Thursday, May 24, 2007

Here's another piece from Tom Friedman at the New York Times. He brings up some very valid points. When I see what is happening here in China, America's future seems dubious in the best of light.

**Please note: For those of you concerned about America opening its borders and letting in crazed jihadists, gun happy Korean kids and janitorial job-stealers, bear in mind that Friedman is talking about giving PhD graduates greencards. Of course, he argues for looser regulation, generally, but the aim of this piece deals with intellectual resource that America is developing and then losing...
Laughing and Crying
Published: May 23, 2007

First I had to laugh. Then I had to cry. I took part in commencement this year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of America’s great science and engineering schools, so I had a front-row seat as the first grads to receive their diplomas came on stage, all of them Ph.D. students. One by one the announcer read their names and each was handed their doctorate — in biotechnology, computing, physics and engineering — by the school’s president, Shirley Ann Jackson.

The reason I had to laugh was because it seemed like every one of the newly minted Ph.D.’s at Rensselaer was foreign born. For a moment, as the foreign names kept coming — “Hong Lu, Xu Xie, Tao Yuan, Fu Tang” — I thought that the entire class of doctoral students in physics were going to be Chinese, until “Paul Shane Morrow” saved the day. It was such a caricature of what President Jackson herself calls “the quiet crisis” in high-end science education in this country that you could only laugh.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud that our country continues to build universities and a culture of learning that attract the world’s best minds. My complaint — why I also wanted to cry — was that there wasn’t someone from the Immigration and Naturalization Service standing next to President Jackson stapling green cards to the diplomas of each of these foreign-born Ph.D.’s. I want them all to stay, become Americans and do their research and innovation here. If we can’t educate enough of our own kids to compete at this level, we’d better make sure we can import someone else’s, otherwise we will not maintain our standard of living.

It is pure idiocy that Congress will not open our borders — as wide as possible — to attract and keep the world’s first-round intellectual draft choices in an age when everyone increasingly has the same innovation tools and the key differentiator is human talent. I’m serious. I think any foreign student who gets a Ph.D. in our country — in any subject — should be offered citizenship. I want them. The idea that we actually make it difficult for them to stay is crazy.
Compete America, a coalition of technology companies, is pleading with Congress to boost both the number of H-1B visas available to companies that want to bring in skilled foreign workers and the number of employment-based green cards given to high-tech foreign workers who want to stay here. Give them all they want! Not only do our companies need them now, because we’re not training enough engineers, but they will, over time, start many more companies and create many more good jobs than they would possibly displace. Silicon Valley is living proof of that — and where innovation happens matters. It’s still where the best jobs will be located.
Folks, we can’t keep being stupid about these things. You can’t have a world where foreign-born students dominate your science graduate schools, research labs, journal publications and can now more easily than ever go back to their home countries to start companies — without it eventually impacting our standard of living — especially when we’re also slipping behind in high-speed Internet penetration per capita. America has fallen from fourth in the world in 2001 to 15th today.

My hat is off to Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry, co-founders of the Personal Democracy Forum. They are trying to make this an issue in the presidential campaign by creating a movement to demand that candidates focus on our digital deficits and divides. (See: http:// Mr. Rasiej, who unsuccessfully ran for public advocate of New York City in 2005 on a platform calling for low-cost wireless access everywhere, notes that “only half of America has broadband access to the Internet.” We need to go from “No Child Left Behind,” he says, to “Every Child Connected.”

Here’s the sad truth: 9/11, and the failing Iraq war, have sucked up almost all the oxygen in this country — oxygen needed to discuss seriously education, health care, climate change and competitiveness, notes Garrett Graff, an editor at Washingtonian Magazine and author of the upcoming book “The First Campaign,” which deals with this theme. So right now, it’s mostly governors talking about these issues, noted Mr. Graff, but there is only so much they can do without Washington being focused and leading.

Which is why we’ve got to bring our occupation of Iraq to an end in the quickest, least bad way possible — otherwise we are going to lose Iraq and America. It’s coming down to that choice.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

An uncle of a certain Irishman with whom I am acquainted has turned us on to this blog Unless you're Irish, it's not going to be the most interesting read, BUT a photo I took in Beijing was just posted on it.

On May 13, it was reported on the blog that readers in China were denied access to the site. Ian, the Irishman previously mentioned, read this on that day, in China, and informed them of the fact that he could do so. To boot, he included a photo, for their gawking pleasure, I took of our friend, Tim, eating sparrows on a skewer. (The photo was taken after a rock festival we all went to during the the May 1 holiday week. [There is no explanation as to why Tim was inspired to eat sparrows, but he did say they were chewy.]) On May 15, the photo, along with their commentary, was published. Go take a look.

P.S. - Just to give you an idea of how little people outside of China know about the country, or at least, how little Irish people know about it, read the comment about Jiangsu and Guangdong.

P.P.S. - For those of you who fall into the description of the previous postscript, Guangdong province is the richest, most developed, and modern province in China. That's where Shenzhen, and other Special Economic Zones, are located--the first parts of China to get rich in the 1980s.

Monday, May 14, 2007

I just went back and read that last post. I am sorry--I didn't realize when I published it just how long and boring and irrelevant it was. To make up for it, here's another photo.

That's a chicken in a basket. It's a real, live, squawking, pecking chicken. In the lower left corner, you can make out a pant leg. That's MY pant leg. On my way into Vietnam, I took this bus from Daxin to Ningming (Guangxi Province, China). It's a public bus, the kind that stops whenever the driver sees someone waving it down from the side of the road. Everyonetakes this bus--men, women, children and chickens--and for just 20 cents, it'll take you about an hour away from where you got on.
In the upper left hand corner, you can see hand come in with some newspaper. That's the ticket seller. She obviously keeps sheets of paper handy for occasions such as these: She put the put it under the chicken's basket to keep chicken poo from getting on the bus's floor.

The blue bucket, seen in the lower right hand corner was right up against me, as well. Based on how it smelled, I'd say it was used to carry pickled vegetables at the market.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Just the other day, I spoke to an old friend of mine from Boston who is now living in New York. Within just a few minutes of talking, he said, "What happened to your accent?" I thought about it for a moment and said, "I'm not really sure, but I think it'll go back to normal when I get back to the States."

I know that my accent is different, but I like it. People have a very hard time placing me from the way I speak and it has been concluded that I have an "International English" accent, meaning it is clear I am a native English-speaker, but I don't carry too many very place-specific sounds. The benefit of the way I speak, beyond keeping my origins elusive (a convenient thing for an American abroad), is that a lot of students like my accent and pay me good money to teach it to them. I have been hired to do recordings and have taught classes just on pronunciation. (For those of you that don't know it, during my teacher training, I got really into phonetics, which was good because it's a specialty--not too many ESL teachers are very familiar with teaching students how to produce sounds.)

But beyond my teaching experience, my accent was always a little different and I believe this is a result of my father's doing. As a child he would consistently correct my grammar and pronunciation. "Don't mumble. You should speak with pear-shaped tones" he would announce, and he would remind me that the "h's" in words like "when", "where", and "white" were there for a reason. When I would call my sister "stupid", pronouncing it "stoopid", he would say, "she's not stooped over at all, but you sound 'stupid'". These brutal lessons in elocution were followed by "Voice and Articulation" classes at Emerson College. The bastard of a man who was my professor, also the man who wrote the book that we used, felt that I spoke with too much "vocal tension" and instead of just one required semester of his class, I had to take two, the second including private coaching with his assistant. I absolutely hated this man, and his class, and while I found the subject interesting, I had a hard time finding respect for anyone who failed to correctly say my name (he said it my-LEE, not MY-lee, putting the stress on the wrong syllable) whilst still claiming to be an expert on speech.

Since passing that class with a C, I have learned the value of learning how sounds work, and it has helped me to become a good language teacher, as well as language learner. But the question still begs, "What happened to your accent [since]?" I suppose that my only good reply is that I live abroad and associate with few Americans. Right after college, I lived and worked in London. Upon returning to Boston, I worked for an English company. Here in China, I work for the British Embassy and the vast majority of my colleagues are English, or Scottish or Australian.

In my mind, language is rather fluid. It's really impossible to learn everything there is to know about a language because it is constantly changing. Students in China often get frustrated when teachers tell them "no one speaks perfect English", and often, you can hear the effects of a student having many teachers from different places, for example they'll say, "I cahn't (British) eat eggplants (American)." Also, when put into situations where accents are very different from the ones known, ears adjust to facilitate understanding. The first month of working at the English company in Boston, I had no idea what anyone said--it took that long to learn their patterns of intonation and differences in vowel sounds. For some people, like me, I suppose, the tongue also adjust with the ears, so not only to I learn to hear the sounds, I automatically learn to mimic them. This is my only explanation for why my accent has changed. I'll admit that when I'm with a group of British people, my "r's" soften, for example, from "caRRR" to "cahhr". At the same time, I also sharpen my "t's", so instead of "a puppy is a liddle dog", as Americans would say it, I come out with something more like "li-ttle", though it's hardly a full-blown British "li-TTle" or even a hard "li-le" where the sound is dropped altogether, as how Londoners will say it. (In fairness, that old goat, Ken Crannell, my articulation teacher, told me that Americans are supposed to pronounce the "t", anyway--we just don't.) By no means do I sound actually like a British person, nor am I trying to, but I realize that the simple changes are enough to make me sound "not quite American".

There are two reasons why I am writing about this terribly-interesting-I'm-sure topic and there are: 1. I just heard this clip about American accents on NPR and 2. I am very nervous about going back to the States after having lived abroad for more than three years. Every time I go out and hear Americans, I think about going back. I realize that I have created a little bubble of a life here, and it's very colorful and very international. I suppose that part of the allure of living abroad is NOT associating with compatriots (as my friend Michael says, it's like taking sand to the beach), and I fear that I will feel somewhat out of place when I return. (Oh! Oh! Pity me! Little Miss Jet Set is afraid of missing her French friends going back to her land of cultural and social expectation!) Of course, I'll be in New York, the capital of the world, and of course, I'm sure I'll get along fine. I guess I'm just nervous about leaving Beijing.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

In past posts, I have made mention of my recent trips abroad. Since last November, I have been to Guangxi province in southern China, northern Vietnam, Hawaii, Ireland, Paris, the South of France and Berlin. However, for various reasons, I have failed to actually post any pictures, or write about these adventures.

At this stage, it would be difficult, and rather boring, to hack out a bunch of lengthy travelogues and put up the usual tourist snapshot photos, so I have arrived at new solution: For the next while, on this blog, I will post some of my especially good photos with some description. If the photo provokes a greater story, then that, too, will be posted. But instead of detailing my travels chronologically, I'd like to present just snippets of journeys, randomly--only the most beautiful, intriguing, striking or moving moments will be shown.
I hope you will enjoy this approach.


Mom and I had accumulated enough mileage for me to make a trip back to Kona in December. I was there just a week, but for two days, Mom and I played tourists and went to places I have never been before.
The road to Hawi, from Kawaihae, ends in Kapa'au. In my memory, I had never been there before, but my mother seemed to know it. The view from the road is quite pretty and once you're at the end, there is a trail that leads down into the valley, and this black sand beach. It was windy, and the sea was rough, the day we went, but winter weather cast dramatic grey tones to the scene, which I generally prefer to perfect bright and sunny Hawaiian beach days.