Andrew Lam

Why Hollywood's Cowardice Is So Destructive

Free speech in America may be a constitutional right but self-censorship is an American congenital habit. From government officials to corporation executives, from filmmakers to the media, it happens at great frequency and intervals.

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How San Francisco Betrayed Us

I recently said goodbye to another friend who left San Francisco for greener pastures. Joanne and I have been friends for many years and it was sad to see her go. But like many of my friends who love the city, the bay with its beautiful hills and blue sky, she felt it had somehow betrayed her.

Once home to bohemians, artists and poets, San Francisco has become a city for the mega-rich and up-and-coming high-tech workers. The tension between the haves and have-nots, in fact, is rising fast where those with extraordinary wealth are buying up real estate in droves and leaving those in the middle class floundering.

“I’d love to stay if I can afford something,” Joanne said. “But if you want to raise a family, you have to go elsewhere.”

Besides, where can she find a house with a backyard garden in San Francisco on her middle class income?

According to a new study by the real estate website, Trulia, San Francisco ranks second in the nation among cities with the highest income gap. And, my hometown also tops the list of cities with the most expensive price for homes per square feet. Business Insider reports that a million dollars will buy about a 1,500-sq-foot home in San Francisco. That amount in Boston, which ranked second, would fetch a 2,092-sq-foot home.

This has become a common complaint. San Francisco — indeed, the whole Bay Area — is now facing an enormous dilemma: the economy is booming once again after a long recession, but there's no affordable space left.

A small, 700-sq-foot, one-bedroom apartment in downtown with a view is now renting for nearly $4000. People are renting out their walk-in closets for over $1,000 a month. San Francisco, in fact, has become the city with the highest rent in the United States this year.

An economist-friend of mine, citing a news story, once remarked that if you’re making $75,000 a year, you’re barely middle class in San Francisco.

A woman moved here from Tokyo. She told me at a party that she found the cost of living in San Francisco to be just like another Tokyo. She lives in a tiny studio and pays almost $2000 a month for it.

In my previous apartment building on Nob Hill, the landlord fixed up the basement storage room and rented it to a family — three people living where a dozen bicycles were once kept.

San Francisco also outranks the rest of the nation in rental increases, about three times higher as of December of 2013.

A website called Liquid Space now offers online booking of office space by the hour or by the day.

There’s also a trend in micro-apartments. A recent 279-sq-foot space was rented out for $1,850 a month in the Mid-Market area. The dining table turns into a bed, and the young high-tech worker sees her place more or less as a hotel room. It makes sense. If one spends most of one’s waking hours online, what’s the big deal about a small space. San Francisco, besides, offers a wide variety of eateries and bars to choose from.

Minimalism, in a sense, is beginning to take roots in the United States and in San Francisco, and becoming the norm. More luxury condos within the 450-sq-foot range are being built, and in San Francisco, the Japanese minimalist style has become the dominant style — the bonsai the precursor to the microchip, as it were. Bigger was once better, but what's chic and ultra-modern today — what's green and affordable — is smaller and streamlined.

After all, the laptop takes no space at all, the iPod is the size of one's credit card, the stereo system that once occupied a generous portion of a living room now is so flat and ridiculously thin that you can hardly see it behind the rhododendrons. The television that once took up too much space on top of the sideboard now hangs on the wall like a mirror.

Thus to live in the San Francisco Bay Area today, one must learn to give up the dream of home ownership, the idea of open space and the yard. One learns to live comfortably in very small space.
There's a price to pay for being in the center of the information age, after all. Despite gridlocked freeways, longer commute times, greater air pollution, loss of open space, and, of course, urban sprawl and overcrowding, the young and hopeful continue to flock here.

But is it worth it? One dot-com millionaire in his early thirties told me he is no longer sure. He owns a nice flat, has stock options, but he waits in line at his favorite restaurant like everyone else, since everyone else is a millionaire, too.

As a writer, my hold on the city is sheer luck: I bought a condo during the recession and managed to stay. But I miss all the graffiti artists, musicians, friends who have left for some place where they can afford studio space to paint or perform. I miss, too, the poor working class families who, as if overnight, disappeared to wherever affordable housing can still be had.

I miss, that is to say, the old San Francisco. When I came here over three decades ago, it was a generous city, diverse not only in terms of race, but also of class.

In the mid-19th century, during the Gold Rush, San Francisco was known as "Old Gold Mountain" in East Asia. The myth of a city by the bay filled with gold lured thousands of Chinese, and the rest of the world, to California.

In the 21st century, I wonder whether the old story hasn't become prophetic, considering the climbing real estate prices and an army of young people hoping to strike it rich working for high-tech companies with stock options.

These days, it belongs to the highest bidders and the dogged homeless who, as if taking revenge, crowd the sidewalks in every neighborhood, fighting over real space.

“The sidewalk,” said one of homeless as he discussed rental prices with another, “well, it’s still free.”

The 'Bamboo Ceiling': Hollywood Shuns Asians, While New Media Embraces Them

This article originally appeared on New America Media, and is reprinted here with their permission.

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Letter from Cairo: Egypt's Revolution Is Now Frozen In Place

CAIRO, Egypt -- It was on a lunch break during a tour of the ancient city of Memphis, under the shadows of Egypt’s ancient pyramids that Tarek, a tour guide, became emotional. 

“Before the revolution,” said the 28-year-old, “I worked so hard that I begged for one day off a month and the company always said no. Now I get to do three jobs a month and I have to beg them to pick me.”

It’s a phrase you hear often in Egypt. “Before the revolution,” locals say, things were bad but manageable. Before the revolution, everyone hated the same regime. After the revolution, hope has turned to fragmentation and fear. And tourism – once a mainstay of the economy – has slowed to a trickle. 

Tarek says he’s now feeling the pinch.

Winter is typically peak tourist season, but on one afternoon in December – the coldest in a century – the Sonesta Moon Goddess sits almost empty among a cluster of luxury liners meant to ferry eager tourists along the famed Nile between Aswan and Luxor. There were five guests on board the Sonesta, which has a capacity of over 100. The 45-member crew looked close to despair. 

Tarek, meanwhile, says his mother is sick and in hospital. “I sold my laptop, I sold my nice furniture. I stopped going to the gym, stopped lifting weights, which was my passion. All I think of now is how to pay the bills, and it’s not possible.”
 
Then he adds, under his breath, “I hated the old regime, but not that much.”
 
It’s a sentiment shared by many of Egypt’s young, who account for a quarter of the country’s population. In 2011, thousands joined in a popular revolt inspired by the rising tide of discontent known as the Arab Spring. Egypt’s protests ended former leader Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule and culminated in the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Morsi, who was then toppled from power by the state military exactly one year later. 

Since then the country has been racked by violent protests and a growing power struggle between Islamists on the one hand, and a military led by notorious strongman Gen. Abdel el-Sisi. 

The political and social chaos has taken a heavy toll. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), unemployment reached 13.4 percent during the third quarter of 2013. For those under 25, the figures are worse, with some 70 percent of young people unemployed. Predictions for the fourth quarter are even more dire.
 
Meanwhile, society is fragmenting, as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood continue to clash with both the military and anti-Brotherhood forces. In the latest round of violence, spurred by a newly enacted law prohibiting public protest, a student at Cairo University was shot while on campus, reportedly through a shut gate. His death has only heightened a sense of angst among the young.

One cabbie offered this assessment of society post-revolution. “Before, if there was an accident, five or six cars would stop to help. Now, no one wants to be involved. They don’t trust each other like they used to.”

Amid the chaos, Interim President Adly Mansour is working to draft a new constitution intended to pave the way toward new elections next year. But with political factions critical of the draft’s language, and with the Muslim Brotherhood – which still holds a significant following – planning to boycott the referendum, the road ahead looks treacherous.

“I would say that anyone who says they aren’t confused is a liar,” said one graduate student at American University in Cairo who declined to give her name for fear of possible repercussions. “The last few months have been mindboggling.” 

Indeed, the hope that initially propelled the uprising has long since given way to fear and trepidation. She says she no longer walks in her own neighborhood. “I used to feel safe but now I am not so sure. I’ve seen people fighting, fist fights, that’s something I didn’t see before.” There are more robberies as well, she notes. And yes, more people with guns.

Another student says conditions for women in particular have deteriorated. “Actually, I would say that life went to hell after the revolution, especially for women.” She cites several recent instances of women being attacked with acid for going out unveiled. 

As for Tarek, there is now a sense of wistfulness when he thinks about life under the old regime, a kind of revolutionary regret. “Some of my friends are saying if Mubarak ran again, they would vote for him.” Standing beneath the likeness of Rameses II – one of ancient Egypt’s most famed rulers who in the first millennium BC held power for more than six decades – he then adds, “But if that’s the case then why did so many of us die to topple him?”

Nina Davuluri Is America's Future

Nina Davuluri is the first Indian-American to hold the title of Miss America and it should be something for all Americans to celebrate. Her story, after all, is one of the more optimistic news about immigration in recent times. Alas, it's a victory marred by waves of racist backlash in social media. Davuluri is called a "terrorist," and derogatory references to convenient stores - "Miss 7-11" -- and Muslims are mentioned. But the biggest complain? Miss America should be more "American."

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Big Mac Won't Satisfy Vietnamese Desire for Human Rights

Vietnam specializes in irony. Its president, Truong Tan Sang, is due to visit the White House this Thursday, where he’s expected to request a lifting of the U.S. ban on lethal weapons sales to his country while also seeking support for a bid to join the UN Human Rights Council.

The irony? 

Besides trying to buy weapons from the United States, a country it defeated four decades ago, Hanoi also continues to trample on human rights, and in the last few years has stepped up arrests of dissidents with no fear of international criticism or, for that matter, U.S. rebuke.

Oh, and it’s also preparing to open its first ever McDonalds store, which, glancing at media headlines here, seems to be the real story. Never mind the persecution.

Vietnam today has more money than ever, and is seeking an international status equal to its newfound wealth. It also needs advanced weapons to counter the looming threat from China, which has laid claim to more or less the entire South China Sea. 

“If Vietnam wants to stand on the world stage, its government should repudiate its crackdown on dissidents and embrace reform,” John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director with Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released this week. “The arc of history may be long, but it certainly bends away from authoritarian retrenchment.” 

Mr. Sifton added, “President Sang cannot publicly justify his government’s crackdown and should use [his meeting with Obama] to repudiate it.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, echoed HRW’s concern in an open letter this week to President Obama, urging him to make human rights a top priority during the Vietnamese President’s visit. 

“Vietnam has long been one of the most oppressive societies in Southeast Asia,” Royce wrote. “Democratic aspirations, human rights advocacy, and grassroots mobilization are met with police brutality and result in show trials where defendants are denied their rights to open and fair proceedings as guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution.”

Indeed, dissident bloggers have been arrested routinely, with 50 democracy advocates having been rounded up this year alone. Languishing in its gulags, too, are dozens of prominent clergymen, some of whom, like father Nguyen Van Ly, 67, are in failing health. Father Ly, a Catholic priest sentenced to 15 years in prison for demanding religious freedom in the country (and whose causes are being championed by Amnesty International), suffered a stroke in 2009 and is in dire need of medical care.

Another prominent dissident, Nguyen Van Hai, popularly known as Dieu Cay, is currently staging ahunger strike after he was sentenced to 12 years in solitary confinement for his “propaganda against the state.” His crime: blogging about government corruption and demands for democracy. As of this writing, Nguyen has been on hunger strike for 32 days. 

But unlike in Myanmar, the United States has been hush on the issue of human rights abuse in Vietnam, where for the past decade it has stepped up investments. Hanoi claims that in two years, the United States will become the biggest investor in Vietnam, overtaking Japan and South Korea.

Military ties, too, are deepening. Since 2010 the two nations have engaged in joint military exercises. Last year, Hanoi went as far as dropping a hint to visiting Secretary of Defense, Leon Penetta, that it would like to resume talks about renting out Cam Ranh Bay, America’s old naval station during the war.

So why, in this era of seeming openness and economic progress, has Hanoi stepped up its oppression? The short answer is because it can, for now. 

Despite its dismal human rights records, Vietnam has been awarded for opening up economically. It was granted membership in the World Trade Organization and made its entrance to the world’s economic stage in 2006 when it hosted its first Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference. Its Gross National Product has been growing at a steady and impressive seven percent for almost the last decade. 

And while political dissent is not allowed, its population is experiencing far greater personal freedoms. Many are allowed to travel overseas, while movement within Vietnam is permitted freely. There’s a burgeoning middle class with disposable income and access to the Internet. And therein lies the problem. 

As we’ve seen most recently in Brazil, increased wealth brings with it expectations of increased political freedom. Indeed, despite the arrests more Vietnamese are blogging online, demanding greater respect for human rights and condemning Hanoi for, as they see it, kowtowing to China. 

Hanoi’s efforts to control this rising tide of discontent, moreover, are being stymied by the boom in communications technology. Vietnam has 132 million active cellphones in a country of 93 million, or about 2 phones per adult. Facebook entered Vietnam last October and by March had over 12 million users. 

Concerned over a potential Arab-spring style revolt, Hanoi’s response to date has been arrests and more arrests. 

That it can do this without fear of international condemnation is due in large part to American indifference. President Bush visited Vietnam in 2006 for the APEC summit, and promptly dropped it from the list of nations that severely curtail religious freedom. Under Obama, the United States is licking its chops as it perceives an opening for a grand reentry into the Pacific Rim theatre.

“It’s hard to be seen as deeply concerned about human rights when you are in bed with the politburos selling Big Macs and Starbucks,” noted one Vietnamese American living in Hanoi.

No wonder, then, that those fighting for democracy in Vietnam no longer look to the United States as their major supporter. In online chatrooms, dissidents are increasingly finding inspiration in protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Burma. 

It would be a tragedy, however, if Uncle Sam, while publically voicing concern about human rights, lifts the ban on lethal weapons sales and supports Vietnam’s bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. That tragedy would turn to irony should a Vietnamese Spring erupt, only to be put down with American bullets and guns. 

The Tragedy of Self Immolation - No One Cares Anymore

Self-immolation isn't what it used to be.

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The Big Questions for the New Generations of Vietnamese Americans

Ed. Note: April 30 marks 38 years since the United States withdrew from Vietnam. In that time, says author and NAM editor Andrew Lam, connections to the homeland for Vietnamese Americans have evolved, even as their roots in the U.S. deepen. A longer version of this essay originally appeard in the Cairo Review

Mẹ Việt Nam ơi, Chúng Con Vẫn Còn đây (Oh Mother Vietnam, We Are Still Here)

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Hoping for a Meteor to Strike Because Life is Hard? You're Probably Out of Luck

A meteor estimated to be 10,000 tons by NASA exploded Friday morning over Russia’s Ural region and its shockwave caused injuries to over 1,000 people. It took out windows and walls in the city of Chelyabinsk. And it temporarily shifted the conversation here on earth to talks of the heavens.

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Stranger Than Nonfiction: Well-Known Author Busts the Online Homework Racket

“Dear Mr. Lam. I loved your essay, 'The Palmist,' but I can’t figure out what the main theme is. Is it dying and being all alone? My teacher suggests I read more of your writing… I’m glad I found you online…. Thank you very much for your help.”

The e-mail from, let’s call him, “Evan,” is not atypical. Students assigned my work sometimes reached out to me for help. “The Palmist,” however, is not an essay but a short story in my new collection, Birds of Paradise Lost. Its claim to fame is that it was read on PRI’s Selected Shorts a few years ago by not just one but two well-known actors: David Strathairn, who played journalist Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, and later by James Naughton of Gossip Girl.

But never mind all that; for Evan it is immaterial. What’s more important is to have the answer, the main theme, since his paper is due. And who better than from the author himself?

While it flatters me to know that some of my work is being taught in highschools and colleges, and that I have done my share in confounding the mind of students near and far, it never fails to astound me what some of these young people would do to avoid thinking.

A classic e-mail I got some years ago was from a young woman named Dao. Her message came with the word "HELP" in caps in the subject line.

"Dear Mr. Lam," it says, "My name is Dao and I am having difficulties with my essay in my English class. I am reading one of your short stories for class assignment called 'Grandma's Tales.' It is a really good story but I can't seem to find the REAL theme of the story. Can you please help me?"

Grandma’s Tales, too, is collected in Birds of Paradise Lost. But to be perfectly honest, I didn't have a theme in mind when I wrote that tongue-in-cheek story about a Vietnamese grandmother who dies, comes back to life and goes to a party with her grandson.

I once suggested a possible theme to another student but his teacher apparently didn't like the answer. She told him he had best find a more serious theme and rewrite his paper if he wanted to receive a better grade.

The whole situation reminded me of Rodney Dangerfield as wealthy Thorton Melon, who went to the source with style in Back to School.  Mr. Melon, deciding to go back to school in his 50’s, hired the great Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (who played himself in the movie) to write a paper about his own books, but the scheme backfired. Melon’s English professor, Diane Turner, was disappointed with the result. “Whoever wrote it didn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut,” she told him curtly, no pun intended. But at least, Vonnegut got paid.

Old Homework for Sale

Still, going to the source is admittedly rare. Students don’t usually e-mail writers to help with their homework. No, increasingly, it would seem that they’d go online to look for other people’s homework instead.

“NEED HELP ASAP ENG/125,” is a post by a student on StudentofFortune.com on Jul. 30, 2012. “Has anyone read the non-fiction stories?” the student asked. The “non-fiction stories,” also known as essays, are: “Who Will Light Incense When Mother’s Gone,” by Andrew Lam, (yours truly), Langston Hughes’ “Salvation,” Gretel Ehrlich’s “About Men,” and Joan Didion’s “On Going Home.”

While it is flattering as hell to even be mentioned in the same sentence with these great writers, let alone having one’s work compared and contrasted with theirs, it is distressing to know that students are offering between $1 to $10 dollar for someone else’s work, so as to avoid thinking. 

The assignment? “Select two of these four writers and write a 1,400-1,700 word paper that would answer some of these questions: ‘What makes each of the selection non-fiction?’ and, ‘How is imagination required for writing and reading nonfiction? Why or why not?’” 

What the student would do with the $10 dollar tutorial after it is paid for is up to him, of course --but I suspect most likely he'd be busy rearranging sentences and punctuations in hope to escape software programs that catch plagiarism. But it seems the only imagination required here is not the literary kind and the bulk of critical thinking is used for anything but literature. It is spent in good part on methods that garner good grades – be it finding and e-mailing the authors or buying old homework online or as wiki.answer -- without having to think about the work itself.

And if the student is still dissatisfied with Students of Fortune’s offerings? There’s always Studymode.com, which advertises to inspire “better grade” – a kind of Ebay for old homework assignments, I suppose. On Studymode you can “supplement your classroom learning and boost your grades with help from our powerful site features.” After all, it’s where-- egad! -- “6 million students reference us every month!!!”

Studymode.com offers some old homework that compared Langston Hughes’ “Salvation” and my essay, “Who Will Light Incense When Mother’s Gone.” But since I didn’t pay, I only got a partial glimpse of some of them, and though not greatly instructed, I remain oddly jealous.  Had I gotten half of the help the new generations are accessing, I would have flown through my English courses, instead of failing them at Berkeley, and--to my shame—had to take Subject A, a remedial course that remains a sore point surely for any published author.

In my defense, however, I did think for myself; I just wrote badly, due to the fact that English is my third language and I was still wearing donated jackets from Camp Pendleton, the Vietnamese refugees processing center in Southern California where my humble American life began. (On the other hand, I wonder if I would've even cared to think at all if I had acess to a treasure trove of mediocre writing and ready made homework online at a click of a mouse.)
 
Trouble for Everyone

But I digress. Let’s get back to the main theme here, which seems to be the trouble for everyone involved.

There is something endearingly naïve about students' search for easy answers in literature, and how some approach literature as they would math problems. What  Evan wanted is a clear-cut answer. He wanted to know the Palmist's main theme, and assumed that I have it, and were I to hand it over, he would instantly get that much-coveted "A."

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The Brave Teachers Who Lost Their Lives at Sandy Hook Offer a Stark Contrast to the Assault on Their Profession

Long ago in my native homeland, Vietnam, I used to bow. As a grade school student, with arms folded, and eyes staring at my sandaled feet, I would mumble, “Thua thay!” – Greetings Teacher! – whenever I'd run into a teacher in the hallway or enter a classroom.

Such was the Old World tradition that honored and paid respect to the teaching profession.

That habit quickly disappeared, however, when I joined 7th grade in America. My way was entirely out of sync with U.S. culture. American kids were rowdy, wore colorful clothes and sometimes even swore at their teachers. And teaching was not mere instruction in America, I found. It was part babysitting, dealing with the unruliness that was the result of a society that increasingly emphasized self-esteem and individualism over achievement itself.

Teaching is still a noble profession but it’s a difficult and underpaid one, often with work overloads and a shrinking budget that results in classroom overcrowding.

With the tragedy of Sandy Hook, however, with 20 grade school students massacred by a madman and two teachers who died protecting them in Newtown, Conn., the image of the teacher in America has gone from an underappreciated chore to that of a hero.

Indeed, if TIME Magazine were to pick its Persons of the Year, it is hard to imagine that Victoria Soto and Dawn Hochsprung would not make the cut. Soto, a first grade teacher at Sandy Hook, hid her students and shielded others from the bullets of Adam Lanza, the assailant who committed one of the worse mass killings in the U.S. history. And Hochsprung, the school principal and mother of five, reportedly launched herself at Lanza, trying to overpower him. Both Soto and Hochsprung died protecting their charges.

But long before the Sandy Hook tragedy, many Americans already knew that a good teacher could, if not save, then change and inspire lives for the better.

Many luminaries from humble beginning continue to cite teachers as the main reason of their successes. Tom Hanks, for instance, thanked his high school drama teacher when winning his Academy Award for his role in Philadelphia. Oprah Winfrey is famously quoted touting the success of her elementary school teacher, Mary Duncan Wharton. "I know I wouldn't be where I am today without my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan,” she has said. “She so believed in me, and for the first time, made me embrace the idea of learning. I learned to love learning because of Mrs. Duncan."

And James Baldwin owed much of his formative years to a white schoolteacher who recognized his talents, took him to plays and brought him books. “She was really a very sweet and generous woman and went to a great deal of trouble to be of help to us, particularly during one awful winter,” he recalled in Notes of a Native Son.

My first teacher in America was Mr. Kaeselau, a man whose compassion and kindness comforted my otherwise painful life in exile. Mr. K taught 7th grade English and spent his lunchtime tutoring me when the language was still unfamiliar to my Vietnamese ear, difficult on my tongue. He gave me my first book to read. He drove me home when I missed my bus.

But while influential teachers continue to instruct and inspire many youngsters in this country, the profession itself has taken a hit. While the media loves salacious narratives of the teachers who fail in their duties – there’s that recent conviction of the Texan teacher who had group sex with four high school students, and the ongoing saga of the Modesto, Calif., teacher who eloped with his student, abandoning his wife and kids – many potentially good teachers leave the profession for better pay.

Disaffected teachers cite the lack of parents’ involvement as a primary cause of faltering of education and overcrowding as a major cause of stress.

And even if respect is still associated with the profession, the economy is far from showing its appreciation. Many bright young people who would have gone into teaching have told me they were deterred by financial insecurity. “The only way we are going to make gains in education is if the quality of teachers goes up — and in our capitalist society, that quite simply means paying teachers more,” writes Matt Amaral, a high school English teacher. “This might be the single-biggest solution no one is talking about.”

“I would consider teaching seriously but if I ever want to own a house in the Bay Area, I might as well forget that profession,” a graduate from UC Berkeley once told me. In Silicon Valley, in order to keep talented teachers, there are now housing units being built for many who couldn’t afford a home, as the average salary for a beginning elementary school teacher is around $40,000 in a county where the median income is around $85,000.

Student-teacher relationships seem to suffer in a world defined by social media like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, not to mention sites like RateMyTeacher.com. So many students now blog and tweet about their teachers, and teachers, fearful of defamation, vigilantly troll the Internet. The children’s hour has extended to 24-7 online, and this too adds to the stress of being a teacher.

“Teaching is not a lost art,” the historian Jacques Barzun once observed, “but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”

But perhaps that regard is no longer lost at this extraordinary juncture in American life, after the tragedy of Sandy Hook. The deaths of the innocents and the heroic sacrifice of the two women have ushered our nation to a turning point. Along with the collective need to reevaluate the country’s lax gun control laws, is a renewed reverence of the role of the teacher.

Many, from Peggy Noonan to Fr. Jonathan Morris, a well-known Catholic priest, now refer to ours as a “culture of death” – from gun obsession to blood-soaked video games to daily stories of gun violence to our drone wars abroad – two women stood at the door of life. If there was unspeakable carnage at Sandy Hook, there, too, was unimaginable sacrifice. What’s more noble, after all, than to give up one’s life so that others may live?

The teachers who died protecting their charges speak volumes to tender human relationships that have always been at the core of the teaching vocation. And so, almost four decades after I gave up that old tradition, to Victoria Soto and Dawn Hochsprung—to all dedicated teachers—I bow.

Vietnam, Afghanistan: War, Karma, and Peace

Trying to Google news of my homeland, Vietnam, over the last few weeks has not been easy. The headlines that often showed up were about another country, not Vietnam.

Here are a few headlines from major news organizations: 

- Afghanistan haunted by ghost of Vietnam
-Barack Obama must stop dithering - or Afghanistan will be his Vietnam 
-The Vietnam War Guide to Afghanistan 
-Afghanistan is Obama's Vietnam
-Which is America's longest war, Afghanistan or Vietnam?
-Vietnam and why we lost Afghanistan


Often times, indeed, when we mention the word Vietnam in the United States, we don't mean Vietnam as a country. Vietnam is unfortunately not like Thailand or Malaysia or Singapore to America's collective imagination. Its relationship to us is special: It is a vault filled with tragic metaphors for every pundit to use.

After the Vietnam War, Americans were caught in the past, haunted by unanswerable questions, confronted with an unhappy ending. So much so that my uncle who fought in the Vietnam War as a pilot for the South Vietnamese army, once observed that, "When Americans talk about Vietnam they really are talking about America." "Americans don't take defeat and bad memories very well. They try to escape them," he said in his funny but bitter way. "They make a habit of blaming small countries for things that happen to the United States. AIDS from Haiti, flu from Hong Kong or Mexico, drugs from Columbia, hurricanes from the Caribbean."

I once met a Vietnamese man who made money acting in Hollywood. He had survived the war and the perilous journey on the South China Sea to come to America. Now he plays Vietcong, ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers, civilians, peasants. He is a great actor, he bragged. No one recognized his face. Time and again he died, spurting fake blood from his torso and heart. At other times he screamed in pain, re-interpreting his own past. "Hollywood loves me," he said. "I die well."

Hollywood, of course, is free with its various interpretations. From "Apocalypse Now," which describes an American's mythical adventure in a tropic jungle to The "Deer Hunter," which shows a game of Russian roulette being played out for money between an American and some Vietnamese, to "Tour of Duty," in which American GIs raped then blew out the brains of a Vietnamese girl, to Rambo movies in which America single-handedly restored its pride, Vietnam was always the backdrop, the faceless conical hat adorned figure.

Watching such movies, Vietnamese old enough to remember the war giggle uncomfortably. These naïve interpretations of the conflict little resemble their own past. Vietnam was a three-sided war, with North and South at each other's throats, but the Americans have insinuated themselves as central to an otherwise complex narrative in the retelling. Some Vietnamese are enraged, but many are resigned.

For what they know and won't admit to the American audience is that for them history is a series of personal impressions. Fact and details and analysis and fancy interpretations can't capture the truth about Vietnam any more than wildly fabricated war flicks can. Instead, Vietnamese living in America tell their children ghost stories and share their memories of the monsoon rains and harvest festivals. I, too, store in my brain a million of those memories and myths, none of which have anything to do with America's involvement in the war. But that is another story.

Vietnam has more than doubled in population to 87 million since the war ended. It is a country full of young people, who form a large majority, with no direct memory of the Vietnam War. It is odd to think that 37 years since the war ended, it continues to stoke America's foreign policy fears. The entire country still stands for America's loss of innocence, its legacy of defeat and failure.

A few years ago, I went back to Vietnam to participate in a PBS documentary, and I did the touristy thing: I went to the Cu Chi Tunnel in Tay Ninh Province, bordering Cambodia, a complex underground labyrinth in which the Viet Cong hid during the war.

There were a handful of American vets in their 60's. They were back for the first time. They were very emotional. One wept and said, "I spent a long time looking for this place and lost friends doing the same."

But the young tour guide told me that it was tourism that forced the Vietnamese to dig up the old hideouts. Then, in a whisper, she told me: "It was a lot smaller back then. But now the New Cu Chi Tunnel is very wide. You know why? To cater to very, very big Americans."

She did not see the past. She crawled through the same tunnel with foreigners routinely but she emerged with different ideas. Her head is filled with the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars and two-tiered freeways and Hollywood and Universal studio. "I have many friends over there now," she said, her eyes dreamy, reflecting the collective desire of Vietnamese youth. "They invite me to come. I'm saving money for this amazing trip."

Here's a young woman who looks at tunnel that was the headquarters of the Vietcong and the cause of massive bombings years ago and what does she see? The Magic Kingdom. The Cu Chi tunnel leads some to the past surely, but for the young tour guide it may very well lead to the future.

On the eve of the presidential election, I wish to tell whoever will become the next president of the United States that the Vietnam syndrome cannot be kicked through acts of war. That only through a view that's rooted in people, rooted in human kindness, and not historical vehemence, would a country open itself up and stop being a haunting metaphor. That not until human basic needs are addressed and human dignity upheld can we truly pacify our enemies and bring about human liberty. And that more soldiers and bombs and drones in the sky will never appease the haunting ghosts of the past.

Quite the opposite. We are in the process of creating more ghosts to haunt future generations. A friend recently told me that he's been seeing the a few Afghanistan vets now replacing Vietnam vets panhandling in the New York subways. "A sad changing of the guards," he noted wryly.

Years ago, the poet Robert Bly argued that Americans have yet to perform an ablution over past atrocities. "We're engaged in a vast forgetting mechanism and from the point of view of psychology, we're refusing to eat our grief, refusing to really eat our dark side," Bly told Bill Moyers on public television. "And therefore what Jung says is really terrifying: if you do not absorb the things you have done in your life...then you will have to repeat them."

It may very well be that the tragedy of Vietnam cannot simply be overcome with some supposed military victory but with another tragedy of equal if not greater proportion. It may very well be that a few years from now, when it's all over, the new American tourists can visit the heavily bombed mountains and caves of Tora Bora, where we once thought Osama bin Laden was hiding, to weep at some hole in the ground, thinking about the futility of it all.

In Buddhist Myanmar, Monks Gone Wild

For a country steeped in Buddhism, Myanmar is accruing terrible karmic debt. 

Alarming news and images of attacks and killings by the Buddhist majority in Rakhine Province against a Muslim minority there have been slowly trickling out onto the Internet and the wider world. Pictures of charred bodies and crying parents have stirred largely unheeded calls for intervention, mostly from Muslim nations.

“The attacks have been primarily one-sided, with Muslims generally and Rohingyas specifically the targets and victims,” Benjamin Zawacki, a Bangkok-based researcher for Amnesty International, told The Associated Press. “Some of this is by the security forces’ own hands, some by Rakhine Buddhists with the security forces turning a blind eye in some cases.” 

The government in Myanmar, recently lauded for taking steps toward democratization, declared a state of emergency in June following the outbreak of violence allegedly sparked by the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman by members of the Rohingya minority -- a largely Muslim group on the country’s western border with Bangladesh. The official death toll stands at 78, though activists say it is likely much higher.

The Rohingya, meanwhile, remain caught between a hostile populace and a neighboring Muslim nation in Bangladesh that refuses to open its borders to fleeing refugees.

Such is the irony in a country famous for its Valley of the Temples and its unrivaled devotion to the Buddha. Alas, while Buddhism through a Western lens can appear rosy for its message of compassion, inner peace, and self-cultivation, in Asian societies Buddhism as an institution has much broader political applications. 

Five years ago thousands of monks across Myanmar led in mass demonstrations against the military junta that paralyzed the former capital Yangon and other cities. The catalyst was an economic crisis, coupled with a devastating typhoon that destroyed homes and rice fields. The government’s failure to respond drove the monks to revolt, leading to the arrest and beating of hundreds of clergy. In such an overwhelmingly Buddhist country as Myanmar, the crackdown posed serious risks for the leadership.

For the monks, on the other hand, if fighting on behalf of the people seemed a moral necessity, such “spiritual engagement” apparently does not extend to the country’s Muslims -- estimated at around 750,000. They are a population denied citizenship and, by extension, the beneficence of the Buddha. 

In 2001 monks handed out anti-Muslim pamphlets that resulted in the burning of Muslim homes, destruction of 11 mosques and the killing of over 200 Muslims in the Pegu region. Four years earlier, another anti-Muslim riot broke out in Mandalay during the worship of a Buddha statue at the Maha Myatmuni pagoda. In that incident, an estimated 1,500 Buddhist monks led the attack on nearby mosques and Muslim-owned businesses, looting as they went. 

As for the current crisis, Human Rights Watch is strongly urging the Burmese government to end arbitrary and incommunicado detention, and “redeploy and hold accountable security forces implicated in serious abuses. Burmese authorities should ensure safe access to the area by the United Nations (UN), independent humanitarian organizations, and the media.”

“The Burmese government needs to put an immediate end to the abusive sweeps by the security forces against Rohingya communities,” noted Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone being held should be promptly charged or released, and their relatives given access.” 

So far the killings have garnered little attention in the West, where they have registered little more than a blip in the news cycle. Equally as troubling, however, has been the muted response of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – an icon of human rights across Southeast Asia. Her recent tepid call for ethnic equality in Myanmar, nearly two months after the violence erupted, was met with uniform criticism around the world.

In the 1960s the renowned Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “Engaged Buddhism.” The intent, then as now, was to exhort fellow monks to emerge from their temples and engage with a society then in the grips of war.

The practice continues across much of South and Southeast Asia today. One example is the long drawn out war in Sri Lanka, during which militant monks formed their own political party, held seats in parliament and advocated military solutions to the conflict with the Tamil Tigers. 

In Vietnam, the ruling class knows each time a Buddhist monk sets himself ablaze they'd better watch out. That was certainly true in 1963 when a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in downtown Saigon to protest a crackdown on Buddhism. Unrest grew as civilian fear turned into anger, and the Catholic controlled regime of Ngo Dinh Diem fell soon afterward. The current communist regime still keeps a number of leading clergymen under house arrest for fear for a popular revolt.

But if Myanmar’s monks held the moral high ground five years ago when they protested against government oppression, that standing has quickly turned into a deep and dark sinkhole of depravity amid calls for the majority to oppress and destroy their neighbors.

“Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech and a life of service and compassion renew humanity,” the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddharta, once said.

One wonders what he would now say, as innocent blood is shed in his name, and the path toward enlightenment that he taught to relieve the suffering of human beings had somehow derailed into a dark road of rebirth in the lowest levels of hell?

Robert McNamara Was Never Really in Touch with His Role in Causing Atrocity in Vietnam

 Living in Vietnam during the war as a child, I witnessed enough of American military power to know that no ideology or rationale can justify killing more than a million innocent civilians. So upon news of Robert McNamara's death I took another look at his confession in "The Fog of War," the documentary by Errol Morris.

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It Takes a Village to Buy a Condo

It is an understatement to say the real estate market in America has been in upheaval since the bubble burst last year. But while foreclosures due to unemployment and subprime borrowing have been the scourge for many homeowners, and while the economy is in a stumble, for others, it is the perfect storm to start buying.

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Is Thailand on the Brink of Civil War?

“It don't matter if you're black or white.” So goes an old Michael Jackson song that resonates now in American politics (and on American Idol). But in the current political crisis in Bangkok, it still matters very much, possibly to the point of civil war, if you wear red or yellow.

According to Thai police, up to 40,000 anti-government “red-shirt” protesters have scattered around the Thai capital, blocking roadways and entrances to upscale shopping malls. A few days earlier, in the nearby beach town of Pattaya, they managed to scare away leaders attending the Asian economic summit and attack Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s own convoy, causing injuries to several members. The prime minister barely got away. His declaration of a state of emergency was only met with more riots by the red shirts. They only began to break up when thousands of soldiers moved in.

Many of these red shirt protestors were trucked in from rural areas. Fierce supporters of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawsastra, who was ousted in 2006 when he was traveling abroad, and charged with corruption in absentia, the protestors are now threatening to bring down the economy as well. Foreign investors are driven away by the unrest and tourism, already suffering from Thailand’s instability, is predicted to sink even further.

Yet, less than six months ago, it was the “yellow shirts” who owned the streets. Members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), they wore yellow to honor Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Representing a more urban population – in many ways the educated and bourgeois class -- the yellow shirts blocked the airport for days and stranded nearly 250,000 tourists.

The yellow shirts were incensed when a pro-Thaksin prime minister was popularly elected into office when the general election was held in December 2007. In effect, the yellow shirts disagreed with the election, claiming fraud. The constitutional court, under pressure to get the country moving again, agreed with them and disqualified the pro-Thaksin prime minister.

The trouble was that there was no clear evidence of fraud. In fact, Thaksin himself won the election fair and square before he was ousted by the military three years ago, with tacit support from the king. Many observers predict that he would win again were he to return and run in a fair election. A populist, the former prime minister made great strides among the rural population, provided education and jobs, and brought many out of dire poverty. Charges of corruption aside, his growing base in the countryside rivals that of the affection the people have for their king.

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We Need Obama to Help Heal the American Soul


Barack Obama signed into law the $787 billion stimulus package, giving the moribund U.S. economy a much-needed resuscitation (or so we all hope), and yet there is a larger crisis looming, one that existed long before our economy tanked and has it no guarantee of recovery. Call it the ailing of the American soul.

It's perhaps fanciful to talk of soul and spirit, even as metaphors, at a time when our country is already shrouded under the dense haze of foreclosures and joblessness. But when a country loses its bearings and sense of direction, its soul, too, falters. If not quantifiable, it is at least discernible: in the form of collective insecurity and loss of confidence, and increasingly, through collective anger, cynicism and shame.

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A Vietnamese Journey Toward the American Dream

Editor's note: This essay by NAM contributing writer Andrew Lam is excerpted from a longer piece in the anthology "Thirty Years After," to be published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in spring 2009.

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The Tragedy of John McCain

This weekend John McCain turned into John Macbeth. At a rally recently he was confronted with the vitriolic rage of his supporters who screamed "Off with his head!", "Terrorist!" "Traitor!" and, the old lynch mob's favorite, "Kill him!" in reference to Senator Obama. He was repeating his criticism of his presidential candidate rival, but upon hearing those nasty chants the senator cringed and grew perceptibly older, his shoulders drooped.

As he struggled to find the words to pacify the angry horde, McCain went off script. "I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments," he said. "I will respect him and I want everyone to be respectful, and let's make sure we are." The crowd, not surprisingly, booed him.

At that moment the senator seemed to have stepped off American political theater and onto a Shakespearean stage -- McCain as the tragic figure of Macbeth.

Esteemed as a military general for his bravery in battles, Macbeth otherwise harbored kingly ambitions that blinded him. When three witches prophesied that he would be king his wife hatched a plan to put him on the throne. It involved regicide. Macbeth hesitated but Lady Macbeth challenged his manhood until he relented. He murdered King Duncan then killed the king's guards, claiming that they did the killing, took the throne, and proceeded to have his friend, Banquo, who knew about the prophecy, assassinated.

On the throne, however, Macbeth was wracked with guilt. He saw Banquo's ghost sitting in his place. His wife, Lady Macbeth, likewise, haunted by the blood on her hands, suffered from sleeplessness, and apparently committed suicide. As his subjects defected, with the prince's army at his castle's door, Macbeth went into battle with another nobleman, Macduff, whose family was murdered by Macbeth, and was finally slain.

As critic Kenneth Muir observed of the tragedy, "Macbeth has not a predisposition to murder; he has merely an inordinate ambition that makes murder itself seem to be a lesser evil than failure to achieve the crown." In his desire to be king, Macbeth destroyed the kingdom itself and brought chaos to the moral order. So obsessed is he with his vision to be king, he compromised all that was good about him.

The parallels with senator McCain are striking. Descendant of Navy admirals, and a war hero, his presidential campaign, unlike any in recent memory, has gone over to the dark side by stoking the fire of racism. With ads calling Senator Obama "Dangerous" and "dishonorable" while Sarah Palin, his running mate, went on the offensive, with phrases like, "This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America," and "palling around with terrorists," the once veiled racism became overt. As Lady Macbeth, she is full of glee and smiles as she goes about her task of character assassination.

No doubt McCain must be in deep conflict as he watched the fringe of political right rally to his cause. Along with "McCain for President" his supporters put up signs that said "Vote Right, Vote White," and "Vote McCain not Osama or Hussein."

After all, "Bomb Obama" and "Off with his head" sound more like sound bytes from the KKK and Islamic fundamentalists --- the very terrorists that McCain claims that the surge is working against in Iraq - rather than American chants at rallies for US presidential candidates.

Facing possible defeat in the election, fearing the lost of his ultimate prize, McCain opened a door to deep hatred and fear in this country. Now as the demons come out into the light, he recoils. But it might already be too late. To fan the fire of racism is easy when one has the bully pulpit. To put it out when it spreads, on the other hand, is always nearly impossibe no matter where one stands.

No wonder that, Frank Schaeffer, a life long Republican, who worked on McCain's campaign in 2000, wrote a stinging op-ed in the Baltimore Sun recently. "If your campaign does not stop equating Sen. Barack Obama with terrorism, questioning his patriotism and portraying Mr. Obama as 'not one of us,' I accuse you of deliberately feeding the most unhinged elements of our society the red meat of hate, and therefore of potentially instigating violence."

Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights leader, followed suit with his condemnation of the hateful rhetoric by McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin, accusing them of "sowing the seeds of hatred and division."

The story of McCain is of one who endured the worst of war - torture and injuries -- to return a hero and a patriot, a maverick and fly boy who has a knack for literature. In his well-received memoir, "Worth Fighting For," he admits admiration for Hemingway's character, Jordan, in "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Jordan, wrote McCain, was "a man who would risk his life but never his honor."

The senator should heed those words lest the seeds he is now sowing bear strange fruit in a new American tragedy.

Is Your Daily Life Enslaved by the Electronic World?

Future historians may very well look back at the beginning of the 21st century as an era in which the human mind developed into a split screen, with one eye on real space and the other ogling the electronic mirror.

This morning on a crowded bus I counted six people within my immediate view, texting, talking on the cell phone, checking e-mail, listening to iPods. In other words, they were trying to keep the bus from being their only space, their only reality. And what was I doing? I recorded what I observed in my laptop, of course.

If modern technology has been created to enhance our daily lives, something has dramatically shifted: More and more, our daily lives are enslaved to the electronic world.

This can sometimes be very troubling. On March 30, 2008, a group of teenagers in Florida lured one of their own peers to one of the girl's homes and videotaped her beating. With one girl behind the camera to record the episode, and two boys guarding the door, the rest mercilessly beat the young woman into a concussion. It was for a dual purpose: to "punish" the victim for allegedly "trash talking" about them on MySpace, and to post the footage on YouTube. The most telling line during the beating was when the young woman behind the camera yelled out: "There's only 17 seconds left. Make it good."

Seventeen seconds left, that is, in a 10-minute slot -- the maximum time one can post a video segment on YouTube. The time frame and the incident prompted a colleague of mine to quip, "Well, Warhol was only off by five minutes."

Otherwise, Andy Warhol was frighteningly prophetic. A future in which everyone can be famous for about 10 minutes has indeed arrived. We have all become actors. We begin to believe that we are not fully ourselves, that we are not viable in the new system, unless we make some sort of electronic imprint, some sort of projection of ourselves, in the virtual world. Diaries, once locked away and hidden, have now gone electronic in the form of blogs and vlogs.

On CNN a few days ago splashed a typical story that spoke volumes of our modern impulses: "Wife Brings Drama of Divorce to YouTube." Private lives are increasingly translated into a public space, oftentimes turning intensely personal dramas into perplexing global phenomena.

What makes the incident in Florida unusual, however, is not the violent acts themselves -- girl fights have been well reported, after all -- but that the girls' actions were dictated not by a pure act of revenge but by a kind of exhibitionism rarely seen before. Stranger still is that increasingly the electronic world dictates exactly how an action should be carried out. The gang beating of the young woman, for instance, increased as the 10-minute segment neared its end. Did their beating lose steam, I wonder, when the camera stopped rolling?

This modern mindset has given psychologists and anthropologists enough material to study what they call the "disinhibitive effect" on the Internet. Road rage is quickly giving into Net wrath. A generation raised on video games can become invincible when their actions are meant to be broadcast. Like actors who are trained to lose their reservations on stage, many now take daring risks for the virtual world -- nevermind that they might have repercussions in the real one. They show all, or do something enormously bizarre or violent to garner lots of hits, lots of eyeballs. Our sense of existence is interrelated with that of the electronic ether a la Matrix: I broadcast, therefore I am.

Last year, Hollywood celebrated the 40th anniversary of the movie "Bonnie and Clyde." It's the story of a couple who became the first celebrity criminals of modern times, whose deeds of derring-do -- robberies during the Depression era and violent death -- rendered them into mythological figures. During their saga, Bonnie wrote poetry that she sent to the media, while Clyde wrote letters of praise for the Ford Motor Company's "dandy" car, which turned into instant advertisements.

There's a pivotal scene in the movie that seems to foretell something about our modern day obsession with myth-making, and its incestuous relationship to the media. The couple steals a newspaper to read about their exploits. As they are being chased by the police, they argue over the fairness of the article's reporting, more concerned with their image in the media than with their reality.

Of course, these days you don't have to be a cross-country robber to be a celebrity. We are living in what Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine has called the "age of microcelebrity." Thompson asserts that "people are developing interesting social skills to adapt to microfame. We're learning how to live in front of a crowd."

As a result Buddhist teachings on mindfulness could very well be on the retreat. How can we be fully "here and now," how do we keep our ego in check, when we keep ogling the electronic mirror and watching ourselves gavotte? In our deep yearning to be noticed, and to reach some kind of immortality, we are increasingly making fools of ourselves.

Too Much Self-Esteem Can Be Bad for Your Child

In the age of Myspace and YouTube and Google Earth, the space between East and West seems to shrink. But in the area of self-perception, especially, there remains a cultural gap that can often be as wide as the ocean.

Take Jeong-Hyun Lim, a 24-year-old business student in Seoul. Popularly known as Funtwo on YouTube, his rock rendition of Pachelbel's Canon has turned him into a global phenomenon. Lim's dizzying sweep-picking -- sounding and muting notes at breakneck speed -- has had some viewers calling him a second Hendrix. His video has been viewed on YouTube 24 million times so far.

But Funtwo himself is self-effacing, a baseball cap covering much of his face. No one knew who he was until Virginia Heffernan wrote about him in the New York Times last August. She called his "anti-showmanship" "distinctly Asian," adding that "sometimes an element of flat-out abjection even enters into this act, as though the chief reason to play guitar is to be excoriated by others."

Anyone in the West with this kind of media spotlight and Internet following would hire an agent and make a CD. But Lim told Heffernan, "I am always thinking that I'm not that good a player and must improve more than now." In another interview, he rated his playing around 50 or 60 out of 100.

Lim's modesty is reassuringly Asian, echoing the famous Chinese saying: "Who is not satisfied with himself will grow." In a classic 1992 study, psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler compared academic skills of elementary school students in Taiwan, China, Japan and the United States. It showed a yawning gap in self-perception between East and West. Asian students outperformed their American counterparts, but when they were asked to evaluate their performances, American students evaluated themselves significantly higher than those from Asia. "In other words, they combined a lousy performance with a high sense of self-esteem," noted Nina H. Shokraii, author of School Choice 2000: What's Happening in the States, in an essay called "The Self Esteem Fraud."

Since the '80s, self-esteem has become a movement widely practiced in public schools, based on the belief that academic achievements come with higher self-confidence. Shokraii disputes that self-esteem is necessary for academic success. "For all of its current popularity, however, self-esteem theory threatens to deny children the tools they will need in order to experience true success in school and as adults," writes Shokraii.

A quarter of a century later, a comprehensive new study released last February from San Diego State University maintains that too much self-regard has resulted in college campuses full of narcissists. In 2006, researchers said, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory evaluation, 30 percent more than when the test was first administered in 1982.

Researchers like San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge worried that narcissists "are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors." The author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable Than Ever Before, Twenge blamed the self-esteem movement for the rise of the "Myspace" generation.

Has the emphasis for self-confidence gone too far in America? Twenge seemed to think so. She points to the French tune "Frere Jacques" in preschool, for example. French children may still sing it as "Brother Jack! You're sleeping! Ring the bells!" But in America the once innocuous song has been converted to: "I am special! I am special! Look at me! " No surprise that the little train that could is exhausted: It's been laden with super-sized American egos.

That Asian-Americans dominate higher education in the last few decades in America is also worth noting. Less than 5 percent of the country's population, Asian-Americans typically make up 10 percent to 30 percent of the best colleges. In California, Asians form the majority of the University of California system. And at University of California, Berkeley, Asian freshmen have reached the 46 percent mark this year. Also worth noting is that, of the Asian population in the United States, two out of three are immigrants, born in a continent where self-esteem is largely earned through achievements, self-congratulatory behaviors discouraged, and more importantly, humility is still something of a virtue.

In the East, the self is best defined in its relation to others -- person among persons -- and most valued and best expressed only through familial and communal and moral deference. That is far from the self-love concept of the West -- where one is encouraged to look out for oneself, and truth seems to always originate in a minority of one.

In much of modernizing Asia, of course, individualism is making inroads. The Confucian culture that once emphasized harmony and unity at the expense of individual liberty is now in retreat.

But if there's a place in Asia that still vigilantly keeps the ego in check, if not suppressed, it's the classroom. In Asia, corporal punishment is still largely practiced. Self-esteem is barely a concept, let alone encouraged. Though not known to foster creativity, an Asian education with its emphasis of hard work and cooperation, critics argue, still largely provides the antidote to the culture of permissiveness and disrespect of authority of the West.

In the West, the word kung fu is known largely as martial arts. It has a larger meaning in the East: spiritual discipline and the cultivation of the self. A well-kept bonsai is good kung fu, so is a learned mind and so, for that matter, is the willingness to perfect one's guitar playing. East and West may be commingling and merging in the age of globalization, but beware -- that ubiquitous baseball cap that Funtwo is wearing on YouTube can mislead -- it houses very different mentalities in Asia -- for when it comes to the perception of self, East and West remain far apart.

Are Asians Increasingly Undergoing Plastic Surgery to Look White?

Three decades ago, fresh from the refugee camp of Vietnam, I was first made acutely aware of my own Asian looks by a schoolyard bully in my junior high. He pulled the sides of his eyes back to make them look slanted and sang the ditty now made famous by Rosie O'Donnell recently on The View -- "Ching Chong, Ching Chong Chinaman." Well, good old I'm-funny-not-a-racist Rosie didn't say "Chinaman," but you get the point.

I never thought of how I looked living in homogenous Saigon, but in America, as an outsider barely speaking English, I was fodder for teasing and racist epithets. In the bathroom one night, I used a toothpick to push up my epicanthic folds. They held for a few seconds, giving me the appearance of rounder eyes, and a glimpse of what I might look like with double eyelids. I had contemplated cosmetic surgery, and for a few months, even saved money for the purpose.

I never went through with the surgery, but my experience is hardly unique. The pressure to alter one's features and body is endemic in every group and ethnic community in America, and in Asia it is as routine as having one's wisdom teeth pulled. But the number of minorities getting plastic surgery is apparently on a steep rise.

According to a survey by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), the number of minorities getting plastic surgery quadrupled between 1997 and 2002. And in 2005 Asian-Americans had 437,000 cosmetic surgeries, up 58 percent from 2004.

One only needs to open a Vietnamese magazine or newspaper in San Jose or Orange County to see the onslaught of ads for cosmetic surgery: eyebrow tattoos, dimple and split chin fabrications, laser treatments for skin blemishes, facelifts, breast augmentations -- you can have it all and with an easy-to-pay credit plan. But the most popular are nose and eye surgeries. In the online business directory of the Southern California-based Nguoi Viet Daily News, where the largest Vietnamese population in the United States resides, there are more than 50 local listings for cosmetic surgery.

Looking at these ads, I must admit that I find both the "before" and "after" pictures slightly disturbing. In the "before," which is often out of focus, the woman is displayed in a downtrodden, bereft look -- a mess of misery to go with her messy hair. But in the "after" picture, she is all smiles, well-dressed and coiffed.

She poses in a kind of exaggerated cheerfulness -- cheerful, I suppose, because her features have been altered. Apparently along with the surgery, the image suggests, her outlooks on life has dramatically changed as well.

I wish happiness were so easily obtained. While I am not against it, and have friends and loved ones who have had plastic surgery, I can't help but find that there's an inherent complex attached to altering one's facial features -- especially for an Asian-American. After all, I have never heard of someone who goes under the knife to have a double-eyelid reversal surgery or his classic roman nose flattened.

For a long time plastic surgeons worked with the Anglo-Saxon ideal of beauty, and medical schools a few decades ago did not acknowledge racial distinctions when it came to plastic surgery. A classic Roman nose was standard, and so was a double eyelid. Going under the knife in the name of beauty was, for a long time, a move toward having a Caucasian face.

Indeed, Asia's relationship with the West has been traditionally schizophrenic and contradictory when it comes to self-image. Vietnamese children of mixed parentage born of American GIs during the war, for instance, were a permanent under class, and their conditions worsened after the war ended. Perceived as children of the enemy, they were often derided, chastised and beaten. But these days those mixed children's features are coveted by many wealthy people in Saigon and Hanoi. They want their noses, eyes, lips, and would save a fortune to go under the knife to look like them.

Or take Japanese animation. While Japanese cartoons and comic books are taking the world over by storm -- and are a source of pride for Japan -- on closer inspection, one wonders if such pride is justified.

Characters in popular shows like InuYahsa or YugiOh or Naruto, to name a few, all have round, large eyes that are often blue or green, and their hair is blond, brown or red. Japan, even as it struggles to make itself a global political player, by the look of its manga and anime, seems strangely beholden to the visage of their World War II conquerors.

In Korea, one in 10 adults have had some sort of cosmetic surgery procedure. China, since a ban on cosmetic surgery was lifted in 2001, is now experiencing a boom in the cosmetic surgery industry. There are more than 10,000 medical institutions for cosmetic surgery and the industry is thriving. There is even, since 2004, a Miss Plastic Surgery beauty contest.

However, there is a new "look East" movement underfoot -- a growing Asian social consciousness in the United States and Asia. Plastic surgeons have begun to develop techniques to preserve ethnic characteristics and retain their identity. The changes are now more subtle: the nose is no longer as pointy, and doctors are not removing as much fat near the lower eyelid to avoid the Caucasian look.

"Ethnic correctness" is the new catch phrase in cosmetic surgery, reports Anna M. Park in Audrey Magazine, a fashion magazine for Asian-American readers. "With a growing appreciation for diversity and a higher social awareness come advances in technique and deeper understanding of the anatomy of the Asian eye, resulting in more ethnically sensitive procedures."

A Chinese-American friend, who has had excess fat removed from her eyelids, told me she never thought she wanted to "look white." "In fact, I wanted to look natural but better. So if no one noticed I had it done, then that's great." It was the older generation, she said, that was obsessed with "looking like Audrey Hepburn and Kim Novak."

It also helps that many young Asian entertainers have resisted cosmetic surgery. Korean pop stars have been the rage in Asia as well as among Asian immigrants in America, and on top of that food chain is the 23-year-old superstar Rain, whose classic Korean features haven't deterred fans in the least. He's the biggest thing in Asia since Michael Jackson, sans the plastic surgery knife.

And Zhang Ziyi ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), Sandra Oh ("Sideways" and "Grey's Anatomy") and Lucy Liu ("Charlie's Angels"), to name a few, are famous actresses with very distinctive Asian features.

These days I take comfort in knowing that there are more people who look like me in the world than not. Having traveled throughout Asia over the years, my sense of beauty has become pluralized, and is no longer limited to a singular ideal.

And despite having felt slightly "dissed" by Rosie O'Donnell's "Ching Chong" comment, I must say I've been inspired by her in the past.

She refuses the pressure of Hollywood's standards of beauty, its liposuctions and chin tucks, even as she lives in the glaring limelight. She has grown into her own skin. And so have I.

Iraq Replaces Vietnam as Metaphor for Tragedy

New America Media EDITOR'S NOTE: With the ghosts of Vietnam still haunting the United States, the nation is doomed to repeat its misadventures abroad, in Iraq and beyond, until a profound reckoning with its bellicose heart of darkness occurs.

For almost three decades after U.S. helicopters flew over a smoke-filled Saigon, Vietnam served as a vault of tragic metaphors for every American to use. In movies, in literature, someone who went to 'Nam was someone who came back a wreck, a traumatized soul who has seen or committed too many horrors to ever return to normal life. In politics, Vietnam was a hard-learned lesson that continued to influence U.S. foreign policies. It was an unhealed wound, the cause of post-traumatic stress, the stuff bad dreams were made of, hell in a small place.

Then came Iraq. Many comparisons have been made about the two wars. But what Iraq may have finally done is not so much remind us of Vietnam as ultimately usurp it from our national psyche.

Fighting the Vietnam War brought a multitude of symbols and icons to the American mind. A new set is now being acquired in the current war. One can almost imagine one era being replaced by another in the way that two kids might trade cards: "I'll take My Lai for your Haditha"; "I'll take 'Hearts and Minds' for 'Operation Iraqi Freedom'"; "Let's have Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh for Muqtada al-Sadr and Osama Bin Ladin"; "I'll take Tiger Cage for Abu Graib"; and "Let's have your Gulf of Tonkin for my WMD."

In another generation, when a future U.S. president sends troops to occupy some intransigent country on a dubious objective, American pundits will most likely ask this familiar question made new: "Will it be another Iraq?"

Yet, for a long time, Vietnam functioned as a benchmark for spectacular American failure, and despite subsequent successful U.S. overseas ventures, it remained a deep, searing wound. It took some time after the war's end before movies were made and books sold on the topic. There was a willful repression of America's only military defeat, followed by a flourish of Vietnam novels and movies. Together they constructed a mythic reality around the nation's experience in Vietnam that challenged our old notion of manifest destiny and examined our loss of innocence.

In the 1980s, conservatives began to claim that the Vietnam Syndrome -- which they saw as an undesirable pacifism on the part of the American public and the U.S. government -- has been "kicked." Most famous of them all was George Bush Sr., who declared in 1991 after victory in the Persian Gulf War that "the ghosts of Vietnam had been laid to rest beneath the sands of the Arabian desert."

But Bush Sr. spoke too soon. The glory of winning did not translate into a second presidential term, and Vietnam continued to haunt our national psyche. When president Clinton withdrew troops from Somalia after 18 soldiers were killed in Mogadishu in 1993, diplomat Richard Holbrooke called it the new "Vietmalia syndrome." Later, Clinton was reluctant to deploy military force in Bosnia. Sen. John Kerry, a Vietnam vet, lost his bid for the presidential election in 2004 because of his ambiguous relationship with Vietnam: During the campaign he billed himself as a war hero despite his stint as an anti-war protestor after the war. Sen. John McCain, who was tortured in Hanoi as a POW during the war, caused an uproar when he used the term "gook" to describe his Vietnamese captives during his 2000 presidential campaign bid. Nor does it seem to help his presidential efforts this time around when the senator, who felt Vietnam could have been won had it not been hampered by politics, is supporting the military surge in Iraq while most Americans desire troop withdrawal.

What we are learning now with the enormous failure of Iraq -- the lies and deception from the White House, the images of Iraqis wailing beside their dead loved ones, the shattered homes, bloody sidewalks, tortured prisoners, body parts in market stalls, burnt-out cars, roadside bombs, downed helicopters and horribly maimed American soldiers -- is that tragedy cannot simply be overcome with some supposed military victory, but with another tragedy of equal if not greater proportion.

Indeed, the war in Iraq is showing us that the so-called Vietnam Syndrome cannot be "kicked," as it were, by winning but by losing, as it forces us to face our collective grief and guilt anew. For all the horrors committed in the name of democracy, and all the soul-searching Americans did after the Vietnam War -- remember that '70s mantra, "No More Vietnams!" many screamed from the top of their lungs? -- we failed to alter the bellicose nature of our nation.

Years ago, the poet Robert Bly argued that Americans have yet to experience ablution over past atrocities. "We're engaged in a vast forgetting mechanism and from the point of view of psychology, we're refusing to eat our grief, refusing to really to eat our dark side," Bly told Bill Moyers on national public television. "And therefore what Jung says is really terrifying -- if you do not absorb the things you have done in your life ... then you will have to repeat them."

In this sense, individual karma is not so different from that of a nation. For it's many a country's fate, too, to keep on repeating acts of barbarism until, hopefully, it comes to some profound reckoning with its own heart of darkness.

The World of Human Trafficking

While visiting Saigon last December I asked a group of well-educated young women for their thoughts on Vietnamese women being sold abroad. Their answers were surprisingly tempered.

"Not everyone is going to end up as a prostitute or badly treated by her husband," said Tuyen Nguyen, a 19-year-old who is attending college and planning to be a doctor. "I know this one girl who came back wealthy. It's true, she's one of the lucky ones, but still, it's a better chance than staying home."

Some observers estimate that as many as 400,000 Vietnamese women and children have been trafficked overseas, most since the end of the Cold War. That's around 10 percent of trafficked women and children worldwide. They are smuggled to Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Czech Republic -- and, to a lesser extent, the United States -- for commercial sexual exploitation.

"Still, if your parents and siblings are starving, you've got to do something," observed Thuy Le, a young woman in her mid-20s. "It's the right thing to do."

"It's the girl in the countryside who would do this kind of thing," said another woman, a publicist for a cosmetic company. "No one in the city would go. I mean, it's hard work in the rice field. Besides, who is to say their Vietnamese husbands won't beat them just like their Korean or Taiwanese one?" Her friends murmured in agreement.

Unfortunately, not all trafficked women end up in real marriages, even if their paperwork says so. According to Huy Phan, who is part of a group of Vietnamese Americans trying to help victims of trafficking, "the scheme is, the brothel or mafia finances a man to go to Vietnam to buy a wife. But the marriage is a ruse, and the girl ends up as a prostitute or indentured servant when she gets to Taiwan. It's a way to legalize trafficking."

In June, the U.S. State Department released the "Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000: Trafficking in Persons Report." Vietnam was classified as a "tier two" country, meaning that the government of Vietnam, according to the report, makes some effort to eliminate the problem but "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking."

In March 2004, a Taiwanese tried to sell three young Vietnamese women on E-bay. The starting bid was $5,400. Vietnamese living abroad protested, and E-Bay quickly pulled the auction page. But the language used on that page, along with the images of the three young, hapless women smiling to the camera, bespoke of modern-day slavery: "Products will be delivered only to Taiwan," the page said.

A typical trafficking scenario in Saigon goes something like this: A group of men come in from a foreign country, Taiwan or Korea, perhaps, and are chauffeured to a designated bar where young women and teenage girls await. The girls are lined up. The men pick and choose their brides, and pay around $5,000 to $10,000 dollars depending on the "quality" of the bride, which depends largely on whether she is a virgin. Soon these so-called brides are taken to unknown destinies. Their families back in the rural areas receive around $500 dollars for the sale. The rest goes to middlemen and to grease the legal machine.

Girls and women may also be promised jobs in Cambodia, Laos or China, only to end up as sex slaves once they cross the border. Recent raids in Cambodian brothels came up with Vietnamese girls as young as 5 years old. Young boys, too, are bought, and are highly prized in China, especially for families that have no children and want to adopt.

Many problems help perpetuate this form of exploitation. First are rising population pressures. There are now 82 million people in Vietnam. Two out of three Vietnamese are under 35, and there are an estimated 1.5 million abortions each year. The rural-urban gap is widening. Peasants trying to survive become easy prey.

Second is corruption. Government officials can be bribed to look the other way or, worse, actively assist the sale of these women by stamping their exit visas.

Third, and most important, Vietnamese people themselves have developed a lackadaisical attitude about the plight of trafficked women. After all, when there are approximately half a million prostitutes in Vietnam trying to make ends meet, who cares if a few hundred thousand more are plying their trade abroad?

Thien-Tam Tran, another Vietnamese American activist, remembers a scene in the airport in Taipei, Taiwan. Three Vietnamese girls were waiting to be taken away by gangsters. "I asked them if they wanted help but they wouldn't talk. They were very afraid. When the gangsters showed up the girls finally realized what would happen to them and started to weep. One girl, about 17, held onto me. But it was too late."

In Vietnam, self-sacrifice is still perceived as the highest Confucian virtue, but few seem to notice that to sell or induce one's own offspring into slavery is an absolute evil -- and highly un-Confucian. "Some women and girls are raped by their captors, husband, and/or male members of the family," Tran notes sadly.

Unless human rights become a real dialogue in Vietnam and the urban rural gap is seriously addressed, the nation seems fated to play a role that many activists working against human trafficking refer to as "a supply country."

National Defeat Day - National Liberation Day

Flipping through my United States passport as if it were a comic book, the young customs man at the Noi-Bai Airport, near Hanoi, appeared curious. "Brother, when did you leave Vietnam?"

"Two days before National Defeat Day," I said without thinking. It was an exile's expression, not his. "God! When did that happen?" he asked.

"The thirtieth of April, 1975," I answered.

"But, brother, don't you mean National Liberation Day?" he said, while trying to suppress a giggle.

If this conversation had occurred a decade or so earlier, the difference would have created a dangerous gap between the Vietnamese and the returning Vietnamese-American. But this happened a couple of decades after the war had ended, when the walls were down, the borders porous, and as I studied the smiling young official, it occurred to me that there was something about this moment, an epiphany. "Yes, brother, I suppose I do mean liberation day." Not everyone remembers the date with a smile. It marked the Vietnamese Diaspora, boat people, refugees.

On April 28, 1975, my family and I escaped from Saigon in a crowded C-130 cargo plane a few hours before the airport was bombed. We arrived at the Guam refugee camp to hear the BBC's tragic account of Saigon's demise: U.S. helicopters flying over the chaotic city, Vietcong tanks rolling in, Vietnamese climbing over the gate into the U.S. embassy, boats fleeing down the Saigon River toward the South China Sea.

In time, April 30 became the birth date of an exile's culture, built on defeatism and a sense of tragic ending. For a while, many Vietnamese in America talked of revenge, of blood debts, of the exile's anguish. Their songs had nostalgic titles: "The Day When I Return" and "Oh, Mother Vietnam, We Are Still Here."

April 30, 1976: A child of 12 with nationalistic fervor, I stood in front of San Francisco City Hall with other refugees. I waved the gold flag with three horizontal red stripes. I shouted (to no one in particular): "Give us back South Vietnam!"

April 30, 1979: An uncle told me there was an American plan to retake our homeland by force: "The way Douglas MacArthur did for the South Koreans in the fifties." My 18-year-old brother declared that he would join the anti-Communist guerrilla movement in Vietnam. My father sighed.

April 30, 1983: I stayed awake all night with Vietnamese classmates from Berkeley to listen to monotonous speeches by angry old men. "National defeat must be avenged by sweat and blood!" one vowed.

But through the years, April 30 has come to symbolize something entirely different to me. Although I sometimes mourn the loss of home and land, it's the American landscape and what it offers that solidify my hyphenated identity. This date of tragic ending, from an optimist's point of view, is also an American rebirth, something close to the Fourth of July.

I remember whispering to a young countryman during one of those monotonous April 30 rallies in the mid-1980s: "Even as the old man speaks of patriotic repatriation we've already become Americans." Assimilation, education the English language, the American "I" -- these have carried me and many others further from that beloved tropical country than the C-130 ever could. Each optimistic step the young Vietnamese takes toward America is tempered with a series of betrayals of Little Saigon's parochialism, its sentimentalities and the old man's outdated passion.

When did this happen? Who knows? One night, America quietly seeps in and takes hold of one's mind and body, and the Vietnamese soul of sorrows slowly fades away. In the morning, the Vietnamese American speaks a new language of materialism: his vocabulary is peppered with words like Mercedes Benz and two-car garage and double income.

My brother never made it to the Cambodian jungle. The would-be guerrilla fighter became instead a civil engineer. My talk of endless possibilities is punctuated with favorite verbs -- transcend, redefine, become. "I want to become a writer," I declared to my parents one morning. My mother gasped.

April 30, 1975: defeat or liberation? "It was a day of joyous victory," said a retired Communist official in Hanoi. "We fought and realized Uncle Ho's dream of national independence." Then he asked for Marlboro cigarettes and a few precious dollars. Nhon Nguyen, a real estate salesman in San Jose, and a former South Vietnamese naval officer, said: "I could never forget the date. So many people died. So much blood. I could never tolerate Communism, you know."

Mai Huong, a young, smartly dressed Vietnamese businesswoman in Saigon, had another opinion. Of course it was National Liberation Day, she said. "But it's the South," she told me with a wink, "that liberated the North." Indeed, conservative Uncle Ho has slowly admitted defeat to entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan Miss Saigon. She has taken her meaning from a different uncle, you know, Uncle Sam.

The customs man, on the other hand, stamped my passport, said: "In truth, brother, there are no winners, no losers. You're lucky, brother. You left Vietnam and became an American."

April 30th, 2004: In the Berkeley hills, in a house that gave way to the bay, my Vietnamese-American friends and I watch Gone With the Wind for the umpteenth time and looked for the scene of our unrequited romantic longings. Scarlet, teary-eyed with wind-blown hair, returning to take up the life she'd left behind in forlorn Tara. But she is doing something we no longer can. Or rather, we go back only to look and sometimes enter the houses where we once lived, and then we take leave.

April 30, 2005, tomorrow: I am in Sydney talking to Vietnamese Australians who are commemorating the event.

Children of defeat, self-liberating adults, we hug and, over a couple of bottles of dry Syrah, recount to each other, and to our American-born children, our own stories of flight.

Hong Kong Film Fade-Out

The Plaza Theatre in Hong Kong is playing all American films today – Shrek II, Troy, Van Helsing – and the billboards might as well be read as a story of Hollywood invasion.

Indeed, the theaters offer little in the way of sword-toting heroes flying on rooftops, gangster girls using guns and knives to take over each other's casinos, or beautiful ghosts in fabulous kimonos falling in love with handsome travelers.

As visualized through its filmmakers, Hong Kong has always offered a reliable assessment of the sensibilities of the modern East, an uninhibited wildness on the silver screen that, with its many twists and turns, is a refreshing alternative to Hollywood's cynical and formulaic happily-ever-afters.

Alas, these days you have to scour the newspapers to find a Hong Kong film – and the two playing on this day, a cheesy romance and a rehash of a gangster movie, are of poor quality compared to those produced less than a decade ago – in the Golden Age of Hong Kong movies.

What happened?

Many here blame the Hong Kong handover to China, and the attendant feelings of uncertainty – which caused a massive exodus, including the film industry's top creative talents.

"People no longer see things long-term any more. People are afraid to express themselves because they don't know what China could do to them, and the ones who are expressive are gone," said Francis Ng, a 20-something musician.

Ng says the beginning of the end of the movie industry was the departure of director John Woo, who now makes blockbuster Hollywood movies like Paycheck and Mission Impossible II. His departure was soon followed by stars like Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat – and even Jackie Chan.

"When will they come back?" Ng asks rhetorically. "Probably never. I think people like Woo find Hong Kong no longer suited to their creative talents." On the other hand, he added, showing the famous Hong Kong pragmatism, "Hollywood pays well. I would go, too, if I were invited."

Others, however, blame rampant piracy for the downturn in the local film industry. Indeed, the night market sells DVD videos, music CDs and software at bargain basement prices. The government seems helpless – raids and arrests do little to deter the long-time Hong Kong habit of copying everything, legally or illegally, and selling it dirt-cheap. So potential producers, seeing no chance for a profit, have withdrawn in droves.

Yet only a decade ago Hong Kong films kept Hollywood movies at bay.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s Hong Kong movies reminded David Overby, writing in Film Comment magazine, of Hollywood in its heyday, "before the great split between commerce and art." In 1994, for instance, Hong Kong produced 160 movies, a magnificent number for a territory of 6.4 million people.

The decisive breakthrough in action movies came in the early 1990s with Once Upon a Time in China, directed by Tsui Hark, who also produced the amazing Swordsman II, in which the characters are no longer burdened by tradition – in fact, they are not bound by gravity. Dueling fighters float like birds, wearing fanciful costumes and following a story line even more fantastic than their clothing: eccentrics absorb chi power from lesser fighters and shrink them to nothing; energy bolts come through swords to split a horse in two; a fighter achieves inhuman power but in the process turns into a beautiful woman.

These movies seem to reflect a sense of uninhibited wildness, and their characters – powerful and colorful eccentrics – are outside social norms, taking only what's good for themselves and discarding the rest.

The choreography is so stunning that it has left an indelible mark on western movies – witness the mega-hit Matrix trilogy, where all Hong Kong techniques were applied to allow the half-Asian, half-white Keanu Reeves, the movie's hero, to fly and float. Or watch Uma Thurman, as she wields her sword like an old pro in the Kill Bill movies.

American stars and directors, in fact, seem to be the direct inheritors of Hong Kong's legacy.

Indeed, Hong Kong began to find itself in the mid-'90s, and it was Hollywood's turn to copy. Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, and Quentin Tarantino expressed tremendous enthusiasm for the martial art genre, and Tarantino has admitted to being "inspired" by Ringo Lam's City on Fire when making his breakthrough film Reservoir Dogs. In his latest films, Kill Bill I & II, Tarantino exploited the Hong Kong martial art genre's classic revenge plot with glee.

Action star Leslie Cheung, star of The Bride with White Hair and the American art-house favorite Farewell my Concubine, was more daring than other performers and more moody on-screen; he thrived on the genre's originality. But it is a legacy that's fading in Hong Kong itself. And the best of Hong Kong these days is more likely find themselves working in Hollywood.

It may be that every art form reaches a zenith – and then must go down. For Hong Kong films, beyond geopolitics and economic woes lies a core problem of vision. Hong Kong, after all, is not a stable place. Wave after wave of immigrants mean that change is in fact the constant.

Not long ago, Hong Kong moviegoers delighted in seeing globetrotting heroes and heroines, fighting the bad guys and sipping wines in distant places.

Today, just about the most glamorous filmmaker who remains behind is Wong Kar Wai – and he makes art-house movies that please critics but otherwise make little money. A darling at this year's Cannes Film festival, one could say that Wong is brave to resist Hollywood's temptation. On the other hand, his movie genre – experimental, philosophical – is not exactly what Hollywood wants. The Chinese film industry seems to have moved inland, and the newest US release, Hero, directed by Yang Yimou, arguably China's most famous director, had taken China by storm and in the same breath replaced Hong Kong with Beijing as the martial art film center. It doesn't help that House of Flying Daggers, Yimou's follow-up film in the martial art genre, also received rave reviews at the last Cannes Film Festival.

These days, that Hong Kong cosmopolitan gleam seems to have given way to a more realistic self-assessment. It's a gleam that began its slow fade when China took over in 1997 and the death blow delivered with SARS hit the city last year, followed by the suicide of one of Hong Kong's remaining stars, Cheung, who jumped to his death.

A new, more down-to-earth identity is being invented in Hong Kong. Even commercials show this. Not long ago, beautiful women floating through surrealistic landscapes would appear in ads for perfumes or luxury goods. Now, that pretty woman is a housewife tallying her expenses and wailing "Why does entertainment cost so much?" The solution is to stay home and watch the advertiser's cable TV.

"There is a return to basic values here," says Yuen Ying Chan, who teaches journalism at Hong Kong University. "Sure, there's still a lot of money, but the style is subdued due to the recession."

Daniel Ge, editor of Tofu, a trilingual pop art glossy magazine, sees Hong Kong splitting between East and West, growing schizophrenic as it tries to understand its own place in cultural history. "A typical Chinese would now rather watch an American movie at the theater than go home and watch Chinese opera," he says.

"Opera is now experiencing a revival, even among the young. But Kung Fu films are on their way out."

Thai Cinema Ready to Roll

BANGKOK, Thailand--For years, at any given time of day, a visitor to the famous Siam Square in Bangkok could find a dozen Hollywood movies available for viewing. But lately, those American films have gotten some serious, home-grown competition.

Next to billboards promoting Van Helsing, Troy, and Shrek 2 are films that, though most Americans will likely never see them, have gotten Thai audiences talking. There's Garuda, a monster-action movie about a mythical bird that causes havoc in Bangkok when a subway-digging crew accidentally unearths it. In 102, as in Hollywood's Ocean's 11, a group of bank robbers uses sophisticated technology to perform their heists. I-Fak (The Judgment) is a tragedy about an unusual but platonic friendship between a half-mad young widow and her stepson. Siam Renaissance explores time travel and ends up commenting on the power of colonization.

Until recently, homegrown Thai entertainment resigned itself to television sitcoms and soap operas. Hollywood dominated the silver screen, and Thai movies were far and few in between.

But all that is changing. Hong Kong's movie industry may be shrinking in size, its many talents migrating to Hollywood, but Seoul, Beijing, and now Bangkok are fast becoming East Asian movie powerhouses. More and more Thai movies are being shown abroad -- the latest being Iron Ladies and Beautiful Boxer. The former, about a group of gay volleyball players, has even produced a sequel (Iron Ladies II), and the latter, about a transsexual professional kick boxer has garnered rave reviews overseas. Many American distributors, according to NotesfromHollywood.com, are actively looking to buy Thai movies for art-house distributions.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that the recent avant-garde film Tropical Malady, a two-part tale by Apichatpong Weerasethakul featuring gay romance and a night jungle trek on the trail of a mythical tiger, won the Cannes 2004 Jury Prize, the first of such awards for a Thai film.

Bobbie Wong, deputy director of Kantana film studio, the largest movie studio in Thailand, with over 1,000 employees, says that the Thai film industry has been given a boost thanks to new technologies. "We have the latest equipment, everything Hollywood has. Production is improving steadily in the last 10 years." Wong, who hails from Hong Kong, brings to Thailand technological know-how from the Hong Kong film industry, as well as contacts to overseas producers. Hong Kong's loss, he says, is Thailand's gain: Many talented movie makers who don't go to Hollywood end up here.

Surapong Pinijkhar, 37, director of Siam Renaissance, says more young Thais are making movies, spurred on by the knowledge that their films have a chance of being seen outside of Thailand. And with new computer graphic technology, Thai movies are getting as competitive as any international film, he says.

Siam Renaissance, which was made for around $1 million, was helped by Kantana studio's computer-generated graphics for its time travel sequences and its futuristic renderings of Bangkok. It's Pinijkhar's first movie and his own version of The King and I, he says.

Pinijkhar says Thailand's film industry, with about 50 movies made a year, is still fledgling.

The industry is not without its critics. Kittisak Suwannabhokin, who teaches film directing at Bangkok University, says, "Thailand movies are getting to be known overseas for their gay characters, but there are more subject matters that we deal with than that." But he quickly adds that any international recognition is better than none.

Thai movies are becoming well-known internationally due in large part to the country's increasingly popular Thai Film Festival, which for the last six years has enabled many local and international filmmakers to showcase their work to international distributors.

Pantham Thongsang, 39, who made I-Fak, says he is cautiously optimistic about the industry's future. More young filmmakers are making movies that are social commentaries on contemporary life in Thailand, he says, but "you have to balance between entertainment and social messages. If you don't do well at the box office, you don't make another film."

Kittisak says the industry was given a boost when the Thai government decided to actively promote Thailand as an ideal location to shoot a film -- Alexander the Great, starring Colin Farrell, was recently filmed here -- and when it began promoting its international film festival. But Thailand, he says, got into the game late and is trying to catch up. "Korea, for instance, has gotten government backing for its film industry for a long time now. So have the French. And that really helps their artists."

In the meanwhile, Apichatpong, director of Tropical Malady, humbly tells journalists, "My film is so personal I'm not sure how well it will travel. But I hope this will encourage other Thai filmmakers."

But personal vision is what makes Thailand stand out. And with the Cannes Jury Prize in Apichatpong's pocket, his film has not only traveled well, but also officially announced the Thai film industry's coming of age.

Andrew Lam is an editor for the Pacific News Service.

The Cosmic Age

We live in troubling times, but when we look upward, it seems there's ample grace waiting in the heavens. The images of an orange rock-strewn plain that NASA's Spirit, the space probe currently roving on Mars, is sending back are mesmerizing. Meanwhile Stardust, another space probe, is on its way back to earth -- as if in a fairy tale -- with comet dust captured in its net. In a week, a second NASA rover will land on the opposite side of Mars to study rock sediments and signs of life. Adding to it all, another space probe, Cassini, will begin orbiting Titan, a planet-size moon on Saturn, later this year.

President Bush's announced plans this week to send manned missions to the moon and Mars -- with the cooperation of Japan and Europe -- and establish a permanent station on the moon. And China hopes to have a manned station orbiting the moon. While thinkers and writers still haven't come to terms with the full impacts of the forces of globalization, another age is already upon us. Call it cosmozation.

The word doesn't exist in the dictionary, but then, two decades ago, neither did globalization. Soon, Webster will have to add cosmozation, or something like it, in order to address man's intensifying relationship with the cosmos.

Roland Robertson, a social scientist, defines globalization as "The compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole." The world shrinks, geographical constraints are overcome, while identities become multilayered, complex. As a species, we may not always get along with each other, but these days, thanks to an integrated economy and unprecedented mass movement across the various borders, and modern technology -- satellites, cell phones, jet planes, the internet, and so on -- we are, like it or not, constantly aware of each other's existence. We are, in fact, interacting and influencing one another on an unprecedented scale and intensity, regardless of the distances.

Taking Robertson's definition a step further, it seems inevitable that the universe too, shrinks and compresses as we explore and measure it, and infer profound implications from our discoveries. Cosmozation is the process in which man's awareness expands beyond the globe: He grows cognizant that he exists on intimate levels with the rest of the universe, that he is interacting with it, and, increasingly, having an effect upon it.

For example, scientists are discussing the possibility of a large asteroid hitting earth and what to do about it. The last asteroid that collided with our planet 65 million years ago wiped out more than 90% of life here. One idea is that various countries could send up nuclear missiles in a concerted effort to deflect a big asteroid's trajectory, were it to come our way. What is astounding is not that another sizable asteroid might collide with earth, but that we think we can do something about it.

Unlike the dinosaurs, we have, in effect, become active agents in this process. The knowledge that humans can have an effect beyond our own planet informs NASA's decision in September to crash the spacecraft Galileo on Jupiter rather on Europa, one of Jupiter's 39 satellites. Europa has an ocean under its ice and active volcanoes to boot. It just might be supporting alien life. Jupiter, on the other hand, is very hot and gaseous and deemed incapable of life.

Crashing Galileo on Europa would have risked contaminating it with microbes from earth. That decision says something about our new perspective regarding our position in the universe. Until 600 years ago, we assumed our world was at the very center of the universe, that it was flat, and that it was orbited by the sun. Today, thanks to advances in technology including the Hubble telescope, which stares into the far edges of the universe, we've found evidence of hundreds of other solar systems, with planets orbiting a star, or in some cases, binary stars. We even spotted a planet with an atmosphere 150 million light years away. A few years ago, a meteorite from Mars known as the Allan Hills meteorite, astonished the world when scientists said they found tantalizing traces of fossilized life within it. Their findings have been contested, but the meteorite renewed enthusiasm for the idea of panspermia (Greek for "all-seeding") -- the interstellar exchange of DNA, a theory championed by Francis Crick, who discovered the DNA molecule with two other scientists half a century ago.

Besides, there is such a thing as self fulfilling prophecy: If Earth didn't receive DNA for a start up way back when, we are now actively sending out DNA through space with our space craft and satellites and shuttles. We know meteors constantly bombard Earth when we look up into the night sky and spot shooting stars.

But more astounding is what astronomer Lou Frank speculated about a decade ago and found new evidence for only recently. Using the Hubble Telescope to study Earth's atmosphere, Frank proved that Earth is constantly hit by snowballs from space. The implications are enormous: if snowballs from outer space hit Earth regularly, it is "snowing" onto other planets, too, providing much-needed water for the primordial soup. We are slowly discovering that ours is not just a lonely blue planet amid the heavens but, in fact, it exists as part of an open and intricately complex system. Distant planets and alien civilizations, if once the stuff of science fiction, are beginning to be seriously considered by scientists. Segio Fajardo-Acosta, a researcher at University of Denver readily confesses: "I personally believe that there are many civilization out there. The distances are staggering and communication is a problem, especially if that civilization is in another galaxy. But with imagination and a very sophisticated technology, I think we could probably overcome the distance limitation and communicate with others."

The sea on which we sail in our voyage of cosmozation is infinitely more vast and wondrous than that of Columbus. And if modern life has its pitfalls, and if cynicism often colors our worldviews, we can always look up to the starry night and be re-enchanted. The cosmic age has arrived.

Andrew Lam will be featured in a WETA documentary called 'My Journey Home' to be aired April 7, 2004 on PBS stations.

Expression in the Information Age

Thanks to the Internet, I have over the years managed to get back in touch with many long-lost friends. But one of them recently sent me an e-mail complaining that, now that we are communicating on a regular basis, she actually misses me more, not less.

Astounded by the seemingly paradoxical statement I immediately hit reply: "L. what on earth do you mean?"

Within half-an-hour or so, her e-mail came back with a strangely familiar passage in quotation marks.

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Mourning the Loss of the Tiger

Lately, tigers are in the news, from the white tiger in Las Vegas that mauled illusionist Roy Horn, to the discovery of a 400-pounder living in a Harlem apartment; and it makes me think of my own strange relationship with this most beautiful of beasts.

When I was six or seven, a frail asthmatic child living in Vietnam during the war, my great-aunt gave me a broth made of tiger bone. She promised it would cure my asthma and turn me into a robust child. My mother, a great believer in ancient remedies, readily consented.

"You are lucky," Great-Aunt told me, as she poured the steaming black broth into a bowl. "With all the bombings, there aren't that many tigers left in our country. You, boy, might be drinking the bones of the last one."

I watched the soup billowing smoke in front of me, and felt as if I was about to swallow poison. To make things worse, the tiger was my favorite animal and I was certain I was wholly unworthy to receive such a sacrifice. But a Vietnamese child is obedient; I wept, but I drank.

The broth was full of herbal smell, its bitter taste suggesting 1,000 wiggly jungle things. Half a dozen bowls of tiger bone soup followed over the next few weeks, but I continued to wheeze and heave and cough. Then Great-Aunt ran out of tiger bone and the treatment mercifully ended.

My asthma went away a few months after I reached puberty -- soon after we arrived in America, at the end of the Vietnam war. But a different kind of malady remains to this day, made up of guilt and the feeling that my fate is somehow intertwined with the fate of the tiger.

There are less than 6,000 tigers still living in the wild worldwide -- most of them in South Asia and disappearing fast due the encroachment and poachers -- and I have this strange, if unreasonable, feeling that when the last one goes, maybe so will I.

Perhaps it came the moment the dark broth passed my lips; or because I was born in the Vietnamese year of the cat (equivalent to the Chinese rabbit). Perhaps it had to do with the hundreds of stories I heard as a child about long ago, when the Vietnamese people lived at the edge of an immense jungle, where a tiger ruled. Country people in fact often call the tiger "Grandfather," rather than using its proper name, for many believe their ancestors' spirits sometimes take residence in wild animals.

Our old houseman, Uncle Cam, claimed the peculiar bald spot on the side of his head was "a gift from Grandfather." As a teenager, he told us, he often went foraging in the forest near Hue, the imperial city, and one day he crossed paths with a fierce tiger. Uncle Cam dropped to his knees, threw away his axe, and begged for his life. Moved by his eloquence, the tiger spared him and marked him as a relative (not to be eaten) by licking the side of his head. Uncle Cam's hair promptly fell off, and never grew back.

Even if I grew to doubt his story, I nevertheless felt a sense of camaraderie with the old man. Both of us, I felt, were deeply marked by the ruler of the dark jungle, and would live beholden to his spirit and generosity. Of course this sentiment is neither rational or logical, but neither is the human relationship with wild beasts. Indeed, it is primitive and full of superstition -- we burden wild animals with all sorts of human characteristics and fantasies, and slay them because we covet or fear what we think they represent. The lion is courageous, the snake evil, the owl wise, the rhino is sturdy and invulnerable, the fox cunning and the tiger -- the tiger, above all -- is majestic, elegant, full of prowess and grace. It inspires awe.

Alas, the tiger's grip on our imagination is precisely the very force that drives it toward extinction.

Asia, where the great cats once roamed, is no longer a region of dark jungles and steppes and folklore. Soon, I suspect, there will be nothing to fear "in the wild" anymore because there will be no more "wild" anywhere. The tiger loses not only its habitat, but demands for its bones and skin and the rest of it as a cure remains at an all-time high.

In Vietnam, where the tiger also once roamed, the forest is shrinking at an alarming rate. Today one third of Vietnamese depend solely on forest and forest products for their living, and the number is rising steadily, according to the United Nations Development Program. Whereas the entire Vietnam war destroyed close to five million acres of forest land, almost 50 million more have been destroyed due to population pressures since the war ended three decades ago.

The way things are going, I doubt I will ever run across a tiger the way Uncle Cam did, except in its many parts: skin, bones, dried penis, made into balms, wines, and pills and sold at specialty shops in Hong Kong, Saigon, Bangkok and Taipei.

It used to be that Vietnamese, unlike westerners, viewed people as inseparable from nature. They taught their children to revere the spirits that protected forests and rivers and often named their children after forest animals. Buddhist temples were places of worship and for learning the ecological balance between man and nature.

But that was a long time ago. My Great-Aunt was a good-hearted woman but she was not sentimental about tigers -- if the last one goes, well, it was a matter of good fortune that its bones should help her precious nephew. Alas, I fear hers is a popular sentiment that hasn't changed much despite the advent of much more effective western medicines such as Viagra for aphrodisiac and propecia for hair growth and so on. If anything, the rarer the remedy the higher the demand. Mass consumerism in Asia coupled with deforestation: There's very little chance for the tiger and, for that matter, the rest of wildlife.

A while back at a Buddhist temple, I saw a little boy tracing a bas relief of exquisitely carved dragons and tigers with his fingers. "Mama," he asked, "does the tiger really exist, or is it just like the dragon?"

His mother answered with a sigh. "It is still real, but maybe not for very much longer."

"How come?" he asked.

But the boy's mother just shrugged.

I knew the answer, of course. I and the others before have swallowed it, and tried as I may to regurgitate, all there is left of that poor, beautiful beast is a bitter aftertaste.

Andrew Lam (lam@pacificnews.org), an editor at Pacific News Service, is a journalist and short story writer.

Wen Ho Lee II?

Many Chinese Americans are feeling dread in the wake of the arrest of Capt. James Yee, a Muslim chaplain stationed at Fort Lewis Army Base, Wash. The case brings back memories of the prosecution -- some would say persecution -- of Dr. Wen Ho Lee.

Lee, the Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist, was arrested by the FBI in 1999 on espionage charges and found not guilty after months in solitary confinement. President Clinton later apologized to him, though Dr. Lee's career as a scientist was already ruined.

Yee's arrest is as troubling as Dr. Lee's, says Ling Chi Wang, a professor of East Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Though not prepared to pass judgment on the case, Wang says that "based on what has been leaked to the media, I smell a rat." The public knows next to nothing about the Yee case other than what the FBI and the military have revealed to the press, he says, much of which "we can safely regard as propaganda and half-truths."

What the public knows so far: Captain James Yee, an American-born Chinese raised a Christian in New Jersey, was a star wrestler in high school, went to West Point and converted to Islam in 1991. He was deployed in August 1991 to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the Gulf War. He then left the army and studied Islam for four years in Damascus, Syria, where he married a Syrian woman. When he returned to the United States he was asked by the Pentagon to serve as a chaplain, and he re-enlisted.

On Sept. 10, 2003, the FBI arrested Yee in Jacksonville, Fla., as he stepped off a military charter flight from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where he had been administering to some 600 Muslim prisoners. He is charged with five offenses: sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, espionage and failure to obey a general order. He may later be charged with treason, which is punishable by life in prison under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Helen Zia, who co-wrote with Dr. Wen Ho Lee, "My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused," sees similarities with the Lee case. "Both are Chinese Americans who worked for the government in classified, highly sensitive settings, and they were both accused and arrested for possession or mishandling of classified information -- which immediately turned to accusations of espionage and even treason." But the army chaplain is more vulnerable, she says. "Yee is also Muslim, with a Syrian-born wife, at a time when the U.S. is at war in the Middle East."

With so little information forthcoming, many Chinese Americans are left to speculate about the case. Ted Wang, director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco, says that he doesn't trust government leaks: "What is leaked from the government is often worse than what they can prove."

If he had the chance, Wang would ask dozens of questions of Pentagon officials. "What specifically did Captain Yee do that violated military rules or other civil laws? Was he aware that the information he had was confidential? Were those rules spelled out?"

"What exactly was his assignment in the prison camp?" asks Professor Wang. "What are the 'lists' of names in his possession? What are the 'maps' he had at the time of his arrest? Could the 'lists' be the names of people he counseled as chaplain? Could the 'maps' be the various facilities in which his advisees are housed? Did he see or find out something in Guantanamo the public is not supposed to know?"

Helen Zia, too, wonders "whether Chaplain Yee was on his way to Amnesty International or the news media with his alleged documents about Camp Delta. Could he have been acting out of some humanitarian sense? Would that constitute espionage or treason?"

In the meantime, many Chinese familiar with the Wen Ho Lee case fear a trial by media. "The New York Times and TV news found Dr. Lee guilty before he was even indicted," says Cecilia Chan, head of Justice for New Americans, an immigrant-rights groups in San Francisco. "He lost his job even before he went to trial. I don't want the media making the same mistake by waging a witchhunt against Captain Yee."

The effect of the arrests of Dr. Lee and other Chinese scientists due to racial profiling, Chan adds, "is that now, few Asians want to join government institutions. How many Chinese will want to go to West Point if they see what's happening to Capt. Yee?"

Phil Ting, director of Asian Law Caucus, is also watching the case with concern. "The New York Times article about Yee insinuates certain amount of guilt already," he says. Ting adds that in some ways, Captain Yee's situation is worse than Dr. Lee's because after 9/11, government power over civilian and military personnel increased. "If it's a closed military tribunal, I wonder if Yee will be getting due process."

Asian Americans are more vulnerable after 9/11, says Zia. "At times of heightened government scrutiny, the clergy are among the first to be rounded up. Faith communities should be especially concerned. Unfortunately for Chaplain Yee, he's facing a double whammy, being Chinese and Muslim." But everyone has a right to a fair and open trial, she says, "to be treated as innocent until proven guilty."

Andrew Lam (lam@pacificnews.org), an editor at PNS, is a journalist and short story writer.

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