Housing Styles and Openness to Strangers

lanaiI am in Seoul, South Korea this week but was in Honolulu last week for the CALICO Conference on language learning and technology.  Walking around Honolulu and seeing how people live prompted some thoughts about the relationship between housing styles/preferences and communication patterns.  One of the things that struck me in riding around Honolulu on the bus was how open communication between strangers was.  I noticed on a couple of occasions older Hawaiians striking up conversations with schoolchildren and, contrary to the reaction typical in many other U.S. cities, the children readily responding.  Guess they didn’t get the message about not talking with strangers.  The porous barriers between people is reflected in the housing styles in Honolulu where there is an open transition between indoors and outdoors.  You see lots of furniture outside, including sofas, that would be a strange site in most North American cities.  Hawaiians love to hang out on the lanai, which is a patio that serves as another room of the house. This is related of course to the wonderful year-round weather in Hawaii, but it struck me also as being in harmony with the casual communication style.

I think those thoughts came to me from watching while in Hawaii the German news reporting on the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma.  There was disbelief on the part of the German reporter in Oklahoma and the news anchor that houses there were made of wood and had no storm shelters. There are no tornadoes in Germany (hence probably the intense interest by Germans in this exotic and frightening weather event) but if one roared across the Atlantic, German houses would be ready.  They are built very securely and have heavy shutters with which to cover windows, with roofs covered in slate or ceramic tiles (not our flimsy roof tiles).  German houses are self-sufficient islands of security, fenced off additionally from the outside world through tall hedges or fences surrounding the garden areas and house. Doors are closed and locked.  When we exchanged houses a few years ago with a German family, my German colleague’s wife was quite upset that there were not locks on all the interior rooms. What a world of difference from Hawaii!  And certainly riding on public transportation in Germany you rarely see the kinds of interactions among strangers I saw in Honolulu. Germans tend to be reserved in public, but quite open and friendly once you get to know them. Maybe the difference has more to do with the weather than anything else, but it is interesting to reflect on the mirroring of environment and communication.

On talking to the strangers, there is a very nice recent TED talk by Maria Bezaitis, “The surprising need for strangeness

Texas German & Nietzsche’s Sister

TexGer0120Logo2Interesting examples of code-switching (German mixed with English, like the combination of German was and English whatever) in a NPR story today about Texas German, a variety of the language still spoken by several thousand Texans living around the town of New Braunfels, between Austin and San Antonio. It’s one of only a few areas in the U.S. where there are still German-speaking communities.  Best known are the Amish communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  As mentioned in the story, one of the unusual aspects of Texas German is the fact that it is based not just on one or several dialects but on a relatively large number.  Also of interest are the words from the “new world” that were invented and imported into Texas German.  Skunks are not known in Germany, so the Texas German came up with Stinkkatze (smelly cat, in standard German Stinktier).

The story calls to mind a recent NY Times article also about German in the Americas, in this case about a German colony in Paraguay, Nueva Germania, founded in 1887 by German anti-Semites, including the sister of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  This is the same sister, Elisabeth, responsible for distorting her brother’s ideas to make them much more anti-Semitic.  According to the article, the town of Nueva Germania today is a model of multilingualism, far removed from Elisabeth’s vision of an Aryan stronghold:

While there are still a few blond-haired children running around, after generations of intermarriage, many of the town’s 4,300 residents have German surnames but are indiscernible from other Paraguayans. Nueva Germania’s dominant language is Guaraní, the indigenous language widely spoken in Paraguay; even those families who still hew to old ways, speaking German at home, mix it with high-pitched, nasal Guaraní and some Spanish.

Describing a towering tree in the yard of her farm with few branches around its trunk, making it daunting to climb, Ms. Fischer, the descendant of Nueva Germania’s pioneers, called it simply “ka’i kyhyjeha,” an indigenous term roughly translating as “monkey’s fear.” “Guaraní and German are so different from each other,” she said, “but they mix well for us.”

What a horror for Elisabeth Nietzsche, German mixing well with an indigenous language!


Not the nanny!

lam-bright-family-photoThe latest installment of the NPR “Code-Switch” series had an interesting segment on multi-racial families in the U.S this week.  Such families have become much more common, with 15 % of marriages being interracial or inter-ethnic, but that doesn’t means they are universally accepted. The story highlights the experiences of a couple with an African-American father, a Vietnamese mother, and two children.  The mom recounts that when she her daughter to a local park, she was ignored by the other moms or was asked if she were the nanny and if it was ok with the family that she spoke Vietnamese to her charge.  The encounters inspired the mom, Thien Kim Lam, to create a blog called I’m not the nanny. The article points out that more and more interracial families are touting their mixed heritage as a positive thing. Surveys in the U.S. show that that over 2/3 of Americans would accept multiracial marriages in their families.

It’s not always easy for the children in biracial families.  Thien Kim Lam recalls that when her daughter was 2, she threw a tantrum because her skin wasn’t fair like her mom’s and her hair was curly. The take-away for the mom was that it’s a good idea to talk about race and to make them aware of their special status: “Teaching them their Vietnamese culture, but then I also reiterate that they’re American. That’s what makes them American; that they have this great mix of cultures.”

Feng Shui to the rescue


In Hunan Province, a boulder was placed outside a government building to create better feng shui for superstitious civil servants. (Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times)

Article in today’s NY Times about the use of feng shui by local Chinese government officials as a line of defense against trouble. Feng shui (风水,literally wind-water) refers to the ancient Chinese techniques of orienting physical space for maximizing good spirit energy (气,qi), resulting in improved health, prosperity, and luck. It is important for many Chinese to make sure any new building is built with good feng shui, which often means orienting the building in particular ways depending on local landmarks such as bodies of water or mountains. Using feng shui, however, is officially discouraged by the Chinese Communist Party and in fact was outlawed under Mao, as the practice was considered to be feudalistic and superstitious. As more cracks appear in the Communist Party in today’s China, feng shui is making a comeback.

The article gives a number of examples of officials enlisting the help of feng shui to deal with troublesome issues such as peasant complaints, personal problems, or corruption investigations. In Zoumajie, for example, a stone wall was built by the local land resources office in order to block the bad qi emanating from a pair of stone lions in front of a different government building. Other examples:

In 2009, county officials in the western province of Gansu spent $732,000 transporting a 369-ton boulder six miles to the county seat, a move feng shui masters said would ward off bad luck. As part of the consecration ceremony, the county magistrate walked 325 feet toward the “spirit rock,” kowtowing every three steps.

In February 2010, People’s Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece, reported that Cui Xinyuan, the party chief of Gaoyi County in Hebei Province, had installed a decommissioned fighter jet in the middle of a boulevard opposite the government headquarters so he could soar to the empyrean of Chinese power. The jet was intended to block the flow of bad luck, according to local residents, but it ultimately just blocked traffic.

In the latter case, the official’s use of a jet to counteract bad qi didn’t prevent the official from being sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery.  It turns out that hard work and honesty may actually be a better way for officials to prosper, but work is no fun and bribes can be awfully temping.

Talk to Cavemen!

cavemenThat title is used in a Washington Post article this week about a recent article in the field of historical linguistics published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which claims to trace a group of words back through seven different language families to a common ancestor language spoken some 15,000 years ago. Historical linguists use cognates (words with similar sounds and meanings) to trace language evolution and are able to compare cognates that appear to be related in a variety of language back to common ancestral languages.  The best-known example is Proto-Indo-European, an ancestor of a number of language families in contemporary Europe and India.

Mark Pagel (University of Reading) and collaborators built a sophisticated statistical model to try to identify specific words across language families that are similar enough, they believe, to have had a common origin. They found 23 “ultraconserved” words. Some which one might expect, including hand, give, I, thou, old and mother, but some which may be surprising such as spit, worm, and bark (of a tree).  The original Washington Post article imagines what might have been said with these words:

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

It’s an odd little speech. But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying. That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age.

As intriguing as this theory is, many linguists are skeptical, as nicely explained by Sally Tompson on the Language Log. So maybe don’t count on being able to communicate with a caveman if you encounter one.

How to insult: Shoe or Vegemite?

vegemiteTo express unhappiness with a public figure, such as a President or Prime Minister, one of the non-verbal methods sometimes used is to throw something at that person.  In 2008 an Iraqi journalist hurled both his shoes, one after another, at President Bush, in protest against the Iraq War. In many cultures, showing the sole of one’s shoe is an insult, as is throwing a shoe.  There is a long list of shoeing incidents listed by Wikipedia, mostly directed at politicians in the Middle East and India. This week it was Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard who was attacked, but not by a shoe – by a Vegemite sandwich. It was thrown at her by a school child as she was visiting a school. It’s hard to tell if there was anything symbolic in choosing a sandwich – most likely it was just what was at hand.  Gillard is deeply unpopular at the moment in Australia and the sandwich toss may be a reflection of that fact.

What’s Vegemite?  If you’re Australian you wouldn’t need to ask.  It’s as popular there as peanut butter is in the U.S. or Nutella (a chocolate nut spread) is in Germany.  Like those foods, it is a sandwich spread, made from yeast (a by-product of beer brewing) and vegetable paste. Generally, I think of food as a great way to ease intercultural communication, but in the case of Vegemite, unless you ate it as a child, you are not likely to be a fan, as the video clip below between President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard illustrates:

Speaking of food, there was a wonderful article this week in the Guardian on how much an average family spends on food per week, with great pictures – amazing range of cost and volume of food consumed.

Gaelic unites

gaelicsignsAPRecent story in the Atlantic about the interest in the Irish language, a Celtic language, also called Irish Gaelic (as distinct from Scottish Gaelic) in Northern Ireland, the majority Protestant region of Ireland that is part of the UK, separate from the majority Catholic Republic of Ireland.  The Irish language has long played an important cultural role in the Republic, but not so traditionally in the North, where it has often been associated with the Catholic South. Now efforts are underway to try to use the Irish language as a way to bring Protestant Republicans and Catholic Unionists in Northern Ireland together.  There are still smoldering feelings of resentment and injustice there, going back to the “Troubles”, the 40-year violent confrontation between the two sides over the political future of Northern Ireland.

One of the surprising facts about Irish is the role that Protestants played in keeping the language alive at a time when its continued existence was threatened. This is a fact that Linda Ervine, a Protestant helping to organize Irish language classes in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, uses to recruit fellow Protestants:

 “The language was almost lost by the end of the 19th century because Irish became associated with poverty and Catholicism (particularly during the potato famine, which hit the poor the hardest). During the famine, about 3 million Irish emigrated. But what few Protestants in the neighborhood know, Ervine says, is that Irish, or Gaelic, was saved by a small group of Presbyterians, many of whom were steadfast loyalists.”

 The interest in Irish in the North corresponds to an initiative there called Líofa 2015, or “fluent” 2015, which seeks to promote Irish as a means of reconciliation through interest in a common cultural heritage. It’s not only in Ireland that languages which seemed destined to die out as living languages have been revived and used as a way to bring groups together.  The role that Hebrew has played in shaping modern Israel is perhaps the best-known example.  In the U.S. Native Indian tribes such as the Navajo are emphasizing the importance of learning their language as a way of cementing cultural identity.

Turks in Germany

turksInteresting piece today on NPR on the changing situation of Turkish “guest workers” (Gastarbeiter) in Germany today.  These are workers who were brought to Germany in the 1960’s with the expectation that they would go back home after a few years.  But instead, the Turkish workers stayed in Germany and brought their families to join them – jobs were much better paid in Germany and the political situation in Turkey was unsettled. Today there are 2nd and 3rd generation German-Turks, who often stand between two cultures. The report indicates that increasing numbers of Turks are going back to Turkey.  In contrast to the economic problems in the European Union, the Turkish economy is doing well.  The earlier Turkish ardor for entering the EU has cooled considerably.

Another aspect of that movement back to Turkey has to do with the attitude changes in Germany (and Europe generally) since the economic downturn of the past few years.  Racism and islamophobia have increased, as jobs become harder to come by.  In Germany a group of neo-nazis murdered Turks over a period of several years.  This has led to much questioning in Germany about police lack of interest and/or competence in fighting violence against foreigners from far right groups.

One of the interesting twists in the story about Turks returning to their home land is the reverse culture shock described by one of the young returnees, who had gotten used to the sense of order in Germany society:  “He was surprised to find a Germanic desire for order welling up in him one day while walking down Istanbul’s teeming downtown thoroughfare, with masses of people jostling this way and that. ‘You know, I can’t understand why all the people are walking like this! And one day I was nearly to cry, “Stop! You go right and you go left!”, ‘ he says.” .Anyone experiencing everyday German life quickly sees the real life acting out of the German saying Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).

Amanda Fox & Reading Faces

Amanda-Knox-in-court-005This week, Amanda Knox gave her first TV interview.  She’s the American study abroad student accused of killing her roommate in Perugia, Italy.  The evidence against her is largely circumstantial, but she was initially convicted of murder, a sentence later overturned, but now her case is to be re-tried in Italy.  Most observers agree that she was convicted due to her body language and demeanor.  She didn’t seem remorseful or even caring.  Ian Leslie in the Guardian commented on the rush to judgment based on observing and interpreting her expressions:

 “Most of us know, when we reflect rationally, that other people are as complex and difficult to read or predict as we are, and we do compensate for the natural imbalance in our encounters with others. The trouble is, we rarely compensate enough. Thinking about what others might be thinking and feeling is hard work. It requires intellectual application, empathy, and imagination. Most of the time we can barely be bothered to exert such efforts on behalf of our friends and partners, let alone on people we read about in the news. We fall back on guesses, stereotypes, and prejudices. This is inevitable, and not always a bad thing. The trouble comes when we confuse our short-cuts with judgment.”

 It’s certainly the case that we don’t all express our emotions the same way.  Sometimes this is partly culturally determined (Japanese stoicism) but may be absolutely personal as well.  We expect traumatized humans to act in a certain way and perhaps most of us do.  When someone fails to follow the code, we get suspicious.  It could be that this is even more the case for women, whom we expect to show their emotions more than men. This was certainly the case with the famous story of the dingo and the baby.  It’s likely that in Amanda’s interview with Diane Sawyer she failed to win many of us over – she was again, for the most part, cool and collected.

Boston bombers: Internet’s role


Chechen fighters on the streets of the capital, Grozny, in January 1995 (Wikipedia)

How do you figure out who you are?  Obviously a complex process with input from a lot of different directions – family, school, friends, religious faith, meditation, work, online roles, and more – with which goes into the mix to create our persona different for each individual .  For a lot of people what they perceive as their home culture can have a powerful influence on shaping how they see themselves.  This may be the case even if the connection to that culture is remote and tenuous.  Since the Boston Marathon bombing there was been a lot of speculation about the relationship of the Tsarnaev brothers, the suspected bombers, to their home land of Chechnya. In a recent article in The Economist, the Brothers’ difficulty in accommodating to life in the U.S. (more so for the older of the two), may have lead them to seek “mental refuge” in their home culture (and possibly religion).

With the exception of a recent visit by the older brother to the region, most of that contact with the culture appears to have come through Web sites and online chats.  According to the article, “The internet and social networks that served as a channel created an illusion of engagement without experience or memory. The brothers never fought in the Chechen wars or lived in Chechnya for any length of time. Yet their lives and their sensibilities seem to have collided with its violent and tragic history.” The target they selected (the United States), apparently at least in some part out of loyalty to their cultural heritage, seems strangely at odds with the Chechen patriots on the home ground.  The latter fought the perceived (and real) repressor of Chechen rights and freedoms:  Russia. Could it be that the Internet today serves as an amplifier and, at times, a distorter of a culture’s views and values?