China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘Trinity Tripod’ tag

The White Paper at Trinity and the New Social-Academic Paradigm

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This post is in the way of an apology for not posting for many months. I submitted an op-ed to the Trinity Tripod a month and a half ago, but never posted it here (and it’s not on the Tripod website either), so here it is!

Have most Trinity students read President Jones’ White Paper? No. But if they have heard anything at all, they know he ‘wants to get rid of the fraternities’. What we cannot forget is that President Jones proposed two ‘helixes’, one academic and the other social, “neither of which can be separated from the other.” In other words, it is useful to think of the big picture – the Jeffersonian, holistic, “intellectual village,” as idealized in the paper.

As I was reading the White Paper, several ideas came to me that have been on my mind since I arrived at Trinity in 2008, some of which President Jones touched upon. The first is the notion of belonging. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it rates as the third most basic, behind physiological needs and safety. The kids at Trinity who don’t feel like they belong here or to any particular community on campus transfer. And President Jones mentions this need. This lack of belonging cannot be answered by only an academic or a social solution – it must be a combination of both. We belong to both groups on campus, and to a larger campus community. These senses of belonging are inculcated by a strong academic ethos marked by intellectual curiosity, where students are inextricably tied to professors in and outside of the classroom, and when we feel we are welcome across campus anywhere we go, as President Jones says, on a meritocratic basis.

A couple of months ago I was having a conversation with my father on pedagogy and the recent acts of bigotry and prejudice at Trinity. Out of that conversation, I came to realize that these acts occur because there is a disconnect in values between some students and the larger campus community. The value system exemplified by our mission statement has not been fully institutionalized – our values are not cohesive, our community is dysfunctional. We lack communal norms. This too can be solved by both an academic and social solution. When students come to Trinity “for the right reasons,” when students and faculty are on the same page, we establish communal norms. When we all share certain communal academic and social experiences, such as the first-year “great books” seminar program proposed by President Jones, norms are established. The best academic model is that of the Socratic method, of proleptic questioning: the faculty ask leading questions that provoke knowledge that a student has but has not yet put together in a coherent fashion. Students come to class having done the reading and are excited to engage in difficult material. This is what we must inculcate at Trinity.

Let’s not get lost in the particulars and remember that there is a greater purpose to the intertwined helixes. Let’s move forward, start a conversation, and ask the hard questions. Let’s be present and active in our little “academic village.”

Written by Will

January 3rd, 2012 at 12:53 pm

The “Jasmine Revolution” Never Even Started

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Published in the Trinity Tripod.

Over 60 years ago, Chiang Kai-shek envisioned China as a bustling economic and political power, albeit controlled by his own totalitarian state. Today, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has reshaped China from a rural, fractured, feudal society into a bustling economic and political power, albeit controlled by totalitarian government. Does this sound familiar? The CCP couldn’t have carried out Chiang’s vision better than Chiang himself. And now, with Taiwan functioning as a democracy, some in China want to follow their lead. Several weeks ago, members of an overseas Chinese-language website, Boxun, called for China’s very own “Jasmine Revolution,” a take on the more successful uprising in Tunisia. I say more successful because the Chinese “revolution” has so far been a dud.

The idea was for sympathizers of democracy to gather in designated public areas in major cities every Sunday, and then peacefully take a “stroll,” thwarting the police from figuring out who was a protestor and who was merely a tourist. Things didn’t go as planned. The first Sunday, Jon Huntsman, U.S. Ambassador to China and soon-to-be Republican presidential candidate, “strolled” into the Wangfujing shopping street in Beijing with his family, pretending not to know that there was anything political going on. A video of Huntsman caught in the act was later used by hyper-nationalists to prove a point about the U.S. meddling in Chinese affairs. The second Sunday was even worse. In Beijing, the meeting place was blocked off; police (uniformed and in plainclothes) outnumbered civilians at a ratio of 10-to-1; and some foreign journalists were harassed, taken to police precincts, and even beaten. This past Sunday was much of the same.

It might be tempting to draw comparisons between the Middle East protests and China, but to do so would be ignoring quite a number of differences. At the end of the day, the majority of Chinese citizens are satisfied with their government. If democracy was suddenly instituted in China, there’s no doubt the CCP would win by a landslide. Under CCP rule, economic development has changed peoples’ lives immeasurably. The Chinese wife of a friend of mine has this anecdote: “My mom could only afford a small piece of sugar for lunch during the Great Famine in 1960, but her daughter traveled in three continents before she turned 25.” Who would forsake a party with those results? Furthermore, most Chinese people haven’t even heard of the protests; the “revolution” mainly received news on websites that are blocked in China.

There are still many Chinese people who hold grievances against the government; but to date, there has not been an incident that unifies the farmers and students, or factory workers and professionals, reaching across socioeconomic strata to create the only force that can create political change in China. Even the Tiananmen protests 20 years ago never reached rural areas. Those fighting for political reform in China will have to wait a little while longer. Don’t lose hope.

Written by Will

March 8th, 2011 at 3:26 pm

“The Poverty of Experience”

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Published in the Trinity Tripod.

Martin Peretz, of Harvard University and editor of the magazine The New Republic, recently wrote, “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.” He added, “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

A month ago protests sparked over the construction of a Muslim community center, the Cordoba House, several blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center. For two years, a vocal minority of Americans have posted on internet forums and passed on viral emails written loudly in all caps: “BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA IS A MUSLIM!”

Each of these controversies stem from a stereotypical representation of Islam and its adherents – stereotypes that are bigoted because they aren’t true. From my travels in Xinjiang, China and living amongst Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims, I’ve found that bigoted beliefs can only arise out of a profound “poverty of experience.”

Last week I stayed for a few days in Hemu, a tiny village on the Kazakh, Russian, and Mongol borders. The natural scenery was beautiful, but more important to me were opportunities to speak with local Tuvans (a Mongolian tribe), Uyghurs, and Kazakhs. After spending an afternoon at a school cultural exchange, I learned that Kazakh teenagers are surprisingly good basketball players and admire Kobe Bryant. It’s probably because the basketball courts are the only fun thing in town.

After dinner with the family of the head schoolteacher, they taught us how to dance to the ethno-pop of Shahrizoda (three Uyghur girls who are all the rage in Xinjiang – their music is incessant). The dance was a traditional Kazakh line dance, and very similar to line dances in Texas. We were also served horse milk wine – think sake with a tinge of milk flavor.

The next night, we got to practice our newly-learned line-dancing skills at a dance party. In Hemu. Population: less than 2000.

After all that, how can I ever stereotype a population of one billion people – it’s futile!

I am an avid reader of James Fallows, correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, who in response to Mr. Peretz wrote, “The real secret of American inclusion through the generations is that when you grow up with, work with, live next to, intermarry with, and in all other ways get to know people from different categories, you have less patience for generalizations about ‘the blacks’ or ‘the Irish’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘the gays’ or ‘trailer trash’ etc.”

When you come into contact with those unlike yourself and expose yourself to the alien, “poverty of experience” is erased; you cannot be bigoted, because what was once alien you now recognize as familiar.

Not everyone can make the trek to one of the most remote places on earth to learn this lesson – but Americans need not to. My “wealth of experience” includes not just getting to know Kazakh teenagers in Xinjiang, but also growing up and going to school in a racially and socio-economically diverse community. I am sure the Tuvans, Kazakhs, and Uyghurs I’ve met are well-represented by others in the states (not to mention Muslim and Arab cultural groups on this campus). If you have the opportunity to study abroad, it is the best choice you can make, but it is certainly not the only path out of bigotry in this country.