Wrong Handshake

bill_gates_south_korean_hand_shake_thg_130423_vblogBill Gates visited South Korea last week and not surprisingly met with a number of high-ranking members of the government, including new South Korean President Park Geun-hye.  But all that was reported out of Gates’ visit in the media in Korea and the USA was Gates’ faux-pas in shaking hands with the President.  He kept his left hand in his coat pocket, which was perceived as rude.  He should have (as did Larry Page from Google later in the week) clasped the President’s hand with both of his as a sign of respect.  According to the Korea Herald, “The topic [of the handshake] was so frequently discussed online that as of Tuesday morning, Bill Gates became one of the most searched keywords on Naver, the most visited web portal in South Korea.” Greeting gestures and etiquette can be tricky in unfamiliar cultures.  The White House and the State Department have experts in that area who provide guidance, but apparently Bill Gates did not have access to that information.

It probably would come as little surprise to Americans that it would be Bill Gates involved in this social gaffe.  After all, he is likely perceived as a member of a particular group:  geeks.  This is a group seen as socially inept, politically ignorant, and, on occasion, inappropriately arrogant.  The latter characteristic, in fact, is what many perceived Gates as exhibiting when he appeared before Congress when Microsoft was being investigated for its monopoly stronghold on computer operating systems; Gates was dismissive of the Congressmen’s concerns and lectured them as if they were schoolchildren.  Of course, these days, the geeks have their gotten their revenge and are laughing all the way to the bank.

“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.

Boston bombers: Not Czechs

chechnyaWe don’t as yet know much about the motivation of the accused Boston bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, but it does seem certain that they had no connection to the Czech Republic, the EU member country in central Europe, formed from the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, along with Slovakia. Chechens are an ethnic group from the North Caucasus region in Russia. Given Americans’ notorious ignorance of geography, it may come as no surprise that the Chechen brothers were quickly identified as “Czechs”. There is a long list of tweets, Facebook messages and even news reports that attack the “Czech” terrorists and call for a reprisal attack against “Czechoslovakia”. The Czech ambassador had to issue a clarification about who Czechs were. There’s speculation that the Brothers were Muslim extremists, with some evidence that the older brother’s views had in fact recently been moving in that direction.  Ironically, the Czechs are one of the least religious peoples in the world, with the largest faith, Roman Catholicism, followed by just 10% of the population.

There are many U.S, Americans with Czech roots and festivals celebrating Czech-American heritage. There are far fewer Chechens in the US., partly because of immigration quotas but also due to concerns since 9/11 about immigrants from Muslim countries where there are active extremist elements. Is it really a problem that Americans misidentified the cultural origins of the bombers?  Many of those posting the misinformation didn’t think so, responding, when the error was pointed out, that it was all the same, after all, weren’t they all Slavs (another mistake).  This is an indication of the lack of knowledge about the world outside the US, but it’s also an indicator of a more serious issue, the tendency to avoid nuanced views or to make fine distinctions.  Blanket condemnations, a disregard for facts, and a refusal to think critically have led many Americans to be uniformed citizens, with sometimes disastrous consequences when they cast votes or help decide what should be taught in schools. Maybe we shouldn’t place all the blame on the willfully ignorant and conspiracy theorists (the “Czech” bombers must be connected to the explosion in the Texas fertilizer factory, as there are is a sizable Czech-American community there), our politicians have become adept at, as Paul Krugman puts it, “how to lie with statistics”, purposely distorting reality to fit their political aims.

Walmart tries “Made here”

US-BANGLADESH-TEXTILE-FACTORYWalmart is bringing back its “Made in America” campaign, as outlined in a story in this week’s Time Magazine.  The chain had promoted American-made products back in the 1970’s when founder Sam Walton was still in charge – in fact the title of his autobiography is “Made in America”.  However, this goal, in line with a general pro-American campaign at the time, largely in reaction against what was perceived as the anti-patriotic anti-war movement, ran up against the an even more important goal:  super low prices, as a way to attract customers and make money.  More and more products sold in Walmart stores were coming from abroad, as they could be produced much more cheaply outside the U.S.  It is estimated that by 2004, 70% of the products sold at Walmart came from China. The “Made in America” campaign resulted in a backlash when “NBC Dateline” aired an exposé in the early 1990’s showing that Walmart associates put “Made in America” signs over products made in overseas sweatshops.

Now Walmart is bringing back the campaign, but not out of a patriotic duty to promote American-made products and create more jobs in the U.S.  The shift is in line with other companies, such as Apple, which are finding that it’s starting to make economic sense to make or buy goods in the U.S.  Shipping charges have made imports more expensive, as have higher wages being paid in China and other manufacturing centers.  The campaign does not necessarily mean a windfall for American manufacturers or other producers.  Walmart is only interested in large scale contracts and is famous for driving down prices to the point that it’s hard for suppliers to make a profit.  A recent story on NPR discusses the difficulty small farmers have had in the American Midwest selling to Walmart.

Cowboy up!

John-Wayne-Cowboy-PosterA recent story on NPR talked about the high rate of suicide in Wyoming (highest in the US), with most of those committed with guns – Wyoming also has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the US.  The story deals with a woman whose two sons killed themselves with guns.  She said that talking about suicide isn’t easy and in Wyoming its connection to guns makes it even tougher:  “I think we have a cultural norm here in Wyoming where, for lack of a better word, you know, cowboy up, you know, be tough, you know, don’t – it’s not OK to get help.”  Guns are of course a core part of cowboy culture, as is rugged, self-sufficient individualism. But it’s not just Wyoming.  In the US cowboy culture is still idealized (note the popularity of Toy Story cowboy) and a large part of the cultural history of the United States.  It’s bucking up against that culture that makes gun control such a difficult step.

It’s not just the USA.  One of the other countries with a very high ownership of guns is Switzerland, yes that neutral, peaceful Alpine republic.  Depending on how it’s measured, Swiss gun ownership is number 3 or 4 in the world.  Switzerland has a strong tradition of a militia-style army, with compulsory military service for men (or longer alternative civilian service) who stay in the reserves till the age of 30.  Those serving in the army keep their Army-issued rifles at home, ready in case the French invade across Lake Geneva, or, the Teutonic cousins pour in from the north.  The substantial part that weapons play in Swiss life (Schützenfeste – shooting festivals continue to be popular) is in marked contrast to other European countries, where it is quite difficult to obtain a firearm.  As in the US, gun ownership is embedded in Swiss cultural history.  The Swiss are proud of the independence they fought to achieve from the Habsburgers in the 13th century, which in fact led to the founding of the federal Swiss state.  The weapons used, especially the halberd, were mostly fashioned by farmers, yet they defeated the mighty Habsburg knights.  Since then, of course, the Swiss have had many occasions when it was important that they be able to guard their borders against intruders.

In both US and Swiss cultures, weapons and armed citizen farmers were an important part of the founding of the nation and have become national myths, William Tell’s heroic fight against Austrian tyranny or George Washington’s ragtag army defeating the mighty British redcoats.  Weapons are part of the DNA of both cultures – the attachment is visceral and deep.  We can talk all we want about safety and security or the traditions of hunting and fishing, but attitudes in the US towards gun ownership go much deeper than that. For many Americans restricting gun ownership tears at the fabric of their cultural identity.

One of the indicators of how deeply guns are embedded in the American cultural DNA is the large number of gun metaphors we use, as discussed in a recent NPR story:

In January, when Vice President Biden concluded a week of meetings at the White House over how to curb gun violence, listen to the words he chose to describe the complexity.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: We know that it is – there is no silver bullet.

BLOCK: And as for when he’d make his proposal?

BIDEN: I’m shooting for Tuesday. I hope I get it done by then.

BLOCK: No silver bullet. Shooting for Tuesday. Just two examples of how pervasive gun language is in our everyday speech. Think about it: We bite the bullet, sweat bullets, ride shotgun, stick to our guns, jump the gun, go ballistic, and shoot from the hip. If she’s a straight-shooter, he’s a real pistol. Oh, he’s a little gun shy. What a hot shot. Son of a gun.

It would be an interesting socio-lingusitc study to see if in fact American English tends to use more such expressions than is the case in Britain or Australia.