Goodbye (and good riddance) to 2017

With days left until the end of 2017, it is with a lot of disappointment that I look back at this year and a lot of concern to the new year.
The world is no less messed up than it was at the beginning of the year, and as if to underscore the point, December saw several major tragedies including a deadly train crash in the US, a massive mall fire in the Philippines, a tragic gym fire in South Korea, a mass shooting in an Egyptian church, as well as terrible fires in New York and Mumbai just this week.

The American president continued to make a mess, while the UK struggled to come to terms with its Brexit decision. There is already more than enough written about the US president and his antics online and in print, so there’s no need to mention him further here. China under Xi sees itself as the world’s true superpower, though cracks appeared in its facade, most notably with its recent forced eviction of tens of thousands of its poorest people from Beijing. As China seems to get stronger, its economic debt problems might worsen next year while its technology-enhanced grip on society and information shows no sign of abating. Also, it has kept up a belligerent approach towards Taiwan, with a Chinese diplomat warning China would invade Taiwan if any US naval ship was to visit, and ramping up military drills around Taiwan and claiming this would become normal in the future. However, China has faced pushback from countries like Australia and New Zealand about its illicit activities overseas, as well as increased resistance to its nebulous Belt and Road “project.”

The Rohingya tragedy stunned the world when over 600,000 Rohingya were forced to flee Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh after a military campaign to destroy their settlements and kill Rohingya. It is a massive disappointment given how far the country had come from its authoritarian past in just a few years, and Aung San Suu Kyi went from a symbol of hope to one of disappointment and complicity to what many saw as genocide.

But beyond human rights and the continued political theater of the US and Europe, one of the biggest developments in the West was a backlash against technology as people started to realize that not everything related to technology was positive. Not only does technology not solve everything, it can make things worse as with the proliferation of fake news and propaganda on social media. And worse yet is that the growing use of technology such as smartphones can have a detrimental and addictive effect on people. Major tech executives and insiders have spoken out about the dangers of tech and social media, going so far as to ban their own kids from using it. The growing glorification of tech in the past few years has seen tech entrepreneurs acclaimed as superstars, obscene amounts of money thrown into all kinds of start-ups, and “hip” companies acclaimed as vital disruptors of “staid” industries.

The other big development in the West was a stunning wave of sexual harassment cases that started with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and grew to include directors, actors, chefs, comedians, tech executives, politicians, and even a former US president. It seemed like every day brought some new story about a different famous person, even those who were previously admired or liked a lot, being accused of serious sexual harassment behavior.

Hong Kong saw the selection in March of a new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, who became the first woman to lead HK. But it also saw political farce in its legislation as four pro-democracy legislators were expelled from office for supposed problems when taking their oaths, as spurious a reason to eject elected lawmakers from office there is. Beijing continued to tighten its grip on HK and erode the “One Country, Two Systems” that enforces HK’s distinct status, including approving joint checkpoints (mainland officials will be stationed inside the station and mainland law will apply to those parts, thus violating HK’s mini constitution) at HK’s new high-speed rail station and openly urging HK to accept that it is “part of red China.”

Taiwan saw a few serious protests during the year as the ruling DPP, under president Tsai Ing-wen, found it a little rocky when they implemented or backtracked on some tough measures relating to labour hours and wages and pensions. Internationally Taiwan continued to be bullied by China, which besides increasing military flights near Taiwan and making belligerent statements, lured Panama away to leave Taiwan’ official allies at 20.

There are several other major tragedies elsewhere, such as Yemen and Syria (where civil war has raged since 2011), though at least ISIS has been defeated and in Europe the refugee crisis has improved from 2016. North Korea, with its childish madman leader, has kept on ramping up tensions, making nuclear war a growing, significant concern. This post is already quite long and I don’t want to keep going on about terrible events in 2017.

But while it might appear that a lot of this world is falling apart or in danger of doing so, maybe this is a necessary period of turbulence before serious improvement (politically, economic, cultural, etc) can occur.

With all that in mind, let’s look forward to the new year. Surely, 2018 can’t be worse, right?


Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a great holiday season. I hope you have a good, festive time with family, friends, and have lots of things to be thankful for. It may have a tough year for some of us, but thankfully it’s coming to a close.
Meanwhile, enjoy these photos of a couple of great mall Christmas decorations from a recent trip I made to Canada and Trinidad and Tobago. The towering Christmas tree in Toronto’s Eaton Centre was so nice I had to post it twice. Actually I’ve never seen such a big Christmas tree before (its base is in the basement, which is two floors below where I’m taking it) and it was so tall it was almost scary. The other Christmas decoration is in Long Circular mall in Trinidad, the country where I’m from.


Saving up isn’t cool but it’s vital

Sometimes, there are certain essentials in life that get overlooked. Things like say, saving up money for the long term. Whether it’s due to being thought of as impossible (student loans, low salaries, unstable jobs etc) or the urge (driven by peers, advertisers etc) to live for the moment and enjoy life, being frugal isn’t easy to do or popular. But saving isn’t about being cheap, not having fun and missing out on life.

That was an accusation I got from a relative when I mentioned that a lot of people in society don’t seem to save money — “well you hardly go out and never eat out,” she said, not without some rancour. That is not exactly true though I don’t have an overly active social life and I don’t spend much on meals and drinks – I usually get simple meals if I am eating by myself and I mainly drink only when I meet with friends (I do like beer and wine but I hardly drink alcohol at home). But the fact is that as someone who is completely financially responsible for himself, not to mention being well into my thirties, saving up is absolutely vital. Wherever I am and whatever my financial situation, I adjust my budget accordingly. Saving up also has a lot of benefits.

First, who wouldn’t want to have money on hand for whatever you want to do or buy.
Second, no matter how much people say to live in the present, being prepared for the future is important. You need to be prepared for medical issues, having a family, retirement, losing your job, etc.
Third, savings isn’t just for going on trips or buying nice stuff, but also for essential but not-so-fun stuff. Things like dental treatment, and surgery, and family emergencies. For instance, I have a lot of issues with my teeth and have had surgery to remove crooked wisdom tooth and two root canals (I may need another one soon too!). Though I did most of this in Taiwan, where dental treatment is extremely affordable as most of it is covered by health insurance, getting a root canal and a crown is still at least US$400. Of course, in Hong Kong, the same would cost at least US$2,000!

But the biggest benefit of saving money isn’t being able to afford good things or go on trips to different places. It’s not even the relative freedom of not having to put up with bad work situations for too long and being able to handle being jobless for a short period of time. It’s about being able to enjoy or endure these things and still have something left over.

At the same time, I’m not an expert saver. I don’t keep track of my daily or regular expenses, I don’t make detailed spreadsheets, and I don’t go around counting pennies.

Now, I’m the first to admit I could never be an expert on life, but this is one area where perhaps I can offer some decent advice. Here’s a few tips (some may seem kind of silly but they have worked for me):

—Use a mental trick to ensure you always have enough. When budgeting (as mentioned, I don’t keep regular tallies), always lower your actual budget. Basically, always imagine that your salary or the amount of money you can spend is a little less than what it really is.

—Never spend every single bit of your money. And conversely, save up a little more than what you actually need for something. For example, if you need to buy a pair of shoes, and you budget US$120, feel free to spend less than US$120. If you need to buy something that’s US$500, save up $600 and hold on to that extra $100. Doing this regularly will ensure you’ll always have a little bit extra and it adds up, which is very helpful if unexpected expenses come up or if you want to spend a little bit more in future.

—Pay off your debt (or as much as you can) as soon as you can, whether it be student loans (unless there’s no interest or it’s very miniscule), credit card bills, or even your mortgage. While a little debt might be unavoidable, it’s hard, both financially and mentally, to be dragged down by substantial debt that keeps increasing due to high interest.

—Invest in something stable like pension plans or life insurance investment plans, which are popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan, early such as when you are in your late 20s. In the case of the latter, these plans take a number of years to become mature but they guarantee a significant return later on in your life. I’m no investment guru so do check actual experts and professionals for more insight and advice. That said, I would add never put all your eggs into one basket, and diversify your savings into different things like stocks, insurance, mutual funds etc.


Nuclear standoff and that appalling United flight incident

At times, it may seem as if the world is a farce, what with all the crazy political developments and societal mishaps. Except the problem is that this has long stopped being funny and people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake.

The latest crisis in Asia is the ongoing standoff between North Korea and the US that hopefully will remain just that, without breaking out into nuclear war. While I really don’t believe that could happen, despite North Korea’s warning of “thermonuclear war” and a U.S. fleet deployed in nearby waters, it is still possible violent conflict can break out. Especially as the two key actors are a callous buffonish tycoon who leads the world’s most powerful country going up against a rotund tyrant whose cartoonish appearance masks the fact he heads one of the world’s most despicable regimes.

Meanwhile, I know it is kind of old (last week) news but I’m still trying to get over the shocking scene from of an Asian-American doctor being dragged off a United Airlines plane bloodied and unconscious. When I first saw the news and hadn’t read all the details, I thought maybe it was a case of excessive force being used on a passenger who had done something violent. Instead, it turned out he did nothing wrong  but had merely been chosen at random to get off because the airline had messed up and needed to squeeze four of its crew onto the flight. Because he refused, he earned the right to be forced from his seat, pulled violently towards the ground, thus knocking himself unconscious after his head hit a seat armrest, and dragged like a corpse through the aisle.

What made it worse was that despite the clear video footage and multiple witnesses, the United CEO came out and made some boldfaced lies about the customer having been “disruptive” and “belligerent.” It took growing outrage from the public before the CEO was able to admit anything, in what were his third and fourth statements after the incident.
Frankly, this is one situation where everyone involved from the security personnel who forced the victim out of his seat and pulled him out violently, rendering him unconscious in the process, to the airline crew to the CEO was wrong. You have to wonder what was going through the minds of those security men, who seem to have escaped blame given all the attention on the airline, when they did all that. “Just doing their job” isn’t a good-enough excuse.

I don’t know, there’s an enormous lack of decency in society today in how we treat each other and what is scary is how much it permeates all levels, from top to bottom.


Have a great Christmas

2016 has been a very rough year, with a lot of tragedies and shocks globally. Even as we’re in December, it still doesn’t feel like such a festive time, at least for me. There’ve been distressing developments in Hong Kong in the past few months, while terror attacks in the West and conflicts in the Middle East still continue.

Nevertheless, we can still mark this special occasion, so to all of my fellow bloggers and readers, please have a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season. Treat yourself and your loved ones nice, and be decent to people around you.
Enjoy the festive photos of Christmas scenes from Hong Kong and Guangzhou, where I did a weekend trip very recently.

There’s no snow in Hong Kong but a giant snowman still looms over the entrance of 1881 Heritage, a 19th century colonial police headquarters that has been renovated into a luxury shopping center.


The two photos above are of Hong Kong while the two below are from Guangzhou. While Christmas is not a holiday in China, it is becoming a major occasion, in the big cities at least, mostly for decorations as you can see below, and for shopping. It’s also like that in Taiwan, where Christmas is not a holiday but stores and malls are decked with Christmas banners, trees and decorations, while staff even wear Santa hats.



Britain’s post-Brexit pondering

It’s been over two weeks since Brexit happened in the UK and political events have become even more uncertain. Financial instability and widespread shock happened in the UK and worldwide, but rather than calm down, the UK’s domestic politics has become more unstable with the Prime Minister David Cameron stepping down, the ruling party set to choose a new leader and hence PM, notorious UKIP leader (and pro-Brexit advocate) Nigel Farage resigning, and the opposition Labour Party trying to get in on the fun by attempting to force out its leader Jeremy Corbyn. All this while the actual exit from the EU remains in limbo with some still hoping or praying it wouldn’t actually happen. It’s fair to say all this political drama has overshadowed the practical ramifications of Brexit.

For me, it was very disappointing. I wanted the UK to stay in the EU, so I was saddened by the referendum’s result. I support the UK in the EU, not for economic reasons but because of what the EU represents. I see it as a continental body that represents a bold vision of uniting multiple nations in various ways and actually doing that. Whereas the United Nations is just a gathering of countries and assorted multilateral organizations, the EU actually is a body of nations that cooperate and act as one in various ways, from law to education to freedom of movement. Yes, it has a lot of problems, from bureaucratic excess to increasing powers that limit individual nations’ sovereignty and policies, and the way how the issue of the waves of Syrian immigrants was handled was not very efficient, with Germany offering open arms while other nations closer to the EU’s boundaries were reluctant and badly overstretched. But in a world of still significant tensions, the idea of a continent of nations united in various ways and speaking with a united voice on important issues is necessary. With the US being the world’s sole superpower and rising giant like China, not to mention Russia, acting like a belligerent bully, it is imperative that Europe still have a great role on the world stage.

Of course, I am not a citizen of an EU nation nor do I live and work there. On a personal basis, my sole experience of the EU was traveling across parts of Western Europe last year and being able to cross boundaries without showing my passport and using a single currency, the euro, across different countries. But it was seeing the blue EU flag flying alongside the national flags in official buildings in France and Italy that really reinforced the idea of European unity.

And I think that’s where the Remain campaign went wrong in the UK. Rather than emphasize the idea and vision of the EU as well as border-less travel and work, they focused mainly on economic benefits in terms of trade and single-market access. For a lot of lower-income and older British who are undergoing tough times, that is a hard sell if the economy already seems terrible to them. Then again, the UK has also had a lukewarm relationship with the EU, for instance, they still retain their own currency (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and they are not part of the Schengen Zone, which encompasses much of the EU and enables borderless travel. When it comes to foreign policy, the UK has tended to operate independently from the EU and its main core countries Germany and France.

I also don’t want to fall into the trap of labeling British Brexit supporters as poor, uneducated idiots who all didn’t even know what they wanted (admittedly some of them really didn’t and thus deserve to be criticized). Even though the UK is supposedly a wealthy, developed country, it has its fair share of economic inequality and poverty, with parts of the country neglected and underdeveloped. It is also well-known that London is heavily, disproportionately supported in terms of government funding and other resources, so other parts of the nation are not as well funded and thus not prospering. Therefore it stands that some of those who voted for Brexit do have legitimate grievances with their government and with the EU, and they should not be universally derided.

However, will they still be as resolute in accepting the consequences of what they accomplished? Will those who voted to stay in Europe accept it as well? Will the UK be able to handle the consequences, economically and politically, not to mention stay intact given the rumblings from Scotland about leaving? All this means that UK politics will be very interesting for at least the rest of the year.

Chambery, a small town in Southern France near the Alps. The flag on the left is Savoy, the region. 


Hong Kong hustle

Sometimes you need to take chances for work, whether it be going to new places, taking on new roles, or chasing after opportunities. That is why I find myself in Hong Kong now. I’ve just started a new job that involves familiar tasks but is in a much different and formal setting than all my previous jobs. I am not sure if it will work out but I will try hard and do what I can and more.
Besides the challenge of working in an unfamiliar work setting, this is the first time (I’m in my early thirties) I’ve worked in my own “hometown.” Some people might find this a good situation because the environment is not alien and I’ve got relatives here, not to mention the more “international” environment and the greater use of English. And of course, Hong Kong is not exactly a hardship posting, despite the crowds (see below for the subway after work), tiny spaces, and fast pace of life. However, it is kind of awkward to be a stranger in your own hometown, especially when interacting with locals and your limited Cantonese speaking ability becomes apparent. In any case, it’s been a decent but hectic start handling several new responsibilities, though there is the welcome occurrence of three consecutive four-day weeks – the long Easter weekend, which concludes tonight, followed by Labor Day in the week after.


2015 in review

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s time to look back at what happened and then look forward to the new year. For me, it was a bittersweet year as I decided to leave Beijing, but I also finally went to Europe to travel.

I actually started off the year by going back to Taiwan to get minor foot surgery, which went alright but meant I had to take it easy for the first few months. Even now, I have to be careful as I still get minor aches now and then, and I have not done any real hiking in over a year.
I then decided to end my time in Beijing, quit my job there, and leave. It was a relatively easy decision to make, but it had been months in the making. I felt a lot of disappointment, not just because of leaving but because I had slowly realized that my previous sentiments about the country had been wrong and foolish, and as a result, my attitude shifted 180 degrees. It’s something I cannot full explain because it’s like you have a belief in something for a long time but then, it’s exposed as fake and there’s an emptiness in its place. And you can’t even blame other people because you were the one misleading yourself.
It’s only now that I sometimes get a slight feeling of nostalgia for my time in Beijing, which is a different world from Taiwan, despite being only a three-hour flight away and the similar cultural characteristics and language. Of course, the ongoing recurrent bouts of bad smog that Beijing and a lot of Northern China have been getting this month have made me relieved I am not there.

With regards to traveling, I took a couple of decent weekend trips while I was still in Beijing, to see the Yunggang Grottoes in Datong and to visit Jinan, the capital of Shandong. I went to Myanmar and then Western Europe after returning to Taiwan.
Myanmar was a decent experience though it was tough visiting there during one of the hottest months of the year.
The “Eurotrip” was undoubtedly the highlight, mostly because I hadn’t expected to be so fascinated by all the places I went to. While I’ve always wanted to visit England, I’d also thought that Europe wasn’t so exotic or interesting (I mean I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and the Colosseum so many times in movies, shows and photos) and was too old-world in a staid way. Well, I was very much wrong! I still think about Paris and Rome with fondness and I certainly hope I can return to the Old Continent in future.

Writing-wise, I still write about football, mainly about Arsenal, though I didn’t get to write much about travel. I wrote this piece about Datong and another one about Milan.

It’d be foolish to just focus on one’s own issues and not be aware of things going on in the world. As much as I liked traveling to Europe, there are countless other less fortunate souls who also went to Europe but for much more desperate reasons. The refugee crisis is itself the result of continued instability and conflict in parts of the Middle East and Africa, especially Libya and Syria. There needs to be both help for the refugees and action taken to dampen the conflict in those parts. In this part of Asia, there is less of that but China’s growing arrogance and militarization in the South China Sea make this a possible area of conflict. Taiwan’s next presidential and legislative elections will happen in a few weeks and a big change is expected, with a more pro-Taiwan opposition party expected to win. Knowing China and the CCP, they will not take this quietly so who knows how much noise and sabre-rattling will happen.

Regardless, I am kind of glad 2016 is approaching very soon and I hope things will turn out to be better than this year.

Going to Europe let me see sights like the Eiffel Tower, above, and wander the streets of Rome, below.

Before my Europe trip, I went to Myanmar, a weird mix of Southeast Asia and Britain, a result of the country having been a British colony up till the mid-20th century.

I took two weekend trips earlier in the year in China, one to Datong to see the Yunggang Grottoes, below, and another to Jinan, the photo below the following photo.

On my last day in Beijing, I got one final bitter taste of China life when I was stuck inside my plane to Taipei for over two hours due to takeoff delays and heavy rain. The flight had already been delayed twice for two hours before boarding, so my flight was delayed by over four hours.

Sometimes Beijing can be beautiful. I don’t know if I’ll ever see these sights below, taken in January.

Of course, Taipei can also be very attractive.


Standing by my sympathy for Paris

The aftermath of the Paris attack saw a very interesting development in social media. I’m not talking about the surge of sympathy and shock worldwide, but the criticism from some people about the supposed lack of sympathy and media coverage of similar tragedies in countries like Lebanon and Kenya. One of the main triggers was the popularity of Facebook’s France filter which lets users choose to have their cover photo overlaid in the colors of the French flag, something which was definitely popular in my Facebook list (I didn’t). The critics chose to highlight the act Lebanon had just experienced a bomb attack the previous day in Beirut, which saw over 40 killed by suicide bombers as well as a school massacre in a Kenyan university where over 140 students were gunned down in their dormitory.

I think this is a valid issue and it is true that France being a first-world, wealthy European country played a big part in the worldwide media coverage and sympathy for the Paris attack. The criticisms also made more people aware of those other tragedies, which is a good thing.

However, there are other factors for why the Paris attacks shook so many people.

-Paris isn’t just some famous, pretty city, it’s the capital of a country that has produced good things in art, literature, food, and human rights. Whether it is learning French in school, or the idea of individual rights and that states don’t have absolute authority over individuals, or great football managers and players, you can’t deny France has made a big contribution to the world.

-It is natural to feel more empathy towards somewhere you’ve been to. Paris is a city many people have visited or want to visit. I was just there a month ago and found it great. In comparison, I’ve never been to the Middle East or Nigeria and I assume neither have a lot of people.

-If you criticize others for supporting Paris and ignoring other tragedies, did you even say anything or raise any awareness about those tragedies after they happened? This was a fine point raised by a Trinidadian friend about critics he knew, many of whom didn’t say or post anything about those other tragedies when they happened. This Medium commentary also makes a similar point in that those tragedies were covered, though not as much as the Paris attacks, but that many of those same critics did not realize it.

-Furthermore, it is ironic that in trying to argue about media bias, some of the critics propagated misleading information. For instance, I saw a few shared links about the Kenya university massacre, a very horrific tragedy, and I don’t think most of those people sharing the links realize that it happened back in April. It doesn’t mean we should forget about it but I am very well aware when it happened and it’s not breaking news. I also saw banners and posts mentioning the earthquake in Japan that occurred on Friday and the need for people to pray for Japan too. Well, it is kind of meaningless to do so when the earthquake caused no fatalities or injuries and took place underground.

Yes, it is good to be aware of more tragedies happening around the world, especially since the problems in the Middle East (Syria in particular) is primarily what is driving the refugee crisis in Europe. But there is no need to be trying to feel superior by criticizing people and there is no reason to spread misleading information about tragedies that happened over half a year ago or which weren’t even tragedies.

I don’t feel any guilt over my sympathy for Paris, and I don’t think most people should either.


Stay strong Paris

As many people will have known by now, Paris experienced a terrible tragedy Friday night when it was hit by several simultaneous attacks. Over 120 people were killed by gunmen and suicide bombers in various locations including a concert hall, restaurants and outside a football stadium.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for this and French President Francois Hollande also said it was committed by the Islamic fundamentalist group. If true, it would be a scary step up for IS (also known as Daesh and before as ISIS) who have been waging war across parts of Iraq and Syria for over a year now. That they can coordinate attacks in a large European city is very worrying. It was just a few weeks ago that the group claimed it had brought down a Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt’s Sinai region. In a public notice sent out, IS claimed that France was their main Western target because it had insulted their Prophet and had taken part in recent air attacks against IS in Syria.

It was a big shock to wake up in the morning and suddenly read about such a huge terror attack in such a major international city, especially one that I had just visited less than a month ago. I was only there for less than a week but the city made a big impression on me.
All we can do now is pray or spare a thought for Paris and the victims and keep in mind there are some terrible conflicts going on around the world, especially the evil that is IS/ISIS/Daesh.

Stay strong, Paris