Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Diverse Face of American Excellence

An article a few weeks ago in the Washington Post made an observation and asked a rhetorical question, specifically "Indian Americans dominate the National Spelling Bee. Why should they take abuse on social media for it?" The article touched on the uncanny success of Americans of Indian descent in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, some theories around why this demographic has fared so well in this competition and the abhorrent backlash from a racist segment of American society who have found their success worthy of angst as opposed to pride, with such comments as:
  • “The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN”
  • “No American sounding names who won the spelling B. #sad#fail”
  • “We need an american to win this spelling bee #tiredofindians”
  • wow that blows the spelling bee ends with a tie thats so friggin un-American no wonder the kids that won it are Indian
  • Nothing more American than a good spelling bee.. Oh wait all the Caucasians are eliminated
I'll pause for a second and take us to the world of sports, where the United States Men's Soccer Team stunned a strong Netherlands team 4-3 in Amsterdam in a recent "friendly" match. For those who are not terribly versed in the sport, a win over Netherlands on their home pitch is quite a feat. For all of our American athletic prowess, success has eluded the National Team for decades, and there's a new tide of optimism with the leadership of Jurgen Klinsmann, a former German star player and coach who is a permanent resident in California, where he lives with his American-born wife and children.

As the National Team has shown some signs of stark improvement, it's been clear that it's benefit from a infusion of talent from overseas. For the World Cup squad in 2014, Klinsmann heavily leaned on talent like Jermaine Jones, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler and Julian Green. That might not sound like a big deal, until you realize that Jones, Brooks, Johnson, Chandler and Green are all German-Americans, born from American servicemen fathers and German mothers who spent most of their lives in Germany. But when it comes to soccer, they proudly wear the red, white and blue.

For the most part, nobody has questioned the legitimacy of their team membership. Nobody seemed to gripe about a dual-citizen born in foreign land taking a precious team spot away from a young lad born and bred in the heartland of the United States. For Americans glued to their television sets last summer, nobody bothered checking the national origin of the player wearing the U.S. kit as they streaked down the sideline with the ball. They simply rooted for the players because they knew they were playing for "their" team. 

How is the case of the Indian-American Spelling Bee champions different than that of the German-American Men's National Soccer Team? I'd speculate that race is a key factor. The fact of the matter is that despite the racial demographics in this country, the prevailing perception remains that to be American is to be "white" or maybe "black" or Hispanic. East Asian? South Asian? Not quite. I'll give an example how I know this is true. I can still encounter people in this country who will ask me (despite being born in New Jersey and speaking perfect English) "Where are you from?" I'd speculate that not too many of my Caucasian friends get that. It's not ill-willed or malicious in the least - but it does hint at an implication that because I'm not Caucasian, I'm not from "here".

Another more innocuous factor is that while the Men's National Soccer Team is a team effort representing the nation, the Spelling Bee is an individual pursuit of glory. I can appreciate that. But for a country that allegedly prides itself in the spirit of hard work and pursuit of excellence, the rancor seems awfully misplaced. When Scorsese, De Niro and Pacino win Academy Awards, where's the anger that Italian-Americans are cornering the Oscar market? Let's call a spade a spade. It's racism, plain and simple.

But I remain hopeful. A century and a century and a half ago, Italian-American and Irish-Americans also faced hostility as outcasts, victimized by nativist sentiments. But eventually, they became incorporated and accepted as part of the mainstream (yes, one can argue that as they became part of the mainstream, they became part of the oppressive class which demonized the next class of immigrants, but that's for another discussion). I have hope that there will be a time where everyone will look upon and celebrate the success of Indian-Americans, Chinese-Americans and all "hypenated" Americans as, well, simply American achievements, period.

Someday in the future, this will be the immediate instinctive reaction to the aforementioned tweets:
  • “The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN”
  • “No American sounding names who won the spelling B. #sad#fail”
What are you talking about? You can't get more American than "Hathwar" and "Sujoe". Just like "Cho", "Feinberg", "O'Malley", "Spano", "Wong", "Keller", "El-Aminu" and "Smith".
  • “We need an american to win this spelling bee #tiredofindians”
Great news! Sriram and Ansun are from New York and Texas, respectively, which are both in the United States of America. You may be looking at an incorrectly printed program which lists their residences as Hyderabad and Delhi.  
  • wow that blows the spelling bee ends with a tie thats so friggin un-American no wonder the kids that won it are Indian
Agree with you that a tie can be like kissing your sister. But I can think of few virtues as American as hard work, which these American kids certainly modeled.
  • Nothing more American than a good spelling bee.. Oh wait all the Caucasians are eliminated
Don't get the relation between your two sentences. In another observation signifying nothing, many of the other American subgroups, including East Asians, Arab, Hispanic and Black Americans have also been eliminated. But hey, since all of the competitors are American (despite your ability to recognize as such), we're guaranteed an American win! 'Murica!


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What Kids Teach Us About Incentives

Taking the training wheels off of a kid's bike is a rite of passage of sorts. It marks a milestone in physical aptitude and also serves as a life analogy of any skill which requires practice and perseverance to master. There's a great deal of trepidation and hesitation before taking those training wheels off, and convincing a child of the upside of doing so is a challenge in of itself. For my two daughters, they had wallowed in their training-wheel state much longer than necessary and I was prepared to do something about it.

My youngest daughter celebrated a birthday about a month ago, and I came up with the idea of getting her a new bicycle. Even with her small stature, she was ready to graduate from her ten-inch bike and I thought it would complement all of the clothes she had received from her grandparents.

On the day of her birthday, I told her about my gift idea and on the spur of the moment, came up with a slight twist.

"Carissa, mommy and I are going to give you a bicycle for your birthday and you can pick out the one you want. But we want you to be able to ride without training wheels on your old (smaller) bike before we give you your new one. Okay?"

She paused for a second, and to my surprise asked, "Can I ride without training wheels today?" Obviously, she didn't want to waste one minute in delayed gratification in getting her new bike. With a brand new bike ready for the taking, she was going to get master riding on two wheel, skinned knees and elbows be damned.

So that afternoon, Carissa and I got ready to head out to the nearby school parking lot to practice two-wheel bike riding when her older sister asked us what we were doing. When told that her younger sister was going to bike without training wheels, Sophia bolted to attention and insisted that she join, as well, and that I remove the training wheels from her own bicycle. Of course, what older sister could live with the humiliation riding on trailing wheels behind a little sister who cycled freely without them?

In that parking lot, I've never seen such motivation and drive from my daughters, as they worked to gain momentum and balance themselves. My son and I ran with and pushed our daughters back and forth as they steadied themselves. They fell on occasion, but within an hour or so, they had reasonably gotten the hang of it. I was a proud dad,

I also enjoyed witnessing a reminder of human nature and how we respond to incentives. After failing to cajole my daughters into abandon their training wheels time after time, they ultimately responded to two things. Carissa was jolted into action with the promise of new bike and Sophia was jolted into action by the spirit of competition, perhaps mixed in the fear of humiliation of having her younger sister mastering this skill before she did.

In many ways, this is the the often seen analogy of the "carrot" (positive reinforcement) and the "stick" (negative reinforcement). Every day in my life, I'm driven to do things because of the promise of what I may find at the top of the mountain which I'm climbing. I'm also driven to do things because I fear the consequences of failure. And like Sophia, I am prone to using others as a measuring stick. The spirit of competition has the potential to be destructive, no doubt, but when used right, can be an effective source of drive and energy in the pursuit of things which are good and virtuous.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Pathway to Becoming an Eternal Horror

If you've been following the news at all over the past months, you're well aware of the atrocities being perpetrated by ISIS in the Middle East, ranging from military assaults on civilian targets to the systematic execution of anyone who doesn't subscribe to their particular ideology. Front and center in a number of the videotaped beheadings of hostages is "Jihadi John", who has been identified as Kuwaiti-born Londoner named Mohammed Emwazi, educated in a fairly typical English school system and university before becoming radicalized into his current persona.

What was interesting was how little of Mohammed Emwazi's upbringing foreshadowed his foray into radical and murderous religious fanaticism. He grew with up with parents and siblings in West London after immigrating from Kuwait, and even his parents have expressed shock of what their son has become.

Some speculate that Mohammed's radicalization began during his perceived mistreatment by British authorities during a planned holiday to East Africa shortly after graduating from university, and that this led to a smoldering bitterness and distrust towards Westerners and desire to strike back at real or perceived injustices.

There's a theory called the Butterfly Effect, which posits that seemingly small changes in state in a period of time can have much broader and significant ramifications in the future, illustrated by the flapping of a butterfly's wings ultimately having profound impacts upon weather systems further down the road. Applying the Butterfly Effect to Mohammed Emwazi's evolution to Jihadi John, it's interesting to think that an overzealous British airport security staffer struck such a nerve in a 21-year old boy to the point that a confluence of emotions, rhetoric and paranoia yielded the man who gleefully beheads hostages on video.

To be clear, I'm not in any way casting blame upon the atrocities committed by Emwazi or another radical Islamist on Western prejudice, aggression or racism. What I am pointing out is that terrorists are not merely born, but they encounter things in the course of their lives - both good and bad - which mold their heart, minds and souls towards particular callings and principles. For Emwazi, his external stimuli (encounters, education and indoctrination) mixed with his own perceptions and predispositions led him to radical Islam. And it's entirely conceivable that there were those (both Muslim and non-Muslim) who, through word and deed, didn't dissuade him from the perception that Westerners hated Muslims and radical Islam was a necessary response.

C.S. Lewis once said, "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors." I've always read that as an encouragement to take seriously every interaction I have with someone, recognizing that because of the Butterfly Effect, my words and actions can have downstream effects on that person's life and impact upon others. Can my words and action motivate or somehow encourage one to live an upstanding and righteous life? Or will my encounter leave another angry, bitter or darkened to respond to this world with strife or harm?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fear of Falling

A few weeks ago, the family decided to trek out to New Mexico for Spring Break. It was a welcome break for me, in the light of heaps of craziness at work and our usual share of frenzied activity at home. The trip's highlights included sightseeing in Santa Fe, skiing in Taos and exploring Carlsbad Caverns, a magnificent experience of natural beauty. As much as I enjoyed those stops, I may have found the greatest joy in family conversations and laughter during the long drive across West Texas and making and sharing Texas-shaped waffles at the Fairfield Inn. It might be cheesy but true, the best part of my vacation was simply being with my family.

Skiing was interesting. It was the first time for every member of the family and predictably, the kids were far faster learners than the adults. As I had been warmed, my wife and I didn't enjoy ourselves much the first day (though some of that could be attributed to the oxygen deprivation at the higher altitude, leading to a wicked migraine my first night). By the second day, we were maneuvering passably well on the beginner's slope, not without an occasional fall or two. What I did conclude was that skiing really isn't that hard - it's stopping that's hard. Or put another way, it's pretty easy to glide fast down the side of a mountain. Trying to to traverse and make wide turns to slow momentum - that's tough to do.

As I watched my son glide down steep hills with verve and ease, I couldn't help but consider the broader lesson being revealed. Everyone had accurately predicted that our kids were going to pick up skiing faster than we would. The conventional wisdom on why kids pick it up faster is not simply because of their reduced weight and lower center of gravity. What primarily makes kids better skiers is their lack of fear. Instead of the instinct which causes one (namely, me) to over-rotate a turn in a panicked and desperate attempt to slow myself down before I break the sound barrier, my kids will simply turn without missing a beat. Yes, the mass and center of gravity thing give my kids an advantage and perhaps that helps mitigate any fear they might have.

So it is in life. There is a weight in my decisions which can paralyze and create mountains of anxiety. When I make decisions, I am prone to considering the downstream implications. What will this do to my career? How will this impact my wife? How will this impact my children? What if this decision is completely wrong? What sort of contingencies can I make in case plans go awry? By then, it's entirely possible that I've psyched myself out of a rational and confident decision because of a fear of making the wrong decision. In many ways, it's fear, not lack of ability, which causes failure.

Here's where I would do well to emulate my kids and their skiing approach. Without fear they see the turn and make the turn. They react without fear, not over-analyzing or being paralyzed by hypothetical scenarios. And while it's true that they can do so because they have so little to lose (and will softly fall), it's worth me remembering that faith, not fear, is what will most enable me to get down that slope in one piece.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dealing With Death

A few weeks ago for my son's birthday, my wife and I deliberated on the right gift. Our son Daniel's first choice was an electric scooter, but the thought of him being goaded into stupid risks by neighborhood chums was frightening enough for us to veto that. As a second choice, he asked us if we would consider buying him a pet, specifically a more "cuddly" and interactive one after short stints with a fiddler crab and a minnow. I didn't receive the suggestion with much enthusiasm. My daughters and I deal with varying degrees of allergies to pet dander, but after some cajoling, our family made its way to the local PetSmart to consider our options.

At the store, Daniel asked about a parakeet, but the store employee warned us that birds typically were a bad choice for allergy sufferers, as the molting of the feathers created a great deal of dander. We then asked Daniel to consider a reptile in consideration for our allergies. We found out that the turtles were massive (apparently the small red slider turtles I had once procured from Chinatown many years ago were illegal) and required weekly full aquarium cleanings (scratch turtle of the list). The tortoise was priced at $90 (nope, not going to do that).

So despite my concerns about allergies, we eventually converged on the choice to buy a hamster, specifically a Chinese dwarf hamster. I reasoned that I could mitigate the allergy problems with a HEPA filter and frankly, I had owned a hamster as a child and managed through it okay.

So our son excitedly got his hamster and thoroughly enjoyed his pet, affectionately named "Winnie". Daniel and his sisters would have their eyes glued to every movement of the creature, tracking it as it scurried around its cage, drank from its water bottle and ran in its wheel. But only ten days later, things came to a tragic end.

I was at work when I got a text from my wife.

"Sad news," it read. I stopped typing on my laptop at work, picked my iPhone and waited with bated breath.

"Winnie passed away. Daniel is inconsolable."

I picked up my office phone and called home, first to talk to my wife and then to Daniel. I had only a few minutes to share my sympathies with my son before having to run to a meeting.

Later that evening, my son was still saddened by his loss, but I wouldn't categorize him as devastated or despondent. They managed to wait for me to, uh, perform funeral duties Winnie, so I figured it would be helpful for Daniel to join me. Together, we put Winnie's body into a paper towel and created a makeshift shroud, secured by masking tape. We trudged out to our backyard into the rain with a shovel and together dug a small hole at the base of a tree. Daniel placed Winnie into the hole and we filled it back up.

I looked at my son. "Daniel, do you want to say a few words? Maybe a little prayer? Maybe you can thank God for the brief time you had together."

Daniel paused and folded his hands and prayed pretty much verbatim what I had suggested, and we walked back in the house.

That evening, we talked briefly about death, and while I didn't want to force the conversation, I did want to take this opportunity to understand some of his thoughts. I think he was still very much processing losing his pet, and for better or for worse, the brevity of time he had with Winnie might have taken some of the sting away. I did remind him that death was something which we're always going to experience around us, and ultimately to us. I also told him that death is a hard reminder to be grateful not just for the time we have with friends and family (in particular, our grandparents and older relatives), but for each day that we ourselves get to experience life.

I was probably preaching that to myself, as well.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Rights and Responsibilities of Expression

Just before the Christmas holiday, there was a lot of buzz around a cyberattack on Sony Studios in retaliation for their film, "The Interview", a comedy which depicts a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In a nutshell, the cyberattack (purportedly from North Korean-affiliated hackers) was initially comprised of the leaking of proprietary material, including personal data and e-mail correspondence casting both studio executives and Hollywood celebrities in bad light, before it escalated to ominous threats hinting at 9/11-type attacks. Nervous movie theater chains opted not to show the movie, which led to an uproar from an odd alliance of progressives and conservatives who were furious that freedom of expression was being threatened through intimidation. 

I also found it offensive that a rogue country could successfully strong arm the most powerful free democracy in the world to force its citizenry to not watch a movie. My reasoning was pretty straightforward: I may have no desire to see "The Interview", but Kim Jong Un has absolutely no right to make that decision for me. 

Over a holiday meal with my extended family, I appreciated hearing a slightly nuanced take on the topic from my brother, who thought it was in poor taste and offensive to depict the assassination of any sitting world leader, even one as fascist and deplorable as Kim Jong Un. My perspective was that while it might be deeply offensive, it didn't warrant censorship and certainly not threatened or actual crime against person or property. I cited that while I was a student of the University of Pennsylvania, Andres Serano's "Piss Christ" exhibit (depicting a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine) came to town and there was enormous pressure that this had no place in a civilized society. As a Christian, I found it offensive, but realized that as long as we want to live in a world which I could share my ideas and even my faith, to prevent the expression of something deemed offensive to me personally was a dangerous slippery slope.

Fast forward to last week, where the stakes around freedom and expression and outrage manifesting itself in violence jumped to a horrifying level, when two radicalized Islamist terrorists killed 12 in an attack aimed at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which in addition to its equal-opportunity impertinent attacks on politicians, religions and celebrities of all walks of life, on numerous occasions mocked the most sacred of figures in Islam, the Prophet Mohammed. Some of these depictions included Mohammed with the body and a dog, or Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban, both highly blasphemous and offensive to those adherents to this religious faith.

So while I reiterate my condemnation and rejection of any violence of people or property in response to being offended in the course of freedom of expression, I wonder if we can appreciate the complexities and nuances in a society which also values diversity and goodwill.

In the midst of the outrage and outpouring of support by stating "Je Suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie"), are we standing for free expression without any regard for the deep offense and marginalization for Muslims who found the depictions hurtful? Or put another way, if a black man had in a rage killed Ku Klux Klan Wizard James Earl Ray for lighting cross on fire in his own front lawn, would we all march with signs saying "I am James" in honor of him being a martyr for his freedom of expression? I somehow doubt it.

Do those who think that Muslims should "lighten up" or "not take such offense" at bawdy descriptions of their most sacred figure similarly think that the Westboro Church chanting "God hates fags" at military funerals are also harmless in their freedom of expression? Are we consistent in the defense of freedom of expression when we are most offended?

I also wonder if in our embrace of freedom of expression, we've lost the responsibility which comes along with it. Do we speak provocatively because we think we can make positive change through our words, or do we do so simply to provoke? Or simply because we want to prove that we have the right to speak provocatively? Sadly, we've seemed to have lost the ability to have spirited, yet respectful, discourse on the topics which divide us. By all means, have the conversations and speak boldly and forcefully, but let's try to have a point besides offending people we don't happen to regard.

I came across the following on the ACLU website, and while I'd say that I may not see eye-to-eye on everything that they do or stand for, I deeply appreciate their consistency of principles, some of which has been placed in this memo regarding "hate speech on campus", which I think can be applied more broadly to society:
Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible: When one of us is denied this right, all of us are denied. Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has fought for the free expression of all ideas, popular or unpopular. That's the constitutional mandate... 
Defending First Amendment rights for the enemies of civil liberties and civil rights means defending it for you and me... 
ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser stated, in a speech at the City College of New York: "There is no clash between the constitutional right of free speech and equality. Both are crucial to society. Universities ought to stop restricting speech and start teaching.
Let's all keep talking. Let's all keep listening. And let's be consistent in how we value the rights and responsibilities of our freedom of expression.