Tag Archives: East Asia

Regarding Japan: On the risks and responsibilities of engagement

The day after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s northeast coast I received a well-intentioned facebook message from a friend I hadn’t spoken with in nearly a decade.  She was checking to see if I and those I care about in Japan were all right.   Although I responded graciously and positively, my own reluctance to participate in the twittering drama filled me with suspicion.  By writing to me, was she trying to claim a little piece of the action, a connection to the disaster?  Would she secretly prefer that I were directly affected so that she could share in the piquant pang of aftershock without having to suffer its enduring losses?

About a week later, as the scale of suffering in Japan became clearer, I became less concerned with everybody else’s questionable investments in the pain of others and more suspicious of my own hesitancy to engage emotionally.

Although I frowned and cried as solicited upon seeing the unavoidable photos of people staggering through muddy ruins, I wasn’t sure how to feel the rest of the time.  Brian Massumi’s claim that

“power is no longer fundamentally normative, like it was in its disciplinary forms—it’s affective”

suggests that stories and images circulate and infiltrate strategically. Even though, as de Certeau reminds us, readers aren’t fools and we employ tactics with which to play and navigate the web of discourse, we’re still stuck inside of it—and it inside of us.  Our critique of media, savvy avoidance of manipulation, and resistance to being told how to feel are themselves already the threads of discourses that have been woven into us.

Part of me wants to believe that some basic feeling for the suffering of others arises before all of this, that there’s a relational web prior and in excess to the discursive one—and that it’s woven more tightly.

But if the mass mediated means through which we gain access to others is always already shaping how we feel for those others, how can we feel without capitulating to the powers that traffic in affect? In the case of catastrophes, which seem to (fairly regularly) punctuate the passage of ordinary life with significance, how do we resist the meaning-making machines while still engaging meaningfully?
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Introducing Guest Blogger Eleanor King

In a series of forthcoming posts, my friend Eleanor King is going to reflect upon the tsunami in Japan and the use of social media in attempts to resist the ways in which catastrophes are taken out of time and spun according to particular political, economic, and social trajectories that in turn shape our modes for consuming images of disasters.

Please give her a Savage welcome!

This is how others describe her:

A third year graduate student in Cultural Anthropology, Eleanor came to the University of Iowa with an M. Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York.  Before landing in Iowa with her two cats, Eleanor worked a variety of non-profit jobs from facilitating social justice seminars at the Church Center for the United Nations to assisting elderly New York and displaced New Orleans jazz musicians through the Jazz Foundation of America.   Eleanor’s interests are diverse, but she continually returns to issues of ethnographic representation, technology, desire, the (gendered, racialized, sexualized) body, and new formulations of personhood and “life”. After writing her Master’s paper on voice, language ideology, and early film narration in Japan, Eleanor continues to explore the effects of new technological forms in Japan.  For her dissertation research she will be looking into the relationships, subjectivities and affects created between humans and machines, and the ethical implications of such encounters.

How Avatars Work In the Real World

In Hollywood, caucasian men adopt avatars to become one with indigenous aliens, but that’s not how the racial politics of avatars work in the real world. Rural schools in South Korea are getting robot English teachers and, well, read on:

The robots, which display an avatar face of a Caucasian woman, are controlled remotely by teachers of English in the Philippines — who can see and hear the children via a remote control system.

Cameras detect the Filipino teachers’ facial expressions and instantly reflect them on the avatar’s face, said Sagong Seong-Dae, a senior scientist at KIST.

“Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including South Korea,” he told AFP.

It would be a lot easier to just have a direct video feed of their Filipino teachers, but why do that when the magic of virtual reality can give you a white teacher? And unlike real white teachers “they won’t complain about health insurance, sick leave and severance package, or leave in three months for a better-paying job in Japan.”

(Via Roy Berman on Twitter)

Illustrated Man, #2 — My Neighbors the Yamadas

In this occasional series, Illustrated Man, I will explore the intersection of anthropology and comic books, graphic novels, comic strips, animation, and other manner of popular drawn art.

I was first exposed to the beauty of Studio Ghibli productions back in my dreadlocked college daze, years before I became the father of three girls. I’ve long treasured a secret joy found only in children’s programing and in my free time – back when I had free time – I’d randomly chose selections from the kid’s section of Hollywood Video (a commercial business that rented something called “VHS” — feature films stored on magnetic tape, I know it sounds weird).

This is how I discovered Hayao Miyazaki and the beloved classic, My Neighbor Totoro. A truly transcendent film, a gift to the future. I went on to become a huge Ghibli fan. I’ve seen twelve of their nineteen features (at least according to Wikipedia) and I am now eagerly anticipating the U.S. release of Tales of Earthsea, based on the fantasy series by anthropology scion Ursla K. Le Quin.

In the 1990s, as American popular culture began to take note of Japanese anime and manga Ghibli rose in profile as a preeminent studio. Eventually its stateside distribution would be picked up by Disney under the leadership of superfan, John Lasseter. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Unfortunately this has led to a redubbing of the treasured Totoro, which replaced the original cast with celebrity voices and changed the Japanese soundtrack to one Disney believed was more palatable to American ears. Prior to this Totoro was distributed in the U.S. by low-budget and cult favorite, Troma Entertainment. If at all possible, I encourage you to seek out the earlier Troma dub or, if you have an international DVD player, the Japanese language version with English subtitles. If the fiasco surrounding the Disney release of Jacques Perrin’s Oceans is any indication, it seems likely that Disney has taken creative liberties, intentionally mistranslated, or simply cut some aspects of Japanese culture to appease American audiences.

And yet, Disney produced the American release of Spirited Away, a film many consider to be Miyazaki’s masterpiece and which won an Oscar in 2003 for best animated feature, and, most recently, the early 2010 hit Ponyo. Disney has also sought to capitalize on Ghibli’s back catalog, producing original dubs of older features previously unreleased in the U.S. including the subject of this post, My Neighbors the Yamadas.

Right off the bat, American fans of Japanese popular culture will notice that My Neighbors the Yamadas does not look like an anime film. It has a completely different stylistic feel. In place of anime’s infantile, doe-like eyes and expressive hair on long and lean bodies we get something that appears to be watercolor over ink lines with the aesthetic character of a color comic strip in a Sunday paper.

The Yamadas is not directed by Miyazaki but Isao Takahata, a anime director famous in Japan but relatively less known to American audiences (most notably Roger Ebert championed Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, calling it one of the greatest anti-war movies of all time). With the Yamadas, Takahata has created a genuine sleeper hit that is beautiful, sophisticated, and hilarious.

Narratively My Neighbors the Yamadas is a collection of vignettes almost all of which depict events in everyday life from the point of view of different members of the Yamada family. The short sketches are indicative of the material’s origin as a comic strip. There is the father, Takashi, and mother Matsuko. Teenage son Noboru and grade school aged daughter, Nonoko. Shige is the grandmother and Pochi the family dog. As in the previous entry for Illustrated Man on American Splendor, my appreciation of Yamadas stems from its detailed portrayal of the ordinary. Like American Splendor these are “slice of life” sketches and while the gags don’t hit pay dirt every time they come quickly and there’s enough of them so something is going to stick.

The vignettes are strung together in thematic segments, often with ironic titles like “Domestic Goddess” for a series of stories about Matsuko. Her stories center around the labor of being a housewife: doing the laundry, shopping, changing light bulbs, doing the dishes, and getting the house ready for company to visit. “Marriage Yamada Style” features Takashi and Matsuko together, doing little things for one another, annoying each other, eating out, and fighting over the TV set. Like in a musical, realism can suddenly give way to fantasy sequences, like when their epic battle over the remote control turns into this dance number:

My Neighbors the Yamadas is made all the more unique by its use of haiku as a segue between vignettes. Irascible Shige visits an elderly friend in the hospital that seems more like a country club. But when she demands of her friend, “Just what are you in for?” the friend turns to tears and they walk away together in silence. A narrator’s voice reads “No sign of death’s approach in the cicadas’ voices.”

In another scene Noboru takes a phone call from a girl while Matsuko and Shige watch with great interest. After he says goodbye he bounds to his room and turns up the music loud, with shouts of ecstasy he dances on his bed. “The scent of plums on a mountain path. Suddenly dawn.”

Takashi stumbles home late from work and is completely exhausted, everyone is asleep save Matsuko who is watching TV. He demands dinner and without looking up from the TV she informs he can have beancake or a banana. Disgusted he spits out, “Who wants to come home after a hard day’s work to beancake.” And she gets up, “So the banana, then?” He struggles even to get a cigarette to his lips he’s so tired as she fetches his fruit and some tea before sitting down to watch her show. Absentmindedly, Takashi puts the banana in his mouth without peeling it. “Turn toward me. I’m lonely too. The autumn dusk.”

I queried my friend and anthropologist of Japan, Chris Nelson, about the significance of haiku in My Neighbors the Yamadas. To my mind it served to elevate the quotidian events of the Yamadas’ life into something beautiful, equating poetry with the chores of a housewife, the insecurities of a socially awkward teen, the trials of a small child lost in the mall. Additionally, I read it as marking the stories as particularly Japanese as if the haiku was doing some nationalist work too. The original Japanese movie trailers, which come packaged as special features on the Disney DVD make clear that the Yamadas were marketed not only as a typical family, but as a quintessentially Japanese family.

Though he had not yet seen the feature, Chris took a break from archival work in Okinawa to offer this thoughtful reply:

I don’t think that the use of poetry is really marked or unusual in this particular Japanese context. In fact, I was reading your message in a coffee shop after I had been turning the pages in the weekend paper (local, not national). There in the middle were two pages of poems submitted by readers. Most of them have the same kind of seasonal cues that you’ve mentioned. What the poem does is tie the particular event of the story to the season, but also to something more abstract. It works to tie something from daily life to the ineffable. If I were a poet and I was going to write a poem, I would try to do the same thing.

It speaks to connoisseurs of poetry, who get the allusions. It also challenges me to try to say something novel with all of these “already saids.” The Ghibli folks are extending this to cartoons, but there’s also something pleasantly familiar about that to most viewers, who have seen this in lots of conventional TV animations (many made in the visual style of this one). In the case of the animation, it also provides a kind of narrative closure for the story and links a modern animation to older forms of popular performance.

There is much in My Neighbors the Yamadas that an anthropological audience will find pleasantly familiar. The English dub, staring Jim Belushi and Molly Shannon as the dad and mom, is available on Netflix and is totally adorable. I watched it with my seven year olds and they thoroughly enjoyed it. The only thing I could compare it to are the early years of The Simpsons. Those first three seasons when The Simpsons was irreverent and quirky with a sweet, affectionate core that stands in contrast to the wacky, bawdy, and self-referential years that followed. So Yamadas is family friendly, but like the early Simpsons it depicts an imperfect family in a way that will amuse adults, not because of its references to popular culture but because its representation of domestic life are humorous and honest. The Yamada family bickers and can be petty, even passive aggressive, but their faults are all recognizable and realistic.

Like my father told me, “You can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your relatives.” Que sera sera, what will be will be.

Kapah (Young Men): Alternative Cultural Activism in Taiwan

This post is an occasional contribution by Futuru C.L. Tsai. Futuru recently got his Ph.D. in July 2010 from the Institute of Anthropology at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. His dissertation is entitled Playing Modernity: Play as a Path Shuttling across Space and Time of A’tolan Amis in Taiwan. He was a training manager in a semiconductor corporation originally but quit to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology. Futuru is also an ethnographic filmmaker and writer, who has produced three ethnographic films including Amis Hip Hop (45 min, 2005), From New Guinea to Taipei (83 min, 2009), and The New Flood (51 min, 2010), and a book: The Anthropologist Germinating from the Rock Piles (Shiduei zhong faya de renleixuei jia) (Taipei: Yushanshe, 2009).

Kapah (Young Men) /Lyrics & Music: Suming

Are there any young men who can sing out there? Are there any men who can dance? Are there any men who are good in school? Are there any men who are good at making money? Are there any men who are good at planting crops? Are there any men who are good at gathering? Are there any men who are good at spearing fish? Are there any men who are good at cooking? Are there any fun men out there? Are there any strong men? Are there any hard workers? Are there any men that work together? Yes, there are the young men from A’tolan!

A brand new music album with complete Amis lyrics by the Amis artist, Suming, was released in May 2010. It is not the first Amis music album but is the first one attempting to crossover into popular music market in Taiwan, combining indigenous melodies such as Amis polyphony and flutes together with techno-trance, hip-hop, and Taiwanese folk music. Among these songs, “Kapah,” which means “young men” in the Amis language, is the theme song. Lungnan Isak Fangas, a documentary filmmaker, who is also an Amis, made two music videos for this album, one of them is Kapah. Both the song and the music video not only represent aspects of local A’tolan Amis culture but also attempt to make this culture appealing to Taiwanese society at large.

There are currently 14 indigenous ethnic groups (referred to as “Aborigines”) officially recognized by the Taiwan government. The Amis is the largest of these austronesian speaking ethnic groups in Taiwan. There are two conspicuous characters of Amis society and culture relevant to understanding this video: One is that it is widely considered a matriarchal society, although its status as such is still under debate. Nonetheless, the image of the mother holds a central place in Amis society. The other one is the age-grade system with its rigid regulations. Age sets are organized around males who have passed the coming of age rites in the village within a given time period. Each age set (kapot) will include men born within a few years of each other. It is the main political unit, handling the affairs of both outsiders and insiders.

The song Kapah differs from earlier indigenous music in its depiction of indigenous modernity. Continue reading

Academic Culture in Taiwan: Fairness

Back in January I posted some general thoughts about teaching here in Taiwan. Today I would like to talk a little more in detail about one aspect of Taiwanese academic life which has consistently struck me as different from that in the US: the emphasis on fairness. Of course, fairness is important in the US as well, but it seems to me that a concern with procedural fairness often trumps other concerns for Taiwanese, whereas in the US we are more willing to except unfair procedures if we feel the outcome is still legitimate. I notice this at all levels of academia, from the student who told me to fail her on the final exam, rather than rescheduling it around her eye operation, because it would be “fairer to the other students,” to colleagues who hesitate to punish a student for plagiarism because of the possibility that they might not have caught all the students in the class who plagiarized.

This attitude is widespread in Taiwan and can be found in other areas of life as well. My favorite example is the Taiwanese driving test, which is done on what looks like a miniature race course. The skills tested on this test are very particular to the test itself. You have to avoid rubber bumps in the road which sound an alarm if hit with the tire while completing various types of maneuvers: parallel parking, pulling into a parking spot, making an “S curve” forward and backwards, etc. It is like playing a life-sized computer game. Because the race track is so standardized, you can train on a practice course identical to the test course. Instructors will tell you exactly how many times to turn the wheel at each location. If you memorize their instructions, it is very hard to fail. (There is no need to even drive at normal driving speeds, you can take the test as slowly as you like.) This is very different from the driving test I took in NY which tested some similar maneuvers, but took place on a normal street with other cars and at a normal driving pace. Taiwanese would object to such a test because there is the NY version of the test relies too much on the judgement of the person administering the test, and so the test might not be the same for every candidate. (A friend who claims to have been failed on the NY test because she is an immigrant woman would probably prefer the Taiwanese system.)

Recent educational reforms have shift from a single national entrance exam towards the US system of having people directly apply to universities. While reformers point to the advantage of moving away from high-stakes testing (which the NCLB is belatedly imposing on the US educational system), many parents and teachers object to the possibility of increasingly unfair outcomes. Now, one could argue that a system partially dependent on how much parents can afford to pay for cram schools isn’t exactly “fair,” but for Taiwanese parents the new system imposed the possibility of personal preference, family connections, and perhaps even cultural capital, making it much harder for them to know the rules of the game. The end result was that Taiwan never fully abandoned the national exams and currently has two systems: you can apply directly to the university, or you can get in via the national exam.

From my perspective, as trained scholars, we should be trusted to make professional judgements about issues like plagiarism, student qualifications, etc., but I often run up against the objection that this would not be fair. While I don’t exactly disagree, it isn’t clear to me that the seemly more objective measures my colleagues propose are any less subject to bias. I’m still grappling with the exact nature of the differences, but I think I’m simply more willing to demand that my judgement be given some authority on the basis of my training, whereas my colleagues generally want to look for some external measure to which they can point in case their decision is challenged as being “unfair.”

Concessions, sovereignty, development

With Seeing Culture Everywhere behind us and Joana busy with Betterplace, we have been working together less than usual, but we do have plans. The shared denominator of our current interests is “development,” obviously a key term in Joana’s work with Betterplace and one that has been of increasing interest to Pal as Chinese migrants overseas — a subject he has been working on for nearly two decades — are increasingly involved in massive infrastructural projects or are otherwise transforming livelihoods and aspirations in poor countries.

A few years ago we already did some very modest research on the absence of development: why a road is not being built to link China and Russia across the Altai, despite all economic rationality. Now Pal wants to do some more substantial fieldwork in one of the numerous places — from Laos to Peru — that are being changed by Chinese-built roads or dams,Chinese traders, casinos, clinics, or factories. Despite all the hype that surrounds China’s “development export,” there is very little understanding of how it is actually impacts people’s lives and ways of thinking. Yet, as we wrote in an earlier post, both the capital and the faith in development that Chinese migrants bring to these places is already changing aspirations in ways that both agencies like the World Bank (whose lending portfolio is already smaller than that of China’s Eximbank) and participatory-development NGOs find hard to ignore. In one of the first ethnographies of the subject, Antonella Diana has shown how highland farmers in northern Laos, whose lives have long revolved around the German development organization GTZ, have converted to the prosperity gospel of Chinese rubber planters.

The subject is so interesting because it connects shifting local understandings of “the good life” in African villages to changes in World Bank decisions as well as to changing modes of sovereignty, as evidenced by the rise of modern-day concessions — large rented territories run by foreign (Chinese or other) investors who promise the local government to build model zones of development in exchange for a degree of what in essence is extraterritoriality. And while Chinese “development export” has a lot to do with the state, of no smaller interest is the sudden emergence of private donors and volunteers in China — people who adopt form of action familiar from Western “civil society” but who may have quite different (or, on the other hand, similar) ideas of what kind of lives their help should facilitate.

This is, of course, where Joana’s interests come in. Our next joint project is comparing Chinese reactions to the uses of aid after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to Western debates about the efficiency of aid to Haiti these days. We hope to use the analysis of these (mostly online) discussions to uncover to what extent ideas of aid and of individual-state interaction differ, but if we find Chinese donors for betterplace.org in the process, Joana won’t mind.

Precarious Sociality

[The following is an occasional contribution from Anne Allison. Anne Allision is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and, along with Charlie Piot, the next editor of Cultural Anthropology. Currently working on a book on poverty, precarity, and Japanese youth, her publications include Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (Chicago, 1994), Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan (California 2000), and Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (2006).]

For a new project on the effects/affects of precarity on Japanese youth today, I have been contemplating the construct of “hope.” As in—who has it, what conditions generate it, and how is it linked to notions of both time (as in the future) and space (as in home). There is a pervasive sense of hopelessness and futurelessness in Japan today, and particularly amongst those stuck in irregular employment—the antithesis of the lifetime jobs of Japan, Inc.. Without the security of a stable job, a salary that is guaranteed to grow (or even last) over time, and a social identity, many youth say they feel stuck in both time and place. Not moving forward and seeing no horizon beyond the dreary here and now, people also complain of lacking a home itself. Though sometimes this is literal (the rate of homelessness is rising as is poverty), more often it is figurative. But what precisely is this—the sense one isn’t at, and doesn’t possess a, home? Certainly, not all Japanese feel this way. But the loss/longing/anxiety is widespread, captured by the claim made recently(by activists of poverty, Yuasa Makoto and Amamiya Karin) that not only is poverty spreading in the country and becoming a poverty as much of the imagination as of material conditions, but also Japan itself is becoming “refugee-d” (nanminka). The whole country is becoming exiled? From what? Itself? So, is this hope that has gotten lost or something else, like national(ist) identity? And why does my partner, who does his research in Togo, find quite a different national mood—one where people actively breath and breed hope—there today despite a degree of economic precarity far more severe than that in Japan? Is it because Togoloese are far less attached to the past than Japanese seem to be today, and far more eager, and willing, to place their hopes on a spatial or temporal outside—whether the end-times of Pentacostalism or the visa lottery everyone plays in the hopes of migrating to the United States? (Charlie Piot, Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa in the Post-Cold War, forthcoming, Chicago).

For the book I am writing on this subject, I delivered a paper on what I call “precarious sociality” recently at Cambridge University in the Department of Social Anthropology. The interest, and feedback, was remarkable, cluing me into how pressing this issue is for many of us. I share this here, and invite feedback on any of the issues—precarity, hope/hopelessness, sociality, youth, futurity, home/homelessness—raised here.

[Due to difficulties re-formatting Anne’s paper for the blog, I have opted to post the entire thing as an embedded PDF. It appears below the jump. – Kerim]

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Move over Obama

Hot on the heels of some discussion of racial attitudes in Asia, “China has called up its first black athlete”:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/5157717/China-calls-up-its-first-black-athlete.html. Ding Hui, whose mother in Chinese and whose father is from South Africa, has “joined the national volleyball team”:http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/sports/2009-04/16/content_7685380.htm. Just as Americans think they have ‘ended race’ by reinforcing racial classification so strongly that a kid with parents from Kenya and Kansas raised in Manoa and Indonesia gets labelled as ‘black’ (and elected as president), so too the head coach of the National Youth Volleyball team, Zhou Jian’an, says “We pick players for their ability and to meet the needs of the team as a whole… He’s no different from the other players. They are all Chinese.” The head coach of his league volleyball team also notes: “He’s also a great singer and dancer.” The Telegraph reports that “On Chinese internet forums, he has been lauded for the ‘whiteness’ of his teeth and the ‘athleticism of his genes’.”

All of which is to say that inverting the moral valuation of different forms of racial classification is not the same thing as dismantling the system of classification itself.

Of Mother-insults and the Ten Legendary Beasts of Baidu

This NY Times article about a YouTube children’s song which has a double-meaning in Chinese is now one of the most shared-articles on the web. Although the online version of the article has lots of links, readers may have missed the full translation of the song’s lyrics over at China Digital Times. The prudishness of the NY Times also provoked this more in-depth discussion on cursing from Slate:

While it’s not quite a universal insult, variations on the command to commit incest with one’s mother appear in every region of the globe. Anthropologists note that, across cultures, the most severe insults tend to involve a few basic themes: your opponent’s family, your opponent’s religion, sex, and scatology. Because motherfucker covers two of these topics—plus incest, a nearly global taboo—it’s a popular choice just about everywhere. In Mandarin Chinese alone, riffs on the basic phrase include Cao ni ma ge bi, meaning “fuck your mother’s cunt,” and Cao ni da ye, “fuck your elder uncle.” Given the Chinese culture of ancestor worship, Cao ni zu shong shi ba dai, or “fuck your ancestors of 18 generations,” may be the worst incest instruction of all.

There is a certain tension in the article between the importance of ancestor worship in Chinese culture (also see here) as a particular explanation for this phenomenon, and the universality of such insults. But I suspect the focus on universality is primarily there to give them an excuse to share such colorful phrases as “If the streets were paved with pricks, your mother would walk on her ass” and to quote anthropologists on “colorful entries in the motherfucking canon” from Africa.

Also worth reading is this Ethan Zuckerman post, which links us to the Danwei Hoax dictionary of legendary obscene beasts, and his earlier post on The Cute Cat Theory of the internet, as well as Rebecca MacKinnon’s followup “Eluding the cat.”

Gender, Fieldwork, Asia

I’m in the midst of assembling my ‘ethnographic research methods’ syllabus, and one way that it is structured is that, in addition to the normal reading we are also reading a short piece in which people describe their field experiences. That way, students will have a chance to get a sense of what can happen during fieldwork. In the course of cruising around for examples, I came across an interesting piece by Sharon Chalmers entitled “My Queer Career: Coming Out As A ‘Researcher’ In Japan”:http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue7/chalmers.html. The piece charts out the history of her involvement in Japan as a fieldsite as the country and herself move through various phases of awareness/acceptance/engagement with queer identities, only to have the fieldwork go through a crisis as Chalmers stops being someone who shares a lesbian identity with her informants and starts being someone who studies them.

Ultimately, I don’t think I’ll teach it because I already have too much sex on the syllabus, but I thought I’d mention it here since it’s open access — in fact “Intersections”:http://intersections.anu.edu.au/, the journal it appeared in, is all open access, and it looks like it has some nice stuff in it if you study gender and sexuality in the Asia-Pacific (I don’t, so I’m just guessing). But I just thought I’d share.

Learning an Endangered Language (Part 4)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Our Spring semester just started here in Taiwan, so I’ll keep this entry short. I just wanted to link two recent studies:

  1. One uses phylogenetic methods to determine that “the origin of the entire Austronesian language family can be dated back to Taiwan around 5,200 years ago, and moved through Island South-East Asia, along New Guinea and into Polynesia.” (More over at Language Log.) I’m not qualified to judge their methodology, but it looks like an important contribution to a long-standing debate over the dispersal of Austronesian languages.

  2. The second link is to the New edition of UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which brings some good news amidst the bad, stating that “there has been an increase in the number of speakers of several indigenous languages.” (Specifically “Central Aymara and Quechua in Peru, Maori in New Zealand, Guarani in Paraguay and several languages in Canada, the United States and Mexico.”)  Since it is a UNESCO map, it follows UN policy of not recognizing Taiwan as a country, but it does document the dangers faced by Taiwan’s indigenous languages. News of the report led to renewed demands from Aboriginal lawmakers for the preservation of indigenous languages.

UPDATE: Right after posting this I saw a Twitter post [can’t quite bring myself to say “tweet” – but saying “Twitter post” feels like saying “web log” before “blog” gained widespread usage] about a test Wikipedia in the Pazih language. Pazih is a severely endangered language. Its last fluent speaker is Mrs. Pan Jin-yu who was born in 1914.

Learning an Endangered Language (Part 1)

In Maxwell Owusu’s classic article, “Ethnography of Africa: The Usefulness of the Useless” he criticizes anthropologists for ignoring the importance of local languages. A situation which forced many of the most respected anthropologists to rely on interpreter-informants. He argues that this reliance on interpreters has been a source of error and confusion in the field (he then blames the excesses of structuralism on such inattention to details). As I wrote in my dissertation, “language skills are something that Anthropologists rarely discuss in their ethnographies.” One exception is Stevan Harrell who wrote the following in the introduction Ploughshare Village:

For the first six weeks, I employed an interpreter to translate my Mandarin Chinese into the villagers’ Hokkien [Hoklo] and back again, but when he left to go to college, I interviewed and interacted almost exclusively in the Hokkien language, I started out missing things, but learned fast, out of necessity.

Needless to say, I am not the language learner that Stevan Harrell is. I certainly would not have been able to interact exclusively in Hokkien (a.k.a. Hoklo, Southern Min, Taiwanese…, I prefer using Hoklo) after a short six weeks. But then again, I didn’t have to. A generation separates when Harrell was in the field and when I arrived, and during that time families increasingly chose to speak to their children in Mandarin to better improve their chances in school. The result is that most people my age and younger speak Mandarin better than they do Hoklo. This meant that when I was studying Hoklo, my social network in Taipei was of little use to me, but even when I found older man from Southern Taiwan to act as my tutor, my interest flagged. I was having enough trouble with Mandarin and there just wasn’t a strong enough incentive to struggle with learning another language at the same time.

When I did leave Taipei to go to the field, I found myself in a rural community with speakers of three different local languages: Hoklo, Hakka, and Amis so, of course, Mandarin was the lingua franca. My biggest challenge there was not learning the local languages so much learning the local variety of Mandarin, one which was far different from the bookish standard we had learned in my language program. I was reminded of this recently when I spoke to one of my former teachers. She had arranged for me to give a talk back at my old language school, and was admonishing me not to sound so “local” when talking to their students. After three years struggling to teach in Taiwanese Mandarin, I told her I wasn’t sure I could still speak with the Beijing accent they taught me at school. Code switching between different varieties of Mandarin is just not in my repertoire. (And considering how much I had to unlearn what they taught me at that school, I’m not sure I support their goals, even if I do understand them.)

Athough my Mandarin is still far from perfect, I’ve decided to attempt once again to learn a local language. Not Hoklo this time, but Amis, one of Taiwan’s indigenous languages. In fact, a desire to learn at least one Formosan language was one of the major motivating factors in my decision to come to Taiwan to work. This past semester I finally managed to put aside some time to devote myself to this task, and in the weeks ahead I hope to write more about the difficulties of learning an endangered language.

A Taiwanese View of the World

Since we are talking about how stereotypes explain “more about the people making the statements than the people described in them” I thought it worthwhile to take some time in order to translate this map which has been floating around the Taiwanese internets.

I have no idea who the original author is, but I can promise you that my Taiwanese colleagues find this map to be both accurate and hilarious (“its funny because its so true”). It purports to show what anthropologists wish to study: how Taiwanese view the world.

Taiwanese Map of the World

I’ve been informed that some of my translations lack the local nuance which makes this map so funny. For instance, where I wrote “blonde babes” one friend implied that I should have written something more like “blonde hos” and the word I translated as Aborigine is far less polite, etc. In some cases I’ve included additional notes on the map which you will only be able to read at full resolution.

UPDATE: Here are some related maps.

UPDATE: Another translation.

China Cancels IAES

I mentioned back in February that I was excited to be attending this year’s IUAES conference in Kunming, China. I even arranged a Savage Minds party for the event, which had 10 confirmed guests and 22 “maybes.” So I’m very sorry to hear that the Chinese government has decided that anthropologists pose a security threat during the summer Olympics (which are being held in Beijing, 1,200 miles away), and canceled the event for fear of protests.

China is on the lookout for protesters seeking to disrupt the Beijing Olympics in the name of Tibet, press freedom, or religious rights.

Now anthropologists and ethnologists, academics who study human development, appear to have been added to the list.

Without giving a specific explanation, Chinese organizers have pulled the plug on July’s world congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, the latest in a slew of events to be canceled or postponed ahead of the games in August.

“I’m not very happy with it,” Union Secretary-General Peter J.M. Nas said by telephone from his office at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. “And I hope still that they will listen to our arguments.”

Although distant from Beijing, Kunming is home to many minorities and, as the article says: “China is extremely sensitive to critiques of its policies toward minority ethnic groups and their languages, even more so since anti-government protests broke out in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and spread to other Tibetan areas in March.”

UPDATE: A blog post from the Chronicle:

On Tuesday the association’s Chinese affiliate wrote to the group’s international executive committee, saying that it had “encountered complex difficulties hard to resolve in its preparation work recently, which makes it impossible for us to hold the congress at the time originally planned.”

The executive committee has rejected the idea of a postponement, but it has not yet received a reply from its Chinese colleagues. “We still have no concrete information about the results of our plea not to postpone the congress,” wrote the association’s president, Luis Alberto Vargas, a professor of physical anthropology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in an e-mail message to The Chronicle today.

Mr. Vargas and other members of the executive committee declined to comment further, citing the delicacy of the situation.

UPDATE: From an article in the Chronicle: “Ms. Harrison, who is a member of the association’s international executive board, said that the conference might be postponed for a full year.”