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May 2, 2006

Filed under: culture»asia»china»travel

Once Upon A Time in China

In the summer of 2002, after four semesters of Mandarin, I went on a school-sponsored trip to the PRC with a few of my classmates. Going back over my notes from that trip as transition devices for a piece on software piracy in China, I'm reminded of so many great stories that unfortunately won't fit there.

But they'll fit here. And if self-indulgent tales of my cultural tourism can't drive everyone away, I don't know what will.

Right now, I speak Mandarin badly, but back then I was merely very, very awkward. It didn't matter. Almost everyone I met in China was tickled pink by the white boy mangling his sentences. Sometimes to excess. I used to wander around on my own, practicing. One pair of elderly women in Xi'an couldn't stop laughing long enough to give me directions to the bank.

My sugar fixation was also a source of much linguistic amusement. In China, as in much of Asia, the American and European habit of adding sugar to tea is viewed as something between freakish and offensive. And I like a lot of sugar. The cook at Xi'an Jiaotong University treated my habit with amused condescension, pointing me to a box of cube sugar off the side, where I would guiltily scoop up six or seven cubes and take them back to my room in case I wanted tea at night.

I learned how to ask, clumsily, if the waiter had sugar available--"Qing ni, you mei you tang?" I would ask, carefully pronouncing the rising tone on the last word, in case I might accidentally ask for soup or a hallway instead. The servers often ignored me anyway. I would turn to Zhang Laoshi, my professor, to confirm my pronunciation, and he would agree that I'd asked correctly. Looking back now, I wonder if they just didn't make the connection. "Why would he want sugar?" "Who knows? He was asking how to get to the bank earlier. It was hilarious!"

Before we left the country, I remember trying to buy a candy bar from the hotel gift shop. Using a system of cunning gestures, pantomime, broken Mandarin, and panicked grins, the girl behind the counter and I managed to negotiate the actual transaction, up until the point where I would have to pay. "How much?" I asked in Chinese--one phrase with which I'd become quite fluent. She replied with a couple of syllables, but I couldn't quite follow her. "Shenma?" She repeated herself, but I still couldn't understand it. Was this a Beijing dialect I didn't know? We went back and forth four or five times, until finally one of the American-born Chinese in my group took pity and told her to use Mandarin. She'd been trying to say "seven" in English, and we'd just been talking right past each other.

When people start freaking out about translated versions of the Star Spangled Banner, or other nationalistic cultural detritus, I like to imagine those people trying to buy a candy bar in Beijing. Who cares about the language barrier, about different cultures? These aren't insurmountable obstacles, they won't kill you. It's the national anthem being translated, an ode to a flag flying over the land of the free and the home of the brave. It's the thought that counts. Translate it all. Take it. Make it yours. Above all, don't hesitate to laugh about it. A sense of humor will get you far, in this country or in another.

Now what's a guy got to do around here to get some sugar for his tea?

April 13, 2006

Filed under: culture»america»south

What's for dinner (and breakfast, and lunch)

One of the best reasons to travel is to eat new foods, including the foods that you thought you knew but turn out to be radically different (hint: there is no General Tso's Chicken in China. It's also really hard to find a root beer there). This Argentinian travelogue (via Making Light) is a brilliant description of the meat-loving country and makes my mouth water--although it does imply that any visit I make there will be sans my lovely and brilliant--but vegetarian--girlfriend.

They speak Spanish there, don't they? And I've got some vacation time coming up...

December 22, 2005

Filed under: culture»asia

Brown-eyed Girl

This is interesting. Via PopGadget, they're contact lenses for Asian women that have a black ring around the iris, making the eyes look bigger. I can't help but wonder what they would look like on someone who doesn't have brown/black eyes.

December 20, 2005

Filed under: culture»internet»emergent

We Built This City

How do we organize ourselves online? I'm not talking about writing style, or subject content, or even virtual spaces like Second Life or WoW. I want to talk about the message in the medium of the weblog, and compare it to something that I see as a contrasting approach: the big L word, Livejournal.

When I first started doing this, I was basically bored with the entry-level work that the Bank was giving me. The Washington Asia Press had just folded, meaning that I didn't have a regular writing gig any more--not entirely a bad thing, since I was burnt out on writing about anti-Communist Chinese-Americans and post-election politics. So I grabbed the least complicated CMS system I could find, tossed it onto the band's old server, and started dropping text files whenever the urge crossed my mind.

I specifically didn't choose LiveJournal or Blogspot. This is largely because I am a control freak, and partly because I don't like being part of a branded community. My experience with the former has come through reading Belle's LJ page. Unfortunately, you probably can't read it yourself, because she's made it accessible only to people on her friends list, and I doubt our readership overlaps much. I remember when I was introduced to the concept of that filtering, and I thought it was odd--I write mostly in a columnist's voice, so I am less concerned that I might be sharing too much with the audience.

But over time I've realized that the friends function of Livejournal is, in fact, its most important feature. Sure, it lets you lock a private diary away, and some people want that. But what it also allows the writer to do is create a friends page, which is basically an RSS feed that collects all those Livejournal streams into one convenient place. If you've got access to one of these for someone like Belle, whose friends are mostly well-educated and witty, it's like having a little Algonquin Round Table right there online. Instant community, albeit one that is pretty much isolated to everyone else firewalled away behind

Blogs don't typically do that. I guess you could build an RSS reader into the sidebar of a Moveable Type or Blogger page, but it'd be a pain. Instead, you're expected to create your own personal stream, and a blog will have a list of links down the left side. The reader is not allowed to listen in, but has to become an active participant in following the conversation. The advantage is a wider range of inputs, but more work for both the reader and writer. Patches have been created to add more community interaction, like Trackbacks, but I think they're still pretty primitive.

Intrinsic in these two extremes are very different viewpoints--at a basic level, there's a disagreement in the end goal of conversations on the web. Livejournal doesn't want to be a new publishing apparatus, really. It wants to be a way of strengthening existing relationships, and building new ones. My Intercultural Comm professors would have called it a collectivist approach, similar to a lot of Latin American or Asian cultures. Blogs are individualistic: as my copy of Samovar and Porter's "Communication Between Cultures, 4th Ed" quotes, "The loyalty of individualists to a given group is very weak; they feel they belong to many groups and are apt to change their membership as it suits them." They want to be their own little magazine--whether about a given topic, or in some cases, all about the interesting parts of their own lives.

Neither collectivism nor individualism is superior, clearly, and these trends are not absolute between the two online styles. Sites like, to grasp for an obvious example, serve as the glue between different Blogger-type content producers. Simultaneously, there are sites like Sisyphus Shrugged that do outspoken political writing from the Livejournal platform. And even individual sites will mix things up from time to time, forming communities or going off-topic. I'm also curious about the impact that seemingly hybrid communities, like MySpace, will have. As for myself, I like this approach, but it feels cramped sometimes, particularly as my interests bounce from topic to topic.

In the meantime, I think it would be really interesting to see the results of a study for personalities across the communities. Do people end up in one place or another based on how they want to connect? Does it change your writing style, and your general manner of interaction, to work within one network versus another? Do users of Livejournal really see the web differently than I do? And perhaps more importantly, how will these structures evolve over time? While I'm far too American (one of the world's most individualistic cultures) to feel comfortable as just another group member, I see the advantages as something that needs to eventually cross over. I think it's likely to be the next online killer app, when someone does it right. As more and more people move online, there's going to have to be a better way to organize them.

November 29, 2005

Filed under: culture»asia»imported

The Search Is Over

Tapioca pearls for homemade bubble tea have been located, in both classic black and multicolored. I found them tonight at the H Mart in Merrifield, VA, just past Gallows Road. If you've never tried them before, now you've got no excuse.

November 6, 2005

Filed under: culture»europe»france

Best of Belle's France Photos

Belle uploads her pictures right away. Why yes, that is a general aura of procrastination surrounding me! Thank you for noticing!

Of course, those are just the shots that won't duplicate what I'm going to post, so there's plenty of other good stuff over at her full photoset. The pictures of me looking stupid are faked, I swear it.

November 4, 2005

Filed under: culture»europe»france

French Photo Follies

These aren't all of my pictures from the trip--just the ones that tickled me for one reason or another.

Let's get the usual suspects out of the way first. The trip started and ended in Paris, so of course we saw the Arc de Triomphe. When we saw it in the daylight, we actually took the tunnel underneath it and looked out from underneath. It's much bigger that way. Someone is scared of heights, so we didn't actually see the view from the top.

The Eiffel Tower is huge. In movies, it's probably always painted in, and it doesn't look very impressive. The movies lie, I tell you now. Just the concrete supports on which it rests are enormous. For my fellow DC residents, it's at least as tall as the Washington Monument, and as wide at the base as the Mall.

Although this image is washed out (I take all my pictures on manual mode. It's a learning experience.) I really like the way that it accentuates Notre Dame's architecture. This is another shockingly huge building. Inside, the high-vaulted worship area is ringed by two sets of open hallways, and then alcoves containing alters, displays, or paintings. Outside, statues flank the main doors. I like the second picture because the spikes seem oddly appropriate as a visual motif.

After Paris, we headed to Avignon, but stopped here in Montpellier first. The park was outside the railway terminal, on the way to the public square in the second picture. It's a very pretty town. Montpellier is, according to the guidebook, the gay capital of the country, whatever that means.

Avignon was the temporary site of the anti-pope. Those of you who remember your European history classes from high school know that this is a term dating from the Great Schism of the church. It does not refer to a pope which, brought into contact with the regular pope, self-annhilates. I think they should add that to the audioguides. The castle shown at night was the Palace of the Pope's. Avignon is a very medieval place, and includes a gorgeous set of parks where you can look down on the town walls.

Built, if I remember correctly, during the latter days of the Roman empire, the Pont du Neuf was featured in a French folk song that I've never heard. A wandering saint showed up in town one day and mentioned to the townspeople that God wanted a bridge. The townspeople, rightfully skeptical, replied that if the saint could hurl an enormous rock into the river to start the work, they'd help him finish. Legend says he promptly heaved the boulder into the water. They had to explain sarcasm to him, but the town helped build the bridge anyway. The incident also led to France's disastrous Saint-Deployed Artillery system, precursor to the modern missile defense system.


We took a couple of day trips, apart from our regularly scheduled cities. This fountain in Aix En Provence was just gorgeous.

Likewise, a visit to the seaside town of Ville France-sur-mar provides pictures of beautiful women and some of the most brightly colored buildings I have ever seen.

You might say that we were in the classier parts of Nice. You'd be lying, but I appreciate the effort. Anyone want to guess what Sexy Love, right down the street from our hotel, is selling to its customers? On the other hand, the halal markets and butchers were very friendly and sold delicious rolled pastries. The pigs hanging in a delivery truck struck me as very quintessentially France. Americans don't like to think about where their food comes from--and the pig's not thrilled about the idea either.

Lyon lights up in the evening, but there's a lot of history just across the river. The streets surrounding that church are suppoed to be riddled with hidden passages dating back to the Renaissance. They are very well hidden, to the point that we only found a couple. Also, people still live in them, so a lot of times you can't get in to see them without a paid tour. I've noticed that about other countries--here, we have enough room (and little enough history) that we can often set aside our landmarks and sights from our everyday routine. In places like France, or when I was in China, they live in their history, and it surrounds them all the time. Does that mean anything? I don't know.

CAPTION CONTEST! My entry: "Sir, your hippo is parked in a handicapped spot. I'm going to have to ask you to move."

Surrounded by an ancient Roman construction dating back centuries, Belle puts the hurt on Superstar Saga.

October 30, 2005

Filed under: culture»europe»france

Un amour de fromage

West-to-east jetlag is one of my favorite travel bonuses, because I am not a morning person. Now after traveling from, say, France back to Virginia, all of a sudden I'm waking up at five a.m. and feeling great. Everyone comments on how refreshed I am! How productive! Of course, since I don't sleep much, this takes only about a day to wear off. But that one day is a glorious, golden moment for all mankind, particularly those portions at -5GMT.

It's surprising that I still managed to be so cheerful, since my flight was delayed and luggage didn't arrive until 1:30 in the morning. The luggage was shipped to my apartment, which was convenient (although disorienting), but I still spent more time than usual hanging around JFK airport. I occupied myself trying to figure out the reasoning behind the generous pornography section of the magazine racks. In Paris I could attribute the high proportion of skin mags at the airport to the general sexual atmosphere of France, but in the more prim and prudish USA it took me by surprise. It seems like a fundamentally stupid place to buy porn (as if there's an intelligent, insightful place), much less have a whole section devoted to it. Do people actually buy explicit material just before climbing onto a cramped plane where they'll be in close company with all ages, genders, and creeds?

Well, maybe they do. Like the redneck standing in the Men's Health section of the newstand, surreptitiously grabbing Barely Legal when he thinks no-one's looking and folding it inside a copy of Outside Magazine. I'm willing to give him the benefit of a doubt, but I can't imagine he's reading that for the articles.

Enough about domestic disparities, man! what about France itself? Well, it's a very nice country--beautiful and varied and not too big--but probably not my kind of place. The food is unbelievable, and the desserts are mind-boggling. I had an ice cream cone in Paris that I may never forget, and a pseudo-Mexican caramel dessert in Lyon that should be illegal. The traditional French food was excellent, as were some of its dodgier outliers--like steak frites. Those are long hamburger sandwiches available from street vendors with french fries and ketchup on top. It's like a whole combo meal in an easily portable package.

France is also a country on a schedule that's alien to Americans. Shops close early, or late, seemingly at random, and Mondays are for some reason oddly quiet. There is probably an excellent cultural reason for this, but I'll admit my ignorance right up front. It gave me trouble.

There is probably also an excellent cultural reason for the massive proliferation of real estate and analysis laboratories, and I'd love for someone to explain it to me, especially the latter. Every few blocks in the larger cities, there's an office marked "Medical Analysis Laboratory," which lends the country a clinical flavor not unlike an episode of CSI. One is forced to wonder if the French are, in fact, a nation of criminal pathologists, solving crimes left and right when they're not playing the real estate market for massive profit. Sorry: when you don't really know anything about a country, you tend to make up these little stories to keep yourself amused. I'm not really so much of a gringo.

Anyway, the major spoils of the trip are: a number of photographs, the highlights of which may be posted; some sketches, which may also be displayed if I can find a handy scanner; and a pair of the Big Ben DS headsets, already under dissection for use with Electroplankton. A good time was had by all, and it's great to be back. Thanks, France!

October 12, 2005

Filed under: culture»religion»books

Book Review: The End of Faith, by Sam Harris

If I didn't know any better, I'd say The End of Faith was a bad joke. This is the bestselling advocacy for atheism and screed against the evils of religion? The world's freethinkers deserve better than Harris. His basic thesis is that we can no longer accept fanaticism--and Harris defines all religion as fanaticism or enabling to fanaticism--because of the destructive potential technology has given us. That's all well and good. I think we can all agree that we're not terribly keen on nuclear annhilation or biological warfare, and there's an argument to be made about the conflict between science and those who would scorn it while they harness its destructive potential. Harris, however, is not the person to make that argument.

First of all, The End of Faith is riddled with logical errors and inconsistencies. For example, the author seems to think that it's very important to open with a commentary on beliefs, and how they define a world around us that is subjective. "No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all" he writes, and implicitly endorses the "brain in a jar" thinking that every basic philosophy freshman briefly entertains. He also includes the dubious notation that there "seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena," even though in later chapters he relies heavily on the progress of science, objectivity, and Enlightenment thought. It's just very strange, and it makes his argument seem nonsensical at best. Similar logical faults, the kind that should have been caught by even the clumsiest editor (or indeed, the aforementioned freshman in philosophy), are entirely too common.

Second, Harris seems to take leave of his senses entirely halfway through The End of Faith and launches into a rabid, neoconservative anti-Islam crusade. Perhaps understandably, he seems to have taken September 11th as an example of religious extremism gone horribly awry. However, the hyperbole here comes off as hysterical, in a chapter titled "The Problem with Islam." "We are at war with Islam," he states, shortly after castigating the War on Terror as being a meaningless conflict against a large idea (another one of those pesky logical inconsistencies). He spends several pages pulling out violent and deadly quotes from the Koran, which is tedious and mean-spirited. It's also not a terribly convincing argument. Anyone can cherrypick scripture to suit their needs. Only because Harris explicitly defines religious moderates as enablers of fundamentalism can he even make the argument.

Look, I'm no fan of militant Islam--or militant anything, really (although in a bizarre detour, Harris also tries to prove the supreme immorality of pacifism). And religious moderates who make excuses for fundamentalists also bother me. But the insistence that they must all be converted to atheism or militarily destroyed just doesn't sit well with me as a rational option. For example, note Harris's strange justification of terror: having redefined all ethics as the awareness of the pain of others, he imagines a "torture pill" that would inflict pain while simultaneously blocking the external reaction of the subject. Even as a thought exercise and a loophole, it doesn't make any sense. Obviously, wouldn't the person applying the pill have to be conscious that it would cause discomfort? Unless it kills the subject (thus rendering it useless), wouldn't their subsequent confession break the ethical barrier? Harris doesn't even touch on the accuracy of the information from this torture. And he's the rational one?

Add in the elevation of Eastern mysticism, and what you have is a severely schizophrenic work. Harris wholeheartedly endorses Eastern philosophies as gentler, less violent, and more self-aware than those bad ol' Western religions. Nowhere in Taoism or Buddhism, he states, could we find anything as horrific as the Koran or the Bible. Allow me to say this as someone who has studied Chinese history, religion, and literature: balderdash. The argument is just pure orientalism, on par with The Last Samurai and businessmen praising The Art of War. Just as with his treatment of the Koran, Harris is cherry-picking in order to make a point. I personally doubt that those who died to build the Great Wall, who were killed in Qin Shi Huang's wars of conquest, who had their feet bound to fit a feminine ideal, or who joined in the codes of Kamikaze and Bushido, would agree with Harris's idolatry of the East.

Perhaps he has answers for these criticisms. But since the book is only 200-odd pages of actual text, followed by another couple hundred pages of endnotes, I can't honestly be bothered to read through his research material after such a nonsensical slog. It feels like padding for a weak argument. It feels juvenile.

The picture is simply more complex than The End of Faith is willing to admit. It pains me to see such a disjointed text representing atheism, and it pains me even more because the subject matter showed such promise. I'm always interested in advancing rationalism and fighting religious extremism--but I don't want Sam Harris on my side. If he's looking for fanatics, all he needs to do is glance into the closest reflective surface.

September 5, 2005

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class

The New Racism

I guess it was a couple of weeks ago that so-called researchers scratched themselves and announced that genetically speaking, women just ain't too good with the thinkin's. As that link to Alternet notes, this study is partly the work of Richard Lynn, a white supremacist and scholar of dubious virtue, if any. I love the fact that two of his other works include "The Intelligence of the Mongoloids" and "Positive Correlations Between Head Size and IQ." My girlfriend will be proud to know that the latter, if true, makes her smarter than just about anyone else I know.

My progressive female counterparts appear to be able to handle themselves just fine, which is no surprise to anyone. But isn't it interesting that just after Lynn clawed his way back out from under his rock, his protege Charles Murray also decided to expose his pasty skin to the light (or, considering that the link leads to Commentary Magazine, the dim flourescence of cave fungi)? Wherever Murray goes, he drags The Bell Curve along with him, allowing the Right to insist that it's not racism, it's genetics! And then Katrina has hit, and all of a sudden there are an awful lot of commenters along the same lines--those people wouldn't be poor and flooded and dying and looting if they weren't so intrinsically and genetically inferior.

Isn't that a funny little coincidence, how those two popped up together?

Well, maybe not. At least, it's no great shock to me. It's been pretty clear for some time that racism in America is alive and well. Like all creatures engaged in a Darwinian battle for survival, it has altered itself significantly in response to competitive pressures (I highly recommend Jon Ronson's Them! on the topic), but it's still here. The Bell Curve, like Intelligent Design is another attempt to shoehorn 18th century thought into 20th century science. And as much as I like to pretend that it's just the mouthbreathers with the sheets and the crosses and the GOP membership cards, there are an awful lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum (albeit increasingly common to the rightwards) who are uncomfortably thrilled at the idea.

If you're interested in the original debunking of The Bell Curve you might do well to see Eric Alterman's three-part miniseries (here, here, and here), which covers the basics. Steve Gilliard also covers Curve-apologist and idiot-compulsive Andrew Sullivan, who originally pitched the book while editing The New Republic. Steve mentions an angle that has always seemed a little suspicious to me as well--the fact that these studies always manage to confirm social prejudices, down to the slightest detail.

After all, wouldn't it be amusing if it worked the other way? If the implicit Eurocentrism of these "studies" was turned on its head? Say that (instead of results denouncing Black deviation) scholars released papers talking about how White people have a lower-than-normal level of sexual attractiveness, and tend to be weaker or clumsier than other people. When you stop using "White" as a synonym for "normal," you start to realize just how far out these claims really must be. Because the average cracker, myself included, has a subconscious adverse reaction to that kind of challenge to our hegemony, don't we?

The New Racism doesn't want to say that Blacks and other minorities should be shipped back to their home countries or treated as second-class citizens. No, heaven forbid! The end goal is perhaps more insidious. It says that the stereotypes about minorities are correct, and fit the current status quo--and because those stereotypes are genetically-determined and immutable, we should make no effort to fix the resulting injustices. In fact, the New Racism argues that it's not injustice when minorities end up trapped in the superstructure. Black people are poor and stupid (but athletic!), Asians are smart and submissive (but tiny!), etcetera, etcetera. Nothing we can do about it. That's just the way things are.

In all of this, the goal is to promote not action, but apathy. Whereas previous generations of racists (including now-beatified Chief Justice Rehnquist) explicitly set out to deny Blacks and other minorities the right to vote or to act freely, the New Racism prevents its adherents from seeing the racism there in the first place. Common to their attitude is the assertion that discrimination is no more, and racism is dead. They don't necessarily mean to do harm--but they won't do anyone any good, either. And so whatever progress we've made will simply halt here, if they have their way, while it should be clear to anyone who simply takes the time to ask that there is still much work to be done.

Indeed, as I've said, some of the worst offenders I've met really should have known better. They're the people who insist that Black people are just naturally more athletic. They're the people who extrapolate deep lessons about Asian culture from anime and kung fu movies. They're the people who laugh at Black comics because a taboo has been crossed, not because the humor is an intersection between fantasy and the uncomfortable truth, as if it were the equivalent of a fart joke. Even having friends who are minorities can't stop these people from finding well-meaning, utterly poisonous generalizations in the world around them--those are exceptions or illustrations of the rules, to the New Racists. It's easy to fall into the trap of these arguments. I worry about it myself.

The Bell Curve is like the canary in the mine shaft, but inverted. Whenever it pops up again into the fresh air, you can be sure that we'll also see a revival in a particularly grotesque Social Darwinism. Unfortunately, I think these attitudes may simply be a part of our particular nation's capitalism. They are part of the dark side of the American Dream: Horatio Alger only makes sense if everyone really is equal, and to admit to inequality is to start down a long road questioning the basic values of American life. Where is that large automobile? This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!

This weekend, I helped Belle sign up students for the ESL program she coordinates. I sat across the table from people who didn't speak much English, if they spoke any at all, and tried to work through the forms with them. My Spanish is clumsy, so communication was rocky at times, and it would have been easy to see the other as the root--ignorant immigrants versus the benevolent and educated American. It would have been easy, and it would have been lazy, and it would have been wrong. Because when you stop thinking of people as just deviations from a racial profile (genetic or otherwise) you can see them as a distinct and interesting person worthy of your help. Likewise, the victims of Katrina (and of our society's racism/classism) aren't looters, or refugees, or thugs. They're people just like us with problems we need to solve, and we can't do that until we clear the Bell Curve smoke from our eyes and see them clearly.

Future - Present - Past