Monday, February 21, 2011

A Nation on His Shoulders

It is Presidents' Day in the United States, when we traditionally honor the birth of George Washington, the so-called Father of our country. I find myself drawn to the kind of quiet strength he is said to have possessed. At the tender age of 20, due to the premature deaths of his brother and sister-in-law, he found himself executor of the expansive Mount Vernon estate. By the age of 23, he was commander of all Virginia troops in pre-revolutionary America. The striking thing is that, not unlike the case of King David, these were not necessarily positions to which young George aspired.

In the excellent TV mini-series, John Adams, Washington, adeptly played by David Morse, assumes the office of first president of the United States with a healthy dose of fear and trepidation. The scene of his swearing in, which I share with you now, will forever be burned into my memory:

Whatever your political persuasion, it is my hope that we all grasp with sobriety the gravity of such an oath of office.
My question for you to respond to: do we expect too much of the president, whoever he may be?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Nation Reborn...but What Now?

It was hard not to get caught up in the euphoria of the historic turn of events of the past two and a half weeks in the ancient land of the Nile. Egypt, for the first time in thirty years, was catching a glimpse of self-government. As the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square and in Alexandria swelled to the hundreds of thousands, the world was enrapt with the drama unfolding. At this writing, embattled President Hosni Mubarak has been taking refuge in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for two days, having stepped down from office after three decades of autocratic rule. After days of mixed signals, the entire country erupted into one giant street party at the announcement that Mubarak had definitively left office.

Americans and many other democracy-loving Westerners rejoiced with the Egyptian people. The Obama administration, pressed from all sides, scrambled to come up with the appropriate response to the break-neck pace of events. The result was a series of statements that would confuse anyone -- suddenly an ally of thirty years is being thrust from office by a popular revolt by masses demanding, of all things, democratic reform, the very foundation of the American nation. Even the most seasoned diplomats would be hard pressed to take a consistent stand without angering someone.

I was no exception to those thrilled at the result of nothing short of a revolution carried out almost entirely peacefully. I cannot help being moved by the words and tears of Wael Ghoneim, marketing director of Google Egypt. And speaking of Google, what makes this revolution all the more historic and remarkable is that it is the first uprising of its size to be carried out largely via the internet, and specifically social media. Truly a cultural statement of our time -- in spite of the fact that only 20% of Egyptians have internet access at home.

In the words of a young Egyptian internet entrepreneur, however, approximately one million of Egypt's 80 million people came out to the public squares to demonstrate. What about the other 79 million? Were the protesters speaking for the majority? Did the majority of Egyptians want such a swift transition that no one has any idea how the nation is going to go about forming a viable, healthy democracy? Has Egypt exchanged dictatorial law for marshall law in the struggle for self-direction? While the Tahrir Square masses have the sympathy of most Westerners (and other Arab governments squirming), the next days, weeks and months will determine the wisdom of such extreme demands. The road between here and free and fair elections, presently slated for September, will be frought with challenges, uncertainty, and hopefully, level-headedness.

What is happening before our eyes is not simply a political revolution, but also a cultural and sociological one. And at this point, it's hard to get anyone on Tahrir Square to think past the present exhilarating thought of a new Egypt, whatever it may look like.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Year of the Rabbit

I had the privilege last night of being a panelist at the Tennessee Chinese Chamber of Commerce educational forum, a bimonthly gathering that fosters business and cultural partnerships between the state of Tennessee and the most populous nation in the world. China is Tennessee's third largest trading partner, behind Canada and Mexico. It happened that the meeting fell on the Chinese New Year, which is no small occasion. Every year, over 230 million urban Chinese migrant workers buy train tickets to return to their towns and villages to celebrate the New Year. If they only get to see their families once a year, it is at New Year's. This is the largest human migration on the planet -- and it takes place every year. I was recently invited to a screening of a documentary that follows one family's harrowing journey and some of the painful dynamics of migrant family relationships. Read about Last Train Home here
Houses are thoroughly swept to sweep away any misfortune and make room for good luck. Windows and doors are decorated with red cutouts and poems that speak of blessings, happiness and longevity. Families gather to feast on the Eve of Chinese New Year, ending the evening with fireworks. The next morning, children rise to wish their parents a happy and healthy new year and in turn receive red envelopes with money in them.
The Tennessee Chinese Chamber of Commerce was founded by Dr. Ming Wang, a renowned pioneer in lasik eye surgery and a prominent member of the Nashville community. Stay tuned for my interview with Dr. Wang, a fascinating and multi-faceted individual.

Still to come -- other fascinating tidbits about the waking giant that will be an ever-increasing part of our lives, and an inevitable daily presence in the lives of our children.