What Are You Looking At? – An Essay on the Importance of Perspective

“No, Donny, these men are nihilists — there’s nothing to be afraid of.” (The Big Lebowsky, 1998)

Imagine you’re standing in the center of a large warehouse in pitch blackness. While it is so dark that you cannot see, you have an understanding that the room is not in any way ordinary — it has been imbued with a magic that allows representations of everything in existence to be stored within it in vast rows of organized shelves. It contains toys and weapons, delicacies and poison, fascinating mysteries and the drudgingly commonplace, loved friends and sworn enemies, Windows 7 and Windows ME, Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters (2016), and so on for a near eternity. However, you wouldn’t be able to see any of this in the darkened room at all, save for one trusty tool you find in your hand — a flashlight.

It’s quite a powerful flashlight, but the warehouse is so large that you can only see two or three sections of the warehouse at a time. When you examine the toy section, you find yourself feeling joyful as you pick up the playthings of your childhood and adolescence. As you shine your light on the section labeled “Conflict” and walk through its many shelves, you feel your gut fall into a dark void of hate, despair, and loss. Stumbling along, you find the “Love” section, and the dark void in your stomach is replaced by the warm glow of connection. You feel at peace.

In this allegory, the warehouse is your universe, and the flashlight your perspective from which to view it. The subject at hand is the way in which we view the world, and my purposes are to impress upon you its importance while also providing a method of crafting an optimal perspective.

Although it might seem long-winded to explain what may appear to be a simple word, I would like to first define the word “perspective” itself. It is critical to define its meaning for this essay, because our perspective is quite literally our reality: It is the seat from which we captain our ship. It is the sum total of the values, beliefs, and understanding a person holds in their mind at a given moment. It is also a closely linked to one’s own hierarchy of values, and thus any change to our values will shift our perspective (and vice versa).

While it happens that value hierarchies and the perspectives they generate are commonly found as part of classically identified ideologies (pre-packaged value/belief systems), they can also be encountered everywhere else from internet memes to literature. Unfortunately for us, because our perspectives are the product of a vast number of conscious and subconscious processes, it is very easy to let something influence us. To illustrate, let’s say we are having a bad day and we come across a faux-Folgers advertisement that says “The best part of waking up… Is when you don’t wake up”. Oof. Yeah, we chuckle, and we think we move on to the next thing — but by our implicit agreement with that sentiment, we allow a bit of that fatalistic negativity to subconsciously influence our perspective, tinging it just one shade darker. The reason so many of us struggle with unhealthy perspectives in the digital age may be the same reason many of us still eat fast food on occasion — when we’re in a rush and feel we need something now, our subconscious finds adopting a pre-packaged perspective irresistibly simple.

Some common pre-packaged perspectives today might include cynicism (disbelief in the altruism of others), pessimism (an imbalanced focus on negatives over positives), nihilism (rejection of higher meaning and shared values), or any one of dozens of black and white sociopolitical dichotomies. Don’t get me wrong; it’s entirely understandable that many people are cynical, pessimistic, or nihilistic these days, and there are undeniable benefits to these perspectives: a cynic is rarely disappointed in others. A pessimist is rarely surprised by bad news. A nihilist is freed from the burdens of moral consequence and responsibility. So what is the problem with adopting one of these broad, negative perspectives?

A perspective that’s simple and easy to understand has downsides. Just as a sizzling burger and piping-hot fries might satisfy at the time but leave us deeply regretful later, the long-term effects of a “fast-food” perspective, one that makes overly broad generalizations or logically inconsistent judgements about groups or entities, is far from optimal. For a nihilist, the benefit is also the drawback: if nothing matters, then everything is meaningless — so why continue living? For a pessimist, the continued focus on the negative side of everything is strongly linked to increased stress, anxiety, and negative health outcomes. For someone who uses a black/white dichotomy such as victim/oppressor, what may seem initially like a quick and easy way to know who and what is “good” and “bad” will quickly devolve into logical incoherence and schism once a complex issue is examined in detail.

Thus, the criteria for constructing a perspective shouldn’t just be whether or not it is accurate, but also whether it is beneficial. That is to say, a logically coherent perspective is objectively more useful than one that is logically incoherent because it will provide more accurate predictions, but a coherent perspective that also provides more benefits than another is clearly the optimal choice. It only makes sense that we should curate the perspective that will result in the best outcome for us — but what is “best”, anyway?

The concepts of “good”, “better”, or “best” imply comparison between two or more entities, where one thing is subordinate in desirability to another (see: value hierarchy). These judgements are based on the current situation one is experiencing. As Maslow’s hierarchy of needs demonstrates, when one is suffocating, air is better than water; when one is dying of thirst, water is better than food. So, what is best is determined by what we attribute the most value to in our circumstances — and that means this is something we must decide for ourselves based on our objectives and values.

We must try different perspectives to construct an optimal one. We must ask ourselves what we value and what our objectives are in our current state. Part of being human is trying out different things and seeing if we like it. In our early childhoods, we may value the love and validation of our parents, then the acceptance of our peers. As we get older, we may change to value the acceptance of a romantic interest, saving a targeted amount of money, or achieving certain professional goals. As we get older still, we may value more and more concepts such as love, understanding, or connection (perhaps these are all one and the same?). 

Ask yourself: What do I value most highly in life? What are my objectives? The perspective you choose should be the one that bears the most fruit. So now, allow me to return you to the darkened warehouse of my opening allegory, flashlight in hand.

Where do you choose to look?

Douglas Black is a Writer, Business Analyst, Lecturer, DJ/Producer, and amateur psychologist. He can be reached on his LinkedIn.

Common Documentation Problems & Solutions

We tend not to know the value of something until it’s gone, and that’s especially true for documentation. But how much does a lack of documentation really cost?

Let’s say that a given organization has eight new workers across all its departments. For the first three months of work, I estimate anywhere between 25-50% of those workers’ billable hours will be spent acclimating to existing systems and procedures and preparing their work environments for development. At an average rate of $45 per hour, that comes to a cost of $43,200 – $86,400 spent on acclimation in those first three months — and that’s that’s just for the new hires. Across all departments and systems, how many hours will the Operations & Maintenance teams spend working with systems each year? What about during a crisis? If there’s limited, inaccurate, or, even worse, no documentation, how many thousands of additional hours are being spent on getting up-to-speed across any given organization each year? In a small organization with 10 employees, roughly $45,000 will be lost each year due to a lack of documentation, and that scales upwards: without sufficient documentation, an organization with 100 employees will lose $450,000 per year; one with 1000 employees will lose $4,500,000 per year, and one with 3000 employees will lose $13,500,000 per year.

While cutting costs on documentation sounds at first like it’s trimming the fat, the reality is that a lack of documentation will slowly bleed an organization dry.

This article gives a brief overview of some of the most common problems an organization or individual might have with documentation and suggests an approach to fix it.

Problem: You don’t know who has the documentation for a system or application, or what you have is out-of-date.

Solution: Use a central repository for all documentation. Bonus points if it has some kind of version control: this could be SharePoint, OneDrive, Git, Confluence, or Wiki, but what really matters most is that it is SOP that all documentation from your department or organization goes to it. It should be organized intuitively and maintained regularly.

Problem: You aren’t sure where to get the right version of a required application or developer library.

Solution: Create a file repository on the same server as your central document repository. Organize all those different versions of Adobe, Apache, and Oracle apps (not to mention developer libraries!) in a way that’s logical for its purpose, which could mean bundling the files with the associated installation guides, or organize them by product. The most efficient method should be chosen according to the most common use-cases.

Problem: You find yourself having to open documents to figure out what they are.

Solution: Organize and name documents logically and consistently, and be sure to maintain this organization —it won’t help if you only use it for some documents but not others.Keep them hierarchical folder structure that is appropriate for your needs. Name your documents according to content, purpose, date, or any other criteria that you or others may be looking for. Just as an example, you might name your files according to the following format: <project name> – <document purpose> – <draft status>.docx. It may seem a bit basic, but you’d be surprised to see the jumbled file names on documents that get sent up to the very top (or from the top!) of a company or agency.

Problem: It takes too much time to find the information you need within your documentation

Solution: First, use MS Word’s Multilevel List feature to organize content in documents under clearly defined headings (plus, you can then quickly promote/demote the importance of a section using tab/shift + tab, which makes formatting much more time-efficient). Second, use Word’s auto-generated Table of Contents feature. This will generate a clickable ToC based on the headings in your document. You can make your documents even more convenient to navigate by using Word’s “Cross-Reference” feature, allowing a selection of text to be linked to another section anywhere in the document. Even better, all these interactable features will persist despite converting a DOCX to a PDF.

Another feature that helps save time is including a purpose section near the top of the document (usually near the introduction), so that readers can quickly determine if the document they are looking at is going to be useful to them.

Problem: You have documentation, but people have difficulty understanding and following it

Solution: There could be a few reasons for this, and I’ll go through the most likely culprits here. Firstly, the right medium needs to be chosen based on the message. Is the information a set of inputs/outputs and return codes for an API? It probably should be put in a table. Is it a list of database entities and their relationships? Make an Entity Relationship Diagram with a diagram or drawing app. Is it an introduction to the project including its history? It should probably be written in paragraph form and in chronological order.

And speaking of writing in paragraph form, this brings us to the next solution: make sure the information is organized in a logical and accessible way for your audience, i.e., the right level of background information and context is being provided. If it’s a Systems Design Document, it will be fairly technical, but if it’s an O&M guide, someone who was hired a week ago should be able to understand and follow it. But how can we write in a way that’s more logical and accessible? I’m glad you asked!

Generally speaking, information in writing should be presented from the most general first and get progressively more specific as it continues. One of the best tools to help writers understand this concept is what’s known as “the inverted pyramid model”

The inverted pyramid is a generalized model used for many different genres of writing, but the guiding principles of “general information -> specific information” and “more important -> less important” hold true regardless of whether one is writing an essay, news article, or technical documentation. If your article’s overall outline as well as the information in each paragraph follows this model, it will almost certainly be more digestible and easier to follow for readers of all levels of familiarity with the subject matter.


If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, and that’s why just having documentation isn’t enough — it needs to be available, up-to-date, logical, organized, and understandable.

I hope these tips have been useful for you or your Technical Writer. If you have any questions or comments related to this article or writing documentation, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn.

It’s Not Left vs. Right, it’s Control vs. Free Will

“The two-party system really sucked, but this one-party system is completely f**cked.”

This post is spurred by the feeling that a lot of people who mostly know me through my social media think that I’m “drifting right”. I would say that my life experiences over the past decade (particularly the last 3 years going from the takeover of Hong Kong to the preposterous shenanigans of living with COVID in the USA) have very much pushed me to highly value individual liberties.

Obviously, pure libertarianism isn’t a great idea because we need some degree of civil servantry to help those who are unable to help themselves and provide a degree of medical care and welfare, but seeing the reality of what happens to people once they have been completely disempowered by their government, the very people who are supposed to serve them, has made me extremely wary of any structures of power that create a power imbalance.

The problem with a power structure that has no oversight is that even if it starts off functioning well because its filled with good people, eventually those good people will move out and bad, power-seeking people will move in. See: American politics, Hong Kong, and just about everywhere greedy, corrupt, power-seeking ghouls seek control over others that infringes human rights. When that happens, there are a few recourses:

1) People can vote (this was denied to Hongkongers);

2) People can protest (this was denied to Hongkongers);

3) People can speak out against oppression (this was denied to Hongkongers);

4) People can physically fight back against oppression (this was denied to Hongkongers. You couldn’t even buy a laser pointer there).

Watching that happen to my adopted home was and is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to endure. I feel dirty even writing that, because that’s absolutely nothing compared to those who were born there and had families and had nowhere else to go, or the so many who were raped, tortured, or murdered there because they protested for freedoms Americans and many others take for granted.

I realized that at the end of the day, we must not outsource our responsibilities to anyone else ⁠— be they government, personal, or otherwise. “The government will take care of it” is just a euphemism for “somebody else will take care of it”. No ⁠— we are responsible for ourselves, and if we outsource that responsibility, we simply move the burden to others.

As I grew up in an extremely progressive anti-gun home (in an extremely privileged and safe area during an equally privileged time, I should add), I somehow knew nothing else about them other than they enabled murders and would just “go off”, killing family members accidentally on a regular basis. Watching the complete disempowerment of people in China and Hong Kong first hand made me realize that having a population with the ability to defend itself is absolutely crucial to the preservation of a free society and to keep people safe from government overreach.

This isn’t meant to be a 2A post, however: I want to draw people’s attention to the major trends that have been occurring worldwide over the past 25 years of internet and technological development. I’m not talking about Mr. Potatohead, Starbucks logos changing, or confusing pronouns:

1) Massive expansion of unconstitutional, unethical, and dangerous surveillance power. A lot of this was granted via the Patriot Act, which was perhaps the biggest American blunder of the 21st century even considering Iraq and Afghanistan.

2) Increasing corruption in politics, leading to a resurgence of power-hungry, dishonest, career politicians who do not have your best interests at heart. How many millionaires are currently serving in congress?

3) Increasing domestic instability as a result of international factors (social media manipulation by China/Russia, COVID-19) as well as domestic ones, such as social media, disconnection, lockdown, divisive domestic politics, corporate overreach, lack of purpose/values, family cohesion, etc.)

4) Increasing international instability, including an expanding totalitarian China fighting to create a new global order, financing of cartels in Mexico, and using those cartels to destabilize Mexico and the US. At the same time, people and the mainstream media take a blind eye to our southern neighbour and our border. You do not want the cartels operating in America, but they already are.

5) A major increase in authoritarianism within the US. While Facebook, Twitter, and Google, et al. have long embraced censorship whenever it aligned with their own political/financial interests, 2021 has been marked by increased censorship pushed by the administration via threatening of tech giants with anti-trust action. The results of the administration’s pressure have already manifested in Google’s changes to their ad policies (the financial backbone of much of the internet), the White House directly flagging posts for Facebook to remove, and Apple adding a backdoor to its encryption. And they are far from done.

6) The global trend is a massive push from the ruling class and those who serve them to control the citizenry using technology, automation, and propaganda (media that favors advocacy over truth). Much of this has been pioneered by China, and autocrats and technocrats everywhere, including the USA, have been eyeing China’s iron-clad control over its subjects with envy.

The above is far from an exhaustive list; I didn’t even bring up climate change and the destruction of our environment, but my point is that people don’t trust authority for good reason: it’s shown itself time and time again to be untrustworthy. When people don’t trust authority, they are rightfully less willing to give up their responsibilities to authority. We know that the police don’t have the manpower, willpower, or funding to be there right when you need them. Nobody is coming to save you. You need to be your own rescuer.

What gives me hope is that it seems that more and more people are waking up to the overt manipulation by legacy media, which seems to serve mostly as a mouthpiece for the ruling class (political and business elite). Even Americans who still subscribe to the partisan narrative that the real enemy is the other half of America rather than the corrupt and power-hungry elite are starting to realize that authoritarianism is a double-edged sword, and when they seek to cancel others, those same powers are quickly turned back on them.

To paraphrase an anonymous and sagely YouTube comment, “the two party system really sucked, but this one party system is completely fucked.” I hope people are starting to realize that they have ⁠— and have always had ⁠— the tools within them to learn and make their own choices that are best for them. We can’t keep outsourcing these decisions and rights to those who have done nothing but drive the world into the ground and hope that maybe this time, this time, things are somehow going to be different and our problems will be solved.

The reality is that most problems are almost entirely only capable of being solved by ourselves as individuals and communities. And most of those problems aren’t even external; they are our own insecurities, weaknesses, and biases. We should all start by endeavoring to solve our own problems, and once we do that, we can start to take responsibility for things beyond our own body and work to improve our local communities and beyond.

Happy Independence Day!

Happy 4th of July/Independence Day!

Independence Day serves as a reminder of how good big escapist Hollywood movies used to be.

It’s also a reminder of what the principles of America were meant to be, and that we should hold these ideals in high regard and attempt to live up to them, just like we looked up to Will Smith when he punched that alien in its stupid face.

These are what I think one needs to believe to be “American”:
1) All people have equal inherent worth as human beings, and no person is worth any more or less than any other, regardless of income, race, or any other surface-level characteristic.

2) Freedom is an inherent fundamental human right.

3) If you want something, work hard at it and don’t give up

4) Do what is morally right, even at great personal sacrifice

Is this always the reality of America? Of course not, especially now. There are hundreds of millions of people living in America. But we create reality through the sum of our collective beliefs and actions, and as Michael Jackson once probably said, “if you believe something, you’ll make it real! Sha-mon!”.

Believing in what America sometimes is and could be is what makes someone American in my book. You don’t need to be born in the US or even an American citizen to be “American”. In fact, the most American people I know come from places like the Congo, Mali, Afghanistan, Iran, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and others. Conversely, some of the most un-American people I know were born in America.

So, to all “Americans” out there, have a happy independence day, and never give up on your ideals.
…Now lets go grab the most powerful explosives we can legally obtain and go blow some shit up. 😎

Garbage In, Garbage Out

I was recently attempting to explain to a reddit-addicted friend why she should be more judicious with her content consumption. I reasoned that we are all literally and figuratively what we consume: our physical body can only be made of what we feed it, and psychologically and intellectually, we are the media we consume. Thus, I told her, there is no way around the unfortunate fact that, well… “garbage in, garbage out”.

Most of us are aware that when we eat a 500g bag of corn snacks fried in partially-hydrogenated palm oil, it’s bad for us. It’s notable because we physically feel bad, and we can connect the behaviour of eating that item with the subsequent effects of lethargy, indigestion, and poor physical performance. Long term, we know that it will raise our chances of pathology and disease. There’s even a kind of shame and self-deprecation associated with eating such unhealthy foods.

Yet, there’s very little comparable awareness of the consumption of intellectual garbage. Most of the internet content mills that are most financially successful have become so by serving up heaping portions of nonsense as a result of the new “anything-for-clicks” business paradigm, and so, for many of us, we’ve become accustomed to a mental diet of rubbish. Whether its a certain sub-reddit post, HuffingtonPost editorial, or Breitbart article, many of us have been consuming content just for the memes (90-day fiancé, anyone?) or to pass time and stave off boredom. But it’s not harmless.

There is a real danger that consuming media mindlessly, uncritically, and without context is causing. The causal chain of events partially responsible for our world becoming an intellectual desert goes something like this:

1. We read something that appears to be true, but is actually not 100% factually correct. It may be an editorial masquerading as expository journalism, or perhaps of subjective emotional interpretations as objective fact. It is likely from a source we have decided to trust information from (a logical fallacy, the argument from authority).

2. When it fits our biases, we share it.

3. Other people see it, and they believe it is true because they have seen that it came from an “authority”.

4. What would have once been identified and rejected as a non-truth becomes our reality, simply because we believe it to be true.

5. We manifest this garbage into reality through our assumptions, expressed in our thoughts and actions.

So, that’s the ‘how’, but it doesn’t excuse the why: I don’t have time to read every article in the world nor eat everything on the menu, but if I’m going to eat something, I’m at least going take the time to look at it and smell it to make sure it’s not a treat from my rabbits — and then properly taste and chew it should it pass the test. The bottom line is that if you’re on social media sharing things, then you do have time to actually read what you’re sharing and critically examine it to make sure it’s not just a bunch of shit. If you’re reading reddit to try and figure out how to improve your love life, you need to contextualize that information and parse it yourself before you mentally flag everything you read as a “fact”. Start by familiarizing yourself with established logical fallacies. Think about what the author has to benefit. If you have time to be on social media, you have time to use your brain and critically examine information.

Don’t believe anything because you trust the person who said it. Don’t believe anything I just wrote in this post is true because I wrote it. I’m nobody, and even if I wasn’t, who I am has no bearing on my arguments, anyway. Arguments must stand on their own merits and withstand questioning. All people make mistakes and miscalculations.

When you read something and it because you carefully thought about the arguments and evidence laid out, and then if your brain “clicks” and it makes sense, then believe it. The greatest and most dangerous logical fallacy of all is to believe anything without checking it yourself.

We are, literally and figuratively, what we consume. Our bodies are comprised of the elements and nutrients we intake. Psychologically and intellectually, we are the experiences we have, the media we consume. And the world itself is comprised of all of our realities.

What kind of world are we reinforcing with our intakes? Is it the one you want to live in, or is it the one that outrages you? Memes in, memes out. Hate in, hate out. Ideology in, ideology out.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Deus Ex Hong Kong

April 28, 2021

I have a lot of dreams about Hong Kong. Mostly nightmares. Variations on a theme.

The other night, I dreamed that I found myself back in my adopted home of Hong Kong again, walking on the familiar streets of central Hong Kong Island with friends.

I was immediately anxious. It wasn’t the nostalgic Hong Kong of my happiest memories I was in. It was still 2021, and Beijing’s National Security Law had already been implemented. Hong Kong was firmly a de-facto police state swarming with plainclothes and Mandarin-speaking riot police. I didn’t know how long I had been there, but I knew I needed to leave as soon as possible.

Before I could react, the next thing I knew we had been stopped by three jittery-eyed young policemen kitted-out in full riot gear and carrying submachineguns, their aura burning with blind intensity. They corralled us into an alley and demanded to see our Hong Kong IDs. My blood ran cold; I knew I would be arrested, and I had two or three guesses of what would happen after that. I had violated the new National Security Law by criticizing the Chinese state dozens of times after it was passed, meaning they would at least have an ostensibly legal justification to disappear me and do as they wished. Law or no law, I had been under some level of surveillance in the real world at least as early as June of 2019 after writing some articles about Huawei. I waited, defeated, under the hazy neon lights of the street signs above me as the young officer scrutinized his tablet. I was sure that my name and face would come up in their system, and that would be it.

They had any number of justifications under the newly established Chinese legal framework, and that’s all they’d need to arrest and disappear me into the grey jails within Hong Kong such as Pik Uk, where Amnesty International found conclusive evidence of torture — or worse, the opaque gulags of the Mainland under the guise of “following the course of justice in China“. I might have once been afforded special treatment as a foreigner in Hong Kong in 2018, but as I had been advised, those days were over. Would I mysteriously fall off a building like HKUST student Alex Chow Tsz Lok? Probably not. Held in a small windowless room in Beijing as a bartering piece? As the magic eight-ball would say, ‘all signs point to yes’. The officer with the tablet looked up and whispered something to his colleague.

The officer handed our IDs back, which I grabbed with a flood of relief. He told us to avoid meeting in groups and to stay home. I next found myself at the airport boarding a flight out of HK.

My own personal nightmare, at least, ended.

A flash pro-democracy protest in my local mall in Tai Po, a frequent occurrence in mid-late 2019. (Video credit: own)

But I recently had another dream about Hong Kong. In it, I was surrounded by friends and students, old and new. The mood was festive and lighthearted as we talked and joked in Cantonese, ate noodles and other food in a market late into the night. We were in Hong Kong — but it was not the Hong Kong where I spent much of my adult life since 2011. I knew somehow it was another Hong Kong. It wasn’t just the buildings with neon signs, but the atmosphere: all the bustling streets and vivaciousness of Hong Kong, but without the oppression, “suicides”, and fear. A Hong Kong where Hongkongers could keep their culture alive and be optimistic for the future.

An early, optimistic student protest at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) where I worked. A few months later, HKUST student Alex Chow Tsz-lok, would mysteriously fall from the fifth story of the parking garage of his home residence in the presence of riot police. According to witnesses at the scene, the police beat and blocked paramedics who attempted to treat Chow. He died in a hospital days later. (Video credit: own)

While Hong Kong’s neon lights and incredibly varied topography — city, mountains, towns, villages, forest, and ocean packed into just over 1100 square kilometers — are indeed some of the features that made Hong Kong so special, the dream made me realize that Hong Kong is much more than its physicality.

Hong Kong is hot and fresh wonton soup made from scratch, served by a smiling auntie who remembers your usual order. It’s hot milk tea and macaroni ham soup for breakfast. It’s cold beer and fresh seafood on the street with friends on a hot August night. It’s Cantonese slang and inside jokes; the way diu said just the right way says everything that needs to be said. It’s accidentally dropping a few hundred dollars (or even your whole wallet) in the middle of the most hectic rush hour and having multiple people chase after you to give it back. It’s long, quiet walks home at 4am after dancing the night away without a thought about safety.

Hong Kong is having the exhausted person next to you on the bus “go fishing” and fall asleep onto your shoulder, and you try not to wake them, because you understand their struggle. It’s how the tiny bar you frequent is a home away from home, and the owner looks after you like your own mother. It’s the way nearly two million people can protest with seemingly superhuman politeness. It’s the character of a people who have experienced so much change and hardship, who work 60 or more hours a week to make ends meet in one of the most competitive environments on Earth, yet still find the time to be warm and welcoming to you. To put one foot in front of the other and be decent, no matter what.

Freshly made wonton noodle soup from my local cha-caan teng, or “tea restaurant”. (Photo credit: own)

Hong Kong may be breathing its last breaths under the Chinese Communist Party, but the ethos of what it means to be a Hongkonger can’t be killed by physical oppression or by making ideas illegal. Police and military can occupy its streets, turn its school curriculum to propaganda, but Hongkongers are more hardy than that.

Protest graffiti under a bridge in Tai Po, 2019. (Photo credit: own)

With new immigration pathways to Canada, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, more and more Hongkongers are leaving what was once their home and creating a new one. With any luck, the diaspora may reestablish vibrant communities, continue practicing their language and culture, and keep the character of Hongkongers alive.

Hong Kong isn’t a place; it’s a people.
Hong Kong is dead; long live Hong Kong.

Douglas Black is Writer for Pole Star Defense, Senior Editor, Lecturer, DJ, and music producer. He lived in China, Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia-Pacific from 2007-2019.

Expat Failures Where It’s Impossible to Fail, Vol I: The ‘Going-Out’ Shirt

Writer’s note: I wrote this in 2014 while living in Bangkok, basing it on nightlife experiences in the darker corners of China, Thailand, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Fear not, it is more of an anthropological piece on the characters you find in such places rather than anything autobiographical. 🙂

It’s Wednesday night in a Shenzhen salsa club. Ladies night. You’re surrounded by other 30-to-50-something foreigners somewhere around the same range as yourself — but you stopped counting (and celebrating) birthdays after the divorce and the subsequent onslaught of day-in-day-out meals alone.

You can’t salsa, but you’ve been telling yourself for months that this is the night you’ll go out and try something new. You’ll try to have a conversation with someone of the opposite sex. But when you spot a 3/10 you think might be within your range and finally work up the courage to talk to her after a double-shot of counterfeit Johnny Walker that somehow hints at both varnish and varnish-remover in equal parts, she and her friend immediately turn away from you in avoidance, covering their mouths and blushing with embarrassment. As if you never even walked over and spoke to them. As if you were never even there.

Feeling an inch tall, you lean up against the wall next to several aged Filipina prostitutes. They scatter like birds, leaving you exposed and alone. The wall is sticky, and when you try to shift off it, it pulls fuzz off your Kenneth Cole going-out shirt. The droning sound of the (also Filipino) cover band mumbling their way through a salsa-remix of Sir Mix-a-lot’s “Baby Got Back” intensifies, reverberating in your skull. Your ears ring as the smoke, music, and loneliness make the room swim. Every single major choice in your life that has brought you to this moment seems to replay at the same time in your head, a dizzying visualization of a thousand memories overlapping. You slump to the ground, leaving a hundred fuzzy fibers of cheap, pilled cotton stuck to the wall above you.

You have just confirmed what you long suspected: Tonight is a microcosm of the rest of your life as an illicit English tutor without credentials. Staggering to your feet, the plastic Oxfords you are wearing (the same ones you always wear when you go out, even though they give you blisters and bite into your Achilles’s tendon) threaten to take each foot in divergent directions on the cocktail and vomit-slick floor. Somehow you steady yourself, and in that tiny moment of physical stability, you feel clarity. You begin making your way to the roof. You’re on the fifth floor. Should be good enough. On the way up, you fantasize that your ex-wife and son will read about it and care.

But you know they won’t.

Visit Your Local DMV

Image Credit: Unknown

For an expat, going to the Visa Centre in many countries elicits the same feeling as going to the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) for an American. They both bring any pretenses of who you may have thought you were in your day job, and remind you that you’re a human being. That we’re all just human beings working to survive.

I visited my local DMV today. If you’ve never been, the staples of the DMV experience are always the same: the dispassionate, bored, and disconnected dispositions, the ugly government building design, done at lowest possible cost, the water fountain area, the restrooms, and, of course, the large waiting room of bucket-seats — where the real action happens: waiting. These winter days, of course, due to the Wuhan virus, the waiting has to happen outside, in a queue. 

Passed all of those standard fixtures of the experience, though, there are the humans who are just trying to survive and provide for their close ones. And due to the close quarters, it is inevitable that people’s own realities open up and seep (or sometimes, gush) out from around them. A man giving guidance over the phone to a family member in a bad situation. The long-haul trucker, who is just at the DMV for a permit — but is also just a trucker because it’s the only job he could get that would help him pay off his home mortgage payments. People working fast-food service to pay their rents or mortgages. The middle-class, working unglamorous jobs. Americans, just trying to get by.

It was the long-haul trucker who interested me most. He had been giving advice to a close friend or family member (I couldn’t tell) about getting away from toxic family members. It seemed the girl on the other end had a mother who was manipulating her, stealing money, and otherwise taking advantage of the girl. I’ve been in similar situations with people who I let attach themselves to me, wanting nothing more than to bring me down with them, and I could imagine how bad things could get for an adolescent girl in such a situation. Her father was advising her in no uncertain terms a silent move away from her mother, and to not tell her where she moved to. “Find a new job, start a new life, and move silently,” he repeated urgently.

I can only guess how many other people there are, single or otherwise, trying their best to survive while also being responsible for their dependents. This is the reality that a very large proportion of our country is living. It’s not facebook, Netflix, and being offended. It’s not the reality of $200,000 a year salaried IT workers for Google or Apple on the West coast. It’s not the reality of the Washington D.C. elite. But I believe this is the reality of what could perhaps be called the “silent majority of middle-class America” — people too busy working to survive to give themselves a voice on media.

Maybe we should all visit the DMV more often.