Back from Freedom Ride

I just came back from the 11-day 2011 Student Freedom Ride. It was indeed a life-changing experience. It has just planted the seed in me, and I will use the rest of my time to nurture it. I am deeply grateful for all your support. Although I am still in the process of rumination and reflection, I would like to share with you my learning and experience here, and I would love your critique and feedback.

You will find five essays and a few videos from me here:


Please feel free to explore the website which is full of interesting, original contents created by the Student Riders all along the Ride.

Here’s my interview with NPR’s “Tell Me More” program, summarizing the Ride:


I will keep writing and updating, sharing and exchanging with you on my blog:


By the way, among the 40 students on the bus, there is another (former) Hampshire student. Her name is Carla Orendorff.

Here are some of my recommended posts:

What's Your Passion, Freedom Rider?


Why are your getting on the bus?



Injustice Has Evolved. Have We?

Fifty years ago, injustice are very visible in this country. We saw our neighbours and friends suffering from discrimination; we could identify the Ku Klux Klan by their funny costume. The racial discrimination was so violent and outrageous that people had no choice but to stand up for their dignity. Fifty years later, injustice has evolved: it becomes invisible and harder to fight than ever before.

Injustice have become invisible because our society is getting more complex. Today's "bad guys" could achieve their self-interests without stepping outside of their office, and without spilling one drop of blood. They could be as friendly as you could imagine, but they steal your money, abuse your tax money, cause worldwide economic damage, control your food supply, pollute your environment, and make you believe that you can't live without them. This is more than "white-collar crime", this is the global injustice in its 21st century incarnation.

Fifty years ago, Americans could go on the street and protest; they could clearly identify the evil and propose solution: desegregate schools, buses and lunch counters, for example. Today, it becomes very hard to even identify the evil, let alone fighting it. For example, the 2008 Financial Crisis has caused trillions of dollars of damage, and has destroyed the livelihood of millions of family around the world. But even today, not many people fully understand the cause of the crisis, and we couldn't effectively identify the criminals or provide solutions. BP Oil Spill is another example. How can we protest BP's crime against nature? Should we go demonstrate in the middle of the gulf, or in Washington, or on Wall Street, or in front of the multiple international headquarters of BP?

Due to the complexity of our system and the invisibility of the criminals, it has become harder and harder to identify the problems, locate the bad guys, and improve the situation. The only way to understand the system is to study it, and usually it would require a college degree to be even literate in the political and financial circle. Sometimes, it takes more than one PhDs to fully understand why the system is broken.

However, by the time our young students get their multiple degrees, they are usually hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. In order to pay off the student loans, they couldn't afford to fight against the system. They have to join the system and take the highest paying job from Wall Street or from multinational corporations. It seems like that our education system is designed to make sure that by the time a student understands the system, she/he could no longer afford to challenge the system. The commercialization of education system has surrendered a generation of youth into the hand of the powerful moneys. By the time student have gained the knowledge, they have lost the freedom.

Today's social inequality is more severe than ever before, but it might take an economic and politics double PhD to understand the system and to provide useful advice. Injustice is hiding in fancy offices and underneath expensive suit and tie. Street protests are no longer effective enough to bring positive change. Is the fight against injustice getting harder? Should today's youth be depressed because we are facing formidable enemies?

No, not at all. Injustice has evolved over the past fifty years, so has the fight against injustice. Today's youth is standing on the shoulder of previous generations. We have more powerful tools like the Internet. We face less physical hardship or violence. We are indeed facing unheard-of challenges and evil, but each generation is facing a similar situation. Each generation of youth has to solve new problems and come up with new ideas. We are no more and no less empowered than anyone else. We will use our wisdom and will to identify the problems and provide solutions. Aim high!

We Could Be the Devil, And We Already Are

As we travel through the southern states in America, we are greeted with the famous southern hospitality. We are almost surprised by the warm welcome in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, etc. At the same time of being thankful to people's niceness, I can't help thinking: how could these people be the same mob that had ruthlessly beaten the Freedom Riders and burned buses in 1961, not to mention the lynchings and the whole institution of racial crime? In the end, the Southerners are also people who love their family and care about their children. How could this love be translated into cruelty and hatred to some other people?

To answer this question, let us fast forward our clock by 50 years. Now we all think of ourselves as pretty nice people, but this is what our grandchildren will ask us in the year 2061: "Grandpa, how could you have damaged our earth so badly fifty years ago, and leave me with no choice and no future? How could you have allowed your government to kill so many people in countries far far away in name of democracy? Don't you know that every time you fill the gas tank of your SUV, you are overdrafting our energy future, and fueling your car with the blood of thousands of soldiers and millions of innocent people in the Middle East?" In fifty years, our grandchildren will look at our life and society in 2011 with shock and disgust: shocked by our consumerism and indifference to the environment, disgusted by our self-righteousness and inaction. Our grandchildren will ask, "Grandpa, how come you did nothing to help despite the repeated warnings from so many people?"

Faced with our grandchildren's questions, what will be our answer? Will we regret, will we be shamed? Are we going to be the devil that we are condemning now? Are we already the devil that we are trying to fight?


A Global View on Civic Engagement

As one of the few international students on the Ride, "representing" the rest of the world's 6 billion people, I feel obliged to provide a non-American view on global civic engagement.

The United States pays a lot of attention to diversity, which is commendable. However, the American definition of "diversity" also reflects the typical "American singularity". Race, gender, class --- these are historically specific categories created in a unique context, and might not apply to the rest of the world. For example, racial discourse in America is largely focused on the discrimination of black Americans by whites, but it will be highly misleading to use this black-and-white lens to interpret Africa's tribal conflicts, India's linguistic nationalism, Russia's regional warfare, or China's ethnic tension.

Over the past few decades, through America's global dominance, the American view of social justice and civic engagement is projected to (or even forced upon) many parts of the world. However, each country has its own unique situation when it comes to civil rights, social justice, and civic engagement. In many parts of the world, "civil rights" is not even in people's vocabulary. We should be very aware that the American style civil rights are extremely historically specific; it has its root in Christianity, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, the Atlantic slave trade, the American Civil War, the 1960 Civil Rights Movement, among other contributing factors. When we examine the peculiarity of American definition of civil rights, we would be confused to reflect upon how American government would want to impose this peculiar standard to the rest of the world, even through war and assassination. Isn't it the greatest violation of human rights to deprive other people of their sovereignty and self-determination? Isn't it the greatest conceit to assume that all countries should be (and would like to be) just like America? Isn't it the greatest hypocrisy to say that my expensive wars can bring you peace and freedom? Doesn't it remind you of "Manifest Destiny" and the "White Man's Burden"? --- we know how that turned out.

I am not saying that the rest of the world cannot learn from America's experience. Quite the contrary, I believe America's struggles are great lessons for many countries who are about to embark on a similar journey. There is a great deal to be learned from both the success and mistakes of the America Civil Rights Movement. We should study this history carefully, and with great respect. That's also why I am getting on the bus.

Also, we should strive to find common ground among different nations, religions and cultures. We might disagree on what is a good government, but we all believe that corruption is counter-productive. We might disagree on the notion of "afterlife", but we all agree that we want to live in peace in this life. We might disagree on what is justice, but we should all be invested in reducing the obvious discrimination. We might have different opinions, but we should all know that we might be wrong. Underneath the differences, we can always find similarities. And these similarities can serve as the beginning of our harmony.

After looking at the past and present, I would like to turn to the future. According the the latest United Nation projection, by the year 2100, there will be 10 billion people on earth, half of which living in Asia; a third in Africa. This world population distribution has tremendous relevance on global civil discourse as the world's attention and power get more equally distributed. The United States population is around 5% of the world, and we could expect that America's problem will less likely be the world's most important problem. Instead, the Arab and muslin population will increase, and their specific issues will be given more attention by the leaders around the world. India's population is also expanding very rapidly, and Africa will continue to see strong increase as well. The center of gravity of the world media will shift from West to East, and Asia's and Africa's social issues will become the most relevant.

These historical shifts are already happening, but most of us are unaware, uninformed (or worse, misinformed), and unprepared. Our decisions and votes will have global repercussion, but we are not educated enough to make informed judgements on events that are happening thousands of miles away, in a foreign language. Most people aren't even accustomed to using international standards like kilometers and centigrade. If we are going to face the future problems in the world with our old habits and assumptions, we will certainly be frightened by the unfamiliarity. Then we will turn to nationalism, xenophobia and scapegoating for the last bit of self-deception.

So, how should we prepare for the looming shift in our global agenda, not merely in social justice? We can never be fully prepared, but learning a foreign language is not a bad idea. Go study abroad, make friends with people from other countries and religion, read international news, and cultivate an open mind and compassionate heart. This might be a good beginning.


Divided, Until Aliens Attack

Today, the Freedom Riders had a discussion on racial division. I have long had the suspicion that mankind would constantly draw lines among themselves until aliens attack the earth; only after the ET arrives would we then realize that we the people in this world are indeed all humans, and we are not that different from each other.

But the aliens aren't attacking. So do we have other ways to get rid of the endless division and opposition among ourselves? I do not have an answer to this question, but I would like to reflect upon the root of the divisions.

It almost seems that the tribal-style division is a part of our deepest animal instinct; even chimpanzees are divided into groups and launch warfares against each other. Humans divide themselves into groups for food, security, warfare, economic interests, control over resources --- for survival. This survival game is then turned into group division based on skin color, nationality, geographic location, language, economic class, social status, etc. Various institutions are formed to perpetuate the structure and culture of a group: churches, monuments, schools, courts, political establishment, etc.

In order to form a unified group identity and to increase group cohesiveness, we then create "the others" to show the contrast. "The others" are portrayed as inferior in order to show that we are superior; "the others" are unethical and backward so that we appear to be moral and civilized; "the others" are a threat to our society so that we need to unit within our group and fight against "the others"... And in many situations, we form divisions to satisfy our ego: we are different and we are much better. Division and discrimination have become an important part of many people's ego and psychological well-being.

So before the aliens attack the earth (and force us to see the truth that all of us on earth are equal humans), should we do? We should be aware of where our divisions come from, keep the conflicts in control, and find common ground to increase mutual benefits. We should get the ego out of the way of our reason, and realize that we would even increase our self-interests by loving, not hating others.

If humans do not reduce their divisions and enmity against each other, they will probably destroy themselves before any ET makes its way earth.


Meditation 1 on Freedom Ride

At the end of the first 24 hours of the 2011 Freedom Ride, I would like to do some reflection on my learning.

It has been extremely inspiring to exchange ideas with both generations of Freedom Riders. At the same time, learning about the original Freedom Ride has been a humbling experience: compared to the original 1961 Freedom Riders, we students haven't yet contribute anything comparable to their courage and wisdom. We, the 40 students, have been very fortunate: nice hotel, delicious food, wireless bus, with press and media (instead of violent mobs) waiting for us at our bus stops. It is exactly because of the sacrifice of the 1961 Freedom Riders that we are able to enjoy the peace and liberty today. We are grateful, and we realize how much responsibility we are carrying as the youth of the new century.

Actually, I believe that we the students have mostly been at the receiving end of society's care and resources: college education, generous scholarships, attention from family and community, even people serving us in hotel, restaurants, and buses, etc. Now is the time that we start to put the energy back into the society, to repay the debt we owe to countless people and institutions, and to make the system better by our collective actions.

Today, we also initiated the discussion on "freedom and justice", key words of our Ride and activism. Before we jump right into the debate on freedom and justice, I would like to take a step back and reflect upon the meaning of these two words.

We are almost biologically conditioned to love words like "freedom" and "justice". These words makes us feel so good; they go right into our guts, and sometimes bypass our scrutiny. I wonder: what do we mean by freedom? When we join each other in the cause for freedom, do we have a good understanding of what we want to achieve? What comes after? The same question would be valid for "justice" and all other big words that we use (or abuse, from time to time).

I believe that one of the greatest injustice is to assume that there is such a definition of justice that fits everyone and every nation; and, it is one of the worst mockery of freedom to impose our own definition of freedom upon other people and groups. If we are too self-righteous about our own understanding of freedom of justice, then we risk turning these words into tyranny and hypocrisy. We have to be especially conscious and cautious about joining the parade of "freedom or justice", and to think twice before we preach our believes to others. This awareness might be the beginning of true freedom and justice: free from prejudices and arrogance, just from the perspective of others.