Into post-undergraduate life: reflection, regrets, and some advice

A picture of HKUST. Photo: Angelica Kosasih

 

I was inspired to write this blog post only last night, when I was about to sleep. Having spent almost three weeks in Cambodia with another close friend of mine, Vaishak, in order to observe the implementation of a mobile health (mHealth) project, we have – during the spare time – frequently talked about reminiscing our undergraduate lives back in our university, HKUST. We talked about our friends, moments, experiences, and everything else about life in general. And that was the point that I became so motivated to write something about my overall impression, feelings, and reflection about what I have learned in the last 4 years of my university life here.

Now approaching the end of my undergraduate life – and soon to resume another 2 years of research postgraduate studies in the same university in less than 3 months, I did a flashback to 2013, the first year I entered the university. At that time, I did not put HKUST into my utmost priority: originally, my actual priority was to opt for Singaporean universities. Indeed, of all 6 universities in both cities that I had applied during my high school, HKUST was the last university that I opted for: I submitted my application almost 1 day before the application deadline. However, HKUST was also the first university of all I had applied to give me an admission offer, although it was still conditional.

The major that I chose was also considered unusual: Global China Studies. I have always had an academic interest to strengthen my expertise in international relations and political science. When I was looking at this major, I was like, “What the heck is this? But it looks interesting.” Given my intense interest about international relations, especially about the “rise of China” discourse, I decided to give it a try. Global China Studies, indeed, was the only major program that I applied to.

Still, despite HKUST having given me the first offer, I was still waiting for application results from Singaporean universities. NTU had rejected me beforehand, and I was already not too confident about NUS results. SMU (Singapore Management University) was putting my application result on hold, as I had to retake its SAT test before its deadline in May that year; for the first SAT test I took, I scored 1890, 10 points below their minimum requirement (1900). I took it for the second time, and this time, I got a test score of 1950. How ‘briefly’ excited I was at that time, until a hidden voice inside my mind suddenly urged me to change my decision, and accept HKUST admission offer instead. I truly have not a single hint of how that ‘divine intervention’ occurred: the inner voice just kept pushing me to accept HKUST offer. There, I made what was considered by my parents a big “U-turn”: after having spent quite a lot of money for SAT preparatory courses in order to get into SMU, I fixed my decision to go for HKUST instead.

All this was happening despite City University of Hong Kong (CityU) also giving me an admission offer, with a full-coverage, 4-year scholarship guaranteed. My parents at that time had urged me to reconsider my HKUST offer, but somehow the inner voice within my mind – ‘divine intervention’ second time, perhaps? – kept urging me to “have faith”. After further deliberation with other family members, including my aunt and my cousin, who used to study in CityU, their suggestion was that I pursue my studies in HKUST. Near the end of August 2013, I set off, for the first time in my life, for a life overseas.

Before setting off to this university, I have never really left my hometown. I was born and raised in Medan (Indonesia’s fourth most populous city), and lived my life there for the first 18 years of my life. And so were my parents: they were born and raised in the same hometown as I did, and they have lived almost their entire lives there for close to half a century. We occasionally had annual overseas trips to neighboring countries, but none in my family had ever really moved to another place before. Our lifestyle has been pretty much the same lifestyle for most other people in my hometown. We lived a pretty secure, stable, middle-class life, with a limited sense of adventure, and a constant craving for stability. As I had recurrent asthma attacks when I was a young child and had to be occasionally hospitalized, my parents – to a certain extent – were quite protective of me. But I could understand their reasoning and concerns: they are simply afraid of me suffering from sudden asthmatic conditions. The only sport I did (and still do) is doing athletics: I joined an athletic club in my school for almost 3 years, and it kind of reduced my asthmatic tendencies. None of my family members has learned swimming, and neither have I, but at least we do running and badminton. My childhood was not too special either: I was frequently a top performer in my class, pretty active in extracurricular activities, and got to know a lot of friends and acquaintances, but in reality, my friendship circle was quite small and limited. I became a class monitor for 2 years, and I became what my fellow friends described me as a “good boy”, always leaning to teachers’ advice. When I moved to Hong Kong for the first time, these were all the traits that I had carried with me: “good boy”, study-hard personality, nerdy, not so into adventure, a bookish person, and one craving for stability.

However, adjusting to life here was barely as easy as I had experienced for the first 18 years of my life in my hometown. Perhaps I just want to be honest here, but for the first few days when I was here in HKUST, I actually always ended up weeping when I was lying in bed, going to sleep. The dorm room was small, perhaps only one-third of the size of my room back in my hometown, and the furniture was dusty. At first sight, I had yet to fully realize about the even more miserable realities being faced by a certain proportion of Hong Kong population living in so-called “subdivided flats”, whose houses (literally houses) were even smaller than the double-room I had stayed in. Indeed, the double room I stayed in was quite ‘spacious’. That was already my first struggle.

Secondly, I was only one of a very select few among international students who have enrolled in this Global China Studies program, at that time barely two years old. When other academic programs had been compared to as ‘adults’, this program was still like a toddler. That sense of rarity further isolated me, coupled with the fact that I am the only Indonesian student (until now, literally) who enrolled in this program. Most other people would opt for either business or engineering majors. Also, I did not have a strong connection with most local students undertaking the same program as I did, given what Willy Brandt described as “the wall in the mind”. There, I felt constantly lonely given that I sometimes did not really know to whom I should share my insight, my knowledge, and my ideas with.

Third, coping with life in HKUST was like overcoming a constant, massive, and unending cultural shock. Even if I have to be completely honest, after four years studying here, I occasionally still face a significant cultural shock. I love the diversity of this place, but it is the same diversity that always tests the degree of my open-mindedness. I got to know a lot of international friends from many other places across the world, such as Malaysia, South Korea, India, China, Sweden, Poland, France, Switzerland, United States, El Salvador, Singapore, the Philippines, Russia, and so many countries else, including local Hong Kong friends, and in particular, some new Indonesian friends here. And to make it even more twisting, their backgrounds are more colorful than their nationalities can tell: Korean friends I know who have spent years outside their home countries, in a range of places from the United States, to Southeast Asian countries, and even more interestingly, in the Middle East. A half-Chinese, half-French, but having lived in different parts of the world. A half-Lebanese, half-Italian, who is fluent in five languages. A half-Hong Kong, half-Korean, who spent much of her life in China, carrying a Cantonese-sounding name, but speaks no Cantonese and has Korean and English as her native languages. A 50% local, 25% white American, and 25% Japanese American, who lived almost all his life in Hong Kong. A half-Singaporean, half-Filipino. An Israeli who served in the army and had recounted to me his experiences combating Hamas militia. An Indonesian who studied in France and communicated to her parents in three different languages: Indonesian, English, and French. A Taiwanese, but knows as many Indians, Pakistanis, and South Asians as she befriends her fellow Taiwanese. An American hailing from a very conservative town in a conservative state who has lived in Morocco, Germany, and other parts of the world. A Polish libertarian who happens to love Indian vegetarian food. A South Indian living in Chennai, but does not speak fluent Tamil. Malaysians that spent most of their lives in Shanghai, and numerous other cities across the world. A South Korean who lives in Vietnam almost all her life, and has almost no linkages to South Korean contemporary culture. A Mainland Chinese woman that has more international than her fellow Mainland Chinese friends, and who imbibes herself into arts. A half-Indonesian, half-Japanese, who studies in a Canadian international school and speaks 7 languages. A half-Swiss, half-Finnish with partial family roots in South Africa and is currently in Stanford. Indonesians with 1% to 10% Dutch roots. Tunisians that toppled their own government in the Arab Spring. This excludes people of very different personalities. Ultra-tough nerds spending time mostly in their own rooms. An Indonesian friend coping with her mental illness while working hard on her startups. An Indonesian friend who loves metal music. A quirky Indonesian woman who loves arts and robotics and loves to randomly draw flowers on one’s research papers and randomly spams one’s Whatsapp account. Party animals, who love being drunk and partying until the bars are all closed. Work-hard-play-harder corporate world-aspiring girls. An anti-social person who fakes laughter amid all his personal struggle in his university life. One who loves blabbering about his experiences having sex with strangers. Conservative, very religious Christians who frequently asked me to join in their gathering sessions. Hipsters who love arts. Globally-minded travelers. Some friends who like to share manga jokes, many of which can be perverted. A French-Swedish woman who occasionally smokes and listens to French classical music, but is fun to talk to. A Mexican roommate who only wears black T-shirts, and who only has black T-shirts, and who spends over 50% of his time in laboratories. A young American from Montana, studying in Texas as the first place he’s out of his state, and making Asia the first place he’s outside the US, and who falls in love with Korean indie music. The first Indian student to enroll in Science program, when most people are either in business or engineering. An aspiring Indonesian wildlife activist who spent his gap semester in a jungle. A roommate who loves to talk about investments. An Indonesian senior who was very humorous, but also very introverted, and who is now pursuing a PhD. Another Indonesian senior who always scored almost perfect GPA score, but is also very religious and committed to his long-distance relationship. Dank meme-loving Indians. Cultural ignoramus, etc. Some are absolutely cultural shocks, but I also gradually embrace them as I let my mind increasingly open.

I gradually cope with these struggles, but coping itself has always been easier said than done. At certain points, sometimes one may wonder whether ‘being open’ itself was ‘too much’ to bear. But I understand that the values having been inculcated at me in the last 18 years are strong, and oftentimes it will take a gradual process of acceptance in moderating my own values vis-à-vis theirs.

In my first year of study, I participated in a university-supported student development program known as “Redbird Award Program”. This was my first exposure to extracurricular activities outside my hometown, and outside the context of near-similar activities by which I have participated during my high school. There I got to know some of the first people that I have described above. Some of the workshops were pretty monotonous, but the most challenging thing was the ‘wild camp’ training that they organized. It was a 3-day, 2-night camping activity in a country park in Hong Kong, and there, we had to scout through different peaks, walk through rocky trails, and occasionally climbed through some of the rocks in the peaks. Albeit I have asthma, I did not want this disease to affect my overall activities. Accepting that as a challenge, I participated in the camping activity.

The next challenging thing was to initiate a student-led project as part of the ‘graduation requirement’ from this program. I was initially running out of ideas, until I got a sudden flash of inspiration from Humans of New York. (thanks, Brandon Stanton!) There, I began to pitch the idea of “Humans of HKUST” to some friends, and thus this project began. Together with 2 Indonesian and 1 Malaysian friends, as well as several other volunteers, we started to interview people, made portraits of them, using our pot-luck equipment. None of us had high-resolution cameras, therefore we only relied on our own smartphones.

As time goes by, I gradually adjusted my life here in HKUST, and in Hong Kong in particular. I learned to navigate various MTR stations on my own, visited my aunt, my cousin, and my uncle once in a month on my own, and learned to act fast. Tapping Octopus cards, paying with cash, strolling fast, arranging my weekly schedule on my own, learning some basic Cantonese, getting to know which public buses to take, doing weekly laundries, cleaning my dorm room, moving items to another dormitory, all the while managing assignments, papers, and projects, sometimes group-, sometimes individual-based.

Simultaneously, following my seniors’ recommendations, I began to actively participate in research. I once aspired to be a novelist, having made 12 failed attempts to complete 12 different novels in various genres. I tried fantasy based on Lord of the Rings trilogy, science fiction based on Star Wars, as well as social critique works based on contemporary issues from various non-fiction books I have read. I was actually very happy when – on my 13th attempt – I eventually succeeded to complete a novel. But it was a violent work of fiction. I was inspired by a World Press Photo-winning work about portrait of a Danish prostitute, who is also a single mother who needs to take care of her three daughters. The 13th novel, pretty much, with different settings and refined plot, was inspired on this portrait. But I decided to put my work in shelf for an indefinite period, now starting to focus on academic research instead.

My first research project, beginning in July 2014, was about China-Africa economic relations with Professor Barry Sautman, by which I was tasked to create a database of Chinese companies across African countries, as well as their workforce localization rate. In the end, I managed to create data entries for more than 800 Chinese companies across the continent, an uneasy task. From this project onward, I undertook further research commitments in various other projects. The second one – beginning in 2015 – was about democratic development across the world, this time with Professor Sing Ming. But we rarely had face-to-face meetings, and we mostly exchanged our correspondence through email messages. Still, the project had to go on, as different professors have different ways of communication. First, I was assigned to do a case study about Thailand, but afterwards, I was asked to do a comparative analysis of Malaysia and Venezuela. The third one – commencing in 2016 – was a self-initiated independent study research project about One Belt, One Road initiative, with Prof. Barry Sautman as my advisor. The project, to be quite honest, was already as vague as the initiative itself: so much sloganeering, we truly don’t know what the initiative essentially is. Still, I managed to create a self-compiled dataset of over 900 Chinese-led infrastructure projects (in both China and in OBOR countries), although I have no idea – at all – how accurate they were in terms of their alignment with the initiative. Lastly, this year in 2017, I undertook another research project about anti-corruption campaign in China under Xi Jinping, this time with a newly recruited faculty member, Professor Franziska Keller. I created another dataset of over 300 officials having been removed under the campaign, as well as their replacements. Looking back to 2014, I actually never expected – at all – the pathway that would lead me to these projects, from one to another. My original dream of becoming novelist is now completely set aside, as I made peace with the existing reality, and now develop my new interests in academic research. Still, in spite of these 4 different research projects, I have yet to manage to publish a single work in an academic journal. And, guess what? I gradually took the bitter pills of rejection when my papers were either rejected by think tanks I submitted to, or when my professors pointed out flaws with the databases I have curated. They are bitter pills, but I fully understand the tough reality of academic world: no matter how meticulous your research is, there will always be loopholes with our work, and thus, grounds for rejection. I read no less than 90 academic papers for the China-Africa links project, 30 papers for case study about Thailand, close to 50 papers for comparative studies of Malaysia and Venezuela, over 20 papers about One Belt One Road initiative, and almost 20 papers about anti-corruption campaign in China. At least I am personally proud I have read those papers, although it took quite a toll at me.

Research projects, in one way, are a method for myself to strengthen my academic CVs, and to a certain extent, a way to cope with cultural-related shocks that are still lingering for myself, and to reduce a fluctuating sense of loneliness. Reading papers and books enriched my knowledge significantly, as well as improved my understanding of a research framework for an academic paper; moreover, research projects made me preoccupied for my already hectic schedule. Occasionally, however, I was bored with constantly reviewing academic papers, but if I stopped reading the papers, sometimes I would feel uneasy with myself, especially the recurrence of “wasting own time, doing nothing” mindset.

Studying in HKUST meant a high expectation, entailing everybody to ‘get busy in almost everything’, from non-trivial matters to so-called ‘world-changing’ research projects. Most faculty members have at least more than 1 research project to manage individually, and there is a constant pressure among the faculty of a ‘publish or perish’ culture. Because after all, research output is what accounts for HKUST’s high ranking among QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) and THE (Times Higher Education). Students would also be challenged to get busy in various activities, be it student clubs (locals refer to them as “societies”), seeking  internships, creating startups, joining sports teams, or getting involved in on-campus jobs, joining Robotics, community service projects, part-time research assistants, doing global health projects, etc. For me personally, for 4 years in my life, I think I have spent 50-80 hours every week doing stuff related to the university, ranging from extracurricular activities (Redbird, and then one of my friends’ art-appreciation club), research projects, reading course materials, writing course papers, conducting literature reviews, and leading other independent projects (such as Humans of HKUST).

Writing this makes me look like a typical student ambassador. But I want to be honest here. It is a good thing to be involved in so many activities, and personally, having my life undergoing this pathway has provided me with numerous valuable benefits for my personal development. Nonetheless, simultaneously, such approach has its own costs. I often perceive that relationships become superficial as everyone is so committed in numerous projects and activities, so much so that the degree of interaction remains shallow and constrained to student-related discussions only. I may have known a tremendous number of new friends while in the university, but if I have to be very honest, our relationship is quite shallow, mostly limited to “hi-how are you-bye” conversations. That is why in my first year I was not involved in many activities, mostly limited to Redbird Award Program, writing my own novel, coordinating with others for Humans of HKUST project, and absurdly enough, signing up for iGEM – a synthetic biology competition (which has nothing to do with my major), and lastly, helping to organize a one-week cultural exchange program for international students in June 2014. Moreover, sometimes I continued to wonder about what true friendships are, given what I perceive as a superficial nature of a large part of my relationships, and the “impostor syndrome” that is quite obvious among a large number of my friends and acquaintances.

Still, I can not deny the fact that I have managed to befriend a large number of brilliant and insightful minds in this university. Individuals, whose ideas and values I would have never preconceived of had I stayed in my hometown for the rest of my life. Someone who’s very keen into startups, having failed twice, and still very resilient. A self-taught programmer who also indulges in deep, philosophical discussions. Someone who truly showed me what ‘art appreciation’ is. Someone who introduced to me dank memes (and how I end up liking a lot of dank meme pages these days). Someone from my major whom – for the first time in my UG life – I could deeply relate with, given her deep interests in international relations. Someone who shared with me his experiences of participating in a mass protest to topple an authoritarian government. Some persons who showed me their research progress from various fields. A professor who has lived in Mao-era China and witnessed – in his own eyes – Tiananmen protests in 1989. Getting to know Jewish professors for the first time (all the while shattering my prior stereotypes of them). These, I would say, are not superficial relationships; I truly get to know them not only on their surfaces, but also to understand their real values within their hearts.

And one way to maintain my constant communication with some of these new friends (except faculty members) would be to create a chat group in Whatsapp, which I simply titled “Hangout!”. I first started the chat group in February 2015, as I was about to celebrate the first Chinese New Year outside my hometown. At first sight, my original aim of creating this chat group was only to organize the first Chinese New Year dinner. I did not have expectation, in that earliest moment, that this group would continue to exist. It was only after that dinner that I decided to continue using the chat group to organize other hangout activities. Moreover, I was proud that the group has so many people from multiple backgrounds and interesting personalities. That was the first moment when I felt so internationally-minded; moreover, my objective of this chat group was relatively straightforward: I just want to be as inclusive as possible, at least for some of the persons within the group to never feel lonely. I have felt moments of loneliness for the first two years of my study, therefore I simply hope that the chat group can become a ‘safe haven’, especially some of my close friends who also shared the similar feelings of loneliness.

But perhaps my mistake was that I had been too inclusive that I arbitrarily added people into the group, so much so that it became a bubble of its own. As time goes by, the group size grew significantly. Indeed, it grew too large, from a group of 12 people (all of whom were in the very first hangout) to, at one point, over 84 individuals, most of whom hardly ever know each other. Many of them have since left the chat group. In a Chinese proverb, one would literally translate it as “people mountain, people sea” (renshan renhai 人山人海). For me, it was more like “people come, people go”. Many have left, but since then, many new friends of mine have also joined the group. I learned that moment that expanding the chat group too rapidly was a fatal mistake: I was adding too many people into the group, so much so, that at one point I was left to wonder whether the group ‘Hangout!’ is losing its essence.

A caricature of Hangout! group, as drawn by one of my close friends, Christine

 

Despite my personal disappointment at one point, I still stay in the group. Indeed, the fact that I will soon pursue a two-year research postgraduate program in HKUST gives me another chance to organize more hangouts with people within that group. I am still hoping that this chat group can once again become a ‘safe haven’, in particular, for people who are craving for friendships, so that they can join future hangouts that I want to organize for, at least, the next two years.

After some thought, I would even say that with the presence of this group, I have had some of the most cherishing years in my university life. It is the same people within the group that I can freely share my ideas, insight, imagination, thoughts, and in turn, to know and understand even better people of various backgrounds. It is not necessarily the hangouts themselves per se that always gave me encouragement; it is my friends within that group, and even those who have left, that my life becomes more slightly more colorful. All this would not have been imaginable had I chosen to continue staying within the comfortable confines of my own hometown.

To recap, here are some of the moments that made myself proud of having ever studied in HKUST:

  • Initiating Humans of HKUST project: originally just thinking of it as a ‘one-off’ project in order to graduate from Redbird Award Program, the project ends up spanning for more than 3 years already, now entering its fourth year with the recruitment of a new project management team. Since the release of the first photograph book in 2015 together, each of the successive teams has also managed to get another book published every year (in both 2016 and 2017), each of which contains interviews and portraits of various individuals working and studying in the university
  • Participating in SIGHT program: the program truly opened my eye about the essence of multidiscplinary cooperation. It also challenges me to go beyond the context of my academic study: without any proper programming background, I was tasked to perform user-experience (UX) research and user-interface (UI) designs for mobile health program for our healthcare NGO partner in Cambodia, One-2-One. I ended up designing over 60 different UI designs for the mHealth program for the coding team, all of which I used only pencils and A4 paper sheets. That was also where I began to learn and apply the concepts of design thinking
  • Hangout!: I created the group in February 2015, originally just to organize a Chinese New Year dinner. Since then, we have organized more than 20 different hangouts. It’s never a perfect group (we now more frequently share dank memes and talk random stuff), but I would say I’m glad the group continues to exist
  • Getting Dean’s Lists for 5 times in the university, by which, thankfully, I could get scholarships to partially cover the tuition fees, as well as to reduce my parents’ financial burden
  • Earning some salaries, for the first time, from working in various research projects, as well as doing other on-campus internships
  • Having the opportunities to befriend people of numerous backgrounds
  • Developing appreciation of artworks, and experimenting myself by listening to different genres of indie music (beyond the pop-culture mainstream music)

Beyond the moments that made me proud, I have also undergone through multiple ‘failures’ throughout the same period:

  • I have yet to fully exercise my emotional restraints when under intense pressure, especially in group projects, or whenever I was jokingly teased out by some of my friends
  • I have had crush on 4 female friends, but none of them materialized into a relationship. For now, I’m putting my relationship efforts on hold
  • Getting rejected by all the universities in the US I have applied for PhD in Political Science. I applied into 9 schools, and all of them ended up rejecting my PhD applications. At one point, I was rejected by Cornell, Stanford, and MIT on the same day. But I was not disastrously disappointed either: I was aware that my admission chances were really slim, but at least I have done my best. Moreover, I would rather see the failures as some kind of ‘divine intervention’, because deep down my heart, even if I succeed to receive and accept a PhD offer, I absolutely have no idea about my mental readiness about the future challenges that I may have encountered in relation to that PhD program. As an alternative, I actually received Master’s offers from NYU and U.Chicago. NYU did not offer me any single scholarship, and University of Chicago offered me a 50% scholarship, but even with the 50% ‘discount’, my parents would still be unable to support my studies. I ended up rejecting their offers, and accept my offer for a research postgraduate program in HKUST instead
  • Having my papers rejected for publication or even consideration into academic journals, despite extensive literature reviews
  • I was rejected for multiple scholarship programs that I had applied. What hurt me even more was the typical, unsympathetic reply from the university staff, who simply wrote that “I should try even harder”, when I have spent like 50-80 hours per week doing university-related assignments and projects
  • I have yet to learn to be fully forgiving of others and forgiving of myself of past mistakes
  • I failed to maintain a work-life balance. Instead, for now I have ended up adhering to “work-life integration”

And then the things that I did not regret:

  • My major: occasionally I used to question the efficacy of my Global China Studies major, but through gradually accepting my uniqueness, and all the valuable learning that I have attained in this program, I would say that I did not regret enrolling in this major. Indeed, it enriches my research interests, and it increases my knowledge significantly. Moreover, a human being is more than what others would impose an academic label on: I do not want to be associated solely with my major alone
  • Trying new things and fail: one example was enrolling in Entrepreneurship minor offered by the university. I took some minor courses, but instead, the course grades ended up depleting my CGA consecutively for two semesters. I had to maintain my CGA in order to continue my eligibility for annual scholarships, and in order to ‘salvage’ the grades, I decided to quit the minor program. However, I have never had a single regret doing the minor program, and neither have I regretted quitting it
  • Studying in HKUST: despite my initial culture shocks and struggles to assimilate myself with this university, I eventually ended up enjoying my university life here. Despite the constant pressure and challenges related to courses, projects, exams, research projects, and papers, this is also the place where I began to understand what a “true friendship” means to me
  • Not doing an exchange program: the reason why I did not do an exchange program was primarily because of the ongoing ‘culture shock’ that I still partially experience in the university, even after almost 4 years. Instead, I made use of all 8 semesters by getting myself as much engaged in research projects and other activities as possible

And then the things I regret, and I wish I had changed my mindset earlier:

  • I wish I had exercised patience earlier in almost any aspect
  • I wish I had captured more opportunities to do travel. Indeed, I had foregone too many opportunities throughout my undergraduate life to travel, mostly for various ‘reasons’, like doing papers, unexpected expenses, and numerous other factors
  • I wish I had attained a better work-life balance. Although I have had Hangout! group, I actually do not organize many hangouts. Many places, even in Hong Kong, are left unexplored. Indeed, I mostly divide my time between classes, meetings, library, and my own dorm room. Reflecting back at what I have done, I actually regretted not spending more time with friends and visiting other places across Hong Kong, or even doing travels abroad
  • I wish I could learn to fully trust people. I occasionally have moments of paranoia, and sometimes, I can be easily suspicious of others, even on the strangers. Now I regret that I have placed too much mistrust on people; I wish I exercised better self-control over my own mind

Lastly, my own advice for friends who have yet to graduate, or who will soon be in universities, especially into HKUST:

  • Seek opportunities elsewhere: and it’s entirely up to you whether you want to pursue as many opportunities as you can (if you can manage with adequate time), or you would rather be more selective
  • Explore new places: even if you are not really fond of overseas traveling, at least places within our vicinity (say, within the city, or any other geographic locale, where the university is located) can be a good start. Regardless of all the pressure imposed by courses and projects, do not allow them to wreck our work-life balance
  • Keep oneself open-minded: having been raised and undergone through pretty much the same cultures and values for the 18 years of my life, I found it a big struggle when it comes to adapting to such an outside-a-comfort-zone studying experience. The only key thing I can suggest is to keep ourselves open-minded, and appreciate others’ cultures and customs
  • Appreciate our parents’ sacrifice: in most circumstances, it is our parents who have funded our university education, and I can not thank my parents enough for the huge sacrifices they have made in order to support my studies in HKUST, so much so that they need to exercise fiscal austerity to save enough money. That ‘pressure’, to some extent, also pushed me to work very hard in order to attain enough scholarships to partially cover my tuition fees
  • Be honest with oneself: we do not have to be someone else to make other people like us. Just be as authentic as we always are, but if there are bad habits and/or bad traits, do make efforts to address these issues
  • It’s okay to sometimes cry: living overseas has never been easy. Sometimes pressure is so huge that we occasionally do not know to whom we can share our grievances. I would say, it’s normal to express our emotions, even if we need to shed our tears occasionally

Wrapping up this blog post, I want to convey my deepest appreciation for anyone who has become my friends, my close friends, my best friends, and those who have given me constant encouragement and powered me with enough resilience throughout my studies in this university. I also want to deeply thank my aunt, my cousin, my uncle, and in particular, my parents and my younger brother, all of whom have given me a tremendous mental support and a source of comfort.

Let me close this post with a quote by Paul Bowles for one of his works (The Sheltering Sky), which became an inspiration for Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto to craft a musical piece – title: fullmoon, in his album Async (2017) – in honor of the American author.

Because we don’t know when we will die,

We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well.

Yet everything happens only for a certain number of times,

A very small one, really.

How many more times will you remember,

A certain afternoon in your childhood?

Some afternoon, that is so deeply a part of your being,

That you can’t even conceive a life without it

How many times, four or five times more,

Perhaps none even left,

How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20.

And yet it all seems so limitless.”

Teaching design thinking in Cambodia

Throughout my study experience in Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) in the last 4 years, I have led a small number of design-thinking workshops under the Student Innovation for Global Health Technology (SIGHT) program. This program aims to combine design-thinking approaches in generating solutions in addressing global health issues, with a particular concentration in Asia-Pacific region. As of now, projects under SIGHT have been deployed to various locations, mostly in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Guizhou Province (China), Hong Kong, and several cities in Indonesia (namely Jakarta and Yogyakarta).

However, under a fellowship program offered by SIGHT program, by which I would have to stay in Phnom Penh from June 5 to June 26, we are required to lead a design-thinking workshop, this time for an education NGO in Cambodia. While at that time I was partly nervous (I have never led such a workshop outside Hong Kong before!), I was also partly excited, because it was a brand-new challenge to test whether the design-thinking approaches we have highlighted can also be applied to other parts of the world, with varying degrees of economic and social development.

On June 11, 2017, together with a Hong Kong friend of mine, Jonathan Yang, we conducted a design-thinking workshop in one of the slum areas in Phnom Penh. Literally, in one of the poorest areas in the city. However, throughout the workshop session, we uncovered so many fascinating insights about the way the participants think, devise ideas, and build prototypes based on their own critical thinking skills and the design-thinking framework (in this regard, Stanford’s 5-step design-thinking process) we have provided in the workshop.

We held the workshop in one of the five schools operated by Empowering Youth Cambodia (EYC), by which majority of the students originate from this slum area we referred to. To make it clear, I would label it as a ‘railway slum’, as the trails we walked by used to be railway tracks, with slum dwellers living on both sides of the rail. Two days before, on June 9, Jonathan and I had a preparatory meeting with two of the school staff, Synoeun and Bondol. They showed us the surrounding slum area; Synoeun highlighted that many adults living here have been engaged in small-scale drug trading, prostitution, family violence, or worked as trash collectors. The school, in this regard, offered a ‘shelter’ for children among these families so that they could pursue education, and in this way, increase their chances for upward social mobility and exit the cycle of poverty. The school provides these students English courses, computing classes (mostly focused on Microsoft Excel), as well as yoga classes.

Picture 1. The setup of our design thinking workshop in EYC school in ‘railway slum’

Picture 2. The ‘railway slum’ by which this EYC school is located

Originally, there were supposed to be 30 students from 5 different EYC schools to participate in the workshop. Here, the participants would be randomly assigned into teams, each team having students from different EYC schools. However, only 16 eventually showed up, because the rest had conflicting schedule or had unexpected clashes with other activities. Still, having 16 participants was already a quite good thing for us. Throughout the workshop, Synoeun and Bondol – and in particular Synoeun – provided us with a lot of assistance, especially in how she helped us explaining some of the design-thinking content in Khmer.

We gave the participants the five-step design-thinking processes that had been pioneered by Stanford University’s d.school, that is the empathize-define-ideate-prototype-test pattern. To simplify the matter pertaining to what set of problems we would like to present in this workshop, we simply referred to one very simple question: how students can contribute to improving classroom designs. Rather than making text the dominant content in the slides, we focus instead on visuals, presenting to them various pictures of the classrooms, and other scenarios related to a typical school class, in order to give them a better framework of what kind of ‘ideal classroom’ they had in mind that can be introduced in adjustment to EYC’s setting.

I was initially nervous about the predicted outcome of this workshop, because of several factors that – from my own, personal worldview – could hinder its effective implementation. First, this workshop has only been tested in Hong Kong for now, and my impression shows that design-thinking workshops are more suitable if applied in developed countries. Second, our workshop was situated inside a slum area that is not only poor, but also infamous for illicit drug trading, prostitution, and family violence, and your guess is as good as ours about ‘expectation gaps’ between what we wanted and what they actually needed. Third, Synoeun told us – based on her review of our presentation slides – that the students have never been exposed to the pictures we posted there, and in this regard, their designs of ‘ideal classrooms’ may look not much different from each other, given what she described as ‘relatively rudimentary critical-thinking skills’.

However, we chose to remain optimistic about the workshop because the staff has also positively reviewed our slides, highlighting that our slides focus more on visuals than on texts, which can be much easier for the participants to understand and follow our message. Moreover, if EYC could successfully and smoothly  operate a school in this area despite the surrounding circumstances, why not with our workshop? Lastly, we stick to our beliefs that individuals, deep down their hearts, have aspirations regardless of their current conditions. The only question is what would be the best approaches to truly understand what they really need inside their own hearts. And indeed, our expectation of the workshop worked well; to be quite frank, it even slightly exceeded our initial expectation.

Picture 3. Participants discussed one of the questions we posted on the slides, in relation to improving the classroom setup and design

Picture 4, 5, 6, and 7. Further discussions

Picture 8. Jonathan (left) and myself (right)

Although the participants occasionally get confused by our explanation about those various design-thinking frameworks, they pretty much have understood the design-thinking steps we have highlighted. Indeed, the final outcome was quite unexpected. Synoeun has previously cautioned us that their “ideal classroom designs” may look quite similar to each other. Moreover, given that the participants had been randomly assigned into teams, interaction may be a little more limited due to their unfamiliarity. However, in reality, throughout the discussion questions that we posted on the slides, the communication and exchanges of ideas was very active among the teams, and indeed, their designs appeared to show some degree of variation. One ‘envisioned class’ aspires to have Internet Wi-fi in order to allow the students to browse Google and other websites for more knowledge and information, while another ‘envisioned class’ is to be equipped with laptops, computers, tablets, air-conditioners, discussion tables, bookcases, etc. Although some of the ideas they exhibited tend to be quite abstract (such as: “good English-speaking teachers”, “students must listen in the class”), overall their creativity was very evident in the designs of their ideal classrooms. It looked like our 5-step design-thinking processes that we introduced to the participants could be applied quite successfully.

Picture 9, 10, 11, and 12. The “Ideation” stage of the workshop, by which the participants put in as many ideas as possible on post-it notes

Picture 13. I drew a sample of my “ideal classroom” design on the right side of the whiteboard

Picture 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19. The “Prototyping” stage of the workshop. The teams did a very nice job in designing their ideal classrooms, using all the stationery materials we have purchased back in Hong Kong: post-it notes, rulers, coloring pens, scissors, and glue sticks. Synoeun, meanwhile, provided 5 sheets of A1 papers, as well as lunch packs for all of us – by which we were served Khmer-style BBQ pork rice with pickles and rambutans!

Picture 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24. Designs of ‘ideal classrooms’ by various teams of participants. And I have to tell you, I am absolutely impressed by all their designs of ideal classrooms!

Picture 25. Our workshop ended at 2 pm, as the class we used for this activity would be used for another yoga class. We happened to briefly meet EYC’s Country Manager, Delphine Vann. A half-Cambodian and half-Swiss, she was the daughter of a renown Cambodian architect, Vann Molyvann. The family once migrated to Switzerland in order to avoid the political crisis in 1970s – as highlighted by Cambodian Civil War and Khmer Rouge – before returning back to the country in 1991. In addition to working as a country manager, Ms. Delphine Vann also works as a yoga teacher.

Picture 26. This is me and Jonathan, with Synoeun in the middle. We want to thank you and Bondol for having assisted us in ensuring the smooth execution of the design-thinking workshop. We wish Bondol were there with us in the photograph though!

Reflection: Ahok’s loss is not a defeat for Indonesia’s democracy

Although I am not from Jakarta, I was personally disappointed – but not too surprised – at the outcome of the second-round gubernatorial election in the capital of Indonesia, which was held this Wednesday, on April 19.

For a backgrounder, let me explain briefly about the electoral race.

On one side, there is the incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the city’s first ethnic Chinese – and second Christian – leader. Known by his Chinese nickname “Ahok” (as it is Hakka pronunciation for the last character of his Chinese name, 锺万学), he has taken over the position as the governor of this city of 10 million since November 2014 after his predecessor, Joko Widodo, also known as his political ally, undertook the position as the 7th President of Indonesia. On the other hand, there is his rival, Anies Baswedan, a Yemeni-descended US-educated technocrat and former Minister of Education who has been – very recently – pandering to the more hard-line Muslim organizations, all under full support by opposition parties led by the former 2014 presidential candidate, retired general Prabowo Subianto, who was also Widodo’s rival. Pairing with Baswedan is Sandiaga Uno, a US-educated businessman and billionaire investor, who has gained notoriety after his name was included in Panama Paper leaks. Pairing with Ahok, meanwhile, is Djarot Saiful Hidayat, the current deputy governor.

What made the 2017 gubernatorial election so unusual compared to other local elections in Indonesia was the massive scope – and also considerable controversy and polarization – related to the two candidates. The hype started in the aftermath of Ahok’s alleged blasphemy against Islam in June 2016, when he encouraged people of Jakarta not to be easily deceived by certain political forces using Verse 51 of Chapter 5 of the Quran (known as Surat Al-Maidah) to block him, the content by which contains restriction for Muslims to vote for non-Muslim leaders in Muslim countries. Somebody in YouTube intentionally revised his speech, subsequently editing it into “encouraging people not to be easily deceived by Verse 51 of Chapter 5 of the Quran”. Although the editor had been arrested himself and Ahok had repeatedly clarified his statement – and even issued multiple apologies, the snowball was just becoming too big to handle. It culminated in mass protests in November and December 2016 – many of which were led and supported by hard-line Muslim organizations, demanding Ahok’s dismissal as governor, his imprisonment, or even openly calling out to “kill Chinese”, referring to his ethnic Chinese origin. Simultaneously, he was immediately named a blasphemy suspect, and has since been attending weekly trials in one of Jakarta’s district courts. All this was happening at the same time he was running for gubernatorial race.

The controversy further took place when Baswedan – long known as a moderate-leaning Muslim, and even nominated by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the world’s most influential intellectuals back in 2008 – met several times with the same hard-line Muslim leaders who had been leading mass protests against Ahok, oftentimes even showing open support for their action. He was subsequently supported by a coalition of parties led by Prabowo Subianto – a former general and presidential candidate in 2014 also associated with his own controversies, allegedly human rights abuses in the Suharto era. In the second round of the election, Baswedan – whose only governmental experience was being Minister of Education under Widodo administration – won decisively against Ahok; based on the ongoing tallies by the election commission, 57% of eligible votes went to Baswedan – as opposed to 43% to Ahok.

And all this was happening when Ahok’s approval rating as the governor was over 68%. That means although some people openly approved of Ahok’s achievements throughout his tenure, a considerable percentage of them actually decided – ironically – to vote him out of office.

Briefly speaking, his achievements – first as deputy governor (2012-2014) and later as governor (from 2014 onward) – had been his efforts at budget reforms (computerizing the budgeting system under joint supervision with Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency), infrastructure construction, bureaucracy reforms, public housing for the low-income and poor, public transportation, flood-control measures (due to Jakarta’s recurrent flood seasons), as well as social welfare, particularly in education and healthcare. What was significant, in particular, was his flood-control measures, which involved cleaning up rivers, and most controversially, evicting a large number of riverside communities to pave way for canal normalization, the alternative by which was their relocation to government-built apartments. This, actually, became a source of consternation and alienation for some of the affected people, many of whom had previously shown support for both Widodo and Ahok in the preceding 2012 gubernatorial election.

Despite his achievements, he had been barely short of controversies – even before the alleged blasphemy. He was known for his “Sumatran” talking style (a stereotypical way to describe outspoken, loud-talking, and perceivedly-rude people, but I’m from Sumatra too), and not infrequently his past statements had offended a significant number of individuals – mostly politicians and bureaucrats whom he accused of “manipulating taxpayers’ money”.  His shortcoming, in this regard, was his ill-temper. His controversies notwithstanding, he has remained largely popular among a substantial percentage of people in the city, given his informal and direct way of communication. He has several hotline numbers so that people can directly report to him for problems within the city, and has even personally attended wedding events of ordinary Jakarta people – as long as they extended invitation to the governor.

It is inevitable that the blasphemy charges against Ahok had cost him a considerable amount of political support. Indeed, the gubernatorial election has been extensively covered in international media, most of which has the theme of “an ethnic Chinese Christian governor pitted against an ethnic Arab Muslim candidate supported by hard-liners”. The New York Times called it “a referendum on pluralism versus Islamism”. Some observers even considered Anies’ electoral victory as “an omen to Indonesian democracy and respect for diversity”. And personally speaking, I was disappointed. But there are way more complicating explanations behind his victory. For some perspectives, I would rather use a half-glass-full than half-glass-empty approach.

First, to have secured over 43% of voters’ support despite the ongoing blasphemy trials has itself been a progress for Ahok. I admit that ethnic, racial, and religious overtones among supporters of both candidates had been particularly heated – and even at times nasty – especially when you look at social media posts (should you understand Indonesian), but we need to look at a bigger picture here: over 85% out of 10 million people living in Jakarta are Muslims. In this regard, over 1.5 million people in Jakarta are non-Muslims. As there are more than 7 million eligible voters in the city, if we referred to the 77% voter turnout in the first round of the election (close to 5.4 million people who went out and voted) – and if this turnout was sustained in the second round – that meant more than 2.3 million people actually voted for Ahok, a figure close to 2.36 million who voted for him in the first round. Obviously, a large proportion of his supporters are Muslims themselves, and not all non-Muslims necessarily showed their support to the incumbent. Therefore, this argument should defeat the overwhelming theme among international news stories as already mentioned in the prior paragraph. Also, many among Anies-Sandi supporters are non-Muslims, particularly ethnic Chinese local business elites who would opt for “business climate stability”. One of the pair’s most ardent supporters is Hary Tanoesoedibjo, an ethnic Chinese tycoon who controls 4 out of 10 national TV stations, and oftentimes described as “Donald Trump of Indonesia” (because his most influential idol is Trump, and his presidential aspiration himself).

Second, to have an ethnic Chinese governor running Indonesia’s capital and most populous city less than two decades after deadly anti-Chinese riots is also another breakthrough. During the May 1998 riots that led to the ouster of Suharto’s 32-year authoritarian regime, most of the victims were middle- and lower-income ethnic Chinese whose shops and houses had been looted and burned, or who were themselves killed and brutally tortured. By November 2014, upon Widodo’s inauguration as President, Ahok – then his deputy – succeeded him. His appointment had been greeted by protests among hard-line organizations, but with his approval rating (by the end of 2016) remaining at 68% and with his governorship fairly smooth and stable (despite blasphemy charges), this has been itself a major achievement. All this happened within less than two decades, and to have this attained with minimum hurdles has never been an easy task.

Third, democracy in Indonesia is just barely as perfect as democracy in other countries. Sometimes, democracy is about choosing “a wolf in a sheep’s clothing”, with us oftentimes behaving ignorantly on who the heck that sheep is. And we have seen some of the worst examples of it: slightly above 50% of British voters opted for Brexit (only to search in Google on what on earth European Union is), many American voters went for Donald Trump despite having a relatively high (56%) approval rating of President Barack Obama (although Hillary Clinton secured nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, but thanks to electoral college). With the presidential election taking place in France as of the day I am writing this post, I would be very curious to see whether the far-right Le Pen, inexperienced-but-last-hope Macron, no-job-but-highly-paid Republican Fillon, or the communist, hologram-loving Melenchon would advance to the second round. Democracy, dangerously, can become a tool to elect somebody who may opt to end democracy once and for all. This is the age of political bubble and extreme polarization that we will continue to live in for the remainder of this century, as economic inequality, social media, and technological disruption continue to reshape our lives and how we view and manifest the world in ourselves.

Fourth, ethnic, racial, and religious sentiment is hardly new for this country. Democracy is only less than 20 years old in Indonesia, and like a typical teenager, it is not yet close to mature and emotionally volatile. Candidates in local elections have often touted their religious credentials – or proudly espoused their ethnic identities – as their “major recipe” to get elected to public offices, and not infrequently, this has been used as a tool to weaponize their rivals. People don’t get to change their mindset in a short term; depending on a country’s level of development, the change may either happen, or things will stay flat. This nation still has a long road to go to learn from its past mistakes.

Fifth, and lastly, Ahok still has the remaining 6 months as the governor, before his tenure is over on October this year. I am confident he is able to make achievements within this time period. For any successor – Baswedan notwithstanding – to dismantle his legacies will not be as easy as flipping over a paper.

These are the reasons why I refuse to believe that Ahok’s loss is a defeat for Indonesian democracy. Ironically, it is a dynamic principle of democracy itself: either you gain confidence among voters and they will vote for you, or that you do something wrong and they will vote you out. The irony is that frequent leadership turnovers hardly sustains long-term policy-making, but for better or worse, we are now living in an age of popular vote. Look at elsewhere across the world, and the distress is also there: many people are becoming disillusioned with democracy, political establishment, and all this stuff. Life, after all, has to go on. Moreover, most leaders – in the end – will no longer talk and act like they were as candidates; they would – adhering to the “median-voter theorem” – be hard-pressed to end up in the “center”. They would be pressed to accommodate the interests of all people, even the interests of constituents who had sided with their electoral rivals. The question is whether Anies and Sandi would be able to accommodate the interests of all people in the capital city.

Globalization and education: how much have things changed?

I was inspired – or honestly speaking, ‘triggered’ – to write this blog post in response to an op-ed post by Justin Fox in Bloomberg View about, as the title says, ‘who will get spillovers when US universities begin to lose out’. The author provided a brief overview of how Swiss universities can – at least temporarily – ‘pick up the cherries’ when Donald Trump administration’s future policies will pose challenges to the ongoing dominance of US universities. However, as constrained in terms of wording and space as the op-ed post is, the author only provided a brief comparison of both American and Swiss universities, citing presidents of the latter’s two universities (ETH Zurich and University of Zurich), who were both US-educated and had experiences working in the States.

What particularly motivated me to write this blog post was the university ranking index used by Fox in his op-ed article. Using the Shanghai-based Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), which heavily emphasizes on measuring university-based research output and quality, I observed in details about changes in the ranking of universities across the world. As Fox had previously argued, as of 2016, US universities remain ‘the envy of the world’, with 15 out of the world’s best 20 and 50 out of the world’s best 100 universities based in the country. However, in spite of the ongoing dominance, this figure has showed a gradual decline from previously 17 and 54 back in 2007, or nearly a decade prior. Most of the universities that remain within the best hundred are private, bestowed with huge amounts of endowment, either from big corporations or rich alumni networks. Majority of the country’s public universities, on the other hand, continue to ‘stagnate’ due to cutbacks in expenditure and lack of research funding support.

On the other hand, universities across the Asia-Pacific region have shown a strong increase in rankings within the last decade, the largest driver by which is from China. With the exception of Japan, many countries here – in general – have seen a tremendous improvement with regard to the university rankings, mostly due to huge investments in the universities, but to some extent, also due to the declining position of several universities in the Western region, namely in North America and Europe. Here, I did a bit of research to compare and contrast the representation of regions in terms of their top educational institutions between 2007 and 2016, using the ARWU index.

The increasing mobility of capital, talents, and ideas has been particularly beneficial to Asia-Pacific region, as many top universities here seek to globalize their education outlook by hiring either US-educated or European-educated faculty members into their universities, as well as increasing collaboration with other counterparts across the region and the globe. Americas and Europe, on the other hand, have seen the numbers significantly decline, especially the former.

Let us look at the ‘top 20’ composition in the table below.

Within the last 10 years, US universities continue to dominate the top 20 ARWU list, although there was a slight decline due to increasing competition from institutions from other countries (as we can see from above, UK and Switzerland). However, the race to completely ‘drive out’ the existing education superpower remains a very long road to go – or, should I say, an implausible notion up to now; schools like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and MIT continue to receive massive amounts of endowments, attract top-notch talents across the globe, and their global influence in many aspects (Nobel laureates, startup unicorns, research funding, huge alumni network support) remains unmatched with those in the rest of the world, and expect this to continue for decades to come.

The pattern remains pretty much unchanged when we expand the list into the ‘top 100’, as shown in another table below this sentence.

Within one decade, universities in Asia-Pacific (namely Australia, China, and Singapore) and in Western Europe (Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, and Switzerland) began to take a small-yet-significant portion of the “top 100” ARWU list. Japan was an ‘exception’ when compared to most Asian countries, as its pattern largely echoed that of the United States; there was a significant decline in the number of top-notch universities, and when we looked further into the next two tables below – especially in the top 500, Japan’s decline is even more dramatic.

Caveat: you suspect Japan’s decline is because the ranking index is crafted from China (an arch-rival)? Not necessarily.

Expanding the list further to the top 200, I found out that the gap between countries experiencing increase and those facing decline is becoming increasingly larger.

With regard to the increase, China has experienced the biggest increase in the number of top-200 institutions, with a six-fold increase within a decade (2 in 2007 to 12 in 2016). Saudi Arabia, surprisingly, also has 2 universities within the top-200 list (from previously 0 in 2007); this may be largely thanks to the kingdom’s extremely large amount of endowments, and the existence of King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST, not to be confused with South Korea’s KAIST). South Korea has also seen its number tripling, from 1 in 2007 to 3 in 2016.

Unfortunately, the biggest “loser” in this list is once again the United States. Having 88 universities in the top-200 list in 2007, the number has since declined significantly to 71 last year. The impact of 2008-2009 financial crisis is particularly severe for public universities, and it remains reflected in the number of the institutions per se.

Lastly, let us take a final look at the ‘top-500’ list, as seen in the table attached below.

The biggest increase, once again, predominantly took place in Asia-Pacific countries, with countries that are particularly outstanding include China (a net increase of 29), Australia (a net increase of 6), Saudi Arabia (from 0 to 4), Malaysia (from 0 to 3), South Korea (8 to 11), and Iran (o to 2).

By contrast, the biggest ‘losers’ here were the United States and Japan; US has seen a net decrease of 29 universities (from 166 in 2007 to 137 in 2016), but an even more dramatic decline was in Japan, with a net loss of over half of its universities of 2007 level (from 33 that year to 16 last year, a net decrease of 17 schools, a total decline rate above 50% of its original level).

Here are several country-specific findings with regard to the ARWU ranking index:

  • China: increase in the number of Chinese universities in the top 500 list can be attributed to active efforts by Chinese government to attract overseas Chinese talents to shift research and/or other academic works back to China. However, there are a few caveats with regard to this finding worth cautioning. First, many of the overseas talents that ‘return’ to China retain their jobs overseas; this leads to the second point, by which a large proportion of them only work in the country as ‘visiting professors’, ‘visiting researchers’, or scholars employed on a work-contract basis. Do also note that many of the Chinese students aspire to go abroad to study, the most popular destination by which remains the United States. Refer to a working paper by David Zweig and Huiyao Wang (2012) about efforts by Chinese government to recruit overseas Chinese talents, as well as findings by Institute of International Education (IIE) about the composition of international students in the US.
  • United States: Cutbacks in public funding for public universities has largely declined within the last decade, regardless of whoever is in the presidency (be it Bush Jr., Obama, or even Trump). On the other hand, endowments to private universities, particularly top-notch ones, continue to increase (except on 2016 fiscal year, by which most universities show a significant decline). Still, several public universities continue to show strong performance within the same time period, such as UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles (UCLA), UC San Diego (UCSD), University of Colorado – Boulder, UT Austin, Ohio State University (OSU), Pennsylvania State University (PSU), University of Minnesota, etc.
  • Japan: the country, ironically, is in a rather “sorry state” in terms of its relative performance compared to other countries in Asia. Although Japanese universities continue to churn out innovations and remains dominant in terms of number of Nobel laureates, this shows no impact on the improvement of the universities within ARWU list. One reason, according to Times Higher Education and Japanese education consulting firm Benesse, is the high degree of insularity among Japanese universities: resistance to opening-up under globalization and the limited interaction between Japanese scholars and academic communities across the globe may help explain why the stagnation continues.
  • South Korea: the country continues to ‘shine’ in terms of its research output and technological innovation, and is increasingly active in pioneering international collaboration between Korean and other universities across the globe, with a particular emphasis on Asia and the United States. However, as economic growth slows down, many university graduates have simultaneously struggled to find jobs in the country, particularly as the economy remains dominated by large-scale business holdings (chaebol), and entrepreneurial culture has yet to fully challenge the former’s influence.
  • Saudi Arabia: on one hand, it is a good thing to have some universities within the top-500 list (4 institutions), but their contribution to structural reforms within the country remains notoriously inadequate. Unemployment rate among the youth remains staggeringly high (around 30%), opportunities for social and economic mobility remain largely closed for minority groups (especially female), and the country continues to primarily rely on foreign expertise for academic and research activities (one example? Simply look at faculty list for King Abdullah University of Science & Technology).
  • Malaysia: the country showed up on the ‘top-500’ list, but it continues to struggle in reversing the brain drain, by which Malaysia has been among the worst affected countries. Low wages for prospective graduates, as well as ‘positive-discrimination’ approaches by the government that continues to favor majority ethnic Malays in university admissions, are two factors that continue to push Malaysian talents to pursue education overseas. This is made all the worse with the ongoing currency depreciation it has faced in the last 2 years. Many of my Malaysian friends also share such experiences with me regarding their motivations in studying abroad.
  • Indonesia: none of the universities in my home country appeared in the list up to now. Although this is only in ARWU index, the fact that no institutions show up is such a disappointment.

Conclusion: while the United States continues to remain dominant with regard to their education system, and is expected to remain preeminent for decades to come, its primacy is gradually being challenged with the rise of universities outside North America, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. With globalization, the increasing mobility of talents, capital, and ideas across the globe will enable such educational spillover to continue taking place worldwide, especially with US-educated graduates either working in the States or taking up their career opportunities back in their home countries. It is also the same wave of globalization that will continue to motivate the best and the brightest across the world to come to US – and now an increasing number of alternatives in Western Europe and Asia – to pursue higher education. The monopoly remains largely concentrated in the Western world, but other regions (most importantly, Asia) are challenging up their domination.

Bonus: Times Higher Education releases what it calls 53 ‘international powerhouse’ universities, or those with very high research output and citation scores that can match the existing ‘superpowers’ like Ivy League schools or Oxbridge. It is not necessarily ‘global’, however, as 45 of these ‘powerhouses’ are still concentrated in the Western region (31 in North America, 14 in Europe), with the other 8 located in Asia-Pacific region. You can view the full list of these universities in the picture below.

Summary of the 53 universities based on countries they are located:

 

Looking from the other corner: a friend’s journey to North Carolina

This guest post is written by one of my close friends, Jane Li. Having completed her undergraduate degree in Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (where we studied together), she is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Washington University in St. Louis. Long before coming to the United States, Jane has developed a close relationship with a host family she has known within the last 10 years. Last Christmas, we had some conversation as we have not met each other in the last few months. She was celebrating Christmas with her host family in North Carolina – their home state – all the while enjoying a vacation away from St. Louis, Missouri.

We initially had some ‘small talk’ – talking about our daily activities, while I was back in my hometown, and while she was in NC. She sent me some pictures about baking cookies, preparing pancakes, and tons of other dishes. All the small talk continued until she told me that her host family overwhelmingly supported – and voted – for Donald Trump. I was both not surprised and surprised. Not surprised, because North Carolina turned red in the last presidential election. Surprised, because there seemed to be no problems with her happily enjoying the feast with her host family.

“We actually debated a lot during the vacation,” Jane told me. They had some debates, and it’s hard to stay calm, but overall, the debates did not escalate into something worse.

I told my parents about our conversation.

“Regardless of how crazy Trump is, there are certain things that the rest of the world – especially us – may not necessarily understand why there is such affinity among some American voters towards the candidate,” my parents replied, “but perhaps that country needs a shock therapy.”

And I then asked Jane whether she was willing to write down her experiences staying in North Carolina with her host family. She was okay to do that, and here comes the blog post.

Before proceeding to read this post, here is one reminder that I need to emphasize: if you are in an emergency need of a safe space, this article may not be suitable for you. I do not care whether you are a conservative or a liberal or a centrist or whatever, but I seriously encourage that you read this post with an open mind. Again, if you need a safe space, you had better not proceed. Some of the ideas or thoughts here may appear strange or bizarre, but again, refer to the first rule. I only hope that this post enables us to better understand what motivated people to vote for populists like Trump, especially in the times of extreme political polarization among both the conservative and the liberal camps. Moreover, not every view or fact is here to be agreed with; each of us is endowed with an ability of logical reasoning, so use that wisely.

If you are not willing to proceed, you can stop here.

If you are willing to, you can continue scrolling it below.

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I spent most of my two weeks in North Carolina in Asheboro, a small town about an hour of drive from Raleigh-Durham with a host family. We have known each other for almost ten years now, since the couple once taught in my junior high school back in China. They are a very religious, conservative, and giving family. I have the most contact with the wife (and now mother of three) in the family. She adheres to a literal reading of the Bible, but has always been open to questions and willing to listen to different viewpoints. And they are Trump voters (although they did not really believe that Trump would be thoroughly anti-LGBT or anti-abortion), supporting him out of the hope of ‘the lesser of the vice’. These views shows possibility of how Trump voters could have thought, and they are not representative of all, nor are they unchanging over time.

This was my third time visiting the family and fresh after the Election (they voted for Trump), and I thought it would be a good opportunity to understand their viewpoints on many social issues – whether they hold different facts and/or give different weights to the same facts agreed upon. And here’s what I learned from conversation with the couple. They seemed to be in agreement on most of the issues, and the wife helped me correct views that I had misstated of theirs.

Below is the perspective of the couple, and I have used “they” except for where they clearly expressed differing views. I have also included what I had seen while in NC in [brackets].

On Donald Trump and the Campaign

First, like most people, they were initially suspicious of Trump, thinking he’s only running the campaign to boost his reputation; for now, they still question certain stances that Trump takes, whether he will do what he had previously promised, especially since Trump before 2010 supported Democrats. He does not seem that committed to LGBT issues, either.

One major reason for the couple to vote for Trump (and probably for many others that have done so) was that he talks off the top of his head. He does not seem as deceptive as stereotypical politicians are – speaking of which they have negative, direct experience of encountering them when lobbying for certain industries at the state capital, when the legislator they talked to openly solicited return – ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’. Politicians from both sides – Democrats and Republicans alike – are viewed as cunning, putting self-interests before public interests. They are tired of them being inconsistent in front of the public vs behind closed doors. Trump’s outspokenness became his strength.

Politics is so corrupted that it has become an exchange of money and vote – and this is not just for politicians seeking to enrich themselves, but even for the masses, who can expect to get something from the campaigners in return for voting for them. They have read about people being paid to protest against Trump, George Soros being one of the hands behind it.

Trump ran effectively as a political outsider and also an independent because of his businesses and therefore having to make fewer concessions to big donors. His business experience also means he will be good at negotiation and make policies that encourage businesses to create more revenue (we didn’t talk about his four bankruptcies). They seem to believe that he will also bring back jobs from abroad (we didn’t talk about automation, either).

They also think that the media is overwhelmingly biased against Trump. They take Trump’s speeches and rearrange them out of context to mislead the audience; the blurb from movie 13th Amendment quoting Trump was a good example (see the clip here). The video has Trump saying “knock the crap out of ’em” when it’s showing a black lady being pushed around in a crowd. This was edited to show the black lady when he was saying that. In reality, at least from the incidence they saw on the news when he said “knock’ em out”, he was talking about protesters that were trying to throw things at him. More specifically he said, “if you see someone about to throw something at me, knock the crap out of them.”

On Race

My host family also believe that racial relations became worse during Obama’s tenure, and it has to do with his policies. They wish they could live in a “color-blind” society and thought it’s possible, but the media is so misleading and public so stirred up and emotional. The Black Lives Matter movement and charges against police brutality, facts are provided to the public from those that push this agenda that are misleading – live footage of brutality is being used to stir emotionalism, rather than address the true issue. Criminal homicides and abortions are the largest causes of death of African-Americans, not police brutality.  Police officers are in a position of authority in our society. Due to their commitment to uphold the law and their willingness to place their lives on the line for the security of the people they serve, they deserve respect. They carry lethal force, thus compliance is necessary for the safety of all parties. It is also the person’s responsibility to follow what the police say and not resist it, and parents should educate their children how to deal with police in a respectful manner. This is not to say that police don’t make mistakes, and indeed, there is a possibility that they misuse their power. On that, more funding that supports professional training for the police is needed so that they make fewer mistakes. And new devices such as body cameras which the police are required to wear now will reduce police abuse of power.

Besides, the media – especially music – is covering too much of blacks and minorities in a way that: 1) further antagonizes racial relationship and encourages more conflict of the mass in dealing with police; 2) only criticizes and does not provide any constructive solution. Hollywood and entertainment industry in general portray blacks as in poorer conditions and together they create the impression of blacks in less advantageous positions and elicit more anger.

On Racial Disparity in Education Opportunities

There may be disparity, but there isn’t that much difference between the education provided by prestigious schools and less prestigious ones; there is opportunity for anyone who wants to thrive, and that doesn’t mean someone has to become rich and famous by the world’s standard. Anyone can go to community college if they want. College provides opportunity, but it is not the panacea to every problem. It also often means student debt that takes years to pay back, and for some even a lifetime is not enough. Those not attending not only save tuition but also have longer working years so they could expect to retire earlier while being self-sufficient (we didn’t talk about automation). They might also start their businesses early and make a living out of it. There are many ways to improve living conditions. Moreover, there are always setbacks in life; the diligent will prosper anyway. Ben Carson being a case in point.

[In the house, doing chores was a duty of the children as members of the family; but they get paid for studying]

Obama dealt the racial card too. He built his support by black power first, and I have followed the website of his church which states Obama’s stances and it’s interesting to see how it changes throughout his campaign and after he got elected.

For Building A Wall (And Making Mexico Pay For It):

President Bill Clinton said something similar in the 1990s, and there was even fund for it; it’s feasible (Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, which approved the construction of a 22.5-km barbed wire along San Diego border with Mexico; Bush continued with Secure Fence Act of 2006; Obama, meanwhile, was a ‘deporter-in-chief’; he once supported Secure Fence Act, anyway). Clinton received standing ovation when he said it, and Trump didn’t because the public dislike him. A lot of drugs are also smuggled over the border and they have to deal with the consequences. It seems to them that Mexico will probably end up paying for the wall. By the way, they believe that NAFTA is a disaster.

On Refugee Policy

In this issue, the host family believed that they made a mess in Europe; many became vagrants and thugs. They rape women more than the regular crowd do. They also believe that refugees take away jobs from the local people.

[unfortunately, to a certain degree, this may be true, especially when looking at the Google Maps here]

There are more Muslims among the refugees and that could be dangerous. Ben Carson has been quoted saying, “…it’s like medical malpractice, if I were ISIS and did not infiltrate the refugee group.” An open door to this country is just that – it creates a quick entry. Some leaders have warned that the vetting process isn’t able to be diligent with knowing who they are welcoming. It takes a long time to screen newcomers. They also need better infrastructure to provide newcomers with language studies, job opportunities, etc. Without knowing how to navigate the existing systems while providing them free food, lodging and health benefits – there is little motivation to be a productive member of our society.

On Religion

The family also believes that Islam has in its scripture verses that are unequivocally violent. It is hard for them to believe that sincere followers of Koran won’t commit violence and oppress women as the book teaches. This is different from Bible, which they believe only teaches love. Many rules from the Old Testament have been replaced by the principle of love, which is the greatest teaching of all, and God has written law on the heart of people so what does not make sense in the verses should be taken critically. (once again, I caution readers not to easily react to these opinions)

Radical Muslims who follow the scripture literally are most likely to commit violence against others and therefore survive (since they kill others first). They also have high birth rate, which means in many years from now, their population (the more violent, fundamentalist believers) are going to take over control.

They think that America is no longer like America in Founding Father’s time, where Christianity was more powerful and purer. Those governing the country were devout Christians; no longer is that the case. Now America is becoming unfamiliar: a pro-LGBT America, with people speaking languages they don’t understand and different cultures and other beliefs flooding in. They wish this country to be more ‘genuine’ to themselves, comparing it to Japan having preserved its distinct culture so well. That is Japan’s unique identity. In this regard, they believe their identity is now being challenged.

For example, I heard that there are an increasing number of Hispanic neighbors near the family’s grandma’s house, and in one school the French course was replaced by Chinese course. This might be exciting to some of my friends in Asheboro since they love China, but perhaps simultaneously also giving them a sense of uneasy change of the more familiar and merging of less familiar cultures. And on homosexuality, the wife believes that it’s a sin, but she disagrees to the notion that homosexuals should be excluded from equal protection and access to public services. To her, everyone is born a sinner. She is also fine with her oldest daughter disliking dresses and her son disliking the traditionally boyish toys, though her husband less so.

On US abstaining from voting against Israel in UN late last year: On the Sunday service on Christmas at the church, the pastor mentioned the UN vote in passing and criticized the U.S. for turning its back on Israel. The pastor referred to The Revelation in New Testament, which says that “God blesses whoever blesses Israel and curses whoever curses it”. If the U.S. declines in power after Trump takes over, some people would think that it’s due to the U.S. no longer supporting Israel. As to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, the issue itself is not familiar to them, but the pastor seemed knowledgeable about it and on Sunday service he had criticized abstention on the U.S. side. They believe that the U.S. should protect Israel no matter what for its own benefit. Although it may be hard to reconcile this belief with the principle of love which they also take, and with the countless lives of Palestinians having lost their homes – and even their lives – to Israel’s encroachment, the pastor believed it is ‘within God’s plan’. Respecting God’s sovereignty means trusting it.

There are many signs in front of the houses in the county that says, “Thank you Jesus”; another friend who lives in NC also told me that people here sometimes identify themselves by their church affiliations. This is the Deep South, the Bible Belt, where church attendance is higher than national average. I got a T-shirt with a proud “Simply Southern” label on it as a Christmas gift. During my stay in NC, I also visited a friend in Asheville who goes to HKUST (but is an Asheville native). As we ordered food in a diner, he overheard a couple sitting on a table next to us, talking about their supernatural experiences.

On Abortion

The host family also views that making abortion easier will lift the consequences of illicit sex and encourage more promiscuous behavior and unexpected pregnancies, especially for teenagers. It does not necessarily follow that abortion should be totally banned. Practices like providing ultrasounds, and hearing heartbeats may humanize the pregnancy experience, thus giving women more information about the choice they are about to make.

Obamacare & Welfare In General 

For them, it is great that Obamacare has provided healthcare for many, but they are worried that the long-term pattern is not sustainable. Contributors to the health care ‘pool’ are not able to use health care because of its exorbitant costs. “You can’t force people to pay for something they can’t even use. It’s also too expensive, and the money goes to insurance firms.” They also believe generally that the government lacks the incentive to be efficient, and usually it gives the poor a hand out by giving away goods (and develop dependency), and church and other local community groups are more likely to give a hand up by actually working with their people, knowing their problems and developing more comprehensive coping strategies. They are better connected to the local people and are able to target people needing help more effectively. People should not just feel entitled to welfare and should be held responsible for their behavior and try to get out of welfare.

They also think that welfare benefits are sometimes too generous and are ‘disincentives’ for people from working. For example, SNAP program provided too much worth of food stamps when they qualified for and received assistance. There are also unemployment benefits that discourage people from seeking jobs and working. “You can have a TV, brand-new vehicle, and housing, and are still considered poor and receive benefits.”

[The real causes are damn complicating: read the Bloomberg special report here]

Many people seek to fraud the system by faking work injuries to get benefits.

[The husband, a physical therapist, is at the forefront of fighting this but he is, by doing so, also running the risk of being charged because of refusing to give false diagnosis. Benefits for veterans are too much. During my stay we also met a veteran who had a light injury and should be able to work but didn’t, given the generous benefit packages]

Housing

Because of a provision in the public housing policy, owners cannot kick someone out even if that person fails to pay rent. As a consequence, vagrants stay.

[One of their friends had a tenant that refused to pay the rent, and eventually was forced to leave by the friend removing the door to make the room too cold for staying. Under the law it would be illegal to remove him otherwise. The house we used for Christmas party, before it was refurbished, had had needles in it and some vagrants were seen in the house.]

Global Warming 

The conclusion that global warming is largely caused by human activity is not definite yet, although in public discourse that is gaining ground. There is a conspiracy theory that they subscribe to, that a hundred years ago there had already been discovered ways to generate energy efficiently and in a non-polluting way. But they are kept secret because of business or political interests. The husband claims to have read evidence of this being real.

[The links to articles/videos one of my friends shared with me are mostly from less-known, and oftentimes vague, sources, mostly via Facebook, but when I talked to my friend’s husband, I learned that he reads NY Times, Washington Post, as well as other more liberal and mainstream media; he tries to be eclectic.]

**********

Thus far, these are the points that Jane covered in her guest post. There are certainly many other topics that they have discussed, but are not included here.

Regardless of how many ‘intellectual mistakes’ that have been made, it remains a very unique perspective to understand better about the microcosmic worldviews of a very small sample of Trump voters. The voters that we had been exposed to in the mass media were oftentimes depicted as racists, know-nothing ignoramus, bigots, misogynists, or other negative labels. But looking deeper into their thoughts, that generalization was more blurred than it appears on the surface. What became alarming for me, nonetheless, is the growing political and identity divides within what is, for now, the existing global superpower. For certain, anything that President Trump does may affect the global order today. And it matters to examine the voters’ worldviews in the first place to understand ‘things that the rest of the world may not necessarily comprehend’ (quoting my parents).

Here, I express my sincere gratitude for my close friend, Jane Li, for sharing her experiences living in North Carolina, as well as many of the ideas shared in the post. I wish her all the best in the US, especially for her studies in Washington University in St. Louis. I also sincerely thank her host family for allowing her to write down her experiences, and in particular, allowing us to explore more about their worldviews.

 

The emperor has no clothes, but remains an emperor

emperor

Did you still remember Hans Christian Andersen? Or, to go a bit deeper, have you ever read his short story titled “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? If you have neither read his stories nor known this person’s name (I assume most of you have), I suggest that we spend some time (re)reading his works. The Emperor’s New Clothes, in particular, is a title I think is worth reading. Allow me to summarize his story in case you haven’t read it, although some guys in Wikipedia have already done the plot summary.

Once upon a time, there lived a king who made wearing the best outfits and costumes his primary quotidian activity. Caring not so much about the kingdom and the people, but rather his appearance, or a very thick sense of fashion. One day, two weavers came in, claiming that they could build the best costumes for the emperor. So fantastic, so amazing, so awesome the designs were, that these outfits could only be seen by people who are intelligent, smart, and ‘at least not stupid’. The ruler took the weavers’ words so seriously that he entrusted them the new outfits. Anyone who could not view the emperor’s new clothes would be labelled ‘gravely foolish’.

The emperor finally wore these new clothes, but his ministers – and other subordinates – were so fearful of facing the reality: the clothes were so seriously microscopic that the emperor, apparently, wore nothing at all. But the ministers were also afraid of losing their jobs, or even their statuses, so they had no choice, but to lavish the emperor with praises. There the emperor embarked on his own parade, where every citizen marched to watch the procession, himself almost completely naked. People already knew the fact that the emperor was wearing ‘nothing’, but out of fear of being labelled ‘gravely foolish’, or hopelessly stupid, they would rather keep themselves in silence. A young child screamed out, but the procession went on. The emperor ‘probably’ knew about this, but, anyway, after all, the ruler prevails.

Obviously, there was almost no such historical example of leaders posing themselves literally naked; the moral lesson of the story is there, but its resemblance echoes for the duration of human civilization. We have seen great, wise leaders, but we have also seen bad, horrible leaders throughout our lifetime. What I honestly worry about is when a society, despite having understood some negative traits associated with the latter, would still cling their hopes on these people. Or when there are swindlers in the weavers’ clothing who deliberately exploit and manipulate the situation in such a condition that we ‘seemingly have no choice’ but to praise the naked emperor, given our personal fear at face value. Oftentimes we wish we could be like those young folks, but most of the time, a lot of us did not. Many factors hinder us, and adults understand that the truth is more complicating than what children usually perceive (this story is intended for children, by the way, but adults should learn, too). Still, ironically, we are simply afraid of telling the truth, when the truth itself, obviously, is already out there – and even visible for most of us.

It doesn’t matter whether we live in democracies, hybrid regimes, or dictatorships, but it is simply the reality of human society that oftentimes we are led by persons who have achieved tremendous feats for the greater good, or by others who have implemented disastrous policies. In a democracy, we can elect a person who gave us universal health care, mandatory minimum wages, multiple peace deals, LGBT rights, etc; on the other, we also have the similar ability to elect a demagogue, an outright racist, a bigot, or even a sexual predator to power. In a dictatorship, there were ‘benevolent tyrants’ who have led decades of economic miracle before democratization occurred; simultaneously, there were also tyrants that left a country in shambles, civil wars, or constant civil disorders. There have also been leaders that constantly give certain communities ‘pork’, in exchange of constant support to the leaders regardless of whatever wrongdoing the leaders have committed, be it a massive corruption scandal, serious human rights violations, or probably, something like sexual abuses, ties to mobsters, or racialized threats towards other communities that may be deemed soft spots or convenient targets. Look at history – not just the last two days – and we can see numerous of such illustrations.

History has seen such ups and downs in human society, but the good thing is that when mindsets change, people can change, too. We can choose to be like any other adults watching the naked emperor’s procession – all the while lavishing our pretentious praises at the ruler, or we can respond like the young boy in the story, and if need be, amplify his voices.

After all, I would remain an optimist. Probably a cautious one.

Why poverty occurs

poor-people

When I was small, I was frequently told by my parents to persevere, work hard, and not to be indolent. From the car windows, we often saw young folks in a range of ages – I guess between 5 and 20 – playing guitars on the street side or begging for money. Their bodies were covered in dirt, oftentimes with torn-down clothes, and messy hair. Sometimes, there would be old ladies or men, slowly knocking on the car windows when traffic happened, asking for some pity. Some displayed physical deformities, such as cataract-affected eyes, amputated limbs, or tumors with the size of a human face. “You often have this strong feeling that you want to help them, but sometimes it’s better to be safe than to be sorry,” that is the near-typical expression my parents told me. “When you help a person, their friends will follow suit. And we are also not legally allowed to hand in cash for beggars or street urchins. But where the heck is the government?”

Afterwards, they quipped this familiar line. “That’s why you need to work really hard so that you have a better future.”

And that is also where we build this familiar, generalized adage of correlating people being poor with people being lazy, or ‘not being hardworking enough’. The reality, however, is far more complicating and incomprehensible than the pattern appears on the surface.

I was forever grateful for my family – especially my parents – that my family was able to support my overseas education, and that I was able to study in HKUST, one of the world’s youngest and fastest-rising research universities. And truth be told, if you happen to study in Hong Kong, it is also one of the ‘best’ places in the world not only to learn business, finance, or investment banking, but also to study about poverty. Not studying about poverty as a university major or degree of specialization, but rather to allow us to compare and contrast the unprecedented wealth and income gaps in one of the world’s most globalized cities.

I participated in several community service activities organized by a university-led outreach program throughout Hong Kong, and there, I began to experience – and learn more – about the more ‘sophisticated’ picture of the reality of poverty. If what you perceive of Hong Kong is mostly about its glitzy skyscrapers, you have only seen ‘one-half’ of the reality; you need to come across its numerous dilapidated multi-storey buildings, mostly spread around Kowloon, in order to get the other half of the reality. Inside the buildings, the alleys separating the flats are extremely shallow that you can hardly switch over your body. For a space the size of my own bedroom (back in my hometown), I think there may be like 5-6 ultra-small flats within that ‘alley’.

To make matters worse, there are other ‘quirks’ that epitomize poverty in this city. Many people, mostly elders, live in cages, due to ‘exorbitant housing rents’. There are also people who live in very compressed conclaves between two storeys of a building, to the extent that they can no longer stand, but need to crawl in within these spaces. And I can tell you that they are not lazy, either; these people, aged in 60s, 70s, or even 80s, still continue to eke out a living – an uneasy living – by picking up cardboards across the streets, and selling them to any hawkers for a tiny amount of money. Sometimes, they work for like more than 10 hours a day in restaurants and cafes, serving dishes and/or cleaning tables. Others stand for hours in certain stations to hand out pamphlets or advertising newsletters to any passersby. I once observed an old lady – perhaps already in a mentally ill state – getting in an altercation with a shopping mall security guard because of her pamphlet-distributing activity that is considered ‘annoying’. She murmured to herself in an angry tone while handing out these papers, to the ignorance of the passersby.

It’s not only about the old people. There are also young folks who are already working for hours a day, all the while doing menial tasks. Cleaning up tables in campus restaurants, removing food trays, or mopping the floors. And these people are definitely not lazy, just to keep this thought in mind.

Gradually, there came this awareness that people are poor not necessarily because they are lazy. That’s why it matters to look at the wider circumstances that facilitate such condition. If our parents are themselves poor, there is also a certain degree of likelihood that we will be in the same condition, and inherit it to our children and beyond. That is where the dichotomy comes in: we must work hard to lift ourselves from this evil cycle. But again, the outcomes can be mixed: some of them manage to have their offspring lifting the families out of poverty through education and skills, but others remain in the cycle, or even become economically worse off.

Consider two families of janitors. Just because their occupation is to clean out toilets does not mean we can easily dismiss their potential, especially their dignity. Suppose one family works really hard to provide adequate support for their children’s education; it is possible for them to support these children to finish high school, it is also possible their children can get scholarships to study in some of the best institutions to complete a bachelor’s degree, and it is even possible that they can complete a PhD degree. At the same time, the other family also works similarly really hard, but their children dropped out of high school, and given their inadequate educational backgrounds, end up working in a similar occupation as their parents do.

There are many possible answers on why the outcomes diverge for these two families. It can be mindset. Their parents may frequently tell the children how important education is, and why hard work and achievement matters, but they can also tell the children to ‘forget education, your stomach matters more’. It can be the neighborhoods they are in as well. There may be schools or educational institutions near their vicinity that offer subsidized education and renewable merit-based scholarships, with fully motivated teachers and educators doing their best to educate these guys. But there can also be a neighborhood ridden with crimes, infested with drug abuse, suffering from dilapidated, under-funded schools, obesity, or deadly gang fights. It can also be generational. The similar neighborhood their children live in is no different from the setting where their parents used to live. It can also be due to government policies. There are governments that favor free education and free healthcare because their tenet is social justice, so their families would be pretty much already ‘covered’ under its social security framework. There are also authorities that fully believe in laissez-faire principles, ‘to each one’s own’; your social status is defined by your own making. There are also regimes whose only task is to win the next election by handing out cash and other favored packages to their constituencies. You don’t call it social security; it’s clientelism. It can also be due to countries’ level of socio-economic development. The chronicle of this janitor families changed because the country shifted from a Third World country to a high-income economy. And don’t forget other ‘empirically unexplainable factors’. You can call it luck, bad luck, or if you don’t believe in any of these, simply refer to them as random events, absurdities, what have you.

Let us term them ‘unexpected circumstances’. It could be possible that one of the family members suffers from a terminal illness, and it takes a huge amount of money for its medical treatment. Or that the company the parents are employed in needs to lay off some people, including the parents themselves. Or it can be that an accident befalls to one of the family members, forcing them to forfeit their savings for education to pay for the medical costs. Or that either one of the breadwinners or the other family members is either seriously incapacitated or killed in a gang fight, a robbery, or an attempted murder. Or that a systemic economic or financial crisis takes place and the family lost their savings value. Or that another party wins election and promises to roll back every social security measure to ‘ensure a healthy fiscal setting’. Or that the social security benefits are taken away by other already-middle-class families. Or because of automation. Or that the children struggle to find jobs despite their high school or educational backgrounds. And it could also be possible that the family either never encounters or never becomes seriously affected by any of such calamities.

The reality becomes even more difficult to accept when one reads Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Using years of research output and armed with arsenals of statistical figures, Piketty showed that since early 1970s, most of the world – particularly the Western world – has witnessed a U-shaped growth in inequality (instead of the inverted-U theorem as argued by Simon Kuznets), due largely to globalization, outsourcing of jobs to less developed countries, and more recently, disruptive technologies and artificial intelligence. He argued that in the last 40 years, the growth of capital income has surpassed that of labor income; the larger the capital-labor income gap is, the more unequal a society will be in the future.

How do we define capital income? It can be gains made through productivity improvement when companies invest in sophisticated machines that produce more and better. It can also be gains invested from our parents’ inherited wealth. It can also be home prices. It can also be universities’ endowments. What about labor income? It’s the salaries that we receive from the occupations we are doing. And whether you feel your aggregate labor income is growing or stagnating may depend on the location where you live. As shown by economist Branko Milanovic, the biggest ‘winners’ of globalization in the last three decades are middle class in emerging markets (led by China) and the elites in Western world, while the biggest ‘losers’ are the poorest people living in poor and developing countries, as well as the middle class in the Western world.

It becomes even more confusing when we look into two totally different things: poverty continues to decline, yet inequality continues to increase worldwide. The number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped from 1.8 billion in early 2000 to now around 800 million as of 2015, but the wealth concentration among the top 1% of the world’s population has surpassed 51% of the global wealth in the same period. Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, in his book The Great Escape (released in the same year as Piketty’s book), argued that the reasoning may be that while many people escape poverty through expanded access to education, healthcare, and other public services, they are still struggling to enter into the middle class. That said, the poverty-reduction effort is a success, but that success is built on a fragile foundation. This may mean that should anything occur, and should these people be ‘unprepared’ of its repercussions, they may either fall back into poverty, or remain trapped in the low-income-but-not-poor-cycle for a very long time.

That said, the reality of poverty is more difficult to understand than normally assumed. I will not take much of the explanation here into direct conclusion, as more research needs to be worked out to better understand its peculiar nature. Still, I think policymakers need to embark on policy innovation, as the world today is dramatically different from the world in the past. Lastly, the ages-old recipe of ‘job creation’ (as politicians like to promise) or ‘poverty eradication’ (as these UN aficionados and/or bravados like to voice out) has sounded so hollow with the complicating realities of today, that we all need to silence ourselves and reconfigure the definition of this concept, one that we think is as simple as street urchins or beggars asking for money on the street side.