2017-02-04

America Becomes Relevant Again

I don't mean that America ceased to be relevant to the rest of the world, at any point in recent history. I do mean that the relevance of this superpower to my small existence has ebbed and flowed over my past 34 years. By the time I was born in 1983 Malaysia, nearly all of my mother's siblings had already emigrated with their families to the United States, and my father's brothers had returned from their respective studies in that country.

We spoke English at home, as my parents had attended British schools in Penang. Mother's father was a businessman, and it may have been class aspirations that led to the decision that his children should learn English, though we can only hypothesise this, until I schedule an interview with my aunts in Atlanta and Houston. Father and his siblings had been sent to English speaking schools by their father, who was involved in anti-Communist activities with the British intelligence unit that would become the Special Branch of the Royal Malaysian Police, in post World War II Malaysia. Grandfather intended to keep his children away from Communist sympathies which were more likely to be present in Chinese speaking schools, or so that is how the story goes.

My parents met in church networks, where they were both highly educated, fairly successful, albeit bookish leader-types. Father eventually became a Methodist minister by profession, and taught other ministers in seminary. In 1991 he pursued a Doctor of Missiology degree at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Missiology, for the uninitiated, refers to "mission studies," the history and technology of proselytising a religious message... which corresponds in spirit with the word "evangelical," in the form of Evangelical Christianity which is now commonly spoken of in the United States.

So at the age of seven, I attended Mrs. Johnson's third grade class at Wilmore Elementary School, and socialised with peers up to the age of ten in my class (I was often singled out for being the littlest kid in class). It was also this institution which allowed me, a few times a week, to attend a fifth grade science class, since that was one of my special interests at that time. Learning to speak and socialise with American children was a novel and illuminating experience - which I would recall and reflect on at various points in future life.

We stayed in Kentucky for twelve months, then we returned to Malaysia. Father continued in his ministry, variously teaching, completing his doctorate, and administering the Seminari Theoloji Malaysia, a joint effort by Methodist, Anglican, and Lutherans in Malaysia. He helped to raise a few million Ringgit in funds over a few years, for a new campus purchased from the Catholic church, and in 1999 the family joined him there, in Seremban, away from Kuala Lumpur, where I had been based since my birth.

I completed the two years of Malaysian junior high school in Seremban, sitting for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia exam in 2000. My experiences in that town led me to an interest in cultural anthropology, which become the contents of my application essays to US liberal arts colleges that same year. In fall of 2001, for the second time in my life, I flew to the United States in early September, and passed through the green lane of LAX immigration with a toolbox in my check-in luggage. We now know that this probably wouldn't have happened so easily just two weeks later.

Upon arriving at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, I judged from early conversations with peers that most students were here to move through the motions of life, either as (i) economically aspirational careerists moving up into the 5%, often international students, or (ii) intellectually content young people, looking forward to a few years of sensational access, often locals. Within just a few days, I had decided that I would not allow myself to be discouraged by the absence of peers with a strong focus on comprehensively delineating the bounds of human knowledge, consciousness, and our approaches to it - I would have to make extra efforts to explore such studies given available resources, which were not too few.

A good library, fully equipped with inter-library loan facilities, and the congeniality of a few dozen faculty members were my main resources in the years to come. Nevertheless, independent studies over this period did take their toll on my sense of initiative, and various decisions were made on my part to withdraw from general society - perhaps more than I should have. Who is to say whether I gained or lost more during this period of life?

I returned to Malaysia after about three years and nine months, having fulfilled the core mission to simply obtain a degree, and to have studied this small society of Americans for a few years. The task I had set for myself to fulfill next, was to study and comprehend the political and commercial landscape of Malaysia, before making any hasty decisions to abandon that country. To-date, I remain complacent, yet unpatriotic.

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I've spent most of the past week in bed, struggling with bacterial meningitis and sinusitis, having tinnitus and pus oozing out of my eyes as I sleep, getting up twice a day to enforce eating, physical exercise, and errands at my office across the street from where I reside. It has perhaps... coalesced this short reflection.

Malaysia, throughout my life, has been ruled by borderline-dictators, divisive racial and religious rhetoricians, and well-heeled grifters... so much so that by the age of 14, in 1998, I had already decided that it would be more efficient to avoid non-violent protests, and to simply aim to amass enough resources to go toe-to-toe with the gangsters in government. I am the pariah who registers to vote, but refuses to turn up at the voting booth, just to illustrate my position on local politics. In chess, the pawns go first. I am not averse to working with evil men, if that is the keenest way to defeat evil in general. You may fault me as having failed to become part of the obligatory 3.5% of a population's non-violent protesters who are required to topple a dictatorship, and I've generally been fine with that.

On the other side of Earth, my classmates recoil in horror at the invasion of their moral grounds by the Trump administration. I've been making a point to stay on top of current affairs, in my role as the leader of a consumer lifestyle company - so it has been an interesting time for me, to read up on the structure of the US government, the Charters of Freedom, and the geo-political movements of players from Moscow to Mosul. What is furthermore interesting is that the White House is now in the hands of radical WASP extremists, which my earlier religious and societal upbringing has equipped me to fathom to a non-trivial degree.

Der Spiegel has a great cover this week - Trump chopping off the head of the Statue of Liberty. Do his executive orders and general nation-building strategy constitute acts of terrorism against the Charters of Freedom? Possibly. Have his cultural opponents and stakeholders (both domestic and international) been caught unawares, and off-script? Definitely. I have always viewed many of my colleagues in liberal democracies as being particularly naive when it comes to politics of the street-fighting variety. Well, they're getting it now, the darkness I was born into.

I am looking forward to a time where liberals are better equipped to fight fascism. Where every call to arms against "radical Islamic terrorists," is met with a call to arms against "radical WASP terrorists." It is not that hard, really, tit for tat, you know. After Berkeley (2017), with the expectation that any political event can become violent, amidst mudslinging commentary, bipartisan dollars could be better invested in providing security, to ensure civility and protected speech, regardless of the degree of hate in such speech. That's the onus of demanding rule of law - it'll cost you dearly, but in theory it is worth it, otherwise there is only a mewing sentimentalism. The party that seeks to win on account of truth must allow lies to be spoken in their plainest form - that is the liar's demise: a clarity of semantics that allows for lies to be seen for what they are. Learn up, already.

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Meanwhile my younger friends deal with the beginnings of new semesters in college. It was only 15 years ago when I was beginning my second semester in college, and subject also to add/drop drama and an exploration of available resources at the university I attended. I had strategised in my first year to boost my GPA with easy courses, and to gorge on strange subjects unavailable at my previous institutions in Malaysia. GPA booster: Chinese 301, strange subjects: Rhetoric 20x - Gay and Lesbian Images in Film, FYS 10x - Experimental Music, Music 2xx - Computers the Arts and Music, etc. Computer Science was a god-awful experience, and it turned out to be wise not to study it at that school. I miss the ivory tower, and I miss my friends here and there, both young and old. I cannot write of them individually, without going into full memoir mode, so this reflection shall pause here.

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