Thursday, June 29, 2023

Three Observations on My Trip to Asia

I have a few observations on a very pleasant and productive trip to Hong Kong, with a brief visit to friends in Tokyo (that's in Japan, BTW; Hong Kong is not in Japan, for the Americans reading this who may not know 😉). 

First, the level of English in the Mainland Chinese students I taught at a workshop was surprisingly high, noticeably higher than four years ago when I last taught this workshop. I asked several of them how they learned their English, and some have spent time in the US or UK, but not all. One said she has been attending English tutorial classes since she was in nursery school. The look on her face suggested she did not enjoy these classes, much like American-born Chinese hate going to Chinese school. But her English was very good, whereas most ABCs don't learn much Chinese. One young lady sticks out in my mind; she said her mother regretted that her own English was not good, and so sent her to a boarding school in New Jersey for a year when she was 14. The daughter then came back to China for high school and university, and now, 10 years later at 24 years of age, she is bilingual and will be a top candidate at any graduate program she applies to. Sadly, her mother passed away, so cannot see how successful her strategy has been. This young lady represents, for me, a new generation of cosmopolitan Chinese who were exposed to English in the early 2010s and now, a decade later, are comfortable in both English and Chinese.

Secondly, I attended a small conference where young mainland and Hong Kong Chinese students presented their research to each other. I was struck by how the students spoke openly about the limits of what can be said. No one made doctrinaire statements or argued politics, but I was struck by how, in an intellectual context, everyone could assume that everyone knew we were subject to authoritarian rulers. People were not being cautious; they were matter-of-fact. It reminded me of how in the US, in university settings I have been in, there is an open contempt for Trump and matter-of-fact criticism of his boorish ways, in a way that is different from pre-Trump days. On the one hand, the heavy hand of the state and CCP is obvious (Chinese University still requires a University ID to enter the campus, though no ID is required at HKU). On the other hand, I'm told that it is now harder to get into Chinese University because high school graduates are choosing Chinese University over HKU because it is viewed as more politically liberal. I was told that many people are leaving, but that while in the 1990s, before the 1997 Handover, people held "going away parties" before they left, now people are leaving quietly. Often, I'm told, people find out someone has emigrated only once they see their friends' pictures set in the UK. I met one student who is accommodating to the new pro-Beijing rule, but it seems most people who are staying are waiting for the winds to change. As one friend put it, even Xi Jinping will not live forever, and his successors will have to respond to the problems and frustrations his policies are causing. From the US, it is easy to think of "the Chinese" and focus mainly on the nationalistic extremists and authoritarian ruling class, but the reality is much more diverse. And the problems of extreme nationalism and authoritarian thinking are unfortunately plaguing the US too. 

Pedal-assist bike with children aboard
My third observation is about how Hong Kong and Japan "work." Americans (at least some of them) spend much time criticizing the government, so it surprising that anyone is actually willing to work for the common good. Michael Lewis' The Fifth Risk is a paean to the dedicated civil servant, because it is surprising anyone accepts the call of public service given current criticism of government. One cannot spend time in Hong Kong or Japan without being impressed by how their infrastructure works. Hong Kong has built an impressive and efficient subway system over the past 40 years. The new subway line connecting Shatin to Admiralty makes the trip to Central, which my wife took daily, spending 45 minutes with two transfers, now takes only 31 minutes with one transfer. 

Vulgar Texas traveler
And Japan is so orderly and civil, in so many ways. Service workers are very polite (using a series of stock phrases that probably carry little literal meaning because they are used so much, but do have the effect of making interactions smooth and polite.) Customers in restaurants and cafes speak in hushed tones; the noise level is noticeably lower than in Chinese or American restaurants. (Contrast that civility with the "gentleman" in the photo to the right, at the STL airport, waiting for his latte, wearing sloppy clothes with a vulgar statement on the back). Sidewalks and roads are well maintained and clean. The birth rate may be low in Japan, but we saw many parents taking their kids out on pedal-assist bikes, on bike lanes that are narrow, but everywhere. And in contrast to much of the world, where people can park cars on public space for free (see Henry Grabar, Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World [Fresh Air interview here]), in Tokyo one can only buy a car with proof of a parking space. This makes neighborhoods more tidy and easy to maneuver in (not to mention that people don't drive around in circles looking for a free space.) 

The flight attendants on my JAL flight bowed to the passengers in the waiting area before they boarded the plane (many passengers would not have noticed it, because it was not announced, but I saw it). It reminded me of how Thai rugby players bow to the audience before a Sevens match. My flight on JAL (which I choose because it was the cheapest ticket) included two meals and a snack. The meals were good, and I was charmed by the miso soup they served in paper cups, as an additional drink. The plane was an American-made Boeing 787, but it was the first time I have seen windows that do not have shades that you pull down, but have a button that you push that makes the window go dark, like the sunglasses that go dark in bright light. Very cool. 

When I got to Chicago, I had to transfer to an American Airlines flight for my last leg home. Once in the airplane, the flight attendant announced that the toilet in the front of the plane was broken, so everyone would have to use the toilet at the back of the plane. Oh, and there is no WiFi, because the system is broken. To make matters worse, the flight attendants spent much of our 46 minute flight haranguing us with a sales pitch about the "great deal" we could get on an American Airlines credit card, for which they would give us 50,000 miles, which she said enough for a one-way ticket to Asia. The male flight attendant then had to go down the aisle holding brochures for the credit card to hand one out to anyone who wanted one (I did not see anyone take one), and the female flight attendant stood at the front of the plane as we deplaned, holding brochures fanned out in her hands. How humiliating. It's bad enough that flight attendants who are there primarily for safety in an emergency have to also serve food and drinks, but now they have to hawk credit cards. At the same time, their planes don't work properly.

Finally, people in Missouri complain about the humidity here. But they don't know humidity. Here are my glasses after I exited a subway station in Hong Kong, where we have real humidity.

Real humidity

Thursday, April 27, 2023

"Here is the China Exit Entry Administration"

For many months, I have received a SPAM phone message that is both in English and Chinese. This seems puzzling to me: why am I getting them, and in Chinese?

Here is the message I receive (I've gotten this five times in the past week):

Here is the China Exit Entry Administration. You have a new message. 你好!中国出入境管理局,你有一个新信息,请按九获取详细内容 

The Chinese says, "Hello! China Entry Exit Administration, you have a new message, please press nine for details." You can listen to my recording of the message here.

In the past, the message came as a call, but I've installed Google Call Screening so I never answer calls from numbers that I don't already know. But recently, the "calls" are coming straight into my phone as voicemail, without the phone ringing. 

This is a very strange message. First of all, who is it aimed at? As one online commenter noted, many "foreigners" (i.e. Americans) in the US are getting this message, and though it begins in English, it only has instructions in Chinese. The message seems to be bait for a scam of Chinese speakers. Spamming all of America to find a few gullible Chinese does not seem very efficient.

Since it is aimed at Chinese, why does the message start in English? It's almost as if the scammers feel that it's a high-class scam because it is bilingual. But I don't think the PRC government authorities send messages to their citizens in English and Chinese. 

And it's bad English at that! "Here is the..." is Chinese English. It should be, "This is the ...." 

At first I thought the "Exit Entry Administration" was fake, because the name sounds so funny in English. Apparently, it's a thing, or at least it was until 2018, when it was renamed the Immigration Department.

I've been curious as to why I'm getting these messages again, after many months of silence. Plus, the calls go straight to voicemail; my phone does not ring. Also puzzling is the fact that these calls are coming from different phone numbers from all over the US. And twice, recently, I got the messages two times within 10 minutes, same exact recording, but from phone numbers from different parts of the country.

I think this is an example of the cat and mouse game between spammers and phone companies. I recently heard on a podcast about AI that spammers also use AI and have gotten better at evading Google and Yahoo's spam identification. 

But my Google Call Screening is still doing it's job, because my phone does not ring. The spam call is going to voicemail, so I get the start of the recording, but I'm not getting interrupted, nor do I have a chance to push "9".

Next step is for Google to recognize the calls as spam and send them straight to the spam folder, which it is able to do for some calls. I'm going to start calling my spam folder the "Exit Entry Administration."

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Small World Coincidences and Connections

My son is job hunting, and he was telling me a story the other day about how a friend’s brother-in-law knows someone who works in a company in which my son hopes to get a job, giving him some inside information. We laughed about how in many lines of work, everyone knows each other, so you have to behave professionally.

That led me to think about two stories I’ve recently come across where two famous people from completely different walks of life knew each other, and not just casually, but really well.

The first example is the story that when the actor Julia Roberts was born,  Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King paid the hospital bill.  The story seems improbable (both because two famous people in totally different fields are linked, and because in our racist society we are used to thinking white people have money and not that Black people need to help whites), but it’s true. Roberts’ parents ran a theatre school in Atlanta, and after the Kings were having trouble finding a program that would accept the King children, Roberts’ parents accepted them and the parents became friendly. The theatre school struggled (and in fact closed a few years after Julia was born), so the Roberts did not have money for the hospital bill, and the Kings helped them out. 

The other story is that the famous singer Carly Simon was close friends with the family of baseball legend Jackie Robinson. (As an aside, Carly is the daughter of Richard Simon, founder of the publishers Simon and Schuster. That is already quite a connection.) It turns out Carly’s parents helped the Robinsons buy a house in Stamford, CT, in the 1950s when they became aware that racist housing practices were making it difficult for the Robinsons to find a new larger home, even though Jackie Robinson, the first player in Major League Baseball to break the racist color barrier, was an All Star baseball player. They helped the Robinsons buy the first plot of land in Stamford owned by an African American. Afterwards, Jackie’s wife Rachel and Carly’s mother Andrea became close friends, and Carly hung out with the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. “The team had a special jacket made for her, with “Dodgers” printedon the back and ‘Carly’ on the front.” 

These stories of unlikely connections combine the divisions of occupations (theatre and church, popular song and sports), which make them surprising, but of course the racial element adds to the improbability of the connections, given the segregation of America.

I was lucky two weeks ago to be invited to celebrate the Passover Seder in a Jewish friend’s home. The Seder is a meal with many symbolic foods (e.g. matzah bread) at which stories are told about Exodus, to celebrates and remember the departure of the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. One of the major themes of Passover is that Jews have experienced enslavement, and should remember that and help others who are not free, because only when everyone is liberated can the Jews (and everyone) be free. One passage we read at the Seder said something like this: 

"The Passover story is the Jewish people’s original story of becoming strangers in a strange land. It is the story that reminds us that we, too, have stood in the shoes of refugees and asylum seekers in search of safety and liberty. As we lift our voices in song and prayer, we call out together with those who long to be free. This year, there are still many who struggle towards liberation; next year, may we all be free." —Mark Hetfield, President & CEO, HIAS (from a website of Passover Quotes)

It is not a coincidence, therefore, that the Simons helped the Robinsons. First of all, Richard Simon was of German Jewish background (though his parents were members of the Ethical movement, a secular group that was like a church for the non-religious.) Second, Richard's wife Andrea was actually of Afro-Cuban and German descent (see clip from Finding Your Roots episode on Carly Simon here), and active in the civil rights movement. Given America’s “one-drop” rule, one could say that Andrea Simon “passed” for white, but she also fought for civil rights. 

It has long been noted that many Jews were involved in the civil rights movement, and we can see in Passover one of the reasons that many Jews support liberation from oppression. (Historical conflicts over Black Power and Zionism, and the current situation in Israel/Palestine, show that ideology is complex and contradictory, however.)

Finally, I find it fitting that in a website on “Passover quotes” intended for Jews we find the following quotes from African American thought leaders:

 "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

 "The truth is, no one of us can be free until everybody is free." —Maya Angelou

 So true. Especially given that we live in a small world, where everyone is connected.

Friday, April 07, 2023

Election Day, 4 April 2023

I volunteer to serve as an election judge for elections because I think it is important to help assure election integrity. We get paid, but no one works the 15-hour-day plus travel time for the $240. I also do it because it gives me a chance to get out of my social bubble and to meet other people. Sometimes, however, I end up feeling like I should have stayed in my bubble.

This week’s local election in St Louis County had very few items on the ballot. Voters can vote anywhere in the county, so everyone’s ballot can be a bit different, depending on where they live. A few places had mayor’s elections, or school board election, but the ballot for many people only had one question: 

Proposition M

Shall St. Louis County impose an additional sales tax of three percent (3%) on all tangible property retail sales of adult use marihuana sold in St. Louis County, Missouri?


□ NO

I served in a small town called Black Jack, which is a fairly prosperous African American suburban town in “North County.” We were set up in a school gym. Only 68 voters came during the 13 hours the polls were open, which meant we had a lot of time to sit and wait. That means it cost over $30 per vote just for the cost of election judges at that polling location. Sixty voters voted absentee, so turnout from my polling place was nine percent, half the overall county turnout of 18 percent. 

The low turnout is understandable; why bother to vote if there are so few items on the ballot? It is absurd that we have so many elections (often four per year, counting primaries), but it is impossible to change because politicians know that certain items are easier to pass on elections like this, when few people vote, or on presidential elections, when many more people vote, so different groups have an interest in keeping the status quo.

One of the rules for election judges is that we are not supposed to discuss politics. The trainers at the Election Board remind us of this before every election, and yet, people can’t keep their mouths shut. Early in the day, someone started saying something political and our Republican manager commented that we should not talk about politics. Everyone agreed, though Bob, another Republicans poll judge, commented that though we can’t talk here, we SHOULD talk more, because people mostly agree, at least 80%, he said. Mary, a white Republican poll judge, agreed, and added that we are all God’s children, so are basically alike. (I said nothing, and could not help but wonder if my Black fellow election judges agreed, but they also said nothing). Later, as I was standing with him near the scanner, a young Black judge who is Republican said about Proposition M, “Why would anyone vote to give politicians more money so they can just waste it?!” I did not know how to reply without getting political so I just ignored him and said nothing.

Interestingly, two voters commented, when they saw that their ballot only had Proposition M on it, “Of course I’m going to vote “Yes”! I don’t use it, so let those who do pay the  taxes!” So even this seemingly innocuous proposition elicited partisan polarization, with conservatives against taxes and liberals in favor of taxes.

In case you were wondering, Proposition M passed, with 65 percent voting "Yes."

We were 8 poll judges, four Republicans and four Democrats, present for nearly 15 hours, and since only 68 people voted, we had a lot of free time. It was a bit like we were characters in the movie The Breakfast Club (except that we weren't all friends at the end), or maybe more like the characters of Murder on the Orient Express, which was being performed as a play this week.  

There was Mary, who talked the entire time. She was insufferable. She was from the western rural part of the county, and mentioned that she had lived many years in Mississippi, as perhaps we could tell from her accent. She told us she ran a mission and sold Mary Kay products, and had been in India for 26 days. No one asked why she went to India, but she proceeded to tell us she was there saving people. The last two hours, she literally read the manual and asked us "pop questions" as she read along. "Did you know ‘wearing apparel specific to a candidate or issue’ counts as electioneering?" And 30 seconds later, "What is the correct order for setting up the poll pad?" I made a point of working the scanner, which was at the other end of the gym, so I could be far away from her, where I could only hear her in the background and could read my book.

Then there was Bob, originally from the Bronx, a graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy recently retired after working 40 years in insurance. Hearing I was an anthropologist, he said social scientists will probably be studying the pandemic for decades. I replied that, actually, after the 1918 Flu, people mostly forgot about it, and that there is evidence people are now also ready to move on. He somehow started saying that there was no way Covid came from the market in Wuhan, and that Covid was genetically created in a lab in Wuhan because it was too precisely designed. I did not know how to reply, since he was so vehement, so I cut the conversation off abruptly by telling him he was misinformed and went back to reading my book. 

Then there was Republican manager, a white woman about 65 years old, who was very competent and in charge. She managed to make everyone stick to the rule that we not start packing up until AFTER polls close at 7:00 pm. (In previous cases, some people always want to start packing early.) The Democratic manager was a nice Black woman, perhaps 10 years older, who for some reason gave each election judge some cream. She gave me a small vial of Dove face cream for men. Then she asked, “Mr. Joe, do you have bad joints or arthritis?” She said she had some cream from her church that worked very well. I told her I did not need it (yet).

One pair of judges were a kind couple. The husband seemed a bit addled; it took him a while to remember the process for checking people in and producing ballots. He had brought a box of donuts, but they were dated “made March 26, sell by March 28,” so were a week old and stale. Only two of the six were eaten by the end of the day. His wife greeted every voter with a loud, “Welcome to the poll judge sweepstakes! Come on down!” followed by a bellowing laugh. Most people coming in seemed to be amused.

And then we had the young Black Republican, who spent most of the day listing to his iPods, and then suddenly announced two hours before the end of the election that he had to leave. (Hm; I wonder if he’ll get paid.)

At the risk of seeming to be a misanthrope, I have to say the experience was not uplifting. The low turnout, the inability to avoid politics, and the confrontation with partisanship and China-bashing all left me discouraged. Tired after the long day, I came home to make dinner and watch a baseball game. To make matters worse, the Cardinals lost 2-5, losing the third game in the series and thus getting swept by the Braves.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Observations on my trip to Hong Kong

When I lived in Hong Kong, I found it amusing that visitors would often and repeatedly comment on how striking they found the clusters of skyscrapers of housing estates. So I find it amusing, now, that on the ride in from the airport, I, too, found the clusters of 30-plus story skyscrapers notable. The fact that I notice these buildings which I once took for granted shows that I no longer belong in Hong Kong. And yet, everything seems so familiar, like I never left.

The Covid protocols are a mixture of the efficient and nonsensical. I was tested by PCR test 4 times: on arrival, and 2, 4 and 6 days later. Each time, I received the results at around 8:30 pm, which is the time they notify people who have been tested before noon. I don’t know why the notifications are sent out as a batch and are not sent out as they are received. In addition, I had to take a Rapid Test every day and post the results (honor system). Half of these tests, then, were duplicating the PCR test. I tried to make it more useful by doing the Rapid Test in the evening, since I took the PCR test in the morning, but that meant I got the results of both tests at about the same time.

The PCR testing process itself was amazingly fast. I simply walked in, showed the staff member my Hong Kong ID and the appointment confirmation SMS text message on my phone. The staff person, who was behind a plastic barrier, entered my ID number and a code number from the SMS text on their keyboard, and my personal particulars (including my phone number) then appeared on a screen that was set facing me (none of the silly swiveling of the screen as in doctors’ offices in St Louis). She gave me a vial, which I then took down a line about 20 meters, and a “dispatcher” told me which of about 20 cubicles (temporary cloth medical stations) to go to for my test. Each time I arrived, the tester was still finishing up from the previous test and putting on new gloves. They took a swab of both sides of my nose, and with a second swab took a sample from my throat (“Say ‘Ah’”), and then, “You’re done, thank you” and I could leave. I don’t think it even took 3 minutes.

In theory, everyone entering a store or building has to scan a QR code on their “LeaveHomeSafe” app, which brings up the visitor’s health status in a QR code. Until a person’s QR code is blue, one cannot eat in a restaurant. (A friend who has resisted getting a cell phone for years was finally forced to get a smart phone!) I found that while restaurants followed this faithfully, most stores and buildings ignored it. I entered a Watson’s pharmacy and saw the QR code and scanner at the door but noticed that no one was using it. On the other hand, when I entered the Chinese University Library, a staff member was at the barrier where you scan your university ID to enter, and she gently called me back to have me sanitize my hands. (In my defense, I did not recognize the new, alcohol-spraying hand sanitizer as a sanitizer, and plus, didn’t we discover that Covid spreads not from contact by in the air?).

Surgical mask holder
Everyone, and I mean everyone, wears a mask. The only exception is when exercising, and on the beach. People walking on a promenade along the water, which could technically be considered exercising, were wearing masks.

Hong Kong residents also have a handy plastic mask holder, which allows you to fold a surgical mask and put it in your purse or pocket while you eat in a restaurant. I also discovered a "touchless elevator pad" 

Days before leaving for HK, I received the Congressional-ExecutiveCommission on China  report on human rights in Hong Kong titled Hong Kong’s Civil Society: From an Open City to a City of Fear. As a cover letter put it:

The report, entitled Hong Kong’s Civil Society: From an Open City to a City of Fear, draws on interviews with 42 current and former members of Hong Kong’s civil society and details how the draconian enforcement of the National Security Law crushed democratic institutions and a once vibrant civil society in Hong Kong.

The report is depressing reading, describing the jailing of politicians and activists for organizing a primary (which the government claims is “subversion”), the disbanding of many NGOs, children coming home saying their teachers told them to report if parents criticized China’s flag, and journalists forced to leave because of police harassment.

Touchless elevator pad
In contrast to the report, which focuses on the worst cases, I found people trying to live a normal life. Some professors have left Hong Kong because of the political situation and the National Security Law, but it has not been a mass exodus. Recent statistics show 1.6% of HK’s population (116,000people) left HK in the past 12 months (see here for more analysis on emigration and Covid departures). Professors that remain try to continue teaching as before; since they taught critical thinking and presented different sides of issues, and not one side, they see no need to change their approach. Especially because many courses still have to be offered on Zoom, and so are recorded, teachers also warn students to be cautious, but one colleague noted that some students do not hesitate to talk about what they did in the protests, despite teachers' warnings.

One friend, who had been quite supportive of the protests when I saw him three years ago (and probably would still be considered “yellow”), has traveled to the UK for work and commented that the Hong Kong friends who have emigrated are, in his view, overly negative on Hong Kong. It seems everyone needs to justify their choice: those who stay say it is not so bad, those who left emphasize how much it’s changed and how bad it’s become.

Now that the protests have been suppressed, perhaps it is easier to add some nuance, and not see them in simple bipolar terms of good versus evil, or democracy versus autocracy. Already in 2020, a special section in the anthropology journal HAU (issue 10[2]) offered some nuance on the protests. Many of the protesters were xenophobic and anti-Mainland Chinese, and a large number loved Trump (because of his anti-China stance). And though authorities will not admit it (because they “won”), much of the violence was caused by the government’s intransigence and by the police. The violence from a minority of the protesters probably doomed the protest movement.

I can see that people who, for family or work or other reasons cannot or do not want to emigrate, are coming to terms with the new reality. One Chinese friend (who is my age and who had emigrated to Australia in the 1990s to get his citizenship and then returned to Hong Kong) was surprised that his sons’ friends all supported the protests. He is relatively moderate and sympathized with aspects of the protests, but the protest movement appealed especially to youths. Yet, neither he, nor his sons (who graduated from university in Australia) are considering moving to Australia. My friend said he is disgusted with the “Mainlandization” of the government, with officials now speaking like CCP officials. He commented that because they did not do so right after 1997, when perhaps it could have been logical to make such a change, the patriotic language and public service announcements on TV in 2022 are quite jarring. But he’s not leaving.

Another young friend, educated in the US, complained bitterly of the government bureaucracy and rigidity with Covid regulations, but he admitted he would not leave Hong Kong, because his skills and bilingualism are only an advantage in Hong Kong.

The fact is, we all live in flawed societies. I live in a city that still has a gaping racial divide, where White kids in the suburbs go to excellent public and private schools while Black kids in north St Louis go to schools that in the recent past were so bad that the state had to take themover. Guns are so common that I sometimes hear shots fired at night. On the social network NextDoor, I read last week that two teenagers drove up to a gas station near my neighborhood, and one of them jumped into a car and stole it (here is a video of a similar incident at the same station). One of the first replies on NextDoor was that the owner should have had a gun! (Right, so she could shoot her own car and perhaps kill the teenager and maybe some innocent person walking by.) Today there was a mass shooting in a St Louis high school: three dead, six injured. I live in a country that is also entering a deeply xenophobic phase, where minorities are attacked and immigrants who have worked here (usually also paid income taxes) for decades have no path to citizenship. I live in a country where supposedly intelligent people continue to assert, without any evidence, that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump (despite the fact that Republicans did well in all the other races). I live in a country that claims to be a democracy and yet corporations and the wealthy can spend unlimited amounts in political ads and lobbying (see e.g. Leonard Leo’s $1.6 billion fund). And I live in a country where most people are going to vote for their tribe (red or blue) rather than based on the qualifications and policy proposals of candidates.

Americans like to think that the US is such a great country that everyone wants to come here, but according to a report titled Caught in the Crossfire: Fears of Chinese-American Scientists, government harassment of scholars of Chinese descent has led to an exodus: 

“The China Initiative caused panic and an exodus of senior academic researchers of Chinese descent in the US.” The number who dropped their American academic or corporate affiliation in 2021 in favor of a move back to a Chinese institution jumped by 23 percent over 2020. In 2021, 1,500 Chinese scholars who were educated in the United States left to go back to China."

Many Americans seem to believe the political rhetoric that the US is the greatest country in the world, and believe everyone wants to come to America. In fact, the vast majority of people want to stay home close to family and friends, and most refugees who come to America are driven out by violence and other problems at home.

It is easy, from the US, to imagine it is hard to live in an authoritarian place like Hong Kong. Yet many Americans are perfectly willing to retire to an autocracy like Dubai:

A sunshine-filled city, Dubai offers an outstanding quality of life for retirees. The city is famed for its friendly, multicultural population and array of lifestyle experiences that put convenience at the forefront – think on-demand home services and food delivery at the touch of a button. (From Retire in Dubai website)

Retire amid sunshine and cheap labor; all you need is US$500,000 in the bank, and an income of at least US$60,000 per year. Why worry about freedom?

The CECC report quotes an anonymous professor as saying “Hong Kong has changed from an open society to one in which people are gripped by fear. And the fear is encompassing.” This is certainly true for some. But most people are not activists or directly involved in politics. It is startling to realize that for many people, life seems to go on as before. Even if they are not happy about the National Security Law, what can they do?

Science Park: new buildings
Because many people are carrying on as before, the changes to Hong Kong will be gradual. Several people mentioned the way pro-Beijing papers identify an issue or a person and then attack them in concert. That riles up pro-Beijing supporters who add to the attacks online. That is how Beijing tries to bring about change. It is a bit reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, though less intense (although it is plenty intense if you are the target). But most Hong Kong residents are not involved in politics and do not fear being attacked. The authorities have created a flag raising ceremony at schools, and added required patriotic education, but I heard ways that people get around them (e.g. by assigning a few Mainland students to attend on behalf of a department). Over time, these ritual may have an effect, or they may become empty rituals. Beijing is making Hong Kong students sing the national anthem; Americans sing the national anthem before all sports events. Does it have an effect?

People get used to almost anything. My sense is that people in Hong Kong will adapt. Like many in China, they will continue to hope that the government will reform, will open up. They will push at the margins; no street protests, but passive resistance, like the non-compliance with scanning the QR code in entering buildings. Hong Kong survived fairly draconian crackdowns under the British. Many hope it will survive this round of crackdowns, too.

Thursday, October 06, 2022

Back in Hong Kong

This entry is about details of travel to Hong Kong, and about airport/airline efficiency, and may be of limited interest to readers, since it is written mostly to record my experiences and to help me get over jet-lag. Mostly “1st World Problems.” Feel free to skip it, unless you want the details.

I came back to Hong Kong for a brief visit; I need to set foot in the SAR at least once every three years to maintain my “permanent” resident rights (this requirement only applies to “non-Chinese,” a concept that one could write an article about—American-born Chinese technically are “non-Chinese” because they are “born American” but in fact many manage to get the real permanent ID). I was already looking into how to fly back to HK when the government reduced the quarantine from three days in a hotel and four at home to just three at home, so I quickly bought my ticket. The website was so busy that I was not able get into the Cathay Pacific website to select my seats until the following day.

Repulse Bay
I flew on Cathay Pacific because 1) my accumulated miles would have expired on Dec. 31 if I did not fly a leg on the airline, 2) it was the only direct flight from the US to HKG, 3) I like Cathay’s service (politeness and efficiency—you’ll see below). But of course, Cathay does not fly to St Louis, so I had to fly STL to LAX on a code-shared flight operated by American Airlines (AA).

 My flight was supposed to leave STL at 19:45, and at 15:45 I got an email telling me my flight was on time. To make sure there were no problems (and because CX was not able to assign me a seat on the first leg, which was run by AA), I arrived at the airport more than 2 hours early. I tried to check in at the kiosk, but it did not work. The attendant came over, also tried, and then sent me to the service desk. No problem: I got two boarding passes, one STL-LAX, and the other LAX-HKG. So far, pretty smooth (except that CX does not participate in TSA PreCheck, so I had to do the shoes-off computer-out routine).

Change or no change?
Shortly after I got to my gate, C6, I thought to check where my plane was. My Flight Aware app then told me that my flight was going to be two hours late, but there was no indication on the monitor. Finally, about a half hour later, the monitor indicated the late departure, but it said we would only be 1:15 hr late, leaving at 21:00. But an email they sent at 18:02 said that we would depart at 20:29. (Before that email arrived, they sent me at 17:34 an email that my seat had changed from 17D to 17D—yes, that is not a typo! See screenshot.) Since I had a three hour layover, I was not too worried. 

At 20:26, they said they would start boarding in four minutes, so I got up and went to the restroom, about 30 yards up the hallway. When I came back a few minutes later, I was stunned to see that gate C6 was completely empty! Everyone had left, and the monitors at gate C6 still had my flight to LAX displayed.

I knew there was no way everyone boarded the plane that quickly, so I looked around, and I could see a family that had sat next to me was walking down the corridor. It turned out AA had changed our gate to C10. I got there after everyone had found places to sit, and so decided to stand, thinking we were about to board, but it took another 30 minutes, because people had to get off the airplane first, and then they had to clean it. All this time, there was not a single announcement about what was going on. The only announcements were that there was only space for 45 roller bags, and so everyone in groups 7-9 had better check them in now, to avoid further delaying our flight.

Finally, at about 21:00, they asked us to board. I got in my group (#4 of 9!) and once we were in the jetway, we just stopped. We waited in line in the jetway for 10-15 minutes. I heard staff in the front talking, asking passengers if the jetway was full, if people were still coming. One passenger went up and asked the staff woman at the head of the jetway and I heard them saying something about the pilot not having enough hours left to complete the flight. She sent an assistant to get a wheelchair (oh no, are we now disembarking the wheel-chair assisted passengers who are already on the plane?!) but just as the assistant was returning with the wheelchair, the staff woman said we could board, and told her assistant she did not need the wheelchair. Whew!

 Again, at no point did they announce what was going on. By now it was getting to 21:40, and I was worried about making my connection. The flight was scheduled to be 3:50 hrs, so would land around 23:30 LA time, and my CX flight was supposed to board at 23:50.

The flight itself was fine. I did, however, ask a flight attendant if they would make an announcement to ask passengers to let travelers with tight connections get off first, and she replied that they can do it, but that it depends on whether other passengers will cooperate. In my mind, I was thinking that passenger cooperation depends a lot on how the announcement is phrased, but, whatever. In fact, however, they did not make any announcement. I timed the disembarkation: the plane doors opened at 23:13, and I got off at 23:18 (since I was in row 17). Not bad. But again, pretty poor service. I’ve noticed AA does this; they seem to agree to do things to get a customer off their back, but then don’t follow through.

I was worried I would have to go through security again to get to the international terminal (like at Chicago’s ORD), which could take time since I did not have TSA PreCheck, but I did not, so I arrived to my CX flight gate with plenty of time. I was astonished to see that Cathay did not use the boarding passes for boarding the airplane: they used face recognition. You can see in the video below. Passengers are told to step on two green footprints on the ground and look at the monitor. The program identifies the face and then turns green and opens the gate. I was shocked that they used it, and that it seemed to work. In my case, the screen did not recognize me; it said to take off my mask (it was already off! Did they want me to take off my beard?) or see an attendant. The attendant was very patient as she dealt with me, and with a French passenger who had done something wrong with his quarantine statement and might not be allowed to board. She multitasked, and calmed him down, and took care of my my problem. I think the issue was that I had bought the ticket using my passport, but had submitted the quarantine information using my HK ID. After showing the ground staff my passport, ID and green quarantine QR code, she told me I was being upgraded to business class and gave me a new boarding pass, which I did not need to use, because now the computer recognized my face. I do wonder what picture(s) they have of me. And why are they doing this? Are people sneaking into Hong Kong with fake documents? One thing is for sure: this does remind every traveler to Hong Kong that Big Brother knows what you are doing. On the other hand, it is not just Hong Kong; today's NY Times has an article that says of the US, "Around 85 percent of the 221,000 daily visitors arriving from abroad are now verified by face, according to C.B.P. [Customs and Border Patrol] officials." In fact, it may be the US that wants Cathay Pacific to use facial recognition, not Hong Kong!

It is not fair to compare economy class on AA to business class on CX, but I do want to point out that my reading light on the AA flight did not work (it was not that they were all off; the reading light over the boy at the window seat did work). Not everything on my CX flight was perfect; if I plugged in my phone charger, the headphones had a loud buzz. But I have to say that the Airbus 350-1000 was so quiet that I could hear people near me crinkling a bag of potato chips or the flimsy water bottles; the crinkling made an annoyingly loud noise. (OK, now we are really descending in 1st World Problems.) In a moment of boredom, I decided to measure the background sound of the airplane, and it was only 70-71 db, which the app says is the sound of traffic. (For comparison, “Conversation in restaurant, office, background music” are 60 db, which is half as loud as 70 db, and a garbage disposal is 80 db [twice as loud, though that would depend on the model; see quiet Insinkerators here]).  

Hong Kong still tests everyone arriving in the SAR. There are temporary stations set up in the airport arrival hallway, with plenty of people directing passengers. At the first station, I was given a green lanyard with a green card with a bar code on it (there were twelve desks for this, and the entire procedure of submitting travel document and receiving the lanyard took half a minute. Then I went to the next station, where there are over 30 cubicle’s separated by temporary sheets, like in a hospital. I sat down, pulled my mask down, and they took a sample from both nostrils with one medical swab and a sample from the throat with a second swab (the first one did not go that deep, but the second one nearly made me gag). Then I was given the samples in a bag (I don’t remember whether there were two vials or only one) and I went further down the hall and handed them to another team that took them, and scanned the bar code. And I was done! Granted, I was among the first off the plane, but there were so many stations and so many helpers, I’m sure everyone got through very quickly.

Efficiency in moving people is one thing that Hong Kong excels in. The plane touched down at 5:55 am, and I got off the plane at about 6:05. I was at the luggage claim area by 6:19, and that includes taking a train from the far end of the terminal to the arrivals area (and a 5 minute wait for the train). The luggage came out right away (I’ve never understood why it is so fast in this enormous airport, and so slow in STL, which is very small). I was in a taxi on my way to my friend’s apartment at 6:40. Amazing: 45 minutes from wheels on the ground to in taxi, even with all the quarantine protocols.

And I received a text that my covid test was negative at 10:10. I now have to do a rapid test daily, for seven days, and go to a health center for a PCR test in two, four, and six days. It seems a bit extreme (especially doing a rapid and PCR test on the same day) but Hong Kong authorities can be a bit enthusiastic about safety. I've always wondered how many people actually get injured on escalators, because in Hong Kong (including today in the airport), there are announcements that say "Please hold the handrail and don't walk." Not "Stand on the right and walk on the left" as in the Taipei subway system.

One thing that Hong Kong does is load 8 taxis at once. The taxis pull up in 8 spots, and staff guide passengers from the single queue to load at the 8 spots, so people don’t have to wait as long. After experiencing the HK system, I get impatient when I go to other airports and I have to watch one or at most 3 people get into their taxi, while we just wait. When you are as crowded as Hong Kong is, you develop tools to move crowds more quickly and efficiently. The assistants even ask you where you are going, and give you a “Taxi information card” with an estimate of what it should cost, to help avoid cheating. (I noticed that I paid a $3 “Airport fee” on my Uber ride to the STL airport, but I don’t see that I got anything from that; it looks more like a troll fee).

I don’t mean to complain. It is a thrill to be able to travel again. And when you are in a place, you read and learn about things you would never hear about while outside HK, because there, you are paying attention to a different place's local news. The SCMP (which I don’t usually trust, but often does have interesting information) has an article about Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking all HK consulates to provide a list of their properties in Hong Kong, and when and how they bought it. Apparently, many consulates have ignored the missive, which had a Sept. 22 deadline. Most consulates declined to comment, so this part of the article caught my attention:

A former Asian diplomat said the request was ‘clumsy’ and could be ‘counterproductive’.

‘I think it is probably to intimidate and unsettle the diplomatic community and as a not-so-gentle reminder that Hong Kong’s boundaries of acceptable conduct by diplomats have changed.’ The envoy said. ‘I doubt it will work—those very few, mainly Western consulates, inclined to behave in the way the Chinese fear are not going to stop supporting ‘democracy’ or calling out Chinese violations of human rights in Hong Kong, while the majority of consulates who never had any intention of doing so will just get irritated.’ (Ng Kang-chung and Jeffie Lam, “Beijing seeks details on HK assets owned by consulates.” Oct. 6, 2022, p. A3)

HK taxi, with multiple phones, and sanitizer. Orange box is air purifier. 
The article right next to it (“Slight increase in arrivals since easing of restrictions” by Rachel Yeo) notes that on Oct. 3, 768 tourists arrived in Hong Kong, and 471 left (this would not include me, since I enter with a HK ID). On January 24, 2020, before the coronavirus crisis, 22,872 visitors arrived. The article concludes with an economist saying that

It is possible to see air passenger capacity rebounding around 10 per cent at the moment to 30 percent of the pre-pandemic level by year-end. Still, there is a long way to go for Hong Kong to catch up as Singapore will reach 80 per cent soon.

Hong Kong is always competing with Singapore. And now, the terms of the competition are much less in its favor.

Monday, August 22, 2022

On Migrants and Immigration

I often wonder what later generations will “see” as obviously irrational, immoral, or unjust practices in our culture, and ask themselves how we could have accepted these, the way we look back at enslavers today. Some are obvious: even before I die, expect my grandchildren to ask me why we were so careless in burning carbon, what with all the airplanes, heating and air conditioning, and big cars. Some people argue that future generations will look in horror at our carnivorous practices; I’m skeptical, though I assume we’ll eat a lot less meat, especially beef.

So I was fascinated to hear Mohsin Hamid on the Ezra KleinShow podcast say that he thought we today are as barbaric today for preventing migration ("enforcing the limits of geography on people’s lives") as slaveholders were for enforcing birth hierarchies 150 years ago. He points out that humans, like all animals, migrate. In fact, the enforcement of borders is actually fairly new.

[N]one of us are, in a sense, indigenous to where we live.… [W]herever we are, in a sense, we are migrants. And up until quite recently, this idea of the nation-state with such impermeable borders and passports and this entire mechanism didn’t exist. Of course, there were tribes that wouldn’t let members of other tribes live among them. There were wars, there were all kinds of things. But the human record is of movement, incredible amounts of movement.

Europeans migrated to the New World with almost no restrictions until the early 20th century. The Qing dynasty tried to prevent Chinese from moving to Taiwan and the Philippines in the 17th century, but pretty much failed. But today, Hamid notes, we have governments attempting to use industrial technology to stop any movement. He continues:

And I think that, while I fully understand and can empathize with the idea that, well, if we let everybody come, it will change everything and we can’t do that, I can understand that. And there needs to be some navigation of how do we manage this tussle of what those who wish to move and those who do not wish others to move to where they are, how do we manage the balance between those two things.

But what I think is very stark is that it cannot be that the moral right is simply to say that people mustn’t move, they are criminal if they move, they should be criminalized if they move, because in a world where there will be, I think, enormous flows of people, due to climate change and environmental disruption, but also wars and other things, if we say to people that they just can’t move, we’re, in a sense, handing out death sentences to millions and millions of our fellow human beings. If you can’t leave a country where there’s a war underway and where people of your particular group are being killed, or if you can’t leave a country where there is enormous starvation and crops have failed, we are basically deciding that these people now need to die.

And for me, that decision should be revealed in its correct moral complexion, which is to say it isn’t the person who wishes to move who is the criminal here. If somebody is drowning and we can help them and we don’t, it’s not the person who drowns that is the criminal here. 

The same day that I heard this podcast interview, I also heard news from an IPSOS poll that Americans are very misinformed about immigration. 

Over half of American adults believe it is either completely or somewhat true that the U.S. is experiencing an invasion at the southern border, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll. Moreover, half believe there is at least some truth to the view that migrants bringing fentanyl and other illegal drugs over the southern border are responsible for the increases of overdoses in the U.S.

The idea of an “invasion” is hyperbole at best, and the migrants are not bringing drugs, but trying to save themselves. Though half of all respondents believe migrants are smuggling drugs, Republicans who watch Fox are most likely to believe this (89%), compared to 64% of Republicans get their news elsewhere.

The survey also shows that support for giving citizenship to Dreamers (people brought to the US by their parents as children) has fallen from 65% in January 2018 to 51% today. And “Fewer Americans today (56%) believe that immigrants are an important part of our American identity than in January 2018 (75%).” This represents a significant rightward tilt in the country. 

I’ll admit I’m biased; I am the child of immigrants. My father’s family migrated to the US in 1920. My mother survived Allied bombing near Argenta, in Emilia-Romagna, and relied on distant relatives and strangers to survive. Her beloved great aunt, virtually her only relative on her father’s side, was killed in a bomb shelter in Ferrara. She always said that in wars, everyone suffers. My parents taught me that refugees needed help and that we should help them. They lived those values by sponsoring a family of Vietnamese refugees in 1979. 

In another coincidence, this week I also heard Malcolm Gladwell’s last podcast of the 7th season, “I Was A Stranger and You Welcomed Me,” which tells the story of how his parents and their friends sponsored three Vietnamese refugees in 1979 (I highly recommend listening to this podcast; excellent, as usual). He makes the point that many people contributed to the effort, and there was little or no organization; many of the people Gladwell assembles for his interview were not aware of who did what or how things got done. It was all a series of small acts of kindness. No bravery was necessary; like the “Good Samaritan” of the Bible, who does not fight off hoodums or sneak the injured man past a military checkpoint, but just tends his wounds and pays an innkeeper to restore him to strength, a number of people donated money and time to help refugees start a new life in Canada.

The group in Canada was in part motivated by their Christian faith, and the podcast has them reciting these verses from Matthew 25:

For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.

I have to wonder at these people who consider themselves Christians, or even "Christian Nationalists," and yet spread misinformation about migrants at the border, and are able to turn their backs on their suffering. And I worry that the poll shows this country is turning Rightward, becoming more intolerant and fearful. What will our grandchildren say?