Who belongs?


Nikah Dondero, ejected from her California tribe (NY Times)

Group membership is sometimes voluntary, sometimes not.  Sometimes there are such advantages attached to group membership that there are disputes over who can belong.  One wouldn’t normally expect such disputes to involve ethnic backgrounds.  And not long ago, fighting to claim membership in an American Indian tribe would have seemed highly unlikely.  After all, few groups have lost more than indigenous peoples of the Americas or have worse prospects for healthy and fulfilling lives.  But in the US some Indian tribes which operate casinos have acquired enough wealth that disputes have arisen over who can claim to be part of the tribe.

A story in this week’s This American Life discusses the process of “disenrollment” which has roiled a number of Native American tribes in recent years, The story focuses on the Chukchansi tribe in California, where the Tribal Council has been expelling members on grounds of insufficient proof of tribal bloodlines or lack of ownership in tribal lands.  Those findings are hotly disputed by those “disenrolled”, which number in the hundreds in a tribe of only some 1000 members.  The ex-members include 87-year old Ruby Cordero, who, according to an article in the New York Times is “a cultural pillar of the tribe because she is expert at basket weaving and among the last native speakers of the Chukchansi language”.  Why the recent emphasis by the Tribal Council on weeding out members perceived to be not legitimate?  According to them, they are just making sure their tribal constitution is being followed.  Others, however, point to the fact that reducing the number of tribal members increases the monthly stipend remaining members receive from the tribe’s gambling operation.  It seems ironic that now people are fighting to be recognized as Native Americans, a group mired in poverty for generations.  It’s hard to assign blame to those Native Americans who finally are getting some small share of the “American dream” and want to make sure it goes to the just recipients.

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.”

“Foreign agents”

Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 10.08.09 PMReports abound today on crackdowns on non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) in Russia.  This follows the law passed in July that requires NGO’s involved in political activities to register as “foreign agents”, an expression in Russian which is more pejorative than in English.  This is in line with a worrying trend in Russia towards greater nationalism and growing suspicion of non-Russian ideas and people.  The organizations being raided include a number of foreign-based but also Russian human rights groups that monitor elections and report abuses of minority groups, in particular those in the North Caucasus.  It’s clear that President Putin not only wants to eliminate interference from foreign sources, he also wants to ensure free hand in dealing with troublesome groups asserting more rights.  Many see echoes of the Soviet era in the raids.  As the Guardian writes, “Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on NGOs is return to rule by fear”.

It’s not just the NGO’s that are being intimidated but also ordinary Russian who are getting the clear message that actions such as investigations of police brutality, of corrupt officials, or of the unfair treatment of minority groups are unwelcome and may result in actions such as tax review and repeated harassment.  This also comes at a time when the Russian Orthodox Church receives substantial official support while all other religions (including Protestant churches) are discouraged if not persecuted.  The options for group membership and activities in Russia seem to be getting more and more restricted.

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.”

Real equality


Finnish school (From Smithsonian)

Americans like to think of themselves as valuing personal freedom and equality of opportunity, but also praise individual initiative and personal success.  Individualism and entrepreneurism, core American ideals, foster competitiveness. In the ongoing efforts to improve American schools, these values tend to rise to the surface in the measures most often advocated – school choice (more private and charter schools), rewards for the best teachers and schools, high-stakes testing to identify success and failure.  So far, the results have not been impressive.  In international rankings, including the PISA surveys, US students tend to be at best in the middle of the pack. It may be that marketplace competition which works in the business world doesn’t translate well to schools.

A country that perennially ranks near the top in PISA tests, Finland, like the US an individualist culture, has a quite different approach to education. The small Scandinavian country is an outlier among the countries at the top, which are mostly from collectivistic cultures in Asia (South Korea, Singapore, China). The Finnish approach does not feature school choice — there are no private or charter schools — standardized testing, or teacher accountability.  A recent article in the Atlantic on Finnish schools cites one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, on the current buzzword in US education, accountability: “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish… Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”  Teacher performance is monitored by individual schools, mostly by the school principal.  Teachers are given a great deal of individual responsibility and design their own testing.  All students go to public schools at no cost and all schools have essentially the same financial resources.  Ironically, the talk by Sahlberg that is the main source of information in the article was given at Dwight School, a private, for profit secondary school in New York that costs $35,000 a year to attend.  Teachers in Finland, as in many cultures, enjoy relatively high pay as well as considerable prestige.  That seems to make a difference in the quality of teachers.  The irony of the Finnish success story is that in their school reform efforts they did not set out to achieve excellence, but rather wanted to provide an equal education for all students, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds or family educational levels. There may be a lesson there for US education reformers: real equity rather than more differentiation.


Cheap lunch


US Treasury Secretary Lew at a Beijing dumpling restaurant

New US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, on an official visit to China, was spotted eating at a dumpling restaurant in Beijing.  One wouldn’t think that would be newsworthy, but it is created a stir in China.  Why?  Because government ministers in China would not consider eating at such a modest establishment.  Total cost for Lew and two colleagues for lunch:  less than $20 (109 yuan).  While such actions as this, and similar behavior by US government officials, such as new US China ambassador Gary Locke buying a coffee with a coupon while carrying his own bag, have brought praise on Sina Weibo (the Chinese Twitter) from ordinary citizens, some Chinese officials are complaining that US officials are trying to embarrass them by their conspicuous non-consumption.  This is all the more stinging for Chinese officials who, under new national leadership, are fighting against perceptions of corruption, cronyism and opulent living on the part of party officials.

Of course, American politicians tend to make a show of being one of the people, in line with American egalitarianism and populism.  In China, despite an official communist “government of the people”, different behavior and treatment based on social status is a long-standing aspect of Chinese culture.  However, with the rise of social media, which has spread fast and widely stories of abuse of power by party officials (and sometimes their offspring), the traditional respect for higher-ups is waning, while the admiration for the modest behavior of US officials is on the rise.

Cossacks return

Cossacks1Ethnic tensions have a long history in the Caucasian foothills of southwestern Russia.  A recent story in the NY Times evokes a group familiar from Russian history that seems to be coming back in that part of Russia, at least in the Stavropol area, namely the Cossacks.  The Cossacks are a legendary fighting group (usually pictured on horseback), somewhat akin to the cowboys of the American Wild West, fighting at the frontiers of the expanding Russian empire, including battling the Caucasian tribes.  Tolstoy’s Cossacks illustrates that side of their history.  In today’s Russia the Cossacks are evoked in support of Russian nationalism; according to the article, “In his third term, President Vladimir V. Putin has offered one clear new direction for the country: the development of a conservative, nationalist ideology.  Cossacks have emerged as a kind of mascot, with growing financial and political support.”

Apparently, men in Cossack uniforms are proliferating in Russia. According to the article, “Regional leaders are granting them an increasing role in law enforcement, in some cases explicitly asking them to stem an influx of ethnic minorities, mainly Muslims from the Caucasus, into territory long dominated by Orthodox Slavs.”  The newly reinvigorated Cossacks in the Stavropol area (where Tolstoy’s story is set) are running up against the demographic dynamics of the area, namely that Muslims from Caucasian ethnic minorities (Dagastani and Chechens) are increasing, while numbers of ethnic Russians are decreasing.  The Cossacks are not universally welcomed in their law enforcement role, as, in contrast to the police, they have no official status and are therefore not bound by the same legal restraints the regular police force faces.

Paper cuts

papercut“No, where are you really from?” – a simple question but 6 words which can hurt. Some insensitive and ethnocentric questions can produce deep, long-lasting wounds, others may be the equivalent of a paper cut – a sharp pain that goes away fairly quickly with no permanent damage. This metaphor was used in by Michele Norris in a story on NPR about the Racecard project: 6 word statements about race that are being collected. The comment on NPR: ” On paper it looks like a straightforward expression of curiosity or perhaps a social icebreaker. But dozens of people have said that their heart breaks a little when they hear that inquiry. ”

Some sample “racecards” collected:

Ask who I am, not what.
Reason I ended a sweet relationship.
She’s nothing but poor white trash.
Grandma sent $100 when we broke up.
No English.Standardized assessment. No chance.
Angry black men are so scary.
Not all Mexicans can do landscaping
Indian? At least he isn’t black!
“You’re 16, Mexican and not pregnant?”
Wait…so you’re not really black?
You see me as I’m NOT!
Hyphenating myself – how to prioritize culture?

Habemus Papam

white_smokeFor the first time, a South American, Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina will be the Pope, taking the name Francis. Electing a new pope involves of course a host of traditional rituals and practices, most of which have remained the same for centuries.  Modernizations such as use of cell phones or social media are taboo.  From a cultural perspective, the process is particularly interesting in its linguistic and non-verbal dimensions.  As was the case when Pope Benedict announced his surprise resignation, Latin is the language used to announce the election of the pope (habemus Papam – we have a pope), with the name of the new pope Latinized, including having his first name put into the accusative case. Speakers of language which don’t use a lot of inflections (like English) often have a hard time with proper names being declined.  Dealing with names in context is always a stumbling block for learners of Russian, for example.

The non-verbal communication surrounding the election of the pope is extensive. As soon as the cardinals emerge from the conclave, one can identify visually the new pope by the fact that he is the only one dressed in white. There was a lot of debate after Pope Benedict’s resignation about what color his vestments would be, white, red or black.  Even more interest was generated by his shoes – he will be giving up the red shoes typically worn by popes (symbolizing the blood of the Christian martyrs).  The other interesting non-verbal message involved in the process is the use of smoke signals, not the array of signals used by Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, but simply black smoke from the Vatican chimney for a ballot round with no winner or white smoke indicating Papam habemus.

Name: “Jihad”

jihadIs it a provocation or an incitement to terrorism to name your son “Jihad”?  How about if you send your son, Jihad, to school wearing a t-shirt stating “Je suis une bombe” (I am a bomb)?  This actual case is being tried currently in France, with a judgment expected next month.  The boy in question was born Sept 11, 2009 and was given the name Jihad by his parents.  Last fall his uncle gave him a t-shirt with the bomb quote on the front and on the back, “Jihad, né le 11 septembre” (Jihad, born September 11th), which he wore one day to nursery school. Bouchra Bagour, the mother, was reported to police by the teacher and charged with “glorifying crime”.  She and the uncle now face a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison and a 45,000 Euros fine. They say the shirt was supposed to be a joke and highlight the boy’s birthday.

In fact, the actual meaning of “Je suis une bombe” is something like I’m fantastic (like English ‘da bomb’).  Jihad is a first name that has been used for a long time.  The case has created much discussion in France.  Here’s one comment from a reader forum for the French daily Le Parisien:

“Je m appelle Jihad , j’ai fait des études et je n’ai aucun problème dans ma vie. Jihad n’est pas un prénom né le 11 septembre , vous êtes au courant ? Il est donné depuis des millénaires. Le mot jihad à la base veut dire lutte contre ses péchés.” (My name is Jihad, I’m a university graduate and have never had any problems [with my name].  Jihad is not a name created by September 11th, did you know that?  It’s been used for millennia.  The word jihad means to fight to overcome one’s sins.).

It’s not just in France that the word Jihad arouses controversy. Last fall conservative blogger Pamela Gellar’s American Freedom Defense Initiative ran a series of ads on buses which stated, “”In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man…Support Israel, Defeat Jihad.” In response, the the Council on American-Islamic Relations has begun a campaign to educate Americans both about the traditional meaning of jihad and the real nature of Muslims.  The “My Jihad” campaign is running ads on public buses, featuring Muslim Americans talked about the struggles they have confronted (i.e., their “jihads”).

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.

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.

German rock


Dieter’s dance party on Sprockets

Story today on NPR about German pop singer Herbert Grönemeyer, one of the more popular singers in Germany in recent years.  He has a new album in which he sings some of his best known songs in English.  This has always been a dilemma for German singers, whether to record in English, so as to reach a larger audience.  Even within Germany there have been periods when radio stations would be more likely to grant air play to German singers if they sang in English, as the overwhelming number of songs played were in English, building that expectation for listeners.  Of course this has been in issue in rock music not only in Germany but for all rock singers whose native language is not English.  Interestingly, hip-hop, has gone mostly native in non-English cultures, as can be heard in popular German, French, Turkish, etc. hip-hop groups.

Predictably in the NPR interview, Grönemeyer had to address the perennial question from the US when it comes to popular artists in Germany:  what about David Hasselhoff,.  American journalists may know very little about contemporary German music, but they do know that David Hasselhoff has been very popular in Germany, not just for Bay Watch, but for his singing, hard for Americans to understand.  Scott Simon in the interview also brings up the old stereotype chestnut that in Germany there is “taste for some of the darker material than we do in this country or they do in the U.K.”  You need only consider the popular SNL skit Sprockets, in which Mike Myers played the very dark and eccentric Dieter (“Touch my monkey!”) to see this idea perpetuated.