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June 25, 2004

The Service Economy

A couple of quick points:

1) These are usually behind by a day or two (the dates are in local
time, and I am past the dateline)

2) I'll figure out a better way of doing this soon - perhaps a blog as
some have suggested. It's hard to set up anything right now on a modem
though and I feel like I'm already incurring massive costs as an
Internet junkie.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | Thursday, June 24,
2004 7:52:00 AM:

I just woke up with no slight amount of pride that I’ve finally adjusted to the local time. I’ve tried to do this [unsuccessfully] last night when I was in Japan.This was my second chance in as many days, since Malaysia is only one hour earlier than Japan.Kristel’s apartment is in a high rise in an area of town with mostly one and two story houses. In some ways it resembles a more suburban neighborhood, though it is probably just a 15-20 minute ride into downtown.I’m impressed by the apartment in what I have always teased Kristel to be a ‘developing country’, a declaration shared by her father who is a stock broker and thus, the family’s expert witness on all things economic.I [di]jest, the truth of the matter is that Kuala Lumpur is mostly a modern city.The apartment is on the top of a 20-story building, a duplex that begins on the 19th floor and has a high-ceiling living room, a chandelier and most importantly, a giant stuffed pig.

I constantly remind myself that a similar set-up in Manhattan would be… probably even out of Chael’s father’s reach. (Chael’s father, as we all know, is the President, CEO, Chairman, founder emeritus and chief propagandist of
Prudential Financial Inc. -
Malaysia is a tropical country so it’s incredibly humid here but not yet uncomfortable. I’m enjoying the cool tropical morning – I just went to the balcony to take a look at the city.Unfortunately, the view is made less appealing by the blanket of haze caused by reckless deforestation in nearby Indonesia (the last time this happened was 1998 when forest fires burned a good chunk of an entire Indonesian state).Kristel’s family currently employs two domestic servants, one of them cooked for us last night. Wealth is relative, and the relative prices between different goods and different services are also completely wacky.In financial monetary wealth, I think there is no question my parents are richer (though truth be told I have no yet sat down and compared income tax statements yet). But I would consider Kristel’s family relatively much better off in Malaysia than mine are in the United States.I won’t even try to estimate percentiles because it would still be hard to capture the entire socioeconomic context. For reference, the servant gets room, board and about 1000 Malaysian Ringitts a month (about US$260 at the fixed 3.8 exchange rate). In Malaysia, there is a wide distinction between the middle-class and common laborers, with the result being that servants are standard in middle-class families. This is also something I am beginning to notice in China, which is successfully weathering the transition into a poorly-run socialist state into the most non-socialistic Communist state I’ve seen (reminds me of that passage in Catch-22 where Yossarian talks about how great it was that dictators like Hitler were so successful in eliminating un-American activity in their home countries). As a sign of the times I think if my parents end up buying a house in China, they would employ at least one domestic servant. Of course, there is also a difference in culture.Even Americans who can afford full-time servants are less likely to do so to the extent it is done here – American culture has traditionally emphasized self-reliance and degraded the role of the servant class.As early as Ben Franklin’s autobiography (don’t know much about history, I’m sure there are earlier works), we get self-reliance as a central tenant of American life.We are also told that Americans have a sacrosanct desire to be free and even if this isn’t a completely accurate picture, it nonetheless testifies to an ideal that does affect the way people think of themselves.There is a servant-class in America, but they tend to be immigrants doing jobs that, so we are told, Americans themselves do not want to do. Now, we are also told that America is becoming more of a service economy. Keeping in mind that service is a very broad term - I still notice more actual service jobs in America. Is it at all a coincidence that this is happening at the same time as a widening income gap?

I would love to ponder this some more but as the servants tend to things I better get myself ready for the day. I’m not sure if Kristel is up yet but I will check and then maybe I will wander around
some more. And for all my proletarian upbringing, I do enjoy having my laundry done for me considering my limited time here. Goodbye for now. Long live the fighters of the revolution.

-Chairman Xu

Balcony View 1:
Balcony View 2:
Balcony View 3:
Balcony View 4:
The pig:

Posted by rxu at 12:33 PM | Comments (0)

O HA YO GO ZA I MA SU (Good morning)

Originally sent: 6/23/2004 4:11 AM

Just letting everyone know that I'm fine, soreness aside, and physically in Japan right now.

It's 4:28 AM Tokyo time right now, and I'm still a bit jet-lagged. I sat near the back of the 747 that flew me from San Francisco International to Narita on Monday [US date]. I sat in a window row with just two seats and I was hoping both seats would be mine, but as it turned out I really liked the passanger who sat next to me. She's from Berkeley CA, attending UC Santa Cruz, traveling to Thailand to do a 6-week student ambassador program there, and quite the leftist nutcase. At one point, the two of us tried breaking into the upper first class cabin but it's a little bit harder now post-9/11 - they had some security guard at the door.

I arrived on schedule at around 2pm but it took me a while to get out of immigration and figure out the Tokyo transit system. Also, part of the Tokyo Rapid Line broke down so it took me a while to get out to Dan Morales' section of town. [In case you don't know Dan, he's from New Orleans. He was Harvard '04, but he's taking a year off to study Japanese here.] On the Keisei express train, I talked with a long haired Berkeley, CA man who teaches mathematical 'metaphysics' as well as a Muslim woman from Singapore whose husband is Japanese. The Muslim woman gave me some advice about Malaysia and Thailand (her daughter is in KL studying right now) and also talked to me about Japan, especially about being an ethnic/religious minority in Japan. As we talked, schoolkids in uniforms and emotionless Japanese adults darted back and forth (I am told it is rude in Japanese/Asian culture for people older than children to show extreme emotions in public). The thing that instantly struck me about Japan is that in terms of fashion, they haven't left the 1980s yet... hipster generation et al.

I finally met up with Dan around 4 or so and grabbed dinner with him at a type of Japanese restaurant you normally wouldn't find in the US. We cooked your own omlettes on a large heated grill embedded in your table (the grill is a bit like what they use for Tapan, but smaller). Dan and I shared a Pork & Kimchi and a Beef. Then we came to his dorm. My first brush with a major difference in culture is when I had to take off my shoes upon entering the building. Slippers were required for everyone. He introduced me to the superintendent of this dorm building, who called me 'Randy-san'. Apparantly, this bulding is about a 30-minute train ride away from the university Dan is doing his program at. I remember Dan saying something about universities in Tokyo usually not having many dorms and when they exist, the buildings are often completely separated from school; some colleges don't have any at all. I've been here ever since, mostly because I ended up falling asleep around 9pm or so (we were suppose to go out for drinks). When I woke up, he wasn't here - he had arranged to stay with his girlfriend for the night so I could have the bed:

The sun is up now, so I think I might pop out and explore this area a bit. Then I have to catch a flight to Malaysia, but I'll be back in Tokyo July 16th and staying for a week and a half. Dan will have an sweet apartment then, and I promised him I'd help throw a few parties for the natives. Dan told me that the social life in Japanese colleges is lacking in many ways because most students don't live in dorms, and parties in dorms or even apartments are rare. Most Japanese students go out for entire nights on the town, and there are special restaurant/bars built to host parties but we think there is something unique about the act of hosting that does not translate well into commercial establishments.

Posted by rxu at 12:30 PM | Comments (0)