Monday, April 21, 2008

Flowers blooming in the field

It is the best time of the spring to take a train ride along the west of the Netherlands. On the way between Leiden and Harlem, you can see big field of flowers, red, yellow, purple, white, ... ... big patches of color spread out.

We were enjoying this beautiful scene a few times recently. Yesterday it was the warmest day lately, and we took the train to Amsterdam to visit a colleague for Lunch. Two young ladies sitting across the corridor besides us were reading tour guides for Amsterdam. They spoke some eastern European language that we do not understand, but I could recognize the Amsterdam map in their hands. They read to each other, and discuss sometimes, very concentrated. Sunday travelers are mostly for fun.

Mr. and Mrs. Aawara started discussing what are the funs of traveling in today's world when you mostly know everything that you would expect from the travel guides all over you. You know which hotel to live in, which train, at what time you need to take. You even know that you are going to try a special local food, with picture on the web. The only surprise left of the fun of travel is the exact feeling over there, which almost all surprises are removed before your trip. I am hesitating to plan trips too much in details.

Passing Leiden, flower fields started to appear in both side windows. I looked around, and pointing to Mr. Aawara views appeared in different windows, and noticing those two ladies were still focused on their research on touring Amsterdam. I looked at them and turned back saying, "look they are missing the most beautiful scene of the flower land." The guy sitting opposite to us heard me, and also laughed. He seemed to be a Dutch person since we heard him calling in Dutch.

After a while, suddenly he stood up, and leaned his body towards the other side of the corridor, and tried to interrupt those two ladies by touching one of them shoulder, "look outside!"

It was great. I thought I should have done this earlier.

When the train passed a highway ramp, he pointed to us, this is the way to Keukenhof. We smiled and told him that we went there last weekend. He told us that his wife worked there, at the gate. So I can't stop asking my question about the flower field: why do they let so many flowers bloom in the field rather than sell to the market?

Here is the answer: the profit of this flower business is not only on flowers. The most amount of profit is from selling bulbs. Bulbs are harvested after the blooming season and can be sold all year around. Do you know this? How come I haven't thought about this before. Here are some new knowledge about this topic:

The Netherlands' climate provides nearly perfect conditions for spring-flowering bulb production. Holland is protected by its proximity to the ocean and to the North Sea and by being 5 to 10 feet below sea level. Its winters are moderate and its springs are long and cool with almost constant rainfall, giving the bulbs the best chance for an optimal growing season. If there is too much or too little rain, an amazing, complicated engineering system involving the ditches, canals, and dikes can raise or lower the water table when needed. The soil in the western part of the country, where most of the bulbs are grown, is almost pure beach sand amended with organic compost, which provides excellent drainage for the bulbs and allows for easy, clean, mechanical digging.

This small country has focused on making the most of every inch of ground and developing specialized machinery to increase productivity. There are more than a thousand producers of spring bulbs in a relatively small area in Holland, which facilitates cooperation among growers in sharing equipment and swapping land for crop rotation instead of using chemicals. Also, because of the large numbers of people involved in the industry, much of the culture and the local activities center around spring-flowering bulbs and their flowers.

However, I still have one more question that I am not very clear. For those flower land, would it be better to be able to sell flower and bulb at the same season? Is this the optimal choice for the growers, or cutting flowers earlier would affect the growing of the bulbs?

Picture is from here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Some online tools to share

We recently came across several online searching tools that is quite unique and helpful.

One is the song searching website, called Songza.

The site launched on November 8, 2007, and instantly generated significant buzz around the world. Hundreds of bloggers and news writers have praised its elegant user interface, beautiful design, and all-around utility. Like all good ideas, both the concept and design came to Aza while he was in the shower.

Another one is an image search engine, you might also like:

This is an search engine that allows you to search inside Flickr photos. I find it has a much better quality photo collection than the Google image search. Also, it lets you to search for 'creative commons' picture that you will be free to use. The best is it gives you thumbnails of hundreds of pictures in one page so you can easily browse through. It is even better than search within Flickr.

What these two search engines share, are their simple interfaces. When you set up your goal to search for something specific, this kind of quiet interface is really a plus in enjoying your work.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The ability to embrace empathy

Things happened lately on the Olympic Torch relay, and the triggered protests around the world is bothering me a lot, especially the respond from the Chinese community abroad. The heating up angry feeling, hatred towards Tibetans is not at all a thoughtful reaction to the current situation.

It has also been a mystery for me for quite a while, why some people are so passionate about far away countries that has little to do with their day to day life? Why does Darfur matter to one single person living in the west? Why do they stand up to talk for Tibetans? Where was this passion originated from? This has nothing to do with the government level foreign aids programs, since there was no organization involved.

I was touched by a recent news about London Marathon, A father was running for his daughter, a lady ran for her husband, since the latter both died of cancer. They ran for the belief that they would raise the attention on cancer research that might benefit future patients. For Chinese, at least for me a while ago, I would really doubt: will this help? What is more common is the attitude that "let things drift if they do not affect one personally" (Shi Bu Guan Ji, Gao Gao Gua Qi). At least, I agree that it is not a positive attitude in dealing with problems in the society.

We tried to dig out some reasons for the emotion, and I surprisingly stumped upon the feeling of empathy.
It is all about the basic human feelings: empathy.

Empathy is one's ability to recognize, perceive and directly feel the emotion of another person. As the states of mind, beliefs, and desires of others are intertwined with their emotions, one with empathy for another may often be able to more effectively divine another's modes of thought and mood. Empathy is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes".

By the age of 2, children normally begin to display the fundamental behaviors of empathy by having an emotional response that corresponds with another person. Empathy is the most valuable thing in today's society. MOST of people's basic feelings today includes four things: Love, Hate, Apathy and Empathy. Here is a short brief introduction about empathy that I like:

Empathy is the acceptance that all humans should feel for one another. Empathy is the emotion that makes you cry when you see a stranger get hurt. Empathy is understanding without scrutiny or persecution. Empathy for other human beings is pure. Some would scrutinize empathy and say that it is just produced by a cheap self-interest, i.e. "I sure wouldn't want that to happen to me". This is a misunderstanding of a basic principle of empathy. Perhaps it is driven by self-interest but maybe that's the point. It doesn't matter what drives people to Empathize with one another but as long as they do people will always get along.

Empathy is the level we all relate on as human beings. It should be embraced above Love (the undefinable would-be-solution to all our problems), Hate (the all-too-easily definable pointless abuse of fellow humans) or Apathy (the nihilistic lack of common decency.) Empathy is understanding.

Empathy is the feeling that we all feel but sometimes have no name for. When you're sick and you realize how terrible it is to feel that way and for a brief second think to yourself "How horrible it must have been for everyone else who has ever gone through this".

It means far more to relate to a stranger than to die for "love" which probably caused more confusion and hardship in life then any true caring.

It means more to understand a person who you may not like than to "hate" a person you don't understand.

It means more to create bonds between humans than to permanently sever them with the trend known as apathy.
The conflicts in the world is only possible to be resolved if people can turn their empathy into action. This reminds me of the most striking sentences written on the Boston holocaust monument (a poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the inactivity of German following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group.):
They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
What is the most surprising to me, in Chinese translation of these empathy and sympathy, there are no differences. I guess this might make Chinese people harder to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. It is not about feeling sorry for others, but more an effort to put yourself in other's situation to understand their feeling, and feel what they must be going through. True compassion comes from a place of empathy, not sympathy. In fact, most people don’t want our sympathy. They don’t want us to feel sorry for them, they want us to have compassion and empathy for them. It is different in a way:

Sympathy is, "I'm sorry for your pain."
Empathy is, "I understand how you feel."

Empathy implies a breakdown of the barriers that separate two people. Empathy is when you allow yourself to become another person. The only way you can do that is to care enough about them that you allow empathy to happen. You must be willing to surrender to the dissolution or obliteration of the boundaries separating the two of you.

What lacks in the Chinese culture is the idea of Empathy. Human beings are interdependent.
what if later things happens to ourselves? Everyone needs support. I hope things won't happen till the stage that,
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
In the case of Tibet, Chinese people need to embrace empathy as the first step, same is true to Tibetans. It is the first step to true peace and harmony. Try to think assuming you are one of them, understand their culture and their reasoning of their behaviors. If this world we still believe in that conflicts are possible to be resolved, we better be more empathy than apathy.

Picture is from here.

Spring at Keukenhof

Nowhere else in the world are the flowers and olours of the spring as glorious as at Keukenhof. This is what we have been expecting the spring in the Netherlands in our first year here. Dutch friends also told us, that is some place anyone who came to the Netherlands at the right time should go visit, since it only opens around two months in the Spring time in a year.

Weather forecast told it was going to be a mostly sunny day. We decided to take route that not everyone would take to the park: only by train. From the map, it shows that the distance to the closest train station is around five kilometers. It should be a pleasant walk for us in a beautiful spring day. We got off the train at the station called Hillegom. The only problem is that some part of the roads here in the countryside are not pedestrian friendly. They still have bike paths, but not the sidewalks. What is the most exciting part, is that we were passing by those tulip lands with colorful patches of flower lands! That is all my fascination about tulips in my heart, and it came true.

Inside the park, flowers were nothing spectacular. They planted well in organized small piece of land carved out from grass land, with detailed name tags around it. Too many kinds of them to name and to remember. There are also sculptures scattered in the park.

The most enjoyable scene for us, was people's enthusiastic of picture taking. It is claimed to be the most photographed place in the world, definitely true. Almost at any spot, people are shooting, with all kinds of big or small cameras. We soon get our interest of taking pictures of those who take pictures. It is a lot more fun, to see, and everything there are in pictures.

Another interesting scene for us, was some people dressed in traditional Dutch costumes. It is quite eye catching in the park. We talked with a three ladies who seemed to come to the park together. They were volunteers to walk around in the park, with their grandma's old dresses. I really love this idea, it adds a lot more fun in the park. I even saw a family with kids, and with a small pulling cart. You somehow feel that is a movie scene, but it is real there. That is fun for everyone else, who keep asking them to take pictures with.

Being the most touristy place, it has the problems of being crowded. Being in the Europe, toilets are not free even with 13.5 euro entrance fee. For me, I wouldn't think it is necessary to come to the Netherlands just for this park. There are more pictures here.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Connection with China - Delft Blauw

When we were planning to move to Delft, a Dutch-American friend told us about cities in the Netherlands, and Delft was special for its famous porcelain. After we came, I noticed the tourist stores selling all kinds of blue and white color porcelain products. I was wondering, it was so similar to Chinese Qing Hua Ci - Blue Flower Porcelain. However, I didn't question much further.

The past weekend was a Museum weekend, and most of the museums in the Netherlands are free to the public. We took the opportunity and visited several museums at Delft. In the Prinsenhof museum, I was really amazed to find out the origin of the Delft Blauw. There were several ancient porcelain containers, it depicted Chinese figures: with special ancient style costumes. It must be either from China, or imitated Chinese porcelain. It also displays some colored porcelain products that were claimed to learn from Japanese porcelains.

I then went on to check the history of Delft Blauw. Delft was famous earlier for its brewery. Later, due to the water quality decrease in the city, many breweries had to close. After that, ceramics was developed fast since potteries imported from abroad were very popular. Delft became synonymous with ceramics - ceramics have been produced in this city for many centuries. In many Dutch households you will find a bowl or a vase with a hand-painted motif.

In the 1600’s the beautiful white and blue Chinese porcelain came to Europe, with the Dutch East India Company. It soon gained major popularity and Dutch potters started to imitate the technique. At this time porcelain was an unknown material in the Netherlands. The potters aimed to copy the Oriental products with local clay, and they were successful. It became so popular that it turned into serious competition for the local potters. In order to save their trade, they imitated the porcelain and created Delftware. Although the Delftware potters liked to use the word ’porceleyn’ for the product they produced, this was technically incorrect. Porcelain is made from porcelain clay (kaolin), whilst Delftware is made from a clay mixture that is covered with a tin glaze after it has come out of the kiln.

Although sometimes I question whether those Delft blauw souvenirs sold in the market were actually made in China, I have to agree that the varieties and functions of these porcelain products are developed quite differently in the Netherlands. Blue tiles on the wall are very special in Dutch culture, which was absent in China. Similarly in both places, the plates decorated with blue paintings are very common. However, the display of plates in shelves might be more as a western culture, in which stories and real life scenes cover the full plate, still in contemporary times. Maybe it is necessary to visit Jingdezhen again, to really think about their differences.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A belated marriage as a 50th birthday gift

During the weekend I called home and talked with my nephew who is 24 years old this year. I asked about his girlfriend, and asked whether they were planning to get married. He said, 'we both felt that marriage is only a piece of paper. Maybe when we decided to have a kid, we might get married for that'. Okay, I agree. When I was in China, I seemed to agree that the legal marriage certificate is the most important sign for a married couple. When Mr. and Mrs. Aawara got married, a social wedding was regarded as much more important than the certificate. Your relatives and friends recognize you as a couple only if they witness the wedding.

Different countries have different culture. Here in the Netherlands, marriage seems to be even more treated as 'a piece of paper'. When we just came here, Mr. Aawara's office-mate told him that 'his girlfriend is pregnant, and he is going to take parental leave'. We were both shocked to hear. A friend's brother didn't like to get married although his kid is in high school. The lady wanted, but was ok to live without a certificate with him. Recently she had her 50th birthday, and he gave her the marriage vow as the birthday gift! They were both very happy. I have heard before that 50th birthday is very important for Dutch people.

All these are due to the partnership law in 1997. In the Netherlands, Once marriage stops being about binding mothers and fathers together for the sake of the children they create, the need to get married gradually disappears. Some argued that this was due to the successful campaign for same-sex marriage, in which they tried to differentiate marriage from parenthood. This also led to the spike in Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrates, which I don't feel it makes sense to calculate any more in the Dutch context. Convince the public that marriage is not about parenthood, and increasingly parents simply stop getting married. Being registered as partners in the city hall, you have the full range of benefit that the legal married couple have: welfare benefit and tax breaks as well.

When we first moved in this current apartment, our landlady asked me, are you bf-gf, or couples. I hurriedly said, 'we are married'. And I also added, ' you live together without getting married?' Why not? Many people are like this in the Netherlands. Now thinking back, my questions was really not a question here in the Netherlands.

Since I mentioned a little about the same-sex marriage, really I haven't noticed any gay/lesbian couples here. I remember in US, people would like to announce their existences, by either putting a rainbow sticked on their car bumper, or raising a rainbow flag out of their windows. I have seen their signs many times in Providence, where the city mayor was a gay. I remember that in Denver there was a gaylord street where they liked to live. There is a 'King-sooper' grocery was called 'Queen-sooper' since you could see lots of gay couples there. However in the Netherlands, I haven't noticed any sign. I asked my Dutch friends, she said you know it exists if you know them personally. They are just part of everyone. Since their rights are protected well, there is no need to show up. Netherlands was the first country that legalized same-sex marriage in 2001.

The picture is from here.