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.]

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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.

 

A farewell to 2016, and welcoming an uncertain future

welcoming-2017

 

A close friend of mine posted on our Whatsapp chat group that our ‘366 days’ are finally closing today. He specifically referred to ‘366 days’, because of all days in this year, there is one special day in which his birthday befalls: February 29. With officially his age being ‘5 years old’ (he’s actually 20, de facto), he will need to wait until 2020 to celebrate his 6th birthday, or by the time when he’s already 24 years old.

To some extent, I quite pitied him given his unusual birth date. But it’s okay; one great thing I will remember is the friendship that we have long forged, together with the rest of the chat group members, for quite some time. As I am currently on my final year of study at HKUST, this may probably be the first – and the last – time I can directly celebrate his birthday. Again, it’s okay; his once-in-four-years birthday will forever be remembered.

My friend’s ‘birthday story’ is not the primary theme for this post; you can call it an ‘opening anecdote’.

This is my last blog post for 2016. Compared to previous years, this is also the time when I made the least number of posts. In 2015, I published 21 blog posts, already a massively huge drop compared to 2014 (when I posted, I guess, over 300 blog posts). This year, it is only 15 (including this one). The number of viewers has also dropped in the last two years, which I think is quite expected given the reduced time I have spent curating this WordPress blog. But it’s okay; I don’t care if the total number of this 5.5-year-old blog is comparatively lower than those on a typical Youtube video, because I am not seeking publicity. The aim of this blog is very simple: to share my thoughts, and nothing else. My commitment is that as long as I am still alive, I will continue updating this blog, all the while sharing my thoughts about issues which I think – and believe – are worth seriously addressing.

If I could sum up how 2016 has been for me, I can say that it, in some way, sucks. My sentiment may be a bit different compared to how others denigrated the year of 2016; I didn’t really blame ‘2016’ itself in causing problems (because problems can always occur regardless what year it is), but rather how some ‘misfortunes’ happen somewhat more frequently compared to previous years. And it’s particularly personal. To begin with, I did not manage to get any single Dean’s List awards this year, which are actually important in determining my scholarship amount. There have also been excessive bureaucratic logjams with regard to salary processing of my research internship. A huge rise in expenditures as I am applying for PhD and Master’s programs (to tell you the fact, a normal PhD application fee, in case for a US school, can cost between US$75 and US$125). My application for a research trip to Zambia was also rejected for ‘quite unclear reasons’. Anxiety related to finding jobs, especially when I remember the tremendous amount of ‘investment’ already incurred by my family in paying for my tuition, in addition to my own scholarships. There is also a similar anxiety about my younger brother, as he is currently waiting for the news from any universities he has been applying for (including the school I am currently enrolled in).

Returning back to my friend’s ‘birthday’ story, the anxiety is cyclical, this time perhaps with a larger scope in mind. Perhaps I can call it a ‘once-in-a-few-years’ cycle of anxiety. Back in 2009-2010 period, the primary ‘worry’ was about getting selected for a high school scholarship in Singapore. Then in 2012-2013 period, the major anxiety was about me in choosing universities. Now, in 2016, and later in 2017, the major worries will be about which schools my younger brother will be in, whether I will be accepted for PhD or Master’s programs, or whether I end up taking a job. As I am hoping to pursue further studies in the United States, there have been serious discussions with my parents. My mom is more supportive of me than my dad does in this regard; my dad has been truly ‘scared’ by a Donald Trump presidency, half-jokingly and half-not-jokingly.

Perhaps this is the reason I can say why this last winter vacation for me as an undergraduate student feels so different compared to previous vacations. Most of my friends and I didn’t worry too much about looking for jobs, finishing final-year projects, or waiting for confirmation about postgraduate application. All we cared about was simply about having a nice time during vacation. And this is particularly strongly felt for me, personally. I only return to my hometown once in a year as I make every summer in the last three years occupied with research-related jobs or courses. And this time, the vacation feels different; it’s hard for me to describe it, and you will understand that kind of moment of uncertainty when you start to ponder into the future, especially with only one remaining semester left.

That’s why I feel particularly anxious; from 2017 onward, both my younger brother and I will most likely have spent most of our time studying, or working, overseas. All the while he’s applying for scholarships, my parents will still need to continue supporting his education. And with them expected to continue working, there may be even less time for us to frequently interact with each other. It is inevitable, oftentimes, that it takes some sacrifices to achieve something. Obviously, life in 2017 will be vastly different from in this year.

That said, all I can do in the last day of 2016 is to bid farewell to this year, and learn from these experiences. It’s true that some setbacks have occurred, but again, let bygones be bygones. We may choose to be defensive and ‘victimize’ ourselves in the face of these misfortunes and become overly reactionary; indeed, some emotional expression may be quite necessary. But, we can also choose to ‘let go’, learn from our mistakes, and continue to persevere. Again, as I always repeatedly tried to reassure myself, it is not always the ‘years’ themselves that choose the calamities. There may be such cyclical-like patterns, but we may opt not to let them defeat our spirits. Come 2017, the time for another life transition, and as much different – and difficult – it is as the life transition in 2013 was (previously from high school to overseas university education, now from university to either a postgraduate study or employment), that persevering spirit matters a lot. I have still yet to bring ‘the best’ in me and to my family, and that has always been the mantra I stick in to my mind whenever that moment begins to tick into my mindset.

And here is my message for my juniors who are still yet to graduate: if you are in for your winter vacation, enjoy it to the fullest. When it comes to this pre-transition moment, you will begin to deeply appreciate how meaningful every time you spend with your beloved ones is. The current era is vastly different from previous ones, as there are now an almost endless array of high-tech wonders that make our lives easier, but still, none of them can replace the values of direct, face-to-face interaction, especially with close friends and family members. If you agree with me that 2016 sucks, let’s bid it – say the least – an honorable farewell (you don’t have to follow in John Oliver’s way of saying goodbye to 2016). Welcoming 2017, we will expect riddles, mysteries, tragedies, and other unexpected shocks. But, let’s also anticipate any unexpected virtues or moments of ‘luck’, because after all, these are the dual characteristics of our human nature.

Goodbye, 2016. I will promise to keep you updated with future blog posts next year. Happy new year in advance!

Being a tourist in one’s own hometown

hometown

 

A few minutes before the plane landed in Kuala Namu International Airport, Medan, I saw from the window myself dim, low-wattage light dotting blocks of streets, with cars and motorcycles – seen from the sky as tiny as moving ants – rushing in and out of those streets.

“Gee”, I whispered to a friend sitting beside me, “is this place having power ration again?”

“Hasn’t our hometown stayed almost the same since we last left?”

Having studied in Hong Kong for a year (literally without any summer breaks or holidays), this counter-culture-shock was already the first thing I experienced – all the while even before I touched off the ground, of the place I was born and raised for over 18 years, this city – goddamn Medan – that I have called it home since the beginning.

Truth be told, I only have my holidays once a year – and as though a ritual, I have been back home once a year, for approximately one month. My first time, it was December 2013 – it lasted 37 days. Fast forward to December 2014 (all the way from Chinese New Year), it lasted 40 days. And there came another 10.5 months of time-space, filled with the same pattern of courses, research projects, killer exams, and other school activities, and there it is, December 2015. This time, I will be home for over 42 days – almost one and a half month. Assume that there are not many changes next year, my next holiday in Medan will be in December 2016 (and also definitely the last time I can afford such a superbly long break).

Every December I sojourn back home, I have to be very admittedly honest that I have this repetitive cycle of ‘culture shocks’. Old wisdom (I don’t know which grannies say that) explains that one’s personality totally changes after exploring a brand-new place, and adapting to these unexpected circumstances out there. Well, my life story ain’t that fascinating like what Frodo (and his friend I crushed my brain to remember the name, not Gollum) faced in The Lord of The Rings, but the reality is that this problem becomes apparent once I arrive in the city I have called it ‘home’ since 1995.

First thing first, there are all these dim-lighted streets over the city.

I have been to Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung, and Denpasar (it’s the capital of Bali), and I could tell you that the streets are so glitzy and brightly lit, especially if one lives in the capital. Medan, being Indonesia’s fourth largest city after the first three cities I described above, with population almost approaching 1% of Indonesia’s total (if you don’t know the answer: it’s one-quarter billion people), is still grappling with electrification. Blackouts are still regularly scheduled in some districts, and street light is mostly dim. That was the same thing I have observed, over and over, since the first time I revisited in 2013. If you take airport express right to the city center, which takes approximately 30-35 minutes, I bet you the first 25-30 minutes you will see almost nothing (as though one were traveling inside a black hole). There are wooden houses and huts beside railway tracks, but there’s no electricity. Even when one sees light (and it’s approaching city center), it’s still very dim, unless one is only a few hundred meters away from the train station. Anyway, I took the airport express back in 2014, and it was really convenient, all the while worth an almost 8 US$-equivalent single-journey ticket.

Another unique thing, meanwhile, is the fact that the airport is completed first before the connecting highways are constructed. As I reached Medan only by last Sunday, there has been substantial progress with the highway construction. Still, going out of the airport area, one can imagine massive traffic jam, and further out, dim street lighting again. Your cars are even brighter than traffic lights, I bet.

Closer into the city center, there are signs of ‘repair projects’. Indeed, all the way back to my childhood, these ‘repair projects’ have always been existent, while at the same time the road quality, I assume, seems worsening. Everywhere we go, there are all these cute little ponds scattered across the streets – years-old potholes that are yet to be fixed. Why the heck don’t these projects manage to fix these little ponds? Because these projects are mostly random patchwork, and some people have rumors that these year-end projects are simply to use up the remaining annual budgets already provided to the city government. Just cover the holes with cement and some sand, and you get the impression that these roads are smooth. The analogy would be you put a very thick makeup to cover your pimples.

We have not only little ponds, but also eternal pipe-implanting projects. A lot of people have experienced this: for some periods of time, drainage in front of houses will be scraped, leaving piles of sand, mud, and other ‘stuff’ scattered across those streets. The problem with these projects, however, is nobody has a goddamn idea when they are going to be accomplished. Sometimes pipes sit idle on street corners, waiting for someone to implant them underground. Wait, you have to consider these piles as well! When raining season comes, and nobody comes to fix them, these piles will flow across the rainwater, causing flood, diminishing the quality of existing roads and streets, and voila!, there emerge all these cute little ponds. The only exception is that you don’t see waddling ducks (though some people plant rice paddies as acts of protest).

See, even I already sound like a ranting First World traveler? Apologies for stereotyping.

Some things are changing, too, especially in the circumstances surrounding my home. One example is mushrooming number of tower cranes. Apartments and shopping malls are being built on my hometown like a boom; in my vicinity alone, I count at least 10 tower cranes (simply because I live in the city center). I haven’t conducted any mini-research, but all I only hope is that the increase in use of tower cranes does not correspond with the parallel increase in the number of potholes or number of four-wheeled vehicles hit by motorcycles, which oftentimes becomes a classic taboo.

Hmm, guess like the only thing is changing is that there are more tower cranes? Probably so. I haven’t been back in my hometown for almost a year, so it’s inevitable I lost count with most things happening not only in Medan, but also in Indonesia. See: in 2013 I still ‘cared’ a lot about news from this country, by 2014 I still did so, but by 2015 my attention has been significantly diminishing. You get this feeling when you talk the same thing to your friends or other acquaintances, over and over. Corruption, crime, pollution (and then this haze that awards Indonesia as the world’s third largest carbon dioxide emitter), infrastructure problems, illicit drug trade, etc. I feel like a 50-year-old heavy-smoking guy whenever I talk about it (and I used to talk about it), so I simply suppress my interest in discussing these matters.

That’s where I switch to gossiping. Regardless of its fact that it is a major sin in virtually any religion (I’m not sure with Spaghetti Monster), gossiping with old friends you haven’t met for more than 2.5 years is a ‘blessing’ for me. Some have gone on to study in top-notch universities in Singapore, Australia, US or those in Jakarta and Bandung, while the rest stay faithful to the same hometown. Mindsets may have changed, but our gossiping habit puts them aside. Some friends’ friends have switched either boyfriends or girlfriends, while one has gotten married (and she’s just 20, for the sake of mom’s spaghetti!). And, well, some have also become mothers (same age), one of whom got MBA (married-by-accident), a code-word for one doing premarital sex. I won’t touch in details about it.

Still, the gap in mindsets by itself can explain that prevailing counter culture-shock.

“People’s mindset here is so simple: you finish high school by age 18, go to a local college for 3-4 years, and after graduation, either your parents give you some money to set up a business or you work for a few years, then you get married, buy a house, have some kids, and get them to the school you were in before. Your life is so stable, but at the same time it’s flat.” That’s what my parents say. Indeed, that is precisely because of what they (and most of my close friends’ parents) had experienced in this life cycle.

“That’s why, after consulting in a local temple, your ultimate fate is to go outside to succeed.”

Hmm, this begins to sound like an adventure movie plot again (apologies for stereotyping), but indeed, what my mom and dad said were really accurate. Go outside, explore the whole world, and return home as an entirely different person. Physically, I’m still short, a bit bellied-up (though I already do some workout), but in regard to my mindset, it’s been completely dissimilar. My Indonesian accent has changed a lot (becoming almost Jakarta-like), and it sounds awkward when I converse to some people here in Bahasa. My mindset differs a lot from my own parents, and to be honest, it’s quite a process to bridge our differences. Still, as uneasy as it is, Medan remains my own hometown. 18 years living here before I embarked on university education, my identity as someone from this place remains irreplaceable. It’s just that the ways of thinking have shifted. My worldview expanded from what was only my hometown, into the whole world. Befriending people from different parts of the world has debunked some prevailing prejudices in my mindset.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if I become a tourist in my own hometown. Well, my holiday becomes more enjoyable at least (with spicy food accompanying my meals almost everyday).

Lessons from Cambodia

DSC_1108

 

For me, it was the second time I visited this country. The last time I had been into here was back in 2012 – when Cambodia took the helms of ASEAN chairmanship, organizing a regional general-knowledge quiz competition. This time, it was an entirely different mission: now working for SIGHT (abbreviation of Student Innovation for Global Health Technology), the first global-health initiative in HKUST pioneered and led by Prof. Ying Chau, our aim now is to introduce two products that have undergone through rigorous brainstorming, prototyping, and development in the last one year. For the software team (the one I’m assigned into), our task is to build a user-friendly electronic medical record system (EMRS) to be used by One-2-One, a New Zealand NGO based largely in Cambodia. The other one, developed by hardware team, is drug dispensary box (DDX), a medical box that enables flexible, and more arranged, drug storage system. The whole 9 days that we all spent, from June 8 to 16, were undeniably exhausting, but at the same time also life-changing and thoughtfully enlightening. We all had daily debriefings up to 11 pm or almost 12 am everyday, and had to visit the One-2-One main office on nearly a daily basis, but the efforts paid off with the staff, as we observed, very willing to learn the new technologies, while simultaneously providing active feedback to us about feature improvements that can be done in the near future.

 

       

DDX (top) and EMRS (below) in action

 

I took a lot of notes, as we have to prepare portfolios to summarize our trip, point out any suggestions made by the staff, and also make way for considerations towards future projects, but other than SIGHT-related memos, I also learn numerous things about Cambodia, and the people living within. Unfortunately, we haven’t had enough time to take a look outside the capital, Phnom Penh, but say the least, from the city, there are so many new things worth observing that I can talk about here. On the sections below, I will talk more about my personal observations about the country, but if you want to know more details about our trip, the information on the SIGHT website will be updated as soon as possible (sight.ust.hk). The first thing I want to talk about here is the stereotype of ‘disorder’. Hailing from a fellow Third-World country (in this case, Indonesia), I should be honest that nostalgic feelings always come to me whenever I step my feet in this beautiful city. When it comes to describing ‘beautiful’, I would rather not invoke any comparison between Phnom Penh and any place on Earth that you would believe as highly developed. The city, in and by itself, is still largely reminiscent of any major metropolis from developing world, whose economy seemingly ‘grows out of control’. Emerging skyline is one particular feature, as tower cranes are scattered randomly across corners of the city. Cars, motorcycles, and tuk-tuk do seemingly ‘overlook’ each other on intersections, but surprisingly, few collisions occur, even though they come in an extremely close direction. It is as though the whole scenery were a self-regulating chaos. It appears like ‘disorder’, but paradoxically, it is within this disorder that I can discover vague patterns of ‘order’. The city continues to grow, the country goes on its current progression. While for some people Cambodia reminds them of orphans, Khmer Rouge, and the stigmatization of ‘the poor that desperately needs outsiders’ hands’, this is largely false. Orphans are still there (and the exploitation still happens to some degree), but the whole scenery is not as bad as it seems to be. The whole country has an extremely young population, is in the ongoing process of learning, and certainly, it will not take a single swipe to create major changes here. People will continue to do mistakes, intentionally or not, but to say for now, Cambodia has had tremendous progress. The slums that we visited to conduct field testing are also not as deplorable as I personally could imagine. At least on the capital, even though many of the people live in squatter areas, they are at least well-fed. Non-governmental organizations actively provide free education and perform basic healthcare services for the communities, to fill up the absence of a comprehensive system in the city, and the country, in general. But, on average, there is a high sense of curiosity among the people, especially in regard to their desire to know more about what is happening outside the world. One of the One-2-One staff told me that the slum dwellers, when introduced to our EMRS system, were completely surprised to realize that such technology had actually existed before. They are mesmerized by the software features as well as the fingerprint scanners (even though there is concern about privacy by us, but not the Cambodians in general). The staff even said that the slum dwellers could not cease asking questions about the software.

 

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One of the slums where we conducted a field test for the software.

 

Anywhere in the world, there are always inspiring figures. The outliers who, with their talents and passions, seek to empower their communities and direct them into a better future. We have met many doctors, locally educated, trained, and very well-experienced, dedicating their time to provide free medical service for slum dwellers. We have also interacted with the nurses, either Cambodians or foreigners, who unswervingly put their efforts to assist the doctors and also the communities, by either performing blood tests, treating their wounds, or providing free, nutritious meals to the children.   Most extraordinarily, we also met one aspiring programmer, and a full-time medical staff in One-2-One, named Channat. Hailing from an impoverished rural area in a poor family background, he has set out his mind to look for a better life in Phnom Penh before the age of 10. Overcoming hardships in life, he toiled hard in pagoda by cleaning the dishes, at the same time earning some sums of money to go to school and study. There, he managed to become among the best students in his high school, goes to university, and becomes one of the most outstanding students in his class, again. He works in the organization from Monday to Friday, 8 am to 5 pm, before he continues his study in the university, 5.30-8.30 pm, does his homework for an hour, approximately, and reviews his lessons. In the spare time, Channat focuses on developing his passion: making computer programs. Despite the occupied schedule, he remains a down-to-earth, friendly, and soft-spoken communicator. Channat told him that back in his village, having heard his life story, people’s prior perception of education as a ‘privilege’ was suddenly altered. Their children started to go to schools, in the belief that someday, there would be more people like Channat, One-2-One medical staff, or all aspiring people they want to be in the future.

 

 

Channat (left) and fellow SIGHT members, Lance and Samson

 

But, most importantly, Cambodia is a country that wants to move forward, despite its devastating historical tragedy. As Dr. Annie Chen-Green, founder of One-2-One, eloquently summed up: “This country, back in 1960s, was once referred to as ‘Jewel of Southeast Asia’, even better than Singapore. When the Khmer Rouge came, almost the entire generation was wiped off. All the smart people, intellects, and promising thinkers all but languished and disappeared. It is only in the young people that Cambodia still has tremendous hopes to succeed, and make this place a jewel it once was, again.” Sometimes, to look forward the future, one has to see the trajectories from the past. And that is where our tour guides, while providing ‘history lectures’ throughout the trip, brought us into The Killing Fields and S-21 prison (formerly a high school). It was definitely a somber trip, and we couldn’t deny that reality. These were the places where some of the most atrocious mass crimes in human history took place. The Killing Field, or now known as Choeung Ek Genocide Museum, was only one of hundreds of mass-killing fields when Khmer Rouge was in power (1975-1979). Nobody knows for sure how many people died, but as a fixed fact, every family in Cambodia was deeply affected by this tragedy. Between 1.7 million and 3 million people were killed, starved to death, and infected by diseases throughout the ‘Dark Age’, before the Vietnamese occupied the country and deposed Khmer Rouge. Fact, for certain, is stranger than fiction. Totalitarian, brainwashing ideologies make it even worse and more absurd. But it is, ironically, the pressure of submission to authority that often results in a massive tragedy. When people lacked opportunities to education, the access to enlightenment, this was where ideologies, if not controlled, could spark into extremely dangerous minds. At least this is what we concurred after lengthy discussions with each other, back from the trip into these two places. I will not comment too much in this regard, but it is deeply sad for me to see when people are easily tricked into believing into something, while it is not necessarily in parallel to their original moral beliefs. It is not in the absence of morality that the worst atrocities happen; instead, it is when human beings’ moral values are, in coercion, bent to be adjusted to what the authority demands, no matter how strange they are. It is here, in The Killing Field and S-21, that we were told the worst atrocities that human beings can do beyond their limits. The atmosphere is particularly gloomy when we are inside S-21, now part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Program. Formerly a high school and gymnastic, it became Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prison as 21,000 people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed inside this school for over 4 years. Very few people survived this prison; the last 7 prisoners, out of the last 21, were freed by Vietnamese soldiers during the raids to Phnom Penh in early 1979. It is also here that we met one of the last living survivors of S-21, Mr. Chum Mey, now aged at 85. Once a mechanic, he is currently an author and painter, now selling his books and artworks – all the while describing the savagery taking place in the prison, paradoxically again, in a place he was once tortured and imprisoned.

 

DSC_1157   DSC_1158   DSC_1164     Buddhist monks pay respect to a pagoda housing thousands of skulls from the victims of Khmer Rouge in Choeung Ek killing field (top); former S-21 prison, once a high school (middle); posing with Mr. Chum Mey, one of the last survivors of the notorious prison (below)

 

No words from me can describe the tumults Mr. Chum Mey, and countless others, had endured in the dark years of Khmer Rouge. Still, I deeply appreciate him in recounting all the stories, as authored in his books, not only as a living historical lesson, but also as a testament to the younger generations, of what once happened, and what should not happen again in the future. Four tumultuous decades afterwards, Cambodia has eventually made strides again.

While still in need of long-term improvements, the country, for all its existing flaws, deserves some credits that it can make some progresses. Life has been largely restored in the country, and echoing what Dr. Annie says, hope is now placed in the younger generation, in the lifetime journey to make this country a better, and more dignified, place in the world. Having interacted with all the great persons within 9 days, all with big visions towards this country, I believe it is the time that Cambodia deserves a big spirit of optimism.

The age of moving out

lonely people

 

Source: rogerebert.com

 

People are moving out everywhere – in an unprecedentedly rapid pace, at least in my opinion. At least that’s what I have observed among my classmates; more than one-third of them, as far as I know, are studying overseas, be it Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, UK, US, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong (I am) or at least, ending up either in the capital, Jakarta, or in Bandung. Ten years ago we hadn’t heard so much of people studying outside the country, with the exception of children from upper-middle-class families whose parents have enough financial incentives to do so. 2005 and 2015 are already two different worlds since then. With increasingly affordable scholarships, air tickets becoming much cheaper (thanks to low-cost flights), and global economy increasingly integrated, mobility of products, ideas, people, and capital has become more a necessity than it is an option. Indeed, in some places, mobility is a pressure, not a privilege. I can’t predict much how much different 2015 and 2025, or 10 years from now, will be, but one thing that I can assure, for a certainty, is that people, looking out for opportunities elsewhere, will not stop migrating outside their home countries.

Data from UN validates my opinion, at least. In 2005, almost 185 million people lived outside their home countries. Almost a decade later, by 2013, the number has swarmed to almost 250 million (including refugees), an increase of more than 30% alone. But, one must also caution with the data: it only includes figures of those officially submitted by each country’s respective immigration department into the global organization. We have no idea how many ‘illegal immigrants’ are there precisely, but if we include them altogether, the figure, suffice it to say, is more gargantuan than we can expect.

Indeed, this is an inevitable sign of our society’s global transition: globalization has changed much of the face of the world in a short time. Political borders do still exist (and will continue to exist far in the future), but economically, culturally, and socially, these borders have become more blurred, and much more fluid as an accommodation of inevitable changes. Referring again to Michio Kaku, one of the world’s most renown physicists, the world right now has achieved a Type 0.7 civilization (we will have to wait until next century to achieve a perfect Kardashev’s Type 1 civilization). These 250 million people live outside their home countries, are more likely to speak English to each other (a global language), and in fact, they build resilient economies. Developed world needs a continuous inflow of foreign talent and skills to sustain their economies while their population is rapidly aging, and developing world needs their remittances to ensure children can go to school and live healthily, families deserve better housing, and social status can improve.

Nonetheless, one challenging question appears: how much does migration change our perception towards our own identities?

There are a lot of implications. I only return to my hometown, Medan, once a year, but whenever I go back, I will stay in the place I have been born and raised in for almost 20 years of my life for 30-40 days. Huge gaps exist between me and the people of the city that I know. Before I studied overseas, I only embodied, in theory, about what the outside world will look like. Yes, there will be people across dozens of countries (some of which almost nobody knows about), and you have no idea about their cultures, their values, and everything about them considered ‘unknown unknowns’. Having studied here for two years, and another two sojourns back into my city, sometimes there is a feeling in me this is not really the city that I used to know. I can’t explain them vividly, but on the least, I can feel the discrepancies. Sometimes I even feel a difference of values between me and my parents – this is an inevitable consequence when you go out, and be exposed to new perspectives, and everything just changes.

As time goes by, nonetheless, one by one, my close friends are moving out as well. One of my close friends, Edward, has permanently settled down in the capital, Jakarta. I used to hang out with him very often during holidays, but sometimes, nobody can resist the force of change. It’s just not Edward himself; many of my high school friends, indeed, have also moved outside together with their families, and they no longer have any intention to resettle down in this city. As far as I can recall, it was of a big surprise when the city government, as quoted in a local newspaper, presented reports that our city’s population is actually declining – not increasing. Their main rationale was that many people had duplicates of ID cards, but I surmise migration could be one possible reason (though we must scientifically prove it through extensive research). Some of my close friends also obtain scholarships from Japanese government, and I have very little confidence that they will return to this hometown.

Moving out, as something we can’t deny, is an inherent trait in human beings. There wouldn’t be us had the first hominids not walked upon what was now Kenya 2 million years ago, exploring outside the continent, settling down, and acquiring new identities. Migration is not something new that only recently happens; it constantly takes place, whether willingly or by force, as political, economic, and social configurations continued to be altered by the forces of change, the self-organized criticalities. Globalization and technological revolutions, in and by themselves, are simply accelerating the entire process. But what about the question of identity? If we look at a bigger picture of the history of humankind, and into the social construction of our communities, isn’t identity itself a fluid concept? Don’t we actually realize that identity is shaped by forces, adjustable as the time goes by? Our ancestors are not originally from the same country as we used to stay. Science ‘confirmed’ that the first ancestors of human race originated from Africa, and there appeared a massive confluence of ethno-linguistic groups and races, separated across different continents over thousands of generations, only to re-encounter each other as human civilization began to enter the first historical age. Even most Australians and Americans today have only ‘recently’ settled down in the two countries in the last three to four centuries, while the indigenous Aborigines and Native Americans came from African shores and Siberian plains 300 or 400 centuries earlier.

When a person no longer feels connected to his or her society, though, there is no option but to leave, and seek a place elsewhere, sometimes for pursuing passions and opportunities largely unattainable back in the home countries, or simply the raison d’etre of ‘acceptance’. This is why identity is highly fluid; not everyone in the world always experiences the same connection to where they belong. It is not even, oftentimes, where they belong to, but over ‘what’ they belong to. This is the same question you can ask of currently one-quarter billion people living outside the contemporary sovereign states in this planet. And so might our parents, grandparents, or even our far ancestors when they first settled down in what they used to call as ‘lands of the unknown’.

Some people indeed migrate not because they really want to; they are, sadly speaking, ‘forced’ to, for the means of survival. How does it feel like abandoning a place that you have been tied with the most? Whenever you tune on to the news actively, there will always be numerous news about immigrants dying on their way to destination countries. Thousands of people, every day, coming from war-torn or desperately poor countries in Middle East and Africa, stake their lives at seas to reach Europe’s Mediterranean shores – to the point that they have only one goal in mind: Europe or die. Other thousands of people from Bangladesh and Myanmar are also staking their lives as well to reach Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, or even as far away as Australia, and dozens have died at seas and mass graves operated by human smugglers. Or what about millions of laborers in Gulf countries, toiling hard to earn enough living for their families back in their homelands? Or other millions of housemaids, hired from countries as varying as Philippines to Indonesia to Bangladesh to Nigeria? Where do we all really belong to? In a situation of Hobson’s choice, there is no other option but to either maintain our own cultures, or embrace the new identities bit by bit. Remolding an identity is itself a social engineering challenge.

Some Hong Kong friends that I know once told me that they never ‘considered to live permanently in this city’. Life pressure, as most frequently cited, is one reason to leave. This was what I observe when I had a lunch with a fellow friend, named Tony, in an Indonesian restaurant in Causeway Bay.

“I love this city, I have a strong connection with this city, but with all the pressures and challenges that are becoming increasingly harsher in Hong Kong, sometimes I question myself if this is actually my home.”

Indeed, this is not only the voice of one person. Many of them that I know are considering to leave as well. I have no precise idea how high it is, but surveys conducted by several universities here found out that 20-25% of Hong Kong’s population, if given enough opportunities, would eventually ‘choose to emigrate somewhere else’.

Tony majors in chemical engineering, with a specialization in biochemistry. I admire him for being a hardworking and diligent person, as we were once in a group project together. At the same time, he’s also unflinchingly honest, very greatly outspoken, and is very well-informed with recent affairs across the city.

He points out one reason why he has this consideration in mind of leaving Hong Kong.

“People are too obsessed with the values of money. Some close friends of mine, I know them really well, are so talented in science. They have these deep passions in research, in inventing something new, and I believe if they were admitted in any great place outside here, they would be scientists that could change the world. But you know what? They ended up majoring in business or in finance, something that is definitely not their passions. I’m so upset why they chose something that is not definitely their callings. It’s just sad.”

He’s thinking of Germany, but Japan sticks much closer to his mind.

Tony is not alone. Many of them that I know will either think of working in Britain, Australia, Canada, US, or new favored places such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, or to an even lesser extent, Southeast Asia (aside of Singapore). And it is even more interesting when you look at their backgrounds. Some have ancestors coming from India, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, or even places as far away as Israel and Mauritius. Time and again, this is an obvious proof that identity is not strictly a form by itself; it is malleable, and it can be shaped depending on the subjects.

Even though I am a full-blooded ethnic Chinese, I would be more comfortable calling myself an Indonesian. As the prior three generations preceding me have settled down in this country before, I am more used to Indonesian customs (or I should say ‘Chinese-Indonesian culture’) than I am towards the native Chinese culture. Despite decades of political and historical tumults on Chinese communities a few decades ago, which inevitably also impacted my family, there’s no option but to choose one. I can’t go back to China as I don’t speak the same language with them. While not necessarily Chinese, the language I mean here is one of commonalities. My family has been here for four generations, and what else can be similar other than the physical presence? I don’t know if I will ever return and settle again in Indonesia, but most likely, in the long term, I will choose to move somewhere else, look for more opportunities to suit my passions, and explore any possible futures for myself.

I still love my country, but for my own sake, I would rather be more pragmatic. It’s both a big, and small, world, after all.

 

Comeback: rethinking myself as a blogger

Calvin and Hobbes

 

It’s been three-and-a-half uneasy years managing this blog. Not about finding the right vocabulary itself makes blogging sometimes a formidable task (well, at some aspect finding the right expression ain’t an easy job); neither it is about being lackadaisical of topics – I have a lot, and to some extent, just too much, to cover in this blog; nor is it about authoring a lengthy post, which many friends of mine used to complain about.

I’ve just been too strict towards myself in doing the blog, while stat view remains infinitesimal. For many times I have contemplated to end this blog, citing its lack of coverage, that make-a-post-once-in-two-days disciplinary conundrum, and (sigh) its seemingly too-idiosyncratic-to-know content. Well, after a breath, sometimes you just think you can’t always win the fight with this world. People mostly do bother to know the real truth, and will pretty much get themselves entertained with ‘partial truth’. Again, somewhat, we can’t always win. My 3.5-year-old blog is infinitely smaller than most Youtube videos about cats, babies, webcam-singing brouhaha and conspiracy theories. But surrendering it will not sound wiser, though. Something inside me reminds me of an ideal blog – focus on people, not the number of people viewing this blog. Whenever I look at some fellow friends of mine, having posted on their blogs for years – regardless of its small stat views – they just don’t stop. We blog (ideally) because we don’t crave for people’s attention; we want people to think, of what we express, in another perspective. I think that’s where we shouldn’t stop reminding ourselves as bloggers.

We can’t always win. If someone is destined for divine intervention, let them be.

 

Metalosis Maligna – a scary short fictional documentary

 

A creepy fictional story by Floris Kaayk, about a fictional disease in near future by which a species of metal-consuming bacteria turn steel implants inside patients’ bodies into uncontrolled swaths of root-shaped steel bars, slowly, and very painfully, consuming the flesh, bones, and organs in between. Not that type of Lambshead-esque tragicomedy, though, as the 7-minute short was made in documentary format, including make-believe interviews with fellow make-believe medical experts, patients, and every gory medical thing you could imagine of. And also some food for thought towards the future.