Saturday, February 28, 2009

Globe Trotting: Sleepless in Seattle

Seattle is one of the cities deeply connected to rain, around three hundred days it rains and people call it RAIN CITY. However, to me it is the GREEN CITY because of green surroundings or JET CITY because of Boeing manufacturing plant.
Seattle is the home of world’s leading corporate names such as Boeing, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. Big music names such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chain and Sound Garden also originated from there.
Recently, I was on a US government sponsored exchange program visit to US, after visiting various cities, my last destination was Seattle. It’s beauty completely turned everyone sleepless, city offers a lot, in spite of excessive rain, it is hard to not to fall in love with the city.

Seattle is located in the Northwestern State of Washington of United States. It is a coastal city and major seaport, located in the western part of the state between Puget Sound and an arm of the Pacific Ocean and Lake Washington.
Seattle is the country seat of King County; city has nearly half a million population, making it twenty fourth largest city in US. City is one of the most literate in US, educated work force and strong private sector leadership is the growth factor of Seattle.

During my downtown walk I came across ancient native Indian monument, it gave me idea that area must had been inhabited since ages, later I came know that It was inhibited for at least 4,000 years. However, early European settlement began in mid 19th century.
The downtown is easily walk-able, after Washington DC, I found Seattle a walking friendly city. Within the downtown area the bus service is free for commuters; make it easy to move around.

During my interaction, Seattle down town planning impressed me a lot, it is the only city which is focused on developing green building environment i.e., most LEED certified buildings in US are in Seattle.

Down town Seattle association shared interesting facts during the interaction, such as the strong tourism and cruise industry attracts alot of tourists, around 190 cruise ships board in port, over two and half million tourists visit every year, strong retail level business provide shopping friendly environment along with 950 restaurants, catering to every taste buds.

I found a lot of passion for sport in Seattle; Safeco Baseball Stadium and Qwest Football Stadium are one of the best sporting facilities available in the country. Mariners Baseball team and Seahawk Football team are from Seattle. City offers three live stage theaters along with 30 motion picture screens and new symphony hall.

One of the impressive programs I found was Metropolitan Improvement District –Maintenance Program, a team of 36 trash collectors known as Ambassadors on a mission to clean trash, remove graffiti to give neat and clean look to the city. There are 30 ambassadors for safety program, team patrol on foot and bike, aim is to provide directions to tourists and visitors and provide transit and bus direction.

One of the most interesting program I came across was “HAVE A HEART-GIVE SMART” an educational campaign that offers tips on how to respond to beggars while providing information to those in need.

Seattle has various landscapes, one of the most prominent is the Space Needle, it is one of the most recognizable landmarks, and Smith Tower was the tallest building on the west coast completed n 1914. Other notable places are Pike Place Market, Fremont Troll, the Experience Music Project and Seattle Central Library.
I got to see Starbucks first ever outlet opened in Pike Place Market in 1971, store is still operating from its original location.
Seattle has been a regional center for the performing arts, century old Seattle Symphony Orchestra is among the worlds most recorded. Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet are also notable.

The Seattle Aquarium has been open on the downtown waterfront since 1977. The Seattle Underground Tour, an exhibit of places that existed before the Great Fire, is also popular.

One of my Pakistani-American friend took me around for outdoor recreation, I saw people walking around Green Lake, Discovery Park on the Downtown waterfront and Alki Beach in West Seattle. I also got to see hiking and skiing places in the nearby Cascade or Olympic Mountains. Sailing in waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia would be fun activities. No wonder Seattle has received the crown of the fittest city in the United States.

I had only few days to explore the city; I was completely sleepless to maximize every bit of time to explore the parts of amazing Seattle.

I have truly fallen in love with Seattle.

Friday, February 27, 2009

US is not a Failure Shy Country

One of the interesting concepts that amazed me during my US trip was the concept of the acceptance of failure. I remember when I was in Tokyo, I came across stories related to suicide or Hara-kiri if one fails in life. Failure is not at all acceptable in Japanese society; it puts a lot of pressure on individuals to succeed.

Recent economic crisis affected many businesses, a lot of companies have filed chapter 11 of bankruptcy. Organizations and people are determined to come up with better ideas, learn from mistakes and bounce back.

There are thousands of ideas generated every year, very few succeed but idea generation process continues, failure does not deter idea generation process.

I remember I visited an Incubator in Charlotte ‘North Carolina’, anyone has idea can start with one person organization from a place, having complete infrastructure ‘called incubator’. Experts are housed; provide free expert information to new businesses or entrepreneurs housed there. If an idea fails, entrepreneurs leave the incubators, they come back with better idea, and neither incubators nor banks discourage them.

I was impressed, the way everyone responds to failure, it is a nation which is impressively not at all failure shy.

Volunteerism is the Beauty of Winning Societies

Volunteerism and collective efforts result in winning societies, it helps in achieving synergy. I found US, a country built by vigor of volunteerism, it is a country strengthened by non governmental organization.

I came across range of think tank organizations, such as CATO, BROOKINGS, all striving to provide quality policy recommendations. I remember CATO published a full page advertisement, carrying the names of leading economists including noble laureate, giving feedback on Obama’s stimulus package. Brookings is also active in coming up with all kind of research and policy recommendations. These think tanks are all working as non profit organizations, aiming to strengthen US policy formulation.

Another interesting organization I came across was SCORE “Counselors to America's Small Business" is a nonprofit association dedicated to educating entrepreneurs and the formation, growth and success of small business nationwide.. Both working and retired executives and business owners donate time and expertise as business counselors.

SCORE's 11,200 volunteer counselors have more than 600 business skills. Volunteers are working or retired business owners, executives and corporate leaders who share their wisdom and lessons learned in business.

America’s labor movement is interesting to focus, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is a voluntary federation of 56 national and international labor unions. I had an idea that union only focus on collective bargaining but AFL CIO impressed me, they enabled retired US marines to be part of US economy. They enabled them through imparting training programs and short courses. They have helped thousands, all voluntarily.

One may disagree with US foreign policy but socio-economic foundation strengthened by the spirit volunteerism, teaches a lot of lessons to developing countries. A model of development one can not afford to ignore.

US is Diverse Yet United

If I sum up my perception of US society in one line I end up writing “US is diverse yet united”.

One would say US is one of the most diverse nations, a global melting pot yet phenomenal unity. When I first landed in Washington DC, I found White, Black, Hispanic all around, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus; it was common to find Churches, Synagogue, Temples and Mosque.

Then I went to Charlotte North Carolina, it is known to be biblical belt, churches all around, to me all of a sudden as if I landed on a conservative religious land. In the morning I could hear church bell sound, I spotted a huge mosque as well. It seemed religion really matters in that society, mostly German origin conservative immigrants.

Then left for New York, a liberal east cost business district was logically cosmopolitan; it was just like any other big city.

But when I landed on Mormon land Salt Lake City, UTAH then I realized that yes US is very very diverse and again question rose in my mind, what really makes it united. Utah State is conservative, religious Mormons is dominant religion, one is not allowed to order drinks without ordering food. Bars and restaurants have boards informing people about Utah law. I realized, is it the same liberal America or I am in a conservative Middle Eastern state. During the presentation at Governors office, with trade and economic related officials, it was amazed to get to know that each state compete in wooing or attracting the foreign direct investment.

Charlotte trade promotion officials explained how Hollywood movie industry was attracted to come over and make movies in North Carolina through tax incentives. There are counties, which are completely dry ‘alcohol is not at all served’.

During my last interaction in Seattle, I came to know US has not signed Kiyoto Protocol on Environment but Seattle is part of it. It was amazing to find diverse, competing, independent states, with diverse population ‘race, caste, creed’ economically compete with each other and the beauty was the UNITY under the flag of US.

Small Balkanized multi ethnic states respond to small difference with violence, there are so many lessons one may learn from US to achieve unity in spite of diversity.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wow; Foreign Language Learning Craze in US!!

My perception of US was narrow, I believed that people would be much inward focused, only interested in American way of life. My recent visit has completely changed my perception, when I visited a High School in Charlotte in North Caroline, I was surprised to see students speaking Chinese Mandarin language, and another student shared his stay in a remote village in Cambodia. Everyone is up for a new language and new international experience.

Later I met an International Relations student at a home hospitality dinner in Salt Lake City Utah, she was fluent in Russian. I thought Salt Lake City would be the most inward looking city; however I was surprised to find out that it is one of the cities with the most international exposure and understanding of global culture. It was due to the missionary activities of Mormon’s, they spent couple of years in foreign culture to learn their language and culture so that religious message could easily be communicated. When I visited Temple Square in Salt Lake City, tour guide in every language were available, my friend KONG from China got a Chinese guide. International exposure is not helping only in missionary context but it has also attracted foreign direct investment.

It seems there is a strong co relation in understanding the language and culture of foreign investors and the investment. Similarly, I came to know that Germans are the major investors in Charlotte North Caroline, simply because of the people in the area are of German origin. It seems language make a big difference in getting the ends meet.

In my last week in US ‘Seattle’ I met an interesting person, she is now a friend, and she knew how to speak Persian, well versed with Persian literature, culture and history. She also inspired me, I am also thinking of taking up Persian or Spanish.

No wonder US rules the world, simply because of greater understanding of global culture, issues, problems, opportunities and risks.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hey IPod, Stop Causing Social Isolation!!

I came across an interesting study published in The Washington Post, it says “Americans are far more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago, and a sharply growing number of people say they have no one in whom they can confide”. It further says “A quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985”.

Experts believe that increased professional responsibilities, including working two or more jobs to make ends meet, and long commutes leave many people too exhausted to seek social -- as well as family -- connections: "Maybe sitting around watching 'Desperate Housewives' . . . is what counts for family interaction."

However, during my interactions in US, I heard strong argument that electronic gadgets such as iPhone and iPod are also be blamed for social isolation.

This argument was presented by our host during the home hospitality dinner in Salt Lake City Utah, he was of the opinion that if one notices, people are becoming self centered, highly individualities and selfish in nature. It is partly due to capitalistic economic system and partly due to electronic gadgets. An individual in metro or in bus may not prefer socializing with fellow commuters; instead prefer getting hooked to iPod or iPhone or any other gadget. People enjoy being with themselves instead of being part of social being.

Argument is similar, usually presented during the gun control debate, pro gun lobby says its not gun that kills people its people who kill people. If I just relate it, argument would be, it is not gadget that makes people individualistic/socially isolated its people who prefer to be individualistic/socially isolated.

On contrary, another aspect was also discussed, at the same time technology help people socializing; people prefer spending more time online to be with friends. To me facebook and other sites have helped me to get socially connected or rather expand my social network. Another argument may suggest that due to facebook and other online sites, people are forced to remain online at the cost of physical social interaction.

Well to me it is an interesting debate; I fail to make up my mind, both arguments hold interesting weight.

If gadgets mean minimization of social contact, shall we expect virtual sex in future instead of physical!!! Well, there are people discussing such possibilities!!!

Polygamy Porter “Why Have Just One” & Funny Delta Air

My International Visitors Program trip to US has been the most memorable, few of the funny experiences, I will never forget.

Delta Air to me had been a boring personality, struggling with economic turmoil, stingy and cost cutting, and no food and even charging for the head phones for boring in flight entertainment. While flying from Charlotte North Carolina to Salt Lake City, it was bumpy and boring long four hour flight. No food was served, boring in flight entertainment, nearly everyone fall asleep.

After few hours journey, the fun part started, the funny air hostesses and their announcements, such as “ Please turn off your hair dryers, if you are using” and also there were few front seat available in business class I heard announcement “ there are few seats available for the most beautiful lady traveling in economy class”

Flight was bumpy, everyone was scared but announcement made everyone laugh, it says “if you did not like bumpy flight please forget that you are in Delta, rather you are traveling in Airline 9999”. Flight was extremely bumpy and announcement came “please make sure everyone is wearing seatbelt”, attendant further says, “Come on I can not come down in bumpy flight all way to check your seatbelts, please check yourself and the person sitting next to you”

I found Delta a funny, friendly and jolly personality, making people laugh.

Another interesting thing about Salt Lake City ‘SLC’ Utah was the hilarious Polygamy Porter beer; I was surprised to see SLC is partially a dry state. One can not have more than one beer without ordering food. The other day we went to shopping outlet mall and ended up having dinner at Thai Foon restaurant. I ordered a funny beer its called POLYGAMY PORTER with tag line “Why Just Have One!” It actually refers to Mormon culture, having two wives used to be part of life ‘law doesn’t allow today’.

The Polygamy Porter was tasty. It is only 4% alcohol so it would take the whole 6 pack to get any serious buzz.

The main label proclaims “Why Have Just One?”. Across the neck label it says “Bring some home for the wives” and in small print they claim their motto has always been “We drink our share and sell the rest”.

I also found few t shirts with tagline “ I can share my men but not my beer”. Wasatch Beer ‘that produces Polygamy Porter’ has long satirized the Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) culture with its advertising. Previous Reagan billboards for Wasatch featured the buxom blond namesake for St. Provo Girl Pilsner and catchphrases “Baptize your taste buds,” “Serving the local faithful” and “Oh, my heck.”

Polygamy porter is one of the most hilarious products I have ever come across.

Monday, February 2, 2009

My American Journey ‘Perceptions Are Always Wrong’ !

It has been four days I have been exploring various aspects of US life, a lot of questions in mind either being answered or more intriguing questions being raised to find answers.

I have learned one thing that individual freedom to make choice is so unique that drives the country forward. It is not just choice but also to bear the consequence, it is the society that makes mistakes, falls and bounce back. It is the winning spirit & approach that is really inspirational in America.

I noticed one thing people are really hard working, courteous and polite. If I am lost on streets, everyone greets with smile to help me out to find the way. Even in the metro, who so ever I ask they just desperately show willingness to help, the other day I wanted to go to Pentagon City, one person even asked if I want her to come along to drop me all the way.

Washington DC is the place so far I have not felt as if I am a foreigner, my kind of people, food etc, one just can not feel alien out here. Economic hardship is all there but people have not lost the hope, they know that they will bounce back and they are the best. People work like dogs and they deserve the prosperity, unlike back home Pakistani do not work hard yet look for all kind of prosperity.

I learned one thing from an inspirational & impressive guy ‘ Winner find flaws within, losers blame others……US society is winning society, they are just finding flaws within, instead of blaming others for their economic hardship.

Another interesting thing I want to share is the perception, they are always wrong, what people think about American or Pakistani society, is totally different. In Pakistan people think American society is going through the worst economic condition as if they require a rescue package from Pakistan.

American society is not perfect; there are flaws, systematic disparity but at least they are talking about, questioning, trying to find ways and means.

We may blame American foreign policy but right or wrong, they are all focused to fulfill the national interests through political means for economic prosperity. It is the freedom that drives the country forward. Hard working & free societies are bound to lead , instead of envying American society, we have to learn lessons to move up instead of blaming and pointing fingers……