Brother Orange

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Brother Orange and Matt Stopera from Buzzfeed

As a language teacher, I emphasize the importance of language in cross-cultural communication. It’s one of the direct pathways into another culture – it can mean that you’re looking from inside, not outside. However, connecting with someone from another culture without knowing the language is certainly possible – and it happens all the time. I am reminded of that fact by the recent story on NPR about “Brother Orange” and the lost cell phone.

Matt Stopera, from Buzzfeed, had his cell phone stolen last year from a bar in New York City. Then, months later, he noticed pictures showing up on his new phone that he hadn’t taken. They featured selfies by someone who looked Chinese and whom he started referring to as “Brother Orange” because a number of the photos included orange trees. Stopera posted one of the pictures on Buzzfeed, and the story was then spread on the Chinese social messaging service Weibo. Users of Weibo tracked down the man in the photo, who turns out to be a restaurant owner in the Southern Chinese city of Meizhou. In China, the story went viral and both men became minor celebrities. Brother Orange and Stopera started exchanging messages, and Matt decided to travel to Meizhou to meet him. On Buzzfeed Matt has described the experience. It turned out that the two found that they got along very well and despite neither speaking the other’s language, they became close friends. In the NPR interview with Stopera, he talks about the importance of non-verbal communication in their relationship:

We had two translators, but, you know, you’d be surprised about how much nonverbal you can do with each other. You know, how much you slept. Did you sleep well? We also, in the middle of the trip, we developed this, you know, symbol where we tapped our hearts and said happy, happy, happy, happy whenever we, you know, had a moment. And so when I think about that, that’s just big.

On the Buzzfeed page, Stopera also talks about the role of technology, describing the last day of his trip, being together with Brother Orange:

The last morning of our trip. We don’t have a translator for this part. This is it. The journey is over. What even happened?
We sit in the back of the car. We both are holding back tears. When’s the next time we’re going to see each other? What will it be like? When is he coming to New York to visit me? It’s all up in the air.
In that moment, I couldn’t help but think about the boundaries we had broken down. It’s 2015 and cell phones and computers have changed everything. Language boundaries aren’t that real. We had happily chatted with each other using a translation app. There’s an app for everything. Anything is possible. Thank you, Steve Jobs.

In the end, the stolen cell phone seemed to Stopera to align with an aspect of Chinese culture he had learned about:

I find out that part of the reason why my story resonated so well with the Chinese is that people learned about it during Chinese New Year. Bro Orange’s nephew actually heard about my story spreading on the first night of the lunar moon. This is not an accident. It’s a sign.
I start to believe more and more in the Chinese theory of destiny. It’s big in Chinese culture and another reason why this story was so big there. This is more than just a series of crazy, random coincidences that changed our lives — it’s fate.

The experience leads Matt not only to insights into Chinese culture, but through the natural tendency to compare cultures to think about U.S. cultural practices:

He let me into super-personal parts of his life. I went to his childhood climbing trees, a local temple, and his parents’ house. We even paid tribute to his ancestors. I have a moment when he asks me how I pay tribute to my ancestors. I don’t have an answer. Americans don’t really do that. It’s fucked up and makes me feel bad. Cultural differences, man!

The sense one gets from reading Stopera’s account of his visit to Brother Orange is that despite the language barrier, there was a deep connection made between the two men. That happened in large part because of the welcoming nature of the Chinese people, and of Brother Orange and his family in particular. But it was also made possible by the openness Stopera demonstrated in experiencing a variety of Chinese cultural experiences very different from his normal way of life and his willingness to share those together with his new Chinese friend.

mudbathThere’s a nice segment, for example, about his experience in the mud baths. From the many pictures included in his travel account, it is clear that for many of those experiences, no verbal exchange was necessary.

Frau Merkel’s lover

16933418,14048206,highRes,1344610095Sorry, there isn’t one. François Hollande, her counterpart across the Rhein?  Sure, he’s French.  The stories in the news recently from France and Germany make it hard to imagine that the two cultures have Charlemagne (Karl der Große) as a common ancestor, or that they share much at all in terms of values and way of life. It’s nothing surprising or shocking in France that a politician would have a maîtresse, even a politician as uncharismatic and down-to-earth as François Hollande. Just because they are elected to public office, French politicians aren’t expected to stop being human or men or French.

In Germany one expects politicians to be serious, that is to say, to focus on their responsibilities and to do their duty.  Such extra-curricular activities are verboten as an unnecessary and unwanted distraction.  How do German leaders break the public trust?  If they plagiarize on their university theses, as has caused the downfall of several ministers in the last few years (dishonesty).  Or they fall behind schedule on a building project, such as the debacle over the years late new Berlin airport (incompetence).  Or they spend an inordinate amount of public money (in this case from Church tax paying German Catholics) on luxury for themselves (extravagance), as did the “bling bishop” (Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg).

The big news in Germany in recent days has nothing to do with lovers or sex, but instead with something much closer to the hearts of many Germans: their automobiles.  The scandal in the news is the sudden loss of trust in an organization Germans depend on and see as the ideal complement to their cars, namely their automobile association, the ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club). The ADAC has served as the trusted advisor to German car owners and prospective car buyers since 1903.  The most widely published periodical in Germany is not Der Spiegel or Die Zeit, it is the ADAC Motorwelt (motor world). Now it turns out that data supplied by the ADAC (for example on the number of votes for car of the year) has in some cases been either manipulated or invented, possibly in order to inflate the importance of the organization in order to gain more members.  This is not just dishonesty, incompetence and greed – it’s all three combined to swindle Germans in relation to their prize possession, the symbol of German economic power and engineering prowess. Mein Gott, o Gott! 

Unlike their preferences in cars, Germans don’t like flashy leaders.  What they do value in leaders and cars is dependability and familiarity – just the qualities the reliable and consistent Mutti Merkel provides.  Mutti take a lover?  No way.

Homophobia & Colonialism

uganda-anti-gayAmong the legacies of colonialism are habits and attitudes brought by the colonizing powers and which persist beyond the colonial period. That may be in some cases a taste for particular foods or styles of preparation – for example, the Portuguese treats I remember enjoying in Macau (at a casino food court, no less). The French influence on Vietnamese cuisine is another example (although pho may or may not be related to pot-au-feu). Even more evident is of course language, with India, Pakistan, the Philippines or Hong Kong taking advantage of the historical role of English to foster wide use of that language in business and education. But the few instances of positive colonial legacies pale in comparison to the pernicious cultural, economic, and political legacies of the colonial powers.  That includes suppression of native languages along with countless other acts of cultural imperialism.

What we are witnessing now in Uganda is just such a sad legacy. As discussed in a piece in the Think Africa Press, one of the sources of homophobic attitudes in that and other African countries is a holdover from imported and imposed Victorian concepts of sexuality.  There are of course other factors involved as well, one being the anti-Western backlash against what can be seen as neo-colonial pressure for Ugandans not to pass anti-gay legislation.  Another being the possible influence of American evangelicals. Uganda is by no means alone, According to the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), there are at least 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal. Many have colonial histories as well but by no means all, and not all former colonies have Victorian attitudes to blame.  Russia’s anti-gay legislation and its wide-spread popular support seem sadly to be home-grown.

Uganda’s President indicated recently that he will not sign the anti-gay bill passed by the legislature.  His explanation – homosexuals are “abnormal” and “sick” and need to be rehabilitated. His views join a long list of world leaders making unfortunate remarks about gays in their countries, from Putin to former Iranian President Ahmadinejad who famously stated that there were no gays in Iran.

Sacred values

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said today that he had set a “red line” for the negotiations his country is restarting with Western countries over Iran’s nuclear program.  His remarks echo similar comments Iranian officials in recent weeks concerning Iran’s “right” to create nuclear fuel through uranium enrichment. The U.S. and its allies are hoping that offering Iran a strong incentive, namely the easing of crippling sanctions to its economy, would bring Iran around to the point that it would agree to forego uranium enrichment.  The strong language from the leaders in Iran indicates otherwise.  While many observers might point to national pride or fervent nationalism as the explanation, a recent piece in the NY Times explains the Iranian recalcitrance by citing it as an example of the power of “sacred values”, defined as “moral imperatives we’re unwilling to compromise on, be they political, religious or personal”.  Evidently for Iranians nuclear power has become such a sacred value and no amount of logical persuasion or financial incentives is likely to have any effect.

The U.S. is no stranger to the strength of sacred values, as the battles over gun rights and abortion have demonstrated.  We may be seeing the playing out of a sacred value among those who are now so vociferously attacking “Obamacare”, who are not just upset over the botched roll-out or the bad policy they believe it represents, but view it as an assault on the strong belief they hold relative to the kind, size and power of the federal government.  Clearly when sacred values come into play negotiation and compromise goes out the window.  Of course in negotiations the trick is to determine when intransigence is a negotiating posture and when it is due to running up against a sacred value. The article cites pioneering work in behavioral economics that challenges the traditional assumption of economists that people act in their own best interest when it comes to financial transactions. It’s not just that people don’t always recognize their own best interest, in some cases that interest may be clashing with values so deeply held that nothing else matters.  The presence of sacred values can be important to recognize not just in political or diplomatic negotiations, but in personal interactions as well. It’s good to know when you might be hitting your head against a brick wall.

Power of stories

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More Jane Austen needed?

Interesting study released this week in Science about the effect of reading fiction on our capacity to interact empathically with others. The study shows that even brief readings of excerpts from literary works of high quality can have a positive effect. The study found that not all fiction works equally well.  Popular fiction, with more simplistic and one-sided characters and a heavy emphasis on plot doesn’t stimulate emotional intelligence in the same was as “literary fiction”. According to the NY Times review of the article:  “The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.” Good fiction leaves gaps for readers to fill in, something reader response literary criticism in the 1980’s and 90’s explored in depth. We tend to think of reading as an isolating experience but the study points to the social benefits that reading fiction can provide. The NY Times comments: “The study’s authors and other academic psychologists said such findings should be considered by educators designing curriculums, particularly the Common Core standards adopted by most states, which assign students more nonfiction.” Maybe our kids need to read fewer biographies and more Jane Austen.

The article for me also calls to mind the nice TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie on the danger of a single story, in which she warns against using simplistic narratives as a basis for understanding other people and other cultures. Rich stories and multiple narratives open up new perspectives.  Stereotyping stories close minds.

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.”

“Yellow Fever”: Seeking Asians

asianToday the fifth and the last episode of the great Web series, “They’re all so beautiful“, was launched.  The Web site features a forum on race and dating, dealing principally with the obsession some American men have with finding an Asian bride.  The episode today (see below) deals in general with interracial marriages and features snippets of interviews with partners from different races. The first episode explores the general topic of “yellow fever”.  The Web series is leading up to the showing of the wonderful documentary, “Seeking Asian Female” from Debbie Lum (who is also responsible for the Web site), on PBS on May 6.  The film does a good job in portraying the culture shock of the young Chinese bride who is suddenly thrust into married life in the U.S. While Lum’s videos give a good sense of the degree of obsession with Asian women for some men, the Web site “Creepy White Guys” gives the sometimes disturbing (and disturbed) side.

One of the things many of the white males interviewed mention that they like about Asian women is their eyes, exotic and mysterious. In fact, appearance plays a major role in the fetish, with likely the perceived submissiveness of Asian women playing a role as well. Ironically, Asian women sometimes wish they had Western-style eyes. There has been a big increase in plastic surgery by Chinese women to get “double eyelid” surgery.  This is a sign of the increasing wealth of the Chinese middle class, as well as its internationalization.  Some Chinese women also get treatments to whiten their skin. When I spent the summer in Beijing a few years ago, I was in constant danger in walking down the street of having an eye poked out by women holding umbrellas, so as not to allow the summer sun to darken their complexions.

Who can marry?

Same_sex_marriage_debate_What_does_that_mean_for_NY_same_sex_couples-101821Hot debates today on the first day of the US Supreme Court’s arguments over same sex marriage.  It doesn’t seem likely that the gay marriage ban in California will be overturned – I suspect the Court will throw out the case on technical grounds without making a decision.  It’s not just the Supreme Court that’s having trouble “going into uncharted waters” (as one Justice put it today) but also American politicians.  In recent days, a parade of Republican and (less surprisingly) Democratic politicians have pronounced themselves in favor of same-sex marriage.  This of course comes after President Obama last year famously announced that his views are no longer “evolving” but that he is now in favor of marriage not just civil unions for gays and lesbians.  It seems this is a moment when the tide has turned in the US on the issue, as is evident in recent surveys.  The pattern seems to be similar in terms of immigration reform, with US politicians following popular sentiment that there should be a road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The movement towards inclusion and away from exclusion seems slow but relentless.  Not everyone is on board at this point but the momentum seems clearly established.  Of course it is that fact that is bringing politicians around — they tend to like winning elections — rather than any new insights into social justice and equality.

It’s not just the US that has been debating same-sex marriage. Two days ago hundreds of thousands protested in Paris against the proposed law legalizing same-sex marriage in France.  Recent surveys indicate that the protesters are trying to swim upstream, as the majority indicate support for the new law, although there are reservations about adoption by same-sex couples.  In France too the momentum has been helped by the support of President François Hollande.  The importance of leadership in this area points to how vital it is for future leaders to learn the lessons of open-mindedness towards difference that intercultural communication theory strives to impart.

Sarita’s World

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12-year Sarita Meena

In the past few months there has been a lot of coverage on the gang rape and subsequent death of an Indian student in New Delhi.  The tragedy has shone a spotlight on the treatment of women in Indian society as well as on the caste system, as the victim (as were the majority of the perpetrators) were from the Dalit caste (“Untouchables”).  There is a perception that lower caste women are “free game” for men from the higher castes.  This case, however, does not follow this pattern and brings up the additional issue of the migration of rural inhabitants to cities and the social difficulties that often arise from that situation.

A recent story on the radio program The World discusses girls in rural India and how their role is undergoing significant changes.  The story follows a young girl named Sarita in a rural, very conservative area, who is seen (with hair cut short) playing sports with boys after school.  That would have been unacceptable not many years ago, as in fact would have been girls just attending school in that area.  The majority of women in the school did not attend school and are illiterate.  The girl’s family is unusual in that the two older sisters have been sent away to college.  Sarita herself dreams of being financially independent.  At the same time Sarita follows Indian traditions in a number of ways.  She worries about her parents, when she and her sisters marry and, as is customary in India, go to live with her husband’s family.  When it is suggested to Sarita that she could perhaps have her mother come and live with her future husband’s family, she rejects the idea out of hand:  it wouldn’t be seemly. Like other women in India in a changing environment, Sarita will have to decide how important it is for her to keep to traditional ways of life or strike out in new directions.

A video on YouTube shows a typical day in Sarita’s life:

Sex in Egypt

sexInterview recently on Fresh Air with the author of a book with a surprising topic, sex in the Arab world. Shereen El Feki’s book is entitled Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. Some of what she discovered in interviews across Arab cultures is not surprising, for example, the condemnation by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood of the recent UN resolution on violence against women. Despite the Arab spring, traditional views of women’s role in society remain largely intact, in the words of El Feki: “The patriarchy is alive and well in Egypt and the wider Arab world. Just because we got rid of the father of the nation in Egypt or Tunisia, Mubarak or Ben Ali, and in a number of other countries, does not mean that the father of the family does not still hold sway.”

Some of what El Feki found in her research was surprising to me:

  • Beating a wife is seen by a majority of both men and women as justified if a wife refuses to have sex with her husband or particularly if she is unfaithful.
  • Lingerie is seen by many middle class Arab women not as a tool of male oppression but as a tool of empowerment – women are not supposed to have sexual needs and wearing sexy lingerie is an acceptable way for women to initiate sex.
  • Female genital mutilation is wide-spread: “According to a 2008 survey of ever-married women in Egypt under the age of 50, about 90 percent of them are circumcised. And more recently that youth survey I mentioned of Egyptian young people, about 80 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds have been circumcised.”  And the main drivers are the mothers and grandmothers of the young women.
  • There is tremendous pressure on young men looking to marry to be able to afford what has become the expectations for new married couple:  “What has happened in Egypt and most of the Arab region is that countries have opened up to the full flood of global capitalism. So there are things to buy, there is 24/7 advertising. It’s a very consumer culture now, and marriage becomes an exercise in conspicuous consumption. And you will often find young men – certainly they’ve told me that frankly, brides and their families, they ask for too much. They want to have the perfect apartment and a car, and the appliances. And then there are all sorts of financial aspects to a marriage. There’s something called mahr which is the money that is enshrined in Islam, that a husband gives his wife on marriage. And then there are things like shabka, which is the jewelry, which is – a bride is expected to be given. So there are all these things and it’s very hard for men to afford this.”

Love Hunters

PeoplesSquareMarriageMarketArticle today in the NY Times about marriage brokers in China, a time honored tradition there, but one that has changed significantly in recent times. The article tells the story of two different spouse searches, one in which a parent plays the role of matchmaker, as is often the case these days in China, and the other – new to me – of agencies being paid exorbitant amounts of money to find the ideal mate. In the latter case, the resources that go into finding a spouse are extraordinary.  In the instance described in the article, there were multiple teams of love hunters (up to 8 in each team) scouring multiple cities for the exact match to the demanding  requirements.

The other extreme are the parents who spend much of their free time in city parks at marriage markets trying against the odds to find a partner for their son or daughter.  Despite changes in Chinese society, it’s still expected that people in their 20’s get married.  Women in particular need to find a mate before they turn 30 or risk being labeled “leftover women“(剩女 shèngnǚ). It’s as awful a way to sum up someone’s life as is the label “illegals” to describe undocumented immigrants.

Who’s Italian?

The Italians may have lost in the recent European Soccer  Championships, but they did much better than anyone expected.  The most celebrated (and controversial) player for the Italian National Team was Mario Balotelli.  He’s the one who scored 2 goals to propel Italy to victory over heavily favored Germany. Balotelli was born in Sicily but speaks Italian with a broad northern accent. The big surprise, however,  is this:  he is black, born of  Ghanaian immigrants, but raised by an Italian adoptive family .  A story today on NPR talks about how the prominence of Balotelli is changing what it means to be Italian.  As with black players on other European teams, Balotelli has seen a lot of fan abuse and prejudice.  But the victory over Germany may change some opinions.

The photo above, with his mother, may contribute as well to a changed view:  “As the triumphant striker approached the stands, he gave this championship its iconic photo off the pitch — the 6-foot-2-inch black Italian Mario hugging his petite white Italian mother, Sylvia.  The sight of his mother’s hand caressing the Mohawk-topped head sent a powerful message in a society where la mamma still plays a crucial role and where immigrants are most often treated as second-class. And when Balotelli ripped off his T-shirt, proudly showing off his statuesque physique, it was as if to say, ‘I’m black, I’m Italian and I am here to stay'” (NPR).  Interestingly, something similar has happened in Germany with the Turkish-German soccer star Mesut Özil.  Are these echoes of Jackie Robinson in American baseball history?