The Power of Books

Yesterday, I visited The Asia Foundation's Books for Asia warehouse in San Leandro. This picture was taken by the Books for Asia staff in the 1950's in Pakistan.

Knowledge and channels to see the world were taken for granted by so many people in the developed countries, while millions of people in the third world countries or rural areas may never have access to these during their oftentimes short and unnoticed lives.

The Books for Asia program sent over 1 million books to 18 countries in Asia in 2008, but how do you really measure the impacts of these books? I know the program has the expertise in getting the right book to the right place, but it is just so hard to say how has the reading experience changed the readers and their communities.

I don't have the answer, but I just cannot imagine a world without books. Internet is all so amazing. It brought me to you right now. However, for people who live in areas with barely any electricity, the power of books can be life changing.

Growing up in Asia, English books were expensive and rare back then. I have a book on my shelf that has never been read and was barely even touched, wrapped in a clear wrapping paper, but it means so much to me.

It is a hardcover, colorful Winnie the Pooh English story book. I saved my pocket money that was enough to pay for a 6-person meal to buy it. As a little girl, it was like a dream come true. A.A. Milne wrote the story for his son Christopher. I wanted to read all the pooh bear stories in its native language, so I had to look up countless English vocabulary in the dictionary. It was not easy and took me a long time to finish one small book. At the end of the day, aside from enjoying the world of this lovely bear, I also learned to be patient and disciplined.

More information about Books for Asia, here, you can click into all of its work in 18 countries.

Various titles donated by the generous publishers, from Dalai Lama to Donald Trump

Group picture with the workers

Me pretending to operate this machine

If you are still reading, please do me a favor and consider making a donation to send these books to those who need them. The cost of shipping and delivering books is about $1 per book. Between now and September 15, 2009, for every dollar you donate, a very generous private donor will donate $2 to the program as well. Thank you for supporting this matching grant challenge.

This is the multimedia page with pictures and a short video, professionally made by the Asia Foundation.

Be inspired!


The Legend of the Condor Heroes

I have been reading some classic Chinese wu xia novels lately. My brother has the entire collection by the most famous kung fu novel writer, Jin Yong. Both my brother and I were fans of Jin Yong as kids. But reading these novels now, when I no longer focus on the storyline, I can read into why the characters were as brave, angry, stubborn, evil, naive..... as they were.

I picked The Legend of the Condor Heroes 射鵰英雄傳 from my brother's bookshelf and enjoyed those 8 mini books very much.

Here to share with you, are 4 guiding principles a senior kung fu master gave to a very important young child in the legend. Just like how Harry Potter was born by 2 legendary parents and was given some unknown power, this boy, as a relunctant hero, learned these 4 principles and became the main character of this legend of the condor heros.

思定則情忘 With a solid mind, your emotions control nothing.

體虛則氣順 With an empty body, your Chi runs smoothly.

心死則神活 When your heart is dead, your spirit lives.

陽盛則陰衰 When the Yang prospers, the Yin goes away.

Shortly after I read these, the young kid learned another very important advice from one of his "teachers" before he left to fight on his own for the first time. Worrying that the kid might get killed in a battle that was impossible for him to win, the teacher said, "if you can't win, RUN AWAY! 打不贏 逃!"

This one is pretty good, too.


The Enemy of Great

The Fashion Show on Bravo TV has become my guilty pleasure in the past 2 months.

Last night, it was the season finale and I like all 3 of the finalists --
Anna, who won the competition, is humble and under-stated, but yet so lovable and has an eye for runway styles that are also marketable. Daniella, is brave, young, powerful and full of potential. James-Paul is an intellectual fashionista, who stays true to himself, where he came from, and where he wants to be. He said that he has the rest of his life to make pretty clothes, but only has this one chance to make a statement in front of the world.

I admire his wisdom and this got me thinking -- what are the things I can always do in the future? And what are things that I only have one chance to do now?

Glenda Bailey, Editor-in-Chief Harper's Bazaar, was one of the toughest judges. But Glenda said that she was helping these designers by giving them constructive criticisms. She said, "Good is the biggest enemy of great", which made me think about all the things I thought I was good at and how I stopped becoming better for that exact reason.

If you are into fashion and drama, this show is for you!


Not Enough Tea for All the Kids

Girls study at an outdoor school in an Afghan refugee camp, Pakistan.
(Photo courtesy Central Asia Institute)

Because of my job, I have the privilege to learn from many experts in development and philanthropy from almost all the Asian countries. Last month, our representative from Pakistan was in San Francisco and we had dinner with 3 other important guests.

The recent popular book about building schools in Pakistan "Three Cups of Tea" was discussed at the dinner table. Education, in my personal humble opinion, is often time the fundamental solutions to many problems. It is important to look at education when you talk about the status of any developing country. I learned that higher education system is very well established in Pakistan and how the middle school and elementary school systems are not healthy at all. If you can reach the tip of the pyramid, you should be well taken care of. But if you are one of those 68.4 million school-age kids in Pakistan, good luck getting a sip of that very small cup of the tea.

Here is an excellent overview and perspective on education philanthropy in Pakistan. It was forwarded to me by my colleagues on the ground, and now on to you. The author is a highly respected scholar.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009 by Mosharraf Zaidi
This past weekend, two of the New York Times’ finest columnists wrote about the excellent work of philanthropists and social entrepreneurs in helping Pakistan respond to the challenges of building a better society. Dr. Shershah Syed’s work in maternal and womens’ healthcare (which Nicholas Kristof wrote glowingly about) and “Three Cups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson’s building of rural schools (which was highlighted in Thomas Friedman’s column), are both excellent examples of the kinds of innovation and enterprise being deployed by ordinary people of extraordinary compassion and commitment.

Let’s be clear and unambiguous. The philanthropy, social enterprise, intellect and integrity of folks that do their bit for humanity, is something that should inspire and instruct all our lives. So when Greg Mortenson drinks his third cup of tea and becomes a part of the communities he learnt to love, and establishes fifty or one hundred schools, or several hundred more, in Pakistan—Pakistanis should salute him. Of course, Pakistani arms would get tired, very rightly, for having to salute several hundred standout philanthropists and social entrepreneurs for their work in education. There is a long list of accomplished individual and collective efforts to educate Pakistan. Those efforts come in all shapes, sizes and colours—secular, non-profit, faith-based, or for-profit.

Parsi schools have churned out the finest (in all senses of the word) young ladies of Karachi for decades. Catholic schools have produced some of Pakistan’s most talented citizens (with a well-deserved shout out reserved for the holy trinity of Pakistani Catholic schools—St. Joeseph’s and St. Patrick’s in Karachi, and the incomparable St. Mary’s of Rawalpindi).

As with everything else in Pakistan, the landscape is incomplete without the mention of Muslim philanthropy, and the shining beacon of the Lord’s nur in that regards has been the Ismaili community’s contributions to education, starting from the very top, by His Highness the Prince Aga Khan and his family. There is perhaps no better example of Pakistani excellence than what Pakistanis produce every minute of every day at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi.

Of course, one need not necessarily be inspired by their faith, to act in deeply humane and divine ways. Indeed some of the most humane work is done by people that don’t feel the need to invoke faith to do good. Pakistan’s philanthropy landscape is populated by hundreds of those kinds of groups too. The Citizens Foundation is an avowedly non-religious organization. They’ve established over six hundred schools (that’s at least four times the number Mr. Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute has built). They cater to over 80,000 students. They too are worthy of deep praise. So are the folks at Read Foundation. They’re catering to over 65,000 students through more than 330 schools. Smaller, more strategic, and more research oriented philanthropy in education is provided by individuals like Shahid Kardar, who was instrumental in breathing life into the Punjab Education Fund for the last several years, and organizations like SAHE, where Hamid Kizilbash (and later Fareeha Zafar) have constructed a most impressive array of policy lessons for the education sector.
Of course, if the emphasis in Thomas Friedman’s piece on education was not on education—which given Friedman’s track record on Pakistan, it was almost unquestionably not, then it was on the secularity of such education. In addition to non-religious organizations and their efforts in the philanthropic arena, it is useful to remember the contribution made to Pakistan by private schools, despite the class structures which they have exacerbated (and in some ways attenuated). The Beaconhouse and City School enterprises, despite being often demonized for being “too business-minded” have replicated success everywhere, under every government, in every major city in Pakistan. Perhaps their success is not just about the money, but about a quality product that produces globally competitive young Pakistanis, every year, like clockwork. As big as those two are, small can be beautiful too—as demonstrated by Sami Mustafa’s legendary work at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Karachi and Firoza Zaidi’s work at EMS High School in Islamabad (disclaimer: Mrs. Zaidi was my first and best teacher, and happens to be my mom).

All of these for-profit efforts certainly help deepen the class divide between the have and have-nots in Pakistan—but they also help bridge the have-some, and have-overwhelmingly-most-of-it crowds. It would not be incorrect in fact to suggest that the emergence of Pakistan’s urban middle class has been timed, almost to perfection, with the coming of age of the first wave of private school products this country has known.

What is the purpose of walking the reader through this long list of bright spots in a country that has an overwhelmingly dismal record of darkness in terms of educating its young people?

More than anything else, it is that the efforts of philanthropists and social entrepreneurs deserve our unreserved admiration, and our unflinching moral support. However, what they do not deserve and must never get, is the status of somehow representing a solution to Pakistan’s most egregious problems—one of which, most definitely, is educating its young.

In 1981, out of a total of 84 million Pakistanis, 38.6% were of school-going age. That put the number of school-aged children in 1981 at 32.5 million. By the 1998 census, Pakistan’s population had ballooned to almost 130 million. Of that population, 39% were between the ages of 5 and 19—the school-going age. That meant that between 1981 and 1998, Pakistan experienced a systemic growth in the demand for education, from 32.5 million clients, to 50.3 million clients—a total increase of about 18 million kids that needed a school to go to.

This year, conservative estimates suggest that Pakistan’s population is expected to top-off at around 180 million. If the percentage of school-going children drops off, say down to 38%, it means that the total number of kids that need to be at school in Pakistan this year is about 68.4 million. Let me write that down differently.


That represents another increase of 18 million. However, the time it took to increase by 18 million in 1998 was 17 years (1981 to 1998). In 2009 it has taken just 11 years to increase the demand on the Pakistani education system by 18 million new students.

There is no NGO, no philanthropist, no social entrepreneur, no genius, no saint, no sage, no mom, no Ataturk, no Ayatollah, no Mullah, no madam, no mercenary of any kind, anywhere that can deliver the kind of miracle Pakistan needs.

To educate almost seventy million children, the only “cup of tea” that will do, is the one that is served by the state. The state is not only ultimately responsible—legally, morally, and politically—for educating Pakistan’s children. It is responsible , and internally wired, to ensure Pakistan’s survival. Educating these kids is a matter of survival—not because we should be scared of madressahs (though some are honest to God, really scary)—but because it is immoral to not be concerned about this problem.

And there are no two ways about this simple fact: the next addition of 18 million new students with no school to go to in Pakistan, will come faster than it ever has before. There is no end in sight to the growth in this market.

Pakistan needs many things to enable its young parents to educate their kids in a manner that can help empower those children to live up to their natural potential. While we are at it, it is vital to help children that do not have potential, for natural reasons such as disabled kids, or that are denied potential, for man-made reasons, such as girls.

One of the things it needs is a serious conversation about education that contextualizes philanthropy as a useful demonstration of the realm of possible, rather than as a replacement for the state. Philanthropy can contribute to the conversation by helping Pakistanis acknowledge that an overwhelming majority of Pakistani teachers are unqualified to teach, and cannot be fired. That democratic MNAs, MPAs, Senators, and Ministers have helped teachers get their jobs. That the Supreme Court will invariably help them keep those jobs. That the World Bank building new schools for incapable and disincentivized teachers—much like putting stale wine in fancy new bottles—will simply not do the trick. That the Ministry of Education with no reason to exist other than to keep its officers and naib qasids (and drivers and clerks) employed, has no capacity to think. That the provincial departments of education, with the best civil service officers busy getting Masters and PhD degrees, are bereft of talent, even when the political and administrative will to perform does exist.
This is a massive agenda, even in terms of a policy conversation. It does not represent even the tip of the Titanic, but it does represent a set of serious issues. Pakistanis should get serious about education. 3 cups of tea just won’t do for 70 million school-age kids. Thomas Friedman can afford to not be serious. He speaks of Pakistan from a helicopter in Helmand. Pakistanis have no such luxuries.

Why Today?

I have been thinking about starting a blog for a long time, but all kinds of reasons stopped me from doing this. Such as:

How do I find time to do this?
Who should the audience be?
Do I reveal my identity?
Should I write in English or Chinese?
Most importantly, what do I have to say that deserves other people's attention?

Maybe I am taking this all too seriously. At the very least, this blog should be entertaining. And occasionally, this blog can be informative and inspiring, I hope.

Why today? Because, despite all the other things on my mind, I still can't get this idea out of my head at 3am when I woke up in the middle of the night. I just have to do this to go back to sleep.

Thinking about all the possibilities this can lead to, here I am, welcoming you to my wonderland on the world wide web!