There’s an article over at ThoughtCatalog listing things that people from other countries found surprising about America when they actually came here. Here are some samples:
- A lot of couples adopt children, sometimes in spite of having their own, and treat them exactly like their own. (To me, this alone is a marker of a great people)
- That, American foreign policy is a very inaccurate reflector of public consensus.
- My grandma to this day remembers a story about when she came to teach in California in the 1970s. The students used to get apples along with their lunch. Nobody ate them, so they’d just throw them away or leave them at the tables. My grandma was shocked at how they were able to just throw out good food like that, and that no other teachers cared.
- President doesn’t automatically become the richest person in the country.
- Many children, even in well to do families, work in fast food, car washes and do a lot of other things to get money and it is not an embarrassment.
- In Nordstrom, when a sales assistant says “Can I help you?” s/he actually means “Can I help you?” and not, say, “You’re distracting me from my phone. Can you please leave?”
- Shoes (flip-flops?) + tshirt + cardigan + scarf (+ running nose) = winter city outfit often seen in subway and public places when it is REALLY cold outside. If in winter you see a bare-feet child in crocks running from the car to the mall through the piles of snow, it is likely to be a local one. Immigrant kids are often on contrast a bit over-dressed for the weather, wearing snowpants and mittens starting November.
- People tend to be very sensitive about racial and religious topics. I was embarrassed to ask a Costco employee where the white chocolate was because I was afraid she would tell me I was a racist.
Of course some of the comments reveal more about the person and the country they come from than about America, but it’s still an interesting read.
We Americans are a name-calling bunch. We throw the terms “nazi”, “fascist”, “communist”, etc., around like candy at a Fourth of July parade. I doubt most of us really know what living under such governments is really like. That’s both good and bad. Good because…well, we haven’t lived under such systems. Bad, because we also are not very likely to notice the first signs of such a system being forced on us until it’s too late.
But we can always read Michael J. Totten. He recently took a trip to Cuba, and is reporting what he experienced in a way that only Michael J. Totten can.
Some excerpts from a recent dispatch:
I’ve seen cities in the Middle East pulverized by war. I’ve seen cities elsewhere in Latin America stricken with unspeakable squalor and poverty. But nowhere else have I seen such a formerly grandiose city brought as low as Havana. The restored part of town—artifice though it may be—shows all too vividly what the whole thing once looked like.
It was a wealthy European city when it was built. Poor nations do not build capitals that look like Havana. They can’t. Poor nations build Guatemala City and Cairo.
He says the worst thing about the CDR spies is that they don’t even work for the government. They volunteer to rat out their neighbors for an extra handful of beans every month. “It is literally citizen spying on citizen,” he said. “I’ve heard of cases of a brother snitching on a brother, or a son snitching on a father. Once the regime comes to an end, things in Cuba are going to get ugly and bloody, especially with and against those CDR bastards. If I were a father living in Cuba trying to feed my family and had the CDR make my life a living hell every time I happened upon a black market piece of meat, or milk for my children, you can bet your ass that the first guy I’m coming for once the government goes down is that CDR SOB that’s been snitching on me for years. People are always talking about reconciliation when it comes to Cuba, how Cubans outside of the island are going to have to reconcile with Cubans still on the island. There will, of course, be some of that. But the real reconciliation needed will be between those ‘haves’ like the CDRs and the ‘have nots.’”
“Jose was visiting the United States on 9/11,” she said. “He was in New York City. It was a frightening time, and he had that lighter with him.” She pointed at her husband’s photograph on the wall, the one with the Che lighter. “Because of what had just happened, the lighter was confiscated in the security line at the airport. That famous lighter with that famous image is gone forever because of Osama bin Laden. It’s a shame, but it’s a great story, isn’t it? Think about it.”
I don’t know what she was trying to say, but she made one thing loud and clear: she wanted me to think about what she was telling me, and she was leaving some things unsaid. That’s often how people talk to each other in totalitarian countries. Foreigners who aren’t used to it need to know and pay close attention.
So Garciandia the painter and the art museum curators mounted a protest. Not only did they get away with it, it had the desired effect.
Only in a communist country or an Islamist theocracy would such acts be considered rebellious. Few in Europe or the United States would even notice that painting. It certainly wouldn’t be a political lightning bolt. Only in a totalitarian country where every damn thing under the sun has to be ideological can such a blatantly apolitical painting be considered political.
Read the whole thing, no matter how depressing. Because I think we need to be reminded of where we could be headed, and that it’s not pretty. Thank you, Mr. Totten, for going to the places we need to hear about.
As the team to represent that US in Sochi takes shape it seems increasingly likely 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin will be on it. But don’t call her “the next Lindsey Vonn”:
“When they say I’m the next Lindsey Vonn, they are shooing her out the door, and I don’t think that’s fair,” she told TODAY.com. “Imagine being her, reading that someone is the next Lindsey Vonn — it’s like saying, ‘Get out of the way, there’s no room for two Lindsey Vonns.’”
“[Vonn has] been one of my greatest idols for really long time, and it’s even cooler that she’s one of my teammates,” Shffrin said. “I appreciate who she is and what she’s done for the sport. But she’s not done — she’s not even really close to done. Let her have her success and let me have my own — just call me Mikaela Shiffrin.”
I’ll admit my first thought when I read the headline I expected it to be about how she’s not waiting for Vonn to get out of the way, that she’ll be knocking Vonn off the pedestal, and expects to eclipse her. I was pleasantly surprised to see what Shiffrin really had to say. In a sport known for some dash, bravado, and even ego, it’s encouraging to see a little humility, respect, and perspective.
If Shiffrin makes it to Sochi I’ll be paying attention.
Yesterday I mentioned people who make a career of finding offense. Today I found an interesting case in Minnesota that suggests that what goes around comes around. A black professor has been reprimanded by the administration for making her classroom uncomfortable…for white men.
Minneapolis media and activists have been following the story of Shannon Gibney, a full-time adjunct professor of English. She says a student complaint about a recent lecture on structural racism triggered a meeting with administrators about her conduct and that the meeting was followed by a written letter of reprimand. She also says she was directed to the college’s chief diversity officer for sensitivity training.
So some white students don’t like the topic of discussion and complain to the administration about it, resulting in a reprimand for the black professor? On the surface this sounds suspicious. But only because of the races of the various parties. Would we bat an eye if this were about black students protesting against a white professor for making them uncomfortable? We’d probably assume that the administration had done its job, justice was served, end of story. But no, the roles are reversed here–and that seems to make certain people uncomfortable. Is the administration out of line? They don’t think so.
But the college denies her account, saying it never reprimanded her for talking about structural racism — what it calls an important topic for students and faculty.
There is clearly more to the story here. So let’s take a look at it. From Gibney’s own account:
Gibney described the incident in her Introduction to Mass Communications this way in a video interview with the student newspaper, the City College News: “[The white, male student asked] ‘Why do we have to talk about this in every class? Why do we have to talk about this?’ ” Describing his demeanor during the discussion on mass communication and politics as “defensive,” Gibney continued: “He was taking it personally. I tried to explain, of course, in a reasonable manner – as reasonable as I could given the fact that I was being interrupted and put on the spot in the middle of class – that this is unfortunately the context of 21st-century America.”
She said another white male student added: “Yeah, I don’t get this either. It’s like people are trying to say that white men are always the villains, the bad guys. Why do we have to say this?”
Gibney said she tried to explain that her topic was institutionalized racism, not individuals. When the students were still not satisfied, she invited them to file a racial harassment complaint, she said, and they took her up on it.
This was an Introduction to Mass Communication class. Institutional racism is not the first topic I think of when I think “mass communications class”. Not that the topic should necessarily be out of bounds, either. But what if the white student was not exaggerating when he suggests this is the topic of “every class”? Would that not constitute a hostile environment, if true? At the very least it would be a breach of contract, as the class is supposed to be about mass communication.
She claims the problem is that the students took personal offense to the topic, in spite of her assurances she was not attacking individuals. Yet if I were to regularly make generalized statements at work about women I doubt anyone would excuse me on the basis that I was not singling out anyone out individually. If you are going to discuss the failings of a particular group it’s not unreasonable to assume individual members of that group might take offense. Gibney is trying to hide behind an excuse that would never hold up were it applied in the other direction.
Clearly, if Gibney encouraged the students to file a racial harrassment complaint, she was not expecting the administration to take the students’ side. She either felt she was entirely in the right, or that the administration would support her. To her surprise, they did not. While they are typically closed-mouthed about the incident (not the only one for Gibney, either), they do make a rather interesting statement on the matter:
In a formal statement, the institution says it has never disciplined a faculty member for teaching or discussing structural racism.
“Conversations about race, class and power are important and regular parts of many classes at MCTC and have been for years,” the statement says. “At MCTC, we believe it is essential for our faculty to actively engage students in respectful discussions in the classroom regardless of topic and to create an atmosphere in which students may ask questions as an important part of the classroom experience. Questions from students in classroom discussions are an essential part of the learning process. We expect that faculty will have the professional skills to lead difficult conversations in their classrooms and will teach in a way that helps students understand issues, even when students feel uncomfortable or disagree with particular ideas. We also expect that students act appropriately in the classroom; a student who does not do so may be subject to removal by the faculty member.” (Emphasis mine)
Based on the context, it sounds like what Gibney was reprimanded for was her insufficient handling of the situation, not for the topic itself. The statement above makes it clear that the administration encourages students to question, and that her “being interrupted and put on the spot in the middle of class” is part of the educational process, and something she should be prepared for. If she’s going to bring up controversial topics that could make students uncomfortable then she needs to know how to conduct that discussion respectfully and delicately, encouraging the students to remain engaged.
The statement also states the expectations for student behavior. We have seen nothing, even from Gibney, that the students acted inappriopriately, outside of “interrupting”. They weren’t removed from class, certainly. They simply took her up on her invitation to file a complaint.
Whether or not we’re getting the full story here, one thing is certain: offense is a two-edged sword. Those who take offense are not immune to giving it. The more we push public discourse toward “We have the right to not be offended” the less room we leave for actual discourse. If we insist on continuing in that direction it’s only a matter of time before the only right remaining is the right to remain silent. In an age of social media, I guarantee very few will avail themselves of that.
The Political Correctness police are at it again, infuriated by Katy Perry’s cultural appropriation in the the MTV VMA’s. It is, evidently, not okay to borrow from other cultures. Just what is cultural appropriation? According to the HuffPo:
Cultural appropriation refers to picking and choosing elements of a culture by a member of another culture without permission. This includes traditional knowledge, religious symbols, artifacts or any other unauthorized use of cultural practice or ideation.
This, of course, begs the question of how an entire culture is supposed to give its permission? And, perhaps more importantly, why is the HuffPo so one-sided? What they’re really saying it that it’s not okay for U.S. culture to appropriate elements. Obviously it’s quite okay for other cultures to borrow from us.
The PC police are also missing the obvious: There is no American Culture. Is there any element of our culture that is unique to our culture? American culture is built on the foundation of integrating other cultures into our own. What we are is a mixture of British, French, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, African, Russian, Mexican, Indian, and hundreds more cultures. Is the HuffPo seriously suggesting that Blacks shouldn’t have borrowed baseball and football from the white Americans? Are they seriously suggesting Japan should hit the rewind button on “Cowboy BeBop?” Should we be purging all Gilbert and Sullivan operettas from our midst (Yikes! Both Asian and British culture in one go! How DARE we!)?
How exactly are other cultures supposed to come to America, hold on to their own culture, get treated equally, and yet not have anyone else adopt any element of their culture? Does HuffPo seriously want to roll back Mexican influences in our culture, kick salsa out of our restaurants and stores?
This sort of thinking show why I have a hard time taking liberal ideas seriously sometimes. How do you contain culture? How do you get a culture’s permission? Are they as concerned about other cultures stealing our cultural elements? Give me a break. The world is flat, right? My daughter is currently learning to draw Manga. Some of the books she’s been studying from are written by people with Japanese names. Some are not. But how can we really be sure she has the permission of Japanese Culture to borrow their cartooning style? Just because one of her teachers may or may not be Japanese? Am I supposed to confiscate her books lest she inadvertently cause an international incident?
Cultural leavening isn’t even a conscious process any more. It’s a natural byproduct of a world that in increasingly interactive. Yes, there are uses of other cultural elements that are insensitive and even offensive. The vast majority is not. Katy Perry’s VMA performance is no more insensitive than some yuppie’s Asian wall-hanging or someone else’s laughing Buddah statuary in their garden. It’s no more insensitive than Japanese youths wearing replicas of WWII-era US aviator jackets or smoking imported Marlboros. It’s no more insensitive than Firefly characters swearing in Chinese.
Culture-as-Fad has been a staple of world culture for years, and it’s only escalated in the Internet age. We borrow what we like, ignore what we don’t, and remix, reboot, and mashup to our hearts content. What, if anything, should be a concern is the loss of unique culture, not the spread thereof. If there ever was such a thing as “American Culture”, you can bet it will be homogenized out of existence within the next 100 years. Will that be a bad thing? Who knows? It all depends on what elements we adopt. Integrating the Japanese work ethic or educational commitment may be a good thing. Integrating the Islamic moral framework might not.
It would be interesting to go through the HuffPo writer’s dwelling and see just how many elements of other cultures we could find. Forget whether the culture she borrows from gave permission, I’d like to see how many she is even aware of and made a conscious decision whether she was appropriating it acceptibly. Culture isn’t so cut and dried as she might want to think. I’m not inclined to defend or criticize Katy Perry–she’s in a business where causing offense is a means to an end. It could have been totally innocent; it might have been intentionally controversial. Who knows? Who cares? She got people talking about her, and that’s money in the bank. Hooray for her.
We’ve got enough things to worry about. Being constantly conscious of whether or not I’m appropriating from other cultures is not something we should be concerned about. I’m a fantasy writer. It’s pretty much a given I will be. In fact, there’s a movement by some writers to insist that we represent other cultures and peoples of color in our works. So how do we do that and still make the HuffPo crowd happy, exactly? I’m supposed to include “the other” in my work, do them justice, make them realistic, and yet do so without borrowing anything from another culture without their permission. Yeah…right. One problem with the whole PC movement is that they don’t all work from a common rulebook. They make it up as they go along–mainly as a means of keeping the rest of us off balance, I think.
It’s amazing that people have so much time on their hands to be able to sit around thinking about what to be offended by (Besides HuffPo writers, that is. For them it’s part of the job description). But answer me this? If appropriating elements of a culture without that culture’s permission is bad, wouldn’t being outraged and defensive on another culture’s behalf without their permission also be bad? Who this writer or anyone else to assume she can speak for another culture? Who is she to assume Ms. Perry didn’t get permission from someone qualified to speak on behalf of their culture (surely this must be possible, else why the definition above)?
So just so you know, you do not have my permission to take Trey Parker and friends to task for their depiction of Mormon culture and doctrine. I couldn’t care less what they do, really. They’re not doing anything someone else hasn’t already done, and much more maliciously. I do not need you to be outraged on my behalf. Not that I’ve seen anyone being all that concerned about whether Mormons are being offended. Even the guardians of cultural PC-ness have their limits. Or, dare I say it, bias and prejudice.
And that is just one reason why I have a hard time taking these people seriously. If they don’t speak for me, I can only assume there are plenty of others they also don’t speak for, even though they pretend to it. Such people (aka busy-bodies) do no one any good.
Besides kind, polite readers who won’t point out it should be “Something for which to be thankful”, here are a few other things for which I am grateful:
- Indoor plumbing
- Working vehicles
- An amazing wife
- A warm bed at day’s end
- Winter clothing
- All five senses
- Three great, unique kids
- My parents
- My wife’s parents
- Air travel
- Four seasons
- A furry welcome home
- The Internet and telecommunications
- Unparalleled variety in food just down the street
- Good friends
- Teachers and mentors
- A beautiful and varied world
- Relative freedom, peace, and security
- An education
- Continuous opportunities to learn
- A loving Heavenly Father
- Continuous revelation
- Policemen, firemen, and soldiers
- Sailing ships
- Different cultures
- Different perspectives
- Hard work
- Quitting time
- Purpose and meaning
To be continued…
I’m sure everyone has memories of being tortured with works of classic literature in high school. Evidently it’s a constant, regardless of where you come from. I recently decided I might try to kill two birds with one stone with my next audiobook selection. I would like to learn more about the culture of my country-in-law, Finland, and I’ve heard that the Kalevala, regarded as the national epic of Finland, is one of the works that inspired Tolkien. Evidently it also inspired Michael Moorcock’s character Elric of Melniboné (Moorcock denies direct influence), and was the basis of a Donald Duck comic, The Quest for Kalevala.
So I decided to download it, and will start to listening to it shortly.
I informed my wife of this, thinking she might be pleased. Instead she cautioned me to be careful listening while driving. It’s evidently not the most action-packed epic poems ever written. But I am hopeful. I didn’t get far with Tolkien’s The Silmarillion when I was a teenager, either, but found it quite interesting as an adult. I’m hoping, too, that having it read to me might help as well.
So I’ll let you know. Perhaps I’ll find it everything my wife says it is. But considering how influential the epic has been in Finnish culture, I think it will be time well spent. And who knows. I’ve recently resurrected a D&D campaign with some friends. Perhaps there is source material there I can borrow.
Sometimes it seems like parenting is a thankless, fruitless job. But sometimes something happens to make you think you just might be making progress after all. Then there are those incredibly rare moments when your kids grow and do something right, and you just happen to make the perfect move to reinforce their growth.
We just saw one of those moments. And yes, I’m bragging here. As I said, these moments are rare. Give me my chance to bask.
We have a child who has been notoriously a non-saver. Usually he would have his allowance spent within a few days of getting it. And he would usually complain about how the things he really wants are just too expensive. No amount of trying to convince him to save his money helped.
But then something changed. He got his heart set on a Lego set that sells for around $100. That’s a lot of money for me, let alone him. But he started saving. Even any birthday or holiday money. He would hit us up for odd jobs we’d be willing to pay him for. And he would follow through and do them! And do them well! His savings continued to build.
When he pulled within $30 of his goal we decided he might just be serious about this. The trouble was these Lego sets don’t stay around forever. It might be several more months before he’d have the money, and it would just be the most terrible experience for him if it went “out of print” while he was making those last few dollars.
About this time his brother saved up enough for a smaller set and asked me to order it for him. I got to thinking. I had recently received a gift card from work as appreciation for my work on a recent project. It would be just enough to cover the more expensive set my son was working so hard to save up for. I decided to go ahead and buy the set to make sure he could get it before it sold out.
(I’m not a total nice guy, mind you. It did occur to me that if I bought that for him and he paid me back in cash then I would have, in essence, converted a gift card that could only be spent online in that one place for cash I could spend anywhere. Besides, even if my son changed his mind and didn’t want the set any more I could probably hang onto it, wait for the price to go up, and resell it. Shrewd, and willing to exploit my children. That’s me!)
So the set came, we hid it away, and we watched as this son continued to work hard. And, sure enough, the price went up. It was all I could do not to tell him what we’d done when he noticed the price increase and nearly got discouraged.
This weekend he got the last of the money he needed. It was one proud young man who forked over more money than he’d ever had in his life for the set he’d been wanting for close to a year. Then came the sweet part. I informed him I’d already ordered it, and for less than he thought he’d need. And, best of all, he wouldn’t even have to wait for it to be delivered–it was downstairs at that very moment.
Better. Than. Christmas.
I don’t think his feet even touched the stairs. When we caught up with him he was on the couch hugging the box to his chest and bursting with excitement. He was over the moon. He immediately set to work building it–and it is a very impressive set, to be sure. Almost 1400 pieces, and took him close to three hours to put together. He was on cloud nine the rest of the day.
We did have to make it clear he couldn’t expect us to pre-order everything he might want to save up for in the future, and he seemed to understand. I also tried to explain that I had been willing to do it this time because he had been learning to save and to work hard, and that I was proud of him. So hopefully we’ve reinforced in his mind that having the discipline to save up for what he wants most has its rewards.
He does seem to have learned that you tend to appreciate more the things you work the hardest to get. He expressed that sentiment to me while he was helping me with one of the jobs that would put him over the top. He’s a fairly astute, self-aware boy, so I imagine he really feels that way and wasn’t just parroting something he’d heard somewhere.
I’m fairly sure the thrill of finally owning the Lego set will fade within a week. But I’m hopeful that the lesson–and the confidence and sense of accomplishment that came with it–will stick with him for a long time to come. My wife and I exchanged high-fives in private.
Thought for the day: If you want to see IT people scream, just tell them you want them to track the time they spend on their various project tasks. It won’t matter what reasons you give them or how granular (or not) you want time tracked, they will scream like you’d stuck them in a turkey fryer.
No matter what reasons you give them, they’ll tell you “this will take too much time just tracking things”, but they’ll see it as “You don’t trust me.”
And people wonder why I have a love/hate relationship with technology. (And by “people wonder” I mean no one at all has ever asked me this, but I need some rhetorical construct to get this post going, so we’ll pretend there are people out there who actually devote brain cycles to trying to figure me out.)
Technology is great when it works, nearly debilitating when it does not. Take my mp3 player (please!). I like to listen to audio books on my commute. When the technology works I don’t have to worry about anything other than getting the headphones into my ears and turning on the player. It remembers where I left off and picks up from there.
Except when it doesn’t. Suddenly that little feature seems to have disappeared. The last several times I’ve turned on my player it seems to have forgotten I was even listening to an audio book and takes me to the middle of my menus structure. I have to find my way back into the right file (there are four for this particular book), then fast-forward to where I was. When I wasn’t aware there was going to be a problem this was difficult–I’d just have to aurally scan the book hoping to hear something that sounded recent. Now that I know there’s a problem I’m making it a point to remember the time-elapsed point before I shut it off. But scanning to a particular spot in a seven-hour file is still more time consuming than I like.
I encountered a similar problem with my ebook software on my laptop while reading my neice’s novel. I went back to check something in an early chapter and suddenly realized I didn’t know how to get back to where I’d left off. Fortunately I remembered what chapter I was on (luckily) and was able to get back relatively quickly.
In both cases, had I a physical book I could have found my spot instantly (bookmark), or even if I’d lost my place, I could still have found it within a few seconds.
Fortunately at this point in my life when technology fails it’s an inconvenience. Or, to quote one of my favorite lines from Jurassic Park, “Yes, John, but when Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” There is very little of real importance that would be lost if my technology stopped working. No lives would be at stake, at the very least.
But this is also why I am highly reluctant to place my life too much in the hands of technology. I’ve spent too long in IT to trust the infalibility of IT departments. I’ve spent too long fighting my technology to want to depend on it too much. It’s convenient, certainly. It allows me to do some fairly amazing things, yes. But bet my life on it? I will not. At least not knowingly.