Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tradtional Chinese Medicine: Skeptically approaching a Skeptical history

I was recently asked what I thought about this skeptical piece on the history of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in the USA,:
Dunning, Brian. "Mao's Barefoot Doctors: The Secret History of Chinese Medicine." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 24 May 2011. Web. 29 Dec 2011.
Unfortunately, I found it full of inaccuracies and misconceptions. I wish skeptics would be more careful of their facts when they try to correct misunderstandings. And I wish other skeptics would be more careful of their facts when reading their works.

To Allan and others,

I've now read the skeptoid report your mention. I'm afraid I do not consider it a reliable description of  the history of traditional Chinese medicine either in the West or in Asia.

Three big problems (IMHO).

1) He overstates the condition of Western (allopathic) medicine in urban China during the time period he discusses. China has always had a shortage of  doctors trained in modern medicine. I'm not sure if they do now or not. I'd need to find reliable sources (and I don't trust the PRC gov't.) Also since the Chinese system includes MDs with three styles of training (Western style with a post-graduate MD degree, as well as those with basically a four or five year bachelor's style MD degree) you'd have to be careful to define what you're measuring exactly.

2) He ignores the political atmosphere that led to the rise (and perhaps end) of the "barefoot doctor" phenomena. (It was in part an attempt by Mao to undermine the influence of Western trained or influenced intellectuals who happened to be working in healthcare.)

3) He ignores the entire history of Chinese traditional healthcare systems prior to the time period he discusses.

In short, although I am not familiar with other works by the author, I don't think this one is terribly helpful for those trying to understand these things. You might try seeing my article, and perhaps more importantly the shorter, earlier article that is in the reference list to this article.

Peter Huston

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Refugee Stuff, Burmese Names, Part Four, Naming Practices in General and a Brief Introduction to Burma

Naming Practices in General

Naming practices are studied and like most fields of study have even taken on their own terminology. For instance, although the study of names and naming is commonly referred to as “onomastics,” one source refers to the study of names and naming practices within anthropology as “anthroponymy.” (Moore, J.H.) Scholars discuss issues such as the degree of individuation versus collectivization in a culture's naming practices. In other words, do names within a culture emphasize an individual's connection to others, such as clan or family, or instead completely differentiate and distinguish them from other members of their society? (Collier & Bricker)

Within cultures names tend to be divisible into certain categories. Some of this categorization appears in the names of refugees from Burma.

In most cultures of Burma, names derive from something positive with people being given names whose origin lies in something admirable or positive in their culture. Examples of this will be given below for both Burman and Karen cultures. (Emeneau)

Theophoric names are names whose origins lie in religious beliefs or practices. (Emeneau) These are common among the peoples of Burma from all major religions including Buddhists, Christians and Muslims. While Christians and Muslims often take names from their religious traditions, often modified for local pronunciation, and use them as either a primary or secondary name, in Buddhists often tie the structure of their name to the Burmese astrological system. For instance the first syllable of a Burmese Buddhists name is chosen to conform to a specific system grounded within eight divisions. (The Burmese week is divided into seven days but for astrological purposes Wednesday is divided into two halves, early and late, making eight divisions within the week.) Buddhist monks and nuns, including persons who enter the monastery for a limited time, a common practice within Burmese culture, take a special name which is grounded in Pali, an important ritual language in Burmese-style Theravada Buddhism. This monastic name also conforms to the sound system specified within Burmese Buddhism. Additionally some Pali words have become common names in Burman culture. (i.e. “Sanda” means “moon” in Pali, but is a possible name for Burman and Karen people.) (Interview.)

Apotropaic names are names based on undesirable or unattractive things. Although common in some cultures, I know of no examples of such names in the cultures of Burma. (Although this is not to say that they do not exist. One thing that a person interested in Burma learns quickly is that Burma is a very complex and confusing place.)

An Introduction to the nation of Burma (Myanmar)

Burma is a large and troubled nation in southeast Asia. It is bordered by India and Bangladesh to the west, by China to the north, and Thailand and Laos to the east. Although they do not border each other, many refugees who flee the country spend time in Malaysia located to the south and relatively easy to reach by ocean or air travel. For reasons that are complex and will be covered later in this paper the nation is also known as Myanmar. There is great controversy, as well as significance, over the choice of name used.

Estimates of the population of Burma vary but tend to range between 45 and 65 million. A former British colony, the nation was given independence in 1949 although a successful, stable, functioning, national democracy with a healthy economy was never achieved. Instead the country has been wracked by a repressive military dictatorship, intermittent warfare, serious economic problems and ethnic strife.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Refugee Stuff: Burmese names, Part three Introduction

“I was named after the sound of gunfire and I have no last name”
An Introduction to the Names and Naming Practices of Karen and Burmese people in the Capital District.

When Westerners interact with people from Burma (Myanmar), they encounter many differences. Some of these differences become problems, some become points of curiosity and some become items of interest in their own right. Names and naming practices of people from Burma can easily be all three.

For instance while Western names tend to follow a basic standard pattern of given (or first) name followed by a surname (or last name), names of people from Burma traditionally do not follow this pattern but instead follow patterns of their own.

As the number of refugees arriving in Western nations from Burma increases, the number of Westerners who have contact with these names will increase. It will become increasingly important for Westerners to be familiar with the naming practices of the people who come here from this troubled nation. Prior to 2006, the United States had tight restrictions on admitting Burmese refugees. (Gashler, Anonymous 2006) As of 2007, the United States resettled nearly 5,000 refugees from Burma of whom 3,500 were Karen, more than 1,000 were Burmans and more than 400 were Chin. (Barron, et al) Although these figures are dated and the number that have arrived today much greater, it is my belief that these figures give a rough idea of the proportional ethnic make up of refugees who arrive from Burma, although it does need to be said that an increasing minority are Karenni, a group that is sometimes classified as Karen and sometimes classified as a separate ethnic group. Today refugees from Burma arrive in the United States for resettlement at a rate of approximately 1,200 per month. (U.S. Department of State, Arrivals sorted by month) The number arriving in the Capital District, particularly Albany and the city of Rensselaer, has increased as well. Due in large part to the actions of two non-governmental agencies that have contracts with the state department to resettle refugees, Albany and its environs have become the new home for newly arrived refugees in large numbers.

In addition there are people from Burma who have resettled here who are not classified as refugees. Such people have been admitted to the USA under various categories. These include “asylum” status, getting a green card through the U.S. open lottery system, and family unification. Although people from Burma have lived in the Capital District for some time, their numbers have greatly accelerated since the admission of Burmese refugees started in 2006. I know of no people from Burma who are here illegally and expect that due to geography and travel difficulties, if such do exist their number is very small.

Although refugees do not get to choose where they will be initially settled within the U.S., or for that matter even if they will come to the USA or some other refugee destinatation country (i.e. Norway or Australia, among many others.) after arrival refugees are free to come and go as they please and many do move to live elsewhere on their own initiative, a phenomenon known as “secondary migration.” They usually seek out locations where they have friends and family and believe jobs are available. The Capital District, and the city of Rensselaer, is often such a place.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Refugee Stuff: Burmese names, Part Two -- Reference List

Here is the reference list used to write the paper.

Anonymous. Burmese Astrology. Downloaded from on April 26, 2010.
Anonymous. (2006, August 29) Burmese refugees on way to the U.S. BBC News, downloaded from pacific/529501... on April 26, 2010.
Anonymous. Meanings of Burmese names. taken from on 3/18/2010.
Barron, S, Okell, J., Saw Myat Yin, VanBik, K, Swain, A., Larkin, E., Allot, A.J., & Ewers, K. (2007) Refugees from Burma, Their Backgrounds and Refugee Experiences, Center for Applied Lingusitics, Washington D.C.
Blanco, V. & Feberwee, E. (2009) In China, My name is . . . New York City: Mark Batty Publisher.
Boucaud, A & Boucaud, L. (1988) Burma's Golden Triangle -On the Trail of the Opium Warlords. Hong Kong: Asia 2000.
Bowman, V. (2008) Burmese, Lonely Planet Phrasebooks. Victoria, Australia: Lonely Planet Publishing.
Carnegie, D. (1937) How to Win Friends and Influence People, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Collier, G.A. & Bricker, V.R. (1970) Nicknames and Social Structure in Zinacantan. American Anthropologist, New Series, 72, 289-302.
Emeneau, M.B. (1978) Towards an Onomastics of South Asia. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 98, 113-130.
Gashler, K. (2010, April 22) Burmese Immigrants share tales of horror. Ithaca Journal, downloaded from on April 26, 2010/.
Ghoshi, P. (2000) Brave Men of the Hills, Resistance and Rebellion in Burma, 1825-1932. Calcutta: Manohar Publishers & Distributors.
Lehman, F.K. (1963) The Structure of Chin Society, A Tribal People of Burma Adapted to a non- Western Civilization. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Lip, E. (1988) Choosing Auspicious Chinese Names. Singapore: Times Books International.
Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Myanmar/ Burma: Karen, 2008, available at accessed on April 28, 2010.
Moore, E. (2007) Astrology in Burmese Buddhist culture, Decoding an illustrated manuscript from the SOAS archive. Orientations, 38, 79-85.
Moore, J.H. (1984) Cheyenne Names and Cosmology. American Ethnologist, 11, 291-312.
Nwe, T.T. (2006) The Kachins of Northeastern Myanmar: Culture and Environment. Paper presented at SEAGA Conference on 28-30 November. Downloaded from %20Papers/day2_fullpaper/session13_thanthannwe.pdf on April 26, 2010.
Okell, J. (1994) Burmese (Myanmar) An Introduction to the Spoken Language, Book 1.
Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University.
Radnofsky, L. (2008, April 14) Burmese Rebel Leader shot Dead. The Guardian. from on April 30, 2010.
Rajah, A. (2002) A Nation of Intent in Burma: Karen Ethno-nationalism, Nationalism and Narrations of Nation. The Pacific Review, 15, 517-537.
Rossi, A.S. (1965) Naming Children in Middle-Class Families. American Sociological Review, 30, 499-513.
Sakhong, L.H. (2003) In Search of Chin Identity: A Study in Religion, Politics and Ethnic Identity in Burma. Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS Press.
Steinberg, D. I. (2010) Burma/ Myanmar, what everyone needs to know, New York: Oxford University Press.
Swee-lin Price, F. (2007) Success with Asian Names, A Practical Guide to Everyday Usage. Crows Nest NSW Australia: Allen & Unwin.
Thawnghmung, A.M. (2008) The Karen Revolution in Burma: Diverse Voices, Uncertain Ends. Washington D.C.: East West Center in Washington.
Tong, L. & Wei, C.J. (2005) 500 Famous Chinese Names. Singapore: Times Editions.
U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Office of Admissions – Refugee Processing Center. (2010) Summary of Refugee Admissions as of 31-March- 2010, retrieved from %3D&tabid=211&mid=630&language=en-US on April 26, 2010.
U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Office of Admissions – Refugee Processing Center. (2010) FY 2010 Arrivals Sorted by Region by Month,
Summary of Refugee Admissions as of 31-March-2010, retrieved from %3D&tabid=211&mid=627&language=en-US on April 26, 2010.
Wikipedia. Karen People from downloaded on April 30, 2010.
Yang, B. (1987) Golden Triangle, Frontier and Wilderness. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Company.

The names of all informants have been kept confidential. All interviews were conducted in English during April 2010 in Albany or Rensselaer.

1. 28 year old, female, urbanized Karen with some college education.
2. 21 year old male Karen refugee with much time among other cultures.
3. 34 year old male Burman Buddhist monk.

Refugee Stuff: Burmese names, Part One -Outline

A few years back, I found myself at the University of Albany working on a TESOL degree (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). As part of this, I took a communications class and was required to write a paper. No problem there as I actually like writing papers.

For my topic I chose to tackle the complex subject of Burmese names.

Over the next few weeks I plan to post this paper in its entirety.

ACOM 577

Professor B.J. Fehr

April 30, 2010

“I was named after the sound of gunfire and I have no last name”

Names of Karen and Burmese people in the Capital District.


Introduction: Burmese names.
Why they are confusing.
Why they are important. Refugee population
Naming practices in general:
terminology (onomastics, anthropynymy)
positive names
theophoric or religious names
An introduction to the nation of Burma
Burma does not have a single ethnic group but is instead a multi-ethnic state
Introduce ethnic groups:
Pa O
Chinese and Indians

Note that for many of these groups diversity is the norm
Sense of intra-ethnic identity or nationalism came relatively late
For many literacy is a late 19th Century introduction
Colonial experience did not create a functional state with a pan-ethnic sense of Burmese nationalism. Although the national government does strive for this goal, they have neither a realistic plan nor strong support to achieve this goal.
Therefore Burma does not have a single naming system but instead has several naming systems.

The Burmese refugee community of the Capital District includes primarily Burmans, Karen, Chin and Karenni . Although other groups may be discussed in passing, these are the groups that this paper will focus on.

The names of Burmese of Chinese or South Asian descent will not be discussed in this paper. This is not a political statement. However, the naming practices of these ethnic groups are both complex and well documented elsewhere.

The Burmese language and Burman people. A good place to start.

The Burmese language.
Burmese phonology.
Tone system.
Tends to sound monosyllabic to the Western ear.
Burmese script.
Transliterating the script with Roman letters. No fixed system exists. \
Legacy of colonialism and the ruling juntas campaign for “correcting names.”
Burman names
Differences from Western practice.
No family name.
Usually no reference to family in name at all.
Although sometimes this does happen. (i.e. Aung San Su Kyi)
Wife does not change her name upon marriage.
Sometimes this does happen in the west.
Burmese names are often tied in with Burmese astrological practices. This is not unique to Burmans. There are traces of the practice in South Asian and Chinese culture too.
Burmese astrology is heavily centered around an 8 day week (Wednesday is divided into an early and late half.)
Burmans remember this day of the week and consider it important.
Burmans often use titles. There are many of these.
Burmans sometimes change their name on special occasions.
Burmese names are usually 2 syllables, sometimes 3, yet the can have one or four syllables.
The syllables of Burmese names usually pleasant meaning.
Occasionally Burmese use Western names. These are generally nicknames or school names.
Monks have special names that come from the Pali language.
Karen Names and Naming Practices
Different titles
Pwo Karen naming practices
Choice of name
Karenni Names
Chin names
Kachin names
Conclusions and Implications for further research

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Should writers read?

Joe Lansdale is one of my favorite writers. And recently on his facebook page ( He has been generously offering notes on how to write.

He argues that one should read and read extensively if one wishes to write. I agree, but am well aware that not all writers agree with me.

Here's my full thoughts (of the moment only) on the matter.

I've been thinking about this note for a few hours now. I agree but have a friend who is a more successful writer than me who disagrees. And when we discuss it this moderately widely published author refers to his friend, the widely published author, and says he says it too. In fact, the he quotes the widely published writer as saying "I don't like to read. It wastes time. I can write a book faster than I can read one." But I've been thinking about these philosophies. I think it hinges on one's motivation for writing.

We who write must ask ourselves why we write. And when I watch other writers I try to understand what motivates them. I think this moderately successful friend is largely motivated by a desire to show his intelligence and prove he can do something few other people can do. He is a very interesting man with many varied accomplishments. But I suspect that a few years after his success plateaus, wherever and whenever it plateaus, he will move on to some other endeavor perhaps writing music (I can see hints of this.) As for his widely published friend, he writes for money, plain and simple and probably makes a great deal.

So I think it comes down to motivation for writing. If one is motivated by a love of literature and a desire to get ideas and images and views out to others through the medium of writing (versus films or comics or singing punk rock or something) and you (naively) really do hope to expand the field of literature a little with your own personal contribution and inspire others not just to tell you your are great but to go out and change the world a little after exposure to your writing then I believe one needs to read, and not just write.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Don't pre-judge Hooters! A martial arts parable.

Seems some parents in Clearwater, Florida, have a problem with Hooters. (See article below) Now, I've never been to Hooters but then again I've never been to Clearwater, Florida either, particularly not to a school parents' meeting and largely for the same reason. I never wished to really.

I strongly suspect however that I'd be more welcome and less likely to be thrown out of the Hooters than the school board meeting, particularly if I relaxed, spoke out and was myself. Just a hunch based on years of being myself.

Not too long ago, I had a martial arts Sensei who taught me many things about life, one of them being the importance of not prejudging Hooters.

A Sensei is a Japanese word for teacher, particularly a martial arts teacher, but it also means more, patron, benefactor, mentor and guide are all part of the duties and roles that a traditional Sensei has to his students and I was lucky to have a Sensei who took these roles quite seriously. An interesting man, he was an aikidoist (practicioner of the martial art of aikido) and a former bouncer, ex-prison inmate, Vietnam combat veteran and high school drop out from the Puerto Rican areas of the New York City Bronx. He'd had an interesting yet often difficult and ugly life and it had shaped him. Although he fully admitted that he'd done things he greatly regretted and in his own words hadn't been a very nice man for much of his life, not too long before we'd met he'd been diagnosed with AIDS and told that he only had a few years to live. Being confronted with his own mortality had caused him to re-examine himself and his life and caused him to work hard to become a person he truly wished to be in his remaining time. I was inspirted by watching him strive to improve himself.

He taught me that the key to self improvement is self examination and self honesty and that you've got to recognize your strengths and build on them while assessing your weaknesses and working to fix those as well. He never spoke of this and never lectured on it. Instead he lived this out and it was through watching and copying him that one learned these important lessons.

There came a time when I needed a car. My Sensei decided to work at finding me, one of his students, a car if I needed one, and soon hooked me up with a friend of his, a mechanic who ran a garage and rebuilt and sold cars he purchased at auction.

The car was great. It ran well, the price was quite reasonable and the lengthy warranty package that his friend threw in was quite generous. I was so thrilled that I barely gave thought to my Sensei's frequent admonitions and reminders that if anything went wrong with the car and there were any problems getting it fixed, come to him immediately. Although he said it repeatedly and emphasized it, such statements were not out of character and I shrugged it off.

It was only later, when the garage closed due to lack of business, that Sensei told me the complete story.

Although the mechanic, he assured me, was a wonderful mechanic, he was also bipolar, manic-depressive and refused to take his meds. When he was up, everything got fixed, fixed quickly and customers were quite pleased. However when he was down and depressed, things did not go so well. Cars would get left, untouched, up on the rack for three of four days at a time and when customers called demanding to know what was going on with their car, it''d often take several calls before they were able to reach the mechanic who held their vehicle and its keys. Then, when they did speak, he'd often just sort of complain and explain in a very exhausted voice that he was tired and just didn't feel like fixing their car that day. When the customer complained the mechanic would respond rather helplessly in the same exhausted voice that he really couldn't help it and was sorry but he just couldn't fix the car and wished he could. Probably he'd fix it soon though, he might assure them, if they were lucky.

"But I know what to do when he gets in those moods," Sensei assured me.

Ït seems that not only as the mechanic was a friend of his, but that Sensei had referred several people to his garage, he'd been called upon to intervene in several such customer service problems.

"I take him to Hooters," he said. "And when he's not looking I tip the girls extra to treat him real nice. After that he usually feels up to fixing some of the cars."

Which sort of encapsulates much of Sensei's approach to life and people in a single story. Always helping people but often through approaches that most of us wouldn't think of trying.

So, as always, Sensei taught me many things, one of which was do not dismiss Hooters as a worthless institution. To the right people at the right time, it can be invaluable.

* * *

Parents in Clearwater, Florida, are upset after a certain speaker was brought in to talk to their kids at school. Brittany Morgan, a Hooters waitress, spoke during "the Great American Teach-In," a career event at the special-needs school. Morgan discussed looking presentable at work, tipping, and Hooters charity work with the students at Calvin A. Hunsinger School. She did not wear the Hooters uniform (skimpy orange shorts, low-cut white tank top, flesh-toned hosiery, white socks, and white sneakers) to speak in front of the kids. One parent was still disturbed, saying, "It's just the wrong message . . . like we're telling them that you're the bad kids and this is all you'll be in life." Some people on Twitter agree, saying, "Can we raise the bar for kids' aspirations?" Morgan said she understands why the parents might be upset, but that there was nothing inappropriate about her speech. Morgan added, "Most of us are going to school. We're aspiring to do other things in life. This isn't our career." The principal of Hunsinger, Stephani Bessette, defended Morgan's appearance, saying "Working as a waiter or waitress to achieve higher goals should be commended." Hooters states that its mission is "to provide a family of hospitality and services that achieves excellence and enhances lifestyles of all who come in contact with the Hooters brand."

Monday, November 21, 2011

skeptic: "miracle doctor" ring exposed in Shanghai

Below is an interesting case from a Shanghai local English language newspaper.

It details a group who engaged in a scheme to defraud by convincing their victims that they had supernatural powers. These powers included the ability to know facts about people without being told as well as the ability to remove bad luck.

What's interesting, perhaps, is just how simple and low tech the operation was.

Often skeptics who expose paranormal scams are guilty of giving the impression that supernatural tricksters are clever men and women who can only be unmasked by someone equally or perhaps even more clever than the evil-doers. Alas! Often it just isn't so.

Remember, please be carefull and use common sense. If something seems impossible or too good to be true, well, it just might be. So please don't let yourself be scammed.

Published on (

'Miracle doctor' gang in fraud case
Created: 2011-11-21 0:30:45
Author:Jasmine Zhao

FOUR people who claimed they could remove bad luck through the prayers of a "miracle doctor" have been charged with fraud.

The suspects swindled more than 250,000 yuan (US$39,379) from four victims, Putuo District prosecutors said yesterday.

Prosecutors said group members had clearly defined roles in duping victims in Minhang and Putuo districts and the Pudong New Area between January and April.

In one case, suspect Duan Suping struck up a conversation with victim Li Falan while pretending to be looking for a "miracle-working doctor," called Zhang, on Zhaoyuan Road in Pudong.

Duan persuaded Li to talk about her family and asked if any of them were ill.

Nearby, fellow gang member Cheng Jiayue was eavesdropping and passed Li's information to "Doctor Zhang," played by suspect, Xie Shuliang, it is claimed.

When Li met the "doctor" and was told details about her family, she was convinced of his powers and paid him 90,000 yuan to remove bad luck, prosecutors said.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Quick update --

I'm now back in Shanghai where Í've been since 8-16-11. I've been having trouble accessing this blog due to the great firewall of China and some changes in my local internet provider that make it more difficult to circumvent these inconveniences.

Thailand was interesting. Due to health problems I did not get to do everything I wished to do, but I did get to do some things and spent time at a primarily Karen school and learned a bit about the situation for the estimated almost two million Burmese who live illegally in Thailand. Only about 10% of them live in refugee camps and the rest eke out livings taking what jobs they can and working off the books.

I'll try to write more later on a variety of subjects.

Friday, July 29, 2011

How to get free clothes for ten people fast in Albany circa 2009

I saw this on facebook last night and wish to comment. (BTW, I'm still in Mae Sot but we'll ignore that interesting tid bit today.)

"New family of 10 arrived from refugee camp last night. We are desperately looking for kids clothes and shoes for this family. They have only the clothes on their backs, no socks or underwear, and 1pair of tennis sneakers each. Looking for boys and girls clothes and shoes of all sizes."

It was followed by a flurry of well intentioned activity and offers.

However, when I was the furniture guy at USCRI-Albany I learned to deal with these things quickly and easily. (Many people thought I was the "Stuff" guy.) Unfortunately as the organization does not communicate well and has little to no institutional memory that knowledge seems to have been lost. Or perhaps it's that I'm two years out of date.

First the Albany city mission gives away free used but clean clothes. They have what's called "the free store" or IIRC, "Blessingdales."

Many refugees know this. (They taught me.) However hours are normally limited and patrons are required to wait in line with other patrons for a brief visit. Unfortunately, this often brings newly arrived refugees into friction with untreated mentally ill and drug addicts and such. This is not good.

Fortunately the staff knows this and if contacted would discuss making appointments for refugees during off hours so they could get what they needed.

As always, if one uses this service encourage people to replete it when they can, through donations of their own.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Teaching in Mae Sot area

First, some photo links:

Photo links

Mae Sot and its environs:

Karen food:

Second, let me clarify some things.

I have told some people that I am teaching in a refugee camp. This is

not exactly true. I am volunteer teaching for a few weeks with an

organization that provides educational services to "Burmese migrants,"

some of whom are refugees and at this time none live in a refugee

camp. I've started teaching, for instance, but have not yet seen any

of the refugee camps. (I had thought I would be teaching in a refugee camp.)

As most know, the gov't of Burma (Myanmar) is among

the worst in the world and the country is both under terrible tyranny

and impoverished.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand (p. 413) there are

approx. 2,000,000 (two million) Burmese "migrants" who have fled Burma

(Myanmar) for Thailand and many, many others who have fled into

Malaysia, Bangladesh, China and elsewhere that a Burmese can flee to.

(they recommend and for more info. I

have not checked these sources though. No time now.)

Of these (using the same source) about 120,000 are registered refugees

in 13 camps. There are other unregistered refugees who live in camps

as well.

The Thai gov't does not classify people as refugees unless they are

fleeing political violence (this is a very difficult distinction to

make in practice however. I most certainly do not believe every

Burmese who has told the US gov't that he is fleeing after his role in

the 1998 protests was actually involved in them.) Many choose to live

outside the camps. These folks are generally politically marginal at

best, illegal or semi-legal in most cases (it's very complicated) and

often take jobs that others do not want at sub-Thai minimum wage with

little opportunity to complain if mistreated. They are often


It seems it is the people of the last category I am teaching at the moment.

The result is the region is something like an Asian version of a south

Texas border town full of illegals save that that "questionables" all

have thanakha smeared on their cheeks and noses.

If I do not see a refugee camp before I leave I will be disappointed

but it is quite possible that I will not have the opportunity to do


Thirdly, Burma is a multi-ethnic country with many minorities who are

quick to point out that they are not Burmese. The Karen are one of

these. They live in the eastern part of Burma and nearby parts of

Thailand (where they are considered one of Thailand's six "hill

tribes.") The Karen have been fighting the Burmese since independence

from England (1948, their independence date from Britain, not ours).

I stay in a building full of Karen with some Burmese. I teach at a

school that is full of Burmese but no Karen. The Karen speak primarily

(Sqaw dialect of) Karen and study Karen, Burmese, Thai and English in

school. Most eventually speak three or four languages. The Burmese

learn Thai, Burmese and English in school..

Many Karen are Christian and the school I live at is Christian. The

Burmese school is run by a Buddhist monk though. They say his toughest

task is to acquire five or six large bags of rice each month to give

the kids lunch.

The kids all seem surprisingly healthy and happy so far.

Many at the boarding house are orphans.

But as for me, weather is cool, cooler than both Shanghai and New York

right now. It rains a lot. Today I'm in Mae Sot downtown. Northern

Thailand is the first place in Asia I've been that does not seem

overpopulated so things are spread out. There's lots of rice patties

but also many, many cornfields and empty fields.

I sleep on a bed in a spare room that is half full of storage. Privacy

is minimal and I'm woken up during the night a couple times by

chickens, ducks and a strange wild lizard that sounds like a bicycle

horn. (Or so people tell me. I've never seen the lizard actually.) But

it's free. (I budgeted about 15-20$ plus airplane for this trip and am

way ahead as I spent zero money on Thursday or Friday.)

For breakfast and supper I eat Karen food and for lunch I eat Burmese

food although honestly they seem so far basically the same to me. I

must, I guess, refine my palate.

A Karen or Burmese meal is mostly rice. I'd estimate 80% rice by

volume. By contrast a Chinese or Taiwanese meal is around 20-25% rice

by volume. Meat, vegetables, sauces and strongly-flavored pastes are

used to flavor and stretch the rice and leave you with a satisfied

palate. For instance, a smidgeon of very spicy or very salty tomato

paste or fish paste can leave you feeling full and satisfied much

faster than bland food.

Vegetables are often strange (by USA-ian standards) and include bamboo

shoots, scallions, pieces of banana sprouts and things I can't

identify that probably serve to add bulk and fiber to the food.

Meat is eaten, like vegetables in very small portions, One will note a

series of photos of some frogs. Now, assuming one eats frogs, an

American would normally eat half a frog (of this size) minimum,

perhaps a full frog, for a meal portion. Here, instead, one eats about

half a leg only and thus these frogs will last several people for

about four or more meals.

But I feel full and healthy. (I also started eating stress vitamins

daily in China and continue.)

I like everything I've tried except for one dish that was made with

sour fish (fish left to rot for a few days before preparation.) I

quietly did not eat it --and since I only had a spoonfull or so on my

plate, another advantage of small portions was revealed.

One thing I have never gotten used to about the Burmese and karen

though is that they eat with their fingers, not forks or chopsticks or

anything, and wash their hands carefully before and after each meal.

(Obviously I've enjoyed my time, overall, with Karen and Burmese

people or I would not be here, but it still seems strange.)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Heading off for Mae Sot to volunteer

Although I've moved to Shanghai where I was offered a job teaching English as a foreign language with a major university, I do keep in touch with several refugees in the USA using skype, the telephone, e-mail and facebook. But I confess I've been feeling a bit guilty the last year as there is so much more to be done and so much more to be learned and understood.

So I've decided to volunteer as an English teacher for a few short weeks at Mae Sot refugee camp in Thailand.

I am scheduled to leave on Tuesday and am focusing on things like washing my best socks. (I have trouble buying good socks here in Shanghai and therefore do not have as many good socks as I want. Most are too thin and small to be comfortable.)

I've been feeling stress and have been watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer a lot. (One of the ways I deal with waiting induced stress.)

Anyways, here's a few links I found to let people know what I will be doing and where I am going and even some of the people I will meet.

Again, just to summarize, I began writing about refugee issues on this blog when it became obvious that many refugee workers did not really know how to do their jobs. It became angrier as I became convinced that some agencies, notably USCRI (the Non-governmental organization known as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants) do not terribly care if their workers at the local level know or are able to do their jobs. I wish it weren't so. Meanwhile if people wish to help there's lots to do not just to help out refugees but also to try and bring light to the agencies that are receiving federal funding to assist refugees and then not doing their jobs well.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Is USCRI Albany a successful organization?


This is an important question that people should ask. Not only does the organization receive large amounts of government funding, resettle large numbers of people, but it also sends a signal to the outside world that it is THE place to send refugees in need of care.

In other words, more than once when I have taken refugees to places like the New York State One-stop Job Center, the state mandated and tax funded office that is supposed to assist all legal residents of the area with job-hunting, the secretary or someone else has suggested to me that I take the person, the refugee in need of work, down to the refugee center as this is supposed to be THEIR job. However, being familiar with the refugee center (and its very dedicated but completely overwhelmed job placement people)I know darn well that that is not an effective solution. In other words, the existence of the refugee center (USCRI-Albany) gives many people in social services the feeling that things are being taken care of when anyone familiar with the refugee center (USCRI-Albany) knows that they are not being handled properly.

Not too long ago a refugee invited me to attend an event where a spokesperson for USCRI-Albany stated that USCRI-Albany is an organization that helps refugees when they come to our area. In fact, USCRI-Albany is an organization that invites refugees to our area, promises the state department they will care for them, receives payment for doing so from the state department, and then, sometimes, only sometimes, actually cares for them in a responsible manner.

Critics will point out that although the State Department does contract and fund these services the actual amount received per refugee is not very much. Not nearly enough to do the required job? So, they might say, what's the big deal.

Well, if one looks into USCRI-Albany and its parent organization you soon discover that its head, Lavinia Limon, makes about $200,000 a year, arguably in line with that of CEOs of other not-for-profits, but inarguably that's $200,000 that does not go to helping refugees. (And then there's also employment for Peter Limon, another employee of USCRI, who may or may not be a relative.) Therefore, and you can ask around and check on this yourself, it seems that although USCRI-Albany is not terribly good at providing services for refugee families in desperate need, it actually quite well at taking care of the Limon family down in Washington D.C.

So to who else does USCRI-Albany consistently provide real benefit?

College interns. These come and go in the midst of the chaos and they get to set up some really great programs and build up a wonderful resume. Unfortunately, as often as not, within six months after they leave, the programs fall apart but that's okay because this provides an opportunity for the programs to be re-built and recreated and therefore add to someone else's resume.

Some might note that in a previous exchange a youth named Una Hardester proudly posted about a valid sounding USCRI-Albany program to work against housing discrimination for refugees. Note that this program is long gone. This is the pattern down at USCRI-Albany. Although things regularly fall apart this is actually a bonus for the program if we see it not as an agency designed to provide services for refugees but instead as an agency intended to assist college students who wish an exciting and rewarding internship.

Same for the improvements I attempted to install in the furniture program. Long gone, fallen apart, someone somewhere someday will rebuild them although in a slightly different form, put them on his or her resume and tell others about their wonderful internship with this program, and then, inevitably, they will collapse into dust again.

This is the pattern.

Meanwhile the young, 20-something dedicated employees are stuck in the middle of this mess assuming that this is inevitably the way things should be. Too busy to tell their central office they need more warning before refugees arrive, and too fearful of their jobs to tell the central office that maybe they cannot provide contracted services if they have no control over the number of people who arrive.

Not to mention, the refugees who are usually scared to death at the very thought of filing a complaint against someone who controls the future of their family and handles their green card applications.

Alas, alas.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Burmese diversity and the immigrant population

Although I've never been there, Burma (Myanmar) is one of the most troubled countries in the world. It is also an extremely complicated country. It has about a hundred languages and multiple ethnic groups.

And this complication shows itself in the composition of the population of refugees from Burma that find their way to the United States. Although the majority (off the top of my head I think about 60%) are ethnically Burmese-Hinayana Buddhists, much of the country is not. Although Burmese-Hinayana Buddhists do make up part of the refugee/ asylum seeking population from Burma, most of the refugees from Burma are some sort of Burmese minority. (I'd estimate about 70%)

This means that the "Burmese" refugee population gets very complicated very quickly.

In the Capital District area of New York, there are Burmese Hinayana Buddhists, Burmese Muslims, Karen Christians and Karen Buddhists, Nepali-Burmese Hindus (descended from the Nepalis who the British either encouraged to migrate to Burma to work or else sent there to serve in the military), Karenni (who are not Karen but are a similar ethnic group) and Chin as well as one individual whose father is Chinese and fled to Burma with one of Chiang Kai-Shek's armies that fled south after the Communist takeover.

There's a New York Burmese Youth Soccer league and they tell me it includes other ethnic groups as well, including Shan and Wa.

It's sort of like if you had a problem in America that was worse for minorities, and those affected fled abroad if they could. These hypothetical American refugees might consist of some small number of WASPS, many Blacks, many Puerto Ricans, several Amish and some Navajos as well as many Jews. If faced with such a group, someone in this new hypothetical country with no understanding of American culture might then take all these folks and try to use them as a basis for understanding "American society." Although this might seem an important step in understanding "people from America," in fact unless such an effort took into account the great diversity of the American population the result might be even greater confusion and less understanding of how to react and respond to these new people in an effective way.

There is, for instance, one tribe in Burma where the women wear high piled neck rings and guess what? Some now live in Albany. They've removed the rings but will show you the photos if you show any interest as they thought they looked nice. They often have pictures of themselves with the neck rings on the wall. (These are one kind of Karenni). And the Karen who live in the Albany area include members of three different dialect groups (Pwo, Sqaw and Bwee) as well as some who only speak Burmese and no Karen at all. (Sort of like a Puerto Rican who speaks no Spanish.) That means that when the Karen get together communication can even then be awkward.

i.e. they recently held the first ever "Albany Karen Organization" event which people tell me took forever as all the announcements were done in English, Sqaw Karen and Pwo Karen.They apparently left out the Burmese language because they decided it would upset too many Karen people to include it. I heard the singing and dancing portions were good though. (BTW, my friend who just got arrested for DWI was the MC. I do not excuse his actions but he is a talented young man.)
- Show quoted text -

Saturday, February 5, 2011

How much science do you need to be rational? Science and skepticism.

I've been absent from skepticism for the last few years.

There have been several reasons for this. Job, career and educational needs have taken priority, as well as a general sense of "skeptics burn-out." But there's been another factor too. Often I've felt as if I didn't know enough science to really be an advocate for science, reason and the scientific method.

In graduate school at Cornell, I took some courses that touched on the history and theory of science. This was in an attempt to build up the background to better understand the history of Western science in China. As historians of Chinese and global history know, much of what has happened in China over the last two hundred years of so has been an attempt by Chinese to grapple with the basic issue of "Our civilization doesn't seem to be working as well it used to." As the Chinese found themselves unable to resist the West and Western technology, they grappled with the issue of how much and in what ways would Chinese civilization and society have to compete with this change in the world order.

This issue was debated periodically and I've been reading lately about the debates in the China in the 1920s over science and its applicability to improving and modernizing China. (More on these debates later.)

It's a funny thing about science. The more you know about science, the more you realize you don't completely understand it. And sometimes in skepticism it's not uncommon for people with only a basic understanding of science to be its greatest defenders.

I do not think, for instance, that it's any coincidence that in the 1990's I found myself, for instance, once sharing a radio show on WRPI where Joe Nickell, a CSICOP spokesman, and myself vociferously defended science, rationality and reason against all who chose call in the show and argue and attack science. Now at the time I had a bacherlor's degree in liberal arts and had barely met my science requirements to meet it. Most of what I "knew" about science came from a smattering of Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov's non-fiction essays and the usual reading list of a serious Skeptical Inquirer reader, but it sounded good and logical and overwhelmingly simple and it made me both feel and appear smart by contrast.

Joe Nickell, by contrast, had a PhD in English literature and was known for doing investigations of paranormal and supernatural claims where he would find a rational-sounding explanation and announce the case "solved." Then he'd publish the results in the "Skeptical Inquirer," a non-peer review journal that often published me at this time, and we'd both be met with an eager audience.

Now people who've met Joe Nickell in person will tell you he's not known for being terribly rational or logical and although most of his investigations cannot really be proven one way or another to a definitive conclusion, at least two of those that can be have been shown to be wrong. Oh well. His defenders tell me that his poetry, honestly, is quite moving and beautiful, so he can't be all bad. As for me passing myself off as a paradigm of science, reason, scientific knowledge and rationality, all I've got to say, is, "Who did I think I was kidding?"

After years of involvement in skepticism, I'm not gonna say that skeptics were bad people but it'd be a far cry to say that they were universally rational, reasonable or scientific. But at least, like me, they tried.

And don't get me started on the alleged rationality of engineers. I grew up in Schenectady, New York, the city that once lit and hauled the world, and discovered at an early age that somehow the rationality of engineers always brings itself right back to wherever their emotions want it to. The conservatively political find Anne Coulter to be rational. The liberals instead prefer to cite Michael Moore as a voice of sanity and reason. Each asserts that this is a sane, rational, sensible and logical conclusion.

But how about a real scientist? Real scientists are rational right? Real, working scientists surely understand science and rationality, right?

Well, these days I've returned to my study of the history of science in China and the Peking Man paleontological digs in particular. I've been reading with great interest a biography of a man named Ding Wenjiang (also known as "Ting Wen-chiang" or "V.K. Ting" depending on the time and source.) Ding was China's first foreign trained geologist and founder of China's Geological Survey and head of Beijing University's geology department in much of the early twentieth century. In Charlotte Furth's excellent biography, "Ting Wen-Chiang, Science and China's New Culture," (1970, Harvard University Press)

Ding was a firm believer in science and its ability to improve not just China but the state of man in general. He was quite interested, for instance, in applying science to social and societal problems. (Like many of his time, both East and West, he did, for instance, do some writing on eugenics and how its application might lead to a healthier, better society.) Although, after receiving a degree in Scotland, he returned to China and began working in his field in 1911, prior to the outbreak of the first world war. In the 1920s, following the tragedy and horrors of the first world war, many in China did not think they wished to adapt Western science and its methods. Ding became involved in the debate.

According to Furth, his biographer, however, he often showed a superficial understanding of science when he explained it and attempted to show examples of how the scientific method was not alien to China at all. According to Furth, his definition of science was little more than inductive reason, empiricism and applied logic. The use of non-empirical fundamental theories was neglected in his writings because they have little place in his field of geology although they are important in physics and chemistry.

I asked a friend about this, a retired Ivy League physics professor who now writes hard science fiction, and asked what sort of time frame it takes to develop an understanding of science where such a melange of certainty and uncertainty become combined into a scientific whole. He said it was neither simple to understand nor simple to explain and that he was only somewhat able to understand my question. But he did try to answer. And I did my best to understand but I'm sure there was much misunderstanding on my side. Apparently as one digs deeper into scientific theory one sometimes gets the sense that there are layers. And as one pierces these layers one goes from a sense of certainty to uncertainty and then back again. The world becomes clearer and then it suddenly becomes fuzzy again only to later become clearer again.

Which come to think of it, sounds a lot like growing up. There's a long process of "knowing the world" with great certainty and then becoming confused again as one ages. As many know, I part with many skeptics over the issue of atheism. I just think it's both unnecessary and irrational to speak of the universe and its vast unknowable secrets with what often appears to be such adolescent certainty. I was, I've said more than once, an atheist at one time but that was "when I was eighteen and knew everything about everything. Now I'm more confused."

Which in a long rambling fashion sounds almost like a paean to unknowingness. Can one ever know anything? Can one dismiss any knowledge?

Well sometimes only a little bit of knowledge of science, reason and rational thinking is all you need. Let me offer the following example.

I was recently approached by someone in an electronic forum who felt we had a shared interest in Chinese history and culture. They were American yet claimed to be part Manchu. That sounded interesting. Then they added further details saying that their ancestor was of Manchu nobility and had been exiled to San Francisco prior to the opium war. At this point my "skeptic alarm" went off. (I'm sure geneologists have a similar alarm that goes off when they hear the terms "noble blood" and an exotic, glamorous ethnic group in the same phrase. "My ancestor was a Cherokee Princess," is particularly common I've been told.)

There were several problems with the claim. In short, either their ancestor did not exist at all or else their ancestor was of considerable importance in our understanding of the history of the Chinese in America. For instance, the opium war broke out in 1838 and there is no record of any Chinese in North America prior to 1848, ten years later. And those were Cantonese work people, not Manchus. Not to mention the issue of inter-marriage and the unimportance of San Francisco at the time. (For a quick check, you can see my book "Tongs, Gangs and Triads," page 69. I don't claim this as a definitive source, in fact, some day I hope to update it, but it's appeal is obvious to me.)

I asked for verifiable proof. Here was the response.:

"Do you know anything personally about Chinese immigration to American during the 1820-1850s, Peter? I mean, what is your educational background? I have a Bachelors in Asian history and actually have learned a bit about the early Asian american experience. Oh and do not forget that I have this extreme habit of incarnating along one particular bloodline. And I am a Seer and Empath.

Publically verifiable would require that a particular group, you know, actually WRITES RECORDS DOWN in the first place, right?

Do you have any idea how arrogant you sound to me?"

Okay, three things seem obvious here.
1) this person's sources are not scientifically admissible and their claims are not to be used by any scholar who expects to be taken seriously by their peers.
2)they don't know how to access or find the many documents from the period that might help solve this and will claim instead that such documents don't exist. Clearly they'd benefit from watching a few episodes of the PBS show "History Detectives."
3)they think I'm an asshole. Okay, join the club.

Arguably, if they wish to announce they are a descendant of Manchu nobility, a Cherokee princess, a Gypsy caravan leader or, for that matter, a Klingon warlord (Qapla!) in a past-life, that's their business. Of course, if they are using these as a credential to advance their status among their peers and recruit for a religious group that they lead, then this is a social-justice issue and could be potentially predatory. Some will argue that if a person believes in such things as a reincarnation claims and sorcerous divination without proof, as is often the case in Pagan circles, then they should expect to get swindled and are so stupid as to deserve it, but something about that attitude just sounds a bit sociopathic. (Social Darwinism anyone? This was, in fact, one of the issues debated by Ding in the 1920s. Did belief in the scientific method and its value inevitably lead to a belief in a dog-eat-dog morality?)

However, just a tiny, little, little, little bit of logical thought, rationalism and critical thinking will prevent the whole issue from being relevant. There is no evidence worth mentioning for this claim and therefore a person with some skepticism should avoid it. Sometimes, a little bit of skepticism will go a long way and prevent a lot of problems.