the main idea from the subject, the less likely your audience will get the gist of what you are trying to convey. The weaker the verb that you use, the more likely your audience will misinterpret your meaning. For instance, “an old man lives by the sea” is better than “there is an old man whose life and livelihood is depending on his residing by the seaside, therefore he is living close to the sea.”

All for now, have a great (for some, the rest of the) weekend, guys!

Day 68: A Minimalist (or -ism) Manifesto 

Lately, I have been throwing things out of my life. People who do not respond whether that be emails, text messages, or verbal communication, who do not reciprocate greetings, and especially those who take the intensity of personal relationship for granted. These are people that I no longer want in my life.

These are both things — as in objects — and relationships that somehow had long been parts of my life without any true purposes. I have also been cutting down on talking to people and on writing nonsense. I only want to write and talk about things that matter — not to me but to others. The rationale is simple: If what I want to talk about only matters to me, it’s easier for me just to introspect and keep it to myself. I have been deleting people from my social networks and phone contacts. I have been deleting emails and messages from people whom I no longer would like to be associated and recycling things that I have kept for them. I have been forgiving and forgetting those who have done mean things to me, in that order. I have also been donating my belongings to those who are in need of. I’m hoping that by the end of this highly rewarding process I’ll have fewer than 100 “true friends” and fewer than 150 objects to take with me wherever I’d end up after this year.

Those of you who have been following me on this blog may have seen this coming. I have been writing about the economy of words, the Herzfeld’s Rules for effective communication, and so on. All of these posts, needless to say, are leading to this epic post (like every ninth episode of every season of Game of Thrones): A Minimalism Manifesto.

Why all the sudden am I becoming a minimalist? (At least I’m hoping to become one). For one I am moving out of the city that I have been living in for three years and I cannot possibly take all my belongings that I have mindlessly accumulated over the past three years with me. So, I am becoming a minimalist not only to manage my expectations and objects that I own but also to keep track of what “realistically” and practically matters to me. The real reason, however, is that I have recently realized, thanks to many of the failed relationship I have had with people, that the more doesn’t mean the better. The more expectations you have, often, the more disappointments to which they lead.

There is a cost for maintaining everything, whether that be the financial cost or the cost of opportunity; say, how many great opportunities you have missed by keeping an unworthy person in your life? I have stuff kept in a storage that I have been paying money to rent, and I have never gone back to take them out and use them. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is doing this. But since I have accumulated so much in that storage room, it’s impossible to go there and to spend days sorting out what are there and what are there that are worth keeping and what are not. It’s like a lost and sunk cost which I will have to continue to pay until that one day (when I don’t have a full-time job anymore, perhaps) during which I could and would have the time to go through my stuff and find the way to throw some of them away, once and for all.

The same principle also applies to talking. Most of the problems we have, make no mistake about it, are results of ineffective communication. Hence, the more we talk, the more we tend to make some kinds of mistakes that would make other misinterpret your intention, your point, your stance and things and therefore misunderstand you. So, it’s better to keep everything in life to just a “bare minimum.” Identifying what are not meaningful to your life, and what kinds of people are too selfish, sociopathic, and superficial will help you make a decision.

This blog post is timely one because the trend of being a minimalist is picking up steam, especially in Japan where not being a minimalist can cost you your life. In the country constantly hit by an earthquake, the more stuff that you own, you riskier for you to be buried under them when your house collapses because of when the earthquake strikes. Take this Japanese minimalist for example:

Take Fumio Sasaki, for example (pictured below). The 36-year-old book editor lives in a single-room apartment in Tokyo with three shirts, four pairs of pants, four pairs of socks, and a few other belongings. He wasn’t always like this. The transformation to minimalism occurred two years ago, when Sasaki grew tired of trying to keep up with trends and maintaining his collections of books, CDs, and DVDs. He got rid of it all, which he says isn’t as difficult as it seems, thanks to the sharing economy.

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A minimalist room is also easy to clean.

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A minimalist lifestyle is the best form of education for your children. You can teach them how to be appreciative of what they have, how not to expect more than they should, and how to humble, thankful, and respectful for what they have. All of these notions are both materialistic and philosophical. It doesn’t hurt to get started early, does it?

My suggestion is: Think minimalist; do it now and do it fast. You can’t afford to wait to be a minimalist. Once you have started to look around you, carefully, you’ll see that there are so many things, people, and matters that are extraneous to you life.

They not only weighing you down but also holding you back. The sooner you can get rid of them, the faster your emotional engine will work at full speed. I will get to the philosophy behind it at some point in this post, along with some indirect philosophical idea such as Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. What I want to say right now is that after having done so, quite rigorously, I have never felt better with my life.

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One of my favorite books of all time, in which “KonMari” (AKA Marie Kondo) walks the readers through the nuts and bolts of tidying up and the psychological effect that it could have on you once you know exactly 1) how many things that you have; 2) how important they are to you and why you have chosen to keep them; and 3) the reason for their existance. Think about these three questions clearly: They’re the underpinning reason, also, for your own existence: What do you really have? Why are they important? And what’s the reason for the existence of yourself — your body and your soul.

The trend of “minimalistic living” is not new. In fact, it’s quite old and this blog post is to give the best reasoning (ever, yes, ever) to convince us that going back to those ancient wisdoms might be the way to get out of the troubles we have in the modern era. While the Japanese and the Daoist are among the best known for this type of living in the east, the famous Cynics in Ancient Greek are the epitome of the so-called “bare minimum life.” The Cynics, in fact, have taken the bare life idea to the extreme by famously living in a pot, and only wrapping themselves with used clots that other people did not need.

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Diogenes of Sinope (there’re many philosophers with the same name so “of Sinope” is like his last name here) was a Greek philosopher and one founder of Cynic philosophy. He lived between 412 or 404 BCE and 323 BCE.

The Theravada Buddhist monks, in essence, are supposed to have done the same. These monks, in fact, are supposed to reuse the cloths wrapped around corpses in preparing for the cremation (once the bodies are unwrapped for the preparation for the cremation, the monks can take the clothes and re-use them as their clothing fabric), as, that way the monks are truly re-using both of form and essence of life. The idea behind it is simple: The more things, relationships, and commitments that are floating around your life without any purposes, the more you’re likely to be drawn away from understanding your true needs. The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes has made these belonging essential to his doctrine.

According to Hobbes, we “lock our door at night” because we are afraid of people coming to you house and taking your properties, and hurting you in order to take your belongings. Well, if you live like a Cynics, a Daoist, or a Buddhist monk, the chances that you won’t have anything valuable that anyone would ever want to take from you is probably quite high. So, you’ll a much better sense of your life and a peace of mind. As I have discussed, also, in my previous post, we don’t need a lot of things to have a decent life. All these desires — for the tasty, beautiful, and lustful things — are temptations to divert our attention from the reality; to make us not living in the moment. When you are not living in the moment, it might be sound to say that you might not be living at all. In the words of the talented John Lennon, “life is what we live when we are not busy doing other things.”

That is to say, these unnecessary things are, essentially, distractions. Tasty food distracts you from the essence of food which is nutrition. Beauty distracts you from the essence of relationship which is compassion. Money distracts you from what you really want which is a healthy life that provides you with the ample ground to thrive for the betterment th society. You get the idea. I personally disdain the sweet desert, beautiful faces and bodies (especially cosmetic), and money, for that reason.

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Wouldn’t it be nice if these are all you have? The most comfortable clothes and dresses to wear — none of them has a higher quality than others. They’re all the same: Classy, comfortable, and fitting.

Think of yourself, for instance, opening a closet just to find out that you have more than ten sets of dresses of shirts from which to choose. You’re likely to spend a lot it time finding the right match for the day. Sometimes, you might even antagonize over the abundance of choices. Most of the time, that is to say, the more doesn’t lead to better time management. Truth be told: the more sometimes doesn’t lead to the effective pairing of clothes neither. This conundrum is precisely what leads many people living in the contemporary society to think, “wouldn’t it be nice if there is only one ‘perfect’ dress or shirt in the closet instead of ten?” This notion of, what the renowned psychologist Barry Schwartz calls, “the paradox of choice” is the emotional underpinning of the real need to cut down on unnecessary consumption.

This very idea can be related to the notion of constructed desire that I have discussed in the previous post (just to recap here: we have so many desires that are given to us by the society). The idea of having “a closet full of dresses or shirts,” for example, is also one of those constructed desires. The society, by ways of consumerism, wants us to consume, consume, and consume, by shaming us to believe that wearing the same dress or shirt every day is a symbol of economic lack, anachronism, and the shortage of financial capital to pursue a variety of available forms of aesthetic representations. But why should that matter?

I am determined, in the next 3 weeks, to get rid of 90% of “stuff” in my current room, and two-thirds of people with whom I no longer want to be in touch. I am also determined to let go of the collections of feelings that are hurting my soul — the feeling of having a burden of having to care for others who do not care about me, as well as the weight of having to maintain relationships with are no longer fruitful. I believe that this would be a solid step toward a “bare minimum life,” in which I could eventually get to live it.

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Here is how I write my blog. I don’t need anything else: Just a smartphone that can do thumb typing. I can write anywhere. A good writing doesn’t require a supercomputer. It only requires a clear mind and the will to make the writing accessible to others.

 

Day 67: On Disappointment

Why, lately, I have felt so beaten up? It’s almost as though a number of people have sandbagged me and then put me in a bag before throwing me into the river with a large piece of steel attached to it to make sure that no way I would escape the death penalty. Why? The best method to answer this question, needless to say, is to ask myself and then look inside my own mind, trying aggressively to find out what has happened in the past few days, weeks, or months. We have a name for this method: introspection. It was the political philosophy Thomas Hobbes who popularized the term. In Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, Thomas Hobbes argues that the only way to arrive at the best system of governance is by introspecting: What is it that we want the most from the government? Is it wealth or happiness? Or, it is a constant pleasure? Hobbes argues that it’s none of these. What we want the most — which is the reason, as he has famously said, “why else would we lock our doors at night?” — is safety. Therefore, for Hobbes, the role of the government is to provide safety at all cost.

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The cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan — the image that all of us who cares about the society should have seen and known of.

What about ourselves, then?

The key to introspection is to be reflexive and objective. Being honest about oneself is the only way. When you’re looking inside your own mind, you don’t need to pretend that other people are watching. You can honestly ask yourself what exactly has made you feel the way you feel. Often, those things are not the things conventionally acceptable by the society. It could be your excessive (and most of the time illicit) sexual drive; it could be your aggression against the religious establishment. Or, it could be how you feel so uncomfortable about something simply because we’re lacking in words to describe all the discomforts. Most of the time, it’s easy to tell ourselves a lie when we feel this kind of discomfort. It’s even easier to blame your emotional discomfort on others: that it isn’t you where the problem lies. Once and for all, let’s get this right: there is only one cause of an emotional discomfort, and that is our expectation. 

I like reading Hobbes but I must also accept that I have not read him thoroughly enough to discuss with rigor how he frames his use of the term introspection. The way I see it is that it has to do with the mismatch between what we expect and what we are getting. You might say, at this point, though, that “sometimes I didn’t even expect anything but I’d still feel the emotional discomfort.” That’s true; yet, what is likely to be the case is that we “subconsciously” something without even knowing it. We might subconsciously expect a bigger or a more expensive gift from someone because the gift we have given to that someone earlier was big. But once you’ve found that what’s in the box is small, it’s hard to think of such a disappointment as simply the encounter with an unexpected. It’s a disappointment, and it usually shows, because you have an expectation of what you would like to get whether or not such expectation was clear to you.  I felt deeply sad when my father, someone so important to me and someone who I didn’t expect to leave me so quickly, passed away. Did I consciously not wantibg him to die? Of course I didn’t want him to die. It’s because he’s important to me.

Love is another thing — maybe the worst thing out there to talk about expectation and most of us’ failure to deal with our inability to arrive at a good compromise when the expectation is not met. Heartbreaking, that is to say, is nothing less than a solid mismatch of expectation. We usually think of a divorce, or a falling out between two people, as a state of incompatibility. It’s not and it’s never about incompatibility. It only is the state of incompatibility only when you think of yourself as having done everything right, and other  having done everything wrong.

Love dies when your expectation is not met. For instance, Tony, a friend whose life story I had mentioned in a couple of posts ago, had fallen out of love with his partner because his expectation was not met. He expected her to be understanding, to give him an unconditional support and love, and to be there when he wanted her. Tony had framed these expectations as “minimal” for a relationship and he could well be right, but the fact that matter was that his way of understanding of unconditional support and love was different from those of his ex-partner. She also had her own understanding of these; so, it’s not possible for them to be together which was not because they were compatible, but because they expected someone else totally different and they could not discuss  those differences in their expectations.

Tony was disappointed because he had expected too much. I think he was a perfect match with his ex-partner. They liked similar things. They shared the same interest in many activities. The only thing that was “incompatible” between them was their expectations. I was disappointed too, about love, because I used to expect too much. I wanted

I was disappointed too, about love, because I used to expect too much. Once upon a time, I thought I had met the love of my life, but that relationship did not last long at all. Here’re the reasons. I used to want someone to want me unconditionally — but that wasn’t her goal in being in a relationship with me. All she wanted was someone to love her unconditionally — but only when she needed it. She didn’t want me to love her to the point that I would try to protect her from herself. Also, while I wanted her to reciprocate my unconditional love by giving me the benefit of the doubt whenever something might not seem right to her urgent emotionality in the moment, she saw my expectation as unrealistic because she did not think I wanted that. I thought she liked me because I was critical, but it turned out that was not the case at all: She didn’t want anything critical from me but a pat in the back, always. These were unfortunate mismatches in our expectations.

So, here is the takeaway message: If you don’t want to be disappointed, don’t expect too much from anyone (including yourself) and from anything.

Lord Buddha had said this more than two millennia ago. The only way to be content with life is to not expecting life to give you what you “think” you need. Some of what people “think” they need, as Lord Buddha had pointed out, are unrealistic, such as wanting someone to be with you all the time, to love you no matter what, to have the best of everything and anything, and to live a fulfilling life without any efforts to fulfil it meaningfully. Lord Buddha’s suggestion may be too radical and too difficult to implement in real life. The French Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, meanwhile, has a better suggestion that is, in fact, along the same line as Lord Buddha’s. Rousseau’s idea is that the root of our desire for external objects (e.g., clothes, cars, jewelry) is the creation of an artificial superstructure that the people in power produce to keep those in a socio-economically inferior position in a perpetual stage of poverty. We don’t and never ever need any of these, Rousseau has argued centuries ago (I’ll return to this point in my next post on my take on the new — and the only way of a good life — thinking about life: minimalism).

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Rousseau — the critic as well as the father of romanticism.

The same goes with the notion of romantic love and family. Karl Marx, adding to Rousseau’s claim, argues that we “love” because the powerful and economically superior people want us to think that it’s a “good thing to love.” By “wanting to love,” we are reproducing more and more laborers to serve the economically powerful (God damn bastards, aren’t they) — and therefore chaining ourselves to the perpetual chains of inescapable slavery. We are worse than slaves, Marx argues, because we can’t emancipate from this slavery. As waged laborers, we have to get up to work  — because of our love for our spouse, parents, and kids. We work long hours to pay bills because we feel as though there’s an aura of actuality that makes us feel that we do so because we are responsible for other the lives of those whom we think we love. According to Rousseau, those whom he calls the “noble savages” are the ones who are free from all of these superstructures. They’re freer than we are, and they’re happier than we are, claims Rousseau. This superstructure makes the inferior class desire what they do not need. By constantly creating a series of unnecessary desires, the superior class is essentially putting the inferior class to work in pursuing desires that can never be completely fulfilled. Members of the inferior class are made slaves to the superfluous needs that the rich have created to keep them in check. We have too much and too high expectations and that is not natural. It’s by design.

So, the takeaway, again, here: Don’t expect too much from anyone and about anything. Most of our desires are not that necessary anyway, so why expect them? Why want them? 

Day 66: The Herzfeld’s Rules

The topic today is about effective communication, which, I would like to define, is the effective conveying of ideas from one person to another. The conveying of ideas that is not effective is not communication. Then, I should make it clear that the use of the apostrophe  (the punctuation mark ‘) in the title of this post does not indicate the authorship. In other words, it’s not Herzfeld who has come up with the “Herzfeld’s Rules” (as in, the rule of Herzfeld‘s), but it’s his way of thinking about the effective conveying of ideas makes me want to refer to him when I think about the most essential rules governing the conveying of ideas.

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The eminent Harvard Professor Michael Herzfeld after whom the Herzfeld’s Rules is named but has nothing direct to do with these rules. Photo credit: Yu Hua.

So, the Harvard Professor of Social Sciences Michael Herzfeld, who is like a father to me, is a social anthropologist, activist, teacher, writer, etc., who has composed more than a hundred of high impact academic papers and ten books. He is a master of storytelling and a true embodiment of the art of communication. Unlike many famous professors, Prof. Herzfeld always has time to listen to everyone. I have come to realize that which is not only how he collects social data (and to him, all social data are equally important) so that he can write a book about them afterward, but also how he maintain his culturally intimate relationship with his colleagues, students, friends, and informants. Although, in most cases, the line between the last two categories is often unclear since he treats everyone with respect in the “everything is professional; everything is personal” fashion. What I have learned from him over the year includes:

“One often needs a glass of wine to overcome writer’s block.”

“Coffee is not only the morning’s cure, but also the best companion to put you to sleep.”

“We are who we are owing to how we express ourselves linguistically; hence, always respect rules and observe grammatical integrity, but break all of them for the poetic effect.”

To name a few. But the most important that I have learned from him is nothing else but the undergirding idea of how to communicate itself. To get a polymath like Prof. Herzfeld to pay attention to me, I must cut right to the chase so that I would not waste his time telling him what he already knows. Also, because he has many stories ready to pour onto his audience — and most of the time his stories are much more interesting than anything that the audience may have to share with him anyway — he does not give his audience a lot of time to grab his attention. Personally, as I have learned over the years, the more I speak, the more I’d be likely to bore him and the more I’d be likely to make mistakes (either verbally or idiomatically). So the key is to be concise,  to  the point, and get the main ideas or whatever that might have the ability to grab his attention out there within the first 15 seconds, or 30 words. The story of how the Herzfeld’s Rules came about has to do with how I wanted so much to get him to help me with my research proposal.

At the time, I had suffered greatly from  the symptom called “the lack of ability to get to the point.” Alright, frankly, I was just really bad at getting words out in the right order and in the right tone. Every time I went to see Prof. Herzfeld, with the hope of getting him to help me craft some particular points that were mine and mine alone, I came back with more of his ideas owing to the fact that I was not capable to addressing my points in the way that would make him “think with me,” rather than, simply, “help me.” So, over the course of my first three years as his student, I had worked hard to develop a set of guidelines that would help me get my message across to him in the way that would give him no other choice but to respond to me in the way that I would like him to. These guidelines — the so-called “a general rule governing any forms of effective communication that those who follow will achieve the goal standard of communication and not be wasting other’s time as much as they might have been” — were a combination of philosophical ideas, elements of communicative style, and common sense. I stand by Herzfeld’s Rules in all forms of verbal communication. I write this way. I speak this way. I get annoyed when I hear people violate these rules. Why? Because we only have so much time in the world, we might as well get right to the chase so that we can learn from the core message and then live our lives.  As John Lennon once said, “life is what we live when we aren’t busy doing other things.” I believe that the Herzfeld’s Rules will make you like your life better. It’s the art of cutting down to the very core of social relations: communication that works. When you are economical in the way that you express yourself, you are optimizing your time to enjoy every lesson that life has to offer.

I would like to summarize these in 15 points, here:

  1. Don’t worry about chronology. Think about the most important idea that you would like to express, and start there. Not many people have time to listen or read through the chronology no matter how important it is.
  2. The technique, then, is to swing back to the chronology (if it’s so important) after you have gotten the attention from your audience and not before;
  3. Try to start with something related to the subject matter that precedes the conversation. In other words, try to make the narrative relevant to the previous conversation. You don’t want to look like a narcissist who only wants to talk about yourself!;
  4. The first 15 seconds are the key. If you can’t get your audience to be interested, your communication is no longer effective;
  5. “Omit needless words.” This is probably William Strunk’s most famous lesson to all of us. Words that can be omitted are not words — they’re redundancies which have no room in an effective conveying of ideas;
  6. Be witty but do not overdo it;
  7. Don’t state the obvious, e.g., “the housing bubble is about to bust — and if that is the case an economic disaster would seem unavoidable.” The idea of an economic disaster is already built into the analytical meaning of “housing bubble”;
  8. Don’t repeat yourself. Whenever you need to say “in other words,” or “that is to say,” you are about to repeat yourself. That said, do repeat yourself to get your message across when you realize that you may not have been as clear as you could have been with the sentence previous uttered;
  9. Avoid using idioms of which you are not sure. Idioms may make you look cool but if you don’t use them correctly, or at the right moment, or in the right situation, they can be confusing. Be direct. Try to be clever somewhere else (your chance to do so will come!);
  10. Avoid needless adjectives, such as “very,” “completely,” “awesomely.” Use them only when you know your purpose in using them, e.g., when you want to be strategically sarcastic;
  11. Avoid using “actually” — and never again saying “honestly.” Be actual and be honest all the time if you can;
  12. Never say “no” right away, even if you think that what you have just heard is not true. Give it some thorough thoughts. It’s both polite and courteous to make sure that your audience know that you are “actually” listening carefully;
  13. Avoid, as much as you can, the use of verbal tics — some single nonsensical words added at the end or the middle of sentences — such as “like,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “you know,” “hmmm,” and so on. These verbal tics not only impede your communication but also makes you look like a boring person to listen to;
  14. Never, ever, use a rhetorical question. Be direct. Ask a question whose answer you would like to know;
  15. Avoid using metaphors. Again, be direct. Say whatever you want to say. Not everyone has the same understanding of the same metaphor. Use metaphors, though, but only when they are the best way through which you could make your abstract ideas more concrete for the audience to understand.

Day 65: On a Failed Relationship

It’s good to be back on my blog, writing again. Thank you all for all of the kind words of congratulation. It’s good to have a Ph.D., although I wish I hadn’t done it. It’s good, still, to have accomplished something in life no matter how trivial it may be or may sound in the infinite universe of things, people, and knowledge of which I am a tiny part.

Now, let me ask you a question: Have you ever felt that you were so lucky — because you’d won something, met someone, and achieved something — and then later, after a while, felt that which was more a curse rather than a gift?

There’re many philosophers in the history of thoughts. The most famous among whom were Pyrrho (c. 360 BC – c. 270 BC), an Ancient Greek philosopher who was a big fan of Eastern philosophy. In the podcast that my favorite podcaster Steven West had done on his teaching, the basic principles of Pyrrhonism could out described as follows:

Something that seems good is not always good. Something that seems bad is not always bad, and even if it is bad, adversity is what strengthens you to better navigate future problems in your life. Your level of success is not determined by whether there are hurdles in your path, but by how well you jump over them.

Like Lord Buddha, Pyrrho wants to tell us to try not control our mind. If we’re to be too happy, we’re deemed to be hit by sadness when such happiness is not longer with us. In fact, Pyrrho is making a point in a very rational way (so is Buddha) by saying that everything that can be evaluated, can only be evaluated with time as the main variable. West uses an example of a man who had won a lottery (which, by the way, was a true a story) who wished he had never won it. I have a tendency, as usual, to enhance the dramatic effect of a particular story so I will do so a bit here just to make my point a little bit clearer. Of course, he thought he was the luckiest man in the world when the hundreds of millions of cash were given to him as a result of him randomly buying the winning Power Ball lottery ticket. A few years later when his life was bombarded by requests from those who had thought were “his” friends, “his” relatives,” and, saddest of all, “his “family members. All of them, once they knew what he had won, wanted a piece of him, and any decision that he had made would result in some kinds of conflict either between him and his counterparts, or among the different parties, and so on. The story ended tragically: suicide. Before he died, he had said, “Winning the lottery was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

There’s nothing new about how winning lottery isn’t a good thing. In “The Tragic Stories of the Lottery’s Unluckiest Winners,” Time Magazine succinctly summarizes what had happened with the previous winners that the Magazine had previously reported:

Distant relatives and fair-weather friends can come clamoring for their share; spouse can turn on a spouse; kidnapping and murder can suddenly become very real threats. And sometimes, the greatest danger to the newly well-off can be the winners themselves.

So, let’s go back to think about the wisdom with which Pyrrho has provided us. What is, then, things that would make us lucky? I believe that all of us have had the moment of regret, as in, “Jeez, I wish I had never met that person.” In the case of my very close friend who had just divorced his wife, my friend Tony had shared with me, and in multiple occasions, how he thought he had met the love of his life when they met each other, and the love and the romance were aptly maintained by two two’s willingness to make it work during the honeymoon period and then over to the next two years of their marriage. “But something wasn’t right,” said Tony. She was so negative — just about everything,” Tony said. “She would come home feeling sad; she would be thinking back and forth about what had gone wrong with her life; she would muse over things in the past that had made her unhappy

She was so negative — just about everything,” Tony said. “She would come home feeling sad; she would be thinking back and forth about what had gone wrong with her life; she would muse over things in the past that had made her unhappy; she would be telling me about how her parents had raised her inappropriately; she would be procrastinating so that the problems at hand did not have to be taken care of by her, and with the hope that someone (me) would take care of it for her so that she would not have to do anything at all. It’s a series of blaming, finger-pointing, senseless skepticism, and the denial of the most important elements in the life for the couple, at least to me, which are respect and the ability of giving to each other the benefit of the doubt. Love is not as important as these two.

Sooner of later, as I could tell, Tony had become an aggressive person. He got easily upset and agitated by things around him. He was less productive (before his marriage he was a production powerhouse of his company). His lack of sensibility and his negativity were felt by all of his friends around him. It’s unbearable to us to the point that we had to pull him aside and ask him what had happened. That’s when he burst into tears — the first and the only time I saw him crying — and shared with me how his marriage was a failed one, and that had to do with the fact that he could not longer go home to expect his wife’s negative narratives, passive aggressiveness, and the senseless urge to argue with him in just about everything without wanting to listen. “The worst part is that she’s lying to herself, all the time, that she has a job while she’s basically spending the seed fund from her family’s estate just to stay afloat,” said Tony. “Which reminds me that which isn’t yet the worst — the worst is that she is money-conscious, so she’d get upset when she’s spending money, while, again, while, she’s so passionate about making her parents suffer by spending their money, which, according to her, they were obligated to give her, on senseless items, trips, meals, and so on, just, simply, to sub it on their face showing how much she’s unhappy about how she’s raised by them.”

Tony was also aware of that some of the problems also came from him. He said that he could listen to her more, and be more sympathetic to her problems although, he also said, “I don’t see where her problems are?” So, I was inclined to believe that both were guilty of this failed relationship. Tony was wrong to place so much expectation on his wife, and his wife, needless to say, was wrong to not letting him know from the start her true self. Having met his wife and learned about her charming personality, I could not see her being abusive. Yet, this story was common among many couples that many social research papers have shown, couples undergoing problematic phrases of life tend to result from how they treat each other with less respect than they would to outsiders. To outsiders, each of the two tends to want to maintain his or her social position; hence, wearing a frontality that shows only the kind side of the personality. I didn’t get to see how Tony and his then-wife dealt with each other at home, but given that the neighbors had complained about their chronic and pathological shouting at one another, it wasn’t surprised that neither of them had treated one another the same way that they’d treat an outsider. According to the psychology professor John Gottman who was made famous in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, here’re the “four horsemen” that kill marriage:

Criticism – Complaints are fine. Criticism is more global — it attacks the person, not their behavior. They didn’t take out the garbage because they forgot, but because they’re a bad person.

Contempt – “…name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt – the worst of the four horsemen – is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her.”

Defensiveness – “…defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’ Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly.”

Stonewalling – Tuning out. Disengaging. This doesn’t just remove the person from the conflict, it ends up removing them, emotionally, from the relationship.

I asked Tony whether any of these four appeared in his marriage. His response was not that surprising: “all four of them.” He then continued, “She is defensive to my criticism, and I am stonewalling whenever her contempt seems to rise.” According, also, to Gottman, once these four things are at play, there’s no going back.

I was also in tears when hearing Tony’s story. This was the man, who, less than a few months ago, had told me that he felt as thought he was “the luckiest man in the world” for having met and gotten to know the love of his life at a casual outing that many people had also been invited to join and it just happened to be the case that the two were the ones standing closest to one another and therefore had gotten the opportunity, before anyone else, to get to know each other, first superficially, and then formally, and then socially, and then, needless to say, intimately. Tony was a man who was obviously in love throughout those first few months. It must have been at least 4-5 times a day that he’d sent me photos of him and his then-girlfriend just to share with me how happy he was as a person. But only a few months afterward, after he realized that his wife had the chronic negativity symptom. I helped Tony by getting him to meet with a counselor, Kevin, who had shared with Tony and me the following:

How your partner grew up, and the environment in which she grew up, is incredibly important. If someone has spent their whole lives being resentful of their parents, it isn’t that they want to be that way. But they don’t know of any other way she wants to be different. She simply doesn’t know how. Like kids growing up with alcoholic and abusive parents, they tend to be abusive too, even if they want to be exactly the opposite. My childhood was too simple.

This advice is by no means cutting edge of extra special. We tend to know and believe that one’s upbringing could affect one’s ways of looking at oneself and the people around oneself. The problem with this relationship is that Tony did think that he was in the right place and the right time — the same way the guy who won the lottery was — and that was destiny, faith, and beyond that all wanted him to meet the then-love-of-his-wife so that they would be together. He didn’t realize that which would then become something of a deep regret and resentment. “I can’t stand negativity — I just can’t,” said Tony with tears in his eyes while pounding heavily on the table on which our glasses of red wine were placed. The pounding was so hard that I thought I heard the sound of his fingerbones being cracked. I have never seen someone that angry before, especially on someone whom he thought was a “gift from God,” and especially from an atheist such as Tony, pronouncing God’s name there was no picnic. The advice from Kevin, the counselor, continues
The solution is actually quite simple. I realize in your mind it seems muddled, but really, this is just like an investment. You want to put your life savings in an investment, and that will determine how well you live in the future every investment is a risk-reward balance.
In this case, you know what the risk is you are going to have to work hard and long with her to understand how to develop a trusting, loving relationship. that is going to be very hard for her to do, and she may never learn to do it. So you will have to be incredibly patient, tolerant, and understanding.
But you need to assess, what is the reward? For you? Is the reward of trying to keep her worth the risk you will be putting in, knowing you may never see the payoff? If the reward is great enough, then yes. if not, then no.

Well, as you might have guessed, Tony didn’t want to continue. Who would want to? This was the toxic relationship that could turn the happiest man alive into the miserable man in the universe in a blink of an eye. This was the state of the unbearable lightness of being a couple in which one always tried very hard to make sure that the other one would feel bad about his life, small about himself, regretful about his family, and resentful about his love for her.

This was, all in all, an uncommunicative relationship that everything got misinterpreted thanks to the feeling of wanting to let the negative feeling rule.

So, was Tony lucky — at least to have spent those honeymoon period with the woman of his dream, even though it only lasted for a very short time? I think it wasn’t worth the pain that he had to endure afterward. I just wish that I would never be in his position.

I just wish that I would never have to be in his position.

Day 63: I Wish I Had Never Done a PhD

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” – Oscar Wilde

“To live is not to breathe but to act.” ― Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This is an afterthought, which, sadly, occurred to me six years after I had started my Ph.D. This thought came to me when I was answering a series of questions required by the graduate school toward the end of my thesis submission process. One question was:

“If you could make a decision on whether or not you would do a PhD again, would you have done your PhD?

“Of course, I would have.” That was my initial reaction. “What a stupid question,” I felt. And then, when I was about to click the button to submit the answer, I had a second thought. I suddenly began to have the feelings of doubt. Some of which were self-doubts, and some were doubts, in general, about my answer, about how I think about, and about whether or not “of course” was the right answer. This was the kind of questionnaire about which I did not think anyone would care. The graduate school probably wanted to come up with a set of report to show that most students were happy with the program. But have I ever been one of those students? (That said, it seems to be the case that the graduate really wants to know the value of its PhD program owing to a series of harsh critiques on the enterprise as a whole.)

What makes someone want to do a PhD?

I am sure that many people have different reasons. For some fields of study, however, not getting a PhD is not an option, as the PhD is in itself those fields’ professional degrees, needed by graduates in those fields to qualify to join the workforce. So, let’s keep this conversation to the PhDs that are optional, rather than required, such as in humanities and social sciences. I want a PhD because ultimately I want to teach, and to be qualified to do so, having a PhD helps although it is not always required. Many people think of PhDs as a pathway to job security. Many people, strangely enough (at least to me) think of PhDs as ways to kill time.

Let’s say there are generally three things that people aim for in life. Let’s simplistically put them in three broad categories: money, respect, fame, and perhaps, knowledge.

First and foremost, for people who want to be respected, they should not get a PhD. In the society today, the chances are that you will be respected if you have money (or fame). Also in the world today, there are many more ways of becoming innovative entrepreneurs making money at a very young age than ever. This is a trend set by many in the technology fields, giving rise to an entourage of millennials who see going to college as a complete waste of time and opportunity. Time is money, and youth cannot be reversed (trust me; been there). It is, in fact, easier to be respected in the world today by first making money, and then using the money to raise one’s fame, and then using the fame to spread the words about what you think you know – in that order. People tend to listen to your words that way rather than from your words written in academic books. So, if getting a PhD is for the respect. The answer is no.

What about those who cannot find a job and therefore want to buy time from spending time getting a degree, since universities are such safe places? From my multiple personal encounters with people who have this attitude, there’s a high chance that they would get out of the program both indebted and empty-handed. As many types of research have shown, too, if buying time is your goal, getting an internship with businesses and learning from amazing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) we have available for free today are much more effective methods to learn the transferable skills that you’d need to get yourself going or get back on your path.

Getting a PhD as a way of making money, either through having a job or having a job security, then? You have got to be kidding me. The answer is also no, which leaves us only one reason for wanting a PhD: To seek to know very deeply about something. How about that?

Well, if the time and money are not your concerns, then yes. But if they are problems; Then no. That’s exactly my problem with my own PhD

A few years back I met a student applying for a PhD program at our department who shared with me her admirably frank view about getting a PhD: “It’s a fast-track to receive respected from other people,” she said. At the time, I had already started my research, so I knew that PhD was not all about that. In fact, as I always thought PhD was largely about research, I felt that it would also be important to ask her idea regarding her research. “I don’t have any ideas about my research; I’ll do anything that my future advisor would want me to do,” she said and then continued:

You know, Non, all I want is somewhere to spend the next 5-6 years of my life getting paid just to build my cultural capital; at the end, I don’t really care about the output of my PhD, and as I said, I see it as a fast track to “get people to respect you.”

Those who know me well can probably guess what my reaction was toward her attitude toward PhD. I never spoke to her again ever since. The sad part is that this conversation was the beginning of a whole new perspective that I have on why many have decided to do a PhD. She might  be right after all. We are living in search of respect. I had, then, begun to look around and found that many people, even those who were my comrades-in-arms were no different. “Don’t be too idealistic, Non,” one of them said to me. Turns out I could only think of a few people who have gotten themselves into the PhD program for the same reason: The love for research.

In the past ten years, I have been working in one geographic area, and almost exclusively on one issue: Shanghai, and how to bridge the gap between architecture and other academic fields. This way of thinking has been with me ever since I was exposed to anthropology and realized the potential of such field in enriching architecture, which could make a different in the real world. Good architecture saves lives, incubates good social relations, and transforms a society through its built quality – whether that be monumentality or else. This was the sole reason for me to leave my home in Thailand and to depart from my family, relatives, and friends. The time spent on learning things about which I have been passionate has a price that has to be paid. After ten years of living abroad, I barely know any of my friends anymore. Good friends and lovers are now just acquaintances who I only know of through their Facebook pages, and lovers have gone on to establish their own families without me. I also did not get to stay close to two of my grandparents, to whom I was very close, when they were terminally ill. The saddest part was that I could have spent those ten years with my father, who also passed away during the time I was doing my PhD.

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Contrary to many people’s perceptions about PhD, my PhD did involve a lot of reading and writing, but also a lot of physical hardship living in a dilapidated housing unit in order to understand the life and social relations of the people to whom I would like my work to be useful. Photo credit: Sue Anne Tay

Now, I can’t think of a better way to take my argument regarding the useless of the Ph.D. to the next step than to answer some of the questions that I have had recently received from colleagues, friends, and former students who were curious about what I thought I had learned from doing a PhD.

Q: I want to teach so I want a PhD What do you think?

Non: Teaching in a higher educational institution often requires a PhD, but that is not always the case. There are many people who do not have PhDs but are teaching at universities. Good universities, in fact, are going out of this conventional method to hire people without PhDs: thinkers, movers and shakers in emerging fields, writers (especially those who have awards in hand) and so on. It is true that getting these accolades take as much sacrifice, but from an investment perspective, one might as well shoot for that from the get-go. Most of them are famous and therefore they are being hired to teach. Because they write books or have worked in established companies and firms, their experience and skills are sought after by the universities who want their students to learn from the professionals rather than academics who often do not understand the real world. Also, there are many PhDs who will never get to teach because there are simply not enough jobs for them in academia. That is to say, getting a PhD doesn’t guarantee any teaching job — there’re too many PhD graduates when compared to available teaching jobs so this problem has to do with basic notion of demand-supply.

Q: Apart from the demand-supply problem, why do you think many PhD graduates don’t get jobs in academia?

Non: That has to do with the nature of many PhD programs, which do not teach PhD students how to teach. Most of those programs are research-based. Also, most of them focus on getting the students to do work for their professors and then graduate. Second, even PhD programs that were once known for training their graduates to teach are encountering financial problems, making it more sensible for them to reduce the period of time once made available for teaching training. So, many PhD graduates are having problems with how to be good teachers, and for that reason they are not that employable.

Q: Getting a PhD makes people respect you?

Non: Perhaps, having a PhD may have the potential of drawing a pool of superficial people toward you. These are people who are likely to respect you because of your degree and not because of who you are. By accepting respect from these people, you are making yourself an accomplice to social inequality because you are simply accepting the idea that a random status marker (i.e., Ph.D.) could, in actuality, change you to a respectable person. That is to say, only people who do not respect themselves enough think that way. I personally never respect anyone just because they have PhDs and would be very mad if that which is the only reason why anyone would respect me.

Q: Getting a PhD is not a dinner party. It is hard, right?

Non: I like how you are quoting Chairman Mao there (“revolution is not a dinner party”)! No, nothing is a dinner party. If you ask Jean-Paul Sartre, even the dinner party itself is not a dinner party. It’s a weird thing that we human beings have invented to ritualize our way of socializing, but that’s a topic for another time. I think getting PhD is not as hard as I thought. In fact, as a financially struggling graduate student, I have learned quite a few things. I had to teach to survive, so I did, but I also used that opportunity to master of my teaching skills. I never turned down the opportunity to teach or to assist in teaching even if some of the opportunities were unpaid. In my mind, having someone listening to what I had to say about what I wanted to be able to teach well was already in itself a great opportunity. I should be paying my audience for having to listen, sometimes, to my complete nonsense! I had to juggle two or three tasks to make ends meet. During the first few years of my doctoral education, I worked as a resident advisor at a fraternity house (not the easy kind where you get a free housing just by being there), taught part-time at a local university, guest lectured at universities abroad, wrote articles for popular magazines, and so on. All of this was to pay my bills and to have some money to send home to my mother. Our awful financial situation at home (it was actually never good) made my life as a PhD student quite difficult, but thanks to the fact that members of our extended family in Thailand have always supported each other — and supported me — I was able to get to the end of the process

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One of the few things that is enjoyable about being a researcher is working on issues of which people are interested in learning deeper aspects in order to make a difference in their life  In the Essays (1580), the philosopher Michel de Montaigne writes: “If man were wise, he would gauge the true worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness to his life.” Photo credit: Shanghai Jiaotong University

Q: So, was it hard getting a PhD?

Non: I can only speak from my personal experience, which is no. In fact, it was not hard at all. I got my PhD in six years. The minimum length for a PhD in anthropology, I believe, was three to four years, which is reserved for those who do not need money from the school and therefore do not have to spend a year teaching just to receive stipends, and those who conduct research in their first language, who therefore do not have to spend time learning the second or, to many, even third language. A “fast-track” PhD for those who need to learn another language and need money is five years. I got mine in six because I had to take a year off during my fourth and sixth year to work in order to survive. Otherwise, I believe, I could also get my PhD in five years or less.

Q: Do you feel as though you have made a difference in the world with your work?

Non: No. Not at all. That’s the biggest problem I have with my PhD. I could have gone into journalism or architecture and do the same. With the advent of technology, free online courses, MOOCs, etc., I could have taught myself what I needed to know. Most of the time I have learned about what I wanted to learn by myself anyway though reading and watching my favorite MOOCs (if you wonder which ones they are, I have quite a few suggestions on my blog). I could have spent the six years in the field, doing things, and making the differences in the world felt by the community that I cared, and by myself, already. Of course I cannot possibly know for sure if that would be the case. One thing I know, though, is that I am persistent and I would have made my life and my work meaningful to myself, and to others, with or without being enrolled in a PhD program.

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Me in my youth, trying to find out how to save the world through education — defined by me later on as “what I mistakenly and naively believed then to be one of the few reliable solutions to the problems we had in the world.”

Q: Would your life be different had you not done a PhD?

Non: Absolutely. In a way, I would have questioned traditional values less. I would have been much more conservative. I would have also be much less critical about how I think about the meaning of it all. I would have been like Mike, a former colleague who I often quote whenever I need to refer to someone who doesn’t give a damn about critical thinking, who believes that his only purpose in life is to follow his parents’ path, which is to get a degree (any degrees), get married, and have a kid. Seriously. I dislike Mike so much, I believe, partly because he is a reflection of who I was. I hated that part of myself when I was in my 20s — the part that seems to be critical only insofar as the conservatives would be approving of me and therefore giving me easy time. Had I not done my PhD, I would have been like that.

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“My youth,” which is what I want to define as something that a PhD has already taken from me way before I realized that I had it and had gotten to use it. Photo credit: My youngself and the tripod — this may have been among one of the world’s first selifies.

I would have mindlessly gotten married because I thought it was about time, that I needed to, and that I thought I would not be able to live my life being cast aside as a leftover. I would have tried to create another human being to suffer in a world of which I myself do not even know the meaning. That said, I would be swimming with the mainstream, which would probably make me content. I would just like most people living in Plato’s Cave, living with limited lighting, looking at the world through shadows of objects, and believing that they were real and that the Cave itself was the world and that there was no way out. All of this might not seem like a negative thing and seems rather to suggest how enlightening it can be to do a PhD That said, the point is that there is always comfort in conforming. Doing a proper PhD will expose one to unconventional ideas and will therefore make one’s life more difficult. It’s your choice. I have a hard life today because I am questioning everything thanks to having done the PhD. Is it a good thing? The answer: I really don’t know. It’s like having opened the Pandora’s Box. It is impossible to imagine what it was like before it was opened.

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One of the few moments, also, that make me proud of being a researcher (which I could have done without needing a PhD) is when those in charge of the process of change wants to hear what I have to say about what I have spent time studying. Photo credit: Global Times

 Q: Was it fun, though, I mean, doing a PhD?

Non: Yes, despite the ups and downs in terms of my financial situation, these past six years have been like a work-holiday for me. I got to meet many people. I got to read so many books. Some of them have changed the way I think about life. I got to travel to places to which I otherwise would not have any reasons (and invitations) to go. I learned how to teach, how to express my ideas, and how to write with grace and clarity. That said, this might actually be just me. Many PhD graduates, in fact, write with muddling complexity and obfuscating prose and shamelessly call it “academic.” For me, academic work is what people can communicate with, and I expect nothing less.

 Q: Getting a PhD is super cool, right?

Non: Are you f***ing serious?

I began by thinking about my personal reasons. Why not having done a PhD. would have been a better choice for me. Ever since I had earned an undergrad degree in architecture, I have always been hungry to learn more, which might have been because I was young and I did not have a good undergraduate education thus I wanted to see how far I could push myself. Many of my heroes and heroines in life have PhDs; hence, as I was looking up to them, I also wanted to see if I could get one. So, with that in mind, a young and reckless youth in his early 20s begun his quest to get a PhD, which began with an advanced research master’s degree.

At that point, I was still happy with studying. In fact, I would love to take more courses and graduate even later from that first master’s program at MIT had I received more financial support. That master’s degree left me hungry, so I had decided to embark on another one. By the time I was finishing that second one, it seemed that the only sensible path for me was to get a PhD — I had a project that I really wanted to pursue and a prospective advisor who thought that such a project would make a good addition to his program at Harvard. Looking back, it was not all that easy emotionally. During the past decade of my intellectual endeavor to get three master’s degrees and a doctorate, I have lost three grandparents and a father; all of whom I had been very close to. As I had been living abroad, I could only weep in silence and alone. Every time I heard the news I felt as though it would be fine if my life were to end that very moment. What kept me together, away from home, were the words and support from my extended family.

During the past six years, there have been, of course, times that I felt as though I was realizing that I was on the wrong path, but I preferred trying different methods to trick myself that I was on the right track than to accept it. Now, with a Ph.D. in hand, I have never felt so sorry about how I had spent my last six years: Six years that I could have spent to make a difference in the world; the six years that nature had equipped me with youth and its productive persistence and recklessness; the six years during which I had so much time to cultivate many natural and practical thoughts about how I would like to live the rest of my life. But nothing has been worse than the fact that I had not learned any other transferable skills during the last six years because all I had been doing was technical reading and academic writing. I have lowered my expectation of academia thanks to the voice of my colleague that has never left my ear: “You are too idealistic.” But even that – even after I have lowered my standards – I still see academia as being a place in which it is utterly hard to get anything started let alone do something groundbreaking off the ground. In other words, I have lost my hope. Formal education, just like any other businesses from which I had been running away, is no different and as hopeless as the mode of elitistic reproduction about which Oscar Wilde and Jean-Jacques Rousseau once warned us long time ago (and the irony is that had I not entered academia I would not have the opportunity to read Wilde’s and Rousseau’s).

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What is the difference between a hyphen and a comma? The picture above should clarify. Yet, I started the joke, but the joke was one me..

During the past six years I have been training myself to think like a scholar, and also to act and write like one. It’s unfortunate that I have made myself into someone even I myself never wanted to be. The kinds of scholars that I like are those who live in the real world and write in the way that is, rather than scholarly, humanistically engaging. I like the kind of writing that cuts right to the chest, poetic, and simple. None of these, sadly, are the writing styles encouraged in academia where I have spent six years. Although many would like to argue that academia is still one of the few places where merit works to people’s advantage, I can hardly think of an instance that I got what I got because of merit. Like any other industries of which academia tends to be critical, it’s all about connections – who is who in which groups, clans, tribes and so on. I can, however, recall quite vividly how many times I was turned down with no reason simply because I was on the wrong side. To put it bluntly, I was turned down for grants, fellowships, etc., because I did not have the right connections.

Now, at 34, I neither have the energy and persistence of the youth, nor the skills needed to be useful in the world today. I wish I have never done a Ph.D.

 

Non Arkaraprasertkul, PhD
Boston, Masschusetts
May 15, 2016

Day 62: Paradise; or, Reflecting on the Urban

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Henry David Thoreau
An Excerpt from Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)

I am writing this blog post by a lake in Massachusetts — Paradise Lake. I am hearing both the birdsong and the sound of the wind touching the surface of the water on the lake. The combination of both, with no manmade sound whatsoever, creates a powerful  melody of natural sound that makes me feel peaceful. I can’t recall how long ago was the last time I had felt so peaceful. Having lived in big cities in the past 20 years — Bangkok, Boston, London, and Shanghai — the most peaceful place I could ask for has been my room, because anywhere outside of it is full of cacophony and loud noise. Only once in a while, I would get a chance to travel outside of the city to spend a few days away from the chaotic urban life.

I am also working on proofreading my dissertation which I am going to present it to my advisors in less than three weeks. Although I have been working on the writing of my dissertation for the past ten months, this is the first time that I am writing it outside of the city. As I am writing this blog right here where the only sounds I could here aren’t those of human beings, I can’t help but think to myself: This is so great; why haven’t I done this sooner? I would like to think that I could have been much more productive had I not been so distracted by the cacophonic interruption brought about by urban life (even though I’d really like to think so). So many times that I had planned to write and be productive, but I slept as soon as I got home from after spending a day out in the urban. The urban has been making me sick: Its selfish and superficial people, its polluted environment, and its unnecessary rushing.

I am thinking to myself: It’s either the case that I don’t deserve to live in the urban or the urban doesn’t deserve to have me. It could also well be a matter of structural incompatibility. My favorite philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau never has any positive feeling about cities. He thinks they are places whose economic nature not only give people the impression that they have to be shamelessly selfish to prevent themselves from being taken advantage of (i.e., pseudo-self preservation) but also the negative reinforcement that the sense of morality only exists as they’d like to define them — as if there is nothing intrinsic about the “good” nature of human beings. Although many people (including my colleague, Mike No. 2) believes that Rousseau, like Schopenhauer, is a self-proclaimed pessimist, self-taught skeptic, and self-funded gloomy writer; therefore, could only permit himself to see only the dark side of things, I personally don’t think that Rousseau is that off in his way of thinking about the urban.

In this modest room (with a 4-post bed) I’d hope to finish writing what is soon to be the most important writing project of my life: my PhD dissertation. It only has what I need to write, stay awake, and be kind to myself.

As more people are now living in urban areas than ever before, the defining characteristic of the twenty-first century is unquestionably that of the urban, all thanks to the major shift in the world’s economy toward service-oriented economies, and the emergence of industries catering to the demands of contemporary consumerism. Still ringing true are the basic aspects of the urban suggested by classic urban sociological theories (i.e., the Chicago School of Sociology such as Louis Wirth and Robert Park): population, density, heterogeneity, and complexity. Also still true is the major divide in the perceptions of what might constitute the conditions that the urban brings. With the decline of religiosities and the advent of the new faith in sciences, urban populations are faced with how to deal with the fast, massive, and intense move toward an arguably better quality of life, while also dealing with an underlying deeply troubled sense of personhood. While technological advancement, innovation, and creativity are direct by-products of urbanization, some undesirable consequences such as high divorce rates, widening income inequality, pollution-related health problems, and, needless to say, suicide, are “tragedies of the commons” acutely felt by many urbanites.

My motivation for writing about, and reflecting here on the urban owes its origin to both my ethnographic findings from my field site in Shanghai, China, and my personal feeling about where I have spent almost three years to date conducting anthropological research and residing as a resident. It may be true that I have been spending most of my life in the urban, but the intensity of the feeling I had had living elsewhere is nowhere near that of Shanghai. During my first year, I could barely survive mentally. It’s the time when I had begun to read philosophy (mainly Eastern, especially Daoism and Zen Buddhism) to cope with the aggressiveness of urban life. Everywhere I went to, I was usually faced with the money-comes-first attitude. Everywhere I turned to, I was often faced with the unnecessarily difficult situation that only the senseless competition of the urban life could incubate. For instance, in a case of downright and sincere misunderstanding with which I faced, my counterpart, instead of speaking to me directly about it, had chosen to resort to a third party who then only had the information on one side when questioning me about the point of concern that he had regarding the misunderstanding I had with the counterpart. Why couldn’t this counterpart speak to me directly so that we could have gotten this misunderstanding solved right away?

In my third year in Shanghai, I have had it.

During the past two years, you have noticed, I have become much more philosophical than before. The reason for which is quite simple: The only way I could maintain my sanity is to find a way to maintain a peace of mind. Since I do not believe in orthodoxy religiosities (such as Christianity) I do not have a road map to the “Kingdom of God” by which I could navigate; hence, it’s more convincing for me to try to come up with my own way of dealing with the hardship — through reason.

Many people I know have become much more religious once they had arrived in Shanghai. It may be true that the city was too much for them in terms of competitiveness. In addition, I always believe in synthetic knowledge. Although I am a religious person myself — I am a practicing Buddhist — the only explanation that could ever please my serious sense of skepticism and fallibilism about anything at all must come from synthetic knowledge.I am talking specifically about a specific form of synthetic knowledge that the philosopher Immanuel Kant calls synthetic a priori: the platform of reason on which access to the true knowledge could be gained without us having to experience the phenomenon in which we would like to find out why and how it happens, and how to deal with it.

As strange as it may sound: How can we understand anything without experiencing it?

Kant has a clever answer. First, Kant argues that our experience can lie to us (as our senses are often dictated by non-reasons, i.e., “passion” according to David Hume) and that there’s a limit to what we can do as we are living in the domain of restricted time and space in which we live our lives. Hence, what we do, what we deem we should do, should come from that non-sensory platform of knowing that which is appropriate simply because it cannot be otherwise.

That platform is the reason and the reason alone. For a teacher, for example, it would only be an end in itself for her to show up to teach the students even if the students themselves do not yet see the value in her teaching owing to the fact that the consequences of my teaching may not be able to be measured. It’s synthetic knowledge that teachers should teach, teach well, and dedicate herself to teaching whether or not the students is appreciative of her teaching. I, of course, would hope that my students would think of the consequences of being good students, such as that they could achieve a good life, but the truth here is that they might not even get to see or feel such consequences in their lifetime since the consequences as such could not come easily as a success often depends on many factors. This was precisely the point where Kant argues that we cannot get access to the synthetic knowledge by way of measuring the consequences. We cannot think about the true knowledge from such angle the same way we cannot think about the way in which we treat other human beings only as a means to an end.

So, what’s the synthetic knowledge about the urban?

Many of us may remember what the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes has to say about his synthetic knowledge of the state of nature: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. 

I don’t have the same set of powerful adjectives that Hobbes has for the urban. In fact, I think because it’s the urban, it’s by definition much more complex, but let me try. How about these: Gesellschaft (impersonal ties), pseudo-self preservation, superficiality, and lack of interpersonal sensibility.

I am leaving Shanghai precisely because of those. Hey, I mean, this is not the first time that I have been rambling about how I would like to hit the road. This post might sound like me, again, re-rambling, but my love-hate (or, more precisely, hate-hate) relationship with the city and how such relationship has already reached its limit. Ironically, it’s only a week ago that I had written about how my love for Shanghai was precisely what initially brought me over to China. It’s true that I have, for quite a while now, begun to feel that the city is changing me into someone who I am not.A few months ago I had to deal with my own feeling of not wanting to get up in the morning because I knew that the person I would be seeing that day was someone who would like me to do things that I knew would be against my own personal sense of morality — but for her, it’s the right thing to do, as in, helping her to get rid of her enemy for the sake of our “urban” unity. And yes, I have made the preceding sentence unclear for a reason. I didn’t want to give it out too much to the point that you’d know how this person was. Although I think that she never was a nice person, I also believe that it was the urban that made her evil. It has been doing so by way of changing other people around me to  pressure me, both directly and indirectly, into accepting the fact that in order to survive here, I must become a member of a community where the sense of community is defined by material reciprocity, rather than respect, sympathy, and the true unity under the basic idea of right and equality. It’s unhealthy on all fronts. I think it’s the condition of the city that counterproductive attracts these kinds of people.

The urban has been doing this to many people. It has been doing so by way of changing other people around me to  pressure me, both directly and indirectly, into accepting the fact that in order to survive here, I must become a member of a community where the sense of community is defined by material reciprocity — rather than respect, sympathy, and the true unity under the basic idea of right and equality. It’s unhealthy on all fronts. I think it’s the condition of the city that counterproductive attracts these kinds of people.

China is a special case owing to its long history of agrarianism and popular religions; both of which are undergoing swift change. In pursuing my research on urban religiosities — and pursuing my quest to stay sane — I always seek to understand the changing mental structure of the non-urban residents in the city. As socialism declines, being re-evaluated by the urban population are taboos on “non-scientific” practices as well as on mental illnesses. The recent rise of religious practices and psychotherapy (also known, as my colleague Dr. Hsuan-Ying Huang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong has termed “psycho-boom”) signals the rise of individual needs for moral and psychological support: While the former harks back to traditional values, the latter attracts troubled urbanites with its scientific appeal.

Living in Shanghai, I always make it my goal to deal with the intensity of its urban condition by building a trans-disciplinary platform to critically engage in sociopolitical and geopolitical situations (which is, the least I can do to stay sane) through the lens of traditional spiritual beliefs, and the distinct cultural and social formations owing their origins to psychotherapy.

Day 61: Home is Where the Heart is

Live from Los Angeles and Boston. I just got back to the US less than 4 hours ago. About 8 hours ago, I was sitting at a bar inside the American Airlines terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) enjoying my Californian-styled pizza (whatever that meant) and a full 5L pint of Samuel Adams lager (which was slightly larger than a typical Bostonian pint). Sam Adams, by the way, has since I arrived in Boston been my favorite lager. It’s great to have three pints in a roll for the first time since May 2015.

As I was getting tipsy, and as  the batteries of both of my cellphone and laptop were dying (and apparently there wasn’t any outlet around me to charge anything), I suddenly had a chance to think about what I had been too busy to think about what had happened in my life in the past 20 years. Yes, 20 years.

At the same time, I also had a sudden feeling that writing this blog has been one of the key moments in my life: The one that has gradually grown on me and turned me into not just a writer but someone who truly believes in the power of words. Writing, at the end of the day, is the most efficient form of communication — it’s the only form of expression that cuts across space and time and is truly unique in its own way for how it has changed the way we think, read, and communicate with one another.

I have become a better person as I have learned how to write, and how to want to write well. There was nothing more that I would like to do than getting the Day 61 post out for you guys to read. The question for this post, which I was thinking about as I was flying over the Atlantic, was “where is home?”

Here I am back at Harvard where I have spent my last 6 years studying anthropology and trying to make our world a better place through education, which I believe to be one of the very few reliable solutions to the problems that we are all facing in the world today. Cambridge is my home. As I walking past the statue of John Harvard, donning on me was the sense of nostalgia. In the spring of 1999, I flew to Cambridge from Oklahoma City with my host family who wanted me to see “the city where two of the best universities in the world are located.” I was, of course, excited. Nonetheless, there’s no way I’d think such a trip would have any impact on me since I wasn’t a good student. It’s already a fluke and a stroke of pure luck that I’d got to spend a year in Oklahoma City as an American Field Service exchange student. That trip did change everything. It wasn’t the prestige of MIT that made me want to go there to study. It’s the people that I met during the trip. Many of them were engineering students from

 

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Took this morning while walking across Harvard Yard — with Johnnie!

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When I was back to Cambridge, MA, in the summer of 2010 again after three years of hiatus at Oxford in the UK where I studied Modern Chinese Studies.

 

As I walking past the statue of John Harvard, donning on me was the sense of nostalgia. In the spring of 1999, I flew to Cambridge from Oklahoma City with my host family who wanted me to see “the city where two of the best universities in the world are located.” I was, of course, excited. Nonetheless, there’s no way I’d think such a trip would have any impact on me since I wasn’t a good student. It’s already a fluke and a stroke of pure luck that I’d got to spend a year in Oklahoma City as an American Field Service exchange student. That trip did change everything. It wasn’t the prestige of MIT that made me want to go there to study. It’s the people that I met during the trip. Many of them were engineering students from humble backgrounds similar to mine. They told me that they got to MIT not because they were able to hire someone to write beautiful statements of intent for them, or because they had parents who were willing to spend money to fake their applications for them — the practice that seems to be the standard and the name of the game today. They got into MIT because they had “one thing” about them that was special. I had a long conversation with a Chinese-American student named Billie, who said, “I was, and still am, a nerd, but when it comes to programming nobody in my high school knew better than I was.” That’s the only thing that Billie was good at, and what got him to MIT. MIT also paid for his tuition, room, and board. Because of Billie and a few friends of his whom I met during this short visit, I suddenly realized that if I’d look hard enough, I might also be able to find something special about me. There was, of course, a chance that I would not find anything, but the fact that mattered then was that there’s literally nothing to lose.

At MIT, I came, I saw, I almost immediately wanted to go there. Once I’d returned to Oklahoma City, and then Bangkok, I’d kept reminding myself every day that I had to get out of Thailand and explore the world.

As I have written elsewhere on this blog, I had a low-keyed childhood during which time I did not get to learn much about anything that was useful to kids at a young age to learn owing to my family’s lack of financial resources among other things (such as the fact that we’re members of a underprivileged class in the Thai society). This low-keyed childhood of mine may have been what made me both humbled about myself and what made me feel uneasy when I meet people who do not respect the opportunity that they have in life, as well as those who are opportunistic because they think they could be so. My father was the one who came up with our family’s Thai last name in order to get the family registered and to get himself to go to school since during the time he was growing up there’s a strong anti-Chinese sentiment everywhere. Despite our long need-no-introduction last name, it’s a made-up one. My father came up with it by looking up words he liked in a dictionary and put them together. Our last name, therefore, does not have a long history let along any prestige. It’s a clear marker, also for us, that we’re ordinary citizens.

My childhood was boring. It was, in fact, deadly boring. Every day I would read comic books (Japanese manga). Same old comic books. My parents tried to make it special but we couldn’t really do much, again, owing to our lack of resources, which mainly was the reason why I had become so emotional and vested in the development and maturity of my students. My students today have 100 times more opportunity than I had through both formal education and the globalizing world of education. We didn’t have the internet in the 80s-90s when I was growing up so things I got to learn were limited to things teachers wanted us to learn and were willing to share with the students. Students today are very lucky, and it’s always been my goal to make sure that they are not taking their opportunity to learn lightly. The reason for which has to do, always, with my own sense of responsibility: I will not let any students have the same experience I had when I was young. I will not let my students think that their lives are boring. I want them to see how amazing their lives are, and how great it is that they are learning something new every day.

Until I came to the United States, I didn’t get to learn English or any skills. I didn’t even speak a word of English less than a decade ago; thus, in most cases where I write, speak, or say more in English than I need to, one could be almost certain that which have to do with how I unconsciously replicate Thai sentence structures and syntax.

In my life, I have never won a single award in any competitions of any kinds. I wasn’t even an average student — I was a horrible student all the way from kindergarten to high school. There’s no one to tell me that I could do better. It seemed to be the case that most people around me (mainly my parents and family members) had accepted me for who I was: that I wasn’t going to be like any other kids who won awards and were bringing fame and reputation to the families to which they belonged. It’s a very normal childhood, about which I do not have a clear memory. The only thing I could remember was that I was never told that I could do anything. My parents were happy as long as I got myself out of trouble, which was exactly what I did throughout my childhood years. If I got into trouble, none of them would have the power to get me out of it, as we didn’t have any financial means, let alone connections with the privileged class — usually how people got themselves out of trouble. I stayed out of trouble. That’s my job.

Ok, here is the time for more aphorism!