Quiet quitting or bringing your whole self to work?

Bartleby, the first quiet quitter?

Recently there has been a flood of media accounts and TikTok videos of “quiet quitting” – meaning not that folks are actually quitting their jobs, but rather that they are doing the minimum at work, putting in just enough effort to keep their jobs. The idea is that one should develop a healthy work-life balance and not overdo the commitment to one’s work world. The term may be newly popular but the concept is not. For Germans the idea may conjure up “Beamten” (civil servants), who have guaranteed positions from which they are very difficult to dislodge. Civil servants in many other countries may have a similar status. Students of American literature may make another connection, namely to Bartleby the Scrivener (by Hermann Melville), who when asked to do a work task responds, “I would rather not”. Some have pointed out that the refusal to go above and beyond minimum work duties is a product of the pandemic (and work at home environments) and the ensuing glut of job openings, allowing workers to be choosier in employment situations.

On the other hand, there has been a workplace practice that points in a quite different direction, namely “bringing your whole self to work”, the idea that we should be fully present in all our personal traits and preferences at work (our “authentic” self). As pointed out in a recent column in the New York Times, this is an idea popularized by corporate consultant and TED talker Mike Robbins and celebrated at companies such as Google. The idea is that workers feel more comfortable at work if they are able to express aspects of their personal identities. The column asserts that the “whole self” movement has become popular in part because it aligns with calls for instituting more diversity and inclusion in the workplace. From that perspective, employees don’t have to hide who they really are in order to be accepted in the workplace.

Cynics, looking at my own field of employment, might say, quiet quitting? In academia, it’s called getting tenure. Tenure is supposed to guarantee academic freedom, so that professors aren’t fired for controversial or unpopular opinions they may voice. But for some, it may mean that the job security tenure brings amounts to a sinecure, a job for life that one keeps even if performance is problematic. A friend of mine from graduate school on the day he received tenure, went down into his basement and started converting it to a man cave, anticipating a different lifestyle in his future. Of course, for many workers, those in low pay environments such as fast-food or factory workers, the work environment is such that neither quiet quitting nor “whole self” engagement is applicable – the jobs simply don’t allow for much in the way of personal investment. At the same time digital tracking devices are being employed for white collar workers, keeping watch on their every move and thus restricting what leeway they have at work.

Monuments, cultural identity, and language

Soviet-era obelisk in Latvia recently demolished

Where I live, Richmond, Virginia, has in the US been a center of the recent movement to remove public monuments to individuals or movements associated with causes on the wrong side of history. In the case of Richmond, the monuments were statues of figures representing the breakaway Confederate States, determined to maintain the slavery of Blacks. The impetus to examine the appropriateness of public monuments celebrating racism came from the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Now in the Baltic states public monuments associated with Russia or with the Soviet Union are coming under increasing scrutiny and in some cases being removed. It is a phenomenon based largely on the Russian war on Ukraine.

However, the situation in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania is complicated by language issues. While the majority of inhabitants of those countries support Ukraine in the war, each country has a sizable number of native Russian speakers. Many of those people, ethnic Russians, support Russia in the war and do not approve of the removal of Soviet-oriented monuments. In Latvia, one third of the population speak only or primarily Russian. Recently, the Latvian government dismantled a tall obelisk erected in 1985 as a memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in World War II. According to a story in the New York Times, that obelisk was important to the Russian minority, with Russian speakers gathering at the obelisk each May 9 to commemorate the Soviet victory over the Nazis. It’s not just the ethnic Russians in Latvia who were upset over the demolition of the monument, the Kremlin accused European countries of attempting to rewrite history and disregarding Russia’s role in World War II.

According to the NY Times piece,

Latvia is not alone in seeking to dismantle symbols of the Soviet era: Other nations critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including Poland, have said they will do the same. Estonia recently removed a Soviet-era tank from a World War II memorial, prompting a wave of cyberattacks from a Russian hacking group.

We can’t know how the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine (and its possible outcome) will affect Russia’s neighbors, especially the former states belonging to the Soviet Union. We do see now Russian citizens becoming less and less welcome in many parts of the world or in particular domains such as sports competitions. The European Union is currently debating whether to prevent Russian tourists from visiting EU countries.

You don’t like kimchi? You’re not really Korean.

Katianna Hong cooking soup.

As I wrote recently in this blog, for those from mixed ethnic backgrounds, one avenue to reclaim what feels like a lost heritage from one of the parents is to learn that parent’s language. The feeling that one does not fit into a personally linked ethnic group has sometimes been labeled racial imposter syndrome. It’s the sense that some individuals may have that their lives are in a sense inauthentic because they don’t conform to key aspects of the ethnic heritage with which they identify.

A current piece in the New York Times describes a different way to connect with that less dominant side of ones family cultural heritage, namely through food. The article, “Food Is Identity. For Korean Chefs Who Were Adopted, It’s Complicated”, explores how adoptees in the US from Korea (a large group) have learned to cook Korean food, with some becoming professional chefs. The situation is described as “complicated” for several reasons. The cooks have grown up in non-Korean environments and often have had little exposure to Korean cuisine until later in life. They tend not to cook straight traditional Korean dishes, but rather integrate Korean cooking techniques and ingredients into many dishes they prepare. One woman in the article, Katianna Hong, is described as “a Korean woman adopted and raised by a German Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother.” She makes matzo ball soup, a traditional Jewish food, in an unconventional way:

Instead of the mirepoix of carrots, celery and onions her grandmother called for, Mrs. Hong opts for what she calls “Korean mirepoix” — potatoes and hobak, a sweet Korean squash — cooked slowly in chicken fat until translucent. She dribbles a spoonful of the mixture around a hulking matzo ball surrounded by swollen sujebi, the hand-torn Korean noodles, all floating in a bowl of chicken broth as creamy and cloudy as the ox bone soup Seolleongtang.

The article describes the soup as “a tribute to her adoptive family’s background and her own heritage”. While for the adoptees, the experience of cooking Korean may bring personal fulfillment, the chefs may face backlash from other Korean Americans that their cooking isn’t Korean enough. Here again, the situation is complicated. Kim Park Nelson, an associate professor of ethnic studies at Winona State University, herself a Korean adoptee is quoted in the article on the complexity involved:

The most common example I hear, and what I have experienced, is being asked if I like kimchi. I do, but not all adoptees are crazy about kimchi. There is almost a nationalistic connection between kimchi and Korea.  It’s like a test question: Are you actually Korean?

Adoptees learn to cook Korean from different sources, but often from social media such as YouTube. The experience of starting to make Korean food can prove to be emotional: “For a Korean adoptee, eating Korean food can be a reminder of the loss, grief and disconnection they’ve experienced. Cooking may intensify those feelings.” It may be scray to assert ones identity as “Korean” if one has not grown up eating Korean food:

Feelings of self-doubt — the impostor syndrome — can turn into fears of cultural appropriation. Many adoptee chefs say they feel like outsiders looking in, wondering not only if they have permission to cook the cuisine of their heritage, but also if what they’re doing could taint it.

As one Korean adoptee chef stated in the piece: “In some ways, Korean food becomes a marker of what you aren’t.”

Loneliness: Can AI and robots help?

OriHome robot, a social companion from Japan

Japan has a Ministry of Loneliness with a Minister whose mission is to combat social isolation in the country. This is a widely recognized problem in Japan, with a special term, hikikomori, created to refer to shut-ins who have virtually no contact with other people. Loneliness is common among older Japanese, but a study showed that it is prevalent among younger age groups as well. Prolonged social isolation can lead to depression and increases the risk of suicide, a perennial issue in Japan. Now the Japanese government through its Loneliness Minister is enlisting AI tech to help alleviate the problem. There is an experimental program which lends out robots to those who are isolated or who struggle with anxiety about social interactions. The robost, called OriHome, are tiny, just 9 inches tool, white, with green eyes. They are controlled by an app on mobile devices. According to the report, the robot has two arms, which it moves about expressively while talking, allowing for integration of nonverbal communication.

OriHome is not the first such device in Japan designed to provide companionship to humans. Paro is a robotic seal deployed in a retirement facility. Sony Aibo robot dogs have been available for some time. A piece in the Huffington Post traces the evolution of robotic companions in Japan. While the Japanese tend to embrace new tech early and often enthusiastically, the trend towards socially competent AI is something we are seeing world-wide, particularly through smart voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant. Advances in voice recognition and in more naturally sounding synthetic voices have grown at a fast pace in recent years. Tech companies are also trying to make the assistants more social, through providing more human-like politeness formulas and small talk. They are also beginning to be able to build persistent models of user interactions, which enable multi-turn conversations and some degree of follow-up from previous conversations. Recently a Google engineer claimed that Google’s most advanced AI conversation partner, Lamda, had in fact become sentient. Most AI experts have expressed extreme skepticism. But the claim alone demonstrates how sophisticated such AI systems have become in being able to mimic humans engaged in conversation.

In the current issue of Language Learning & Technology, I have a column which examines how partnering with AI has benefited language learners, particularly in terms of writing in a second language.

Cultural themes in US society and their deadly consequences

White flags on the National Mall representing deaths from COVID

In the US in recent weeks there has been a disturbing milestone – over 1 million deaths from COVID-19 – and several tragic events, i.e., mass shootings in New York and Texas. Although quite different in nature, these developments, I believe, highlight central cultural themes in contemporary America related to individual freedom of choice and to attitudes towards authorities, particularly as represented in science and the government. The events are disturbing and tragic but also worrisome in that the power of these cultural themes appears to be growing, with potentially catastrophic future impacts on public health and safety.

A recent article in the NY Times highlighted the fact that Australia’s Covid death rate has been one-tenth of that in the US. The article points to a “lifesaving trait that Australians displayed from the top of government to the hospital floor, and that Americans have shown they lack: trust, in science and institutions, but especially in one another.” That trust, present in Australia, absent in the US, was “fundamental in getting people to change their behavior for the common good to combat Covid, by reducing their movements, wearing masks and getting vaccinated”. While Australians followed community rules, sharing a mutual concern for others (“mateship”), many Americans insisted on their personal freedom not to wear a mask or to get vaccinated. For many in the US that individual freedom of choice trumped all other factors, including social responsibility.

That obsession with personal freedom to act, despite potential dangers to others, is a cultural theme that carries over to gun ownership in the US. There is strong evidence that the widespread lack of restrictions on owning firearms of all types, including military-style assault weapons, leads to more and more gun deaths, including suicides. Efforts at the federal level to institute restrictions have failed repeatedly over the years. At the recent convention of the NRA (National Rifle Association), NRA leaders and attendees responding to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, were, according to an article in the Texas Tribune, “unified in their belief that the shooter’s access to guns was not to blame”. Instead they pointed to cultural issues:

They attributed this attack and others to a broader breakdown in society wrought by the removal of God from public schools, the decline of two-parent households, a perceived leniency toward criminals, social media and an increase in mental illness. They described feeling ostracized for their beliefs, and not just those on guns. For their refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. For their objections to gay people serving as teachers. For their belief in disciplining children through spanking.

Instead of restricting sales of guns, NRA adherents focused on cultural issues and “framed any attempt at curtailing gun rights as chipping away at their freedoms”. But just like refusing to be vaccinated puts others at risk, the insistence on the absolute freedom to own guns makes them so widely available that it seems inevitable that public safety is at risk, as the raft of mass shootings has shown.

“I’m a fraud within my own identity”: Racial Impostor Syndrome

Emily Kwong at age 2 with her grandparents

There was a compelling story this week on NPR dealing with individuals from families with mixed ethnic backgrounds.  In the story, Emily Kwong discusses her decision to learn Mandarin Chinese at the age of 30. Her Dad had grown up speaking Chinese as his first language, but when he started school, he started learning English, and soon switched over completely. When she was little, Emily had learned some Chinese from her grandmother but had not retained any. As an adult, she started to feel increasingly that she needed to try to reconnect with the Chinese side of her identity and decided that necessitated learning the language of her father.

The feeling that Emily has of “feeling that I’m not Chinese enough” has sometimes been labeled racial imposter syndrome, the sense that individuals may have that their lives are in a sense inauthentic because they don’t conform to key aspects of the ethnic heritage with which they identify. That might be related to a lack of knowledge about traditional customs or aspects of the way of life, or be connected to the individual’s appearance. But quite likely there will be a language component. For Emily, learning Chinese has proven to be a challenge, as it is for many native English speakers, particularly if one starts later in life. However, the difficulties she has had with the language pale when compared to the shame she feels in not being able to connect at all with her Chinese-speaking relatives:

I’ve decided that any shame I might feel about imperfect pronunciation, fumbles with grammar is nothing compared to the shame I felt about not knowing the language at all; the shame I feel as my older relatives rattle off dim sum dishes and I stare down the menu pictures, feeling like a fraud within my own identity, missing something I never had in the first place.

This sense of feeling like a fraud within one’s own identity is likely felt by many individuals from immigrant families or those with connections to multiple cultures. NPR a few years ago did a series on such cases, which are increasing as American identities become more mixed. The accounts of experiences are revealing. A woman whose mother is Panamanian and father a white American recounted:

When I was young (20s) and living in the city, I would get asked multiple times a day where I was from, where my people were from, because Allentown, Pennsylvania, clearly wasn’t the answer they were looking for … It always felt like the undercurrent of that question was, “You aren’t white, but you aren’t black. What are you?” But truthfully, I don’t feel like I fit with Latinas either. My Spanish is atrocious and I grew up in rural PA. Even my cousin said a few weeks ago, “Well, you aren’t really Spanish, because your dad is white.” Which gutted me, truly. I identify as Latina.

Another individual featured was a light-skinned biracial woman:

White people like to believe I’m Caucasian like them; I think it makes their life less complicated. But I don’t identify as 100% white, so there always comes a time in the conversation or relationship where I need to ‘out’ myself and tell them that I’m biracial. It’s a vulnerable experience, but it becomes even harder when I’m with black Americans. It may sound strange — and there are so many layers to this that are hard to unpack — but I think what it comes down to is: they have more of a claim to ‘blackness’ than I ever will and therefore have the power to tell me I don’t belong, I’m not enough, that I should stay on the white side of the identity line.

Emily’s effort to retrieve a heritage through language learning may not apply to everyone, but for many it may be an important tool for feeling less like a “fraud”. The experiences in her family illustrate a frequent pattern in immigrant families, namely that the first generation may give up their first language, as Emily’s Dad did, in order to assimilate into mainstream US society. That was widely the case throughout the 20th century in the US. Second or third generation children, like Emily, discover often that not speaking the language of their immigrant parent or parents leaves a void in their sense of who they are.

Is Ukraine a country?

Russian troops in Ukraine

One of the issues in the war between Russia and Ukraine is the insistence by President Putin of Russia that in fact Ukraine is not a “real” country but historically and culturally belongs to Russia. That is part of his stated rationale for the war, along with the concern he continually expresses that Ukraine will join NATO and thus become an enemy on Russia’s doorstep.

Many have debunked the idea that Ukraine does not have a right to be an independent nation. The historical, cultural, and linguistic reasons are laid out nicely in a recent piece by Keith Gessen in the New York Times Magazine. He cites the conversation from one of the posted videos from the war showing a Ukrainian citizen confronting Russian soldiers after their tank runs out of gas on the road to Kyiv. The Ukrainian asks in Russian, “Can I tow you back to Russia?”

Beyond the courage and the sense of humor on display, Gessen comments that the fascinating aspect of the encounter was not so much how it documented the incompetence of the Russian invasion, but rather that the Ukrainian could communicate so easily, so freely, with the Russian soldiers. Not only do many Ukrainians speak Russian, often as their native language, but they switch easily between Russian and Ukrainian, depending on the context and the situation. Although Russian war propaganda makes much of the minority status of Russian speakers in Ukraine, that does not ring true in the everyday life of most Ukrainians:

Russian propaganda claims that the language is discriminated against, and there are people in Russia who believe that you will get shouted at, or even attacked, for speaking Russian in Kyiv. Yet in the videos now emerging from Ukraine, over and over again, people are speaking Russian. Soldiers speak Russian as they fire rocket-propelled grenades at Russian tanks. Locals speak Russian as they survey annihilated Russian columns.

Gessen points out that Americans are likely to associate war with countries far away, where a foreign language is spoken. He points out that this war is altogether different: “Russia invading Ukraine is less like our wars in Iraq or Vietnam and more like the United States invading Canada.”

The President of Ukraine himself, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, switches easily between the two languages. In a speech rebutting Putin’s claim of the shared identity of Ukraine and Russia, he switched to Russian in order to address the Russian people:

Responding to the Kremlin’s claims that it was protecting the separatist regions from Ukrainian plans to take them by force, Zelensky asked whom, exactly, Russia thought he was going to bomb. “Donetsk?” he asked incredulously. “Where I’ve been dozens of times, seen people’s faces, looked into their eyes? Artyoma Street, where I hung out with my friends? Donbas Arena, where I cheered on our boys at the Eurocup? Scherbakov Park, where we all went drinking after our boys lost? Luhansk? The house where the mother of my best friend lives? Where my best friend’s father is buried?”

Zelensky was making the argument that Ukraine is indeed a nation, formed not by history or by language, but by the histories and memories of its people and through personal connections among its citizens. Zelensky continued his speech: “Note that I’m speaking now in Russian, but no one in Russia understands what I’m talking about. These place names, these streets, these families, these events — this is all foreign to you. It’s unfamiliar. This is our land. This is our history. What are you going to fight for? And against whom?”

It is a powerful and effective argument that he is making, insisting that Ukraine is not Russia, but instead its own nation, multiethnic and multilingual, and rooted to a particular place, culture, and history. And one whose continued existence is worth fighting for.

Chinese-American athletes: How Chinese are they?

From left, Chinese-American Olympians Gu, Zhu, Chen

Interesting reactions in both the US and in China to Olympic athletes who grew up in the US but whose families have roots in China. These individuals are often referred to as ABC’s: American-Born Chinese. As is true with immigrant groups in the US generally, Chinese-American families are diverse, from first generation families speaking mostly Chinese at home to long established families in the US, assimilated in many ways, to many stages in between. Yet, when ABC’s go to China, those distinctions are often not recognized or acknowledged. If you look Chinese, the expectation is frequently that you should not only be familiar with Chinese culture and customs (food for example), but also that you are able to speak Mandarin.

The expectations from the Chinese is the same for those athletes as for any ABC’s. So there has been severe criticism for those who don’t speak fluent Chinese, including Nathaniel Chen, who won gold in figure skating. The harshest criticism however, has been leveled at figure skater Zhu Yi, who gave up her American citizenship to represent China (and changed her name from Beverly Zhu). The attacks were in part a result of her poor performance at the Games, but also reflected her less than perfect Mandarin language skills. On the opposite end of the spectrum is San Francisco native and freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who also chose to compete for China (she is known as Gu Ailing in China). When she won gold last week, the congratulations pouring in temporarily crashed China’s leading social media platform, Weibo. Gu speaks Chinese fluently (reportedly with a Beijing accent) and also is well known as a fashion model and Internet influencer.

My experience in China is that if are foreign and don’t look Chinese, but speak some Chinese, even if poorly, you will be received very favorably. That’s been the case for me as a white American. If you speak Chinese fluently, as does my oldest son, Chinese people will be amazed and effusive in their praise. There is zero expectation that foreign tourists learn the language that popular opinion among Chinese themselves consider to be very difficult. However, if you look Chinese, the expectations are totally different.

Big brothers’ aggression fosters local patriotism

Ukrainians preparing to defend their country against a Russian invasion

Much concern has been expressed recently about the rise of nationalism in a variety of countries, fueled by adverse economic conditions, religious intolerance, populist politicians, and/or xenophobia. While fervent nationalism can lead to tribalism and a rejection of others, some forms of nationalism and patriotism can have positive effects, including pride, solidarity, and a sense of group bonding. With the winter Olympics starting up soon, we are likely to see patriotism tied to sports, a mostly benign phenomenon.

More recently, strong feelings of patriotism and shared group identity have arisen in two countries under threat from hegemonic big brothers, namely Ukraine and Taiwan. President Putin of Russia has asserted that Ukraine is historically and culturally part of Russia and that indeed Russians and Ukrainians are the same people. In fact, many Ukrainians, especially in the east, continue to speak Russian (rather than Ukrainian) as their preferred first language, long after the break-up of the Soviet Union. But the impending threat of invasion from Russia has led to a change of feelings about language and identity, including in Eastern Ukraine, as outlined in a recent piece in the Washington Post, “Border city pro-Russia no more”. The conflict with Russia has strengthened the pro-West movement already evident in Ukraine and in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Ironically, Putin’s effort to increase Russia’s influence in Ukraine have led instead to the opposite, to a growing distrust and a feeling of increasing separation from its historical partner.

Similarly, President Xi of China, has asserted often that Taiwan is a part of China, and that the people from mainland China and the island of Taiwan are the same, all Chinese. In fact, Mandarin is the main language in both places, although Taiwan uses traditional characters in writing while the mainland uses simplified characters. More and more recently the rumblings about Taiwan from Beijing are increasingly bellicose. This week the Chinese Ambassador to the US warned of “military conflict” over US support of Taiwan’s independence. Rather than convincing the Taiwanese that they should join the People’s Republic, the hardline stance from the Chinese government has led to a greater sense of a separate Taiwanese identity. That is discussed in a recent piece in the New York Times, “‘We Are Taiwanese’: China’s Growing Menace Hardens Island’s Identity”. The article points out that traditionally the ties to mainland China are strong:

Well over 90 percent of Taiwan’s people trace their roots to mainland China, but more than ever, they are embracing an identity that is distinct from that of their Communist-ruled neighbor. Beijing’s strident authoritarianism — and its claim over Taiwan — has only solidified the island’s identity.

According to the NY Times, more than 60% of the people surveyed identity themselves as solely Taiwanese, way up from the last survey in 1992. Only 2% identified themselves as “Chinese”.

It’s difficult to foretell what will happen as Ukraine and Taiwan strive to maintain their independence and develop a stronger sense of national identity. The people of Hong Kong also had a sense of separateness from China but were not able to maintain their semi-independent status in the face of Beijing’s economic, political, and military power. The reasons for the big countries seeking absorption of their smaller neighbors differ, but one motive seems clear: the functioning democratic states of Ukraine and Taiwan, providing a variety of freedoms to their citizens, are governance models that the authoritarian leaders in Moscow and in Beijing do not want their own people to have close by.

Rewriting history: The Soviet Union, the Confederacy, January 6th

Lee statue time capsule being opened

Recent events highlight attempts to whitewash history and to place past regimes in a positive light. In Russia, the civic organization, International Memorial Society, has just been banned. That organization is dedicated to educating the public about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. They have worked to document the Gulag system of forced labor, the imprisonment of dissidents, and the waves of executions that took place in the USSR. The campaign to shut down Memorial is in line with (and possibly at the instigation) of Russia’s President. Putin is intent on glorifying the Soviet Union, whose break-up Putin sees as one of the great catastrophes of world history. In the narrative of the greatness of the USSR, there is no place for historical accounts of injustice and atrocities.

Meanwhile, this week here in Richmond, Virginia, insight into another whitewashing of history was on display. A time capsule was opened yesterday that had been found in the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee statue, placed there in 1887 when the monument to the Confederacy was erected. As expected, the documents in the time capsule celebrate the break-away state established to preserve slavery in the Southern states. Most of the 60 or so documents reference the Confederacy and are in line with the message of the statue itself, namely glorifying the state and one of its heroes. The statue itself was removed this year, as have been many other memorials celebrating the “lost cause” of the Confederacy. Not surprisingly, the time capsule contained no documents related to slavery or to Black people (or to any people other than Whites). That stands in sharp contrast to the graffiti messaging on the Lee statue and on its pedestal from last year’s protests against racism, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Finally, the attempted coup this year in Washington, D.C. on January 6th, to prevent the official recognition of Joe Biden as President elect is also being whitewashed by those loyal to Donald Trump and to his “big lie” that he won the election in 2020. That and other attempts to rewrite history are dangerous, as they deny the validity of documented historical facts. Spreading false accounts of historical events can have profound cultural repercussions, as we are witnessing now in the US, with a substantial proportion of the population convinced that the Trump account is true. Such developments, as many have pointed out, represent a serious threat to democratic systems, as they can destroy faith in civic institutions.

What? Scones with fried chicken?

Today is Thanksgiving in the US, with many families enjoying the traditional meal of roast turkey, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberries, pies, etc. While the food is important, Thanksgiving is a social event, bringing extended families back together, an especially appreciated opportunity this year after the COVID lockdown last November. While the collective meal represented by Thanksgiving is seen as special is the US, in most parts of the world, it is a regular occurrence. I’m reminded of an interview on NPR a few years ago with a Yemeni photographer. She was invited to a family Thanksgiving and was asked afterwards her impression: she responded that it was “like every day in Yemen”.

Popeyes in London

While Thanksgiving celebrates the 17th century migration of Europeans to North America, a story this week in the NY Times described a food migration in the opposite direction, back to Europe, actually to Great Britain, from the US. The first Popeyes fast-food chicken restaurant opened recently in London. Popeyes is known for its fried chicken, and recently made a splash with its very popular chicken sandwich (also seen as one of the unhealthiest fast-food options ever). Beyond chicken, another essential component of a Popeyes meal are its buttermilk biscuits, flaky, buttery, and tender. But when Popeyes set up a focus group to assess how Brits might view Popeyes, the reaction, according to the article was, “Why are you giving me a scone with chicken? I have no idea what you are doing.”

A buttermilk biscuit does look similar to a British scone, although scones are denser, drier and crumblier. But scones are not served with chicken or with meals generally, but rather with tea as a light snack, for example, for “cream tea” in the mid-morning or with afternoon tea. Hence the confusion on the part of the British diners. Interestingly, the word “biscuit” also is used in Britain, but refers to what is called a “cookie” in North America. Interesting as well is the socio-cultural significance of the terms. “Biscuits” in the US are considered a staple of Southern cooking and an essential part of “down-home” comfort food. In contrast to the blue-collar aura around biscuits, “scones”, if they are at all familiar to US folks, are likely seen as upper-crust and a symbol of privileged wealth.

As is the case with other fast-food outlets, Popeyes has made adjustments to cater to local conditions:

The chicken is halal to cater to the area’s Muslim population. Almost all of the ingredients are sourced from Britain, including baby gem lettuce, which is harder to find in the United States. The menu also includes the chain’s first-ever vegan burger, which is made of fried red beans, a nod to the strong demand for plant-based food in the British market

So far, the reaction to Popeyes and its strange version of scones seems to be quite positive. According to the article, the company is planning to open 10 to 15 new Popeyes locations next year.

School politics escolates: Burning books?

Nazis burning books in 1934

Here in Virginia the fight over schools has recently intensified. As in other US states, school board meetings have become battlegrounds over what should be and should not be taught in schools and who should set policies on learning content and on other school policies. According to election analyses, the recently elected new governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin won largely because of his embrace of the idea that parents should have more say in what is happening in elementary and secondary public schools. In his election campaign, Youngkin vowed not to allow “critical race theory” to be taught – the idea that institutional racism has been a defining feature of US life since the country’s founding. Interestingly, critical race theory is not actually taught in schools in Virginia (or across the country).

Another issue that has emerged concerns transgender students and how they should be treated in schools, especially regarding which bathrooms they should be using. There is actually a Virginia state law passed recently that requires school districts to accommodate trans students, allowing them to use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity. Despite that, this week a county close to me (Hanover) voted to deny that right to trans students.

Also in Virginia, one more issue that parents have raised is related to books. In some school boards, parents have objected to having some books available to students, those that deal with topics such as sexuality or racism. Youngkin ran an ad featuring a parent objecting to having students read the celebrated novel, “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison, a story dealing with the horrors of slavery. Several school board members in Spotsylvania County have gone further, urging libraries to burn offending books. Destroying books is an attempt to rewrite history, as books are the most important artifacts of human culture and history.

For those familiar with German history, that idea also raises a troublesome occurrence during the early Nazi period, namely in 1934 students in universities across Germany burning what Nazis considered offending books, namely those from authors with different political views (i.e., socialists) or by rejected ethnic groups (i.e., Jews). Among the latter were the works of the prominent poet Heinrich Heine. In one of his dramas, one of Heine’s characters voices a prophetic line: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen” [Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people]. A reminder that extremist words and actions have real world consequences, which may be horrific.

A Facebook metaverse? No thanks.

I recently wrote a column in the LLT journal (Language Learning & Technology) looking back at 25 years of the use of technology in language learning. One of the principal developments discussed in the column is the transformation of the World Wide Web, from the heady early days in the 1990s when the web seemed to promise universal access to information and knowledge to the situation we have today in which the online world has become a rich source of misinformation and divisiveness. Social media has been a major contributor to that transformation. Donald Trump demonstrated how Twitter can be a vehicle for spreading disinformation and for engaging in nasty personal vendettas. The pernicious social role played by Facebook and Instagram has become clear in recent media reports, based on leaked internal company documents.

Now Facebook has announced – not that it has seen the light and will adjust its algorithm so as not to encourage acrimony, animosity, and conflict – but that it will become the creator of the metaverse. Facebook is now “Meta”. In my LLT column, I wrote about the metaverse, i.e., the ubiquitous intertwining of physical and online worlds first depicted in Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash (1992). Some commentators have recently pointed to the expansion of gaming platforms such as Fortnite or Roblox as moving in the direction of a burgeoning metaverse. The availability of those platforms on a great variety of devices and systems, from phones to gaming consoles, points to the ubiquity of access needed for this vision. Also needed are other elements already available within Fortnite or Roblox: the ability to have both planned and spontaneous events, to offer a variety of gaming and communication options, to have its own economic system (such as gaming currency) and, importantly, to enable users to carve out within that environment their own space, offering, for example, user-created games.

Apparently, Facebook’s interest in creating a metaverse is in part its commitment to the growth of virtual reality (through the Oculus system it acquired), as VR is a likely priority entry point to a metaverse. But it’s likely as well that the company hopes the announcement will distract from the many issues raised in the media about Facebook and its associated platforms. Additionally, it seems likely that Facebook’s move is an attempt as well to attract younger users, who have flocked to Roblox and Fortnite. Ironically it is that group, especially young girls, who have been shown in Facebook’s own studies to suffer potential harmful results from social media such as Instagram.

Do we want to have a new virtual world built by a company which ignores its own findings about its negative impact, a company that seems to have a focus only on market share and profit? For me, Fortnite and Roblox seem to offer better alternatives, if indeed we are moving towards a metaverse.

Freedom, a statue and a transition

Two weeks ago, here in Richmond, Virginia, the huge statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue was removed. It was the last symbol of the Southern Confederacy remaining on a street which once was lined with tributes to the heroes of that cause. The statues, erected during the Jim Crow South, celebrated the “Lost Cause”, the idea that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and not slavery and that slavery was a benevolent institution. Those reminders of the fight to maintain human slavery started to come down last summer, in the wake of the movement centered around the murder of George Floyd.

Today, a new statue was unveiled in Richmond, this time on Brown’s Island on the James River. It is entitled “Emancipation and Freedom” and features 3 African-Americans. A black man is depicted with whip marks on his back and chains falling off him. A black woman is shown with a determined look, holding up in one hand the Emancipation Proclamation and a baby in the other. Below the figures is the word “Freedom”, along with images and life stories of 10 representative African-American Virginians. That provides the kind of rich context missing from the Confederate statues.

It’s a wonderful way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves. It is also a long overdue recognition and representation of the real history of the American South, far different from that represented for over a century on Monument Avenue.

The fall of Afghanistan and the marshmallow test

The marshmallow test

US Troops left Afghanistan this week, marking the end of a 20-year war, but also of an experiment in nation building. That experiment failed. So what’s the connection to the marshmallow test? In essence, the US was attempting to build a state built on the kind of individuals who would pass that test.

The test was the famous experiment at Stanford University by Walter Mischel, a psychology professor specializing in social psychology (one of the constituent disciplines of intercultural communication studies) to test the ability to engage in self-control and delayed gratification (offering preschoolers a marshmallow now to eat versus the option of getting 2 if they could wait 10 minutes). In follow-up studies, Mischel found that those who had been able/willing to wait were more successful later in life, doing better in school, living healthier, and becoming more prosperous.

In his book, “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous,” Joseph Henrich, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, writes about how the West developed culturally (starting in Europe in the Middle Ages) through the rise of capitalism and the practice of reading to be quite different (literally “weird”) in many ways from the rest of human society. The marshmallow tests select those who fit into the WEIRD mold (i.e., Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), that is fitting into patterns of individualistic initiative, avoiding impulsive behavior, and embracing independence (outside of kinship systems). Henrich writes that experiments in social psychology, such as the marshmallow test, assume all human societies are the same, valuing traits such as long-term patience. He asserts that is not the case. In many cultures, what is valued most highly is loyalty to the expanded family or tribal unit and the acceptance of social hierarchies.

Back to Afghanistan. The US was attempting to create a state based on Western democratic principles in a culture not at all WEIRD. In fact, Afghanistan is a very different culture, with low literacy (38%) and strong tribal ties. According to a report in the Washington Post, “Built to fail“, 

Washington foolishly tried to reinvent Afghanistan in its own image by imposing a centralized democracy and a free-market economy on an ancient, tribal society that was unsuited for either…Under American tutelage, Afghan officials were exposed to newfangled concepts and tools: PowerPoint presentations, mission statements, stakeholder meetings, even appointment calendars…Under the new constitution, the Afghan president wielded far greater authority than the other two branches of government — the parliament and judiciary — and also got to appoint all the provincial governors. In short, power was centralized in the hands of one man. The rigid, U.S.-designed system conflicted with Afghan tradition, typified by a mix of decentralized power and tribal customs.

In retrospect, of course, it is easy to see what should have been done. Yet, it does seem surprising that the US State Department and Department of Defense were not aware of the profound divergences between cultures that are individualistic and those more oriented towards collectivism. If only those government officials had taken a course in intercultural communication!