Sorry, Jack (Quotes Provided by The Buddha and Tennille)

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Last week, my friend Deyne posted the following quote on her Facebook page:

 ‎”My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

It just so happened that on the morning she posted this, I was in a terrible and grumpy mood.  My love life was a disaster and I wasn’t up for what I found to be a sappy quote about changing the world.  Deyne posted the quote exactly as it appears above, with no author attributed to it.  In the minutes just before the first bell of the school day – when my bitchiness is at its peak – I commented on her post by writing, “These sound like the words of a naïve fool.”

Turns out that they were the last words said by Jack Layton, the Canadian DNP Party Leader who passed away last Monday.  Deyne responded to my comment by informing me of that, and then went on to talk about how Layton wasn’t only a great figure in Canadian politics, but was also an inspiration to her personally.  Whoops!  Sometimes it’s better to just keep your mouth closed and click “Like.”  Obviously I don’t think Jack Layton is a naïve fool, mostly because I’m ignorant and American and I don’t actually know who Jack Layton is.  But my little Facebook faux pas got me thinking about quotes.  How was I to know an important person said those words?  Reading it out of context, with no speaker credited, it didn’t sound like anything profoundly deep.  It could have been said by anyone, Snooki from Jersey Shore even.  Secretly, I blamed Deyne for manipulating my Jack Layton dis – not identifying the speaker of a quote is like letting someone believe it’s delivery when it is, in fact, DiGiorno’s. 

What if we always took the name off the quote, I started thinking.  Then the quote would have to stand for itself, the words would have to be as strong and independent as female R & B singers (they’re very independent).  It occurred to me that maybe a lot of quotes are really only powerful because of who said them.  Really, someone like Gandhi could say about anything and it would sound profound.  And, by extension, Joey Lawrence, for example, could say the deepest thing in history and nobody, knowing it came from the same mind that produced “Whoa!,” would take it seriously.

Here’s a little example.  Look at the two quotes below.  Think about, just based on the quotes themselves, if one is really that much better than the other.

“Let your heart guide you.  It whispers, so listen closely.”

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

Both quotes are pretty similar.  The second one was said by Confucius.  He was pretty smart – or at least that’s what some people think – and so, if someone quoted that during a speech, I’m sure most of the audience would find it touching.  But what about the first one?  That was said by a character identified as “Littlefoot’s mother,” from the movie Land Before Time.  Despite its content, it’s not really quotable.  Could you imagine Barrack Obama using it in his State of the Union Address?

“My friends, I’d like to pause for a moment and reflect upon the words of Littlefoot’s mother…”

Um, the country wouldn’t exactly be proud.  Here’s another example.  Down below are two fairly well known quotes.  Imagine, though, what the perception of each quote would be if one flip-flopped the speakers:

“The greatest science in the world, in heaven and earth, is love.” – singer Jackie DeShannon

“Lord, we don’t need another mountain.  There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb.  There are oceans and rivers enough to cross…What the world needs now is love.” – Mother Teresa

Suddenly, Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s corny song lyrics sound pretty good.  Looking through lots of quotations, I began to realize that there’s a thin line between lame song lyrics and the influential words of great leaders.  In fact, if a political or religious leader wrote pop songs, I don’t think the end result would be very different from the songs as they are now.  It doesn’t matter if it’s The Captain and Tennille or The Buddha and Tennille.  Buddha said “love is what makes two people sit in the middle of the bench when there is plenty of room at both ends.”  Captain and Tennille said “love will keep us together.”  Same difference.

When we quote something, are we really choosing to quote those specific words, or are we quoting the words only in relation to the resume and reputation that go with them?  Almost like how we choose to accept one person’s phone call and ignore another’s, we screen the quotes we use based on perception and anticipated outcome.  This quote will have an affect, this one will not.  If you just look at the words and sentiments alone, though, one person’s words generally aren’t much better than another’s.  Language alone doesn’t go very far. 

I could tell Deyne that I’m sorry for accidentally dissing Jack Layton.  Or I could quote Tolstoy and say, “Let us forgive each other, only then will there be peace.”  And I wouldn’t want her to think it would happen again.  For that I would quote another great mind: “We must not reenact the history that divides us, rather we must embrace that which draws us together.”  That’s a pretty good quote.  Words of wisdom.

Thank you for saying it, Spongebob.

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Peacocks in Chinatown

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Amy and I were walking through Jeyu Park when I turned to her and said something that some might consider offensive.  “You know what I’d like to be able to do?” I said.  “I’d like to be able to look at an Asian person and say with certainty, ‘That’s a Chinese person.’  Or, ‘That person is Korean.’”

Jeyu Park is at the heart of Korea’s Chinatown, located in Incheon.  In 2002, the South Korean government spent $18 million creating a Chinatown, hoping that it would be a lure for Chinese investors and tourists.  Red lanterns line the streets, restaurants serving chajangmyon (noodles in black bean sauce) are everywhere, and there is even a statue of Confucius given to Korea as a gift from China.  Small shops are ubiquitous, selling glass bird whistles and wooden swords, Chinese fans and large painted pots.

“Do you think Asians can tell each other apart?” I asked Amy.  She said they could, and rather easily.  I looked at the people in the park.  What were the giveaways?  Skin color or shade, the roundness of the face, the shape of the eyes, the length of the nose?  I had no idea.  Then I turned to Amy and asked a question that I would eventually look up on the Internet, and which would spark the idea for this essay, “I wonder how many of the people in Chinatown are actually Chinese?”

Not many, as it turns out.  Up until 1945, Korea was colonized by Japan, and during that time the majority of the Chinese people living in Korea were ousted by the Japanese.  But even after Korea gained its independence, things didn’t improve at all for Chinese immigrants.  The Korean government passed laws disallowing Chinese residents from owning land, it was made illegal for Chinese restaurants to serve rice, and Chinese people living in Korea were forced to renew their residential permits every three years.  The Chinese population decreased every year, until it bottomed out at about 25,000 for the entire country.  Today, Chinese residents still have restrictions, having to prove financial ability in order to stay in Korea, and having Alien Registration Numbers that deny them access to Korean Internet sites and email accounts.

About one-third of the shops and restaurants in Chinatown are run by actual Chinese people.  The rest are run by Koreans.  I had to read an article from the New York Times to get that figure.  Apparently an Asian person can ascertain such a stat just by looking around at faces.

At the height of Jeyu Park, there is a large clearing where cheap kites are sold for 5,000 Won.  Each kite has a gaudy picture of a peacock on it, and comes with about two miles worth of string wrapped around a plastic handle.  Amy and I bought a kite, took it into the square, and tried our best to fly it.  Our peacock struggled to catch the wind, flapping its one-dimensional wings and falling pitifully to the ground.  An old Asian man laughed at us.  Several others tried to help us.  Finally a woman with a baby on her back succeeded in getting our kite off the ground.  We looked into the air and there it was, our peacock flying proudly in the cloudless sky with the rest of the kites.  It was a sky devoid of real birds, populated only with painted peacocks attached to string. 

Perhaps it was a decent analogy for where we were.  We were in the center of a Chinatown without Chinese people, an ethnic community run by the dominant race, gazing up at a sky filled with fake birds.  Amy let the rest of the string go and our bird soared higher than any of the others.  It was a cool sight to see, our bird flying way up high, looking at us and all the others down below, probably thinking we all looked exactly the same.

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