Sven Gatz, a Flemish minister, in blackface

Sven Gatz, a Flemish minister, in blackface

There were many stories this past year dealing with cultural appropriation in one way or another. In the US a number of universities issued guidelines to students before Halloween, advising them not to wear costumes that represent cultures to which they do not belong. One of the specific cautions was the use of blackface, dark makeup used to make someone appear to be black. That has been a controversial issue in Belgium and the Netherlands, surrounding the tradition of “Black Pete” ( Zwarte Piet), the companion to St. Nicholas. This month, the Flemish minister of culture, Sven Gatz, was heavily criticized for a tweet in which he appeared as Black Pete. Earlier this year, the Belgian Foreign Minister likewise appeared controversially in blackface. While the tradition is reminiscent of other companions of St. Nick, in Germany (Knecht Ruprecht) or Austria/Bavaria (Krampus), who either help distribute treats or punish misbehaving children, the Black Pete tradition has been criticized because of the belief that it may reflect lingering racial attitudes from colonial days, an especially delicate issue in Belgium because of the legacy of African atrocities under the rule of King Leopold II in the 19th century. Others believe figures like Black Peter or the Swiss Schmutzli (i.e. “Little Dirty”) are carryovers from pagan ceremonies, associated with the ceremonial use of ashes.

In any case, the appearance of such figures in the US would not be socially acceptab;e. The recent case of Rachel Dolezal brought out strong reactions to what was perceived as an attempt to use skin darkeners and an African-American hair style to pass as black. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Dolezal responded to the accusation of using blackface:

That was a pretty harsh accusation. I didn’t expect that at all because blackface, you don’t look like a light-skinned black woman, you look like a clown. It’s made to be a mockery. Blackface is not pro-black. Blackface is not working for racial justice. Blackface is not trying to undo white supremacy. I would never make a mockery of the very things I take the most seriously…Do we ask women why they airbrush freckles on themselves or why they change their noses? We don’t ask if somebody’s boobs are real or not. I do my hair and my makeup and everything according to how I feel I’m beautiful. Sometimes I use a spray bronzer, sometimes I don’t…Before this happened, nobody was asking me why are you lighter or darker on certain days of the week, depending on how much time I had to get myself together that day; if I had time to give myself a glow. And if I didn’t, I was out the door.

In the interview she says she has been using braids and weaves in her hair for years and does not see that as cultural appropriation, but as a compliment to black women. In fact, as she points out, women have for generations been using perms to change their hair styles. For many people, what is troublesome about the Dolezal case is not so much the change in appearance, but the desire to pass as black without the trials of growing up African-American in the US.

Scotland’s other national drink

Irn-BruWith the upcoming vote on independence, there have been a good number of stories in the US media about Scotland. Of particular interest seem to be stories about the distinctiveness of Scottish life and culture (especially as differentiated from England). On NPR this week there was a story about Irn-Bru, an orange flavored soft drink very popular in Scotland. The story featured interviews with Scots professing their love the neon orange colored drink, connecting that passion with Scottish patriotism:

As Scots prepare to vote on independence next month, the fizzy fervor for this fluorescent fluid may offer some insights into Scottish nationalistic tendencies. When asked why they’re so crazy for this Scottish soda, people most often reply, “Because it’s Scottish.”… Much of the world treats Scottish icons as kitsch. Kilts. Haggis. Bagpipes. But for Scots, these are potent symbols of national pride. One of Irn Bru’s advertising slogans is “Made in Scotland, from girders.” Girders, as in the steel beams that hold up buildings.

I have to admit that although I have visited Scotland several times, I have never tasted Irn-Bru, although I did liberally partake of Scottish ale, which has its fans as well, although it certainly pales in popularity to Scotland’s true national drink, Scotch whisky.

The NPR story led me to think about other soft drinks associated with specific cultures. The obvious example is Coca-Cola, a US icon, but less well known are some other drinks I have sampled. In Austria, for example, students I have taken on study abroad trips often discover and enjoy Almdudler, a carbonated drink made from apple, grape, and herb flavors. In Germany Spezi is popular – cola mixed with orange soda, as is Apfelshorle, apple juice mixed with minteral water. On hot summer days in Bavaria, I have enjoyed drinking a Radler or two, a mix of beer with lemon soda.

Particularly memorable for me was drinking cold Kvass in Moscow a few summers ago, when there were massive fires in the region, covering the capital in smoke, with the temperature the hottest it had been in years. Kvass is a slightly alcoholic drink (at most 1.5%) made from fermenting black or rye bread and one of the few drinks in Russia consistently served ice cold. In the summer there are Kvass stands all around, similar to root beer stands in the US at state fairs.

A drink I have heard about but never tasted is Inca Kola, a widely enjoyed soft drink in Peru. I would guess, given its popularity, that the Peruvian cola must be much better than the worst cola I have ever had, which was in East Berlin before German reunification. Coca-Cola, as a symbol of capitalism, was not available in the German Democratic Republic, instead a home-brewed version was made, Vita-Cola. To me it tasted like soap, but maybe it was just a bad batch, because with the nostalgia for things East German (“Ostalgie”), Vita-Cola has enjoyed a comeback.

Abiding Traditions

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The winner of the All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition

The annual All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition for office workers was held recently, an event that has been going on for over 50 years but has recently surged in popularity, according to an article in the NY Times. The competition aims to find the best phone answerer in terms of politeness, voice (a high pitch is preferable), and efficiency in providing the information sought. Almost all the competitors are women.  According to the article:

Organizers of the event, which now draws over twice the number of contestants as it did a decade ago, attribute that popularity to the enduring importance of politeness here, as well as a growing concern among some employers that younger Japanese are forgetting their basic manners…Formal phone answering is serious business in Japan, with many rules intended to head off offensive or awkward moments. A search on Amazon’s Japanese website found more than 60 books specifically on phone manners, and dozens more on business etiquette in general. Most appeared to be aimed at women, like “How to Talk Like a Workplace Beauty.”

The competition highlights the role of politeness in Japanese society, but also the position of women in the workplace.  Despite a 1986 gender equality law, women hold just 11 percent of managerial jobs in Japan.

Meanwhile, in England, folks are glued to the radio to hear the shipping forecast from the BBC, even if they live nowhere near the coast, or have no relationship to ships. It’s a tradition that points to a core value of English culture derived from being an island nation, an abiding concern for maritime weather — or, for that matter, just the weather.

NPR had a series of broadcasts this week featuring the shipping forecast and highlighting coastal communities.  Also discussed was the cultural significance of the shipping forecast.

It is a bizarre nightly ritual that is deeply embedded in the British way of life. You switch off the TV, lock up the house, slip into bed, turn on your radio, and begin to listen to a mantra, delivered by a soothing, soporific voice. “Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger ….” says the voice. You are aware — vaguely — that these delicious words are names, and that those names refer to big blocks of sea around your island nation, stretching all the way up to Iceland and down to North Africa. Your mind begins to swoop across the landscape, sleepily checking the shorelines, from the gray waters of the English Channel to the steely turbulence of the Atlantic. Somewhere, deep in your memory, stir echoes of British history — of invasions from across the sea by Vikings, Romans and Normans; of battles with Napoleon’s galleons and Hitler’s U-boats.

Japan and Britain share not only a respect for traditions (many more than the ones listed here), but also the reputation for politeness, perhaps inherent in island nations with relatively dense populations. In a fast changing world, it’s comforting to know that some things stay the same. It’s great too to have cultures like these that have traditions that seem unaffected by the tides of globalization and successfully resist the tendency towards homogenization.


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.

Getting clean feet

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 5.25.04 PMMany cultures have rituals to indicate respect, through body movement such as bowing or through using gestures, as in shaking hands. Less common are those involving feet, although of course in many cultures etiquette (and sanitation) call for removal of shoes when entering a house.  A ritual that has been in the news this Easter weekend is foot washing (“Maundy”), a Christian tradition conveying respect and humility.  Many denominations engage in foot washing on Maundy Thursday as part of Holy Week, recalling Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  It’s clearly an action that creates a dramatic social leveling between the participants.  In fact, the word Maundy apparently derives from Latin mendicare, to beg.  Apparently, the practice goes back to ancient traditions of hospitality, when guests were given water to wash their feet.

Foot washing is traditionally practiced in the Catholic Church, including the Pope washing feet on Maundy Thursday.  The feet the Pope washes are exclusively attached to males, as the disciples were all men.  Hence surprise this week when new Pope Francis washed the feet of two women.  They were inmates of a youth prison in Rome and one of the girls was a Muslim.  The action was received positively by many, as a further signal that this Pope is charting a quite different course from his predecessor, with less importance attached to pomp and ceremony and more to inclusivity and outreach.  However, traditionalists are dismayed, as they have been by other actions by Francis that go against Catholic tradition.  There is even the fear that including women in foot washing could be a small step towards the ordination of women as priests.  It will be interesting to see if the Pope opens up significantly to other religions in meaningful ways. Comment from Scott Simon (NPR): “Sometimes great change can be revealed in small gestures.”

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:

Norwegian wood

Lars Mytting wrote “Solid Wood" & inspired a TV program about firewood.

Lars Mytting wrote “Solid Wood” & inspired a TV program about firewood

There have been several stories in the media (NT Times: Bark Up or Down? Firewood Splits Norwegians) recently about a cultural phenomenon that may strike outsiders as very foreign, the importance of how firewood should be stacked. The stories were inspired by the enormous popularity in Norway of a book about firewood (Solid Wood by Lars Mytting) and also of a prime-time TV show on the same topic.  The TV show focused on chopping and stacking wood and was watched by over a million viewers (out of a total population of 5 million), but it also caused considerable controversy – a number of viewers contacted the station complaining that how the wood was being stacked was all wrong.  It turns out that there are strong feelings in Norway about how the stacked firewood should be oriented in reference to its bark, whether the bark should face up or down, so as to aid in faster drying.

The TV special was actually 12 hours long, with the first 4 hours showing and discussing wood cutting and stacking, with the final 8 hours showing live a fire in a fireplace in a Bergen farmhouse.  Through the hours, one could see wood being added and sausages being roasted on sticks, but no sounds were heard other than the burning of the fire.  One comment reported by NY Times article: “’I couldn’t go to bed because I was so excited’, a viewer called niesa36 said on the Dagbladet newspaper Web site. ‘When will they add new logs? Just before I managed to tear myself away, they must have opened the flue a little, because just then the flames shot a little higher…I’m not being ironic,’ the viewer continued. ‘For some reason, this broadcast was very calming and very exciting at the same time.’”  Such sentiments were not universal, however, as the article reports: “On Twitter, a viewer named Andre Ulveseter said: ‘Went to throw a log on the fire, got mixed up, and smashed it right into the TV.’”

The last time Norway was in the news was for something diametrically opposed to the program’s images of peace, calm and simplicity, namely the deadly rampage by Anders Brevik in Oslo in 2011, resulting in 77 deaths. The popularity of the firewood book and TV special may be related to the aftermath of this event, which caused considerable soul-searching in Norway.  Wood burning stoves and the cultural practices that surround their use have a long tradition in a country with long and severe winters.  Firewood culture harkens back to a traditional Norwegian way of life, free from the violence and political strife of the world today.

Hava Nagila

hava_nagilaInteresting story today on NPR about a new movie documentary on the classic Jewish song Hava Nagila (Hebrew for Let  us rejoice).  Anyone having attended a Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah is likely to have heard the song and seen the ceremonial hoisting in the air of the honored individual(s) in a chair. According to the story, the song originated as a Hassidic nigun, or wordless prayer or melody from Ukraine and text was subsequently added by Jewish musicologist, Abraham Zvi Idelsohn in 1905.  Idelsohn had lingusitic and political movitations, according to film maker, Robert Grossman: “There were people who were, of course, revitalizing Hebrew as a modern spoken language, and then there were people who were using that modern spoken language to create poetry…Edelson had in his mind that if you could create a repertoire of folk song drawing on the roots of Jewish music from all over the world, in this case from Eastern Europe, and added Hebrew lyrics to it, then you could create a folk repertoire for the new nation, and that would help build the nation.”

Strangely, Hava Nagila became widely known in the United States, through its performance by Harry Belafonte, someone culturally far removed from the song’s origins.  In the film, Belafonte recalls singing Hava Nagila in Germany, “It hit me kind of hard that here I was, an African American, an American, standing in Germany, a place [that] just a decade earlier had been responsible for one of the greatest mass murders the world had ever known. And here were these young German kids, singing this song, this Hebrew song of rejoicing. ‘Let us have peace. Let us rejoice.’ And I got very emotional.”

Speaking Latin

popeWhen Pope Benedict announced this week that he was stepping down, he did so in Latin.  The small group of reporters listening to the Pope on a live feed at the Vatican scrambled to understand what they quickly saw was a significant announcement.  Italian reporter, Giovanna Chirri confirmed for her colleagues (and the world through a tweet) that in fact the Pope had announced he was resigning.  My Latin teacher in high school would have jumped at the opportunity to point out – “You see how useful learning Latin can be!  You could be the first to announce to the world something that hasn’t happened in 600 years!” The reporters’ scramble reminded me of the press conference where Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Giddy suddenly quoted Nietzsche in German, “Was mich nicht tötet, macht mich stärker” (What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger). Reporters back then were also struggling to understand.

The Pope’s announcement has led to a flurry of interest and news stories about Latin, not often in the news these days. Latin of course is still studied in schools and universities.  There is a radio station in Finland that has been broadcasting a program in Latin for a number of years.  But learning Latin is quite different in nature from learning Spanish or any other living language, and not just because it is no longer spoken, As Annalisa Quinn puts it, “Latin serves as a cultural signifier — if you are studying classics, you announce either your wealth or your devotion to the selfless pursuit of knowledge. In movies and books, knowledge of Latin or Greek is a little bit like glasses and knitwear — a kind of shorthand for intelligence.”  Aside from the cultural messaging, learning Latin can actually be useful,  even if you’re not a Vatican reporter. It is an essential enabler of classical studies, but also is an excellent way to learn about the nature of language and linguistics, and to learn about the etymology of words in English and many other languages (as my Latin teacher hammered home at every opportunity). According to the Telegraph, Pope Benedict is one of the last truly fluent Latin speakers – apparently not all the cardinals present at the announcement actually understood the momentous news.