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I’ve long been a fan of Richard Dawkins’ books. I read the Selfish Gene as a teenager and found it absolutely fascinating. Not only was that book the foundation of sociobiology, but it also coined the term “meme”. Little did I know that a few years later, millions of people would be tossing the word around, with the original meaning a bit muddled but still intact.

In the last couple of years, Dawkins has been on a crusade against what he calls “The Enemies of Reason”. After traveling around the world and debating with numerous religious leaders (including Pastor Ted Haggard before he was caught with the gay prostitute/meth seller). In his new video, rather than continuing the assault against traditional religions, he’s after Astrology, Homeopathy, and a variety of other “New Age” beliefs.

I’m cheering him all the way on this one, and after spending years living in Taiwan it’s a godsend, pardon the term. It really is too bad there isn’t a Chinese speaker like Dawkins. The level of superstitious belief here, particularly in astrology is just mind-boggling. I must have met hundreds of Chinese who really wanted me to tell them my birth date so they could figure out what my sign was and pigeon-hole me.

The part on astrology starts at five minutes and thirty-seven seconds.

This was totally like, you know… not bad lip-syncing?

During the time I’ve been living in Taiwan, I’ve occasionally been shocked at the way Hitler is portrayed here. His image has been used by (completely ignorant) marketers, and there have been occasional restaurants and exhibitions themed in a way that could never happen in many countries. A couple of years ago, a Chinese video game of the same genre as Civilization had Hitler as one of the playable characters. Still, it came as a shock when I heard that a group of college students here have actually formed a Nazi association.
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Reading the Taipei Times today, I came across an article that highlights yet another aspect in which Japan is returning to its nationalistic roots– education. The education minister, Ibuki Bunmei (伊吹文明), is a reactionary. In various speeches, he has stated that most young Japanese are incapable of writing or speaking well and that they need to “learn the rules of society” in elementary school before spending time on foreign languages. Fair enough. Now, though, he’s pushing into more disturbing territory:
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Here’s a Danwei video interview with the two founders of Antiwave, arguably China’s most influential podcast. “When I was a kid, my father used to tell me stories about the Japanese during the war. But history sometimes should just be left as history.”Pingke, a veteran of over a decade in the traditional radio business and Flypig, a popular blogger, explain how they created the Antiwave podcast to get around the traditional restrictions of the media. While they obviously still have to obey they law, they can say things and address topics that nobody in the traditional media would touch… such as the extreme anti-Japanese sentiments now so common in Chinese youth.

Does the ability to write with a pen and paper matter? Apparently not, to quite a few Chinese as a second language learners. “Nobody really writes by hand anymore,” says one.

“Writing by hand is useless; I can just type everything at my computer,” explains another.

I disagree both arguments. While it is possible to get by without the ability to write by hand, it’s also possible to get by without learning Chinese at all. In fact, I know foreigners who have lived here for nearly two decades and who speak less Chinese than most students do after a single year. One of them was even my former boss. He got by just fine. The existence of people such as him is evidence that having fully functional language skills means something more than just being able to survive in a Chinese speaking city. Being fully functional in a language means using it to accomplish whatever daily tasks one chooses, not choosing daily activities based upon the limits of one’s language skills.

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There are some times when the whole 差不多 attitude here drives me nuts. Now is not one of them.
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Back when I first got to Taiwan, I had some pretty amusing experiences going to the gym. They were nothing like back home. In fact, the first twelve I visited, didn’t even have free weights! None! Just row after row after row of machines, treadmills and stair-steppers. The first gym I did visit that had free weights as well as machines was the one at Shida.
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Last night, I met my friend Nathan at the Taoyuan train station. We decided to go the night market, so we hailed a cab and jumped in. Before I mention what happened, I should point out that I generally like cab drivers in Taiwan. They’re usually personable, chatty, and sometimes even interesting. This particular guy, on the other hand, was almost a caricature of a Chinese cab driver. The conversation below all happened in Chinese, of course.

Me: Hi. We want to go to the night market.
Driver: Oh! Can you speak Chinese!!?
Nathan: Uh…. yeah.
Driver: You guys are Americans, right? Right?
Me: Yep. We live here, though.
Driver: What do you do? Are you teachers?
Nathan: He is, and I’m a volunteer worker.
Driver: What do you mean? What do you do?
Nathan: I do work at hospitals and juvenile reform centers…
Driver: Do they pay you?
Nathan: No, it’s all volun…
Driver: They don’t PAY you? Why do you do it?
Nathan: To help people. It’s…
Driver: No salary? I wouldn’t do it!

I’m sure a lot of westerners secretly think the same way. I’ve never heard any say it so bluntly, though. Even if it’s only lip-service and they can’t really relate to volunteerism or charity, they’re at least familiar with what would motivate other people to engage in those activities.

A few days ago, John (of Sinosplice) sent me a link to an article titled, “How public education cripples our kids, and why“. Interestingly, it was written by John Taylor Gatto, former New York State and New York City teacher of the year. He goes into a long explanation about how public schooling is used more as a tool for promoting social conformity than as means to an education. Quite a bit of the article rang true in my ears. Indeed, I’ve found a very large disconnect between schooling and education in my own life. continue reading…