Tuesday, 25 February 2020

"Memories of the Alhambra" - augmented reality and the spiritual realm [SPOILER ALERT!]

With all the hype over Crash Landing on You and its lead actor Hyun Bin, I thought I'd better get down to writing this long-overdue entry on Hyun Bin's previous drama - Memories of the Alhambra.

It co-stars one of my favourite female actresses Park Shin Hye and the title is taken from the hauntingly beautiful guitar piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega which is featured prominently throughout the drama. These were reasons enough for me to continue watching the series even though the blood & gore level was a notch too high for my comfort. Perhaps the highly realistic fighting scenes and special effects could've been part of the reason for its popularity. Anyway, I'm glad I stuck with it till the end as it led me to formulate the following thoughts.

The Two Worlds

The story revolves around a computer game which utlises augmented reality (AR). A player logs into the game by putting on customised smart contact lenses in order to see the AR non-player characters (NPCs), weapons and special items. They simply remove the lenses to exit the game. To someone outside the game who can't see the AR, players fighting against NPCs look like they are waving around madly in the air. But to the player, the AR as depicted in the drama is so real that they feel like the NPCs and weapons are physically there, so much so that they even experience actual pain when they are injured in the game. However, once they logout, all their in-game injuries would vanish.

In our real life, there are also two worlds or realms that exist - the physical and the spiritual. As in the drama, not everyone is able to see the spiritual realm unless God has opened our spiritual eyes (like putting on the smart lenses to see the game world). That was why Elisha had to pray, "Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see," before his servant could see "the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha." (2 Kings 6:17)

Just like the battles between the players and NPCs in the game, there is also an ongoing battle in the spiritual realm which impacts the physical realm and vice versa. We get a glimpse of this spiritual warfare between the heavenly armies and the demonic forces through the description by an angel in Daniel 10. However, unlike the virtual weapons used in the game, our weapons are prayer (and sometimes fasting). With the authority that God has given to us through Christ, we are also able to drive out evil spirits as Jesus has demonstrated (cf. Matthew 17:20-21, John 14:12-14).

The Bug

After the story has been set up, the plot quickens with the discovery that there is a bug in the game. The glitch first started when two players were involved in a violent act while they were within the range of the special NPC Emma. In the game, Emma plays the guitar while keeping peace. Any virtual weapon brought within her range will disappear. But when a player used a real knife to stab another player while they were in the game, it causes an error in the programme as Emma cannot tolerate any violence. The bug upsets the world of the game, leading to the physical death of any player who is killed in the game, and these dead players turning into NPCs that keep coming back to battle live players.

In a similar fashion, sin came into the world when man went against the 'algorithm' set by God (i.e. not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). And since God is perfect and holy, He cannot tolerate any sin. Hence sinful man was separated from God. The presence of sin in the world also led to the fall of creation, where things no longer operate according to God's design just like how the bug caused things to go awry in the game.

The Christ-like Figure

That's where Yoo Jin Woo (Hyun Bin) comes to save the day (or the game, in this case). For some unknown reason, he is the only player who doesn't need the smart lenses anymore. He gets logged into the game whenever he is in the game zones (initially restricted to Granada in Spain but later expanded to include areas in Korea). So at any time, he could be in the real world as well as in the game world simultaneously. This reminds me of how Jesus was fully human and fully God when He was born into this world.

Although Jin Woo didn't create the bug, he finds out that he is carrying the bug and is the only one who can get rid of it. He has to hand a special item, the 'Key to Heaven', over to Emma in order for her to kill him and destroy the bug in him. The game developer had based this on an actual legend about the carvings on the Gate of Justice at Alhambra that when the 'Key of Heaven' is united with the 'Hand of Fatima' (represented in the game by Emma's hands), the world would end. So once the bug is removed, the entire game world would reset and restart bug-free.

In comparison, Jesus also wasn't responsible for sin coming into our world yet He was the only one who could free us from sin and open the door to heaven for us. He differs from Jin Woo though, in that Jesus was completely free from sin whereas Jin Woo was carrying the guilt of having killed his former-friend-turned-nemesis in the game and causing his actual death.

Nevertheless, Jin Woo willingly sacrifices himself in order to save the game just as Jesus redeemed us through His sacrifice on the cross. This analogy is hinted at none-too-subtly as Jin Woo enters a Catholic church building (even though the whole premise was based on an Islamic legend) and faces Jesus on the cross (above the altar) while awaiting the final meeting with Emma that would seal his fate.

Interestingly, Memories of the Alhambra is written by Song Jae Jung. She also wrote W - Two Worlds which featured a Christ figure too (as written about in a much earlier post). And just like how Christ's resurrection was reflected in W - Two Worlds, there are clues in the finale that Jin Woo is also resurrected in the game world and lives on to help new players destroy their enemies. Nevertheless, he is only visible (and only as a shadow) to some players especially those who believe that he's still alive. In the same way, Jesus is alive and He has sent the Holy Spirit to be our Helper (John 14:26). He can't be seen with physical eyes but those who believe in Him will be able to experience His very real presence.

So, in conclusion, we know that we are engaged in a very real spiritual battle despite not being able to see it with our physical eyes. Yet we also have full confidence that God is fighting for us and that by virtue of His saving work on the cross and His resurrection power, we have the victory!

For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory. (Deuteronomy 20:4)

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

A Prophetic Arts Prayer Trip... What's That???

It was already crazy enough when God said to prayer walk the land of Japan. I mean, how huge and outrageously expensive that would be!! But then He added on that He wanted it to be a prophetic arts trip too! Like, how many Christians even know what 'prophetic arts' means?! Who would come with me on this wild venture?? But within a week, He led me to three people who said they would pray about joining the team - and all of them are prophetic artists! So I had to say 'yes' to Him, and started preparing for the trip with much fear and trepidation... Firstly, Job wouldn't be able to come on the trip so I'd have to lead the team on my own. Secondly, I sensed that there would be some fierce warfare involved and I wasn't sure if I or the rest of the team would be ready for it. However, on both counts, God showed up and did all the hard work for us so we breezed our way through with great joy and celebration!

So how prophetic can the arts be?

God spoke to us so clearly through the arts. For instance, on our second day in Japan we had visited the Peace Memorial Park in Okinawa. There's an art gallery with a series of paintings by a particular artist on the theme of  'War and Peace'. I noticed that nearly every one of his paintings had similar wavy lines that looked like the wind.
I was especially struck by this piece which depicts the strength of the people in the face of hardship, as represented by the flowers that stand strong in the midst of the billowy winds. We had heard that we just missed a typhoon as we had arrived the day after it hit Okinawa. But little did we know that for the rest of the trip, God would protect us from two more typhoons - one changed direction midway and the other struck Tokyo the day before we landed there! So this painting was God's way of reassuring us that He would keep us safe even when typhoons are raging around us.

Then on another day, God prompted us to do team drawing so we all prayed and drew one picture each. Turned out that all the pictures formed a map for the rest of our trip as we kept seeing real-life representations of the things we had drawn thereafter! (I can only show you my picture as I don't have the other members' permission to show theirs...yet...)
We got to visit a pottery in Okinawa and through learning about the process of how clay is turned into ceramics, God also showed us many lessons about our Christian walk. The master potter was from the church we had just visited and as he was sharing about how he realised his true identity was to be found in Christ and not in culture or even the arts, I suddenly saw the link between his testimony and the impromptu dance that Aimee had presented in the church earlier on. The pastor (the potter's wife) had requested to see Aimee dance so she chose the song 'Who Am I' on the spot and improvised to it. Amazingly, God had already started speaking to us about our identity in Him through the dance and continued the same message during the potter's sharing.

God also spoke to others through us and the arts. At the church that was hosting us in Kyoto, we had presented the pastor with a postcard print of one of our team members, Chloe's painting, 'The Covenant'. The rainbow background reminded him of an actual rainbow that he had seen in the morning. It held special meaning to him as the church had just celebrated their 37th anniversary the day before. But he lamented that nobody else had seen the rainbow. We proceeded to get the four church members who were present to pick out one prophetic art card each from a bag and to our surprise, every single one of them received a picture with a rainbow! The probability of that happening was really very small as we had multiple copies of nearly 20 different pictures and only 3 of the pictures had rainbows. What's more, the next day when we met another church member and got him to pick a card, he got a rainbow picture too! So it was clear that God wanted to show the rainbow to the church members too, not just the pastor, in order to emphasise that He will keep His promises to the church.

On another occasion, Chloe was showing some missionaries-in-training the painting that God had inspired her to paint for and bring on our trip (you can also read about God's provision for her to come on the trip in her post). Through her explanation of how God wants to restore every nation, including Japan, He actually brought about reconciliation between a Korean believer and a Japanese believer who were listening to her!

The arts also helped to usher in great power to tear down strongholds. We were on our way to a place famous for its shrines and we were expecting a fierce spiritual battle there. However, a couple of days before the trip, God reminded us of how Jehoshaphat had won the battle through praise and worship (2 Chronicles 20:1-30). So throughout the 2.5-hour drive there, we kept singing song after song from our playlist and even added more songs to the list as they came to mind. When we finally arrived, we all sensed that God had already won the battle. He led us to a riverside instead of entering the shrine area, and released us to continue praising Him and making a joyful noise unto Him.

Don't forget God's masterpieces!

Of course, God also spoke to us wonderfully through His artworks painted in the skies and revealed through nature. Once when we had just finished praying, a butterfly landed on Jesse's thigh and rested there. Then on the day we did the team drawing, just as we had finished and were packing up, a butterfly hovered over Aimee's head for a while. To us, both incidents were signs of His presence with us.

On our first morning at Kyoto, I was woken up at 5.20am by a pink glow in the room. I looked out the window and for the next half an hour, witnessed the most amazing live painting with the clouds as His canvas. That was God's way of reminding me that I was indeed in the land of the rising sun, but also a confirmation of the word we had received earlier that the Son of Righteousness will rise over the land.

What about leading the team?

Well, my fears were unfounded, of course! I learnt to rely fully on God's prompting as He was the leader of our team, not me. Each time He prompted me or anyone in the team, there would be confirmation from the rest, and then we would act accordingly. Things would work out perfectly and we would even make pleasant discoveries along the way (one of them being the fantastically clear view of Mt Fuji even though it had been a cloudy day). However, the only time where the team disagreed and did not follow God's prompting led to a minor understanding with a couple of local people. But thankfully, when we admitted our mistake and apologised, things were quickly resolved.
To be honest, I hadn't been confident at all that the overwhelming itinerary (4 cities in 10 days, 6 flights and countless hours of driving) would be achievable, or that the crazy things (singing, dancing, playing instruments, flagging, bubbling, drawing, painting, giving out art cards) He had shown us to do during our trip would have any impact. But thankfully, my team members were willing to obey God's instructions and we got to experience incredibly divine things together!
The final confirmation that we had done everything right came when we saw this at the boarding gate of Sapporo airport as we were about to fly back to Singapore.
It's the same Hachiko dog that I had drawn (see earlier picture). But instead of waiting to hear the voice of his dead master, my picture shows the dog listening intently to his master's voice singing over him (with slight reference to the HMV dog who also happens to be listening to his dead master's recorded voice over the gramophone). When we incline our ears to listen to our Master, who is most definitely alive, we will find that:

The LORD your God is among you; He is mighty to save. He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you with His love; He will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17

Friday, 23 August 2019

Find strength in the Lord for the victory is near!

I tried out the Bibliolog interactive Bible study method (which we learnt from Birte Papenhausen recently) during a parents’ prayer meeting today, with the passage taken from 1 Sam 30:1-19. You can read my prepared script here. The parents found it very refreshing as the method helped us to immerse ourselves in the story and experience it first-hand as though we were one (or a few) of the characters. It also opened our hearts to allow the Holy Spirit to speak into our own lives and situations. After the session, many of the parents were asking how they could also use the Bibliolog method in their Sunday school classes, small groups and family devotions!

Even while I was preparing the script, I had received great encouragement from the example of David. He sought the Lord in a time of great distress and found strength in the Lord (v.6). Not only that, when he enquired of the Lord, he was told that he would succeed in rescuing their wives and children who had been taken captive (v.7-8). From these verses, I was reminded to look to God no matter how bad things may be and to trust that in Him, we will have victory over all obstacles and circumstances. This is especially relevant for parents who, like David, may feel that they have lost their children to various bondages like addictions, sexual sin, depression or loss of faith. Regardless of how far away they may seem, we can be assured that God is watching over them, He is in control and He will bring them home one day!

During the Bible study this morning, from the responses the parents gave as well as my own thoughts as we went along, I also realised that sometimes we are like the captive wives and children. We may have yielded to sin and find ourselves separated from our family, church and God. But God will not let us go and He continues to pursue us with His love, just as David and his men did not give up the rescue mission even when some among them were too exhausted to go on (v.10).

At times, we may be like those '200 men' who had to stay back. We may feel helpless and unable to do anything to help our children when they are in trouble or even suffering. Instead, we have to rely on others to reach out to our children to lead them out of pain or darkness. For instance, children who shut us out and refuse to talk or listen may need counsellors or youth group leaders to speak with them, or children who are seriously ill would need doctors to heal them. In such cases, all we can do is wait and pray – not only for the results but also for those ‘400 men’ who are battling to save our children.

Finally, while putting ourselves in the shoes of one of the men who had gone out with David and returned victorious, I saw that there are occasions when we may misunderstand the intentions of others. Imagine if the men thought that David was wasting their time or had given up on the rescue mission when he went away to pray, and they had gone off on their own without him or even stoned him to death! Either way, I doubt they would have been successful in retrieving their wives, children and all the plunder. We also need to be patient and give others the benefit of the doubt rather than jump to conclusions and worse still, act or speak rashly against them. In fact, we should stay humble and be willing to learn from others, especially from men and women of faith how to relate with and trust in God.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

You Say Who I Am and "Wreck-it Ralph 2" [Spoiler Alert!!!]

The other day, Aimee gleefully showed me what she had done with this old pencil sharpener of hers. It used to feature a Disney princess (can't remember which) but she had covered it up with this self-illustrated phrase, "You say who I am." I think this probably came about from a chat I had had with her last week. She was rather down because she couldn't cope with homework and all, on top of the heartache she was already suffering from as she had been told she mustn't dance for a month due to a leg injury. She absolutely loves to dance and in fact, dancing is therapeutic for her! So basically, she was feeling pretty helpless and worthless.

I prayed with her and said that God has made her with greater potential than she realises. So she needs to ask Him to reveal to her who He has made her to be, and what other God-given talents and abilities she has yet to discover. Then she must believe what God says, instead of the lies from the devil telling her she's not good enough, and live out the truth that God shows her about herself.

It's rather apt then that it was a Disney princess that got covered over on this sharpener, for most little girls define themselves according to the qualities of these fairy tale princesses. As they get older, of course they start to base their identity on what's prevalent in society, popular culture and media. The 'You' who tells them who they are is what they see on social media, and in movies and videos. As a result, many of them end up with low self-esteem and even become depressed or suicidal when they find that they can't measure up to these standards.

There's a scene in Wreck-it Ralph 2, where Vanellope crashes into the Disney princesses' changing room, and she goes through just such a struggle with her identity. The princesses are trying to figure out what kind of a princess she is and start to list all the qualities she should have. She fails all of them except for the final one - everyone assumes all your problems are solved when a big strong guy comes along. Of course, the princesses are thinking of their Prince Charmings but we all know Vanellope's knight in shining armour is none other than her bestie Ralph, who is anything but charming!

Anyway, reassured that she is a princess after all, the princesses start giving her advice on how the music and singing should come naturally when she realises what it is that she really wants. But she has trouble convincing them and herself that what she wants is a steering wheel (the very thing that made her and Ralph break into the Internet). In fact, after this encounter, she becomes gradually more and more unsure of whether the steering wheel is really what she needs. It is only when she takes the only piece of good advice from the princesses, that is to spend time reflecting, that she finally realises her innermost desire is to be part of the Slaughter Race game.

That's when she goes into a snazzy song a la Disney princess style, albeit accompanied by macabre scenes of car crashes, explosions and straggly dogs popping out of a shark's mouth. Even though the visuals are as far away from the usual Disney princess' backdrops as possible, there is no doubt that this is what Vanellope was made for. However, she is worried about what Ralph would think as his hopes are for her to go back to her old game Sugar Rush. Eventually, Ralph also understands that Vanellope needs to pursue her own dream and lets her go with his blessings.

Even though the Disney princesses initially attempt to stereotype Vanellope, we can also learn from their advice to her. We need to take time to seek God and reflect on who He has made us to be. If we judge ourselves by other people's standards or try to meet other's expectations of us, even if they're from our closest family and friends no matter how well-intentioned, it will only lead to confusion, frustration or depression. Our identity must be founded on the unique blueprint that God our Maker has designed us with. And only when we start to live it out will we find true purpose and fulfilment.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. - Psalm 139:14a

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Love in the Moonlight (or Moonlight Drawn by Clouds) [Spoiler Alert!!!] - part 2

In my previous post on this series, I focused mostly on the relationship between Crown Prince Lee Yeong and his love interest Hong Sam Nom/Hong Ra On. In this post, we will look at two other key characters and a few overarching themes.
Kim Byung Yeon (Kwak Dong Yeon) and Kim Yoon Sung (Jinyoung)

All the servants in the palace leave their families to serve the royal family. From the very first day, they are told that their aim is to protect the royal family with their own lives. In return, all their needs are provided for - food, clothes, housing, training etc. In the same way, we are called to lay down our fleshly desires and even our lives to serve our King. When we do, He will provide for all our needs as well as take care of our families.

"Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields - along with persecutions - and in the age to come eternal life." Mark 10:29-30

To the death
The Crown Prince's bodyguard Kim Byung Yeon is also his best friend. Although he is secretly conspiring with the rebels, he's actually motivated by the Crown Prince's ideal of a world where everyone would be seen as equal regardless of class and rank. Ultimately when it comes to a point where he has to choose between the rebel movement and the Crown Prince, he proves his loyalty to the Prince by being willing to die in his place. Because of his sacrifice, the Crown Prince and the rebels are reconciled and they work together to build an ideal kingdom after his acsension to the throne. Byung Yeon is also saved from the brink of death by the Prince and lives on to witness the genesis of the new world.

We as soldiers in the army of God should similarly not be put off by suffering and even death as we fight to build His kingdom on earth. No matter how much pain we may have to bear or that we may have to die for the gospel, He will raise us up to live with Him in the new heaven and new earth one day (Revelation 21). I am reminded too of how the blood of martyrs have watered the ground and readied it for the gospel seed to grow and bear fruit, bringing reconciliation between man and God.

"For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." Matthew 16:25 

The other Kim
Contrastingly, Kim Yoon Sung, the Crown Prince's childhood friend had broken off their friendship and lost his way due to the power-grabbing schemes of his grandfather, Prime Minister Kim. In addition, he and the Crown Prince also become rivals in love. As a result, he keeps wavering in his loyalties, and sadly he doesn't live to see the coronation of the new king.

God has given us this grace period to make up our minds as to whether to receive His gift of salvation and to live our lives for Him. However, it would be too late when the time is up - either when we die or when He returns. So let's not waver nor be double-minded like Yoon Sung. Make the decision today to commit ourselves to Him!

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. Titus 2:11

Already but not yet
In order to lighten his sickly father's burden, the Crown Prince agrees to act as Prince Regent and be given full power and control. Unfortunately, many power-hungry ministers are not happy and try to dethrone him. They resort to poisoning him and think he's a goner for sure, but he is actually hiding his recovery from everyone. When he rises again from his bed, he does not take down all the corrupt ministers at once. Instead, he prepares for his eventual victory over them quietly by gathering evidence against them. Then in the midst of their gloating, they are vanquished one after another.

Just as how the Prince Regent is given complete power, Jesus was born the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is sovereign over all. Yet sin and evil are still operating in the world, just like those greedy ministers plotting against the Prince Regent. Then when Jesus died on the cross and was buried, those who persecuted Him thought they were rid of Him once and for all. Little did they know that on the third day, He would rise again! And even though right now it appears as though sin and evil are running rampant, He is still at work and one day He will return to eradicate them entirely from the world.

At that time the Lord will punish the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens above. He will also punish the kings on the earth below. The Lord who rules over all will rule on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. The elders of the city will be there. They will see His great glory. His rule will be so glorious that the sun and moon will be too ashamed to shine. Isaiah 24:21, 23 (NIRV)

Truth shall prevail
The detractors led by Prime Minister Kim use all kinds of tricks and deception to frame and harm the Crown Prince and his followers. But rather than follow suit, Lee uses the truth to expose them and their lies, and to set Hong Ra On free from the false accusations they had piled up against her.

Jesus also knew about the plot against Him, and He hinted during the Last Supper with His disciples that one of them would betray Him. In fact, He knows everything that we have ever said and done, even our every thought! On the Day of Judgment, we will have to face the charges for every sinful word, act and thought. Yet, He offers the Way out for us and reveals Himself as the Truth that gives us Life. So all we need is to accept His Truth and we shall be set free from all our wrongdoings!

"There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known." Luke 12:2
"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." John 14:6
"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." John 8:32

Kisaengs and gamblers
Lee Yeong's late mother had taught him not to be too high up that he can't hear the people. So he makes it a point to get close to the commoners by roaming around town incognito. He even hangs out with kisaengs and gamblers, who were the lowest of the low, the outcasts of society. Although the ministers criticise his behaviour in court, he explains that it is only by doing so that he can hear the truth about all that's happening in his kingdom.

Similarly, Jesus hung out with prostitutes and tax-collectors - those despised by society. He valued each person and saw their need for salvation regardless of their background. It is comforting to know that He will not despise us despite our family background, upbringing, educational level, status, and any other trappings of society. It also means that we have to value others as He values us, and not hesitate to share His love with them regardless of where they are and where they have been.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Him and His disciples. Matthew 9:10

Wheat and chaff
When Lee takes the throne, he gets rid of all those who were against him and promotes those who stayed faithful to him throughout all the tough times to rule with him. When Jesus returns to take His place as Ruler of the world, He will also remove those who deny Him and raise up those who remain faithful till the end to rule with Him.

"Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn." Matthew 13:30
"He who overcomes, and he who keeps my deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations." Revelation 2:26 (NASB)

The New World 
After his coronation, Lee sets out to establish a new world where all men are equal. He had been taught by his late mother who was inspired by Catholic teachings, to treat every person as equally worthy of attention.
The new king mingling incongnito with his subjects (left), with the former rebels looking on (right).

In God's kingdom, there is also no distinction and every individual is precious and loved by God. Therefore, we need to build His kingdom through acts of justice - reaching out to the poor, the needy and the oppressed, offering opportunities to the marginalised, and giving a voice to the voiceless.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free." Luke 4:18

Friday, 4 January 2019

Review: The Teenage Guide to Life Online by Nicola Morgan (Walker Books, 2018)

What follows is a book review by my son, Jakin:
This book is directed at youth (hence the title) and does a good job at persuading the reader that smartphones can be both beneficial and detrimental, and also providing practical steps to take to prevent and manage addictions to the internet. Overall, this book is well-organised and the author makes all points very clear to readers.
The author uses a lot of statistics and research results in the process of showing the positive and negative effects of the internet. To begin with, the author introduces the extent at which the internet has developed, as well as the pervasiveness of smartphones. “According to the website Statista, in 2014 there were 1.57 billion smartphone users around the world. This is predicted to rise to 2.87 billion by 2020.” (pg. 17). The author uses statistics like these to help readers realise that technology might be a problem. The author even compiles pages of resources and links to websites for the reader to check out at the end of every chapter. These are what the claims the author makes are based on.
The author splits the book into many sections of using the internet, and in each category she states both positives and negatives, then concludes. These help readers to identify where they have their own struggles and where they are strong at using technology well. If they require help, the author provides tips after each negative point. For example, in the category “Reading on Screens”, the author makes a point that we may be losing the ability to read deeply or slowly. After explaining how screens may cause us to do so, the author, under the heading “How to avoid this negative:”, provides advice, such as ‘2. When you are reading something important, tell yourself: “I’ll read this slowly and concentrate.”’.

This book comes out as one that clearly makes its case on technology, providing a balanced argument on the benefits and drawbacks of the internet, and yet is also practical for those seeking help. This book would be best read while in a discussion between parent and child, such that parents can guide their children in taking action if necessary while they read the book together. Of course, parents could also unexpectedly learn something from the book when discussing with their children, so everyone benefits.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Saimdang, Educational Reforms and the Class Divide

I know I promised there would be a second part to Love in the Moonlight in my previous post, but I just had to interrupt the series with another saeguk (period drama). That’s because soon after I had finished watching Saimdang: Memoir of Colours just last week, an online storm broke out over two issues which I realised were addressed in Saimdang. [Before I forget, you can watch the series legally (ha!) on Netflix.]

Although the series hadn't done so well in terms of its domestic ratings, I personally loved it for the breathtaking beauty portrayed through the magnificent scenery, the exquisite paintings, and even the painters' creative process. I also liked that there were strong female characters - Saimdang herself (Lee Young Ae, from the well-loved Dae Jang Geum aka Jewel in the Palace), and her childhood-friend-turned-nemesis Hwieumdang (Oh Yoon Ah) - and the redemptive element in their relationship. Towards the end, Hwieumdang repented of her scheming ways and saved Saimdang from her villainous husband's plot to kill Saimdang, Saimdang not only forgave her but healing and restoration came when Saimdang cared for Hwieumdang's children when she was in exile.

In fact, the entire series is an extended lobby for gender equality, with both Saimdang and her daughter Mae-chang fighting for recognition of their artistic talents in the royal court. With a bit of research, I found that the historical figure Sin Saimdang, on whom the drama is loosely based, was a bit of a non-conformist herself. She pursued her artistic and literary passions even though it was practically prohibited of women born in nobility. Not only is she one of the very few female painters recorded in Korean history, she is also revered as a model for all mothers. Both she and one of her sons, Confucian scholar Yi I, are commemorated on the 50,000 and 5,000 notes respectively.

Now, let’s talk about one of the recent uproars on local media. The Ministry of Education is revamping the examination structure in schools by reducing the number of exams students will take in their school career so they can be encouraged to develop a love for learning. There has been applause as well as opposition to the move. No matter what top-down changes are made, ultimately it’s the attitude on the ground, of parents and even students themselves, that must shift before real change can occur.

In the drama, Saimdang withdrew her son Hyeon-ryong (based on the real life Yi I) from the most prestigious school in the city even though he had passed a very difficult admission test. She had discovered that the parents and the students were fixated on results and student ranking, so much so that Hyeon-ryong was beaten up by Hwieumdang and her son after Hyeon-ryong ousted the boy from first place. The headmaster had tried to introduce creative teaching strategies to get the students to develop a sense of curiosity and learn through self-discovery. However, the parents went up in arms and demanded that he revert to the traditional rote learning methods. Furthermore, Saimdang overheard Hyeon-ryong cornering the teacher in class with his trick questions. Once they got home, she reprimanded him for showing off his intelligence by trying to outsmart the teacher. She emphasised the need for good character above talent and intelligence, and concluded that she would teach him herself at home.
Meanwhile, Saimdang’s eldest son Seon confided hesitantly in her that he would like to become a blacksmith instead of continuing with his studies, but was worried that she would feel ashamed of him. To his surprise, Saimdang encouraged him to find his own path and not feel burdened to follow what society expected of him. She elaborated on how the many different occupations are equally important and all help to contribute to the community in their own ways. Subsequently, Saimdang set up a school in their village which welcomed children of all social classes and abilities and every child was encouraged to develop their unique talents. The children had so much fun learning and exploring together that some of the students from the top school even ‘dropped out’ with their parents’ blessings so as to join her school.
The other contentious topic has been about the class divide in Singapore. Accusations are rife online of how there is a lack of social mixing in the community while elitism is being promoted in schools, and the welfare of the lower classes are being ignored by the government. Again, regardless of whatever policies and welfare programmes there may or may not be, we need to have people who will be counter-culture and make attempts to cross the divide and blur the lines separating the different classes for social stratification to be torn down.

Whereas the servants in other households were treated as nameless and faceless almost sub-human creatures, Saimdang regarded her servant girl Hyang-i as one of her own children. Hyang-i would be included in family discussions with her opinions taken into consideration, she sat together with the family during meals, and everyone chipped in with the housework rather than order her around for every little task. (Hyang-i is at the far left and far right of the pictures below.)
After a boy tried to rob Saimdang, she followed him home as he said he needed money to buy medicine for a sickly grandfather. This led to her discovery of a group of starving gypsies living in caves near her paper mill. She immediately cooked some food and fed them, then invited them to work in her mill with the promise that she would split the earnings equally with them. Despite her noble background, she lived and worked among them, and was the first to start every morning and last to pack up at night. She was always polite and respectful, even though the gypsy boy had tried to rob her and some of the other gypsies had initially been suspicious of her and spoken rudely to her.
Saimdang also influenced others to look beyond class distinctions. For instance, she involved her children in the work at the paper mill and in the process, they learnt not to judge anyone based on their class or background. Another noblewoman joined her at the mill to cook and serve food to the workers. The policy at the mill was that whoever had done some work would be given free meals. When the crown prince visited the mill incognito together with another nobleman, they even offered to wash the dishes in order to be able to eat with the workers!

So let’s take a leaf from Saimdang’s book. Rather than point fingers at the government or at society about the ills of the education system or the widening class divide, remember that change really starts with individuals - you and me - who dare to live and act according to our beliefs, whether it’s to focus on character-building, promote a love for learning or bridge the social gap. And sooner or later, there will be a ripple effect as more and more people are affected, and that’s when culture shifts.