Saturday, September 24, 2016

A native anthropologist at home in what has become a foreign country

After 24 years of teaching and research in Hong Kong, I have moved back to the Midwest, to St Louis, Missouri. Things are still new, and there are new discoveries every day. Missouri, or at least St Louis, is generally considered part of the Midwest, and since my wife and I grew up in the Midwest (Indiana, to be exact), there is some cultural affinity. People are generally very nice to one another; little road rage (people alternate when merging on the highway, and don't cut in line or fight for every space like in Hong Kong), and service personnel are "friendly" (I realize that is partially a culturally defined term). There is a lot going on in St Louis, and it is much nicer than many people had let me to believe. Among initial (superficial) observations:

Everything is big.  The egg tarts (蛋塔) are labeled "European Bakery Creme Filled Tart" and the size of a fist.

The choices in the supermarket are overwhelming. It takes us over an hour to go shopping each time as we have to a) find things in these enormous stores, organized in ways that I still don't understand (except that the milk is in the back; see Planet Money story on this) and b) the choices are so great.
 This is the bacon section! We hunted for 5 minutes to try to get a small package (to use in cooking, not to actually eat as meat) and ended up having to buy 12 oz., the smallest size (after much searching).
 On September 18, Halloween-themed products were already in the stores. They now have "Pumpkin beer" and "Oktoberfest pretzels." I suppose that is "American ingenuity".
 My lunch yesterday; note the size of the sandwich in comparison to the fork. It was very good, but too much. Only once have my wife and I remembered to order one meal and share it, and that was a very enjoyable dinner as a result.
 This is a car (a Hummer) that is parked in our building's garage. It should not be legal to drive such a large car on the streets because it is a menace to other drivers. I cannot help but wonder what the owner of this car is trying to compensate for.

SUVs are now the normal car in the US; the rise of "SUV culture" occurred while I was out of the US, so I have not caught up to the style. Keith Bradsher, now a NY Times correspondent in Shanghai, wrote a great book about the rise of the SUV. I insisted on getting a regular sedan, and my choices were constrained because SUVs are so common.  SUVs are also considered cool, and one pays a premium for it. The Subaru WRX is the SUV version of the Impreza, and one pays about $8000 more for turbo and the privilege of riding 5 inches higher off the ground.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hong Kong service and communication

I just had one of the culturally confusing experiences one often has in Hong Kong, one that reminds me of Linda Young's Crosstalk and Culture in Sino-American Communication. In that book, Young analyzes a conversation between a HK police officer who tries to be polite but is misunderstood by an American businessman, who mistakes politeness for weakness and then blows up when he can't push the policeman around.

In my case, I called HP to try to buy a new power supply for my desktop computer, which surprisingly has a 220-240 volt power pack. I only told the woman on the phone (who I will call Izzy--I never did get her name clearly) I needed a 110 volt power supply for my computer, a computer that is out of warranty. Before I even told her what model of computer I had, she told me that HP does not sell that power supply any more, and told me to go buy the part from another vendor (I understood her to mean the small vendors like at Golden Arcade in Sham Shui Po). I asked her how she could know that it was not available, since I had not told her the model number. We went around in circles, but basically, she was telling me that because it was out of warranty, and since I wanted to buy the power supply myself, it was not made any more. I told her I did not believe this, and asked to speak to her manager. She did not say no, but did not call the manager, and instead went through a repetition of all these nonsensical details (just like in the Linda Young case). I told her I did not believe her because she did not know my model number, so she looked it up and found out my model of computer was last sold in 2012. She kept going back to the fact that since it was out of warranty, there were no parts from the factory. I asked if her reply would be different if I asked HP to change the power supply for me. Gradually, it turned out that in fact, if I asked HP to change the power supply, they would do it, but the labor would be HK$650, and the cost of the part would be over HK$2000, so the total was over US$300, which is basically more than a 4-year old computer is worth.

So basically, I was too stupid to understand her meaning from the start, which is that if I wanted to change the power supply, then I should go with a small vendor who will do it cheaply, not with HP which is not interested or equipped, really, to do such "repairs" or modifications. I imagined a company with parts on hand for repairs, which would allow me to get a quality part that would fit in the computer case, but apparently that is not the way computers work. Even after years in Hong Kong, I can still have these confusing conversations--in part because I don't speak Cantonese and Izzy's English was poor, but also because we did not understand each other's speech strategies and assumptions.

Frustrating, but fun, too.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Taiwan's Election: Identity, the Economy, or Respect?

Taiwan has had a historic election. Not only has it elected the first woman president in the Chinese world, but for the first time there has been a change of power in the legislature. The Legislative Yuan will have a DPP majority. While Chen Shui-bian had to deal with a hostile KMT-controlled legislature, Tsai Ing-wen will have her party’s support.

Though this is an important election, one should not misunderstand its meaning. BBC TV oversimplified the election by focusing on the DPP’s historically pro-independence stance and making the election seem to be a referendum on identity. That is, of course, an aspect of the election, but the election focused more explicitly on domestic issues, especially the economy. There is a widespread sense, especially in the south where I have lived the past 7 months, that the relationship with the Mainland has not helped Taiwan very much, and that the Mainland is hollowing out Taiwan’s economy. The economy is stagnating, and even high tech industry has not been growing as rapidly as before. Inequality and jobs for the working class are the major issues that Tsai is going to have to face. It is not clear how she is going to solve a problem that has been vexing all mature industrial economies. Identity politics was not the explicit issue in the campaign. And that is one reason Tsai won; she reassured voters she would not rock the vote, thus attracting voters who do not vote just on identity politics. Polls show that the “post-1980” generation is much more likely to identify as Taiwanese than Chinese, and as they replace older voters, the natural DPP constituency has been growing. In Pingtung, votes for the Legislature in my district show what appears to be a gradual drift towards the DPP. The KMT candidate Wang Jinshi won with 54% of the vote in 2008, with 51.5% in 2012 (against the same candidate), and lost with only 45% of the vote this year. He was the only KMT legislator south of Tainan. Now Tainan, Kaohsiung, and Pingtung are solidly DPP.

One should not assume that DPP voters want formal independence from China. Farmers like to sell their fruit to the Mainland, so want a good relationship with the Mainland, but worry that Mainland farmers are learning from Taiwanese businessmen how to grow the same high quality fruits, and can produce them more cheaply. It is thus a complicated relationship, and not simply a matter of wanting to be “independent.” It is more about respecting Taiwan. For China to win Taiwanese hearts, it has to accept that there is a Taiwanese identity, like there is a Shanghainese and Cantonese identity. This may or may not lead to an independent Taiwan, but if the CCP, like the old KMT, tries to deny Taiwanese their distinct identity and interests, then frustration and conflict will grow, and a sense of alienation from the mainland will continue to stoke feelings of difference, and a desire for independence.

The KMT and DPP are actually not that different in the policies they advocate, though of course the differences can be significant. We need to remember that 16 years ago, Chen Shui-bian promised to stop the 4th nuclear power plant, but in the end, he didn’t stop it. Taiwan now has single representative districts, which forces candidates to take middle-of-the-road positions.

The major danger now comes from mainland China misunderstanding Taiwanese asserting their interests as expressions of “independence.” Hong Kong’s government is so controlled by Beijing that the abduction of book seller Li Bo in clear violation of One-Country Two-Systems is not sufficient to force it to press its legal rights with Beijing. If Zhongnanhai expects Taiwan, and Tsai Ing-wen, to be that compliant and obedient, it will be frustrated by what it sees and Taiwanese provocation and temerity. That could lead to mistakes and overreactions.

I also realize, now that the election is over, that many of my “blue” (pro-KMT) friends were actually depressed not just about the fact that they were going to lose the election, but also because they see no way out for Taiwan. They realize that it is not likely that the ROC’s democracy can be spread to the mainland. And they feel that Taiwan has no choice but to appease the CCP to save the prosperity and freedoms that it has. They hoped that increased interaction with the mainland would lead to economic benefits, but that has not been the case, so far at least. So their ideas for how to improve the economy have also appeared bankrupt. But it seems the DPP has a more hopeful vision. Even if independence is not possible, they seem to want to make Taiwan the best place possible. They are not worried about the long term resolution of the cross-straits issue; they focus more on hope for a better society and economy in the near future. 

So even if the election was more about the economy than independence, the new DPP government will still have to deal with China. Indirectly, the election was, therefore, about the relationship with China. And we need to remember that the KMT’s first presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu who was unceremoniously dumped in October, was very unpopular precisely because she advocated even closer integration with the mainland.

It seems almost every issue in Taiwan can be related to relations with the mainland. But one issue jumped out as especially significant just a day before the election. Sixteen-year old K-Pop singer Chou Tzu-yu was attacked by mainland internet ultra-nationalists for supposed “Taiwan independence” sentiments. She was “outed” by a Taiwan born singer who has made his career in the mainland, Huang An, for waiving an ROC flag along with a Korean flag in a TV program two months earlier. On election day, millions watched a video of Chou abjectly apologizing and reaffirming that “there is only one China” Her agency claims they did not coerce her to apologize, but that may just be semantics (what does “coerce” really mean?), especially since the video of her apology (read from a sheet of paper, like for a hostage or show trial) was issued by that agency. 

It is ironic that she got in trouble only for waving the ROC flag. If the CCP really wishes to argue that there is one China but two interpretations, they need to allow the ROC flag as the second interpretation of what “China” is. By viewing the ROC flag as a “pro-independence” flag, they are antagonizing all the KMT supporters who are their only potential allies in Taiwan. In Taiwan, the ROC flag IS the flag of the “One China” ideal. Everyone in Taiwan, blue or green, was sympathetic to Chou Tzu-yi. Plus, their attacks on a 16-year old girl seemed like bullying. Certainly nearly everyone on Taiwan felt that the mainland internet ultra-nationalists were bullying Taiwan. So while the Global Times reportedly claimed “This was a compete victory by mainland Internet users over Taiwanese independence,” I would say that the ultra-nationalists have shot themselves in the foot. It is this kind of bullying of Taiwan and Taiwanese that drives the island further from China. The mainland leaders and ultra-nationalists need to respect Taiwan if they want a good relationship with the island, and if they hope to one day reunite with it.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

A Taiwan Election Observation

A banner in Taiwan's upcoming 16 January election caught my attention when I first saw it on 26 December in Wandan, Pingdong County, in southern Taiwan (see photo). I says:

A vote for Wang Jinzhi = Affirmation of of Ma Ying-jeou, and support for Eric Chu.

Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 is the current president, and Eric Chu 朱立倫 is currently running for president, and like Ma is a member of the KMT (國民黨).

In the small print on the bottom right, the banner indicates that it is posted by the DPP, the main party rival of the KMT. Interestingly, the banner is not in green and white, the usual colors of the DPP (the KMT's colors are blue and red).

To understand this banner, one needs to know that Wang Jinshi is the incumbent representative in the Legislative Yuan (parliament) running for re-election. Having served twice as mayor of the city of Pingdong and two four-year terms as legislator (and running twice but losing both times in Pingdong County head elections), he has high name recognition and is expected to be re-elected. Still, the last election in 2012 was close, and Wang only won with 51.5% of the vote, a less than 5000-vote margin (see results here). But overall, the KMT is expected to do very poorly, both island-wide and in Pingdong, and may even lose the legislative majority which they have never before lost.

This banner is trying to tar Wang Jinshi with the feathers of the very unpopular president, Ma Ying-jeou. The DPP expects do do well in Pingdong County in the presidential ticket: the DPP's Tsai Ying-wen should handily defeat Eric Chu. But the DPP apparently worry that many voters will split their votes and vote and vote for Tsai for president but Wang for Legislative Yuan. This banner tries to prevent that by making them feel that they are voting for Eric Chu--and more importantly for Ma Ying-jeou--if they vote for Wang in the legislative race.

It is a classic negative campaign tactic (albeit mildly negative); there isn't even any mention of Wang's opponent, the DPP's Chung Chia-pin (鍾佳濱). It remains to be see whether it works.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Love Taiwan video #213 (and counting)

I use this title to reflect a recent wave of videos like this oneFacebook posts like this one, and a plethora of logos (see a google image collection here) celebrating love for Taiwan. The above video, which was just forwarded to me by an informant, is both cheesy and with beautiful shots. It was created by the Kaohsiung tourism office. Kaohsiung "City" is now the old "Kaohsiung City" plus "Kaohsiung County." (No one has been able to explain to me why the DDP benefited by this change, but everyone dismisses it as being due to politics.) The mascot is a Formosan black bear, and he/she is wearing pants made of "Hakka cloth" which is now quite popular, another localist symbol. The ad has many local references meant to appeal to potential to tourists; only if you have heard of some of these before can they possibly make any sense, since they flash by so quickly. For example, many people know the numbered streets 四維路, 五福路, 六合路 (and may know of the night market in the latter). Quite a collection of symbols.

The ad also seems to be only aiming at a domestic audience because you need to know Taiwanese Hokkien to understand the chorus: 水啦 súi-la means "beautiful." But 水 “water" is actually pronounced chúi, though you can hear they are singing súi. (Actually, there is a secondary pronounciation of water as in 下水 hā-suí, but surely the character for "beautiful" is not the same as that for "water.") This is a good illustration of how Taiwanese does not have characters associated with sounds, or at least most people do not know how to write Taiwanese using characters.  I don't know how to write it; my older Taiwanese Hokkien dictionaries only use Mandarin characters (meaning they are translating the romanized Taiwanese Hokkien into Mandarin, not picking characters to represent the spoken Hokkien), so they write it as 美. My new Taiwanese apps are not consistent; one writes it as 媠 and the other 媄. The Education Dept. dictionary says it is 媠. Taiwan needs a stronger comic book industry to help standardize Taiwanese Hokkien writing. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Self Promotion

Academia is a very strange tribe. On the one hand, getting one's name "out there" and becoming "famous" is the goal of academic research and publishing. On the other hand, academics look down on scholars who become media stars. I know many academics who do no see speaking to the media as part of their job description. Self promotion needs to be done, and yet if it is done too obviously and blatantly, it is criticized.

One place you can see this tension between modesty and promotion is in messages that academics post when announcing a new book or article. They typically will preface the announcement with the phrase "shameless self promotion." It is as though "good work" should somehow rise to people's awareness without the author needing to promote it, and bringing attention to our own work is somehow embarrassing. (It is, actually. Seems vain and self-important. And yet, it needs to be done.)

I notice that some scholars list their newest publications, especially books, as part of the footer of their email messages. This way they are not actually telling people about their new book; it is just there, part of the message. It is a form of passive self-promotion.

The tension between self promotion and modesty exists in all fields, but in politics and business, much more self promotion is tolerated and expected. Tom Peters even had a series of books and talks about "Brand You." His famous 1997 article in Fast Company began:
Big companies understand the importance of brands. Today, in the age of the individual, you have to be your own brand. Here's what it takes to be the CEO of Me Inc.
Scholars' reticence to bring attention to themselves must be at least in part because they a) write for their peers and not for the general public, and b) are paid a flat rate to teach and do research, not based on clicks or sales of their work. Journalists like Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Dubner (of Freakonomics) gain more sales for their books and articles by attracting attention of the public. They have a virtuous circle, where more attention gives them more income, which allows them to continue to do even better work (with assistants, etc.).

Musicians and actors are used to writing their bios that are published in programs handed out to the audience. In their bios, they all appear to be famous and well traveled. They are always written in the third person, as if the concert organizer is introducing them, though the artists (or their publicists) write them. When I read programs and realize that these artists have written their own PR bios (including classic lines like "and was part of the traveling production of Cats"), I can't help but feel a little sorry for them.

Now I've actually found someone who is extremely successful who nevertheless finds the self-promotion of the bio to be embarrassing. Clay Johnson was the founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that helped Barack Obama win the 2008 election with social media. He's written a book called The Information Diet that argues we should be more selective in what information we expose ourselves to. In his bio to his website for the book, he says that a bio can't capture who he is, and it recommends watching him online or seeing the introduction he was given before a talk. He ends:
Johnson is also terribly uncomfortable writing about himself in the third person. 
We should all be.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Star Wars as Myth

While looking at videos about how to raise crops responsibly with pesticides I stumbled upon an amazing video of people's reaction to the new Star Wars movie trailer #2, which you can watch first here.

The reaction video is here. People's shock and delight at the end (I won't spoil it) is amazing. Granted that these have been selected, but they are clearly not acted, though I'm not clear why people are taping themselves while they watch a movie trailer.

I have been using the Star Wars movies as an example of myth in my Magic, Myth and the Supernatural class. The movies were the subject of a Smithsonian exhibition, with a book Star Wars: The Magic of Myth by Mary Henderson. George Lucas is said to have used Joseph Campbell's ideas about the hero's tale (from his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces) in writing the screenplay, and the movies were later were analyzed by Joseph Campbell in his interview with Bill Moyers. I have always thought that finding mythical qualities in movies is a way to help students see that myths are still alive, and still told, in our "modern" society.

In the past few years, I've been thinking that I need to pick a newer movie, because students in Hong Kong, at least, are increasingly unfamiliar with the Star Wars series. Many of them simply say they don't like science fiction, so have not seen it. But I think for many Americans, Star Wars is not just science fiction: it is mythology. The problem may not be only that the movies are old for my students, but that they don't speak to them as myth.

These videos show the importance of star wars as a myth to American society. People get very emotional, raising their arms in exuberance, crying, laughing uncontrollably. (I have to admit I did not react that way when I first saw it.) Someone should examine the connection of the movies to not only to mythology, but to American culture and national mythology. My feeling is that the passion that many Americans feel for the movies is not felt by my Hong Kong students. For them, it seems, the movies are just good stories with pretty cools special effects. They are forgettable. Clearly, the people in this video have NOT forgotten the movies, and are thrilled to have their icons back on the screen.