Go with a smile!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I met up with 2 other people who used to go to school together. After a while, they got back to talking about how they were still mad at one of their teachers. Basically that teacher would go to class A and tell them that class B was better, and then go to class B and tell them that class A was better.

Well, we are all Asians, so tell me how many of you have parents who are always doing that?

They were pretty resentful about teachers who always put them in their place, and did not acknowledge that they had improved over time. There were times when a student would put in extra effort to achieve a quantum leap over their usual standards, and they would get remarks like “where did you copy this from?”

I listened to their conversation, and I hadn’t had the heart to tell them that I never got those disparaging remarks because I was one of the better students. I seldom got unfavourable comparisons. I would only understand those things when I went to work and got a lot of remarks that were like that. I got stuff like “he could have been a star student if he really tried.”

There were other things, though. I once had a teacher who told me “you’re not much of a literature student, are you? You’re only good at maths.” This was around the time that I was working on a play that would win a competition and get staged by the school – without her knowledge, of course. I could only imagine the scene afterwards – her in the staff lounge, getting congratulated by her fellow teachers. “Hey, heard that sieteocho won the play writing competition. You must have been a great teacher?” “Eh? Sieteocho? How come I didn’t even know that he’s a playwright?” It gave me a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

Later on, I would reflect upon it, and decide that my attitude was just about right. I wouldn’t blame my teachers if they did something like that to me. We shouldn’t have hard feelings about that. We should expect that people either have imperfect knowledge about each other, or that they are such rotten scum that their opinions should not be acknowledged, let alone respected. We shouldn’t expect them to be fair. Similarly we shouldn’t expect that life is fair. Life is both fair and unfair. It is unfair because almost everybody, taken one by one is either biased against you, or biased towards you. It is fair because over the long run, all these people will cancel each other out.

So the right attitude is, I don’t depend on your encouragement to do what I was going to do anyway. It shouldn’t matter. I’ll just do what I feel like doing (that isn’t like against the law).

Well one of those guys who was with me was a teacher, and I had half a mind to tell him that you’re on the other side now, and you could be making the very same mistakes without really knowing how.

There is a saying about parenthood, and I find it to be truer than the standard Confucian propaganda of parents and teachers being saints that are above reproach. “Parents invariably end up damaging their children, no matter how hard they try not to.” And I say that the same is true for teachers. I would prefer to call it “wear and tear” because it’s more accurate picture than “damage”, and because we all know that wear and tear is inevitable. I don’t see this as being a negative portrait for parents or teachers, and in some ways this is even more admirable because we now know that parenting or teaching is so hard to get right and in spite of that, people still persist.

That being said, there is the opposite trend which is even more disturbing. It is the trend of narcissism. I will only talk a little about it here because I am not that familiar with it, but there’s a quite a bit written about it recently. Basically the idea is that teachers are beginning to reverse the tendencies of the bad old days, and started to increase the self-esteem of the pupils – even when they don’t deserve it.

This, in turn leads to highly undesirable personality traits. And kids start to grow up, believing they can have it all. Well the idea that everybody can have it all is, logically speaking, ridiculous. Even the idea that everybody gets something is highly suspect. And what happens when they don’t get it? Everybody wants a lot of money but nobody wants to work for it. Everybody wants a lot of respect but nobody wants to give it. Everybody wants more than their fair share in a free market. Eventually, something’s got to give. Eventually, people are going to overstep their boundaries, and start messing around with each other because they’ll think they’re just getting what’s theirs.

I already see it in Generation Y. However much I’m appalled at generation X, the potential downside of generation Y is even more appalling. You have a whole generation of youngsters in China (and, let’s be fair, Singapore) who believe that it is more important to attain a US quality of life, than it is to stop the earth from being destroyed. You have them believing that clawing over your brother’s back to get ahead is the just and natural way to live your life. You have their parents turning up at school, indignant that the teachers have the temerity to discipline their children.

You have a panel of judges in American Idol preaching to people these values that I, as a record-listening teenager completely abhorred: image is everything.

Anyway, I’ve been in the US long enough to see what happens when people start to act that way on a large scale. It’s far too simple to say that society is falling apart, even though in some respects it does seem to be the case. But more than half of the people you see are from “broken” homes. Broken homes is the norm. (I put “broken” in quotations because a lot of parents – to their credit continue to raise their children after the divorce, a lot of step-parents do the right thing. But for many of them their biological parents are no longer married.) It is a dynamic and vibrant place, but also a whole lot colder, and I don’t mean just temperature wise.


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