Tag Archives: ego

A Not So North American Paradox


A couple of months ago, while I was still living in a dreamlike state in Taipei, I wanted to write a blog post about a curious phenomenon I experienced while living in multicultural North America. I wanted to call this blog post “the North American Paradox.” This blog post was going to be written about the North American tendency to lack cultural understanding and knowledge of world history despite North America being a center for immigration, as various peoples have come to pursue new lives by crossing one of two vast oceans. Of course, as my experiences were mostly centered in Toronto, Canada, it was going to be representative of only one North American city, and one with a large number of immigrants from various countries, so it could have been more of “the Toronto Paradox.”

This still doesn’t change the fact that this phenomena does exist in Toronto. Despite having an immigrant population that amounts to 50% of the total city population, and people from literally all around the globe, I have found Torontonians to be largely clueless about what happens outside Canada, if they followed news from outside Toronto at all. Aside from current world events, I have found only shallow forms of cultural exchange happening in this great global city called Toronto. When we (Torontonians) think about other cultures and people, I think the only thing we know about them is their cuisine, and this being the adapted North Americanized version. Even the friends we make are those that are culturally similar to us. I guess this last part cannot be helped so much, as language and cultural barriers can stifle the creation of tight bonds. But this barrier creates further divisions between groups of people of different cultures. The result is a city where possibilities for cultural exchange seem to be limitless but end up being quite few.

I found it ironic that Torontonians proudly refer to global Toronto as being a melting pot of the world. I do not dispute this, although I see it being a “melting pot” in another sense as well. My friend, whose ancestors moved from somewhere in Germany to Canada four or five or six generations ago, put it very nicely when he said, “after a few generations, you just end up being white.” Being apart from the ancestral home and its cultural density, Torontonians start losing the drastic spices and flavours of their home country and find in its place sanitary but insipid flavours. Different flavours come in but melting pot of Toronto tastes bland, much like its cheese. But of course, I should note that I cannot help but being biased, as I lived most of my life here. I guess foreigners coming to Toronto would find it exciting in some way.

I think the experience that contrasted the most with my Toronto experience was the time I spent as an exchange student in Milan. There I met many Europeans and found them to be incredibly knowledgeable and worldly. They seemed to know all about what was happening in the world – the world at that moment for me being Europe – and much about its past too. Languages were another matter that impressed me, as all Europeans seemed to speak at least three fluently. My German roommate might have given me a particularly one-sided perspective in this matter, as he was interested in history and claimed to have known at one point all the countries in the world and their capital cities as well as a lot of their basic history. He also spoke German, English and Spanish fluently. With this environment and these kinds of people around me, it is no wonder why I thought so favourably about Europeans and disappointed from the contrast at bumbling, monolingual North Americans. (Torontonians)

A year went by and the time came for another plane flight, this time to Asia. Here again I met many Europeans. However, in contrast to the sophisticated and noble Europeans I met while in Europe, this new batch of Europeans seemed to shine less. They were just as clueless as I was about what was happening in this side of the world and this time, I had an advantage on them in language proficiency. Of course, when they discussed the various perspectives of World War II during a party I found it novel and interesting, but Europe was a world away.

The conclusion I got from thinking about this “paradox” was that it is actually not a paradox at all. North Americans learn in school about the history of colonial powers in North America – with a brief sidenote mentioning the Native Americans – because this is what happened on the continent. Europeans learn about Europe, because tension have historically been present there and with two large scale wars destroying the continent and taking too many European lives, it is important to learn about the history of the Europe. With the European Union, and the proximity of different cultures, I guess learning languages has also been pragmatically emphasized in their education system. If my family never moved out of South Korea I would be learning about the history of the Korean peninsula. I asked a Taiwanese friend and he told me the Taiwanese learn about the history of China and Taiwan. I am in Beijing right now and I am guessing that the students here are not learning about the history of Ireland. As for Torontonians lacking deep cultural exchanges, I do not think that I should be pointing any fingers. When I was living in Taiwan, I always found myself hanging out with the exchange students more than my Taiwanese classmates. And when I did hang out with the occasional Taiwanese friend, we would use English most of the time. I think it takes serious conscious effort to reach out to people using an unfamiliar language and most people, including me, lack patience.

I still think that cultural understanding – and by extension, language – is a worthwhile goal and one that I would like to pursue. Learning about different cultures and peoples destroys ignorance and brings humility. It brings to light the truth that human essence is the same. There are times I see ignorance at an extreme level, particularly on online channels where one group of people are put down as being less than human due to misinterpretation of their actions. I believe that proper respect and understanding of one another are missing in these cases. I think that beneath the surface (I’m not sure if this layer is thick or thin) there is a part within that is relatable. Maybe I am being too idealistic. History is another discipline that is worth pursuing. Learning about the stories that have taken place on this planet earth before this moment in time gives us a proper perspective on life. The world does not revolve around us, despite how much we would like to give ourselves the role of the main character in our personal stories. The world just revolves and will keep on revolving way after our death. It will revolve and revolve and then it will stop revolving sometime in a distant and unseeable future. Then there will be imperceptible darkness. But as accidental and fortunate receivers of the blessing of life, it is important to play our role and play it with conscientiousness and humility and without an overinflation of our ego.


Picture above is somewhere in Taroko Gorge in Taiwan


Another Look on Life

In the midst of our day to day routines, it is easy to fall into a myopic perspective on life. One in which every day feels like a mundane reduplication of the ones before it. One in which we see the same faces, go to the same places and do the same things over and over again. As the routine continues without change, we start falling deeper into an unconscious repetition of our actions and lose sight of everything beyond our direct surroundings. Once in a while, if we are able to expand our immediate picture in the attempts to see a larger reality, we may be able to find a refreshing escape from the increasingly deepening hole of our daily routines. Let us do a visualization exercise to see things from a different perspective.


To begin, think of the room you are currently in. Try to see and feel the entirety of the room. Pay attention to the people occupying the same space. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you have the picture.






Now expand the picture and see the building you are in front a bird’s eye view. Picture the different activities of the people who are in the same building. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you have the picture.






Now let us expand our picture even more and imagine your neighbourhood from a bird’s eye view. Think of the parks, the stores, the residential buildings, the public buildings and think of the variety of existence that happens in these parts. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you feel the picture. As the picture gets bigger, the self gets smaller.






Now even higher, and we are overlooking your region in the city. It may have distinct features and a certain subculture. Cars and people will look like toys. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you feel the picture. As the picture gets bigger, the self gets smaller.






Higher and higher we go and now picture the city or town you live in. It may have tens of thousands of people, or tens of millions. In the day there may be plenty of activity out on the streets, while at night, the lights from individual homes reaffirm the continual existence of unending possibilities and life. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you have the picture. As the picture gets bigger, the self gets smaller.






Now let us go even further and picture the province that you live in. This may be a large area, or it may be a smaller one. Even so, it will not be an area that you could get to know or traverse every corner of. We may feel a familiarity with this area, but in the end, like the people living inside it, even this relatively tiny piece of land is impossible to fully understand. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you have the picture. As the picture gets bigger, the self gets smaller.






Now we go higher and are able to see the country of our residence. This country is one which you may be a citizen of or perhaps just temporarily live in. This country is one with a distinct identity and history. This country is one which is full of inhabitant who you may feel a distant familiarity. This country is one that you might identify with. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you have the picture. As the picture gets bigger, the self gets smaller.






Finally, we are now seeing the picture of the Earth. At this point, our brains cannot comprehend the enormity of the combined human activity. There will be people who are poor, people who are rich; people who are young, people who are old; people with dreams, people with none; people who are happy, people who are sad; in the end it will be a large number of people who you could not all possibly form individual bonds of understanding with.

It is beautiful planet we live on, with all its vibrant colours. A planet full of life, full of energy, full of possibilities. A planet bigger than anyone of us can hope to imagine. A place full of biodiversity, from the smallest of microbes to the largest and most ancient forms of vegetation. A place with geographical features ranging from dry deserts to wet marshlands, high mountains to vast oceans. A place which still holds innumerable mysteries for the human race.

We have been here for an uncountable number of years and generations. Human history is full of a myriad of tales and stories of prior inhabitants. They are people have gone about their lives, living while holding onto their beliefs and under the conditions in their respective times. Each one of them had a role in shaping history, whether it was big or small, with a shared fate. A constant cycle of life and death, while the Earth continues its mechanical movements around the sun.

And now, let us think back about what our lives may mean in this greater picture. Our individual life stories may be of utmost importance to us. However, how will this once held energy and life be represented? Perhaps a couple of us may be in the history books, some of us may make it on the news, but for most of us, we will only have our beautiful stories told in the form of statistics or wholly forgotten. Perhaps we will be remembered by our friends and families, and have our stories represented through them. Eventually, they too will pass on, and every aspect of our lives will fall out of memory, never to be told again. Close your eyes and visualize, and open your eyes once you have the picture. As the picture gets bigger, the self gets smaller.






This inevitability is a reality. In the end, our lives are more like lucky accidents and an insignificant part of an objective and immobile reality. What is important to us when we think in terms of individual interests is not important to us when we think in a holistic way. Perhaps what we think is important to us is not really important at all. As we live and fall into the paralysis of our daily routines and work, we may not realize this. We may only be aware of our present surroundings and environment, and never go further into contemplation about the real nature of our existence. But in the end, not thinking does not prevent undeniable reality. We are only a small part of the whole, and the whole is an unimaginably large picture.