Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How Confucius shaped Asia

Confucius - you've all heard of him. But do you really know the man? He is perhaps the most influential philosopher in East Asian history. His words have shaped the courses of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean history. Now I know that this may sound like an exaggeration, but hear me out.

Confucius was the founding father of this little principle called "filial piety." He espoused ancestor worship, and a strong connection to family. Another tenet of the Chinese philosopher's ideal society is rigorous civil examination - a bureaucracy that is dependent on merit rather than birth-right. Indeed, Confucius' exemplary teachings revolutionized the Chinese system of governance, and the Civil Service examinations were started.

What a baller.
In Ancient China, before Civil Service exams, peasants were born peasants; they had no social mobility, and to make matters worse, their own children would undoubtedly be peasants. After years and years of oppression, when social mobility finally became a possibility (thanks to the civil service exams), the number one priority of every poverty stricken farmer was to raise an intellectually inclined child. Farmers and merchants poured excessive amounts of money into educating their children. It was their only hope. Come present day, the reason why Asian students are so hell-bent on exam preparation becomes clear. Indeed, Confucius' teachings have permeated all facets of contemporary Asian society and culture.

I must make my family proud! But... so tired... zzz
Another aspect of Asian society that can be attributed to Confucianism is filial piety and ancestor worship. Confucius considered the family a basis for an ideal government. As a result, Asian society is highly familial; unlike in Western countries, the elderly are respected as the wisest, most knowledgeable members in a given community. An interesting fact is that Korea, Japan, and China all participate in some form of ancestor worship (perhaps slightly less so in Japan). On New Year's Day, Asian children usually receive money from their elders after performing a lengthy series of bows and listening to moral anecdotes. Furthermore, the elderly are taken care of in Asian society -- usually by sons and daughters. They never live alone; in fact, they frequently live with their sons or daughters. As a result, many Asian children are raised by their grandparents.

Taking care of the elderly since 500 BC.
In a recent global examination (2008 to be exact), Asian students topped the charts in science and math -- an impressive feat that reveals a stereotypically "Asian" inclination for rationality and methodology, rather than creativity and expression. The typical image of the studious Asian has saturated the global education system - mindless robots void of creativity and free will. It's as if all they ever do is study.

To some extent, this is true. Asian students are, in general, more studious than their Western peers. In order to understand the paradigm of the studious Asian, it is crucial to note that a successful education is the pinnacle of achievement (because it allows for social mobility, to this day). In Korea, for example, students student study until the brink of death in order to get into a respectable university (while some student actually do commit suicide under the pressure). In Japan and China, the stories are eerily similar.

Strangely enough, once in university, Asian students seem to meander, aimless in their endeavors. Their unflagging sense of purpose is lost. These students study for their entire lives for a chance to study at a prestigious university. But all they know is exam preparation; they haven't had the chance to explore their own identities yet.

Asians always seem to be studying... that is, until college.

As the number of Asian students entering Western universities increases exponentially, the teachings of Confucius come to mind. If we don't want mindless drones running Asian society, perhaps it is time to revise the old traditions and seek greener [educational] pastures.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

China is the United States' Largest Creditor

The United States, easily the world's largest debtor nation, owes most of its money to China. Topping Japan in US treasury bonds, China has soaked up America's debt like a sponge to water. As a result, the United States is increasingly relying on Chinese cash to repay its debts (700 billion dollar bailout). Thus, the Chinese government is gaining more and more sway over the U.S. economy.

The United States has, for the past century, shone as a beacon of hope and prosperity; a land of peace, opportunity, and happiness. But in actuality, the all-mighty American nation is actually the poorest, most debt ridden country in the world.

The 700 billion dollar Wall Street bailout of last year is merely icing on the cake. By this point, it's pretty clear that the America of today is not as powerful as it once was.

How lucky! Too bad it doesn't happen to the best of us.
As frustrating as it might be for some - China is steadily rising as a global power. Not only is the country massive, it has a workforce to match. When China was in desperate need of hydro-electric power, they simply willed one of the world's largest dams into existence (Three Gorges Dam).

The scary thing about the Chinese, at least for conservative Americans, is their determination and hard work. The Chinese dream big, and their accomplishments over the past few decades show this. Chinese society is vastly different from that of the United States; of course, this is common sense. But just how differently the Chinese Communist Party runs its nation is an interesting concept to pursue.

Unlike in American politics, there is no bickering or arguing over national policies. If the party leader says so - it must be so. The party has total control over every aspect of Chinese society; therefore, there are no need for political debates on a daily basis. If the plan is sound, it passes. That's how China gets things done.

When I was in Shanghai, I passed by a small 1 yuan store every day on my way to class. In one night, the entire store closed down and changed into a shoe store. This happened to several other stores in the area. For some reason, this really amazed me, because you never see such dynamic change in the United States.

America seems to have lost its touch, its razor sharp edge of progress and change. The entire nation has become complacent, content with the spoils of a century's worth of war mongering. Now, as the spoils dry up, reality is hitting hard. It's time for some real change in this country.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Korea, the country with the skinniest women on the planet!

So apparently, South Korea is the world's skinniest country (mostly talking about women here)! Now, I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be proud of this fact or not, but heck - it's an interesting factoid nonetheless.

I've been to Korea many times, and every time I go, I'm amazed by the beauty of Korean women. Granted, it's a misleading stereotype. Not all Korean women are gorgeous, obviously. But, in my opinion, in South Korea, there definitely is a heavy emphasis on physical beauty; hence the plethora of plastic surgery clinics in Seoul (and the amazingly low prices).

Just one look at Korean pop culture, and the first thing you'll notice is either the absolutely gorgeous women (if you're a guy) or the pretty boys.
Maybe I should drink soju more often...

But there's a lot more to Korean culture than Girls' Generation or Super Junior (what is up with these names, anyway?) - Korean history runs deep and dirty. Although it is divided today, the Korean peninsula was unified for over two thousand years, and even had its own Three Kingdoms: Goguryo, Silla, and Baekjae. In fact, one of the first South Korean MMORPG's (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), Kingdom of the Winds, was based on events from the Three Kingdoms period. The Three Kingdoms of Korea inspire many of the historical dramas one can see on television today.

Korea's real breakthrough was when, in the 15th century, King Sejong the Great developed a writing system for all to read and understand. He believed that written scripture should be accessible to all, and therefore created a phonetic alphabet from scratch. Thus, 한글 (Hangul) was created.

Hangul is definitely one of the easier Asian writing systems to understand. Because it is all phonetic, you can learn the entire alphabet in a day or two. This is a great website to get you started. Once you've learned the alphabet, there's literally nothing you cannot read! Although the meaning might be a little fuzzy if you haven't formally studied Korean, but at least you can walk around Seoul and have some inkling of where you are.

Well, that's all for today. See you guys next time.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Watching anime and learning Japanese

So you've decided to pick up the beautiful language of Japanese. But are you jumping in for the right reasons? Let me tell you, anime is great - but just because you watched 50 episodes of Naruto does not suddenly mean you understand Japanese. I know because I did this too, unfortunately.

Learning Japanese takes a lot of time, but it can be fun - and certainly, Japanese animations can help you learn. But if you want to learn Japanese solely for the purpose of understanding anime - well, good luck with that. Learning Japanese and being able to fluently participate in a conversation will take years of work. Fortunately, I have a FOOL PROOF PLAN THAT WILL MAKE YOU FLUENT IN 30 DAYS OR LESS!

Just kidding. There's no foolproof program that will suddenly improve your Japanese, but I do have a lot of tips to share with you guys:

Tips for studying and coping with elementary Japanese:

1. Learn Hiragana and Katakana - and be able  to read it well

2. Use visual mnemonics to memorize Kanji  

(I would recommend this simple Hiragana/Katakana program)

3. Buy a good textbook that is user friendly - you will be writing a LOT

4. The only way to improve your speaking is to speak!

5. Watch a butt-load of anime. It helps in the long run! You'll learn a lot of useless vocabulary on the way... I mean, who says "Death God" in everyday conversation, right?

Another good way to learn Japanese is through online programs that have an online component. Don't get fooled by these "Learn Japanese Fast" e-books. You actually need someone to talk to, someone you can ask questions, not just an e-book and a couple programs. Rocket Japanese is the real deal. It has interactive video lessons, free LIFETIME technical support for all of your Japanese questions, and a robust e-book filled with audio, video, and games. In fact, this program is worth it even if they took out all the audio and video; you have a private Japanese tutor on call, 24/7 - all for 100 bucks. Come on, I had to pay thousands of dollars to take 4 hours a week of University level Japanese courses...

Anyway, that's all for today. See you next time.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Chinese... 4 tones... si.... si.... kill me

How many times were you trying to speak Mandarin in the restaurant, but the server completely misunderstands you (or worse, doesn't understand you at all and stands there with a funny, puzzled expression on his face - I digress)? Isn't it frustrating? Don't you just want to yell, "HEY I SAID IT RIGHT, I SWEAR. I MEMORIZED ALL THE PINYIN YOU STUPID..." Well anyway -

I know how you feel. Learning tones is one of the most basic, fundamental lessons in learning Mandarin. Unfortunately, even advanced students of Mandarin find it difficult to accurately pronounce certain tones. I must admit, I'm no expert myself, but here's what helped me:

Watching Mandarin language films. I was a Kung-fu addict from the start, so it wasn't hard getting into Chinese language films, but what I realized was that Chinese cinema was incredibly well shot and directed. Famous directors such as Wong Kar-Wai (Hong Kong, yes I know), Tian Zhuangzhuang, Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige really make the Chinese language come to life.

Let me tell you, the first time I watched Jet Li's Hero was the moment I vowed to understand this beautiful language. Unfortunately, the modern Chinese language had decayed quite a bit in comparison to the poetic lines of dialogue and poignant phrases. But you can re-discover this world in Chinese cinema. 

The advantage of watching these films, too, is that you will gain a better understand of Chinese culture in general. Watching films like Blue Kite, Farewell My Concubine, and Beijing Bicycle really help the viewer to understand the inner layers of Chinese society - a fascinating look into the bowels of the last remaining (successful) socialist economy.

In my opinion, Blue Kite was one of the best films I've seen in recent memory. Although sad, and ostensibly a melodrama, the film captures the essence of China during the Mao era. I recommend it heartily to anybody and everybody - not just to people interested in learning Chinese. It is a wonderful film. Roger Ebert gave it two thumbs up.

In fact, the VHS is only $2.08 right now! You can get it here. Or, if you want, you can get the DVD version here.

Another interesting program that I found is called "Learn Chinese from Movies." The program boasts 9 different Chinese film classics (A World Without Thieves; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Empire of Silver; Curse of the Golden Flower; Hero; House of Flying Daggers; Lost in Beijing; King of Masks; Shower) and even promises custom subtitles for improved language learning functionality. Although I, personally, have not tried the system, I have learned a lot of my Japanese from watching a lot of anime...

Anyway, here's the website.

Well, that's it for tonight; check back for more!


Learning an Asian language

I've spent a large part of my life learning foreign languages. I was fascinated by all the various ethnic dialects in the world, and I vowed to learn them all.

Alas, although I have fallen short of that goal, I have been studying the East Asian languages extensively over the past 6 years. By "East Asian languages," I mean Korean, Japanese, and Chinese (Mandarin). I am fluent in Korean and Japanese, albeit my Chinese still needs some work.

As a fellow student of the oriental tongue, I know that these are arguably some of the hardest languages in the world to learn. Indeed, the task is not a simple one. Any lapse in concentration (ie. a 1 month break) would set me back months of study, and I cried often while writing Chinese characters with my half broken hand. But not to fear! Together, we will be able to conquer these pesky languages, and be able to speak in fluent Korean/Japanese/Chinese in the near future.

As my first post, I will lay out the format of this blog-to-be.

Every week, I will have 3 posts on one of the three East Asian languages I have described. Each post will have a short cultural component, an anecdote of some sort (one time, in Seoul...), and a grammar/vocab section.

I will be accepting e-mail freely, and I will try to answer as soon and as often as I can. Thanks again for visiting this lovely little cafe. Sorry, we're out of coffee. But we have plenty of Kanji, Hanja, and Chinese characters! Haha. Get it? They all mean the same thing...