Power of passion

Today, it suddenly occurred to me how bizarre it is that I would run for the shade after playing two hours of tennis under the cloudless sky. Why is it that the same sun is completely ignored one minute and desperately evaded the other?  Obviously, something in our mind is responsible triggering such totally different responses to the same physical condition.

What makes me ignore the burning sunshine is my passion to the game.

What make me dodge it are the physical discomfort and the fear of the harm of prolonged exposure.
The remarkable thing is that the discomfort and fear can and should always be perceived, they can be totally overwhelmed or pushed into oblivion by passion.

Such is the power of passion. 


I really shouldn't be writing this

I really shouldn’t be writing this.

There are things far more gratifying to do – like browsing the Internet for the latest soccer news or a bargain for the second hand table lamp that would grace my home, playing with the cats, or just slumping in the sofa. Anything. Anything but doing something which feels like work.

But I’ve learned enough about breaking habits and combating procrastination to be aware of the fatal mistake of letting my auto-pilot mode take over. It is important to do something different, to at least make a start of the task that I know, in the back of my mind, that should get done.

And hey, thanks to that awareness, that shift in mentality and that bit of determination, here’s a blog entry written.

Now I can enjoy the satisfaction of uploading it and, hmmm, start browsing the Net, stroking the cats and … 


Gullibility or selfishness?

While the Hong Kong education system emphasises, at least on paper, the promotion of students’ critical thinking, a colleague of mine always says that the day this goal is achieved should also be the day the death knell rings for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government.

That’s a bit cynical, but the colleague certainly has a point. If the Hong Kong people, especially the young people, are able to look beyond the blatant lies that politicians and the media have been using to brainwash them on a daily basis, and realise that the bar has been made lower and lower and that it is some absolute rubbish or poison that “Grandfather” has been trying to force-feed them, they should not have been so indifferent.

But I do wonder whether this impasse reflects how gullible Hong Kong people are, or how selfish. Could it be that some people prefer to accept the current situation so long as believe that their own interests are not threatened?

One way or the other, the situation is far from ideal.


Something that doesn't make sense in the 'civilised' world

Most people are good to their pets, or cats and dogs in general, but they condone the killing of, and cruelty to, animals for their consumption, comfort and pleasure.
We destroy the habitat of many animals and drive them to the verge of extinction. Then, in the name of ‘saving’ or ‘protecting’ them, we condemn them to a captive existence, in zoos or sanctuaries.
We inflict upon ourselves all sorts of health troubles just because of our indulgence in a diet rich in animal protein, and we pay the heavy prices, not only in terms of the huge medical costs but also with our health and even our lives.

Treat your students like they are your own children

A relative of my wife’s recently asked me to recommend a secondary school for her son who has been doing quite well in his primary school.

The question reminded me of how I would evaluate how good a school is, and the key criterion lies in what a school principal once told me. She said she always told the teachers to treat the students like they are their own children. I suppose that if that is really put in practice, the school should be fine. As the Bible says, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” (Matthew 7:9-10)

But how can you tell if the principle is upheld by the teachers? One good sign is that there are teachers who actually send their own children to the school in which they teach.
And I do know some schools with such teachers. They could be worth recommending to the relative.


Thufferin' thuccotash!

According to a recent international Gallup poll, 14% of the Hong Kong population rated their lives poorly enough to be considered “suffering”. That’s higher than China (at 12%) and Taiwan (at only 5%), and the second highest in Asia, after the Philippines (at 17%).

Before looking into the findings more deeply, we should like at how the percentages are derived. Here’s an explanation from the Gallup website:

“Gallup classifies respondents as "thriving," "struggling," or "suffering" according to how they rate their current and future lives on a ladder scale with steps numbered from 0 to 10 based on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale. Gallup considers people to be suffering if they rate their current lives a 4 or lower and their lives in five years a 4 or lower. The respondents do not label themselves as suffering. Average global suffering has remained relatively unchanged over the past several years.”

It didn’t come as a surprise to me that Hong Kong didn’t fare well in the poll. I do not need to read the report of this poll to know that Hong Kong people are not happy souls. I can read the faces of the people I come across in my daily commute to and from work. Mostly, there is no jubilation in them, only exhaustion or dissatisfaction.

Contrast the demeanors of Hong Kong people with those of, say, Danish people. They always top the rankings of the world’s happiest people. The poll mentioned above, for example, shows that only 2% of the Danish people were suffering. The funny thing is that wealth probably has nothing to do with this. In 2011, Hong Kong’s GDP per capita, at USD49,342, is higher than Denmark, at USD37,741, and much more so than China, at USD8,394. Yet, we are more miserable.

Ironically, the very reason for our misery may actually have to do with money. It is not about how much money we have, but how we chase it. Among the most consistent findings in the study of human behaviour is that the more people value pursuing material wealth and the accumulation of material possessions, the less happy they are. Sad to say, these things take up a large part, if not most, of the adult lives of Hong Kong people.

That does not leave much space for anything else, including happiness.


We don't smile, we don't greet

According to the recently released findings of an international mystery shopper survey on the standard of service of the retail industry, out of the 26 countries/regions surveyed, Hong Kong was ranked 24th in terms of smiles, just higher than Pakistan and Croatia. Hong Kong’s performance in greetings was worse, ranked second from the bottom. The survey involved 2,000 mystery shoppers making 80,000 visits and collecting data from 30 business categories.

The data certainly present a disappointing picture of the Hong Kong retail industry, which has always been a major income generator for the region. And it is tempting to point our fingers at the employees in the retail businesses for not doing a better job. In any case, I am sure that we have all had the experience of feeling short-changed or not well-treated when we go out for a meal. I certainly have. Just earlier this week, when my wife and I had dinner at a large chain Chinese restaurant, we both witnessed and received some lousy service. The waiters and waitresses were indifferent to the customers’ requests for service or placing orders, to the extent that, within an hour or so, we heard grunting from three or four tables and cursing from one. Our own unpleasant experience was our attempt to order a bowl of rice.  After trying to call attention for a few minutes, a waitress eventually approached. Strangely, after hearing our request, instead of placing the order herself, she tried to shift the responsibility to a waitress across a few tables. This other waitress was furious, and quite understandably too, as she was taking orders at another table, and she didn’t hesitate to hurl some blaming words back in the presence of the customers within earshot. I was amazed and slightly amused, and I told my wife that I was ready to bet that our order was not placed. As expected, the bowl of rice never came. My wife was in the mind to complain to the manager, but I managed to make her drop the idea. My wife wasn’t trying to be vengeful, she felt that it was necessary to let the restaurant know it was some lousy service they were offering. She certainly had a point, but I was ever so sympathetic of these grassroots people and knew how such complaints may jeopardise their jobs.
Of course, employees of the retail industry must account for unsatisfactory service, of which the survey and the personal experiences mentioned above may be evidence, but are they the sole party to take the blame, and are we to draw the convenient conclusion that they are just lazy, rude and mean? I think we should seek to understand the situation from the wider Hong Kong context.

Because of the high operating costs, most frontline jobs that businesses in the retail industry of Hong Kong offer are low-paid and involve long working hours. Morever, to keep the running costs down, it is quite common for the businesses to employ an absolute minimum number of staff, which means the employees have to work on tight schedules and under great pressure. All these, plus the fact that these jobs are not held in high regard in the Hong Kong society, mean it is difficult for those engaged in the employees to be highly motivated, or derive much satisfaction from, these jobs. It is therefore hard to expect them to be wearing a smile or greeting customers warmly all the time. One thing I remember about the ferry trip I took across Sydney Harbour many years ago was that many of those serving at the pier and on the ferry were young people and they wore smiles that were more brilliant than the sunshine. It was a stark contrast to the situation of Hong Kong, where these jobs are considered to be of low level and so you only ever see old men pulling ropes and lowering gangways on ferries, and they do look grumpy or miserable.

Another major factor for the poor service is the background of the employees. These low paid and low status jobs are only taken by grassroots people – those with limited education and social exposure, and quite often new immigrants from China. These are the people who may not even know how to be good to themselves and their families, expecting themselves to provide hospitable, high quality customer service is unrealistic to say the least. Pre-service and on-the-job training could help, but then, with the exception of the very large retail chains, how many shops and restaurants do provide the sort of training that makes a difference?
The catch of the survey is that the ranking of Hong Kong is much better in the additional promotion category, meaning that retail business employees do quite well in persuading customers to buy additional products and services.  Given that such successes often lead to the earning of commissions, this finding shows the very practical side of Hong Kong people.

The world's number one cycling city... or simply the world's number one city?

The photo above, associated with a recent BBC article called What Copenhagen can teach the world, certainly awakens some memory of my trip to Denmark last summer.

My wife and I spent three days in Copenhagen, but our lodging for those three nights was not in the Danish capital city. We stayed on a farm in Dragør which was about 10 km away. On two of those days we rented bikes for the commute to Copenhagen and back. The weather was nowhere as good as the photo showed and there were no setting (or rising?) sun casting long shadows of bikers, but the scene was familiar. Looking back, I feel privileged to have had that experience. The only regret was that my wife, not an experienced biker herself, did not derive as much pleasure from the biking trips as I did.
And how about the article? What lessons did it say the world can learn from Copenhagen? In summary, here are the main ones:

Work/life balance: Family is central to Danish life, and since there is little pressure to work overtime, the people have more time to spend with their families.

Infrastructure: Sustainable architecture and sustainable infrastructure are central to city policy. The city is friendly to pedestrians and even friendlier to bikers. With about 40% of the residents commuting by bike every day, Copenhagen is arguably the world’s number one cycling city. Copenhagen is also trying to diversify its energy portfolio and strives to become carbon-neutral by 2025.

Indulgence: Copenhageners know how to have a good time while taking care of the environment. Copenhagen consumes more organic food and is home to more breweries per capita than any other place in Europe. It also has more Michelin stars than any other Scandinavian city. 

It is therefore no wonder that Copenhagen frequently tops rankings of the world’s happiest, most liveable and best-designed cities. And that, along the fact that Danish people have a high degree of trust in their government, is the reason why even though Denmark has the highest income tax in the world, the people are willing to bear the cost.

Let’s face it, the income tax range of Hong Kong is 0-15%, which is much lower than the 36.57-55.4% range of Denmark. But where would you rather be living?


Les Danois et la loi

The following short paragraph is from a French website for kids or, perhaps more precisely, a website for French kids (one way or the other, the language is what someone with my level of French can handle):

Les Danois et la loi 
J'ai rencontré un ami de mon père qui vit au Danemark depuis plusieurs années. Il nous a raconté qu'au Danemark, la police n'intervient pas très souvent. En effet, les Danois accordent beaucoup d'importance à la loi et la respectent. Par exemple, ils ne traversent jamais à un feu rouge meme s'il n'y a pas de circulation. De même, il nous a raconté que les vols étaient très rares et j'ai remarqué que les gens n'attachent même pas leur vélo lorsqu'ils le laissent dans la rue ! Je trouve que c'est une super mentalité et ce serait bien que ce soit pareil dans tous les pays.

What the paragraph basically says is that the Danish people attach much importance to, and respect, the law and the police seldom need to intervene. For example, people do not cross the road when the red light is on, even if there is no traffic. They do not lock their bikes because cases of theft are rare.

The writer is full of admiration for this mentality, saying that it would be good if it is the same in other countries.

My feeling is that if this is how someone from France feels (and I notice the use of an exclamation mark when the writer talks about the Danish people just leaving their bikes on the streets without locking them), how much more incredible these people's attitude and behaviour must be for the Chinese!


It's just homecoming

After writing about death for a few days, I came across a good article on the topic today, called Don’t Be Afraid of Dying, by Byram Karasu.

The central idea is that death is not our most formidable enemy, but fear of it is. According to the writer, people who fear death are those who have not been living a good life. They are the ones whose souls are deprived of spiritual illumination. For them, their life is a journey to meaningless oblivion. These people, the writer says, “die in life”.

On the other hand, if we know how to make life meaningful, we can also make our death meaningful. If we are covetous of life, if we experience its moments and live thoroughly to its end, we will sail into the mystery of the journey of death with the feeling of coming home and having a spiritual reunion.


It's just an animal. What's the big deal?

People say that the greatest love one can give others is to sacrifice his or her life for the sake of others. In celebrating Easter, we are reminded of the great example set by Jesus, and how such love triumphs over death.

But how about that kind of love which dictates that one has to take away the lives of others, in order to terminate their suffering or to stop them living without dignity and against their own wish? While the difficult decision and action may be taken out of the great love for the sufferer, this is a highly controversial issue. It involves the complications of who and how to decide how bad the condition of the sufferer is and whether it is a hopeless and irreversible case, whether the sufferer's wish can be found out and his consent sought, and who to execute the killing, etc., among others. It also makes a huge difference whether it is the life of a human or an animal at stake.

The follow extract, from the book Water for the Elephant, describes how Jacob Jankowski, the main character, put down a horse diagnosed with an incurable disease.

Finally, I pick up the rifle, slide the shell into the chamber, and throw the bolt. Silver Star's muzzle is pressed up against the end of his stall, his ears twitching. I lean over and run my fingers down his neck. Then I place the muzzle of the gun under his left ear and pull the trigger.
There's an explosion of sound and the butt of the rifle bucks into my shoulder. Silver Star's body seizes, his muscles responding to one last synaptical spasm before finally falling still. From far away, I hear a single desperate whinny.
My ears are ringing as I climb down from the stock car, but even so it seems to me that the scene is eerily silent. A small crowd of people has gathered. They stand motionless, their faces long. One man pulls his hat from his head and presses it to his chest.
I walk a few dozen yards from the train, climb the grassy bank, and sit rubbing my shoulder...
I sit for close to an hour, staring at the grass between my feet. I pluck a few blades and roll them in my fingers, wondering why the hell it's taking them so long to pull out.
After a while August approaches. He stares at me, and then leans over to pick up the rifle. I hadn't been aware of bringing it with me.
"Come on, pal," he says. "Don't want to get left behind."
"I think I do."...
"Is that the first time you've shot a horse?" he says...
"No. But it doesn't mean I like it."

While the extract depicts how difficult it was to do something like that, the case was fairly straightforward. As someone with veterinary training from Cornell University according to the story, in other words, as someone with the authority to make the judgement and the decision, Jankowski called the shots, and he made the shot. When it is the life of an animal at stake, very often that is all it takes, even though Jankowski did feel wretched afterwards. And his was not a very typical human reaction. most people's response to the suffering of animals would be similar to that of August his companion, which is complete indifference. 


Jesus's triumph over death

The central theme of Easter is death or, more precisely, Jesus’s triumph over death.
This is also the core of our faith. In partaking to the covenant with God, in accepting Jesus into our life, we are committed to putting our worldly self to death and embracing the birth of our spiritual self. Our worldly existence takes on a whole new meaning that we live not for the sake of satisfying our selves but to serve God and others. We no longer fear death, for we know, from the experience of Jesus, that death does not have a grip on us if we entrust our life to the power of God.
To have this sort of faith is not easy at all. Even the son of God had His moments of doubt before His demolition of death and rise to eternal glory. But Jesus on the cross has shown us, in flesh and blood, that it can be done.


i-Dead, but burn me i-Pad

To us Christians, death can be a privilege. If we have lived a virtuous life, death means going to heaven where we transform into a timeless existence and are re-united with God and other righteous souls. We are relieved of any worldly bondages and cravings.

So it has always baffled me that the Chinese would make all kinds of offerings to the dead that are supposed to satisfy worldly needs. I simply cannot understand how the dead may ever have the need for money and clothing, not to say how, even if the ‘need’ was there, how merely burning those paper bank notes could possibly improve their financial situation.

But make these offerings we do, like when my family sweeps my parents’ graves every Ching Ming and Chung Yeung. What is more bizarre is that the offerings have become more and more extravagant and elaborate. It was as if those in the underworld still crave for material comfort, and it was as if they, too, had to catch up with the times. So we burn them a house with all manners of modern luxury. And while we live in the i-world these days, it seems that there is an equivalence in the i-underworld. 

Otherwise, why have the Chinese started offering their dead relatives the latest i-products, such as the iPad, iPhone, etc. that are shown in the photo above?

Steve Jobs should be pleased, even though the singed products may not contribute to the earnings of his company.