Observations in China

In Thoughts on March 28, 2016 by bargerbarger

It is in little things that reflect the underlying culture of a country.

The subway in Shanghai, though not comparable to places like Tokyo or Hong Kong yet, is getting better. Often times, it is better than the taking the taxi due to the traffic jams. The annoucement of coming station is usually accompanied with “请往左/右边下车” (please alight on the left/right). I usually have to take twice to get to the correct door anyway because, depending on where I face, right side can be the wrong side. That’s like most other cities anyway, so there’s nothing to complain, except in good ‘ol Germany. In Germany, the annoucement is always “Aussteigen in Fahrtrichtung links/rechts” (Exit on the right in the direction of travel) . To be sure, that annoucement can sound a little awkward in English, but not in German. It is in these little details that the preciseness of the German folks shine through, and this in turn made “Made in Germany” such a coveted term.

I wonder, however, how this unwillingness to accept ambiguity can be a hindrance to the development. The next wave of Big Data, Machine Learning, Quantum Computing involves a lot of probability and heuristic method, which basically are ways to deal with ambiguity, but not to solve it.


Talking about the wave, Germany (or Europe/Rest of World in general)  has missed out on the internet age. By missing out, I mean most of the infrastructure, tools and apps are created by American companies. Many attempts were made – but supporting local start-ups and enforcing monopoly regulations didn’t help much. Except for one – blocking.

The Great Wall of China has been criticised as a draconian tool to supress human rights, but it also acts as an incubator for the internet start-ups. Often started as clones, many are now arguably superior and more profitable now. I’m impressed each time on how usable Youku, Wechat,  Baidu Maps are, and that’s just a tiny selection of what’s available. This wouldn’t have been possible if all the big guys are allowed to compete in China.

I wonder, perhaps a decade from now, this will be included in MBA course as a case study about the limitation of free market.


Talking about internet age, there is a flip-side for it. Productivity increase has always been a basic component for economy growth. In the modern economy, low-productivity jobs such as door opener, security guard, elevator “button presser” etc. are rare. Besides the obvious monetary benefits, I think another personal motivation to avoid such jobs is that it is simply mind-numbingly boring.

I still see many such jobs in Shanghai. The difference is, many of them are now equipped with a smartphone (usually 5 inches and above – tips for product designers), allowing them to burn time with movies, games or chatting.

I wonder, although internet liberates information, can it be a trap for some?


That weird feeling

In A new category on July 31, 2015 by bargerbarger

I like the feeling of knowing something. So to satisfy that urge, I try to read just about everything that I can find my hands on. I like to being able to cite some human phenomon, such as “confirmation bias” and whatever with an exotic name, when I see it happening around my friends.  I guess this is what it means to be a Klugscheißer, which basically means being a smart ass.

But of course, the feeling of knowing is different from feeling what you know.

It’s one thing knowing that it is happening when I see that extra stripe on that stick. But it becomes something else when listening to the heart beat for the first time (albeit a simulated one, using the doppler effect….. see, the Klugscheißer in me).

That weird feeling.

It’s one thing knowing that it is supposed to be moving around that particular week. But it is really something else when really feeling that kick against my hand, and even stopping for a moment to allow me to caress it before disappearing again.

It is not just a physical touch, it is that weird feeling.

Feeling that leakage in the carefully constructed wall, it is paramount to plug the holes before it becomes a flood. But it is all in vain, just when I thought I had pulled joy back into the walls, anxiety decided to do a jail break, bringing along insecurity, worry, happiness and his friends along.

Knowledge puffs up, said Paul in the bible. It is true indeed. Arming myself with all the theories was the best way to prepare for it, until the “enemy” feeling comes like a flood and no theory will work against it. Lost the battle but there’s still hope for the war? I guess surrendering might be a better solution, because no matter what I do, this “defeat” will probably be a permanent thing for the rest of my life.


Oh that damn feeling.


Even adults can’t answer

In Thoughts on April 13, 2015 by bargerbarger


Another viral question circling around the web, causing debate about the answer (July 16, duh.) and also why such questions appear in an exam for primary 5 students (seems like it’s Olympiad question).

But what struck me was one of the headlines, “stumps adults”.

It reminds me of the time when I was wandering in the bookshop in Shanghai and was truly stumped by the math questions for primary students.

I believed most adults would be stumped by most questions in the school nowadays, latest by secondary schools.

Which just beg the question, why is anyone surprised by being stumped by test question? And the next question –  If most fully functional and capable adults cannot answer the questions, then what is the point for those questions?

Here in Germany, many educators are still speaking about “Pisa-shock”, after they were ranked pretty badly internationally in the test. So many efforts were made in the past years to bring them up the ranks.

How can they not be down the rank? Kids learn no academic stuff in kindergarten (no tables and chairs), alphabet only when they are at primary school at 6, no spelling lessons (write as you feel like it) in the first few years, and decimal points when at 11. So how is it possible to score well at the age of 15?

German’s prowess in engineering and many other fields need no reminding. Many articles have been written about not destroying children’s creativity. I see it in my own god-son in his maturity and logic strength as a five year old, even though he can barely count to ten (probably 20 or 30 now)

But surely there are some merits in the drilling system? The discipline? The grit? Also, is it even possible to raise a child in a “drilling” system differently? What about his or her confidence when the peers raced in front? Ignoring the system would probably not work.

Looking into the German system, there are some doggy areas as well. While the system teaches independent thinking and so on, it is designed to nurture people in different professions – from mechanics to hairdresser to lab technician to plumber etc. Pretty much around the age of ten, the fate of the child is determined. The society is quite egalitarian, so everyone gets by pretty well, unlike many other society where people of such professions barely scrap by.

Then who are the richer ones? Who are the elites? As the rest of the world, the ones with degrees, of course. Any degrees? Surely not, engineering + medicine + law etc. would be better. Any school? Surely not, the elite schools would be better. How to get in? Of course only by good Arbitur (A-level) results, but not any A-levels, only from Gymnasium (which is top kind of school, there are 3 kinds of schools in Germany). How to get in? The easiest way is to be sorted into it at the age of 10. How to be sorted in? By showing good academic results at the age of 10 (!)….. which leads to the last question, how to get good academic results? By teaching the child the damn alphabets and numbers and spelling and decimals while they’re young.

As a society, the system is a success. I’m convinced that no way else you can find better mechanics, plumber and so on, and by no means I’m disrespecting any of these professions. But as an individual, it is really not easy to answer the question – how to raise a child to give him/her the best possible future?


Creeping in

In Uncategorized on May 18, 2014 by bargerbarger

The question that has been lingering in my mind, our minds for the past few years now is – where next, what next?

It’s a sort of anticipation, feels a little adventurous and admittedly, a little of unsettled, lost wandering.

Several years ago when I first arrived in this year, it was a beautiful city but not a place to settle.

Yesterday, I was jogging alone, across the bridge and over the lake. As the first summer sun was blanketing the surface of lake and the cool breeze brushing my face, I thought to myself “what a wonderful place”

And that was an unsettling thought. I guess sometimes a city can creep into your system.


a little de…tached

In Thoughts on August 17, 2013 by bargerbarger

Spending weekend alone in a foreign city is bound to be coupled with a certain amount of loneliness. Back home, staying inside the house during the weekend seems like the most normal and relaxing thing to do. Staying inside my hotel room though, seems wrong. Even though it is probably the quietest spot in Shanghai, I’m just not yet to succumb to the notion that I already knew was pretty much true – that I have no life. I got to get out.

I like to people-watch. In different cities, in different countries, it’s nice to just watch the stream of people passing through. I always try to imagine the things that are going through the minds. Each one has a story, each look has a meaning. Parents, lovers, single people – they each have a story to tell, dreams to fulfill, problems to solve, and perhaps debts to pay off…

In Germany, everyone knows what the PISA scandal is. It is a study published about 10 years ago that quantified the ability of the students in mathematical and reading skills. Germany, surprisingly at that time, placed much lower than expected. Since then, a reform has started. But back then, no one could accept that countries like South Korea and Shanghai (well, no a country, but close enough) placed much higher. As human nature goes, there were comic strips in the newspapers depicting white kids having happy and fulfilling childhood, while the Asian kids are like robots being churned out from factories.

The stories and the conversations that I hear here tells me a different story. It’s filled with hope and aspiration. Life is hard, no doubt about it – rent is bulging while salary ticks up slowly. But everyone works so hard, not necessary effectively, but hard. Accepting hardship humbly for a brighter future, wisely or foolishly, has always been a characteristic of the Chinese culture.

I also see a changing society. People are actually lining up for subways, even giving up their seats for kids and elderly – something that I couldn’t imagine just a year ago. Spitting around is also slowly disappearing. Shanghai is not China but that’s not the point – societal change is a powerful force.

And then the familiar feeling of detachment flooded upon me. Since leaving Malaysia, I have gone from holding on to my identity, to accepting the foreign elements, to realizing that I would never really integrate, to understanding that I could never really turn back either, to wondering whether I am really on my own now.

The answer is probably no. Homi Bhabha wrote about the Third Space Theory a long way back. There are many like me. The problem I have however, is that I don’t perceive it as a space, more like a room, or worse, a spot, alone. Could it be pride, a silent ego that tells me that I’m unique? I don’t know, I just kinda wanna find some like-minded souls.

Detachment happens to be also my greatest strength in my career. Not being attached to a single culture allows me to see each of them clearly. It is easy to slip into a new group, to understand, to empathize, to cooperate and to succeed. It is easy to let others think I am one of their own. It is not lying or putting on a mask, it is simply that I’m showing one side. The side that is most familiar to them.

But in my private moments, I want to show the whole of me. It kinda reminds me of those love stories where one says “I can be myself when I am with him/her”. It also reminds me of those toys where kids have to fit the right shape into the right hole. Perhaps it is the Asian side of me, where the desire to fit in pops up once in a while.

But what if I am like a Play-Doh that has been molded and remolded so many times, that some parts of it always fit into something, but never completely?

Well then, I guess I would be a little de…tached.


A little disconnected

In Thoughts on August 2, 2013 by bargerbarger

Moving around is an opportunity to see new things, a chance to meet new people, a way to experience contrasts in the world. Somehow, it could also leave you a little disconnected.

Well, I just came home after 12 hours work which includes 5 hours of driving, so I’m probably a little disorriented and probably a little melancholic.

I’m usually pretty proud of the fact that I have shfited around quite a bit in the past 10,11 years. A sign of flexibility and adaptability, which are things that all employers are looking for nowadays. It is probably this reason, plus all those cultural and speech background that I brought along, why I am in my current job now. My job involves coordinating projects and technology transfers between different countries. This, I must say, is extremely intresting and a tremendous opportunity.

Yesterday was my two years anniversary at my current job. In the past two years, as a side effect of my job, I have collected a Senator card for flights, a Gold card for hotels and a Elite card for cars. The person who thought up loyalty program must be a genius, because it does create a sense of pride. And I even caught myself, in a desperate effort to secure a last minute seat recently, muttering the words “I am a Senator”.

Whether it is all just hedonistic emptiness, it is indeed pretty cool. With the risk of being a big asshole, walking past the long line to board the plane is pretty cool. The same with collecting the car key and just walking off to the sight of many watching eyes. It gets numb after a while, but it was only a little while ago that “Ryanair is 20€ cheaper than Easyjet”. Now it’s “Marriott’s bed is softer than Hilton’s”.

What a bragging post, but that’s not my purpose. I’m not rich, either. If only travel benefits could translate to paychecks. I guess I’m writing this down as a sort of diary. It’s been so long and honestly, it has not been easy to find someone to connect with.

And that, is the point of the post I guess. Moving around has also leaves me a little disconnected. And I must say, I am more than a little afraid that this might turn into a permanent situation.

From my best friend, my wife has kinda, in a sad or good way, turn into my only friend. In a positive way, this could be because we know each other so so well that any other people just don’t come close to any way. In the relative sense, she is indeed my only friend. In another way, this could also means that I am simply not making enough effort to get connected to the people around. Perhaps it is a combination of a new town + lots of travelling, I have not been able to have a circle of close friends. Perhaps it could be that everyone else that I know is busy pursuing a career than social mingling is not of a priority. Perhaps I have too many colleage-friends that conflict of interest is stopping us from getting closer.

When I surf around Facebook, and looking at the lives of friends in Malaysia, I sometimes wonder, could it be better? All the pictures of gathering in a restaurant with nice food, wedding pictures etc. speaks a happy stories. But what about the life stories behind? I kinda miss the blogging culture before Facebook where real feelings and thoughts are being expressed. The “snippets” and “moment” culture now feels a little swallow.

Not sure where I am heading now. Part of me wants myself to remember this melacholic feeling. A good sleep and a weekend rest later, and I would be recharged and motivated again. All these would just be an episode that lingers at the back of my mind.

But I hope that I would look back sometime ahead, and if things don’t change – then perhaps it’s time – for me to change.

*Another place around the world perhaps?




Hindrances towards unity

In Uncategorized on January 14, 2013 by bargerbarger

Being back to Malaysia this time, I asked many friends about the sentiment about the elections. The relatively big success of the opposition party was quite unexpected, but this time, the expectation and more correctly, the hope is bigger. But as they say, the bigger the expectation, the larger the disappointment. Even a bigger slice of the government might not be satisfying.

I personally like the direction of this, as racial based governing has held back Malaysia in so many areas. But is it naive to think that equality in the policies without wisdom and prudence would give us a peaceful society? What would have happened if we didn’t have positive discrimination 40 years ago? Civil wars?

Well, there isn’t point in arguing about the past. A new government does not necessarily mean a more equal and more importantly, a more united society. And there are indeed many fundamental differences that keep driving us apart.

The first one is language. Language is the soul of a nation, bahasa jiwa bangsa, and that is really true. You really can’t find a nation on this world with so many mother tongues. Switzerland is an exception but those languages are really not that different. Most Hispanics in America speak English like native speakers anyway, and those that don’t are really becoming a problem for the country.

But what could be done? Having Chinese and Indian as the medium in primary school has always been touted as the big compromise and big success by our forefathers. But what has it led to, children who grow up not any contacts with the other races, who could pass the Malay exam flawlessly but can’t even speak a few sentences properly. That includes me by the way.

What about a second big compromise? To change all schools back to single medium, to abolish private, or semi private schools so that everyone gets the same incentives from the government? Personally I don’t think that it is feasible. It would probably be latched upon by activist as another oppression by the government, as indeed, the execution probably so flawed the results would bring more harm than good. The pride of the races cannot be treated lightly.

Another problem is the language as a tool for science and technology. If we are too have a common language, it should also be useful isn’t it? Any Malaysia Chinese who has been to China would probably realized how badly they speak Chinese. Imagine having to go thru university in an all Chinese course, not many can stomach that. What about Malay? Without any intention of insult, I think we have to accept the reality that the language is still young and is not suitable for higher learning. Just watch the different billboard hanging around the highways of KL. Suit is translating to Sut, jacket to jaket, respect to respekt and the examples are plenty. In science and technology, so many words are borrowed that it is not longer practical. I can’t speak about Hindi and Tamil. But I guessed the fact that Indians from different regions speak English with one another speaks volume about the issue.

That just leave an obvious candidate, English. Without wanting to elaborate on the superiority of the language in every aspect, there is one extremely point about it – no one has anything to lose when it comes to pride. No cultural pride to lose, no 5000 years of history to boast about. Language of the colonial British? We were all servants to them then. No Britain could understand our English anyway.

The fact is, this is not new at all. English has been the medium till the sixties, seventies. English is used commonly more and more in universities. A lost chance that I see was the aborted test in using English as the medium for science and mathematics years ago. For me, it would have been more prudent to introduce gradually instead of dropping this on everyone, including teachers in the rural areas. And even if they realized it only too late, it probably would have been better to pull it from someone and not everyone.

Could this bring unity to the country? There are signs that point to it – interracial communication are done a little more commonly in English. But being out of the country, I really have no right to comment on that. Another sign is language on TV, when you see different races hosting a show together, it is more commonly in English than Malay.

Perhaps it will move towards this direction naturally, perhaps not. If the top leaders on the country do a little soul searching in this aspect, it might bring about better policies in regulating this. But I know, politics is not rational and things don’t happen just because they are better. And indeed, there are many other issues as hindrances toward unity.