Fresh off the Boat- book review

Fresh Off the Boat is the memoir of Eddie Huang, an American-born Chinese/Taiwanese restaurant owner and food show host who opened Baohaus, a well-known New York Chinese bao (meat bun) eatery. I first heard of Huang from the show Fresh Off the Boat, a comedy about his adolescence growing up as a minority in middle-class Orlando. The book, which came before the show, is significantly different.

Huang is actually not “fresh off the boat” as he is American-born and raised, but his parents, who hail from Taiwan, were. “Fresh off the boat” or FOB refers to East Asian immigrants who have just arrived in America or Canada, and it’s a little derisive, meant to highlight and make fun of immigrant kids for being foreign and not in tune with local culture and behaviors. Despite being American, Huang is singled out and picked on for his race (everyone else is white) by classmates, teachers and other adults. As a kid, he puts up with this for a while until his rage builds up and he decides to get back at society. This is where the comedy TV show and the memoir differ significantly, because the show is all laughs with awkward, goofy parents and amusing cultural clashes, whereas the reality was much more brutal and violent. Huang gets into fights, cuts classes, gets in trouble with the police, and is even expelled. At home, things aren’t much better as he gets beaten by his father occasionally (and I don’t think it was mere spankings), who his mother rages at almost daily. She in turn gets beaten by Huang’s father, which is disturbing. Despite the domestic turmoil, Huang’s father manages to become a successful owner of restaurants, and Huang admits they were genuinely rich when he was in high school.

Huang’s teenage years include spending some time in Taiwan where his parents sent him after he hits somebody with a car after a fight and faces charges. Huang embraces the local night markets, learns more about his parents’ culture, and leaves with some understanding and appreciation of his parents, especially his father. He’s also conflicted, as he wonders why his father left Taiwan, where he could have been anything he wanted, to go to America, where Taiwanese, like all immigrants, encounter racism and discrimination. The most obvious answer is opportunity, which is almost like a cliche, but Huang’s father admits being able to get with girls easily was also a factor (In Taiwan, you’ve got to pretend to love them, says Huang’s dad). I don’t envy a lot about Huang’s life growing up, but I admire how, at least, he related to his parents who passed on not just the typical platitudes about hard work, a fighting spirit and making the most out of life’s opportunities.

Besides the fights and the struggles with racism, Huang also talks a lot about coming to terms with Taiwanese/Chinese culture, which most ABCs (American-born Chinese) face, literature and food. As a “rotten banana,” which Huang calls himself (banana is a term for ABCs who retain little of their Asian culture – yellow on the outside, white inside), the writer knows he does not fit the ideal concept of the obedient, quiet Asian who gets straight-As and grows up to become a doctor/accountant/programmer. Huang finds solace in hiphop and rap, while retaining some part of Taiwanese/Chinese culture with his love for food. Before he becomes an entrepreneur, Huang goes to law school, then joins a law firm, demonstrating a little pragmatism. Not surprisingly, within a year, he gets fired by the law firm for drug use. Soon Huang opens Baohaus and his life takes off. Of course, by this time, he had mostly sorted out his life.

At times, Fresh Off the Boat is almost too real and there is a lot more details about his childhood antics than readers might need to know. The ultimate result is a crazy and entertaining story that holds nothing back.

Civilization- book review

Why does the West dominate the world today? Why did the West become so successful in advancing from a chaotic backwater 500 years ago to overtaking Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Arab, and other civilizations? Niall Ferguson attempts to tackle this major question in a fascinating and informative book. Despite its provocative subtitle – The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, the book is nuanced and not some form of propaganda advocating Western supremacy. According to Ferguson, six major factors allowed the West (Europe and later, the US) to become the world’s leading region: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption, and work.

Competition arose from compact populations that led to a multitude of kingdoms and city states that eventually became the dozens of countries in Europe today. China, for example, is equivalent to most of Europe in area and has a far greater population. As a result, while Chinese emperors put a lot of effort into administering and securing their giant empire, European states constantly fought and competed.

Science is self-explanatory. Europe experienced the age of Enlightenment and Reformation that led to the questioning of old dogmas and religious ideas that were erroneous or nonsense, like the earth being flat. In contrast, in civilizations like the Arab world, religion became a central force and dominated thinking and education.

Property rights meant people could own their own land and be assured of ownership by ensuring the state or other people could not simply seize it. Ferguson compares North America to South America, which were colonised by different countries and had vastly different experiences. Hence, North America had a more “liberal” experience (not trying to excuse slavery) in which private property rights payed a key role in legal, political and economic liberalization, while South America had a more feudal colonialism in which land was concentrated in the hands of the few.

Similar to science and also a result of it, a lot of medical advances took place in Europe in various fields (surgery, dentistry, psychology etc) and led to things like the eradication of smallpox, rabies, polio etc.

Consumption refers to materialism. Simply put, this was a big part of the West’s economic success over the last century (and East Asia’s in the last few decades). Industrialization meant both more goods produced and more wealth generated, which would be spent on goods and hence lead to greater demand, in an ever-growing cycle. For the US, this helped it become the world’s most dominant economy due to a vast domestic consumer market and because it made goods that the world wanted like jeans, Coca Cola, and planes.

Work might sound strange, because people everywhere work, but Ferguson’s main point is that Protestantism, which originated in Germany, helped promote economic development. That’s because its emphasis on hard work and prosperity encouraged people to focus on economic activities by making generating wealth seem sanctioned by the Lord.

There is much, much more than what I’ve summarized up here. There is a lot of facts, arguments, and examples in Civilization that make it a very compelling book, whether you agree with its points or not.

One might argue that China, as well as India, Southeast Asia, and Russia, is challenging Western dominance and Ferguson addresses this directly in the conclusion. In this, he says the West’s problem is not the rise of China, India etc but that it has lost faith in its own advantages. That might be true but it remains to be seen whether the West can regain its dominance or shrink from the challenge of China, Russia, and the developing world.

Chaos Monkey-book review

Silicon Valley is where every Mark Zuckerberg wannabe goes to make it big, hoping to land that million dollar-investment or even better, multi-million dollar buyout for their app. But things don’t always go according to script and behind the flashy deals and investments, there is a ton of bluster, bust-ups and bullshit, according to Antonio Garcia Martinez in Chaos Monkey, his tell-all account of his career as an entrepreneur and a Facebook product manager.

Martinez started off working for an online ad company, then left the company to do his own start-up to create an ad app, which earned the attention of Twitter and Facebook. Playing the two against each other, unknowingly to his two start-up partners, Martinez got into Facebook where he helped orchestrate their ad monetization strategy. Things then got a little rocky and complicated, and his Facebook stint didn’t end as promisingly as he had hoped.

As fascinating as this book sounds like, the reality, unfortunately, is that it was disappointing and one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. Maybe my intellect isn’t up to par, especially when it comes to tech and online marketing, which the author really gets into the nitty-gritty of, but a lot of the content just flew over my head. It gets quite complex with tech jargon and industry professionals would probably like it, but not the average layman reader. I honestly think the book could have been trimmed by over one-third and would have been a better book. The author describes a lot of minor events and details, and doesn’t hesitate to drop names including Sheryl Sandberg, who he had meetings with but never actually knew, and industry executives and venture capitalists. It gave the impression that he was trying a little too hard to impress readers. I was also hoping for more dirt on working in Facebook but the author sticks to meetings, technical stuff, and general workplace struggles. The craziest thing that happened in his book at Facebook is a weekend graffiti painting spree by employees after moving into their new headquarters. I might be a little harsh but the book’s subtitle was “Mayhem and Mania inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine” and in the end, it turned out to be a big yawn.

Night of the Golden Butterfly and This is How You Lose Her- book reviews

As the fifth of Tariq Ali’s Islamic Quintet of novels, The Night of the Golden Butterfly is the most contemporary one, taking place in 20th and 21st century Pakistan and England, as well as China. The story starts when a famous but mysterious Pakistani painter Plato asks his childhood friend, novelist Dara, as a special favor, to write about his life for his lover. Hailing from Lahore, Plato and Dara met during the latter’s university years in the 1960s and developed a friendship while ruminating over politics and philosophy. The latter would come to fall in love with a Chinese-Pakistani, Jindie, the sister of their friend and the “Golden Butterfly” of the book’s title, who ends up marrying another of their friends. Jindie harbors a fascinating ancestral origin, being the descendant of a Yunnan Hui sultan who rose up against the Qing emperor in late-19th century China. The sultan’s defeat drives Jindie’s ancestor to flee Yunnan and eventually Pakistan.

Decades after their university years in Pakistan, Dara, Plato and Jindie have all immigrated to the US and England, but still stay in touch with events in an increasingly unstable Pakistan, which has uneasy relations with the Taliban, which part of its military tacitly supported (as most people know now, Osama bin Laden was killed while “hiding out” in a Pakistani military town). The problems in their homeland catch up to Dara and his Pakistani friends in the West in the form of “Naughty,” a former socialite and ex-wife of a corrupt Pakistani military officer, who flees to and gains fame in Europe as a liberal Muslim woman who openly criticizes Islam and was implicated in a murder and sex scandal involving Pakistani army generals. While the story meanders a lot, going from Pakistan to the West and to China, it is an entertaining read that cleverly mocks liberalism, art, religion, especially radical Islam, and Pakistan.

 

This is How You Lose Her is a collection of short stories from Junot Diaz, whose The Wondrous Life of Oscar Diaz is one of the bluntest, raw and profane novels I’ve ever read. As with the novel, the protagonist of these short stories is a Dominican-American guy from a working-class background. As the title suggests, the stories are all, except one, about the opposite sex. In several of them, the protagonist features his family, especially his womanizing older brother. They are a bit raunchy and profane, in keeping with Diaz’s literary style, which is like someone talking. Most of them feature sorrowful or wistful endings, which I suppose is the main point, to portray the joy and fickleness of love and passion.

The Expatriates- book review

The title alone should provide a strong clue that The Expatriates may be set in Hong Kong but isn’t exactly about Hong Kong. But in keeping with Hong Kong, the expats in question aren’t your regular entrepreneur, copy editor or English teacher as in many other Asian countries but the ones on fancy expat packages, living a charmed life in mansions with Filipino maids/nannies/cooks, and high-end dining and yacht/junk jaunts. On the one hand, it is about privileged Western (mostly white), American expats living it up in Hong Kong, but on the other, it is a story with more substance than you’d expect.

When it begins, we are introduced to the three protagonists, two of whom mask a tragic secret which surprisingly is soon revealed. Consequently, the plot drags a little in the middle, but it does pick up towards the end and builds towards what could have been a predictable ending, but instead turns into a surprising finale.

The three main characters are American women at different stages of their lives whose fate is tied together by very unfortunate circumstances. One is a young, Korean-American, Columbia grad, another is a mom of young kids, and the third is a childless wife whose marriage seems to lack more than just children. At times, the details of the pampered lives of these well-to-do expats seem obscene, being something that is miles away from our lives, not to mention the poor and working class in Hong Kong. But rather than glorify the lives of those expats, it actually almost makes us feel a little sorry, but just a little. There is a very self-aware tone throughout the narrative about feeling as if one is putting your real life on hold and not being in reality, which is true when one has a 24-hour maid who caters for your every whim. But of course, this also reflects a major disparity between the lives of the characters in this book and  the more common expat life, which is that of putting up with greater challenges and hardships than you would face at home.

The funny thing about Hong Kong is that, as tiny as it is, it can sometimes seem like it comprises two very distinct worlds. This book is only about one of them, and even then, only a small segment of this world, specifically the highest-paid expats, the ones who could live in houses and actually not even have to pay for them. Add in the fact that pretty much most of the main characters are American expats, with nary an Englishman or Australian in sight, and one could wonder how much of this actually bears any relevance to most people living in Hong Kong. But yet, somehow the story is interesting enough, the details dramatic and the plot intriguing for the most part. It is a credit to the author, a Korean-American who was born and grew up in Hong Kong.

It’s China, not Trump who’s at fault in the Taiwan President Phone Call controversy

So Donald Trump hasn’t even become president yet but he’s already causing international scandals. Judging from some of the shocked and horror-stricken reaction in the media and from some people, it is like he almost caused World War III to erupt. If you don’t already know, what Trump did was to call the president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen, and have a conversation with her last Friday, December 2. It was a mere phone call, but it was unprecedented in American history, because it was the first time any US leader or president-elect had spoken directly to a Taiwan president since official relations were severed in 1979.

As expected, China reacted angrily though not as badly as many people expected, because they were probably as stunned by the seeming audacity out of nowhere from Trump. After all, this is a guy who many people in his own country don’t understand.
Now, I’m no supporter, fan or admirer of Trump and I think he is a vile, arrogant and pretentious person. But I can’t deny I felt a little bit of admiration for what he did. Many people don’t see it that way because they think this upsets the critical state of affairs between the US and China over Taiwan.

Basically, Taiwan is a nation that China claims belongs to it, due to the losing government side in the Civil War fleeing to Taiwan, then a former Japanese colony that had been returned to China, in 1949 to govern for themselves. Since then, Taiwan has become a democracy and a relatively well-off country with its own government, army, currency, courts and schools, in short basically everything a country has. And China has never relinquished its view that Taiwan belongs to it, forcing all major nations and the UN to give up official relations with Taiwan. The US also gave up official ties with Taiwan in 1979, but remains Taiwan’s main ally and provides tacit support, including military arms albeit outdated and in limited quantities.

However, many people were annoyed or angry at what Trump did, because they think this might provoke China into declaring war on the US and starting a regional war in East Asia and the South China Sea. But while I understand these folks, including a few expat friends and acquaintances of mine in China, don’t support China’s regime, they are letting their anger at Trump overshadow the actual situation. They guess that Trump is a fool who made a reckless move (I doubt that though), or that he only made the call (Trump has since claimed Tsai called him) to discuss investment projects his associates had previously visited, as reported by the BBC. The danger though is that they end up supporting or giving weight to China’s position, as unjust and groundless as it is.

One person who I know from Beijing, a very intelligent and knowledgeable writer, came out with this piece where he makes an interesting but in my opinion, flawed, argument. Basically, it is that the Communist regime has drilled into its people so successfully the idea that Taiwan belongs to China. If the government even appears to look weak by not constantly pressing its claim on Taiwan and allowing even the slightest international acknowledgement of Taiwan as an independent nation, there is a danger than an angry Chinese population could stir up and force the Chinese government into taking military action. The article has a few good points to back up this argument, but there are a couple of big holes which ultimately make it a flawed argument.

One is that what the Chinese government imposes on its citizens about Taiwan belonging to them is a lie, and one which has serious international ramifications. As foreign countries and the UN freeze Taiwan out (besides not being part of the UN or many international bodies, Taiwan participates in the Olympics as Chinese Taipei and flies an artificial flag that is not its own), this perpetuates the lie among many mainland Chinese. However China reacts, whatever it does, such as threaten or increase provocative actions near Taiwan, the fault is not Trump dared to talk to a Taiwanese president, but that the Chinese Communist Party has maintained a nonsensical lie for decades while attempting to bully and coerce a nation of 23 million people.

The second is that the writer stresses that the lie is so deeply ingrained that to mainland Chinese, it is “weird and taboo” to consider Taiwan as anything but a part of China. This is not true in my experience because I have met a number of mainlanders who are sympathetic or open to Taiwan being a separate nation.

It is time more mainlanders become aware that the world isn’t what their party forces to tell them. They need to know that Taiwan is not a part of China, but a separate nation, and just because their government claims it is, that is not true. If a lot of Chinese can’t accept that and get their “feelings hurt,” so be it. But I doubt all 1.3 billion Chinese, especially not the ones I know, are rabid, mindless, nationalist maniacs intent on forcing Taiwan into being part of China. This situation is still causing consternation with both China and Trump, with Trump responding with some bold (but not exactly untrue) tweets about China after Chinese state media criticized him.

So whether Trump’s motives were, the result is that it has brought Taiwan’s plight into the open, and put some pressure on China. I’m still not certain or ready to accept he could be a decent president, but I certainly don’t share a lot of people’s anger over Trump and I grudgingly give him a little credit for talking to Taiwan’s president on the phone.