Cities are growing faster than suburbs

The 2010 Federal Census data documents a faster rate of growth in cities compared to their respective suburbs, for the first time in nine decades. The cities with the sharpest growth rate change are Washington, D.C., Denver, and Atlanta.

Every region of the United States sees this shift in the 2010 data, New York, Milwaukee, Seattle, Austin, Cincinnati, and scores of others, listed in the Brookings Institute article that reported the data.

Regarding the three outlier cities in the graph, Atlanta included:

As in most of the country, their suburbs disproportionately bore the brunt of the late 2000s housing collapse.  However, all three have important urban amenities and economic bases that are attractive to young people and other households now clustering in their cities.

For whatever reason people are staying in the city; by choice, or involuntarily (perhaps they are unable to qualify for a mortgage or have incurred some other problem related to the housing market crisis), or they are moving into the city, leaving suburbs behind for urban amenities and lifestyle.

This new ‘tipping point” clearly has its origins in the downturns in the national housing and labor markets of the past five years. Young people, retirees, and other householders who might have moved to the suburbs in better times are unable to obtain mortgages or employment. Many remain stuck in rented or shared homes that are more often located in cities.  Yet what may look like a temporary lull in the broad sweep of suburban development may turn out to be an opportunity for some cities to showcase their oft cited lifestyle and cultural amenities to a new generation of residents and developers, so that in some regions a new version of the American Dream could take root.

There is an interesting thread in this larger trend: are the motives really changing, or is this people reacting to their situations by making do, and not by achieving what they had initially planned for their lives? Is this a new version of the American Dream for the 21st century, or is this a temporary lull in our obsession with single-family homes, giant highways and matching cars, and a big yard with a pool?

I hope that the number of people scorned by the market collapse, the trauma of foreclosure, and the massive loss of value on the homes and mortgages they purchased can actually have a lasting effect on our collective psyche. I hope it challenges us to really think deeply about our means, our goals, and our desired lives. There are many ways to live contently, and the idea that a house must be the center of this is ludicrous. We have been skewed by decades of suburban dreams and urban sprawl.

So this report is great news. And I am a more recent transplant than even this data suggests. Give it another ten years, and we will be able to see if this was a fluke, affected by economic recession of the time, or whether it will have longer-term effects on where we live. Give it fifty years, and then we'll really know the role the city, and the suburbs, will have, especially as the planet swells to population 9 billion.

Little Boxes... made of ticky-tacky

... and they're all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.

This little ditty was the opening theme song for the television show Weeds, whose primary theme for the first three seasons was a critique of the suburban culture, lifestyle, vanities, and contradictions. Housewives and business professionals are smoking dope far more often than you might assume (but then again, this is the southern California version of the suburbs we are talking about, in the show).

But the theme song has always been the great, obvious reminder of the writers' criticism of the suburbs as somehow more safe, with less vice, and the fledgling perception that it is somehow filled with more wholesome people. Most obviously, it points out that all the "little boxes on the hillside," while they might be green, yellow, and blue, are all the same. Little cookie cutters set up for a life of Jonesing (by which I mean, keeping up with them).

One of my favorite exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art on our recent visit was an exploration of the city, the suburb, and our relationship to these different kinds of spaces. It revolved around the Buell Hypothesis, which is brilliantly simple at its core: change the dream and you change the city.

This deeply resonated with me; because, yes, I have taken a class on the history of the U.S. city and its development, the fallacies we have believed about them, and the many mistakes we have made in expanding them. We have had some victories too, and I think we are in an era now where we are becoming better equipped at adjusting the errs. Urban sprawl, the desire for the suburban "space"--which is, having a little yard next to your neighbor's little yard--the single-family house, the two-cars-and-garage, the desire for this "American Dream" has resulted in enormous masses of Metropolitan Statistical Areas--giant areas that now constitute the urban area of a city, and with tragically awful commutes for the people living an hour outside, as the only transportation system to accomodate the two-car dream is the interstate highway.

The Metro Statistical Area of Atlanta includes 28 counties, including the city of Athens, more than an hour east of the center. I think MSAs are fascinating beasts, and I've written about my thoughts on the cityscape before. Atlanta is one of the worst offenders of sprawl, the expansion of low-density development that saps the previously natural and open spaces that once surrounded a city, and replaces them with strip malls, big-box stores, retail centers, and many series of little rows of houses surrounding a singular winding street.

Plenty of people get really angry about sprawl, including the guy who wrote this book about it. In an article I talk about about here, the environmental benefits of reversing sprawl are explored: people in cities are using way less energy per capita to survive, period. The thing is, it is so hard to stop, to reverse, because we have not yet worked to redefine "the dream," as the Buell Hypothesis so simple stated. It was like a lightning bolt struck me. Of course. When we redefine what it means to be successful in this United States of the 21st Century, where, ahem, we are no longer the powerhouse leader of the universe and we better get over it fast, we can begin to properly analyze, repair, and improve the lives of so many living in our urban areas--as far out as they have spread. We can change our own perceptions of the kinds of spaces in which we live, work, play, thrive, towards more sustainable living in the population-seven-billion world of today. And it all, fundamentally, comes down to one uncomplicated sentence. Change the dream and you change the city.

Plus, it was just very fun to browse the theoretical models for housing systems of the future, when cities are a much larger part of the dream, and the family dwelling space for the majority of urban/suburban people might look quite different. So exciting. But I love cities. You already knew that. 

 

Expectant parents, back away from the baby-name books

I collect names. I love spotting a new one (my job working in naturalization records, etc. at the national archives means I get many opportunities to collect and find new muses), saying it, relishing the syllables and imaging what type of person is a Josefina or a Beryl or Basilia or Louise. But many of these names I will never have the chance to name a child, for the elemental reason that I won't have more than a few kids, and I have scores of names on my "short" list. The other major reason is that many of these names, though romantic and incredible in my mind and when I write them out in notebooks, are serious handles to put on infant babies that will have to wear them the rest of their lives. Some, like Francis/Frances, are harder to wear as they can sound dated. And some are just stupid (see here).

A recent article points out that as more and more names, variations, and spellings are used in our age, the name you give your cute little newborn does mean more, says more about you as a parent and your child's household, than it might have fifty years ago. According to Wattenburg, a name blogger and one of the article's sources:

According to Wattenberg, it took a list of six names to cover half of the population of children born in England in 1800 (U.S. Social Security Administration records don't begin until 1880). By 1950 in the United States, that number was up to 79. Today, it takes 546 names to cover half of the population of U.S. babies born.

What that means, Wattenberg said, is that names send more tailored messages now than in the days when there were significant numbers of little Johns and Marys running around.

This is an extraordinary increase in a short span of time. And we don't add this many names without handing at least a few kids some very heavy handles. As parents seek out that perfect name--unique, yet appealing--baby name books have swelled to include 14,000 of them (a number that includes many spelling variations). But baby names are the same as salad dressings and ice cream: more choices doesn't really help at all, and in fact is probably more detrimental.

And so, the buyer's remorse effects have also been increasing:

Some are frustrated because their unique baby name keeps getting mispronounced. Others learn of some distressing association with the name after they chose it and stamped it on Baby, she said. But most parents she hears from simply feel that another choice on their top 10 list would have fit their baby better.

Another effect? NAME HATRED. There are some names that absolutely make my skin crawl. I feel sorry for the generation who carry these monikers. There have been surveys of the most-hated names, and many include names with many spellings, like Caitlin (the traditional spelling) or Mackenzie.

The ones I loathe made the list, too. All the Jaydens, Braydens, Craydens, Aidens, and Kadens (what?!). Also still-hated are those kind of creepy ones like Heaven, Destiny, and Precious.

We weirdos who are fascinated by names spend time each year observing, reviewing, critiquing the names that wound up on the list of most popular baby names of the previous year. But I think it's healthy to look at lists on the other end--and to continue to make lists like this--of the most-hated, yet popular names, if to serve no other purpose than as forewarning for expecting parents. Beware the Jaydens!

No offense to anyone whose name is Jayden or Precious.

If you are the parent of someone named Jessyca, then please, take high offense by me. What on earth were you thinking, giving your poor daughter that name? If you don't want to give her a common name, go for Josefina or Basilia. But at least spell it right. (This is a real name, and a real pet peeve.)

On my year of living alone

For one year, which was the maximum amount of time my (then-more-limited) budget could handle it, I lived alone. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my cat, and I adored it.

The New York Times reported on the "freedom, and perils, of living alone" a few months ago, and spoke to many of the great and terrible aspects of this less-rare decadence of the modern age.

IF there is any doubt that we’re living in the age of the individual, a look at the housing data confirms it. For millenniums, people have huddled together, in caves, in mud huts, in split-levels and Cape Cods. But these days, 1 in every 4 American households is occupied by someone living alone; in Manhattan, mythic land of the singleton, the number is nearly 1 in 2.

I don't live in Manhattan, and I actually do not know very many people who have spent time living alone, with not one other human soul. There are appealing delights in the entire set-up, that I appreciate even more so now that I no longer have them. If I happen to have a messy week, it bothers no one except myself; so only when I am annoyed by the dished left on the counter do I have to do anything about them. (Being messy: most decadent of behavior.) You grow quickly fond of walking around completely naked as you do things in the mornings or evenings. (Truly.) There is quiet when you want it, and loud also when you want it. There is always a dance floor in your living room, with an audience of one (the cat, who is not in the least judgmental of your moves) and no one will barge in on your party-of-one. Push the couch out of the way if it's getting really serious. Solitude when you need it, a space to recharge, foster creativity, watch any damn thing you want to. No one's opinion matters here except your own. We all need tiny spaces  where this is what dictates the way of things; even if, obviously for many, that space is not your own, magnificent single-occupancy apartment.

Because that is also where the peril lies. "The single-occupant home can be a breeding ground for eccentricities," the NYT reports, to no one's surprise or shock. Think of, "Kramer on 'Seinfeld,' washing vegetables in the shower or deciding, on a whim, to ditch his furniture in favor of 'levels.'" Because it offends no one else!

One woman, Amy Kennedy, featured in the article readily admits that she can see, over the six years she has lived alone in North Carolina, that she has gotten "quirkier and quirkier." I can absolutely see how this would happen. Amy:

“The entire apartment is your room,” Ms. Kennedy said, by way of explanation. “If I leave a bra on the kitchen table, I don’t think much about it.”

Living alone breeds very strange wardrobe decisions, as others in article point out, and to which I can readily attest. Weird, embarrassing stretchy pants and third-day greasy hair? No one's there to see. Other usual suspect habits? Leaving the bathroom door open. Talking to yourself. And eating strange versions of "recipes"--what I call "single-people food"--inventions that arise out of the need to eat without the urge to prepare anything too time-consuming or elaborate for a party of one. Cereal. A can of black beans mixed in with some other can of soup. Expensive cheese, by itself. Cereal. Something that is usually a side-dish but I choose to make the whole meal. And so on.

What emerges from this much time spent alone?

What emerges over time, for those who live alone, is an at-home self that is markedly different — in ways big and small — from the self they present to the world. We all have private selves, of course, but people who live alone spend a good deal more time exploring them.

This can have good and bad consequences, depending on how well you handle the quirks that arise. One of the perils the article mentions is the work of resocialization when you do eventually cohabitate. As a lifelong introvert, I'm quite skilled in manuvering myself within a social world without neglecting the need for quiet, solitary space.  I lived naturally alone, just as I live quite naturally and happily with others. But it was such a lovely year, one I cherish.What emerges over time, for those who live alone, is an at-home self that is markedly different — in ways big and small — from the self they present to the world. We all have private selves, of course, but people who live alone spend a good deal more time exploring them.

For me it was such a pleasure (albeit, too expensive). It wasn't that all my time was spent alone. But I am a person who cherishes, relishes, in time I have to myself, and I continue to relish evenings or mornings or afternoons of solitude, time to devote to a skill, a project, a paper, a book, an exercise machine (less often), a cup of coffee, a bookstore outing, a quiet meal, a movie alone, a design idea, a blog post, research, a recipe, a cat snugglefest, a dance party for one. Sometimes, I even clean.

 

On marriage, gender, income, babies, single ladies

In her recent book, comedian and writer Mindy Kaling makes a comment about those articles that come out every year or so that declare the end of marriage and convention, and cause the women reading them to vow to buck the conventional marriage set-up, and seek moving instead into one of those single convents, to perhaps cultivate relationships with fellow cat ladies, or continue rocking the career and the single life where she is. She brings this up as one of the "non-traumatic things that have made me cry." An article I just read, from November 2011's Atlantic magazine, is just one of those articles. I laughed at myself, thinking of Mindy, as I enjoyed every page, nodded my head at each argument, and added a mere two books on the institution of marriage to my Amazon wishlist (out of the many works referenced in her article). "All the Single Ladies," by Katie Bolick, is a highly fascinating romp through our perceptions of marriages, monogamy, childbearing, and the usual suspects, and how in flux the institution of marriages has been throughout history and continues to be. But, don't roll your eyes and walk away yet, she explores things far more interesting than that old rant. And Bolick is interesting even when she is saying things like that.

Her main argument is that while women have been improving their livelihoods and social statuses and are ready and seeking men of equal caliber, the men counterparts are simply not there in as many numbers. Any way I try to say this, it sounds like I'm elitist and theoretical and that I've been in grad school (and on a college campus) far too long. How to solve this? How about a nice historical reference. No? (I just think this is truly a fascinating piece of history, on life in the U.S. after the Civil War, but more interestingly, the life of single moms in post-revolutionary Russia):

EVERY SO OFTEN, society experiences a “crisis in gender” (as some academics have called it) that radically transforms the social landscape.

Take the years after the Civil War, when America reeled from the loss of close to 620,000 men, the majority of them from the South. An article published last year in The Journal of Southern History reported that in 1860, there were 104 marriageable white men for every 100 white women; in 1870, that number dropped to 87.5. A generation of Southern women found themselves facing a “marriage squeeze.” They could no longer assume that they would become wives and mothers—a terrifying prospect in an era when women relied on marriage for social acceptability and financial resources.

Instead, they were forced to ask themselves: Will I marry a man who has poor prospects (“marrying down,” in sociological parlance)? Will I marry a man much older, or much younger? Will I remain alone, a spinster? Diaries and letters from the period reveal a populace fraught with insecurity. As casualties mounted, expectations dropped, and women resigned themselves to lives without husbands, or simply lowered their standards. (In 1862, a Confederate nurse named Ada Bacot described in her diary the lamentable fashion “of a woman marring a man younger than herself.”) Their fears were not unfounded—the mean age at first marriage did rise—but in time, approximately 92 percent of these Southern-born white women found someone to partner with. The anxious climate, however, as well as the extremely high levels of widowhood—nearly one-third of Southern white women over the age of 40 were widows in 1880—persisted.

Or take 1940s Russia, which lost some 20 million men and 7 million women to World War II. In order to replenish the population, the state instituted an aggressive pro-natalist policy to support single mothers. Mie Nakachi, a historian at Hokkaido University, in Japan, has outlined its components: mothers were given generous subsidies and often put up in special sanatoria during pregnancy and childbirth; the state day-care system expanded to cover most children from infancy; and penalties were brandished for anyone who perpetuated the stigma against conceiving out of wedlock. In 1944, a new Family Law was passed, which essentially freed men from responsibility for illegitimate children; in effect, the state took on the role of “husband.” As a result of this policy—and of the general dearth of males—men moved at will from house to house, where they were expected to do nothing and were treated like kings; a generation of children were raised without reliable fathers, and women became the “responsible” gender. This family pattern was felt for decades after the war.

If you're still here, go read the article. She talks about the gender imbalance in the African American community, with so many single moms, and the same gender imbalance on college campuses, which has created "hook-up culture"--which is an enigma and myth all its own. Very interesting stuff. She touches on biology and babies, having them and not having them.

She also talks about "matrimania"--a myth which proclaims, "that the only route to happiness is finding and keeping one all-purpose, all-important partner who can meet our every emotional and social need. Those who don't have this are pitied. Those who don't want it are seen as threatening." As much as we buck this convention, claim it's not holding us to this, we are held to it, on some level, and I think it must get harder to live with these expectations the older you get without marrying. Sorry if I still haven't rid myself of the college-sociology-class aura, but I find this all truly fascinating. Ask any history major about race, class, and gender within any topics, and you will have a hard time getting us to shut up. By the time she was talking about what defines womanhood--to many, having or not having children, I was already hooked.

If you found everything I have said to be obnoxious, well then don't read her article either. I'm not crying, as perhaps Kaling might be. But I'm also more determined than ever to be published in time to have a really good reason to keep my maiden name, and not be dismissed as one of those people who read and love articles like this. ;)

Cities. And earth. And living rooms in Seoul.

"It starts with looking at growing cities in a positive way--not as diseases, but as concentrations of human energy to be organized and tapped."

 

This series of photos accompanies the article I mention here, on urban living and the future of the planet. They are photographs of families in Seoul, South Korea, in their identical 150-square-foot living room spaces in the Evergreen Tower highrise. Of Seoul's 24 million people, more than half live in highrises. Many consider them safer and a better investment for families than single-family dwellings. They are also vastly more energy efficient. Photos by Yeondoo Jung for National Geographic

 Last weekend I watched Contagion, a recent Hollywood rendition of what would happen to the planet and its people if there was a massive, contagious disease that wreaked devastation and death, spreading so quickly and aggressively that its MO was "figuring us out faster than we can figure it out." Characters race against time in the film, doctors at the CDC (including Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard), and other health institutes around the world, traveling and researching to find out what caused this outbreak and how to solve it, immunize against it.

And what do we learn about humanity? We are not nearly as orderly and respective to each other during crisis as the model Japanese refugees were during last year's triple-crisis earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. In fact, we panic, we flee, we become violent and kill each other to find food, to secure our own families. The scenes that play out as the epidemic spreads (and as fear spreads even more quickly) are terrifying and thought-provoking. What if this actually happened? Would many of us fall not by the hand of the disease that threatens, but by the hands of our own neighbors, in the spirit of the outrageous moment in which we find ourselves?

It's not Oscar-worthy, per se, but I found the theoretical situation enthralling--precisely because it was also horrifying. I would not want to live through this kind of awful moment for humanity. Us at our very worst.

It also made me think about the structure of our world, and a recent article in National Geographic about the future of our planet, and how cities can save us. I agree wholeheartedly, that, rather than the festering dirty urban spaces they have often been perceived as (and actualized as) in history, cities offer us a sustainable option for the survival of seven billion people (and an estimated nine billion by 2050), as people living in cities tread lightly on the earth: "Their roads, sewers, and power lines are shorter. Their apartments take less energy to heat and cool. Most important: they drive less." Denser populations in cities have the added effect of lessening our use of remaining green space, forests, and natural areas and reservations. Humans and the earth alike need these green spaces an essential survival components--for our human psyche, and for the earth, literal survival.

As cities become more and more the agent of our sustainable survival, they should not all expand as Atlanta did. Sprawl and the massive expansion of suburbs have not helped or lowered our dependency on large amounts of energy. James Howard Kunstler, a critic of suburbia, called Atlanta "a pulsating slime mold," a quotation that did manage to be included in the Nat Geo article, luckily for us Atlantans. But Atlanta is a perfect example of terrible teamwork among metropolitan counties, who could not agree on a transit system that stretched throughout the area, and so we are heavily, begrudgingly, seemingly irreversibly dependent on our clogged highways.

Theorists have had ideas and arguments for and against how we should design our cities for hundreds of years. Greenbelts surrounding cities were one proposed plan for stopping city growth, when it was perceived that urban centers that were too big would eat up all remaining space outside their centers. But as this set definitive borders to what would be considered the city, "greenbelts had the effect of pushing people farther out, sometimes absurdly far," says Peter Hall in the article, a planner and historian at University College London.

Brisilia, the planned capital of Brazil, was designed for 500,000 people; two million more now live beyond the lake and park that were supposed to block the city's expansion. When you  try to stop urban growth, it seems, you just amplify sprawl.

...Other government policies, such as subsidies for highways and home ownership, have [also] coaxed the suburbs outward.

The argument then, and the solution as well, is that you don't try to stop city growth. You try to stop the suburban sprawl, and have your citizens living closer to where they work and play. What has been happening with more and more use and dependency on oil to fuel our cars and big, suburban houses in the United States is happening on an ever-greater level as China and India develop, and their citizens want the same ideas of the affluent, consumer life. As this trend quickens its pace, a solution becomes more important than ever. History has not always favored the teeming urban center. It has been seen as corrupting of the mind, dirty, disease-ridden, and a slew of other things. Which are valid claims, especially, rightfully, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But there's a valid twenty-first century reevaluation and outlook:

Developing cities will inevitably expand, says [Shlomo Angel, an urban planning professor at New York University and Princeton]. Somewhere between the anarchy that prevails in many today and the utopianism that has often characterized urban planning lies a modest kind of planning that could make a big difference. It requires looking ahead decades, Angel says, and reserving land, before the city grows over it, for parks and a dense grid of public transit corridors. It starts with looking at growing cities in a positive way--not as diseases, but as concentrations of human energy to be organized and tapped. 

So we need to begin thinking about our cities as our saviors, and thinking about it seriously, even if, as I began this cheery post, we also risk the same things that have always been risky about cities: we're all really close together, sharing buses, subways, hallways, all manner of public spaces. An event like the one in Contagion isn't impossible, and cities are not the best places to stay if that did occur, as I was brutally reminded during the film. But Hollywood has not convinced me that the argument for cities isn't worth our investment of time, thought, money, and lifestyle.

I hope you enjoy peeking into these Seoul living rooms as much as I did. It was one of my favorite series of photographs to ever appear in the magazine. There's something so universal about our living spaces. 

New study results find a shocker: being a drug skeptic is a healthy thing

The Women's Health Initiative, which has been researching and publishing findings on women's health since 1991, has recently come out with some new results, involving the doses of estrogen and progestin that women who are menopausal should take in order to maintain healthy hormone levels--and so reduce risks of things like breast cancer and strokes. But the study, over the years, has had the additional effect of leaving women often confused or cynical about what it all means, what is good or bad for them.

The short answer, as a recent New York Times report suggests, is that--shocker--every woman will respond to certain doses and combinations of hormones differently. The study has not been a bad thing, and we have learned much about mid-life women's health than we did before it began, when women of all ages were prescribed all kinds of doses in the 1980s.

The real crux of the article, for me, highlighted what I think is the much deeper problem than thinking of ways to lower our risks for certain conditions: we turn too quickly to a pill that we hope shall fix it all. Andrea Z. LaCroix, who is quoted below, is the lead author on the Journal of the American Medical Association study and a professor of epidemiology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

The fact that women are frustrated by the twists and turns the study has taken, and possibly more skeptical about the drug industry, may be a good thing, said Dr. LaCroix.

“If women are more skeptical then I think that’s a good outcome,” said Dr. LaCroix. “We have a history in our country of wanting to believe that if we take a pill, we can prevent bad things from happening to us, and wanting to take those pills before the evidence comes in.”

The most compelling lesson of the research should be that science is always worth the wait. Consumers should insist that doctors make recommendations based on scientific evidence, say investigators, rather than allowing drug companies or marketing hype to dictate patients’ health care choices.

Couldn't have said that better, myself. Something I continually find interesting and worthy of some serious discussion in the United States. So I needed to share. Let's consider medical research and new drugs as absolutely worthy investments of our scientific talents, and use them to do amazing things to help people who have ailments and diseases. But let's approach new treatments with sounds minds, patience in allowing the drug testing time, and a proper mindset that no medication is a miracle drug on its own, right out of the box. Most of all, let us not get bedazzled by the marketing and media streams that sell drugs to consumers as though they are coffee pots or lawn mowers or a new haircut. The whole industry of drug marketing is pretty appalling.

So it it great to hear that medical studies and drug research results actually bring us pause, make us skeptical. That is crucial.

 

 

Another bit on American, African, and identity

I can't help myself, it's just too complex and juicy an issue. Right after I posted that last bit on nationality, in between cleaning a turkey and chopping up salt pork and tons of garlic, yet another discussion hit my radar on origins, culture, and what you most relate to. This time we're examining the African-American identity, in Malik Washington's writing titled "Embracing the Africa in African-American," part of Michael Martin's Tell Me More blog series on NPR.org. The bit that gets to the heart of this matter, and obviously resonates with what we've been discussing:

"Are you black Americans or white Americans?"

That was the question put to me and other African-Americans, in a junior high classroom in Accra, Ghana.

For some of the visitors, it was utterly offensive. For others, it was simply shocking. How could we, black people, be confused for white?

For me, it was utterly simple.

The question came as no surprise since so many African-Americans don’t see themselves as African. That, by default, just leaves them identified as just “American”. The very term “American”, after all, implies “white”. Everybody else gets a hyphen.

Many African-Americans, in fact, don’t know what to think of themselves.

African? American? Both? Or neither? “Black” seems to be an accepted hybrid term that falls short of claiming either entity yet still denotes exceptionalism in this society.

Nonetheless, this ambiguity isn’t entirely neutral, as black people generally seem prone to distance themselves more from Africa, than America – either consciously or sub-consciously.

This brings me back to thinking about the era not so long ago in American politics, when slavery was the thorn in the government's side, and politicians just did not know what an America with free whites and blacks living alongside each other would look like, or how it would function after such a system ended. One of the popular ideas was to send freedpeople "back to Africa," to a population that would theoretically understand or relate to them better. Obviously absurd to us now, what is most absurd is thinking that African-Americans who had been born and lived their entire lives in this country could possibly be considered not of this country. Certainly the African-American fused culture had taken on a life of its own by this point, creating a large minority of Americans whose customs and food ways and stories and religion had distinct African influences; that is what scared white politicians and many of their constituents.

But there is no returning to sender, no reversal of time when whole lives have been founded in new and divergent societies, and indeed, when new cultures are created from the fusion of others. This is another thing I have been trying to illustrate. Because someone's ancestors were not like ours, it is all the more important that we take time to understand cultural nuances that exist side by side in one singular, yet multicultural, society (and, incidentally, world).

Once the African-American identity had calcified, it could neither be ignored or removed. While some slaves had seen Africa, it was  a very low number by the time abolition became a seriously debated political issue, and even fewer African-Americans today would probably identify as precisely with the African continent as they did then. Yet they are not, do not consider themselves, that "white American" that was mentioned in Washington's musing. That nationality is distinct from white American, yet an immovable part of the larger national identity.

Location, Ecuador: When your first cinema experience is Avatar in 3D

Not intending to jump on the bandwagon of the Avatar-debating blogsphere, I have to bring up one interesting story from the global audience's experience. Early this year there was a special screening of the blockbuster movie in Ecuador for the Shuar and Achuar, indigenous minority groups in the nation. As reported on The World and in my favorite World in Words podcast, for many of these people, this was their first time ever visiting a movie theater and most certainly their first time for the strange 3D experience. Some had never seen a movie. After a 6-hour bus drive out of the Amazon and into the capital, Quito, the leaders of these groups took in the spectacle of a movie. For better or worse, it's pretty neat when a worldwide phenomenon can bring groups like these Ecuadorians into a theater to see for themselves what all the fuss is about. I suppose that's one measure of a pop culture success.

Echoing their real life, the film touched on issues that these people are dealing with in their real lives: a battle against mining companies for the protection of their land. Their Amazonian homes contain vast amounts of oil, and they have seen an uprising that one of the audience members directly related to the Na'vi resistance in Avatar. "It's reality, what's happening now, just in another dimension," says Marlin Santi, one leader, whose words are translated; he feels the film could help bring highlight the abuse in the real, through the film's mirror on humanity.

When we compare the film to real life, however, there is an important aspect that is not new to this story; Achuar leader Lius Vargas brought up possibly the most idealistic, unfortunate aspect of the film, that of a white man sweeping in to rescue the indigenous people, becoming the liaison and the savior. "This is a Hollywood movie, so it's practically a given that a non-native comes to the defense of the people, and leads them to triumph in the end," says Vargas.  The importance of a movie like this, or a book like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, published in pieces in 1899 and as a book in 1902, is that they spotlight some of the horrors that come along with imperialism--which was an important and shocking story for regular people in the western world in Conrad's time (arguably not so much of a shocker now). But both Conrad's and James Cameron's stories have that white man savior, continuing, albeit in a slightly more socially and politically aware manner, the underlying superiority of the "civilized" man. This largely does nothing to dispel the whole idea of the "white man's burden," that notion that he must spread his enlightened ways and rescue the world from its perceived "darkness." This underlying theme was obvious to Vargas as he watched the movie.

OK, I hopped on the bandwagon for a second there, but I swear I'm back on the ground now. Love it or hate it, that movie encourages chatter.

The vague aspirations of one neighborhood's street signs

Five months ago, I discovered a townhouse subdivision of sorts called "the Magnolias," when I moved to a spot nearby. In the months since I've lived in the area, I've wandered bemusedly around the neighborhood, growing more bewildered with each passing street sign. Anyone living in the United States is familiar with the "Pine Groves" and the "Terrace Hills" and insert-generic-nature-term-here subdivisions that plague areas developed in the last several decades. I find them terribly boring, non-distinct from each other, almost comical. But having never really researched it thoroughly, I don't know many of the details about street names inside those neighborhoods. Do they follow the same theme? Are they based entirely on nice-sounding and emotionally inspiring concepts? Do they simply draw names from hats? The answer is out there somewhere. I can only shed light on one example, the Magnolias in Cherokee County, Georgia, and the answer for this case may be all of the above.

Thirteen roads needed to be named in the Magnolias. A fourteenth "road" was given a name as well, though, so that anyone who pulls into the neighborhood drives gloriously down 200-foot Plantation Parkway. The grand parkway is all of the length of an extra-long dog leash. Which begs the question, who decided this span of concrete even merited a name different from the main road in the subdivision, and when that person won his case, who let him call it a parkway? Doesn't that imply lots of traffic, busy sidewalks, or even a state highway? For whatever reason, Plantation Parkway is there, and if you use Google Maps to obtain directions, it shows up in the list of left- and right-turns.

The main road is Magnolia Leaf, which sounds normal to an unknowing stranger or newcomer to the 'hood. Take a left on the next intersecting road however, and things start to digress. That's Society Way, which begs an air of I'm not sure what, but definitely sparks pretension in my mind. What political message is trying to make its point on Society Way? I'm not sticking around to hear it.

After that you can walk down any of the surrounding streets and feel the confusion build: Market Place Dr., Breeze Lane, Blossom Way, Lantern Lane, until you arrive at the other end of the neighborhood and land on Antebellum Place. This is the first helpful clue to the theme the street-naming council was going for, with its clear reference to a historical time period. So, they're thinking Southern atmosphere, let's stir ideas of the weather, the plant life, lack of electricity, a pre-Civil War society...

The effect for someone who doesn't really study history is mostly confusion. The effect for someone who does is... still confusion. Vague references to serene southern images rest on some streets, while parallel names proffer concepts like the plantation and the South during slavery. Whitefield Way provides another clue, but only to people who are really paying attention: Georgia Whitefield was a preacher from Charleston, South Carolina. That is probably Whitefield they meant, as Charlesstone Court lay a few streets over. Another tiny connecting road, Battery Way, makes reference to the Battery in Charleston, a main road and historical thoroughfare there. Cotton Gin Drive again provokes images of the Old South. My personal favorite is Rocking Chair Court which, while indeed related to the Antebellum South, must have been pulled from a hat when the committee realized they were one street name short. In keeping with the random selection, Bay Overlook Drive does not pass by any water, except the neighborhood pool; maybe any type of water represented a bay in this case?

After some thought, it can be roughly deduced what theme the developers were going trying to provide. Most people who use these roads will give it little thought at all, or will give it the least amount of thought. Perhaps the developers were going for a nostalgic Charleston theme. Introducing a confusing selection of South Carolinian and Old South terms to a neighborhood in a neighboring state can stir images of those things for drivers-by, whether or not their imaginations are accurate . So perhaps in this sense, they have created the mood they were going for. For others who put together the strange relations between the words and the historical references of each, the message becomes even more vague. Are we trying to recall this era in southern history in grand terms, by mixing traveling preachers with cotton gins and breezes, and adding a little nod to southern society by naming one road that very general "Society Way"? Are we pairing rocking chairs with "antebellum" because it will make the subject more approachable? I don't think people want a history lesson in their neighborhood street signs; and if they do, let's attempt to make it a bit more clear than the one presented here. There's already enough trouble reconciling today's South and the antebellum era of slavery. We don't need to exacerbate the issue with vaguely related street names drawn from a hat.

Museum studies, week 3

Journal entry, which is explained in the previous post, for week three of Museum Studies. Discusses two articles we read to prepare for class discussion-- one about the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and the other about the history of history museums and historic preservation in the U.S. Both great topics. Also a blip about my work on our class exhibit project. The "Revisiting the Past: History Museums in the U.S." has been lingering in my mind since I read it several days ago. I did not know very much about Ford's propulsion of his own version of historic preservation, or the formation of Greenfield Village. Neither did I know anything about Rockefeller, Jr.'s role restoring Colonial Williamsburg, VA. The details about their roles in preserving U.S. history (and both the positives and negatives of their projects) were quite fascinating.

I have spent some time studying revisionist historians' role in changing the face of and perspectives regarding American history; I have also studied the movement towards pluralistic, social history that bloomed in the 1960s-70s. But I had never considered those movements to revise historic traditions and perceptions in the context of the MUSEUM-- that proved the most enlightening element of the article. It seems simple to me now, and obvious that the museum world would have to be adjusted as women, African Americans, Native Americans and others were writing a more dynamic American history. But prior to this I had not made that connection. The museum's role is an important element of the story of American history (and its recent revisions), so I found this article very worthwhile.

I found it surprising that prior to the founding, mid-nineteenth century, of the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, there was not a large  or well-orchestrated effort to obtain or maintain historic sites and houses. The women who had organized before that were somewhat successful, but I suppose it is taken for granted, in today's world of UNESCO sites and national parks, that spots of intrinsic value have not always been valued as they are now.

The article was well-worth the read, as I have made several connections to other historical trends I've studied; it has also remained in my brain, where I continue to ponder the main points. To me, that is the mark of a strong piece of writing.

On a different note, I have been looking into the photos for my exhibit panels, and have found several that may work for the introduction. I am very interested to visit Tuskegee during our upcoming field trip, particularly now that I am part of the team that is working on the "Why Tuskegee" panel. The history of that area, Booker T. Washington, and the field and institution will all come to life, I feel, when I can see them myself and have the place in my mind. Looking forward to it.

Newseum was a curiosity, to say the least. I am not sure what to make of it, and can certainly see the reason behind the controversy (both the topic being covered and the investors who funded it). Nevertheless, it seems a bit inevitable, albeit sad, that visitors today are lured to flashy, technology-driven exhibits and museums. The average citizen might prefer it to quiet, reading-based, reflective museums. It is a real issue facing the museum world today, and technology will probably never be able to be entirely left out of museums as an element in telling the stories of history. The trick will be making it just as thought-provoking. Well-made videos can do this-- I know I have seen several excellent ones while visiting exhibits and museums in the past.

Not from around here: one story of a Chinese immigrant family working in the restaurant business

A couple of months ago, I mentioned Jennifer 8. Lee's book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, and included an excerpt about how very American it is to eat Chinese food. Chinese immigrants make up an enormous portion of the US Asian population; even so, I never really understood the extent to which these men and women have gone in order to land in America-- and start working at a China-1 or Happy China restaurant. Some Chinese immigrants pay upwards of $30,000 to various people or companies, leave behind families, jobs, and homes, and bet everything on the opportunities American life can offer. Some have quite successful businesses and have earned college degrees  in their homeland. In the chapter "Waizhou, U.S.A.," Lee describes immigration in all its aches and pains, and brings new dimensions to every Chinese take-out or buffet restaurant I have ever entered. These men, women, and even entire families, have started life anew, and in the United States, the best way for Chinese people to do this is the Chinese food industry. Lee introduces a family, and the mother has lived several years in the US without having learned English. Without the ability to communicate in English, this family (and many others) are limited to jobs in the food industry. And, as Lee points out, the Chinese food industry in the United States is hardly even the food with which these newly-arrived Chinese people are at all familiar.

Lee came to know this family while they lived in New York City, and subsequently wrote an article on their hardships; it was published in January 2003, in the New York Times (I recommend a quick read of this, to get to know this family). But this article is merely the beginning of a tragic tale: she recounts their hard journey of getting to the United States, and then the decision to move the family down to a small town in Hiawassee, Ga., where they bought a small Chinese restaurant in a strip mall. The tale that unfolds in the book is far more tragic, and scarily honest in its assessment of Chinese immigrants adapting to life in small cities across the country.

[It should be noted here, for lack of a better location, that "Waizhou" means, basically, "out-of-state" in Mandarin, and this is the term that defines all of the United States beyond New York City. Hence, Waizhou, U.S.A. is an appropriate term defining the locales across small-town American where Chinese restaurateurs end up.]

The family, Ms. Zheng and Mr. Ni (husband and wife) and their three children, Jolin, Nancy, and Jeffrey (nicknamed Momo), were living in chaos for awhile, apart while each Zheng, Ni, and Jolin was allowed entrance into the US. After living several years in poor conditions in New York City, Ni convinced his wife a relocation would be their best plan. But without much English, Zheng and Ni had a difficult time functioning in the rural Georgia community-- quite a far cry from the New York City Chinatown they had left. The family's money went farther, but at the expense of cultural misunderstandings and family dysfunction. Not long after arriving in Hiawassee, Jolin began acting out against her mother. Questions arose about the childrens' safety, after a report  was filed that Momo and Nancy had been playing outside the restaurant unsupervised; things went from bad to worse, and the children ended up in foster care. A strange case of domestic abuse followed, with Ni's arrest (although, as Lee points out, the entire situation is a bit debatable, and the real circumstances may be different).  Ni spent two nights in jail.  This second offense meant the children could not come back home. Zheng and Ni both took it very hard, obviously so; it was made that much worse by the language and culture barriers. "Difeh" began to consume their lives: DFACS, the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services, that is. All of a sudden, their lives were analyzed, personal, invading questions were asked, and DFACS controlled when and where the parents were allowed to see their children. This can all be read in much more detail in Lee's account of the unraveling; I am only trying to cover a tiny outline. But she does raise the issue of weakness in the child and family agencies system. "Newspapers are always filled," Lee says, "with accounts of how child and welfare agencies ignored the warning signs and failed to protect the life of some fragile [child] who ended up dead. It's less common to hear about the flip side, when the government intervention makes things worse." Ni even felt that the way he was treated was a violation of his human rights, and way beyond anything the authoritarian regime in China had ever attempted upon him. This family's hardships are worth considering; they are merely a few immigrants among hundreds of thousands sharing the Chinese-American experience.

Lee says on her Web site that this family's story was part of her inspiration for the book. The unraveling, and somewhat haphazard reorganization, of their lives, and the cultural confusion and destruction that took place between the Hiawassee community and this 5-person Chinese familial unit, sheds light on the larger issues facing Chinese immigrants today. There is great demand across the country for Chinese restaurants-- every little American city has at least one. And most often, they are run by Chinese people, who cook food that slightly resembles the food they were raised eating, and sometimes have trouble speaking English with you. Even if completely fluent, they speak English with an accent. I never took this to mean very much; to me, I would think, this person was obviously born in China, came over here, end of story. Turns out that is far from accurate. It amazes me to think of the stories behind the faces I have seen in restaurants and take-out joints, and of what these people may have encountered in order to have the opportunity to serve American-style Chinese food. Here, I do not mean "opportunity" to imply that any American is entitled to be served food by a Chinese immigrant; I mean it to suggest the imagined life, set against the reality.

This is one of the most poignant and significant chapters in Lee's chronicles of Chinese food. The humanity of this Chinese family and the pain, legal battles, fights, and cultural confusion that threatened their cohesion (and, indeed, inflicted permanent damage) allow a window into the life of Chinese restaurant owners and workers. For such a well-loved, hugely popular food institution in the US, Chinese food businesses seem to remain behind that impersonal veil.

Read Jennifer 8. Lee's book, for the full account of this family's bittersweet story. Their story is an important account of one aspect of modern America, juxtaposing the popularity of Chinese food in nearly every city across the country with the stories of the families who wake up every day to cook the food.

An idol for the "emperors"

On the way to work this morning, I heard part of this report from NPR, about a wildly popular young writer who defines himself as "the voice of a generation." He is a pop culture figure in China, a twenty-five-year-old who sounded a bit narcissistic to say the least. His appeal to the "little emperors"-- members of the one-child generation-- rings true, apparently, and that is a little bit frightening to me. He seems obsessed with expensive labels (that few could even buy in the People's Republic), concerned entirely with money, dismissive of previous generations of writers. The report does say he speaks to the isolation and pressures faced by urban Chinese students today. Just as impressionable as any group of young people, Chinese adolescents (particularly girls) might be taking these material values too much to heart. I wonder to what extent they will begin to long for Gucci and Dior apparel and accessories, and to value those things more than their nation's older literature. I may be looking at it from too different a perspective, concerned for no reason at all. After all, I am a firm believer in the value of Harry Potter, and vehemently defend the series when faced with an anti-Harry opponent. Maybe there are many redeeming values in Guo Jingming's seven novels, and the writer's Cadillac will spur no sense of jealously in a Chinese youth's eyes.

Read the report and tell me your thoughts.

Eating Chinese

In my Understanding Asia class (required for my Asian Studies minor, and one of the most engaging classes I've taken), we've been studying Asian-American literature for the last two weeks. We've been looking at several major elements: 1) what does it mean to be Asian-American, and to what extent do you remain Asian while at the same time incorporating this identity into being "American"? and 2) how do elements of a multicultural person create the cultural hybridity that we have around us today? and 3) can you choose your your ethnicity to some extent (and, if so, will society let you)? To do so, we've read a collection of poetry written by Japanese Americans about the internment during WWII, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. It has been a fortnight full of enlightening ideas regarding what your ethnicity means to others and to yourself, and how one adapts culture, and creates hybridity. The guest professor (the entire course has been taught by guest professors, except for the first 2-week segment taught by the coordinator, Dr. Tom Keene), Sarah Robbins, has facilitated a series of great class discussions, getting us really deep into what it means to be Asian-American.

Somewhat by coincidence, my own curiosity lead me weeks earlier to a book on the new release table at Barnes and Noble-- one that delved into the curious incident of a Powerball lottery that had several dozen winners, all of whose numbers had been identical and inspired by the same thing: a fortune cookie. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, written by New York Times writer Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, 8), takes the reader  on a  journey into everything you've never imagined behind the ethnic food we love so much; and, Lee argues, it isn't really all that "ethnic" anyway. Chinese American food is essentially American food, says Lee, and from there she shares stories about the origins of the fortune cookie, the international argument caused by soy sauce, the dangerous lives of Chinese deliverymen, and a heart-wrenching tale of a Chinese immigrant family who was nearly torn about by working and living in a rural Georgia town.  I have found this book to be an interesting addition to my own understanding of the Chinese-American experience. Though it focuses on food, who can really argue that food is not a basic playing field for cultural exchange, no mater what your ethnicity or geographic location? Even without knowing a person's language or culture or history, they can share with you their food. And so, through this familiar medium, Lee explores the whole globe to define "Chinese food."

I am going to share an expert here, because I think it is an excellent illustration of the way we see cultural hybridity today, and how "assimilation" itself may be changing in meaning. Her sentiments in this passage echo almost exactly a point we touched upon today in class-- when a minority combines itself with the majority, what elements of each culture are retained, which are lost, and to what extent might each be a bad or good thing? By giving up parts of your own culture to assimilate, how much becomes a personal loss? And what happens when walls or bumps arise between the two cultures one may be living in that might cause someone to step back an reevaluate their identity? She adds to it an interesting additional point: when the minority or immigrant population becomes an integral part of mainstream society, that society itself adapts to it, and appears different than it used to. We can see this most clearly all around us in the United States. As shes says earlier in her books, we often think of apple pie as being quintessential "American"-- but when is the last time you had apple pie, and when is the last time you are Chinese food? Exactly. Probably in the last week or so. Interesting...

I think it is a testament to the writer, and a great cultural learning tool, that we can see elements of the Chinese American experience in her own exploration of American Chinese food.

I'll leave you with her words:

"As much as the mainstream changes the immigrants, the immigrants change the mainstream. As recently as three decades ago, being American often meant distancing yourself from your immigrant ancestry. In her 1975 essay "Ethnicity and Anthropology in America," anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, 'Being American is a matter of abstention from foreign ways, foreign food, foreign ideas, foreign accents.'

Even our definition of 'assimilation' is changing. The old-school definition referred to how a minority blended into a majority. Now social scientists are pushing a new definition: the convergence of disparate cultures. The popularity of Chinese food shows that assimilation may no longer require that minorities be subsumed into the majority. Instead, in a country where 20 percent of the population consists of immigrants and their children, assimilation means convergence from all sides.

...

In reality, General Tso's chicken is arguably as American as it is foreign, Chinese only in the way that burritos are 'Mexican' or spaghetti and meatballs is 'Italian.' These are 'native foreign dishes'-- 'native' because they originated here and may exist nowhere else, but 'foreign' because they were inspired by other cuisines. American Chinese food has developed its own identity-- so much so that it is sold in Korea, Singapore, and the Dominican Republic as its own distinct cuisine. "

Things you didn't know about Wikipedia

Lately, I've been learning a lot about the world's languages and the way language and words mingle throughout cultural relations and our modern lives. It all comes out in the weekly podcast "The World in Words," available free from the same people who do "The World" broadcast on NPR. The half-hour show is filled with trivia on languages, odd words, untranslatable phrases, political jargon, and other points of interest. The last two weeks I've learned some random interesting things about Wikipedia. While the English Wikipedia has over 2.8 million entries, the next-largest is the German Wiki, which lags far behind that in size. However, host Patrick Cox points out that it is no less thorough in its encyclopedic knowledge. What the German version is lacking that accounts for the massive size difference is the thousands upon thousands of "stubs" and entries explaining very tiny elements of American or English pop culture. Stubs themselves are incomplete articles that might eventually be deleted, defining very trivial parts of culture. And the other, more extensive but equally as trivial entries might be credited to people who are experts on very specific things-- say, for instance, if I wrote a whole huge entry on every detail of the Home Alone movie series. The distinction between German-language Wiki and English-language Wiki is this stringent weeding out of trivial knowledge. The German focus is to make Wikipedia the same caliber as any printed, published academia-based encyclopedia. The English-language one is, therefore, much larger, and filled with much more specific detail. This is not a bad thing-- plenty of times I have needed a random factoid answered that has been a bother in my head, and have eased my mind with Wiki. It's just quite an interesting cultural thing to consider.

It also baffled me to learn of the barriers that some language systems have overcome to streamline their own Wikipedias. Chinese language, for example, has two writing systems-- traditional characters and simplified characters (the latter has been pushed and taught since the mid-20th century). Some articles were being written in simplified, some in traditional, and the characters are different enough to cause a problem for readers who can't read both systems. Chinese programmers hastily developed a way to duplicate the articles into both, solving the issue. The predicament only gets tougher for Kazakh speakers, though: they have three writing systems. This is an element of global language barriers that I have never thought of before-- that one language when spoken could have three possible translations into writing. The language in Kazakhstan can be written in the Cyrillic alphabet (like Russian), the Roman/Latin alphabet (like English), and in the Arabic right-to-left format. Adapting a system this complicated to modern world is breathtaking.

And one more trivial bit of knowledge lies in the Spanish-language Wiki. Drama erupted in 2002 after a mere mention of putting advertising on Wiki article pages enraged a group of contributors; they split from Wiki and began their own user-written encyclopedia Web site, Enciclopedia Libre. Eventually things were mended (because it had been literally just an online conversation that contained the thought of advertising), but the remarkable thing is the power of the individual in something as big as Wiki, on something so big as the Internet.

I am, after all, just one person, putting my thoughts here. :)

Wile E. Coyote and Apollo in space: eras past and future

I’ve just read the perfect illustration of what has happened to the United States; it came from the April 6, 2009 issue of Time magazine, and it was written by novelist and radio personality Kurt Anderson. “During the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he says, “we were Wile E. Coyote racing heedlessly across the American landscape at maximum speed and then spent the beginning of the 21st century suspended in midair just past the end of the cliff; gravity reasserted itself, and we plummeted.” I can picture Mr. Coyote vividly in my head, legs still moving to propel him further, but hovering dangerously in the air, until, in seemingly slow motion, he looks down and realizes he’s in for an inevitable plunge.

Anderson points out that just like the Road Runner, we’ll get scuffed up but make it through (however, more chastised).

I look at this era and see both a truly new path before me. A retracted world, bruised and still not over the bout (not even close, really), is staring me in the face. In a way, this is the most frightening of worlds to step into, after four years in college living off student loans and working for minimum wage, hovering between dependency and full responsibility. A brutal employment arena awaits, every company and non-profit retracting spending and freezing their hiring, and get-rich-fast plans nonexistent. I have spent years accumulating a base of knowledge and experience so that I could face the real world with confidence. I’m still confident, knowledgeable, and capable—but the world I am going to enter next May looks very different.

I never wanted to be rich though, really. And reminding a new generation where the definition of “needs” distinguishes itself from “wants” is really the only thing that could happen—the Dow Jones’ seemingly endless climb upward was a false reassurance for nearly three decades. Did we really think it could never end?

For my lifestyle, I embrace this shift gladly. I already rather like having less, and I’m making it my personal goal to really, really, cut my belongings down by a large chunk this summer. (Bless moving to a new place for keeping us real like that.) Thinking on a smaller scale is more appealing to me in terms of belongings, living space, clothing, and even beauty care (painting your own nails in the front yard, how lovely).

The disconcerting thing is who will hire me, and how I will afford health care. I’ve recently been looking deeper at the inefficiencies of health care systems (U.S. and others, too), and the whole thing is a huge cumbersome mess. That topic is for another blog, that I’m mulling over right now. But the thought of embracing any clunky system that exists currently is frightening. We are scared stiff about the calamitous costs that can get dumped on us without medical coverage. It is real, and it is scary. Not to get too far off topic though, the best I can do is equip myself with all the things I know, love, and have seen, and keep in mind all the things I will continue to add to my arsenal over time, and hope for the best. I will always work hard. I will always keep learning. And in tough times, I think the ones who most eagerly embrace the new, redefined world are the ones who can best lead it towards its more sustainable future.

Anderson provided another gem of an illustration of this uncertain, but certainly global, situation that we face, one that I find perfectly juxtaposes the excitement and fear of those huge seismic shifts that come our way sometimes. He says: “The meltdown amounts to a spectacular moment of global consciousness, this generation’s version of the Apollo astronauts’ iconic 1968 photograph of the earth from the moon—an unforgettable reminder that all 6.7 billion of us are in this together, profoundly and inextricably interdependent. (The sublime always had a bit of terror mixed in.)”

Now, what kind of immense picture does that conjure up, of this great, big planet? I can see billions of faces, mine included, staring boldly towards the future.

My bread-and-butter

Having finished the first half of the semester, I have finished writing one of the two main research papers that have been assigned to me this spring. The first was the easier one, and also the less interesting of the two. The second is the one I turn to now, to focus my attention and tackle head-on. Sitting at the very beginning of projects like this is the worst part for me; the whole thing looming in front of me is intimidating. The paper is not due until the final week of class, around April 21 I think, but this is going to require a lot of thought and time. I also hate hate the crunch feeling of finishing a huge assignment the day (or even last few days) before it is due. So, ahead I charge. The assignment (for my World Since 1945 class) is to research an event of international political significance that has taken place between 1945 and 1999. Approaching it at a specific angle-- versus just attempting to do "the Vietnam War"-- we need to examine three primary sources relating to that event. So basically, I need three sources coming from the time period that the event occurred, analized and compared in 5 pages. I've not done much yet in my career in history with primary sources, and that is essentially the bread-and-butter of an historian's job. Examining the documents (journals, letters, government documents, etc.) that remain from history give us the real insight. It is when the analysis comes in that books and essays are created, giving us the perspectives we may have on history. You have historians to thank for compiling and tidying much of the history you know.

For my topic, I have chosen the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that Mao Tse-tung began in communist China in the 1960's. His confidence that tradition and intellectuals would ruin the socialist society was so strong, thousands died in the wake of their attempted obliteration. This is when the Red Guard came to be, and images  still linger of young children in their Maoist uniforms patrolling their country for "revisionists" who posed a threat to the state.

From this period of Chinese history I will draw several primary sources and narrow it down to the three that best bring varying viewpoints to the table. My initial research returned several works of compiled documents from the state and Mao, a compilation of first-person accounts of the response of Chinese villagers and peasants, and several works from reporters and diplomats from abroad who experienced the Cultural Revolution firsthand while there. I will be going through these sources and others, and hopefully narrowing it all down to my main three points of view on the singular movement. From there, I will look at the Cultural Revolution as an entity and use those three viewpoints to analyze it; vise-versa, I will use the context of the Cultural Revolution to analyze what is said in the documents I choose.

Sitting at the start, this seems like both a daunting and exhilarating project. But at the same time, this is an essential part of doing research-- looking at primary sources. And I couldn't ask for more flexibility in the topic, nor for a better topic. China is, after all, full of intrigue for a foreigner. So, I must get started.

The Way You Learn It

I’ve been learning about the Manding people of West Africa, and about the esteem to which ancestry is held in their culture. Not only does their jamu (specific lineage) determine their relative position to other people in the community, but that very same lineage connects them to the heavens and God. The way my teacher, a Liberian man, described it, in many West African cultures the ancestors are who listen to prayers, and send them upward to God. “Kind of like the Jesus Christ of Christianity,” he said.

In my History of Science class, we’ve been contemplating the world from an Aristotelian perspective. Remember, Aristotle thought the earthly world was composed of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire—and that a thing’s essence, rather than gravity, was what pulled it to its proper place within nature. The cosmos, on the other hand, was observed to be perfect, and was therefore composed of the fifth essence, or the “quintessence.”

In viewing things through Aristotle’s theories, the world was just as complicated as it is today, even though they had yet to develop the concepts of gravity, or chemistry, or the laws of inertia. So the ways of explaining things that puzzled humankind seem silly by comparison to the things we hold true today.

And the final thought that brought me to a point I will soon make came from Plato’s allegory of the Cave, which cropped up in class and conversation twice in the same day. To best understand Plato’s idea, see my rough drawing below:

The fire is blazing in the back of the Cave. There is a small precipice, and on the other side stands a man; this little man represents Mankind. He only looks—can only look—at the wall in front of him. What he sees in the world, in his little end of the cave in other words, is the reflection of the fire. What Plato means by this is that everything we see here is the shadow, the earthly representation of things which exist in a perfect form elsewhere. (The true form, the essence, can be seen by men who strive to find it through logic and reason, he proposed.)

When Plato’s cave was brought up for the second time in my day, it was because we were discussing how Man, inside his cave, might never want to turn around and see the “true” form of the world he thinks he knows. Just as most people shy away from great change, from stirring up their beliefs and lifestyles, little Man is very content to stare at his Wall, keep his perception of things just as it is.

And so, my point: in looking at the Manding people’s prayers to their ancestors, someone who knew and lived by western customs might learn about, think it’s interesting and different, but also think it to be silly and incorrect. But the thing is, someone in Mali might think the exact same thing about western traditions.

My Liberian professor told us about one of his relatives who died in the U.S. over the summer, and how the family members that are also living here buried him the American way, with a funeral home wake and standard gravestone. The relatives in Liberia were upset; was there going to be a feast, with a plate of food given to the gravesite as an offering to the ancestors? Well, no, that’s not how they do it here. Was the body going to be displayed in the home? No, that’s not allowed here. Then how could they be sure the body would be passed into the ancestral realm correctly? Bring the body back to Liberia, they demanded. No, that is way too expensive, we cannot do that. A clash of cultures, indeed. Whose method of burial is right? Is one or the other silly, or moreover, is one wrong?

Thinking like an Aristotelian, I see the world in a complex way, but definitely not complex compared to the way we explain things today. My professor said that when his children were young, it was much easier to explain to them that the ball falls to the ground because it is simply “earthy.” It belongs in its natural place, below water, air, and fire. How would you explain gravity to a child? It is much more complicated. But, gravity is also the theory we go by today. So, Aristotle was wrong. But his way of thinking made sense to a lot of people for a long time, nearly a thousand years. And though it seems silly to us now, during that time his theories explained many things that were confusing then. *

And the final thread, the shadows of Plato’s Cave, represents the way we see things, all of us, on earth. We see reflections, yet we see them as the absolute truth. The way each of us lives is comfortable to us; we are resistant to changing our location, or our job, or a friendship or relationship, or a house, or the foods we eat, or our religion, or our idea of truth.

But if you are right, then is everyone else wrong? If you stayed in the Cave, always looking at things as you’ve known them, when or if you ever turned around and saw the “true form” of the fire, might you say that it was silly? I’ve been looking at fire all my life; of course I know that this new form is just some obscure vision of fire. So, by this reckoning, even if someone were faced with the “True” version of fire, he would dismiss it because it was not like the version he knows.

From all of this, I glean that what is “right” to someone is usually strongly founded in what they have known for most of their life. Even if a man learns all the other burial customs in all the world, he would still somewhat adhere to his, think his own the most normal—or the least silly. But as Plato might muse, does that make it right? Is it the real Fire?

*Aristotle’s synthesis of the world has many more faucets than just the concept of the four elements—far more than I can give justice here, without getting off-topic. Please research his synthesis if you’re interested.