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.

Friday, July 31, 2015

How Fieldwork is Like Learning to Ski

I remember the frustration of skiing when I was a college student, living in Innsbruck, Austria, during my sophomore (2nd) year abroad (learning German, of all things--an exotic language for a family of Romance language speakers!). One day I would feel like I had made tremendous progress, and could go flying down the hills. The next time, it would be awful--constant falling, frustration, no balance. I had a folk theory that after a good day, I would get cocky, and the next time on the slopes I would assume I was a much better a skier than I really was. I was falling more because I had gotten a big head. My "big head" made me unbalanced, more prone to falling. But the point is, progress comes in fits and starts. It was the same for learning German: some days I felt like I was making a lot of progress, understanding a lot and speaking fluently, while other days I felt like an idiot, unable to understand basic German.

Fieldwork is a bit the same. We tend to imagine fieldwork as the time interacting with people, collecting information, observing rituals. But actually, we spend much more time writing up our notes than we do collecting them. Or maybe I should say that part of "collecting" data is actually the process of putting them down in writing. If they are not written down, they are not really data. They will be forgotten, or worse, distorted by our evolving memory.

Twice, now, I was feeling low about fieldwork, but then fortuitously things turned around. First, I have to say, returning to a place where I had done fieldwork 30 years ago made entry to the field very easy. The second day here, a neighbor took me out to his field where he was spraying herbicide and gave me an outstanding lecture laying out all the types of herbicide and considerations on which to use when. (BTW, did you know that mice and snakes can make a hole in the boundary of the paddy field and cause the water to all drain out overnight? Interesting.) He was not someone I knew before; I had just met him the night before, at a nighttime tea gathering with my host family. He was kind enough to say, "Tomorrow I'm spreading herbicide; do you want to come and see?" It was all because I had the bona fides of my hosts.

Still, finding informants is still not that easy. I can't expect my hosts to take me around everywhere. And sometimes it can be hard to meet and find people to interview. People are busy, and they don't necessarily see any point in explaining things to an anthropologist who does not know anything. And some times, my foreign language abilities combined with lack of knowledge of farming and the normal confusion of human conversations conspires to make me look really dumb. Two days ago, while interviewing a man who runs a nursery, the conversation switched from planting red beans (adzuki, or 紅豆) to a machine that he was using to put seeds in a plastic tray with small cones of dirt. I said something like, "You use this machine for red beans?" and I saw his face turn, either contemptuous or frustrated at my ignorance, and he said, "That is not how we plant red beans!" Actually, I knew that, which is why I asked with such surprise. They used to plant red beans by hand, lifting the soil up with a special tool and putting seeds 2 cm under ground so birds could not get at them, but now they plant closer to the surface, even just by broadcasting. I felt bad that I had looked foolish, and made him wonder if he was wasting his time. Of course, he was a busy man, so yes, talking to me was a waste of his time. In any case, we had interviewed his son, who is a very impressive pesticide vendor, very knowledgeable, articulate, and patient, so messing up on the interview with his father was not too bad, but frustrating. Then I've spent the last three days mostly editing and coding transcriptions of recorded interviews. They are so rich, and there is so much to learn, that I'm spending hours in my room, listening, writing, and searching on the web for pictures of bugs and vegetables that I don't know. And, last night, I did not know who to interview next. I have two interviews next week, but had nothing for today.

It is true everywhere, I believe, that if you have an introduction, people will open up to you. Introductions are less important--and less common--in the US. But in Taiwan, if someone simply says "I know this guy, Joe, from the Chinese University in Hong Kong, and he wants to talk to you," people are generally remarkably hospitable. I mean exceptionally hospitable, and open. Of course everyone always presents themselves in a good light, but there are some people who are quite cautious, while with an introduction, they will also discuss contradictions and what is really going on. (Some Mainland scholars I once brought to Taiwan for a workshop said that "Taiwan is fieldwork paradise" (台灣是田野天堂)--though southern Fujian was also very good, at least for research on religion. The Taiwanese custom of drinking tea in small cups, and sitting around while chatting, makes fieldwork very pleasant. (Unfortunately, that style of tea drinking is often called 老人茶, old-people's tea, suggesting that it increasingly does not fit a high-pressure world with little true leisure. Even when you are not working, you are supposed to be "doing something" or going somewhere, not sitting around drinking tea and chatting.)

But I was a bit stymied in trying to interview one important organization. The person I had met at a farmer's meeting had seemed aloof at the time (but he was also going to be a speaker, so it was not necessarily personal). But when my assistant contacted him to schedule an interview, he transferred us to his assistant, who said that they are very busy now, as this is the busy season. This was patently not true: this is a slack season. Most land is planted in "green manure," a plant that will be plowed under in a month or so before they plant red beans. So now is the best time for interviews. She--and he--clearly did not want to bother with me, and was using a ridiculous excuse to avoid simply saying "No." Fair enough. But how should I proceed? So I asked my host if he could give me an introduction.

I expected him to make some phone calls and tell me who to see, maybe next week. Instead, he called right then, and his friend turned out to be the head of the organization I wanted to know about. His friend, it turned out, was not busy, so invited us over for tea. So we hopped into the car and drove over there. Fortunately, I brought my recorder, because we ended up staying there for an hour and 20 min, and had lunch (simple but tasty 便當 box lunches). Though I had not prepared detailed questions, we had an open ended interview and got a great perspective on red bean farming. What a coup! We not only met the boss, but were introduced to his secretary, and were told to ask her for any help in the future. And, in the office, a woman I had known 30 years ago came forward and we re-established a connection, so I can call on her if necessary as well. So, from feeling a bit stuck and down, I've come back with an excellent interview, and the introductions and connections for future follow-ups.

So fieldwork is like skiing. Some times, when you feel down and like you are not making progress, a burst of progress or luck will come along. Progress comes in spurts, like "punctuated equilibrium." Even in Taiwan, where the fruit is sweet and conditions are relatively easy.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Bragging and Culture

Midwesterners are self-effacing. We are not brash like New Yorkers, or self-promoters like many Californians. If you don't ask a Midwesterner directly, they will not tell you about their work, their latest promotion, or about other successes. Having grown up in Indiana, I find that I only feel comfortable talking about myself if it comes up naturally in a conversation. When people find that I speak a foreign language, they will often chide me for not having told them. My response is always, "You did not ask." How can I tell people that I speak Italian without it sounding obnoxious?

Chinese culture also is self-effacing, but in different ways. In Chinese contexts, the proper response to praise and flattery is to deny that the praise is true. I'll never forget my Chinese teachers in Beijing bursting out laughing when, to their comment that my fiancee in the photo I gave them was very beautiful, I said "Thank you" instead of the culturally appropriate denial "哪裡" (literally "where" but meaning "No, you are too kind.") Similarly burned into my memory is Teacher Zhong telling me that his wife could not cook, and that the food we were eating was not very good, just country food, when instead it was a banquet with many delicious dishes. Mrs. Zhong came in, delivered another dish, and agreed with her husband! "Yes, I can't cook; this is just poor country fare." If I ever said that about my wife's cooking, I think she would be very angry.

So it is very odd, to me, that there is a style of bragging in China and Taiwan that seems to violate this modesty. There are not a few men (it is usually men) who will openly brag about how many people they know and how important they are. Recently I met an old acquaintance who had to tell me that, in the years since we last met, he had become an important person. He literally said, "I'm now an important person." Many parents will openly brag about their children's success in school. I met someone recently who informed me that his two children not only both attended National Taiwan University, but majored in the most difficult majors to test into. I used to have an informant involved in politics who would say to me, "I have a lot of friends" (我的朋友很多). In a relational society like Taiwan, having "a lot of friends" is important and very valuable; this was a way of bragging. And yet, to an American ear, it comes across as boorish, even childish. It is like little boys on the playground arguing about whose father makes the most money or has the biggest house. It does not make me say "Wow" but "How pathetic; why is this person overcompensating?"

Americans do brag, but except for outliers like Donald Trump, usually it is done indirectly, like by name dropping ("When I was talking with President Obama last week,..."). Photographs of oneself with famous people are also sometimes used, though many consider that crass. The one place where Americans do brag directly is in Christmas letters, where they let distant relatives and former friends catch up with what they have been doing--listing all the places they went to on vacation, how much fun they've had on their boat on the lake at their summer house, and that Junior was accepted at Harvard. But precisely because the letters are impossible to write without sounding like bragging, they have a mixed reputation, at best. People seem to like to receive them, but also to complain about them.

Modern society, where we deal a lot with strangers and people who do not know us well, does require a certain ability to present ourselves. I've noticed that Chinese students have a very difficult time writing the personal essay for college and graduate school applications. They are often a bit too hard hitting: from a Chinese point of view, Americans are self-promoters, so many students go all out and really sell themselves. They say they are the best in this or that, that their teachers were very impressed by their project, (and of course that they promise to work hard). They come across as a bit over the top to an American ear. This to me underlines how cultural the self-presentation is, and how difficult it is to calibrate it for a foreign audience.

One side of me tends to look at the Chinese practice of bragging as socially awkward and low class, not mainstream Chinese culture. But it is common enough that I am not sure what to make of it. Certainly polished individuals do not do this. I think what I find jarring is that it is the exact opposite of the modesty expected in most contexts, so it makes me wonder why people think it is OK.

With workplace homepages and Facebook and other social media all giving us more chances to present ourselves, finding the right tone is more important than ever, because if you do not put information out there, you don't exist. But if you do it poorly, you're a jerk. But what seems to be a jerk in one culture might be be appropriate in different culture.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Mainlanders in Hong Kong, and Cultural Sensitivity

There can be no doubt that Hong Kong has become much less welcoming towards Mainlanders. There are many reasons for this, from the large number of tourists and shoppers who have crowded parts of the city, changed the ecology of shops, and made rents rise, to simple resentment that formerly poor neighbors are now rich. There is no doubt that a kind of Hong Kong provincialism contributes to this too. But there is also a kind of Mainland arrogance that many do not even recognize as such.

Recently an article by a financial sector employee who moved from Hong Kong to Shenzhen has circulated widely (here is the Chinese, and here is a translation in Foreign Affairs). Most of the article takes the tone of a disappointed fan. He says Hong Kong is no longer on the cutting edge, no longer the place for dreams and for the future.  That may be true, but it is also true that Hong Kong looks bad in comparison to the rapid growth of the Mainland, but that the Mainland's growth is not sustainable.

What struck me, however, in an otherwise gentle commentary, was this passage:

[B]ecause I speak Mandarin, I’ve endured hostility and nasty glances from service people in [restaurants and supermarkets], and had several instances where I heard my taxi drivers insulting me in Cantonese. I wanted to get angry, but ultimately tolerated it. They think I can’t understand Cantonese, but thanks to my seven years in Hong Kong, I not only can understand but can speak fluent Cantonese. It’s just that I normally insist on speaking Mandarin — it’s my mother tongue, I’ve already spoken it for 20 years before coming to Hong Kong, and it’s my habit. If I need to change it to be accepted, to fit in, doesn’t that show that Hong Kong society is sick?

Well, no, it does not show Hong Kong society is sick. It says to me that he is arrogant and insensitive and expects everyone to speak Mandarin.  Just because Hong Kong is now part of China does not mean everyone has to speak Mandarin, as he seems to assume. If he can speak Cantonese, why does he not do so?!  It is precisely because of his attitude--that Hong Kong people SHOULD speak Mandarin--that people in Hong Kong are increasingly resistant towards using Mandarin. It is one thing for Hong Kong people to try to use Mandarin to communicate with visitors when they don't speak your language. But it is annoying when these visitors come and make no effort to speak your language and assume you should speak theirs.

I have always complained about Americans who travel abroad and comment at the "low level of English." If you want a high level of English, I say, stay home, or go to England.

The problem goes back to interpretations of "One Country Two Systems." In Hong Kong, that is interpreted as meaning Hong Kong can continue to use Cantonese (as is, in fact, legally the case). But some Mainlanders, perhaps affected by the triumphalist news media about 1997, think that because Hong Kong is part of China, they should be able to use Mandarin in Hong Kong.  Of course, Hong Kong shopkeepers would be smart to use Mandarin to cater to their clients, and many do. But it would help smooth ethnic relations if Mainlanders did not take it for granted that everyone should use their language to speak to them in Hong Kong. To willfully refuse to use Cantonese, like the author of the above piece, is quite arrogant and culturally insensitive. I myself mix Cantonese (which I speak badly) with Mandarin precisely to try to "fit in" and to recognize that I am an outsider in Hong Kong, but trying to fit in. I think if Mainlanders did not just assume everyone speaks Mandarin, and used Mandarin with a demeanor showing they knew they were speaking an outside language for Hong Kong, that would help Mainlanders be better accepted in Hong Kong.

But I can just hear the above author's reply: "Why should I; I'm Chinese, and I'm in China." And that's the rub; he comes across as arrogant in Hong Kong. And he does not see it, or understand why.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On Compromise: Democracy and Hong Kong

It is striking how difficult it has been to come to a compromise in the debate over the proposal for electing the Hong Kong Chief Executive . From one point of view, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (SCNPC) refused to compromise with pro-democratic forces in Hong Kong when it announced a very restrictive format on 31 August 2014. Even pro-establishment figures admitted that the format is restrictive and not what Hong Kong had hoped for, but they recommend that HK “pocket it” first—implying a better mechanism is achievable down the road (but inadvertently admitting the package is not satisfactory). But one could also go further back and note that the pan-democrats painted themselves in a corner by demanding “civil nominations” when the Basic Law clearly calls for CE candidates to be nominated by a Nominating Committee. Instead of compromising and seeking to change the makeup of the Nominating Committee (which is the same 1200 people who made up the Electoral Committee in 2012, a committee made up mostly of pro-establishment figures), which could have been broadened and made more democratic, pan-democrats sought a much more open nominating system.

The problem with the Nominating Committee is that, with the restriction that only 2-3 candidates can be nominated, and a high threshold of 50 percent support for nomination, it basically decides the election before it is put to the public. The 19th century New York City Democratic Party machine leader Boss Tweed is famous for having said, “I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” So while the pan-dems’ objections are understandable, the push for “full universal suffrage” was always going to be difficult. Many argue that it made Beijing less willing to compromise.

There is no evidence, however, that Beijing would ever have compromised. C.Y. Leung even said as much, when he admitted to the NY Times and WSJ that real democracy would mean that the CE would have to listen to poor people. It is interesting that he did not understand how this elitist and anti-democratic argument would sound, both abroad and back in HK.  He made clear something we have long known, that neither the oligarchs who run Hong Kong nor the Party in Beijing are willing to allow full democracy in Hong Kong.

The best hope was for some compromise. As I’ve mentioned above, the pan-democrats pushed too hard for civil nomination, and the SCNPC pushed too hard in the other direction. Moderate democrats like Ronny Tong who had offered compromises were literally in tears on August 31, 2014, when the proposed framework was announced. Their attempts at compromise had been ignored.

Now pro-establishment politicians want the pan-democrats to be more pragmatic and realistic. But the members of the Democratic Party who compromised back in 2010 on the 2012 election with the promise that they would have “universal suffrage” in 2017 feel betrayed. This proposed system is not what they had envisioned when they agreed to “universal suffrage.” Having been criticized by the more radical elements of the pan-democratic movement, they now feel stabbed in the back by Beijing. The radicals can say, “See, you were wrong to compromise.”

Pro-establishment figures have repeatedly claimed that pan-democrats need to be more pragmatic, that they need to compromise (see here and here). They say opponents need to accept Bejing, and balance idealism and pragmatism. This is true, but it seems to ignores that Leung and Beijing have no intention of allowing free elections.

Is compromise possible in the future? Beijing officials have ruled out any compromise now, but the government has had a campaign to “pocket now” the proposed reforms and revise them in the future. But Beijing officials have refused to consider any future revisions. Thus, the government’s own campaign recognizes the proposals are not ideal, and by refusing to make any compromises now or promises for changes in the future, it makes them seem uncompromising. They also insist that the same framework will imposed for the 2022 elections.

This is all very sad for Hong Kong. Beijing and pro-establishment figures refuse to compromise for fear of looking weak, and pro-democracy leaders fear attacks from the radical fringe if they seek compromise. The 31 August decision made compromise impossible. Elections could produce a more legitimate CE and can change the politics of a place because candidates have to make promises to the public to get elected. On the other hand, if the elections are “North Korean style”, then they would not have this positive effect. We will never know whether a compromise would have been possible. But we do know that Hong Kong will continue with a deadlocked legislature and an unpopular and weak Chief Executive, whether C.Y. Leung runs for reelection or not. The weakness comes from the institutions, not the personalities, and failure to compromise means we will continue muddling along.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Ants and Superstition

I came back to my office after two weeks away to find ants. Not a line of ants, or an ant colony, but about 10 "explorer ants" per hour crossing my desk in different directions and on different parts of the desk. They are distracting, and also worrisome: where are they coming from? Will they eat my books? Since there is no food, and I have not been eating my sandwich at my desk for two weeks, it is quite a mystery.

I mentioned this problem to our office secretary, so she could have someone deal with it, either by putting some sort of pesticide or checking where the ants are coming from. I don't want them spraying pesticides while I'm here, but in a week I'll be away again so I told her they could perhaps wait until then.

The next day, when I went to the main office, my secretary asked me if I had seen the office tea lady yet (she is the woman who cleans, delivers mail, and brings water to the offices for making tea), and I said no. My secretary then told me that our tea lady had bought some poison. It is the kind that ants take back to their colony so that it kills off all the ants, not just the one who came upon the poison. She tells me that the tea lady says it is very effective, but then laughingly adds that the tea lady told her that we should not talk about the poison in front of the ants while in my office. The tea lady says that if the ants hear people talk about the poison, they will not eat it.  My secretary and I laughingly exchanged comments on how odd it is to think ants could understand us. Since I did not know how to actually use the poison (which looked like dry coffee grounds inside a small clear plastic box the size of a stamp), my secretary said the tea lady would come by my office to help.


About a half hour later, the tea lady came to my office wearing rubber gloves (she sometimes uses them for cleaning too) and holding a box cutter. To my astonishment, she spoke to me in English (we always speak in Mandarin, though I have long known that her English is actually very good) and talks about the poison. Then she says, laughing, that the ants don't understand English, so it is OK for us to talk about the poison in English. She was saying this while laughing--she clearly realized the absurdity of what she was saying, yet was also serious and "believed" it.

Anthropologists have also long discussed the nature of "belief."  The tea lady's belief in the ability of ants to understand Cantonese is not complete. There is some doubt in her mind, and she surely knows I, as a foreigner, cannot be expected to believe such a thing. Her belief in the ability of ants to understand Cantonese is not the same as a faithful pilgrim's belief that a deity can heal her son, or protect her family. It is not the same as the belief that the world is round, or any other "self-evident" belief that would make us become emotionally upset if we met someone who denied it.

Anthropologists have long critiqued the idea of "superstition" because one person's superstition is someone else's religion. The idea of virgin birth and resurrection can seem as preposterous as the idea of luck coming from a rabbit's foot or horse shoe, to those of another culture. But here is a case where the term "superstition" is actually useful: the tea lady herself recognized that the idea that the ants could understand her talking about poison was preposterous at one level. It was not an idea she was completely attached to. At the same time, she behaved as though it was "better to be safe than sorry" so did not want to talk about poison in front of the ants, at least not in Cantonese. Some scholars have defined superstition as a belief that is recognized as not part of the culture's mainstream. There are problems with this definition, but it can be useful, especially for ants who can understand Cantonese.

I wonder if the ants can read blogs on the internet. I'll have to change the password on my office computer to make sure they can't read this.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bricolage or Ignorance

This year's American Chamber of Commerce Ball (a charity fundraising event) has the theme "La Carousel Amercano." There is something about this "name" that I find annoying, even offensive. I do not insist that "Mexico" should be pronounced in Spanish, as "MEH-hee-ko," but this is too much.

First of all, what language is this supposed to be? At first I thought it might be French, but carousel is spelled "carrousel" in French. Plus, it is "le carrousel" no "la." But of course, "Americano" is not French (that would be américain), so perhaps it is Italian? (no: il carosello) Or Spanish? (no: el carrusel). Even if it is a fake Romance language, the article should agree with the adjective (i.e. la ... americana or le ... americano). There are so many mistakes in these three words that they almost had to do it be design!

So when is it OK to just be creative, hybridize and do some bricolage? Maybe if no one knows better, it does not matter. But anyone with even just a first year level of any Romance language should be annoyed by this mixing. It does not come off as creative, but as a sign of ignorance, even a lack of respect for other cultures.  English speakers laugh at others when they make mistakes in translations (see here, and here and here). I admit some mistakes are very funny, but I laugh uncomfortably because they are mostly in attempts by foreigners to communicate using what to them is a foreign language, and we should respect that and give them some slack. But this theme is just an attempt to be, what, exotic? "European"?  Why not get a proper translation? Even Google translate would not make this gross mistake.

I can predict many people to whom I will mention this "translation fail" will accuse me of being too much of a purist. But no one likes to see their language teased like this. And it makes Americans look bad to all who do know Romance languages. And if you say it is no big deal, you are saying it is OK to show your ignorance.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Divination and Economics

Today's NPR Planet Money podcast (listen here or transcript here) combines two of my favorite topics: magic (specifically divination) and economics. Essentially they show that the consumer sentiment index does not really seem to predict anything, but some people like to use it because it is so difficult to foresee the future that they'll latch on to anything. It was developed in the 1940s, after WWII, and was ignored until the 1970s, when people worried about--and could not explain--the economy. So as the podcasts illustrates, by beginning with a psychic, people turned to an index that has little or no support, though it has its believers (hmm, where have I heard that pattern before?)

Also amusing to an anthropologist is that the creator of the consumer sentiment index was only able to convince the Fed to ask the questions for his index by telling them they had to ask some polite, "How are you?" type of questions at the start of the survey to build rapport, before the interviewers would go on to ask "How much money do you have?"  So he asked four questions:

  1. Are you better or worse off financially than you were a year ago?
  2. Do you think the economy will be better off a year from now? 
  3. What about five years from now? 
  4. Is this a good time to make a big purchase?

He combined these into an index, and voila, an index that we use to this day.  I'm not sure these questions really build rapport, at least in the sense anthropologists understand the concept. I also wonder how much people lie in answering the economic questions. But like all indices, they may ask a silly question but if you ask it every month for many years, it gives a pattern that can be meaningful.  It's just that in this case, no one can decide what it means, though it does help businessmen make decisions. Just like psychics.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Year of the Yang

February 19th was the lunar new year. It has variously been called year of the goat, sheep, or ram. I myself preferred "ram" because goat and sheep have negative connotations. But I now say "year of the goat."

Goats can symbolize virility, but because goats are promiscuous, they have been symbols of licentiousness. The goat is also the player on the team that makes a mistake and costs his team the match--the opposite of the hero. Sheep follow blindly, and are seen as timid. C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong's chief executive, was widely derided for calling on Hong Kong people to be sheep in the year of the sheep.  So "ram" seems like a good substitute. But when Americans say "ram," they are thinking of the male bighorn sheep; it is a different species of sheep, but it is still just a male sheep; the female is a ewe.  So it is not appropriate to say "year of the ram," as Chinese University's Art Museum among many others has done, because it excludes females.

Of course, this is only an issue in English; in Chinese the word yang 羊 includes both goats 山羊 (literally "mountain yang") and sheep 綿羊 (literally "wool yang"). Some scholars (see NY Times article here, for example) have noted that since goats were more common in northern China, while sheep were raised in the south, the original horoscope yang probably referred to a goat.

Goats and sheep are actually different genera, not just different species; they even have different numbers of chromosomes. But that does not mean every culture will name them differently; there are plenty of animals that are lumped together or distinguished as separate without regard to the linnaean taxonomy.  I suspect the reason Chinese uses a common word yang for both genera is that in traditional China, goats and sheep seem to have been raised in different parts of the country, so it was not necessary to distinguish clearly between them.

This is just an example of differences in what anthropologists call cultural domains. Different cultures divide the world in different ways. Many cultures do not make a clear distinction between the colors green and blue, using a word sometimes translated as "grue" to describe the two together. Taiwanese Hokkien uses 青 to describe both green and blue; this would sometimes confuse me when native Taiwanese speakers, while speaking in Mandarin, would point to something "obviously green" 綠 and call it "藍 blue."

It is laughable, then, that the folklorist Zhao Shu of the Beijing Institute of Culture and History tries to take this quirk of taxonomic difference and make out of it a general principle of Eastern v Western mentalities. The NY Times articles says:
He also drew a lesson about the virtues of Chinese tradition. “In Western culture, things are subdivided into more and more detailed categories, and that’s why Europe has still not been unified after so many years,” he continued. “If you want to say whether it’s goat or sheep, then why not also ask whether it’s a ewe or a ram? But Chinese culture has an inclusive spirit and stresses harmony.”
A wonderful "just so story," essentializing "the Chinese" as harmonious and inclusive. All revolutions and wars are wiped out as anomalies. Factionalism, also often seen as characteristic of China, gets wiped out by "Chinese inclusiveness." The fact that "rice" in Chinese can be 米 (polished rice) or 稻 (husked rice) or 飯 (cooked rice) but is only "rice" in English is ignored. It seems these ridiculous cultural generalizations will never be overcome. They are too comforting. And amusing.