McCain Doomed?

A good article from the Wall Street Journal on why the media shouldn’t be so quick to call John McCain’s campaign doomed.
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Guns

Today’s Supreme Court decision confirming an individual’s right to own a gun, as protected by the Second Amendment, is a victory for every law abiding citizen in the United States. It also underscores the importance of electing a Republican to the White House later this year. The President’s greatest power, as it lasts far longer than his political term, is the power to nominate to the Supreme Court. Without a Republican in the Oval Office we would still have partial birth abortion and we wouldn’t be guaranteed the right to protect ourselves with firearms. If Obama wins the White House you better count your freedoms on day 1 and prepare to kiss them goodbye with his guaranteed appointement of liberal activist judges like those of the 9th Circuit Court of San Francisco.
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Religion in America

A somewhat-encouraging study on the state of religion in the United States...

The study was published by Pew Research today and has been widely commented on by a lot of writers and news people. I wish it was a little more comparative to the rest of the world, but it seems to be one of the most in-depth studies of religion in America done in a while.

On another subject, I’m back in the U.S. safe and sound, happy to be eating American food, breathing easier, speaking English, not being stared at constantly, and sleeping on a matress that doesn’t feel like a rock. Ahh the comforts of home! I’m sure I’ll post on my overall thoughts about my Asian excursion sooner or later, but for now I’m just unwinding and enjoying home.
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Zhongshan

We had one of the coolest experiences on the trip thus far this afternoon. After suffering through a terrible Chinese lunch (and later, a terrible Chinese dinner), we went to a toy factory. You can’t even imagine how excited these people were to host us.

First, they tried to find an American flag in the city. Obviously, there aren’t many Stars and Stripes floating around Communist China. So, when they couldn’t find one, they had one personally stitched up. It was flying over the building when we arrived, along with a huge “Welcome Georgetown University” banner. What a nice jesture. Then, after meeting the owner and all of the management, they set off about ten minutes worth of firecrackers to celebrate our arrival. Again, for the second day in a row, we felt way more important than we actually are.

The factory was an experience in itself. This factory, specifically, makes the Chick Fil-A cows, teenie Beanie Babies, the Coca Cola bears, and more. It was amazing to see all the labor that goes into these simple toys. The factory has 1000 employees, all of whom live in dormatories on site, who are sewing away almost all day long with each employee specializing in a small part of the toy (e.g. cutting the tags, stitching the seams, etc.). Honestly, it was yet another humbling moment on the trip. We really all are so blessed and lucky to live the lives that we do back in the U.S. Now obviously the factory wasn’t a sweat shop, but it certainly isn’t work that many Americans would put up with. Here, though, younger women and families travel hundreds of miles from rural China to get jobs like that, which pay US$320 per month for something like 264 hours a month. Quite the eye opener.

We’ve just been hanging around since then this evening. I think we’ve averaged only 4 to 5 hours of sleep a night over the last few nights, so we’re all beat. A quick note on Zhongshan- it’s completely different from what we saw in Beijing last month (wow, can’t believe that was over a month ago). There’s much more business, economy, and culture here. The city isn’t defined as much by drab buildings, choking smog, and Communist soldiers like the capital. I’m beginning to wonder if all the Eastern, coastal cities like this are also drastically different than West and Central China, where Beijing in located.

Thats all for now. Happy Father’s Day!
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Macau

We spent the day yesterday in Macau, which is a Special Administrative Region of China just like Hong Kong. It was an interesting place- certainly a mix of the East and the West, like Hong Kong, but in a completely different way. While HK was formerly a British colony, Macau was a colony of the Portugese. So, there is a distinct Mediterranean feel to the place. Personally, the houses and apartments with gated porches over the busy streets reminded me of Rome.

Macau is sort of going through an identity crisis, though. On the one hand, there is a lot of great culture there. We saw St. Paul’s ruins, a beautiful Mexican-built Catholic church downtown, and historic government buildings. But, on the other, Macau is the gambling capital of the East. In fact, Macau’s revenue was higher than that of Vegas’ last year. Giant, glitzy casinos shoot up from the ground all over the city. Most of the tourism now comes from this industry.

Anyways, we ate a great lunch on top of a spinning, needle building like the one in Toronto. It’s the longest building-bungee jump spot in the world. Afterwards we met with some of the management and marketers at the MGM Grand, which opened here six months ago. They treated us like kings (I think they thought we were more important than we actually are) with all sorts of appetizers and a fancy reception.

Then that night we trekked to the Venetian Hotel and Casino, which was beautiful. The hotel is massive, with an Italian courtyard-styled shopping center surrounded by rivers with gondolas. The ceiling is painted like a realistic daytime sky so you feel like you’re in Venice. I lost net HK$200 at the Ventian and moved onto the MGM Grand Casino next, which was 15 minutes away. The MGM Grand is a quieter, smaller casino, but still very nice. We played roulette and black jack there and I ended the night up HK$250 overall. It was a lot of fun. I can’t wait to check out Vegas someday to compare...
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Hong Kong

Man, time flies! It’s my second to last night here at the Horizon Suites in Hong Kong. I can’t believe how quickly the last few weeks have passed. The program isn’t over yet, though. We have a busy week ahead traveling in Mainland China.

On Saturday we head to Macau, a small, formerly-Portugese island off the coast of China. It currently stands as the Asian Las Vegas. During the day we’ll do a cultural tour of the city and then hear a presentation at the MGM Grand, where I’m sure we’ll spend the rest of the night (and pay off the trip, perhaps?). We then head to Zhongshan to visit a toy factory on Sunday. On Monday we visit the Zhongshan government officials and then head to Guangzhou in the evning, where we take tours of both a piano factory and Colgate’s largest China factory the next day. We spend the next few days in Shenzhen, which includes a visit to Wal-Mart on Wednesday, a jewelry factory and the supplier for Philips Electronics Thursday, and a city tour Friday. Then, we head back to Hong Kong by bus where we have our final dinner at a fancy restaurant that I’m eagerly awaiting. And finally, I fly out of Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific at 9:45 AM on Saturday! I land at JFK at 1:15 PM and will hopefully hop on a standby Jet Blue flight since my actual flight isn’t until 4:30 PM. Then it’s home at last!
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More Quotes

More quotes from my crazy Communist professor from class Thursday-

-"This is something that Communists can do. They can move people if they want. Chinese are obedient people"
-"We don't do corruption. For favors we set up scholarship funds for the politicians' children so that they can study in the States or we hire their children as 'consultants'"
-"Women are equal in China. You can be a general. All you have to do is sing and dance"
-On defending why women in the government are forced to retire at 55, while men must retire by 65, "I bet its about physical strength. You must be strong and need a killers instinct. Women are supposed to be gentle"
-On China's intellectual property rights (or lack thereof) and human rights issues, "In 1910 in the US I'm sure intellectual property rights weren't big when it was developing. In the 1800s I bet human rights weren't big in the US"
-"China emits 1/3 the pollution of the US. We have agreed to cut pollution, but the US won't agree. While you are arguing we are suffering"
-"We really have a good control on the population. People die, people go on"
-"If China falls, everything will fall. Hong Kong will too"
-"Being environmentally friendly requires a lot of captial. We're a developing country. You could buy a lot of Rolls Royces with the money it would cost". Me: "Yes, but didn't you just say you have over $1 trillion in US reserves? You could sure buy a whole lot of Rolls Royces with that". No response.
-On Communist bureaucracy and employment rules, "I can't fire this guy, so I just pay him 2-3,000 RMB per month to not come in. It's easier that way"
-"Don't worry about counterfeiting. It won't hurt you. They might someday be customers". Ya, tell that to P&G and clothing companies who have been crushed by fakes in China.
-"The courts are ignorant. If Hu Jintao told everyone to stop it, it wouldn't work"
-"You can't stop counterfeiting because there's a demand". I can assure you there's a demand for cheap luxury brands all over the world, yet its not so much a problem in any other country.
-"Lets drop the topic [intellectual property rights] until it can be solved. If you're doing something stupid, stop it"
-"If you're not lucky, you get shot. That's China"
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Philippines

So I just returned from the Philippines this evening after a long day of travel. I must say that Puerto Galera was one of the nicest places that I have ever seen- picture the Caribbean years before anyone discovered it and it became a tourist hub. Also, the people were some of the friendliest I've ever met. Countless people, from our transportation people to our waitress, went out of their way to make sure that we were headed in the right direction, weren't getting ripped off by anybody, and were enjoying our time in the Philippines.

We stayed in the town of Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro, which is about 5 hours outside of the capital city Manila. We slept in a hostel in the city overnight and caught an early jeepney (unfortunately I didn't get a picture of one, but they're like extended Jeeps that are used for transportation there) for a 3 hour ride towards the town of Batangas. From there we took a wooden boat for about an hour and a half through the beautiful islands and cliffs of the Philippines and landed at White Beach. We walked over to the beach next door, which we learned from tripadvisor.com (one of my new favorite websites) was much quieter.

We found a hotel that had been recommended online and rented a thatch hut on the beach for 1000 pesos a night (about $22 USD) that had two small twin beds, a fan, a single lightbuld hanging from the ceiling, and a bathroom with all sorts of critters, including a lizard that seemed to like the shower head (thus, we didn't shower the whole time we were there- eek). Talk about living on the edge! It was an experience, though, and it was definitely a great place to stay. There, we did exactly what I had wanted to do: pretty much nothing. Saturday we laid around on the beach and enjoyed the scenery and the weather (a nice break from ever-rainy Hong Kong). Sunday I slept in til 10:30, which is the latest I've slept this whole trip I believe, and then rented a boat to take us snorkeling off Coral Gardens, which was beautiful. I had never snorkeled off real coral before. After more laying around the beach for the afternoon we ate dinner at our favorite pizza place next door, Tutti Frutti, and packed up to head out the next morning.

Turns out we missed our boat this morning, so a local generously offered to drive us to the boat's next stop about 15 minutes away for a few dollars to cover his gas. Seeing the farms and the life away from the beach was worth missing the boat! And it just goes to show again how great the people were there. Also, Hong Kong likes to claim that it's the city where East meets West and English is spoken widely. But, this just isn't true. Here we were, on a small, far-away island, probably the only Americans for miles and miles, and everyone on the island spoke perfect English. That was a blessing in itself seeing that we were cell-phone and computer-less in case of emergency.

So, the Philippines was great. If you're ever in the neighborhood, stop by! Thanks to one of my high school teachers, Mr. Navarette, who is originally from the Philippines and gave us pointers on where to go. And finally,
check out the pictures (though they don't do the place justice).
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Part II

So we're midway through our two courses here at Chinese University of Hong Kong for the summer program. Because of this, we've received two new professors. Both are Chinese. However, they couldn't be more different from eachother. One is ardently pro-China (and probably the closest I've ever come to a Communist [other than my liberal friends back home]), while the other is fervently anti-China. We had the pro-China professor first at the beginning of the week and were shocked by his lecture. Throughout class we would frequently look at eachother with puzzled looks as he uttered a seemingly ridiculous statement. Most Hong Kong people feel a connection to China because of their Chinese roots and heritage, but strongly and publicly criticize the country for its communist ways. So, this professor was something totally different for us.

A few quotes that I wrote down from class:

-When questioned about the removal of residents for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam- "Let me rephrase some of what you said. They weren't kicked out of the Three Gorges. They were 'relocated'". (The girl who asked the question has been there and says that these people most definitely were not simply "relocated")
-On Tibetan protests- "We call them disturbances" (as opposed to politically grounded protests)
-"Mao famously said that if we can feed every person in China, we're doing well. We're feeding everyone these days"
-"China is doing well on pollution now. That might not have been the case for the last 30 years, but we're better now" (as we're all still recovering from our coughs from the Beijing pollution two weeks ago)
-"Guanxi (the Asian practice of forming relationships to do business) isn't corruption. It's nepotism" (Oh, okay then. Nepotism isn't
that bad)
-"LG is trying to buy GE" (I watch the news almost 24/7 and highly doubt I and all my classmates would have missed a story like that)
-"The Communists are lucky. They've picked the right people to lead this country since Mao. The politicians have been well-trained. You may be cynical and say his [Hu Jintao] earthquake reaction is for show. It's not. He cares"
-On China's low GDP per capita rate- "GDP per capita doesn't mean anything. We need to focus more on the rich"
-"There are 7,000 people in Tibet causing all this noise"

On the other hand, our second new professor started off class today (the anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square) with a reflection on the incident and the actions and deaths of students. He strongly criticized the response of the Chinese government over the past years and hammered them for covering up the facts. We brought up the fact that when you search "Tiananmen Square" from Google in China, nothing comes up. He also tore into China's economic policies and human rights violations.

A few of his quotes:

-"The logic of control for the Chinese government has not changed over the years. However, we see the power of the NGO's as change after the earthquake"
-"The office of propaganda won't let media publish reports of poor quality school buildings or coruption. It will only allow the publication of heroic military stories and rescues"
-"All countries find enemies. In China, the Chinese people are the enemies"
-"In China it doesn't matter which university your degree came from, only the type of degree" (regarding the effect of the Communist system on competition and hiring practices)
-"Fords and American cards last forever. Japanese cars fall apart after 10 years" (This isn't really anti-China. I just found it funny that his view of American cars was the exactly 180 degrees opposite of Americans' views)

Anyways, the second half of the term looks to be much more interesting than the first half class-wise as we will get the opportunity to see two radically different approaches to business and politics in Asia and China. As absurd as some of the first professor's rantings are, its interesting to see the other side of the story argued for the first time here in ultra-capitalist Hong Kong.
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Bangkok Excursion

On Friday evening myself and twenty-five others hopped on a 3 hour or so Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong to Bangkok, Thailand. We hopped in cabs (all brightly colored Toyota Corollas) from the airport and traveled to the Ramada Inn, which wasn't too far away. Tired from the week and the travel, we all crashed that night and went right to sleep.

The next morning we got up early for our first and only full day in the city. We quickly learned the ways of the city when a man walked up to us and offered to arrange a tuk-tuk (small motorcycle-like cabs that you can see in the photos) to take us to some of the sites. Of course right when we hopped in the tuk-tuks he demanded payment for his flagging down of the drivers. We got out and walked away.

We eventually haggled for about ten painful minutes to get a few tuk-tuks to take us down to the river where we were supposed to hop on a riverboat tour. Upon arrival, we were told that the tour would cost 500 baht per person (about $15 USD). We knew that was an absolute rip off, so we walked away here too. Of course the own came back out offering us 300 baht, but we knew that too was an unfair price. As we walked away, the hotel concierge appeared seemingly out of nowhere, very concerned that we were walking away from this place. "Where are you going!?" he exclaimed. He was clearly making a cut from what he thought to be ignorant American tourists. What kind of hotel has a concierge that is in it for personal gain? That was just the beginning of our experiences with the kickbacks and corruption in Thailand.

We eventually walked into the hotel lobby of a very expensive hotel in Bangkok that was nearby and pretended to be guests. We arranged a boat tour with their obviously less-crooked concierge for the 300 baht that was twice as long as the original one and went down a more favored route.

The boat ride itself was an incredible experience. We boarded these long, narrow wooden skiffs that were powered by what looked like 350 block Chevy engines exposed on the outside. The engines had a stick with a propeller attached to it that was used to navigate that shallow, polluted waters. Traveling down the main river we passed huge, rusted tankers rotting away on the shores and saw old ones in the process of being rehabilitated. We then turned into the "Thai villages" which were an astounding, though sad sight to see. The houses were shacks constructed of thin, rotting wood with tin roofs perched above the water by thin, also rotting wooden stilts. You could see right through all of the houses and view their dilapidated conditions. Many houses had rotted away and simply slipped into the river. Its a shame, looking back, that my pictures don't adequately capture the scene, as it was much more desperate than the images portray. The houses were flowered with hanging laundry and Thai flags and often had animals wandering on their decks or on the shores (Bangkok is filled with skinny, stray dogs and cats). Despite their situations, the residents always smiled and waved at us as we passed their houses. I was trying to think of what they think when they see us, wealthy Westerners "touring" their often-miserable situations. It was a humbling thought and moment. Regardless, they always seemed friendly. Perhaps that's why Thailand is nicknamed "Land of Smiles".

After running into an awesome Komodo dragon in the river (see pictures) we stopped for a half hour at a wild animal farm (another kickback, I'm sure) where a bunch of the kids with me saw a snake show and got a chance to have a monkey climb all over their shoulders. I didn't go in, but I hear there were tons of different exotic animals. PETA would have thrown a fit if they had seen the conditions, I'm told. Apparently there was a beautiful tiger kept in a tiny cage and other animals kept in similar conditions. Some of the pictures that my friends took are pretty hilarious, with huge snakes wrapped around some of the clearly-petrified girls.

We next stopped at the Temple of Dawn (another random 20 baht "docking fee") to see the impressive Buddhist structure. It was intricately designed with tens of thousands of small, colorful tiles and had some of the steepest steps I have ever seen. I tried to capture the steepness in the pictures, but it didn't totally work. I'm glad I made it to this temple as a 20 year old and not older. At the top incense was burning and a few Thai people were praying. The top offered a commanding view of the action on the river and the surrounding terrain.

We then landed at our final destination near the Royal Palace. We paid another docking fee and walked through a food market where at least 100 vendors were selling various foods on small stoves in the market. We saw all sorts of food that you wouldn't see back home. There was octopus, exotic fruits, chicken feet, etc. Once we made it through the market we were once again bombarded by thieves who would do anything to steal money from you. Thankfully, we had been warned beforehand not to be fooled by their ridiculous claims. A favorite of theirs is to claim that the palace is closed to foreigners until 3:30 (when the palace actually closes), so you should hop in a tuk-tuk of their friend and see some of the other sites (for a ridiculous fee). Then, you have people who try to tell you that you won't be allowed into the palace because you're wearing shorts (it was 95 degrees that day), so once again you should either abandon your trip or buy clothes from them. Of course they don't want you to know that the palace rents long pants for free to visitors not dressed appropriately. Two crooks even had the audacity to approach me right in front of a military guard at the gates of the palace. They were wearing jackets that said "Royal Palace Security" and told us that only Thai residents could enter the palace at the moment. One guy was even offended that I was apparently paying more attention to his partner in crime than he, and scolded me. All this right in front of the palace and a soldier. You can tell the Thai government is
really worried about all this corruption (not). I'm sure someone in the travel board is getting kickbacks from these thieves.

Once you enter the palace, there are finally signs posted on computer paper taped up with Scotch tape that warn you about the posers outside the gates. Gee, thanks for the advance warning. Anyways, once you enter the palace and rent the long pants, you really see its beauty. The grounds are perfectly manicured with flowers and trees. But the palace and temples themselves are the most impressive.
They are covered in brilliant gold and colored glass and have a royal aura to them. We removed our shoes to enter a few of the temples and view even more intricate Buddha monuments and statues inside (we also had to sit on the ground and make sure not to point our toes towards the Buddha. Also, no pictures). The entrance to the fee was a costly 250 baht ($10ish) and turned out to be one of our largest expenses, but we later realized that this was a good thing, as it priced the hawkers out of the palace and kept it peaceful. After seeing all the impressive buildings, statues, and a military march, we moved onto our next adventure.

For the rest of the day we haggled and sometimes fought for tuk-tuks around the city to various Buddha statues and sites. At one time a few of the tuk-tuks passed a huge protest (10,000 people according to the papers the next day) against the military that I was bummed to miss. Oh yea, I forgot to mention that the day before we left the Wall Street Journal reported that a military coup was imminent that weekend, as the military was angry that a member of the democratically elected government insulted the King, whom the military serves. Also, the people were protesting the military's attempt to amend the constitution to give greater power to itself, angering the democratically-minded people. So, like they did a few years ago, there were calls in the military to overthrow the "troublesome" democratic government. The day we left the newspapers announced that a deal had been reached after the democratic government apologized for insulting the king and the leader stepped down. I don't think the issue regarding the constitution has been solved yet, though. Now wouldn't that have been excited to see a coup!

After that we had Thai dinner (much better than Catonese Chinese food- sorry Clem) and again crashed at the hotel for the night.

The next morning my room and a few others accidentally slept in, so the groups were smaller. We only had the early afternoon since we had to leave for the airport by 3, so we bargained for a cab to take us to the summer market. Now, the cabs are all fitted with meters. But, of course, the drivers refuse to use the meters. Originally we caught a cab at the hotel with the help of a bellboy who demanded a meter. We hopped in and took off. After about 5 minutes, the driver turned around and said "no meter, 250 baht". He eventually backed off to 150 baht, but this was still ridiculous and we refused. So, he kicked us out of the cab on the side of the road. After haggling with three more taxis, we got one who would take us there for 100 baht. Victory!

The summer market was a huge fairground that was filled with hundreds of vendors selling rip-off clothing and other products like pottery, toys, pets, etc. Seeing all the clothing was pretty funny, though it reminds us of how serious the intellectual property rights issue is in Asia. Most of the clothes were of obviously low quality and had Ralph Lauren or Lacoste logos sloppily ironed or stitched onto them. But, they were only $1 or $2 US dollars. It was funny (disturbing?) to see that a ton of stores sold US Military clothing. There was no shortage of US Marines, Navy, SEALS, etc. clothes for sale. I didn't buy anything because I'm trying to save space in my suitcase for the way home, but looking back it might have been cool to own a $1 Polo shirt!

Finally, we found a cab driver that would use the meter (imagine that!) to take us to the airport that afternoon and we departed Bangkok at 6 that night.

Do I regret trip? No way. It was cheap and an incredible experience to see such a different culture and country, regardless of how frustrating the haggling and corruption was. Would I go back? Ehh, I've probably had enough of Thailand for the next 15 years or so. The country is becoming a hotspot of foreign direct investment, though, with hundreds of factories popping up every year as China slowly becomes more expensive. It will be interesting to see the development that this new industry brings to this country in the coming years.

Alright we're off to meet with Intercontinental Hotels in a few minutes. I'll try to get back on later tonight to write about more interesting experiences we've had this week with our new professors. Good night (US time)!
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Thailand

Bangkok pictures are up. It's been a hectic week, but I promise I'll finally have my post about our weekend in Thailand tomorrow afternoon (HK time!)...
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