China, High Tech, Convenience and Privacy Concern

I was poring through the Youtube channel of Bloomberg, which features quite a few informative videos and this one was particularly interesting to me:

The video talks about a world of tech alternatives to what we are all familiar with: Facebook, Amazon, Youtube… Name one famous tech household name and there is a Chinese counterpart. Also, it shows a little bit of how QR codes and by extension, mobile payments are popular in the country. However, what is most interesting to me is the extent to which surveillance takes place in the world. In the video, a Western guy told a story of how his WeChat account’s money got deducted 20 seconds after he jaywalked in Shenzhen. That’s disturbingly fast. Plus, the government knows everything you do and ranks you based on your social behavior.

I have been of an opinion that an authoritarian leadership in China is a significant factor in its fast ascendency economically and politically in the world stage. Decisions are quickly made and there is singular focus as well as continuity due to the fact that there is one ruling party and for the foreseeable future, one ruler (aka Xi Jinping). On the other hand, decisions and policies take ages in the US and the pattern is, as I observe, that one president will undo all the work of the his predecessor, if the predecessor comes from the opposing party. The same may also be said to the ruling party in Congress.

On the other hand, it can be argued that privacy violations in the Western world are nowhere near as severe as they are in China. The NSA may have the same capabilities as the Chinese government in terms of surveillance, but we haven’t, thankfully, seen it do what the Chinese government is doing. Plus, the society we are living in allows us to practice freedom of speech more than the one in China. In the US, you can make fun of anyone in the government and Congress, though I don’t think you should do so in China.

If you think about it, we have speed of decision-making process due to one ruling party vs the lack of freedom, or convenience vs human right violations at the extremes. You can have one extreme at the expense of the other, but you can’t have both. It’s like the dilemma: does the means or the end matter more?

What works for this country will not likely work for another. I don’t know which one is inherently superior. I think it is just down to personal preference and perspective. Personally, I value freedom more.

Finnish education

I was lucky enough to live and study in Finland for a while. It is and will always be my “second home”, even now that I have already lived in Canada and America as well. It is where I forged relationships that have been instrumental in my life ever since and where I grew up significantly as a person.

Finland isn’t a country rich in natural resources. Its population is just 5.5 million people. Yet, it’s one of the most advanced and happiest countries in the world. A key reason is its world-class education. There is no shortage of coverage on the greatness of Finnish education, so I am just going to tell you a few personal stories I had while living there.

In our Bachelor’s program, there was one math course. We Vietnamese grow up learning complex math problems so the kind of math we had in that course was pretty easy. My classmates struggled at first. Yet, I saw first hand that they spent only 2-3 hours a day after class on math problems and achieved progress that I knew myself I wouldn’t have had. It’s incredible and a bit shameful for me to witness. I had years of a head start, but deep down I knew that without it, I wouldn’t have been able to grow as much in a short amount of time as my Finnish friends.

The first ever class in our program was with our Dean in an auditorium of 80 students. We often had debates and presentations. Most Vietnamese students were very shy and quiet, yet my Finnish peers were confident, persuasive and critical, to the point that the Dean, who is a Swedish American, said this about one guy: “he is terrifyingly persuasive”. The same ability to communicate with confidence and substance was consistent throughout the time I was there, either in or outside of the classroom.

One time, I was sitting next to a guy in class. He was gluing his eyes to a book. I asked him what he was reading and his response was “An Arabic dictionary”. It turned out the guy could speak 6-7 languages already and was trying to learn a new one. In addition to that guy, I was friends with another guy who could speak 7 languages and play piano well. In Finland, the official languages are Swedish and Finnish. English is so popular that many Finns speak the language like native speakers. Plus, a lot of Finns learn a language or two in high school and spend time abroad. So it’s very common to meet Finns who can speak multiple languages.

Moreover, Finns are very modest. They tend to display a healthy level of shyness and play down their abilities. I rarely detected a sense of ostentation from my Finnish friends or folks I met over there. If you meet a Finn salesman to ask about a service or product, don’t be surprised to hear something along the line of “it works!”. In my experience, Finns are like that. Down-to-earth, direct, modest, honest and genuine.

I came across a clip that explained quite well the modesty and why Finnish education is so good. Have a listen.

Humans of New York and Brandon Stanton

I am a big fan of Humans of New York. There are so many great stories told in just ordinary yet moving languages. Whenever I run into those stories, they just create beautiful moments in my days and lift the spirit a little bit. In the time when racism, lack of compassion and cynicism are dangerously present as our time now, stories like the one below offers a pure and beautiful break

Source: Humans of New York

I also recommend the interview between Tim Ferriss and the founder of Humans of New York. It’s an engaging and incredible interview shedding light on his story and the struggle he went through to have his photo project take off

Vietnamese Lunar New Year Holiday

Tomorrow will be the official start of the Lunar New Year holiday in Vietnam. It’ll be the third straight holiday that I have missed since I landed in the US 2.5 years ago. Time does fly, doesn’t it?

Contrary to what may be the conventional thinking, I personally don’t think Lunar New Year, or we call “Tet” in Vietnamese, isn’t a great time to visit for foreigners. Big cities will be seriously less crowded since folks go back to their hometown to spend quality time with their families. Meanwhile, folks who were born and raised in big cities such as myself will likely travel somewhere. Hence, big cities become boring and popular destinations become too annoying.

I’ll let you in a little secret. Tet is only truly great during the days leading up to the first day of the holiday. Families gather and hustle to decorate houses and prepare for the holiday. The sense of togetherness is greater than ever during the 365 days of sunsets of the year. After the first day, it’s just formalities and gift-changing for a few days before the normal life kicks in again. In the past, my family used to prepare marinated allium chinense in jars. But my grandmother, mother and aunts are now too occupied and old to do it. Time doesn’t spare anyone in its wake, does it? I missed that time. The tradition is no longer there and there is something missing during Tet.

Cách làm dưa kiệu ngon, trắng giòn, để lâu không hỏng
Source: sieungon

Personally, I like Tet. Growing up in the economic capital of Vietnam, I grow used to and sick of the terrible traffic in the city. 12 million people hustle every day to make ends meet. During Tet, the majority which is made of ambitious immigrants from poorer provinces go home to spend time with family, a privilege of which life strips them during the other 345 days of the year. Hence, traffic is much more pleasant during Tet and I like it.

This will be my 3rd consecutive time missing out on Tet since landing in America 2.5 years ago. This is not my first rodeo, but it sure doesn’t make it any easier. Anyway, I really hope 2019 will be better than it has been to me so far. The calendar will turn pages in about 22 hours. Finger fucking crossed!

Mattress Shopping

I have been using an air mattress for 2.5 years since I came to the US. It was a gift from two close friends who came here before me. It has done the job and been pretty convenient, especially when it came to moving. I have moved for a total of 3 times and had I had a queen-sized mattress, it would have been much trickier and more laborious.

However, I have been having trouble sleeping lately and back pain after sleep every night, something has to change. Since sleep is one of my priorities this year and moving forward, I can’t afford only 3-4 hours of sleep every night or feeling grumpy and listless the day after. So I decided to do something I hadn’t done before: mattress shopping.

Fortunately, I have a friend working as an assistant manager for a Mattress Firm store. Thanks to him, I learned quite a bit about mattresses:

  • There is quite a bit of science put into mattresses, pillows and bases. In short, a combination of an adjustable base, a reasonable pillow and mattress can help adjust the mattress to your sleeping body form, relieving the pressure, let’s say, from your back. The cooling effect can also aid your sleep
  • Unless you buy mattresses and other stuff out of the box (brand new), you are likely to have quite a considerable discount. Normally, folks can return mattresses in 120 days. When that happens, mattresses can be resold at a significant discount, even though materialistically and practically there should be no difference as the returned goods have to be checked and cleansed before any possible re-sell.
  • Build up your credit score. It enables a finance payment plan at zero interest. Some don’t have that option due to the lack of credit score or having a poor one

Personally, I rarely made any purchase of the size as I did today, but I figure if sleep is of high importance to me and I spend one third of my day on that mattress for some years to come, I’d better have something that I like and actually works. Same thing with almost everything in our life.

Tipping culture

This morning, a friend shared with me a passage from an online article, as follows:

A 2018 survey found people ages 18–27 are the most likely to shortchange the restaurant waitstaff. In fact, 10 percent admitted to routinely leaving no tip at all. Here’s a tip for all you millennials: Try leaving a few bucks on the table instead of posting pictures of your food to social media.

I found it baffling. The tipping culture in the US or Canada doesn’t really make sense to me. Wait staff enters a labor agreement with restaurant owners for a reason. They agree to the benefits and compensation offered by the owners. Without any involvement from customers. Customers have nothing to do with that. Yet, customers are forced to make up for the low wage. In some cases, tips are just expected, but in others, tips are automatically added to the bills. For the past two and a half years in the US, I could count on two hands the times when I felt satisfied with customer services at restaurants. Staff repeatedly and unnecessarily interferes in my conversation with the people I am with or rushes us out by proposing the bill when we are not done yet. Yet, tips are either expected or forced. How does that make sense?

As users, we are pissed that companies do something related to us without our consent, such as sharing our data. We are annoyed by others telling us what to do without consulting us beforehand. Then, why should the tipping “standard” be any different and acceptable? And as diners, why should we defend the owners paying low wages by arguing that it’s a standard?

I would love to pay a little bit more for the meals if it meant that wait staff got a higher wage. In that case, I wouldn’t have to tolerate the tips forced on me without my consent or the overly eager services by staff. Tipping is a standard, but it can be changed and should be. For the better.

Matt Damon: It won’t fill you up

My weekly schedule now includes 20 hours as a Graduate Assistant at school, 20 hours of internship, two Capstones which include hours and hours of in-class sessions, team meetings and individual work. Needless to say, I feel pretty much drained and can’t wait to see out the semester and my degrees. 

For some reason, I came across the below interview by Matt Damon. I saw it the first time almost exactly a year ago, the time I was trying to find a way to be happier in life. It was a great coincidence. Today, I saw it again on my YouTube timeline and it was a nice reminder. Listen to what he had to say about his Oscar win


Even though I sleep for only 4-5 hours a day and every morning I feel like crap, there may be a chance that I won’t feel as happy after graduation as I think I will now. There is a chance that grinding for hours like I have been doing is what will make me happy. There is a chance that learning new stuff and doing meaningful work every day like this will make me happy. Who knows?

Nonetheless, have a listen. You may like it as I do 

Indifference

I was told by one professor at school that I was conscientious. I used to think that it was a good thing. A compliment. I am not sure I do now.

Naval Ravikant was right when he said that indifference was freedom. Indifference meant that you did whatever you wanted without caring too much what others thought. To what was outside of your control.

I tend to care. Too much and unnecessarily. I care about how others perceive my actions, my statement, my emails, my work, my look and so on. I give too much attention to whether others will think the next thing coming from me is stupid. To whether I am acting as an idiot even though they likely don’t care that much. To my aesthetically challenged look.

I know what to do now to improve myself and my life. A lot of work ahead to train myself to be indifferent or more indifferent. It’s one of the reasons why I have this blog. Besides practicing writing and giving back what I have learned, this medium is one way I think I can train to be more indifferent. I used to have lots of edits and entries I wrote but deleted out of fear that I would sound stupid. I probably still sound stupid. But I don’t do edits much any more. I just write it down and hit the “publish” button. It feels more liberating. And I have gained more confidence.

Naval is right. “Indifference is freedom”.

Paperwork Nightmare

The name convention in Vietnam is LastName – MiddleName – FirstName, the opposite of the Western name convention. The name on our passport is displayed in our convention. So when the folks at the US Embassy process a visa application, the name on the visa becomes MiddleName – FirstName – LastName. That’s what happened to me.

To apply for a student visa in the US, one is given a paper called I-20 by his or her school. I-20 is a must when the student applies for an American student visa. My name on I-20 is correct as in FirstName – MiddleName – LastName.

Upon landing in the US, immigrants have another form called I-94, which records the last time one enters the US. My name on I-94 follows the name on my visa and as a consequence, is incorrect. Somehow, my name on Social Security Card is correct as in FirstName – MiddleName – LastName.

Two days ago, my school updated my I-20 to match the name on my visa and I-94. Now, my name is consistent on I-20, visa and I-94…in an incorrect way. The only one odd out is my Social Security Card in a, ironically, correct way. Moving forward, I will either have to change names on visa, I-20 or I-94 or I will have to change my name on Social Security Card. I know my choice. Not much. Still a choice. But going to a Social Security Administration for anything is never a pleasant experience. A friend of mine had the same trouble. It took him 6 months to get it fixed.

From now on, my First Name in the US is my Middle Name. Imagine the inconvenience. And none of this is my fault.

Update on OPT

While we are talking about paperwork and bureaucracy, I want to talk a bit about the OPT process. As a STEM student (who studies science, technology, economics or maths), I can have 3 years of OPT after graduation. Within those 3 years, I will have to get either a working visa or a green card. Otherwise, I’ll be kicked out of the country.

Students cannot apply for OPT earlier than 90 days before graduation. But the process takes at least 3 months and sometime much longer. It means that international students may not have jobs in the meantime and hence income. Their chance of employment can be put at risk if the process takes too long. After an OPT is approved, a student can work for one year. STEM students can apply for one year extension. However, the STEM process is even more difficult as the student and employer have to work out a training plan with goals and how to achieve those goals. Goals have to relate to STEM degrees. During the OPT time, students have to send a report every 6 months, detailing what they do at their job. And there are a bunch of other requirements.

My intention is not to complain. This is to shed light on a frustrating process that should have been easier. International students are here to make a career and pay taxes. We are supposed to work and contribute while staying here. But even that is made very difficult.

Born a crime

If you haven’t read “Born a crime“, I urge you to. It’s a great book by Trevor Noah. He chronicled his story growing up in South Africa in an insightful and humorous manner. It cracked me up a couple of times. As the books I read are quite serious, the humor, positivity and his experience in the book give me a quick escape sometimes, especially on bad days. Like today. Here are some quotes I particularly love:

“Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.”

“I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in life, any choice that I’ve made. But I’m consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn’t say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to. “What if…” “If only…” “I wonder what would have…” You will never, never know, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days.”

“When you shit, as you first sit down, you’re not fully in the experience yet. You are not yet a shitting person. You’re transitioning from a person about to shit to a person who is shitting. You don’t whip out your smartphone or a newspaper right away. It takes a minute to get the first shit out of the way and get in the zone and get comfortable. Once you reach that moment, that’s when it gets really nice. It’s a powerful experience, shitting. There’s something magical about it, profound even. I think God made humans shit in the way we do because it brings us back down to earth and gives us humility. I don’t care who you are, we all shit the same. Beyoncé shits. The pope shits. The Queen of England shits. When we shit we forget our airs and our graces, we forget how famous or how rich we are. All of that goes away.”

“Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says ‘We’re the same.’ A language barrier says ‘We’re different.’ The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well…The great thing about language is that you can just as easily use it to do the opposite: convince people that they are the same. Racism teaches us that we are different because of the color of our skin. But because racism is stupid, it’s easily tricked.”