Imagining worlds

I’ve been interested for some time in organizing a course focusing on developing competence in intercultural communication through fiction. An obvious choice are language autobiographies such as Eva Hoffmann’s Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language (1989) or Richard Rodriquez’ Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982), which offer insight into language and culture through individual stories, making language choice and the affective side of second language acquisition personal and concrete. Fantasy stories and science fiction, from Tarzan to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy provide radically different perspectives on human culture. They invite us to see our world through fresh eyes. The best of such fiction engages us emotionally, making us participants in the stories, and thus making them meaningful and memorable.

At times, they may offer interesting takes on human language as well. That’s the case with the fiction of Ursula Le Guin, who died last month. A recent blog post by Martin Edwardes points to this aspect of her work:

Le Guin’s tales give us insights into different ways of being human, from the deceptively mundane (the Orsinian Tales) through the remote but plausible (the Hainish Cycle of science fiction novels), and into the enchantingly fantastic (the Earthsea stories). Her stories help us to understand others and ourselves. They demonstrate the great power that language has in creating imagined worlds.

This came naturally to Le Guin, growing up with parents who were both anthropologists. That may have been at the root of her interest in languages, which is a major theme in her fiction. In the Dispossessed (1974), an anarchist society (on the planet Anarres) is evoked, which has no laws and no property ownership. The people of Anarres have developed their own language to reflect that culture and ideology. In that language, Pravic, there are no possessive pronouns (“my”, “your”, “their”, etc.) and there are no verbs such as “have” or “give” which index personal ownership.

Other kinds of stories offer different insights into the human condition and how it is manifested in different cultures. Folk tales, such as the Brother Grimm’s fairy tales, evoke shared human dreams and desires through the many variations stories like Cinderella have in different cultures. On the other hand, works which are concrete and localized in their story lines and social contexts may offer illuminating views into our own lives and times. A recent story on NPR reported on two sisters in Pakistan who were inspired by the novels of English writer Jane Austen, such as Pride and Prejudice (1813), to curate reimagined Austen-like stories set in contemporary Pakistan, Austenistan (2017). Austen’s stories revolve around women who need to marry well and face pressure from family and society to do so. The Pakistani sisters, Mahlia Lone and Laaleen Sukhera, explain in the NPR interview that that situations is very similar to theirs:

We find it easy to relate to her. We find it easy to relate to her era and her characters because Pakistan 200 years later is still very similar to the Regency period… So one of the basic themes in, for example, “Pride And Prejudice,” was the law of primogeniture. If there is no son, then the father’s estate goes intact to his next male relative. We actually have a law like that here. How much more real and substantial can it be?

In some respects, contemporary Pakistan may have some cultural characteristics and norms which share more similarities with the world portrayed in Austen’s novels than does 21st-century England. In his book Intercultural Communication and Ideology (2011), Adrian Holliday points to this aspect of Austen’s work:

While many historical cultural references may be shared, the early 19th-century British society depicted by Jane Austen is no less alien than that of a so-called ‘other culture’. The richness of thick description in Austen’s literature as art enables greater understanding than the fragmentation of available information about such foreign locations.

The “thick description” Austen provides – detailed information about the setting, the characters’ social and economic situation, the social mores and laws in place at the time, the insights into the characters’ thoughts and dreams, which may be at odds with social norms – makes the world both real and believable, enabling the reader to experience the events vicariously, along with the heroines. As Holliday points out, this is quite different from the fragmented and arbitrary views we typically get into other cultures. In the case of Brits reading Austen, there is also not the barrier of a foreign culture:  “Understanding Austen’s society is not inhibited by our long history of mistrust for the foreign Other. Studying Austen’s society would be an excellent basis for studying the universals of the nature of culture.”

That is the wonder of reading novels, being able to see common human characteristics through individual life histories. The stories intrigue us with their uniqueness and specificity, while the shared human experience they evoke may lead us to more acceptance of surface-level differences among us. An article in Science a few years ago described experiments that showed how literary fiction can play an important role in “understanding others’ mental states…a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies”. In other words, stories lets us experience what it is like to see the world from someone else’s perspective.

More desirable – less desirable

Example of ad for online dating service featuring “yellow fever”

A recent story on NPR shines a light on racial and ethnic prejudice in online dating services. The story, “‘Least Desirable’? How Racial Discrimination Plays Out In Online Dating”. The story highlights the difficulties Asian men and black women in the US have in using online dating services. A Filipino man reported receiving disturbing message from dating apps, such as the following:

I don’t date Asians — sorry, not sorry.
You’re cute … for an Asian.
I usually like “bears,” but no “panda bears.”

The story also provides examples of the difficulties African-American women have. It cites Ari Curtis, a young black woman, who used data she saw from the dating service OkCupid about the role of race, as the basis of her blog, Least Desirable, about dating as a black woman. According to Melissa Hobley, OkCupid’s chief marketing officer, the service is trying to “encourage users to focus less on potential mates’ demographics and appearance and more on what she calls ‘psychographics.'”. She defines that term as “things like what you’re interested in, what moves you, what your passions are.” That may be a hard sell in a society which is still widely segregated. It also runs up against the familiar human phenomenon of homophily, our tendency to want to be together with those similar to us.

A quite different angle on dating across racial lines was discussed in a recent piece in the NY Times, “The Alt-Right’s Asian Fetish“. It turns out that the white supremacists have what’s sometimes termed “yellow fever”, an Asian woman fetish. The articles gives numerous examples of alt-right leaders dating or marrying Asian women. This is despite political positions that would seem to make this unlikely; Richard Spencer, one of the most prominent on the alt-right commented at a conference that the USA was a “white country designed for ourselves and our posterity.” According to the article, the fetish “exists at the intersection of two popular racial myths”. The first is that of Asian-Americans as a “model minority”, stereotyping them as “hard-working, high-achieving and sufficiently well-behaved to assimilate”. Of course, the reality is quite different, obscuring the vast differences among Asian-Americans. The “model minority” myth also, according to the article, tends to strengthens the white liberal order in the US and “legitimizes white America’s power to determine who is ‘good’ and to offer basic dignity and equal rights.”

The other myth involves a stereotypical view of Asian women: “The second myth is that of the subservient, hypersexual Asian woman. ” As the article points out, this view is “consistent with the alt-right’s misogyny and core anti-feminist values”. White women have become too feminist, while “Asian women are seen as naturally inclined to serve men sexually and are also thought of as slim, light-skinned and small, in adherence to Western norms of femininity”. The article, by Audrea Lim, traces these myths back historically, and offers some interesting insights from the author, based on her own experiences growing up as an Asian-American.

Monument of shame?

Replica of Holocaust memorial next to Björn Höcke’s home, a German politician who called the memorial “a monument of shame.”

This year there has been considerable controversy in the US over historical monuments, namely statues of heroes of the Confederacy. That came to the fore this summer in the white supremacists’ march in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The debate over monuments has led to discussions on how to interpret the US Civil War with, for example, White House chief of staff John Kelly citing as the cause of the war an “unwillingness to com-promise,” not the maintenance of slavery.

A similar debate has occurred recently in Germany. In this case, it is not about the removal of monuments, but rather the placement of a monument. Last month, the local head of the right-wing political party, AFD, the Alternative for Germany, awoke one morning to find a new monument next door to his home. It was a smaller version of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, a set of concrete slabs. The miniaturized monument was set up as a protest over politician Björn Höcke’s comments on German history, particularly the statement that Germans were “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of their capital,” referring to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. This challenged the founding narrative of modern Germany, the acceptance of guilt for the crimes of Nazism.

Höcke is the leader of the AfD branch in the central German state of Thuringia, a place rich in history, as remarked in a recent story in the NY Times: “The memorial has put an uncomfortable national spotlight on Bornhagen, a village of 309 inhabitants on the former border of East and West Germany in the fabled rolling hills of Thuringia, where the Brothers Grimm long ago collected fairy tales.” The situation is rich in ironies and contradictions, pointing to the complexities both of German history and recent German politics. Bornhagen has a connection to the greatness of German culture – not just the Grimm Brothers, but also Goethe visited the town. The major tourist attraction there (up until the new monument) has been Burg Hanstein, the ruins of a 13th-century fortress, a reminder of the old German empire.

Ruins of Castle Hanstein

That is the setting for a popular Christmas market every year. As the fortress was almost on the border between the two Germanies, one of its towers was used by the East German border guard as a watch tower.

Because of Höcke’s prominence as a spokesperson for the extreme nationalist wing of the AfD, Bornhagen is considered a very “brown” town, in German political symbolism, a color associated with neo-Nazis. In fact, in the federal election in 2017, the AfD captured 34% of the votes in the town. On the other hand, Bornhagen is home to 80 refugees from countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, a large number for such a small village. Reports indicate that the refugees have been treated well and some have found employment there.

The NY Times article concludes with comments from a local inhabitant, Susanne Prinz, who visited the monument and found that it serves the purpose of leading people to think and to take a stand on historical events:

“You can’t just look the other way; that is one lesson we learned from history,” she said. “When children ask questions, you have to explain.”
“Yes, it’s uncomfortable,” Ms. Prinz added. “But then, Germany’s history is uncomfortable.”

That discomfort is a feeling that has become familiar this year in the US, as a new President has upended many long-accepted views on a variety of issues, including US history.


Dirt Woman passes

Dirt Woman (Donnie Corker)

The PR folks of my home institution are happy when the university’s name comes up in the national news. However, the story recently on NPR, in which Virginia Commonwealth University was mentioned, may not be the publicity they seek. The story was about the death of a local character who hung out near the university. This was Donnie Corker, better known as Dirt Woman, a well-known transvestite who engaged in a wide variety of public activities, from selling flowers on Grace Street to crashing the Inaugural of Governor Doug Wilder. He was notably involved in a variety of charity endeavors. He was out as a transvestite at a time when that was not an easy thing to do, and his popularity encouraged others to come out. In the NPR story, transgender Ellen Shaver talked about how important Dirt Woman had been for her:

Here it was. He was already 200-and-something pounds, and he was out there dressing the part and getting away with it. As far as I could go was probably the perimeters of my house. And Donnie was down there parading up and down Grace Street acting like, who cares?

I remember Dirt Woman well, as he appeared in the 1970’s and 1980’s, sitting on a stool selling flowers, an unusual figure, but harmless, friendly, and always upbeat. His haunt, Grace Street, has changed a lot since then, as the university has transformed a porno theater into a fine arts venue and bought out former sketchy bars, stripjoints, and nightclubs. Our original German conversation group, the Richmond Stammtisch (now meeting Thursday evenings at Mojos) started with a small group meeting at McClean’s at the corner of Grace and Shafer Sts. (where VCU GLOBE is now). In fact, in the very first Stammtisch in 1980, I met for the first (and only) time, the colleague in the Foreign Language Department whom I was hired to replace, Gerhard Kallienke. He had been sitting at a table nearby and overheard us speaking German and came over afterwards to introduce himself (and trash all his former colleagues). Soon afterwards, he moved to Oklahoma, where, according to The Oklohoman, he was murdered in the early 1990’s in a gruesome case which involved teenage girls having “taunted Kallienke by pouring coffee, sugar, flour and shaving cream on his body as he lay naked in a drunken stupor” and then dousing him and his room with gasoline before setting fire to the building. The girls allegedly had “traded sexual favors for money after he hired them to clean his house” and then forged and cashed his checks.

Now that’s a situation which I’m sure VCU was happy to have happened after Kallienke was far away from Richmond and no longer associated with the university. Dirt Woman may not have been an academic, or had a conventional lifestyle, but he was nonetheless someone who had an inspiring influence and not a person we should regret having had a close connection to the university.

Banging pots for independence

Catalan students advocating independence

Catalonia votes today on independence from Spain, that is to say, many Catalans will try to do so, although it appears there will be many roadblocks to voting created by the federal government, which has declared the vote illegal. It’s not clear what the outcome of the vote will be, but it’s likely it will not settle the question of Catalonian independence, just as the vote in Scotland in 2014 has not prevented a movement for a new vote for independence.

A recent story on NPR points to how vital the Catalan language is in the Catalan identity as being distinct from Spanish. Catalan is, in fact, not a dialect of Spanish, but a separate language derived from Vulgar Latin. It was suppressed in Franco’s time, but since then has seen a dramatic resurgence. In the NPR piece, Catalan specialist, Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, describes how Catalan identity differs from that of the Basques, another group which has sought independent status: “Basque nationalism is ethnicity…But this, it’s basically a language movement. We are Catalans because we speak Catalan.”

Young Catalans largely support secession. In fact, at the University of Barcelona students have occupied buildings in support of non-interference from Madrid. One student commented on NPR: “I think in Catalan and I dream in Catalan,” says Marta Rosique, 21. ” I think in Catalan and I dream in Catalan…And then there is a government that tries to do as much as possible so that Catalan doesn’t exist anymore! There is something that tells me to fight for my own identity, for my own language.” For that student, at least, identity and language are interchangeable.

An interesting aspect of the movement has been the non-verbal demonstration of support for independence through the nightly 10 p.m. banging of pots and pans on Barcelonan terraces and balconies. This began last month, after the Spanish government started sending in army troops to prevent the referendum. This is a form of social protest familiar in South America (known as cacerolazocacerolazo, or casserole). The pot banging may be low-tech, but it’s loud and coming at a time when Barcelonans are starting their evening eating and socializing, which gets going later in all of Spain than in other European countries.

Charlottesville: Lots of symbols

Statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA

Today, there was a memorial service for Heather Heyer, the young woman killed last Friday in Charlottesville, after a car rammed into a crowd of counter-protesters to the white nationalist rally. Living as I do in Richmond, the events in Charlottesville has really hit home. The white nationalists were in Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In Richmond, we have a series of statues of Confederate figures on Monument Avenue. The Mayor of Richmond today announced that he had changed his mind on the statues, and now is supporting their removal. The controversy over Confederate statues follows that over the Confederate flag. For many, these Confederate symbols stand for racism, as they relate to a cause which centered on the maintenance of slavery. Others claim the symbols are part of their identity as Southerners, representing their Southern heritage. The problem with that perspective is that honoring these symbols is deeply offensive to many people, particularly African-Americans, as the symbols – no matter their original meaning or intent – now, in most peoples’ eyes, stand for white supremacy. The Swastika was originally (and still is) a spiritual symbol in India, but no one would accept anyone today wearing a swastika as being anything other than a symbol of Nazism, and therefore of hatred, intolerance, and violence.

Speaking of Nazis, for those of us familiar with German history, the torch march of white nationalists was chilling, as it had so many echoes of similar marches of Nazis in the years before Hitler came to after, and thereafter. Other symbols on view in Charlottesville were also taken from Nazis, the Othala, a pre-Roman rune and the “black sun”. An article in the Deutsche Welle discusses the links of US white nationalist to Nazi Germany. Some of the slogans used in Charlottesville were also creepingly familiar – “Blood and Soil” is a word for word translation of “Blut und Boden”, which as the Deutsche Welle articles states, “expressed the idea dear to Nazis that ethnic purity is based on blood descent and land.”

Slogans and symbols carry deep meanings and often can be integral to a person’s identity – one might think of the what the cross means, for example, for devout Christians. That’s why it’s so important for our leaders to denounce those groups who use symbols like white sheets and hoods or swastikas that divide people and strive to spread their message of hatred. Young people can be easily misled by the facile and false slogans used by hate groups – they need to be contradicted strongly. Heather Heyer posted in social media: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”. Let’s hope that many Americans, especially those in power, will express their outrage over the views and actions of the extremists marching in Charlottesville.

An example of that reaction is what has now become the most liked tweet ever, by President Obama, citing Nelson Mandela, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…”

Gastronomic racism?

Kebab food truck in Besançon, France

That term, “gastronomic racism” was used by Rim-Sarah Alouane, a researcher at the University of Toulouse, to describe a crackdown on street vendors of kebabs in the city of Marseille. In France, a kebab is a sandwich in pita or flatbread filled with meat, usually mutton, with salad and sauces. The city is making it harder for owners of kebab shops to be licensed to operate in the central business district. According to the story on PRI’s The World: “Although kebab shops are not singled out, the owners of the establishments fear the initiatives will effectively force the entrepreneurs to shutter.” The owners of those establishments are overwhelmingly North Africans, most of them Muslims.

This is not the first time that kebabs have been involved in issues around immigration and discrimination. According to the story, “A stall at the 2013 annual convention of the far-right Front National called for ‘Ni kebab ni burger, vive le jambon-beurre.’  That means, ‘Neither kebab nor burger, long live the ham and butter sandwich,’ the classic French fast food — a baguette with ham and butter.” In the recent presidential election campaign, the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, tweeted the following:

The tweet, “J’ai craqué”, literally, “I creacked”, means I gave in, namely to the guilty pleasure of eating a less than healthy snack, namely the kebab and fries shown.

France is not the only country where kebabs have entered the political arena. Chancellor Merkel has been pictured repeatedly with the popular German version, Döner Kebab. Her love of the Turkish street food has sometimes been seen ironically, in the context of her famous statement in 2010 that “Multikulti ist tot” (multiculturalism is dead). On the other hand, she has been celebrated with being out front in welcoming refugees into Germany. Given the large number of newly arrived Syrians in Germany, maybe in the future she will be pictured enjoying the Syrian version of the kebab, Kufta Kabab.

Story in The World:

Symbolic ethnicity or cultural appropriation?

The Ganley Sisters doing a brush dance

Last night I attended a Karneval Fest (German version of Mardi Gras celebration, also called Fasching), sponsored by one of the local German social clubs, the Deutscher Sport Club Richmond. It was an interesting experience, with good German food and drink, music, and dancing. As is the case in Germany, there were also quite a few humorous talks, all given in German, in fact, often at least in part, in Rheinland dialect, as the most famous celebrations happen in cities along the Rhine, especially in Cologne and Mainz. These talks are called Büttenreden, meaning talks delivered on a vat or barrel (in dialect a Bütt). Judging from the paucity of laughs at punch lines, I am pretty sure the majority of attendees did not understand the jokes. That didn’t seem to bother anyone – the use of German contributed to the atmosphere, in the same way that the costumes, decorations, and the music did. Most of the folks there were enjoying playing at being German for the evening, just as most of them probably had done at the Richmond Oktoberfest.

I had another experience of what is sometimes called symbolic ethnicity today at a concert given by the Irish-American group, Cherish the Ladies. As this was held at noon, an Irish breakfast was served, with bangers and soda bread (however, no black or white pudding). The group consists of women from the US, Ireland and Scotland, but the featured ethnicity was definitely Irish, the source of almost all the songs (often written by members of the group inspired by visits to Ireland) and the jokes (many at the expense of the Scots). Just as we will next month on St. Patrick’s Day, we were all honorary Irish for the occasion.

In the US, assuming for fun and celebration a different ethnicity can be a tricky proposition. No one is likely to complain if a non-German wears Lederhose and a Bavarian hat to an Oktoberfest celebration. But donning a Native American costume for Halloween is considered inappropriate, an example of “cultural appropriation”. This month Is Black History month in the US, but it’s not likely any White Americans will honor African-Americans by wearing blackface. It may come down to the context in which the ethnic borrowing takes place, and the kind of portrayal used. Representing German ethnicity by wearing an SS uniform would be problematic, as would enacting an Irish identity by dressing as a starving potato farmer. It’s also the case that historically disadvantaged and mistreated groups, like American Indians and African-Americans deserve to by treated with dignity and respect by the mainstream culture, which oppressed them. There have been too many distorted and negative portrayals of those groups in the US media and culture for it too be ok to perpetuate the stereotypes.

One of the interesting aspects of both the German and the Irish events this week-end was the incorporation of women’s domestic work in a humorous or musical way. One of the talks at the Karneval Fest was given by a self-professed “Putzfrau” (cleaning lady), who brought along her mop and bucket. Two Irish sisters, preceding Cherish the Ladies (the Ganleys), did a “brush dance”, using ordinary brooms as props around which and with which they danced. Perhaps such evocations of an underprivileged class (women in domestic roles) is permissible in this instance because of the fact that both Irish-Americans and German-Americans have become part of the cultural mainstream. We White Americans can laugh at our own, confident, at least for now, in the maintenance of the power structure that provides white privilege, even for the least prestigious among us.

Coddled millennials?

whatAs universities in the US have started up a new academic year, there continues to be a good deal of discussion about the degree to which college students need to be protected from speech and actions which may offend. A recent article in the NY Times, “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults,” outlines the efforts at a number of US universities to provide orientation to new students, with concepts such as “microaggressions,” comments which unintentionally express prejudicial views or stereotype others. Examples given from the article, taken from an orientation at Clark University, include: “Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say ‘you guys.’ It could be interpreted as leaving out women.” The orientation at Clark mentions as well “environmental microaggressions” with the example given: all pictures of professors in the Chemistry Department lecture hall are of white men, causing non-whites and women to feel marginalized. The article continues:

A nonverbal microaggression could be when a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Latino person approaches. Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”

Also discussed in the article are other terms frequently heard in this context, namely “safe spaces”, where marginalized students can come together on campus, and “trigger warnings”, advance notice given to students of a topic about to be raised in a class which might upset some students. The orientations follow a series of incidents of racist speech and behavior at campuses last year, including the University of Missouri and the University of Wisconsin.

The Dean of Students at the University of Chicago provided a quite different perspective from Clark and other universities striving to limit students’ exposure to potentially harmful speech. In a letter to incoming students, he wrote: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” This is a view which has been aired by others as well, particularly alumni and conservative commentators, some of whom are cited in the article. They view the idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings as coddling students, ill-preparing them for the real world, and cutting off free speech on campus.

A compelling counter-argument has been supplied by a Black graduate of the University of Chicago, writing on Vox, “I’m a black U Chicago graduate. Safe spaces got me through college,” in which he describes how important the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs was throughout his college career, providing a respite from the frequent discrimination he encountered. He wrote that he used this safe space “not to ‘hide from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own,’ but to heal from relentless hate and ignorance, to hear and be heard. My ideas were always challenged, but never my humanity. I mattered.” There is an interesting interview with him on NPR’s On the Media. Recently 150 U of Chicago professors signed an open letter in opposition to the welcoming letter from the Dean of Students.

Burkinis & European integration

burkini_banThe highest administration French court (Conseil d’Etat) today overturned the ban imposed on some French beaches and swimming areas of women wearing a “burkini”, a swimming suit that covers the body and includes a hood. The ban has led to the strange scene in the photo above, of four policemen at a beach in Nice forcing a Muslim woman to remove some of her clothing. The ban follows other measures in France that have sought to use the tradition of laïcité, the strict separation of church and state, to prevent the wearing of head scarves in schools or the burka when driving. The measures have been widely seen as discriminatory, as they target Muslim women. If integration of immigrants is socially desirable, forcing Muslims either to reject traditions and religious beliefs or to stay away from public spaces does not seem to be an effective strategy.

There has been discussion recently in Germany as well of passing regulations aimed at how Muslim women dress, with suggestions from the state interior ministers representing the conservative CDU to ban the wearing of the burka and the niqab in public places including schools, government offices, court rooms and in traffic. A recent poll in Germany found that 81% of respondents favored simply banning the burka in Germany. It was exactly a year ago that Chancellor Merkel at a press conference famously commented “Wir schaffen das” (We will get it done) in the context of integration of the flood of refugees coming to Germany. At the time, she received considerable praise for her welcoming attitude, both within and outside of Germany. That positive assessment has changed considerably in recent months, following the attacks on women by foreigners New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other cities, and especially by a series of small-scale terrorist attacks in several German cities this July. It may even be that Merkel will be in trouble in the national election a year from now.

In a report from NPR today, the changing attitude in Germany was discussed in the context of a small town in Germany (population 280) struggling to integrate over 80 immigrants. The story illustrates that the difficulties of integration go well beyond appearance and language. Some of the immigrants took swimming lessons, but the locals were upset that they didn’t stay in their lanes – public behavior in Germany insists on Ordnung (order), meaning in a pool context, you stay in your lane. The rumor mill soon turned that behavior into intentional harassment of the Germans by the immigrants – it was not possible for the locals to accept that others would not have the same appreciation of what they likely saw as a universal human value, expressed through the proverb Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).

Too many Chinese?

From Timothy Yu's blog

From Timothy Yu’s blog

A poem this week in the New Yorker by Calvin Trilling, “Have they run out of provinces yet?” has caused some controversy. The poem begins:

Have they run out of provinces yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Cantonese.
(Long ago, we were easy to please.)
But then food from Szechuan came our way,
Making Cantonese strictly passé.
Szechuanese was the song that we sung,
Though the ma po could burn through your tongue.
Then when Shanghainese got in the loop
We slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.
Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,
Came along with its own style of chow.
So we thought we were finished, and then
A new province arrived: Fukien.

The critique of the poem is that it characterizes China as an endless sea (what, yet another province!) of anonymous people (have they run out). A professor of Asian-American Studies, Timothy Yu. wrote a response he called “Have they run out of white poems yet?”, in which he writes:

When my family arrived from Fujian.
The country they found was now eager
For Chinese food, but not its people.
We’re now just a dish on the menu
For gourmets to sink their teeth into.

Others have defended Trilling, agreeing with his own rebuttal, that he was intending to poke fun at the foodie culture rampant today in US cities, where always finding something new and different is a badge of honor. In fact, Trilling is a big fan of Chinese food; he wrote a fun column about Chinese chef Peter Chang a few years, a master of Szechuan food, which we have the good fortune to have now in Richmond. It is more the tone of the poem (especially in the title) which are unfortunate. In fact, speaking and writing today of issues involving specific cultural groups or immigrant populations can be a minefield, even if writing about something as seemingly innocent as food. NPR published a piece today entitled “Why Hunting Down ‘Authentic Ethnic Food’ Is A Loaded Proposition” which explores some of those issues.

Given the great variety of Chinese culinary traditions, it is wonderful to see that variety finally showing up in the US. It would be ironic indeed for anyone in the US to see this welcome development as Chinese cultural imperialism, given the fact that we have saturated China (and the rest of the world) with our representative cuisine: McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut.

Gourmet poutine

Poutine, as traditionally made

Poutine, as traditionally made

As I am writing this, at a state dinner for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is being served by the White House chefs a dish famous as a late-night treat in Quebec, poutine, composed of French fries, covered with cheese curds and topped by brown gravy – a triple cholesterol threat. The version being served at the state dinner is somewhat different, according to the Washington Post: “shavings of smoked duck and cheese curds finished with red wine gravy and served on delicate wafer fries: a one-bite canapé.” The basic dish is well known in Canada and in parts of the northern US and, according to Wikipedia, in other places as well, including an Italian poutine with Bolognese sauce. Given the numerous jokes about US citizens moving north of the border, as soon as President Trump is sworn in, those would-be Canadians may want to get used to the notion of eating the fastfood treat, but without the gourmet makeover being served tonight.

Colors and body parts

donald-trumps-hands-suck-1457116346-crop_desktopThis past week there have been some remarkable public comments on personal appearance and body builds. In the most recent Republican debate, “Little Marco” (Trump’s term) tangled with “Big Donald”, with Donald Trump commenting on Marco Rubio’s statements about his hands, clearly referencing his male prowess: “And, he [Rubio] referred to my hands — ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.” This follows Rubio’s comments about Donald having wet pants in the breaks from an earlier debate. In a press conference, Trump commented on how much Rubio sweats: “Can you imagine,” Trump said of Rubio meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, “and he walks in and he’s drenched. I have never seen a human being sweat like this man sweats. … It looked like he had just jumped into a swimming pool with his clothes on.” Speaking of Putin, there we clearly have a politician who feels that projecting a hyper-masculine persona is important for his image. He frequently is seen in press photos bare-chested, playing sports, or engaging in other activities that highlight his body build. His walk is best described as a swagger. It’s sad to see US politicians engaged in outdoing each other in terms of masculinity – the last thing that should determine who is best able to be President is the level of testosterone (or the ability to hurl insults).

Nina Simone and actress Zoe Saldana

Nina Simone and actress Zoe Saldana

A controversy over skin color emerged in the last week in reference to the movie of the life of singer Nina Simone. This has brought out for public discussion the issue of colorism – the idea that skin tone (how light or dark) and not just race, can lead to prejudice and discrimination. The actress selected to portray Simone is Zoe Saldana, who is Latina, but self-identifies as black. Her parents are from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, where, as elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, there is a mix of ethnic and racial backgrounds which results in a broad range of skin tones. Saldana is light-skinned, in contrast to the dark-skinned Simone. This has been seen as one more example of “Hollywood’s attempt to sideline women with dark skin”. What makes the issue particularly troublesome is that for the movie Saldana wore black face, recalling past racist practices in the entertainment industry. Many have pointed out also that it’s not just a case of trying to cast someone that comes close to the appearance and background of the person portrayed, but that in this case Nina Simone famously made a point of talking and singing about her blackness, which she celebrated but which also resulted in missed opportunities, such as being refused entry to the Curtis Institute of Music.

Another issue of appearance arose in an interview this week-end on NPR with Joanna Hausmann, a Venezuelan comedian who makes videos for The Flama, focusing on Latino culture. Hausmann has a Jewish father, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, and a Cuban mother. She uses her personal background as one of the main sources of her comedy:

I think that I grew up explaining who I was, right? As a white Latina with a Jewish last name. That does not make sense in the conceptualization of what a Latina should be. Also I’m not particularly suave, I’m incredibly awkward. There’s something about my identity that does not mesh with what people think the identity should include. …

[Growing up] I was trained in explaining my identity in a way that wasn’t surface level. And it also opened me up in understanding that people can literally have absolutely any background and what we conceive to be their identity, or their reality or their background is usually not the case.

Hausmann celebrates not only the variety of appearances of Latin Americans, but also the variety of ways in which Spanish is spoken, as in the video below:

We are not we

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 8.47.22 PMIn the recently released “White Privilege II”, white rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis address uncomfortable questions of cultural appropriation and the role of white Americans in support of the protests over Blacks being shot by police. The song starts out this way, with Macklemore referencing the the 2014 Black Lives Matter march in Ferguson, Mo., that he participated in:

Pulled into the parking lot, parked it
Zipped up my parka, joined the procession of marchers
In my head like, “Is this awkward?
Should I even be here marching?”
Thinking if they can’t, how can I breathe?
Thinking that they chant, what do I sing?
I want to take a stance cause we are not free
And then I thought about it, we are not “we”

Can the “we”, i.e. those marching, include someone (white) who has not had the same experiences as those (blacks) marching? Should he be a participant or just an observer:

“Am I on the outside looking in,
Or am I on the inside looking out?
Is it my place to give my two cents
Or should I stand on the side and shut my mouth?
‘No justice no peace’
Oh yeah, I’m saying that.
They chanting out BLACK LIVES MATTER
But I don’t say it back.
Is it O.K. for me to say? I don’t know, so I watch and stand.”

The song is actually a sequel to the the 2005 release “White Privilege”. It may be that the title of the new song is in part an effort to remind us that Macklemore’s not a Johnny-come-lately to the issue. On the original “White Privilege,” he had already acknowledged the fact that he’s using an art form that has its origins in a wholly different context from his: “Hip-hop started off in a block that I’ve never been to/ To counter act a struggle that I’ve never even been through”. Macklemore is not of course the first white rapper; as he mentions in the song there have been a whole host of singers, going back at least to Elvis who have built careers off of songs or styles originating in African-American culture. Not all have acknowledged the debt or pointed to the potential unfairness of the process: “We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for Black Lives [Matter].”

Macklemore ends the song with Black poet and singer Jamila Woods singing the final lines, which some have interpreted as an attempt to legitimize his right to rap on this topic by including a supportive Black voice. Gene Demby, the lead blogger for NPR’s Code Switch team, who is African-American, wrote a piece this week, “Guess We Gotta Talk About Macklemore’s ‘White Privilege’ Song”, indicating by its title and its opening (“So. Macklemore. I suppose we have to talk about Macklemore.”) a distinct lack of enthusiasm. He does credit Macklemore with good intentions, and admits that engaging in dialog (at least among whites) is helpful:

It’s worth noting that Deray McKesson, one of the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement, has argued that this song does exactly what lots of people say they want more of in conversations about race — that is, it would be great if more white folks actively engaged in uncomfortable conversations about race with each other. McKesson’s note was ostensibly an endorsement, but it’s also an acknowledgement that this song is not really meant for people of color. That would seem to underscore Macklemore’s larger existential dilemma regarding his relationship to black audiences: He really seems to want to be talking to us, but he’s not saying anything we don’t already know.

At nine minutes long, the song may not prove to be a hit, but it does stir the pot.

The Hijab Professor


Professor Larycia Hawkins

There have been a couple of interesting cases recently in the US concerning freedom of expression on the part of university professors. This week Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Missouri at Columbia, has been in the news (article in the Atlantic) due to an incident that occurred in November, when she threatened to bring “muscle” to help her stop a student journalist filming a campus protest and may also have tried to grab the camera herself. She and students involved in the protest had set up what they considered a “safe zone” on the campus quad, where they were protesting police violence. Now a deal has been cut that will allow Click to perform community service rather than face a misdemeanor assault charge. Click is up for tenure this year, but in the meantime she has been suspended from the university.

In December, a professor of political science from a private Christian College near Chicago donned a hijab as a symbol of solidarity with Muslims. The professor, Larycia Hawkins, was placed on leave December 15, and now Wheaton College has initiated the process of firing her. The College states that the cause is not her wearing a hijab, but because of a Facebook post in which she stated , “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” The evangelical Christian beliefs of the College, in contrast to those of the Catholic Church, do not support this view, given the fact that Islam sees Jesus as a prophet, not as divine. Whether that is in fact the reason for the College to fire her is unknown. In an interview on NPR, Hawkins sees her case as going beyond religious views: “It’s a bigger academic freedom question than Wheaton College alone. It’s actually not even just a religious institutional question…I’m not the ‘hijab professor’; I’m the professor that’s trying to teach my students to move beyond theoretical solidarity, sitting on our laurels in the classroom, towards embodied politics, embodied solidarity.”