Monday, March 28, 2011

You know you're an expat when....

Dear Mr. Waiter,

No, I do not need a fork and spoon. The only thing I need less is your condescending reaction upon learning I know how to handle myself with a pair of chopsticks. Having lived in Asia for three years, I'd like to think I've picked up more than a stomach bug.


Not Eating At Your Restaurant Again

Friday, March 25, 2011

And if you know your history

Hating on unions, teachers and teachers' unions is all the rage in the New, Fiscally Responsible America. If not for those greedy workers, the Conventional Wisdom goes, God's Chosen Country would pull itself up by its bootstraps and hard-work itself right back to prosperity, donchaknow.

How different would things be if there were no unions? What would life be like if there were no organizations to represent workers and speak on their behalf? Such a world is largely hypothetical these days, but 100 years ago today, we received a terrifying example.
Turn back the clock on New York City’s garment district to around the year 1900.
“The average work week was 84 hours, 12 hours every day of the week,” said Ellen Rothman with the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, Mass. “During the busy season, the grinding hum of sewing machines never entirely ceased day or night.”
Conditions had begun to improve by 1911, but just slightly. On March 25th of that year, fire erupted at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in lower Manhattan. It was one of the worst workplace disasters in American history: 146 people died, mostly teenage girls and women, immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe and Italians.
Workers had few rights at the time. Garment factories were crowed, noisy and hot. Bathroom breaks were monitored. Workers had their bags inspected when they left for the day. When fire broke out at the Triangle Factory, the exits were locked to prevent theft.
“In trying to escape, there was no choice: be burned alive, or jump. And most of them jumped. And everyone who jumped died,” said Rothman.
The New York Times has published a series of articles and posts on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. If you want to know what life would be like with zero regulation, if the government kept its nose completely out of private industry, have a look. Other people may be more sanguine about letting corporations police themselves. I just wonder how much concern a business would truly have for its workforce when left to its own devices while pursuing the natural goal of any business — maximum profits.

This isn't just an American problem, either. Any business, regardless of location, will get away with whatever it can.
Garment jobs have been shifting to lower-cost operations in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Asia for decades, as have dangerous working conditions.
“Effectively what we have done is exported our sweatshops and exported our factory fires,” said Robert Ross at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. And it’s as if the 1911 conditions had been lifted up by an evil hand and dropped into Bangladesh.”
According to the Bangladeshi government’s Fire Service and Civil Defense Department, 414 garment workers were killed in at least 213 factory fires between the years 2006 and 2009. Last year, 191 people were killed in Bangladesh in a reported 20 incidents, according to Ross’ research. Last December, a fire killed at least 25 people in a garment factory there.
“And the pattern is disturbingly uniform,” said Ross. “The shops are often in high rise buildings, just like the Triangle. The pattern is that an electrical fire starts, and then without adequate, or any fire escapes, without sprinkler systems, the workers surge to get out. And in factory after factory, the newspapers report locked gates and locked doors. It’s a horrific duplication of what we earlier experienced.”
Something to keep in mind the next time someone tells you the country — any country — would be better off without workers' unions.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Plus ca change, plus ce la wocka wocka wocka

[Update redacted. And you thought China was fun!]

It's much the same outside of Globe Towers, too. You always hear stories about rampant corruption and people gaming the system to the benefit of themselves or their political party, but sometimes it's hard to tell how much of that is cynicism and how much is justified. In addition to the usual problem of people swindling money, now there are reports of businesses artificially creating food shortages. Rice dominated the headlines in the last few months as stockpiles got dangerously low, but that all seemed to dissipate once Indonesia's main harvest started. Now the focus is turning toward meat.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Championship material

My laptop on the official plinth of the AFC Champions League. As if people needed any more indication of how stricken I am with the disease known as sports writing, I used my day off this week to fly to Malang and cover the Champions League match between Arema Indonesia and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of South Korea. The story is up now -- it wasn't too shabby for my first sports story since leaving Beijing, if I do say so myself.

It felt great to be back in my element, even if it took about 20 minutes of phone calls and asking directions to actually find the media entrance and my credential. I can wrap my head around formations, tactics and team finances far better than capital inflows, PE ratios and effective brand positioning. The Arema people were very helpful and even gave me a lift back to my hotel (which would've been an Rp 80,000 cab ride). Kanjuruhan Stadium is more than 20 kilometers outside of Malang, so the ride to the stadium included getting stuck behind a horse-drawn cart as well as the usual scourge of motorcycles and oversized trucks.

As for Malang's airport ... let's just say it makes the Grand Island airport look ultra-modern. There were two check-in lines (Garuda and Sriwijaya Air) that extended all of eight feet before they hit the X-ray machine. The boarding lounge/holding pen seats about three dozen people in rickety metal chairs. No complaints about the flights, thankfully -- Garuda feeds you, even on a 90-minute flight.

Arema hosts Chinese Super League side Shandong Luneng next month. I'm not sure if I'll press myself into service again, but just getting out of Jakarta was a good experience. I haven't had a proper vacation since July, when I moved to Beijing, but I have a cunning plan in place to make the next vacation one to remember.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

I feel sick

No, this is not an Asuka Langley Soryu tribute, though I could use a little Evangelion to clear my palate after today's news. This day — Selection Sunday — should be a day to celebrate, but I just can't.

Anyone who knows me or has taken a cursory glance through this blog knows how I feel about Japan. It has its shortcomings and its fair share of puzzling beliefs, but in spite of all that, I love the place. It's hard to put into words what it's like, but it just feels like a place I should be. Odd, I know, but consider the source.

As such, watching everything that's happened there since the massive earthquake that struck near Sendai has been heartbreaking. Being here and only able to watch the scenes of seemingly endless scenes of devastation is frustrating. I'm not a control freak, but I hate feeling so powerless. It's not as though I can ditch the job, fly to Japan, slap on a hazmat suit and lend a hand, so like so many others, all I can do is lend my financial and moral support. If you've happened across this blog, you want room 12A, just along the corridor I would strongly encourage you to do likewise.

Thankfully, despite the ongoing nuclear crisis, the news out of Japan isn't all bad. The LA Times offers up this slightly more light-hearted take on events, and this special report from Reuters pokes a hole in fears that Japan's debt-ridden economy may not recover from the disaster.
Researchers who have studied similar disasters in rich countries reach a reassuring conclusion: human resilience and resourcefulness, allied to an ability to draw down accumulated wealth, enable economies to rebound quickly from what seem at first to be unbearable inflictions - be it the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York or Friday's 8.9-magnitude earthquake, the worst in Japan's history.
Japan itself provides Exhibit No. 1 in foretelling the arc of recovery. A 6.8-magnitude temblor struck the western city of Kobe on January 17, 1995, killing 6,400 people and causing damage estimated at 10 trillion yen, or 2 percent of Japan's gross domestic product.
The importance of Kobe's container port, then the world's sixth-largest, and the city's location between Osaka and western Japan made it more significant for the economy than the more sparsely populated region where the latest quake and tsunami struck. Extensive disruption ensued, yet Japan's industrial production, after falling 2.6 percent in January 1995, rose 2.2 percent that February and another 1.0 percent in March. GDP for the whole of the first quarter of 1995 rose at an annualized rate of 3.4 percent.
It's a bit of a daunting read, but worth your time if you care about this issue. After the break, more esoteric and less pressing news that's still a bummer to me.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Coming Out

Today is International Women's Day -- the 100th edition, in fact. Not only that, it also happens to be Feminist Coming Out Day. It's a day to celebrate women, their accomplishments and their importance to society.

Doing that alone and putting a happy face on things would miss the point, though. Women's rights and the ongoing push for equality have come a long way from the Bad Old Days, but as this Guardian article reminds us, there is still so much more to do.
How, asked Michelle Bachelet, the first executive director of UN Women, would those "courageous pioneers" view the world today? "I suspect … with a mixture of pride and disappointment," she said in an address marking the anniversary.
Bachelet, the former Chilean president, chose to celebrate the day in Liberia with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first democratically elected female president in Africa. "The last century has seen an unprecedented expansion of women's legal rights and entitlements," Bachelet said. "The advancement of women's rights can lay claim to be one of the most profound social revolutions the world has seen.
"But despite this progress over the last century, the hopes of equality expressed on that first International Women's Day are a long way from being realised. Almost two out of three illiterate adults are women. Girls are still less likely to be in school than boys. Every 90 seconds of every day, a woman dies in pregnancy or due to childbirth-related complications."
Some countries put more stock in the day than others, of course. Small wonder unmarried women older than 30 are considered oddities in Russia.

If you're not in the mood for grim reading, how about some videos? This one is making the rounds on the Interwebs, and it's quite arresting.
Has James Bond ever paused to consider the rates of sexual assault of young girls going to school in the developing world? That's one of a number of startling questions posed by a new short film by the artist and director Sam Taylor-Wood, released to coincide with International Women's Day and starring Bond actors Daniel Craig and Judi Dench.
"We're equals, aren't we 007?" asks Dench as M, opening the film in voiceover, as Craig walks towards the camera. "Yet it is 2011 and a man is still likely to earn more money than a woman, even one doing the same job."
It is the only explicit reference to his role as Bond, though the film hints at some of the character's womanising ways in comparing his situation to that of a woman.
"As a man you are less likely to be judged for promiscuous behaviour, which is just as well, frankly ... There would be virtually no risk to your career if you chose to become a parent ... or became one accidentally. For someone with such a fondness for women, I wonder if you have ever considered what it might be like to be one?"
Also starring is the excellent Rebecca Watson (of Skepchick and Skeptics' Guide to the Universe fame). Her video lays out some of the issues facing women today, including this hideous bit of legislation in Texas, part of the revived "War on Women" by people who ostensibly believe in small government.

Frightening stuff. So what's a guy who supports women's rights and their freedom to choose to do when it seems the very fabric of society works against women? My thoughts after the break.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


I've commented on Uganda's abhorrent "Kill the Gays" bill before, so this is pretty welcome news if true (Hat tip to Rachel Maddow).

Stephen Tashobya, the Chair of the Parliamentary and Legal Affairs Committee in Uganda’s Parliament told me yesterday that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill may not be considered during this sesssion of Parliament.
By phone, Tashobya told me that the committee still has many important bills to get through and when asked about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, said, “I am not sure if we will get to that one now.”
Haven't seen any confirmation yet, but I really do hope this is true. State-sponsored bigotry has no place in the 21st century, despite all the attempts of the Indonesian government to repress the Ahmadiyah, women and anyone who doesn't subscribe to religion. I hope Uganda comes around, but it's probably only a matter of time before the Fundie Virus flares up again.