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Dialogue: Race in America

Following my recent article in Huffington Post – Guide to Getting Uncomfortable With Race – I’m hoping we can open a space for reflection and dialogue. “The uprising we’re witnessing in our digital and physical communities should be the impetus for engaging in some real discomfort with our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. To truly move forward, we have to move within ourselves to have some uncomfortable conversations about race in America.”

Wherever we are in our racial exploration, we all can move a bit forward each day, whether it’s in reading an article or becoming aware of a racial bias, then having a conversation with a friend. Everyday, we can move forward, however small our steps.

Here are a few questions to consider to help deepen our exploration and dialogue around race:

  1. What racial biases did you realize you hold?
  2. How are you committing to unlearning your biases each day, week, or month?
  3. How have you empathetically engaged someone in a race conversation?
  4. This #BlackLivesMatter uprising is unique in that it doesn’t necessarily operate around a single objective, but a broad and multi-faceted problem of a racist system. Do you think we need a singular objective to move forward? If not, why?
  5. In your experience, how have you successfully combated naysayers who don’t believe in the cause, are quick to blame the victim, or complain about protest-related inconveniences?
  6. Are there good examples in other nations that we can learn from as we gather power and strength to combat a racist system?
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A Revolution Cannot Be Without Art

“This is the 21st century and we need to redefine revolution. This planet needs a people’s revolution. A humanist revolution. Revolution is not about bloodshed or about going to the mountains and fighting. We will fight if we are forced to but the fundamental goal of revolution is peace. We need a revolution of the mind.

We need a revolution of the heart. We need a revolution of the spirit. The power of the people is stronger than any weapon. A people’s revolution can’t be stopped. We need to be weapons of mass construction. Weapons of mass love. It’s not enough just to change the system. We need to change ourselves. We have got to make this world user friendly. User friendly.

Are you ready to sacrifice to end world hunger. To sacrifice to end colonialism. To end neo-colonialism. To end racism. To end sexism. Revolution means the end of exploitation. Revolution means respecting people from other cultures. Revolution is creative.

Revolution means treating your mate as a friend and an equal. Revolution is sexy. Revolution means respecting and learning from your children. Revolution is beautiful. Revolution means protecting the people. The plants. The animals. The air. The water. Revolution means saving this planet.

Revolution is love.”  –  Assata Shakur

Photo Credit: Start Now Studios featured muralist Kristy Sandoval and her story behind the Assata Shakur mural in Pacoima, Los Angeles.
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Amidst Ferguson Unrest, DC Comes Alive

Washington, D.C. came alive in response to the verdict to Mike Brown’s case – the police who shot the unarmed Mike Brown dead will not be indicted. An estimated 11,000 demonstrators piled into Mt. Vernon Square on November 25 at 7pm and began the march through downtown DC in solidarity with Ferguson.


Some motorists were caught in the middle of the march on New York Ave. While stuck waiting, some drivers raised their hands up and chanted with us, “hands up, don’t shoot.” A few marchers greeted the immobile motorists and apologized for their delay.

The march even paused outside of and occupied the newly opened Walmart on H Street in a display of continued protest against Walmart’s low wages. No laws were broken, nor was anything stolen while Walmart was briefly occupied. Walmart workers and shoppers expressed solidarity by throwing their hands up.

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Marchers chanted “hands up, don’t shoot.”

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Marching through DC Chinatown.

Marchers gather at Portrait Gallery in DC

Concluding the march with a gathering on the steps of the Portrait Gallery and singing songs.

Throughout the walk, many marchers encountered familiar faces and shared hugs and stories, lamenting on what the Ferguson decision meant to them. Amidst a passionate call-and-response of “no peace, no justice!” or the popular hashtag “black lives matter!”, marchers remained courteous, peaceful, and showed nothing but love. The Asian American community represented with signs that read “Yellow Peril Loves, Supports, and Protects Black Power,” and “Asian Americans in Solidarity with Ferguson.” Some chants were repeated in Spanish – “Que queremos? Justicia. Cuando? Ahora!”

The march concluded with a gathering on the steps of the Portrait Gallery while some marchers sang. Crowds dispersed around 9:30pm, about 1.5 hours after the march began.

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The Beijing Rule: Bullying Its Way to Unity

Six months ago I had a dream about Hong Kong. The city of my birth appeared in great disorder. A dust blanket covered the cityscape as people shuffled through war-torn streets in panic, searching for family, or planning an escape. From above, vivid aerial views of Hong Kong showed indomitable skyscrapers, scattered among them, armies of people drowning in disarray. Six months later, I worry if I had predicted the future.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong – endearingly dubbed the Umbrella Revolution for protestors’ pragmatic use of umbrellas as a defense against police violence – hit home tremendously. Free, democratic governance is a value that runs deep in Hong Kong society, and the threat of removing it is not taken lightly, as demonstrated by the ongoing civil disobedience in the dense city of 7 million.

As the number of protesters thins and the reality of stalemate nears, “business as usual” brings no relief to the ever-increasing threat of Beijing control since Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997. Like a broken record, Beijing’s blatant and brutal practices to maintain “control” of its people and eliminate “threats” to its values play over and over again. It occurred to me that Beijing reminded me a great deal of a documentary I recently watched.

The documentary Bully portrays powerful stories illustrating the often-permanent damage of bullying on children. My childhood memories of being bullied, though difficult, made me particularly curious to understand bullies, and undoubtedly make October’s National Stop Bullying Month personally relevant.

By definition, bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others. Bullies use their power to control or harm others, and their harmful behaviors are often repeated. Bullying comes in many forms, certainly among children, but also between children and adults, among adults, and in Beijing’s case, between a government and the people it seeks to control. Here are 5 ways Beijing bullies its people:

Taiwan.

Beijing’s ambiguous authority over Taiwan poses a great threat to the Communist Party of China (CPC), in particular because of Taiwan’s repeated interest to declare independence. As the quiet rebellion continues with no clear move from either party, Chinese politicians are beginning to worry. To strongly discourage Taiwanese independence, Chinese officials planted and aimed 1,600 missiles directly at Taiwan, in a loud, unspoken declaration of threat and power.

Tibet.

For more than 60 years of Chinese control, the once-independent kingdom of Tibet suffers palpable tensions with Beijing. Tibet’s declaration of independence in 1912 was ignored when the CPC planted troops in the region in 1950 and in effect arranged for Tibet to cede sovereignty to China, against their wishes. Tibetans’ wish for independence motivates further insecurity in Beijing, where the government repeatedly denies Tibet’s desire for autonomy. Instead, the Chinese government intentionally encourages Han Chinese businesses and people to live in Tibet, resulting in multiple accusations of “cultural genocide” and religious repression. Justifications for the exploitation of Tibetan land and people is the hope “to even out inequality and tap into natural resources to support growth back east in the Han Chinese heartland.”

Falun Gong.

A discipline born out of the qigong practice of slow movements, meditation and a peaceful moral philosophy, Falun Gong suffers unimaginable acts of torture and abuse in China. A group with no history of violence or terrorist activities, Falun Gong is listed as the number one most active cult in China. In reality, it has become one of the biggest critics of the CPC. In attempts to quiet the growing Falun Gong supporters, the CPC effectively arrest, detain, and coerce Falun Gong members into labor camps. Worse, members have been reported to be tortured through organ harvesting, electrical burns, and beatings. Falun Gong practitioners join many other groups of artists, intellectuals, and reformists as ideological threats to Beijing control.

Uighur Muslim Minority.

A lesser known conflict between the largest minority group in the Xinjiang province and the CPC continues to boil – with nearly 92% of the Chinese population belonging to the Han ethnic group, it’s not surprising that we don’t hear much of the Uighur Muslim minority of China. Similar to Tibet, the autonomous region of Xinjiang frequently sees imprisonment as a means to suppress the Uighur community’s vocal resistance against religious and cultural suppression by Beijing. Recently, a Chinese court sentenced an Uighur academic to life in prison after the CPC accused Ilham Tohti of promoting separatism for his effort to gain respect for Uighur and Xinjiang’s regional autonomy laws.

Hong Kong.

In a familiar attempt to gradually move Hong Kong toward its socialistic ideals, the CPC introduced the highly controversial “national education” to “teach” patriotism. Since 1997, Hong Kong has been operating as a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR) under China. The democratic city’s freedom to vocalize resentment toward Beijing influence in their education system successfully deterred implementation. Two years later, protests erupted this month in the busiest Hong Kong neighborhoods in direct opposition of Beijing’s attempt to eliminate universal suffrage. During the protests, Beijing was accused of hiring thugs who violently harassed peaceful protesters and sexually harassed women.

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Only 25 years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Beijing threatens to bully again.

Not soon after the Hong Kong protests gained global attention and support, Beijing warned Hong Kong of “unimaginable consequences” should protests continue. Just 25 years after the painful Tiananmen Square Massacre, we are again reminded of who we are up against – a forceful bully, threatened by ideological deviation, driven toward a “unified China,” by any means necessary.

Getting Involved.

During the writing of this piece, I met a young man, a student at University of Maryland, College Park, who is leading the Ride to Freedom effort in the Washington, DC area. Ride to Freedom is a global effort to save children who are persecuted for practicing Falun Gong in China. On July 1, 2015, young people will gather in Los Angeles and commit to a cross-country bike ride to Washington, DC. Those who are not able to participate in the ride are encouraged to log their personal bike time in solidarity with and in support of Ride to Freedom riders.

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#UmbrellaRevolution in DC

Helplessly sifting through videos and articles on Facebook wasn’t going to do it for me. I was looking forward to attending an actual demonstration in DC where I’ll get to commiserate with others over the fight for democracy in Hong Kong.


By now, most everyone has heard about the impressively peaceful and organized protests in various neighborhoods of Hong Kong, conducted in opposition of Beijing’s attempt to remove universal suffrage, and effectively eliminate free elections.

On October 3rd I joined a small group of mostly-student demonstrators in front of the Chinese Embassy to show our support. At 7pm, I trekked up a quiet, tucked away street to find the embassy with no one in sight. I was the first to arrive. I surveyed the area nearby, being cautious not to walk on embassy property, always bearing in mind what the Chinese government is capable of doing to eliminate threat.

Sure, this wasn’t Beijing, and I was only one person, but my apprehension of Beijing’s reckless and brutal history remained unmoved.

I remained keenly aware that behind the one-sided glass, guards were watching me survey the area, take photos of the embassy. A Chinese family, perhaps that of an ambassador, entered the premise to return home. Soon, others arrived to join in solidarity with yellow shirts and umbrellas. Coincidentally, it rained pretty good that evening.

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Mostly from American University and George Washington University, student demonstrators shared unique perspectives of their connection to the demonstration. A Russian-American student compared Beijing to Moscow. A Chinese-American demonstrator explained that the young people in Beijing support democracy much like we do. A Chinese-American photojournalist, native to Hong Kong, documented the night’s event. A student blogger interviewed me about the protests in Hong Kong. And an Egyptian-American student described her first-hand experience with violent protests in Cairo during the uprising in 2011. She was only 15 years old.

 10257283_10102866306805043_3142542190306980367_oThe Secret Service decided to make an appearance. To be honest – I was quite flattered.

There were in total maybe 30 of us, casually chatting with our umbrellas opened. An agent approached us to ask some questions. She was friendly enough. She wanted to know what we were doing, who we were representing, how long we planned on being there. When she asked us if we planned on having any civil disobedience, we looked at each other and shrugged. Is that usually planned? They decided that they’d park on of their agents there and sit with us until we dispersed. I joked perhaps we’d ask them to take our group picture.

Except for the occasional peek out of a glass window, or a small child momentarily playing in the front lawn, no one from the Chinese Embassy engaged with us.

 
Photo credits: Tuan Trung Pham
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Malaysia – Hit or Miss? More Like Hit or Stay

By everyone else’s measure, the fantastic food, warm locals, impressive temples, and lush wild places are reasons enough to warrant Malaysia a top spot on their “must visit” list. From my experience in Kuala Lumpur (KL), I would add “psychologically disturbing scam artists” to the mix.


Traveling alone isn’t unusual for me. I’d done it a number of times before, in various parts of the world, and had certainly become keenly aware of places not to visit, situations not to engage in. KL was no different as I began my stroll from my hostel to visit the Petronas Towers.

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Petronas Towers, a famous tourist attraction in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

It was a hot and sunny December day. As I strolled along a main road toward the Towers, a family jogged up to me asking for me to take their photo. The husband, wife, and their daughter got close for a sweet photo. Malaysians always seemed curious about foreigners. Fitting to this stereotype, they asked me where I was from. After learning that I was from California, the man informed me that his sister would be moving to San Jose soon to work as a nurse. We warmly related to my home and I did not for a second hesitate to agree to meet his sister back at their house. After all, he was with his wife and child. I didn’t even think twice.

The Players

I joined them at their house where there were more women and children hanging out. I was enjoying my ice cold Coke when out came an elderly gentleman named Uncle Roger. Uncle Roger was friendly, forceful, and in charge. He was curious about me and my home country. He was familiar with many American cities, including Las Vegas, where he loved to gamble. In fact, he was a dealer at a casino not far from KL. After learning that I was familiar with the game of blackjack, Uncle Roger offered to teach me the single foolproof trick of winning the game. Hah, how quirky, I thought. Sure, why not.

Uncle Roger, the man who brought me to the house, and I walked into a small, empty room filled with nothing but a table, four chairs, a filing cabinet, and a set of chips. Uncle Roger shuffled his cards as he explained to me that the foolproof way of winning blackjack was that he, as the dealer, would do two things: 1) Using hand signals on the table, he would signal to me what the opponent’s hidden card was, and 2) he would slyly reveal to me what the next card in the deck was. He can’t be serious, I thought. This is hilarious, HAH! What a goofball. I was thinking this would make a great story when I got home.

He then began to tell me about the mahjong game he hosted the night before. He was not pleased with the Bruneian businessman who won $30,000 because he didn’t fairly tip the host. Uncle Roger would attempt to win some money back by hosting a blackjack night. I wished him luck.

As if completely on cue, a Bruneian businessman walked into the room. If I never knew what a Bruneian businessman looked like before, I did now.

Thick, black-framed glasses sat on his sweaty face. Hair slicked back with too much gel. His silk dragon shirt had way too many colors, mostly blue. His hands, covered in heavy rings, clutched a worn leather briefcase. What the what. Huh?

The Game

Time flowed in a funny way, and suddenly we were all playing blackjack. Uncle Roger was dealing, I was playing against the Bruneian businessman, and the man who brought me to the house was pretending to be my boyfriend while giving me blackjack tips. It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to register how strange this was, to be playing blackjack with three strange men.

I won a couple of hands to start. Uncle Roger’s hand signals were so blatantly overt I nearly laughed out loud. We arrived at our last hand.

As I mulled over how to move, the Bruneian businessman pulled out of his briefcase a stack of $100s, summing $30,000. He went all in. My jaw dropped. Eyes grew large. No words came.

I looked back and forth, between Uncle Roger and the Bruneian businessman, my hand, and back at them. What? No. No way. Wait, what was happening? The only thing I could utter was, “no.” Having repeated it a number of times, Uncle Roger took the hint and relieved me. “It doesn’t seem like Fiona’s ready to proceed. Why don’t we take a 1-hour break and come back to finish the game.” I dumbfoundedly obeyed.

In order to take a break, we each sealed our hands in an envelope. Uncle Roger was doing this for the Bruneian businessman. Just before slipping his cards into an envelope, he gleamed at me with encouragement as he flashed me my opponent’s cards. He had a losing hand, which meant I would win the game. My mind was finally beginning to catch up with time and registering the ridiculous reality I was in. He wanted me to play a hand of blackjack for $30,000.

We signed the envelopes and placed them in the filing cabinet. I shook hands with the Bruneian businessman before he departed the room. Quite pleased, Uncle Roger readily took out his notebook and began to do the math for how we would win this game. He would loan me $30,000 to keep playing, and naturally, I would win. We would split the winnings among the three of us.

Breaking a Sweat

In this instant, my dumbfounded, awestruck naivete spun into a force of fuming anger. I was livid. “Is this what you do?? You go around, looking for vulnerable foreigners, to scam them!?” I yelled at Uncle Roger for taking advantage of my innocence and openness to connect with locals when I travel. I yelled at myself for being taken advantage of. I threw my arms up, yelled some more, and Uncle Roger wasn’t going to have it. “Well, it seems you’re not interested in playing further. You can go, then.”

That was it. They brought me back to downtown KL, gave me hug, and wished me a nice trip in Malaysia. What. The. F***.

I stumbled back to my hostel, barely discerning the day’s hot sun from the dreamy cloud from which I just emerged. I caught the hostel manager’s attention and had to share. “I think I just got scammed.” Wait for it – here was the best part.

The manager repeated, play-by-play, what happened. As if rehearsing a script, he started with the invitation to the family’s home, the blackjack games, and the offer to loan a large sum of money to “win” the game. He told me that many others had returned from their days’ touring with a similar story. “The German guy last week took many photos with the family. The Finnish guy last month actually went to the ATM and fetched $500 to pay back the money he borrowed.”

I was flabbergasted. Was this some joke? Did he know the people who did this? How often did this happen?

That evening I caught up with a British fellow who was also staying at the hostel. I shared with him what happened to me and he echoed a similar story. I couldn’t believe it. He was also traveling alone and a gentleman caught his attention and asked where he was from. They related to his hometown and the stranger claimed that his sister was attending university in a nearby city; that they should certainly catch up over tea. The British fellow was caught off guard by the strange man’s claim because he seemed too old to have a sister who would be attending university. Otherwise, he probably would have joined for tea.

Reflections

Batu Caves, MalaysiaI felt personally offended and disturbed that my genuine desire to connect with locals was received in this terribly foul way. Why did the family spend hours and hours engulfing me in this scam, just to send me on my way with soft smiles and gentle hugs? So. Confusing. Perhaps Malaysia has strict laws against anything that could jeopardize the tourism industry, which may explain the discreet and covert nature of these missions.Batu Caves, Malaysia Apparently these types of scams are not uncommon in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, and most recently internet dating scams have arisen in Malaysia.

I managed to visit the beautiful Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur (below) before continuing my SE Asian adventures in India. If you’re planning a trip – be smart, and enjoy Malaysia.