Recipe: Meat Buns (Baozi)

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What meat buns should look like. Taken from here

I say it straight: It makes no sense to make steamed meat buns (or 包子baozi in Chinese) while living in a famous night market in Taiwan. A big variety of flavours and kinds is available easily, and it is probably even cheaper to buy them from vendors than to buy all ingredients. So, why spend time and effort making ugly, crooked, amateurish versions of them? Well, I could say that there is the advantage of giving them exactly that special flavour that you like that no vendor can produce. Maybe it is also because I simply don’t trust the cleanness and healthiness of the night market food. But after all, I guess it is because of that DIY challenge that underlies all cooking and baking projects…

Ingredients:

  • Filling:
    • Leak
    • Leak onions
    • Celery
    • Mushroom
    • Carrot
    • Garlic
    • Ginger
    • Minced meat
    • Eggs
    • Spices and sauces as you like (I used: Salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne pepper, mustard, oyster mushroom soy sauce, black vinegar (“Worcestershire sauce”), thyme, rosemary)
  • Dough:
    • 1kg Flour (I used 250g whole grain flour, 750g white wheat flour)
    • 30g sugar
    • 15g salt
    • 50g butter
    • 600ml warm water (or 100ml milk + 500ml water)
    • yeast (I use instant dry yeast)

Procedure:

Chop the vegetables into small pieces. Really small! The smaller the better!

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In order to unfold the aroma of the spices like garlic, leak onion and ginger, pan-fry the chopped vegetables shortly (also because otherwise the carrot and leak would still feel too raw after steaming the bun). Meanwhile, mix the minced meat with eggs (just as a rough orientation: I used ~800g minced meat and two eggs), a big spoon of mustard (French Dijon mustard! NEVER use that American crap they call mustard!), soy sauce, and the other spices of your choice. When the vegetables are done pan-frying, mix them well with the raw meat mixture.

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Make a standard yeast dough. Using 1kg of flour, in my case, was enough for 24 meat buns. Add sugar, salt, butter (alternative: olive oil) and instant yeast, then pour 600ml of liquid (water, or milk with water) into the bowl. Knead for 10 minutes to get a homogenous dough. Let it stand for 30 minutes in a warm environment. It will usually grow to 2 or 3 times its original size. Knead it again thoroughly and let it stand for another 30 minutes. Then, the dough is ready for further processing.

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Now comes the tricky part that needs experience and training. A skilled cook can do the whole thing in his or her hand, but it also works on a board or bench. Take a bit of dough (roughly: a ball of 4 cm diameter) and make it flat (by hand or with a stick). Then, form a meat ball with a spoon and place it in the middle of the flat dough piece. Now, try to form a completely closed pocket. If you are not sure how to manage that, I am sure you can easily find a youtube video in your preferred language. The easiest is to take opposite ends of the dough, squeeze them together, add other ends until you hold eight sides between two fingers, then twist the bundle until all sides are securely connected.

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As you can see from the photo, my skill is not very advanced. My meat buns are ugly and amateurish. Yet, the real success rate is revealed in the last step: Steam the buns in a steamer or in steaming plates (with holes in the bottom) above boiling water for approx. 30 minutes. The yeast dough will grow again, which you should consider when placing the raw buns on the plate, and the meat should be completely done by then. Your folding technique is “successful” when the buns don’t open during the steaming process. In my case, 3 out of 24 buns opened. The rest looks OK, I believe (even though it is very sure that I won’t win any prize for these!)…

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The buns can be kept in a freezer for some time. Whenever you want to eat one, just steam it for another 15 minutes and it is ready. I have just prepared my breakfast for the next three weeks!

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Not a Babysitter!

I met our neighbour, an old Taiwanese guy, in the afternoon.

He: “Hello! Aren’t you going to work?

Me: “No, these days I am not working. I am taking care of my daughters!

He: “Ah! Babysitter!

Me: “No! I am their father!

He: “Yes! Babysitter!

At that moment I felt slightly upset without clearly knowing why. Yet, it was easy for me to forgive him right away, because he is an old Taiwanese guy who doesn’t know it better. Most men, here, are not involved in raising little children, it is completely on the Moms, often with the help of the Mom’s mother or mother-in-law. When fathers or grandfathers are contributing anything, it is mostly really just some supervision, playing, or taking the kid to the playground (babysitter job, indeed). Bathing babies, preparing food, changing diapers, putting them to bed – no way!

When Tsolmo was born, my wife stayed at her parents’ place for the first 40 days. Her Mom made food (special regenerative maternity meals) and bathed Tsolmo. This time, with Ana, my wife stays at our home and I do everything (plus entertaining and containing Tsolmo). When my mother-in-law heard that, she didn’t agree to it. She gave us money for hiring a household helper. Fortunately, I could convince my wife that we don’t need that! This really would have made me upset! I am not such a fool that we need a stranger to take care of MY daughters, do our laundry and keep the house clean! As a compromise, we ordered maternity food from a delivery service, because I am not very familiar with what kind of dishes a Mom needs after giving birth.

So far, 18 days after Ana’s birth, I still enjoy my role as father of two. My wife regenerates very quickly, has good mood and a reasonable mind. Ana is mostly sleeping and eating (breast-fed), doesn’t cry much, and obviously doesn’t have any trouble with anything. It is my job to give her a daily bath, which we both enjoy! Tsolmo needs most attention. She welcomed the new family member quite well and treats her with care and respect. Yet, I sensed a sign of jealousy recently: She wants to be carried much more than before June 12th, both at home and on the street or in the park. She didn’t realise her new role as the older sister, yet, but still wants to be the little one that is taken care of. But all in all, she is still an angel that is very easy to take care of!

bathinganasuya

In this regard, I am happy we did not ask a household helper to come to our home! We don’t need help! The luxury that I, the father and husband, can be home and do everything has many advantages:

  • My wife feels comfortable and relaxed, because at home and with family (and nobody else) around, the environment to recover is the best!
  • Tsolmo grows up in a critical phase (the “terrible two” year) with her father around, being familiarised with the man of the house involved in housework and daily routines, therefore not developing a gender bias.
  • Tsolmo and Ana hear not only Mom’s Chinese, but also Daddy’s German! Tsolmo’s German was lagging behind the development of her Chinese, but recently it caught up rapidly!
  • I am very happy that I can bring in myself usefully, reduce the burden of my wife, feel like a real father, and spend quality time with my daughters! Yes, also bathing and changing diapers is quality time, because it is the best chance to form strong bonds with my kids!
  • We as a family create home, which is a constant process of momentary construction of atmosphere. If I was at work and instead an uninvolved household helper in our apartment, it would just not be the same!

I am not a babysitter! I am a father! One fourth of this family, with an important position to occupy and a role to play! For no money in the world would I want to miss this opportunity! I don’t say that from a selfish and egoistic perspective, but with the firm conviction that daughters want and need time with their father, and that wives are helped the most when their husbands are around as active and engaged parts of a family.

Teaching at university in Taiwan

The semester is over. I was teaching a class entitled Science and Technology Ethics (original title as appearing in the course list: 善與義務:科學與科技倫理) at Tunghai University in Taichung (find the lecture script here, if you are interested). In one of the last classes I handed out evaluation sheets to let the students give me a feedback that I can use to improve my teaching and my class outline. I am very happy to receive a generally very positive feedback! Students pointed out that my classes are always well prepared, that I am always kind to the students and willing to answer questions, and that my way of presenting this philosophical topic (applied ethics though) is vivid, interesting and increasing their interest in this normative academic discipline. Of course, not all students liked my teaching style or found the class appealing, but the wide range of evaluations (some found the pace too slow, others too fast; some said I offered too much reading material, others wished to have more; some would like to have more interaction in class, others felt I waste time with class discussions (more on that later)) show me that I might have found a suitable middle way. On the other side, there have been a few rather negative comments that bother me a lot! In order to get them out of my head I want to write them down here (blogging as a therapy).

Before coming to my point, I’d like to explain the differences between the German and the Taiwanese education system, which is necessary for understanding why my German teaching approach clashes with the Taiwanese university culture. Here is an overview including the linguistic expressions that we use to describe the stages of education that kids and adolescents go through:

school

In Germany, children go to Kindergarten at the age of 3 (usually). Here, they mostly play or playfully learn very basic daily life skills like tying shoes, brushing teeth, handcrafts, and socialising. At the age of 6, school starts with 4 years primary (or elementary) school. After that, a kid (or better: the parents) have two options: continuing with a 6-year secondary school (Hauptschule, Realschule) that is finished after grade 10, or a 9-year secondary school (Gymnasium). Only the latter qualifies for studying at a university. The former qualifies for an apprenticeship (accompanied by vocational school, Berufsschule) for craftsmanship, service jobs, labour, all “non-academic” jobs. We refer only to these 10 or 13 years as school where we as Schüler (schoolchildren, or ‘pupils’ in BE) learn what teachers teach us. Only at university we are Studenten (students) and study something. I am aware that in English, especially in American English, study and student are used more generally for all ages, but in the German understanding, study (studieren) sounds very much like sitting down and delving into books and scripts until one gets profound knowledge of something or can even develop creative new insights from it. At school, we never really study, we just learn what the teacher tells us, for example in the form of homework or exercise questions from a textbook. But universities are not schools! They are academic research institutions with the task to educate the future generation of academics. There are no teachers (except for the departments that educate the future generation of teachers, maybe), but professors, researchers, and senior academics. Those giving chemistry lectures, for example, are not chemistry teachers, but chemical researchers and academic experts that have never learned in any formal way how to teach. Students, therefore, are not taken care of like at school, but have to organise their student life by themselves. They are expected to be interested in what they study, to voluntarily go to the library and get the necessary books, and to have a high motivation to sit down and study.

This is VERY different in Taiwan. Kids, here, even study Kindergarten, and when they are 6 they graduate from Kindergarten with a ceremony. Then, they study elementary, junior high, and senior high school. Almost every adolescent continues, then, with undergraduate courses at a college or university. All of these institutions are considered schools. That’s why people here think that I am a teacher. This environment (and linguistic understanding of it) has clear consequences on the study culture. Even at university, students expect to be taken care of like teenagers. They appear much more immature to me than their German peers. Moreover, whereas in Germany the choice of major is already the first step into the direction of the future profession, in Taiwan students can study something which has not necessarily anything to do with their future job. Most don’t even know what kind of career they would like to pursue. The only goal is getting the Bachelor degree, because many jobs – reportedly even bus driver and hairdresser – require a college degree. Therefore, students just study for passing the exams well to get good grades.

Back to my course. Even though it was associated with the philosophy department, it was open to all students of all majors. 39 students were registered for it. One third was philosophy students, another third language majors, and the last third from other majors like international business or sciences. Around 20 students have been present in all classes, some appeared occasionally, and 8-10 almost never showed up. I had 16 classes (each 100 minutes), but 2 of them were midterm and final exam. Since my Chinese is still too poor, I taught the class in English. I admit that this is truly a challenge for the Taiwanese students, but they all knew it from the beginning, so I may assume that they all judged themselves capable of attending an English class successfully, otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen it. In terms of teaching style, I planned to have a healthy mix of lecture and interactive discussion and/or group work. Yet, in the first classes, I sensed that it would be very difficult to gain anything meaningful in an efficient way from involving the students. When I asked questions, there was just no response (unless it was really just a simple brainstorming). Even when I handed out group tasks related to the class content we just talked about, some students had no clue what to do. In the later classes, I reduced the class activities in order not to waste valuable class time. This led to negative comments on the evaluation sheets. It was boring because I just kept lecturing. I should motivate the students more to participate. Some students also wrote clearly that this is not the teacher’s fault, but the unlucky and bad tradition among Taiwanese students not to open their mouths and not to use their brains.

Taiwanese students don’t want to use their brains!”. Since I worked as a postdoctoral fellow and then as an adjunct assistant professor at a Taiwanese university, I heard this statement very often, from senior professors, but also from students. Does it mean, I should adapt my teaching style and my expectations to this fact? Should I challenge them less but reduce the level? One student wrote:

Sometimes I feel the explanations are a bit too much. It would be nice to stay simple. Nowadays, simplicity seems to be a trend. To be honest, I’ve only read a few scripts. I’m not sure if I could grasp the meaning.

This is a university class! Complex matters like the ethical evaluation of scientific and technological development and their impact on society are not simple! My presentation slides for one class almost never exceeded 10 slides, and I always put simple graphic overviews and illustrations on them because I don’t like too much text on slides that I will say anyway. From my perspective, the class content is already as simple as possible! But sure, students that sleep or play with their smartphones in class miss the point, of course, and then find it difficult to grasp the meaning. It also means, obviously, that students expect that the teacher (even though university lecturers are not teachers) will refine and present all the content in entertaining and easy-to-swallow bits and portions. They won’t read more than 2 pages of lecture script, not to speak of going to the library and looking for any of the books I recommended throughout the course.

Among the questions on the evaluation questionnaire that required a rating on a scale from 1 (very good) to 6 (very bad/insufficient), one of the worst average ratings (2.8, still not super bad) was received by the question whether the student can see the usefulness of the class content for the future job. I tried hard to explain in every class how they can apply the strategies, concepts and thought patterns in their later jobs, whatever they will be. It seems to me, many students have no imagination of their future job life. It is too far from now for them. The following comment from a student’s evaluation sheet illustrates another phenomenon widely observed in Taiwan:

Overall, this is a course people can learn something from, but the practical usage of it is not clear to me. Some of the strategies taught in class are really helpful for critical thinking!”

Well, isn’t critical thinking a very practical usage for all kinds of activities? According to my wife (a former High school English teacher) and many other Taiwanese friends that I talked to, the Taiwanese education system doesn’t encourage critical thinking, but sometimes even punishes it. Possibly rooted in the times of martial law in which the Chinese Nationalists that ruled Taiwan (Kuomintang, KMT) wanted workers but no intellectuals, practical doing is much more appreciated than thinking which is considered a purely theoretical activity. It can be perfectly possible that my class impressed some students by showing them for the first time what it means to think critically (in case I may believe some comments like this from other students’ evaluation sheets). But for many, apparently, this is nothing in which they see value, and certainly no practical value. Even though this is a university class, I obviously have to assume that the students attending it are not in any way of the intellectual type but rather looking for instructions on how to perform particular work operations or how to finish tasks. But this is impossible in an applied ethics topic!

I will, of course, try harder to make the classes appealing for all the students, get them to participate actively, and to leave every class with the motivating feeling of having learned something useful. But I won’t change my idea of university classes, expecting (and imagining) students being interested in the class content, being ready to read topic-related articles or books, asking questions and thinking through the essence of my take-home messages. I won’t go with the low-level mainstream flow that students prefer. My class should be a challenge, only then would it be a good university class! I want students to learn how to think. If they refuse to do so, they shouldn’t be at a university at all, but get a labour job! But here I enter political terrain and better leave it to other people.

My Misanthropy – 4. Responsibility

4. Responsibility

Writing is a therapy. It makes many ideas clearer in my mind. After a text is produced, I think it over, which often induces some kind of progress or change in my views. At the end of the previous post, I sounded quite hopeless and daunted about human stupidity. Today, I am not that negative.

Where are we now? I explained that my misanthropy is the product of introversion, strong ego and self-confidence, and high expectation on rationality and reasonability. But in contrast to yesterday, today I think, my main concern is that there is always a chance for change. My critical statements are associated with a plea for practicing mindfulness and awareness, for sharpening cognitive and intellectual skills, and the strong belief in everybody’s potential to overcome mindlessness, delusion and stupidity. In this respect, my concern doesn’t even deserve the label misanthropy. There is always chance to do better, and that’s why I am telling all this! With other words: As a realist, I have to be a misanthrope (because people give me reasons for it), but as an optimist, I am confident that it doesn’t have to be like this forever.

Obviously, the call for fighting and reducing stupidity is an ethical one. Stupid decisions have an impact on others (human, biosphere, eco-system), usually a negative one. Therefore, I claim that everybody has an ethical obligation to reduce stupidity to his or her best knowledge and capability. This is a responsibility claim that needs further circumstantiation.

At a closer examination, we find that responsibility is never just one-dimensional as in someone is responsible. There must, at least, be a second dimension, that which that someone is responsible for. Moreover, it can be analysed what is means in this case. Where does responsibility come from? Usually it is attributed by someone to someone, or in some way expected by someone from someone, or delegated by someone to someone. These two someones should be in any way related to each other so that responsibility claims are justified. Last but not least, there is also a fourth dimension: Someone may legitimately attribute responsibility to someone for something only in view of a certain body of rules or a level of knowledge. A necessary precondition for being a carrier of responsibility is the ability to fulfil the duties and obligations that go along with it. Above all, the person claimed responsible must be in a position of knowing the rules or of having relevant knowledge.

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In order to clarify responsibilities, there are two strategies: We can start from cases and ask who is responsible for what in which way; or we can start from roles and ask what is the particular person’s situation in terms of responsibility. The former is often perceived of as accusation and blame. Besides, responsibilities are denied and shifted to other people. The latter approach appears more useful for our purposes: What can people in their various roles (family members, friends, citizen, consumers, professionals, decision-makers) be held responsible for? A pragmatic standpoint is necessary: Responsibility is a useful concept only when it is enacted from the now-perspective. Someone is now held responsible for future issues, that means in the position to respond to inquiries and claims for taking action. Note that past-related claims are usually expressed in terms of accountability: Someone is now held accountable for the effects of a decision or action in the past, that means the burden of reacting on it is on that persons account.

Let’s have a look at the four dimensions of a responsibility claim concerning stupidity. The blue someone – who is held responsible – is everybody. For single cases, it must be clearly distinguished between particular roles and positions, and also between individual and collective (institutional, social, etc.) responsibility. Yet, in one or the other way, I am addressing every member of the human race.

The now-perspective helps us defining what it is, exactly, that people and groups are responsible for (the yellow something): I am not stating that people are responsible for their stupidity (which, to be precise, would be a case of accountability), since that would be more like blaming (“See the result of your stupidity! Now clean that mess!“). Legally, of course, many foolish, asinine and idiotic people are responsible for their deeds and are sanctioned accordingly. Mindlessness, for example, is not an excuse for causing a traffic accident. Even though a person that caused a traffic accident is not a criminal, the person still violated the obligation to pay attention to safety and proper driving style. Here, however, I’d like to shift the focus away from the consequences of stupidity and towards the chance to interfere with it before it manifests itself: fight and overcome foolishness, mindlessness and idiocy by right vision, right thought, right consciousness and right concentration. Everybody is responsible for self-cultivation and training one’s self-awareness and mental and cognitive capacity. Now we have clarified the simpler two dimensions.

I am the red someone – I attribute responsibility to you. All of you! Is that legitimate? I need to show that there is a relation between me and everyone, so that nobody can claim that their stupidity (whatever form) is not my business. I do that on the grounds of a holistic concept of conditionality: Human decision-making sets forth cause-effect-chains that determine future states of the world. Buddhists call this Karma. With everything we do, say, or think, we influence the further course of the world fabric, sometimes in very tiny and incremental amounts, sometimes in huge and clearly visible ways. An easy example might be the last presidential election in the USA. Why would I mind that a sick society gets the president that it deserves, the masterpiece of an idiot? Be it their problem, far away from me! Yet, clearly, the US-American politics have a global effect, be it through war-mongering, protectionist economy, climate change denial, American soft imperialism (spreading the American way of life through Hollywood movies and dumb TV shows around the world where mindless people admire and copy it), and so on. What you US-American dumbasses do in your country has a more or less direct impact on my life, my safety, my health, etc. If you are not able to maintain a political system in which you have good choices (and not a choice between the two most despicable individuals on the planet) and in which pragmatism rules (isn’t that even an American thing, see Dewey, James, Pierce…?!), and if you are not able to connect with people around you in proper communication and persuasion that can prevent them from making stupid choices, then either your activity or your inactivity sets forth a causal chain at which’s end stands the entire world. That’s why you are legitimately held responsible! The same goes for consumerism, for example mindless purchase and application of cosmetic products (supporting destruction of rainforest, animal testing, pollution of air, water and soil, etc.). Sometimes the paths are more hidden, especially when the stupidity occurs in the private and not in the public sphere. If you easily lose your temper, your kid will be emotionally instable. It is very likely that your kid plays with other kids – maybe my Tsolmo – in the kindergarten or school and exposes them to his or her own bad temper, learned from the parents. One more example that covers foolishness from lack of education and collective social and political responsibility: I mentioned the unsustainable forms of agriculture and nomadic stock farming in sub-Sahara Africa. Attribution of responsibility to those nomads and settled-down farmers only makes sense in view of their capacity to satisfy existential needs and to understand the local and global context of their practices. With other words: They should be open for changes and alternatives as soon as they are available, feasible and justifiable. Responsibility in this context, must, furthermore, be attributed to people in the Western developed countries (Europe, North America)! Without our support, our care, our concern, and our active pressure on politics, there won’t be any change to the better. Increasing the motivation of local decision-makers in politics and economy to induce political and social changes that lead to a more sustainable lifestyle and practice, should be the concern of all those who know about this problem. As Peter Singer also pointed out: Remaining inactive in the face of global poverty and lack of education is highly immoral. Everybody can be held responsible to engage in collaborative improvement of human capacity and decision-making.

In short: There is only one case in which your existence has no impact on me: You live in solitude at a remote inaccessible place with no connection to the rest of the world. In every other case, there are possible pathways of karmic potentials that connect you to me. Use your creativity to think of more examples, even with the tiniest and longest chain of events and entities!

The fourth dimension – rules and knowledge – secures that the attribution of responsibility is justified in terms of the responsible person’s ability to understand and fulfil the responsibility claims. The claim for responsibility to try one’s best to overcome foolishness, mindlessness and idiocy weighs much heavier for an educated person that grew up in peaceful times at a favourable place in a stable and loving family than for a member of a poverty stricken society in a war zone with no access to school education. I’d like to use the example of traffic in Taiwan again: People say the traffic in China, India or Vietnam is much worse than in Taiwan, as if it could be worse was a proper excuse or even justification for the local practices. In China, for example, the discrepancies between urban and rural population and their development are enormous! In contemporary Taiwan, the coverage of education is homogenously high, the lifestyle can be considered modern and developed. Taiwanese people see themselves as a developed nation, a knowledge society with high life standard, technological advancement and international competitiveness. A comparison with China or India is inappropriate since it would mean to lower Taiwanese standard to that of developmental states. All Taiwanese have school education and may be expected to be able to estimate effects of physical causes like the velocity of cars or their momentum when driving though curves. They have driving lessons before getting a license, so they may be expected to know the traffic rules. They grow up in a society that is built on Confucian foundations, highlighting the importance of respecting social relations, so they may be expected to know concepts like consideration, safety, patience. Yet, they drive like fools, violate or disregard traffic rules, and act inconsiderately, impatiently and in an extremely self-centred manner. When I claim that Taiwanese people are fully responsible for their driving style, I find that very much justified in view of the degree of development of the Taiwanese society, including education, culture and self-perception. However, we might also turn that argument around: As long as Taiwanese people behave like this in traffic, Taiwan can’t be considered a developed country. Driving like this and not attempting to change it means to admit that we are a country of mindless fools.

I hope these reflections could create some clarity concerning the attribution of responsibility for working on one’s stupidity. Nobody is perfect! Mistakes can be forgiven! Yet, we must try, harder, every day! Giving in to stupidity – no doubt the easier way – is something we as mankind can’t afford! Too powerful and impacting our activities have become! With this I leave the field of individual-focused misanthropy and turn to anti-anthropocentrism and the problem of mankind as a failure of nature. This will be the topic of the next post of this series.

My Misanthropy – 3. Stupidity

3. Stupidity everywhere!

In the first two posts of this series, I mentioned it already: My image of the cognitive and intellectual capacity of people is generally rather low. In simple words: I think people are stupid. But this is not precise enough. Moreover, it sounds like an offensive judgment. Here is not the place for insults and bashing. Instead, let me try to clarify my claim by more precise definitions and observational facts that circumstantiate it.

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Many people would agree that stupidity, in some way, has to do with a lack of knowledge – be it factual or technical knowledge (facts, logic, anticipation of consequences of action, etc.) or normative, social, moral knowledge (values, norms, customs, etc.) – or with a lack of personal and social competences like emotional self-management, empathy, social interaction, or performance as a citizen. According to this definition, all babies are stupid, and so are all those who didn’t get a proper education (for example the population of poor and underdeveloped countries). It is obvious that the definition of lack, here, strongly depends on the expectation on how much a certain member of a society should know and on what is the standard for social performance. We would not call a member of an aboriginal tribe in the Amazon jungle “stupid” just because he doesn’t know the physics, biology or geography that are taught in high schools. We also wouldn’t blame a baby that drops his toys for not knowing about the effects of gravity.

A first useful classification would be intended and unintended stupid behaviour or action. This separates those who are fully aware of the stupidity or wrongness of their decisions and actions (still doing it anyway) from those who are either not aware of how and why their action is stupid (not reflecting it at all) or convinced that their action is not stupid at all (even after reflecting it). Intended idiocy covers crime and – in deontological terms – immoral acts. Thus, I distinguish three forms of stupidity:

  • Foolishness: This is an unconscious and, therefore, unintended form of stupidity. Fools just don’t know better. It includes uneducated people, mentally disabled or demented people, little kids, but also clumsy and unlucky people. Fools do stupid things rather by accident and out of ignorance.
  • Asininity: When people know how to do well in a particular situation but don’t do it due to a lack of understanding and/or intelligence – mindless people. Asinine people somehow choose to do stupid things since they have a chance to choose otherwise. With other words: Asinine people are those who don’t use their brains even though it may legitimately be expected from them, for example adults with school degrees, sufficiently socialised members of a society.
  • Idiocy: Intended wrongdoing and misconduct, a product of bad intentions rather than ignorance. Idiots are people who choose to cause harm to others, people with a lack of ethical integrity, people who aim at increasing the suffering of others.

These categories are, of course, not very clear. From a Buddhist as well as from a psychological perspective, also idiotic acts with bad intentions are the result of ignorance. In fact, many mental disorders are named with the medical term idiocy. A person with bad intentions might be misled by emotions or by lack of coping abilities, not being aware that there is an alternative to choose that would be less idiotic. I use these categories to make a clear distinction concerning forgiveness of stupidity: Foolishness can easily be forgiven. Asininity has to be pointed out, criticised, and eliminated (besides being forgiven). Idiocy has to be punished and sanctioned (besides being treated and forgiven). Let’s have a look at some cases.

Half of mankind has no access to proper school education or lives in existential fear (hunger, war, natural disasters), and doesn’t care much about intellectual capacity, scientific knowledge, or intelligence. It would be highly unfair to demand smartness and cognitive farsightedness from them. When nomadic farmers in the Savannah in Africa destroy valuable land, it happens out of ignorance and lack of education. We can’t demand sustainable agriculture and stock-farming from them as long as they have no chance to understand what it means. All they know is that they are hungry, and how their ancestors did it. Yet, a lot of human activity has a severe impact on the ecosystem with devastating effects on Earth’s biosphere (including mankind), and must, therefore, be labelled foolish. Education and better dissemination of knowledge (know-how, know-what) and competence might be a remedy, making the fight against foolishness a political task.

I like to believe that the group of idiots is the smallest of these three. We find criminals, rude and hateful people, reckless and ruthless assholes all around the globe. Yet, they are often the exception rather than the norm. Most societies established law-and-order systems and social sanctioning pathways that keep most members on the track. The crime rates in Germany and Taiwan are both rather low compared to violence stricken countries like Mexico or Afghanistan. Generally, Taiwanese people are very kind and well-behaved (exception: animal abusers and黑道 (heidao, Taiwanese mafia) people), whereas in Germany I often came across disrespectful, insulting, shameless assholes, like football supporters destroying trains and beating up people, vandals destroying public property for fun, moochers, and other scum (one of my reasons for moving to an Asian country). Among the most despicable crimes, from my perspective (feeding my misanthropy), are business crimes that lead to environmental destruction (illegal pollution, bribing regulators to get permissions to build facilities in protected habitats, burning rainforest for bigger plantations, etc.) or exposure to harm (concealment of known consumer risks for reasons of profit, violation of food safety regulations, etc.), and violation of political responsibilities by lying, supporting inequality and injustice, suppressing critical voices, violating rights, and knowingly undermining social stability. I will write more about this form of inacceptable human behaviour in section 5 of this series.

The most tricky group are the mindless asinine people. They are tricky because it is less obvious that they are stupid. They are not idiots because they don’t commit any crime or choose to act unethically. Yet, their performance has a huge impact on my life! In Taiwan and Germany, we may assume that everybody receives or has received a formal education. Still, many people choose ways of meaning construction (default setting, dogmatism) that lead to undesirable manifestations of social spheres. Religiosity, political ideologies, economy with its monetary system, consumerism, hedonistic pleasure-seeking – none of these phenomena are illegal or directly immoral. Yet, they are all the result of mindlessness and stupidity. Why is that? In everything we choose to do we are driven by archaic deeply rooted experiences: fear, attachment (greed, envy), and resistance (anger, hatred). These forces override empirical rationality and reason. It makes no sense at all to take the Bible literally and believe in an almighty God in the sky, but still people choose to believe it because it makes their life simpler and feeds their most fundamental fears (of death, of loss, of hopelessness). We all know that our consumerism damages the ecosystem, but still we buy more useless products, produce more trash, and keep insisting on cheap energy (rather than expensive but sustainable energy). We know that mass-media entertainment and most TV program is entirely nonsensical and stupidifying, but still many people choose to watch it day in day out. We know that social media has an adverse effect on our socialisation and friendship quality, but still many of us spend hours per day staring at screens. Because it is simple, easy, and satisfies our desires, the root of all dukkha (suffering in the Buddhist sense)…

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I would like to go one step further and include everyone into this group (stupidity in the form of mindlessness) who is self-centered, or even wider: who has a self that is more or less strongly manifested and unquestioned. We are all the undoubted center of our universes. We follow interests and desires, shaped by experiences and our matrix (education, culture, society, etc.), and find it perfectly legitimate to put ourselves above everybody else. This is a very natural occurrence and nothing despicable. Yet, it causes trouble. Since 2500 years, European and Asian societies know better. The Ancient Greek identified the human capacity to step out of our animalistic nature and raise ourselves up towards freedom. Laozi, Kongzi (Confucius) and especially Gautama Buddha proposed manifold epistemic and practical ways to cultivate a mindful character and personality. Yet, only few people have the capacity to understand those ideas and put them into practice. In Taiwan, the self-centeredness and mindlessness of people is strongly manifested in traffic: People are completely inconsiderate and unaware of the consequences of their actions. Imagine the stupidest and most reckless manoeuvre that comes to your mind (like making a sudden U-turn on a crowded main road at rush hour) – there will be a Taiwanese who does exactly that right in this moment. As I said before, Taiwanese are very kind and friendly people, so they have certainly no bad intentions when behaving like that. They are just not able to anticipate and comprehend why they should pay attention to such things, and they are utterly impatient and careless. Road safety? Responsibility? Consideration for others? Pfffft! It is late and I want to get home, so out of my way! This form of recklessness is especially problematic since it effects the life quality of everybody! Moreover, it is avoidable! Also Taiwanese have driving classes and have to pass a test. They should know all the rules and the effect of their violation! Yet, the Taiwanese society failed in establishing a culture in which people understand that it is useful and important to have such tests and such regulations. Instead, people learn the rules only to pass the test and then forget them again because who cares?!.

Another aspect in this category is the entire field of emotional incompetence. Bad-tempered, aggressive, capricious, whiny, uncontrolled people terrorise their surrounding. Lack of emotional intelligence is, certainly, one of the most impacting factors for loss of life quality, both for the emotional person him/herself and the people around such a person. I know, we are all victims of our emotions, and blame or accusation may be a little unfair. I even know people (like my first girlfriend) who think it is perfectly OK and “human” to lose temper and freak out in a burst of furious rage from time to time. We are not robots, right? Right! We are civilised, mindful, conscious beings that have a chance – and, therefore, an obligation – to reflect upon emotional triggers and resulting reactions! Yes, I demand too much, I know. That’s why the only solution is misanthropy. We just can’t do better!

All these forms of stupidity – the ignorant, the superstitious and religious, the mindless, the self-centered, the greedy, the bad-tempered, the reckless and ruthless – lower my life quality significantly! Some directly by bothering and annoying me in daily life situations, others indirectly by messing up the social and ecological environment. The worst is: The situation seems so hopeless! We simply can’t implement proper education (for knowledge AND values) everywhere around the globe! There will always be injustice, motivation for crime, lack of vision, self-centeredness! Human stupidity is ubiquitous and eternal – I am sure I am not the first to state this.

In this post, I made some bold claims. The most debatable one, probably, is that people in civilised societies have the moral and social obligation to cultivate a mindful and considerate awareness for their ignorance and stupidity so that they have a chance to overcome it and perform better in their lives. This point needs more convincing arguments in the next episode of this series.

Recipe: Goji-Sesame-Corn-Bread

I like Asian food! Really! Much more than German food, actually! However, there is one thing that we Germans are really spoiled with and that Asians are simply not able to produce: Good bread! Besides beer and sausages, probably the most outstanding item on the list of typical German food! Living in Taiwan, I kind of miss the large variety of tasty bread. Here, I can only get some soft, tasteless, almost cake-like, sponge crap, like American sandwich toast. Some local bakeries try to make “German bread”, but I have never found anything close to what I would call “good bread”. On the contrary, when I made a “good bread” for some friends, they couldn’t appreciate it, because it was “too hard” for them, “like eating steak”. I guess, it is a cultural thing.

Good that I like baking! I just make my own bread! And since we are in Taiwan, I try to combine the “German idea” of bread with the availability of typically local ingredients. Here is my recipe for a rustic rich-flavoured Goji-bread. It features tasty and very healthy Goji berries (枸杞), black sesame and polenta (coarse corn flour), adding up to the “German colours” (the colours of the German national flag).

Ingredients:

  • 500g flour (I usually use 300g wheat flour and 200g whole grain flour with rye and barley)
  • 1 big spoon white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 30g butter
  • 12-15g dry yeast (or according to the instructions on the yeast package, which sometimes comes in portions for 500g or 1kg flour)
  • 300ml warm liquid (I usually use 80-100ml milk with hot water; the more milk the less fluffy the end product)
  • 100g polenta (corn flour)
  • ~80g coarsely ground dried Goji berries (or “a good hand full”)
  • 1 big spoon of black sesame
  • 100ml hot water
  • extra wheat flower (up to 200g)

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Procedure:

Subject flours, sugar, salt, yeast and butter (in small pieces) into a large bowl. Pour the at least hand-warm water/milk mix into the bowl and immediately start kneading with your strong hand. Keep one hand clean, first, to hold the bowl or if needed for something (Trust me: There is nothing more annoying than needing a clean hand right after you just stuck both into the dough!). In the beginning, it feels a bit messy, but after some mixing and kneading the dough becomes more sticky and dry. When your kneading hand is more or less dry, start kneading enthusiastically with both hands. You may take the dough lump out of the bowl and do that on a big wooden board or the table. Knead for 10 minutes! This is very important! The dough might look homogenous after 2 minutes, but you have to continue treating it hard for much longer! This has to do with the chemical structure of flour and the mechanical forces that make the long carbohydrate chains intermingle. The longer you knead the better the bread will be in the end! When the dough is done, keep it covered at a warm place for 20 to 30 minutes for the yeast to rise. Strictly avoid breezes! My father (an experienced baker who taught me many tricks) used to put the bowl with the dough into a tempered water bath. In case your home has a heating, place it there. Taiwan is hot enough, I just put it on the balcony (securely covered to protect from dirt and dust!).

Meanwhile, prepare the “special ingredients mix” (you could just skip this, then the dough will become a very “ordinary” bread): In a suitable bowl or cup, mix the black sesame, polenta and coarsely ground Goji berries (I put a big handful of berries into a plastic bag and smash them with a hammer, but you might find more elegant methods) with hot water (I don’t measure it, but it must be roughly 100ml). Let it stand.

When the first dough is grown to at least double its original size (after about 20-30 minutes), add the Goji-sesame-corn-mix into the bowl. The addition of this watery mass would make the dough too wet, so you will have to add additional flour. Proceed as in the first part: Knead the mix with only one hand first, use the clean hand to add more flour until the dough feels dry enough (when nothing keeps sticking on your hand). Knead again thoroughly for 10 minutes. Keep warm for another 20-30 minutes.

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After one more round of brief kneading, place the lump in the baking mould. If required (for example, if your baking pan is not of good quality), coat the inside of the mould with butter so that the finished bread comes out easily. Heat the oven to 180-200°C. Meanwhile, the dough will grow further in the mould. Before putting it into the oven, make a cut along its top so that it can “unfold”. Sparkle a few drops of water across the surface for proper humidity in the oven while baking and to make the top perfectly crunchy (don’t ask me how and why it works with water!). Bake the bread in the oven for 35-40 minutes. After taking it out, let it stand for at least 15 minutes. When you cut it too early, it will most likely fall apart.

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This bread is suitable for sweet toppings (jam, honey, chocolate spread, peanut butter, etc.) and for savoury ones (cheese, ham, eggs, etc.). My favourite are slices with spreadable cheese, ham, egg, cucumber and tomato…

Superstition = Ignorance

In the previous letter I mentioned ignorance. This is an important topic that is worth elaborating further. According to Buddha’s teachings – and I fully agree! – it is one of the three mind poisons, besides attachment (or greed) and resistance (or hate). It is even regarded as the root of all mundane afflictions since it produces and amplifies attachments and resistances. Not knowing how things really are – how, then, can beneficial and sustainable decision-making be possible? One of the most obvious unwholesome manifestations of ignorance is a mindset based on the maxim ‘We have always done it like this!‘ as often observed in matters of tradition, customs and especially religious and superstitious practices.

A while ago, your Mom insisted on taking you to a nearby temple of the deity “Mazu” (媽祖), the heavenly goddess and patron saint of fishers and sailors, who was suggested by a fortune teller as your “Ganma” (a kind of patron or godmother). Since you are perfectly healthy and develop more than well your Mom wanted to thank the Mazu and please her with your visit. I know that this is very important for her, so I didn’t stop her and went with you. Actually, for me, these religious rituals, same as horoscopes and fortune telling, are entire nonsense! But, pragmatically speaking, if it makes the family happy, why not?! However, I had one serious objection: In Taiwan, it is a custom to burn tons of incenses and even paper money for the deities and ghosts of their folk religion, a mix of Daoism (the biggest influence), Confucianism and Buddhism with strong impact of shamanistic beliefs and practices. Bringing a little baby to such a smoky and polluted place is certainly not a good idea! Isn’t that ironic? We take you to a temple to pray for your good health and, by that, expose you for a considerable time (20-30 minutes) to highly carcinogenic air, heavily laden with the combustion products of organic material, full of heterocycles, acrylates, and many more. This is exactly my problem with ignorance! Instead of applying rational, reasonable, knowledge-informed considerations to their decision-making and choice of options for their life, people do stupid, unhealthy, counterproductive, inefficient things that are motivated by traditions, believes, fears and unquestioned customs that are passed down from ancient times in which the people really had no better idea. What a humbug!

IronyGhostmoney

Indeed, the ubiquitous burning of ghost money is one of the most annoying things about Taiwan, from my perspective. The air is bad enough, but there is nothing worse than neighbours who burn an entire bucket of paper sheets on each and every possible occasion (the lunar calendar is full of special days of hundreds of deities). Especially in the “ghost month” (lunar 7th month) there is a brown layer of ashes above the city. In Taipei the public burning of ghost money is forbidden, but still many people do it, because for them it is a severe offense to stop them from their traditional customs. Sometimes I wonder if the young generation that has at least some formal education is still really believing in ghosts and spirits and the effectiveness of pleasing them by burning paper. Yes, cultural customs and traditions deserve some respect just for the sake of being a cultural element deeply rooted in a society. However, there is a limit, and that is rational reason! When traditions are found to be entirely counterproductive (like producing air pollution to pray for health), there must be a way to change the custom! Even religious and other spiritual worldviews have to be adapted to contemporary levels of knowledge! Ignorance is NOT bliss! As long as a society doesn’t reach this level of understanding, it will remain an “underdeveloped” one. Sorry, Taiwan!

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