Monthly Archives: April 2008

The Parthenon

31 March 2008

Last summer our family took a little trip to Nashville,
Tennessee, so our college bound could pay a
visit to Vanderbilt
University.  While
in Nashville
for the quick trip, we had time to do just one thing in addition to the
university tour, so we opted to visit the Parthenon. 

Yep, you heard that
right.  The Parthenon.  For those who live in Tennessee, that probably comes as no
surprise.  I, on the other hand, was a bit surprised when someone
recommended that we visit the Parthenon, located in Nashville, Tennessee. 
I had always thought that if one wanted to see the Parthenon, one needed to
travel to the Acropolis, near the city of Athens,
in Greece. 
I was very surprised to be proven so wrong! 

The European settlers who first arrived in central Tennessee, in the late
1700’s and early 1800’s, were freedom seeking, individualistic, mountain men
and fur traders who made their living off the land.  The spirit of rugged
individualism remains strong in the mountains of North Carolina
and Tennessee. 
It’s even reflected in the language of those one time, remote areas.  One example is the word “you’uns,” to refer
to second person plural.  In the Northern USA, the second person plural is expressed as
"youse" or "you guys".  In most parts of the South, it
is "ya’ll" which is a contraction for "you all".  But
not in the mountains settled by the Protestant mountaineers.  The proper
form of address is "you’uns," which (my friend informed me) is a
contraction for "you ones".  Individualists. 

The Mountain men were such individualists, and so committed to Democracy and
what they considered to be the freedom of self determination, that they walked
Eastward during the American Revolution and confronted the loyalist forces at
King’s Mountain in North Carolina, a battle which is generally recognized as
the turning point in that war:  Prior to that time Loyalist forces
generally won and after that time they generally lost (in what we must
hopefully acknowledge was a bloody civil war). 

I’m sure that these men were somewhat rough and tumble.  But in the mid
1800’s, as civilization (in the form of settlers with less transient lifestyles)
arrived in those mountains, it was hoped that a higher form of culture could be
achieved.  In the outpost town of Nashville,
this was pursued through espousing a return to the Classics:  Classic
thought, Classic education, Classic ideals.  (To non-native speakers of
English, I will explain that the term Classic generally refers to the culture
of Greece and Rome.)  As part of the project of returning to the
classical traditions of civilization, in the 1840’s, an educator named Philip
Lindsay persuaded Nashville city leaders to
begin promoting Nashville as the "Athens of the West" and pursuing the idea of Nashville as a democratic
city-state on the frontier. 

As westward expansion
progressed across North America, however, Nashville
soon was no longer the western boundary of the frontier.  The city then
began calling itself  the "Athens
of the South".  In the late 1800’s, as they were preparing for the
Centennial of the founding of the City of Nashville,
the leaders of the community decided to build a centennial mall.  In light
of its aspiration to be the Athens
of the South, it was decided that the mall would be anchored by an exact
replica of the Parthenon. 

Ultimately, that decision resulted in the construction of an exact replica of
the Parthenon, complete with artwork and statue of Athena in the interior.  This replica was originally made of wood, but
it was so popular that it was turned into a permanent exhibit which now forms
the centerpiece of a park in Nashville. 

The Nashville Parthenon is the
only full size replica of that building in existence. Its 7-ton, bronze
entrance doors are the largest of their kind in the world. The pediment reliefs
were created from direct casts of the originals, which are housed in the British Museum of Art.  The Nashville
Parthenon makes a very interesting museum, indeed, complete with a video
history which shows an animation of the construction, history, and ultimately
the destruction of, the original temple built to the Greek goddess
Athena. 

(History of the Nashville Parthenon and the Tennessee Centennial,
http://nashville.about.com/cs/historynsites/a/parthenon_1.htm.) 

The Nashville Parthenon web
page also states:  "[i]n Greece the original Parthenon sits
as a sketchy resemblance of its past prominence, having been devastated by an
explosion in the year 1687 AD. and surviving somewhat the trials of War,
Bureaucracy and Tyranny."  Indeed, it was somewhat special to see the
Parthenon more like it might have appeared before its demise into the ruin that
it is today, sitting on the Acropolis above Athens. 

But something in recent events brought this visit to the Parthenon back to my
mind:  the Olympic Torch just embarked upon its journey to the Beijing
Olympics.  I recently saw video footage of the torch.  The video
footage, showing protestors and torch alike, was filmed so that the original
Parthenon could be seen in the background.  The real Parthenon, crumbled
and empty, stands in stark contrast to the reproduction in Nashville, which seeks to show it in its
heyday.  That contrast is actually what struck me, and what I’d like to
consider in this blog entry. 

The original Parthenon was built between 447 – 432 B.C., as a temple to the
Goddess Athena 
(http://www.ancient-greece.org/architecture/parthenon.html).  Built from
pentelic marble, it is considered to be the culmination of the Doric order of
classical Greek architecture
(http://www.britannica.com/eb/topic-444840/Parthenon).  Obviously, it is
old, almost 2,500 years old in fact.  To put this in perspective, by the
time Rome took over Greece, the Parthenon was already
older than the cathedral Notre Dame is today.  Yet the Parthenon was
constructed with such architectural precision, as well as on such a good
foundation, that it hasn’t settled or shifted.  Prior to visiting the
museum in Nashville
I had assumed that the building had simply decayed, but this wasn’t the case at
all.  Visiting the museum, I learned that the Parthenon was in fact destroyed
rather than decayed. 

During Roman times, Athens devolved from being
an independent City state to being a remote outpost within the Roman empire.  The statue of Athena was looted from
the building.  I imagine (but don’t know)
that the building was then rededicated to the pantheon of Roman gods. 
Then, during Byzantine times, the Parthenon was converted to use as a
church.  Following the imposition of Ottoman rule in 1456, the Parthenon
was again converted, this time to use as a mosque. (A minaret was added! 
Can you imagine a minaret on the Parthenon?)  During all these
conversions, the structure survived more or less intact, until 1687. 

1687 was the year in which the Ottoman Turks at Athens were attacked by Venetian
forces.  The Ottomans encamped on the Acropolis, and they used the
Parthenon as a munitions storage facility.  I’ve read speculation that
they were gambling that the Venetians wouldn’t attack it.  But when a Venetian
shell did hit the building, the resulting explosion was spectacular.  (See
generally,
http://wiki.phantis.com/index.php/Parthenon,
http://www.ahistoryofgreece.com/turkish.htm).  The rest is history. 
It took just one cannonball, along with a series of decisions which failed to
value the cultural significance of the building, to destroy what has been
termed as one of the greatest architectural achievements in history. 

Athens is where
Democracy was born.  Dr. Thomas Sakoulas writes on his web site The
Parthenon (http://www.ancient-greece.org/architecture/parthenon2.html), and I
don’t dispute it:

The Athenian citizens were proud
of their cultural identity, and conscious of the historical magnitude of their
ideas. They believed that they were civilized among barbarians, and that their
cultural and political achievements were bound to alter the history of all
civilized people. The catalyst for all their accomplishments was the
development of a system of governance the likes of which the world had never seen:
Democracy.

Democracy, arguably the epitome of the Athenian
way of thinking, was at center stage while the Parthenon was built. This was a
direct democracy where every citizen had a voice in the common issues through
the Assembly that met on the Pnyx hill next to the Acropolis forty times per
year to decide on all matters of policy, domestic or foreign.

The fact that common people are
depicted as individuals for the first time at the Parthenon frieze
was owed to the fact that for the first time in history every citizen of a city
was recognized as a significant entity and a considerable moving force in the
polis and the observable universe.

Wow.  Look at that last line:
"every citizen of a city was recognized as a significant
entity".  Talk about individualism versus collectivism!  Talk
about clash of cultures!  The Olympics this year are hosted by a culture
that does not make this recognition, doesn’t even pay lip service to the value of
democracy. 

I wonder if that commitment to Democracy isn’t why Nashville,
and its independently minded citizens, chose to model their aspirations on Athens.  I’m not
claiming that Democracy is right for every culture.  I take some issue
with countries which attempt to proselytize the religion of Democracy without
any sensitivity to cultural or historic issues which would preclude success of
democracy in some the receiving country.   Democracy is a political system, not a
religion.  It is also a political system,
not an economic system.  Some people seem
to get this distinction confused. 

But what a sight, to see the Olympic torch, being carried from the shadow of
the Parthenon, from the city where democracy was born, to a country that at
this very moment in history is resisting the democratic winds so
strongly.  And, what a thought.  To
imagine a different kind of Parthenon.  An imaginary Parthenon consisting
of peaceful accommodation and cultural acceptance that is supposed to be the
hallmark of the government’s treatment here of minority peoples.  The
cultures are now clashing instead of melding, and it’s pretty clear which
culture will come out ahead:  the dominant culture, of course.  There
is no exception in history that I know of.  Why are we surprised? 
But at what cost? 

I believe that with cultural sensitivity, many issues could be resolved in
ways that would make the term "cultural genocide" seem preposterously
overstated.  But the delicate truce, like the Parthenon of Greece, is
vulnerable. 

First, there are very significant cultural blinders which render even
communication on this issue difficult, let alone agreement.  At a minimum,
policy makers need to recognize in the first place that there are actually
different cultural viewpoints that are legitimate.  Moreover, sometimes
our assessment of those viewpoints is necessarily tainted by the color of the
lense of our own cultural viewpoint.  Here’s an example illustrating the
effect of cultural lenses that was recently in the news:  rocks versus
tanks.  Eastern press watchers blasted the Western press for depicting
"biased" film footage showing protestors facing off against military
tanks.  The bias, according to accusations, was allegedly the result of
the camera footage failing to depict the "entire picture," showing
that the protestors had been looting or attacking some objects.  "Oh
no," the Western press seemed to cry, "we were wrong to do that, so
sorry!"  Well, perhaps so.  And then all photos ceased abruptly as
journalists were deported from the scene. I agree that the news reporter should
report all the facts and allow the reader to draw his own conclusion.  And
all the facts includes all the facts, not just those that are convenient for
one viewpoint or another. 

Hello?  All the facts?  At least they were trying.  While
the Republican administrations of the last several years have steadily
attempted to erode freedom of news reporters (e.g. Reagan and Granada), we actually do  try. 

The basis for the cultural "bias" is clearly evident:  in the
West, under Western values, deadly force is only justified in self defense when
it is necessitated to counter deadly force.  A famous case on this issue
involves a man who was protecting his business from burglars.  He set up a
shotgun so that when the door to the shop were opened, it would blow the
burglar to smithereens.  Sure enough, the burglar opened the door and was
blown to smithereens.  Up until this point, the self righteous business
owner loves the story.  But he’s not thinking of another, different,
perspective:  in a society that values life, the life of the burglar, no
matter how reprehensible his actions may be, outweighs the value of the
material possessions inside the business.  In other words, nothing that
burglar could steal was more valuable than his own life. In that case, the
business owner, in the resulting trial for murder, tried to argue he had acted
in self defense.  The argument didn’t hold water.  A person who
claims to act in self defense is only allowed to respond appropriately to the
threat.  There was no indication that the burglar actually posed any
threat to the life of the business owner.  In our culture, in the West, it
is viewed as murder to respond to a mere threat to property with deadly
force.   

Well, Asian culture places a higher value on the collective good than on the
individual.  In Asia, if it’s a matter of
the individual versus the collective, chaos versus order, guess who
loses?  Westerners need to understand that this is a very different value
system, where order is valued more than freedom and where the collective good
is valued more than the individual.  A person in such a society may well
gauge that society’s interest in being free from burglars justifies killing of
the burglar, even if a few innocents are blown away in the process and even if
nothing much of value was in the business.  I’m fairly confident in making
an outright speculation that the case wouldn’t have been decided as murder in
an Asian culture.  What do you think? 

Another place where there has been tragic misunderstanding and miscalculation,
sadly, has also been among the young protesters themselves, because they don’t
seem to have any grounding in the principles of nonviolence.  In this
sense, the government seems to have made a tragic miscalculation of the benefit
of separating these young people from their own religious traditions.  Had
they received training in their own custom of nonviolence, then violence and
bloodshed could have been averted.  But tragically, unless nonviolence (Ghandi’s
principle of satyagraha) is absolute, then protest is always vulnerable to
misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the cause for which one
protests. 

The act of these young people in throwing rocks at a tank, no matter how
futile, does give that tank operator rationale, however small, to
retaliate.  When he becomes violent in any way, the protester becomes a
victimizer rather than a victim.  This enables denial and accusations
which can be used to justify retaliatory violence.  In contrast, it’s much
harder to convince the tank operator — or the watching world — of the
necessity for violence in the face of utter nonviolence, in the face of pure
satyagraha. 

This is one area in which the unrest last September is markedly
distinguished from the unrest more recently.  Monks last September adhered
strictly to nonviolence.  It’s kind of hard to say that a man walking in a
line to a monastery, barefoot and naked but for a saffron colored robe, was
part of a militia.  It’s hard for a mob that overturns a car or burns a
shop and its inhabitants to claim it acted with moral purity of motive. 
The failure of protesters to understand and adhere absolutely to nonviolence
will only achieve the opposition goal of marginalizing their message by
classifying it as self interested violence which justifies retaliation and
suppression, hence leading to further violence directed at those who see
themselves as the victims. 

These are all things to think about.  Both good and bad.  For better
or worse, the world is confronted with the issue of cross cultural interplay as
resoundingly as any environmental or political or economic issue.  For
culture underlies every assumption, the very world view which affects policy in
all the other areas.  In an age where the world is flat, where the market
place of ideas is as large as the world itself, the collective community needs
to learn very quickly, on the fly, how to confront and deal with these issues
of cultural difference.  For the risk is so high. 

After Centuries of standing on the Acropolis, all it took for the Parthenon
to be destroyed was one brief moment in time. 
Just one calculated (or miscalculated) judgment by perhaps by just one
person.  And then it was all destroyed. 
The lesson of contrasts and conflict is readily apparent, and the world
is watching. As noted in The Economist, "the coming months will
provide much opportunity for miscalculation by China in its handling of Tibetan
unrest" (The Economist, "Welcome to the Olympics," 
http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10925708).

Here’s to crossing our fingers and hoping there is a rainbow somewhere at
the end of the rain. 

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Filed under Cross Cultural Issues

Investments that Pay Off

27 April 2008

I categorized this entry under "Ethics," but it has to do with ethics in the Aristotelean sense of living an ethical life.  More of finding the "good life" in our mundane, ordinary existence.  Not every one of us gets the chance to live in an exotic place, nor even to travel, but every one of us has the opportunity for finding happiness in an ordinary life, in finding ways to bloom where we are planted.  We do this through living lives that are true to our values and which enable us, at the end, to look back and to think that we perhaps made good decisions.  This particular time of looking back, for me, is occasioned by my second daughter’s impending graduation from high school. 

One of the big decisions in my own life has been to place caring for my family at a higher level of priority than earning income or professional status.  I quit my job for the second time in 1989, when my second daughter was born.  I could launch into many socioeconomic, psychological, or philosophical thoughts about that decision.  The fact that I had to choose between family and career does not say anything good about American society.  Nothing at all, truly.  Anyone who claims that the current situation in America is good for children or families is delusional. 

In my ideal world, mothers would not have to choose between adequate care for children and professional life, but that’s the choice I had.  I’m grateful that I had a choice at all (unlike many mothers in the world), but choose I did. 

In 1990, I was a stay at home mom and we were living on one income. 

Though we lived very frugally, it was hard to make ends meet.  One day, an old man came to the house to repair something.  I think I recall that he was a plumber.  But it wasn’t what he did but rather what he said that left such a deep impression on me.  The old man said to me, "Be sure to enjoy this time with your children.  You’ll look back on it as the fondest years of your life." 

Hearing this, my mind flashed to an image of the huge pile of dirty diapers waiting to be laundered.  I thought about how I was going to have to make lunch soon and how I hadn’t even yet had time to make the beds.  Life was full of mundane tasks that didn’t seem very enjoyable. 

Perhaps he noted the look of incredulity on my face, for he continued, "Things were very hard for me and my wife when our three daughters were all little.  The housework seemed overwhelming, and we never had any money to do anything, but we wouldn’t trade those years for anything."  Then, he got a faraway look in his eye as he peered away as into the distance and added, "Especially now that our daughters are all grown up and have families of their own." 

He really made me think twice.  I knew that I really ought to believe what he said, but it was so hard to imagine the truth of it.  

What he said about feeling overwhelmed by the demands of life was certainly true.  I think, in fact, that the time when our children are very young is a difficult time during the marriages of many young adults.  Sometimes when I see a person with young children who appears to be overwhelmed by their care, I too want to reassure them that the "heavy duty" days of diapers and chores do ease up after a few years.  I’m not sure that many people are fully prepared for how overwhelming it can seem to care for small children. 

Young people have a lot of fun with each other while they are in school or working at their first jobs.  They have relatively few responsibilities in life, and they tend to have a good bit of personal freedom in the use of their free moments.  It’s in this atmosphere that people fall in love and get married.  Add a child into the picture, and things change. 

This needy little person needs a clean, safe environment, and lots of time consuming care.  Leisure time devoted to one’s self, spouse, and friends disappears.  Financial commitments increase.  In our case, there was no money to go shopping, to buy clothes, to eat out.  We
couldn’t even go in the car because there was no money in the budget
for extra gasoline.  My husband’s career was in high gear, requiring him to work long hours at work. 

It takes a good bit of maturity to be able to put one’s personal needs on the back burner and tend almost exclusively to the needs of others.  I think most people who are successful at finding a balance also find a way to carve out a bit of time for their personal life, hopefully in a way that isn’t neglectful of others in the family.  Some people find outlets elsewhere, rather than staying committed to their family.  One woman I know recently told me that her husband, now divorcing her, told her that he finds her "disgusting".  Reading between the lines, he’s surely found someone new whom he doesn’t find so disgusting, and also I’m sure who doesn’t burden him with thoughts about his responsibilities to his existing wife and child. This, in my view, is exactly like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  He fell in love with her and became committed to her for some reason, and that reason still exists!  If he were in his right mind, he’d be  trying to address the problems while preserving that which is good in their relationship! 

But I also know that it’s not always easy.  Whenever I see someone who is having this type of doubt, I reassure them that it’s normal and encourage them to step back and try to sort out the many issues in a way that remains positive for them.  I know that my spouse and I struck a balance of trying to give each other a half an hour of personal time each day.  For instance, he would watch the baby for half an hour while I did something just for myself, or vice versa.  We also learned to carve out time to spend just with each other.  After all, if a marriage fails, that is to the detriment of the children.  Our children learned to respect this time we excluded them and spent just with each other. 

But back to the point:  I took a drastic pay cut.  I undertook a radical change of lifestyle in order to devote time to being a mom.  It wasn’t easy.  The feeling of poverty wasn’t easy to cope with, the feeling of being overwhelmed by mundane chores wasn’t easy, either.  Life simply wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  It didn’t seem like a "happily ever after" type of ending.  We could joke, "housewife swallowed by diaper monster," or something like that. 

One of my Chinese friends recently told me that she "hates" Disney.  Incredulous, I asked her why.  "Because," she replied, "they always set it up so that girl meets boy, girl marries boy, and all her problems in life disappear."

"That’s not how life is at all!" my friend continued.  "That is a very bad thing to teach little girls!" 

Wow. The value of another world view!  Thinking about her perspective, I totally agree!  But there I was, married to a prince and living what was supposed to be a good life, but it didn’t feel so "happily ever after" as Disney made it appear.  

For entertainment, I would put a little plastic swimming pool on the
patio in the back garden, turn on the hose, and let the children play in it.  They would run
water  into the baby pool and then splash in it.  It was so hot that I would
put on my own bathing suit and get into the kiddie pool and splash in
it with them. Our two extravagances were memberships to the state history museum, which had lots of hands on exhibits my children enjoyed, and to the local zoo.  Our membership to both places enabled us to go as often as we liked for free.  (The museum, being air conditioned, was a particularly inviting sanctuary on days when our house would swelter at close to 90 degrees because of the heat.)  My sanity was saved by the mommies I met and made friends with at Library Story Time and at meetings of La Leche League.  Generally well educated and intellectual — most of us had quit careers as a matter of "choice" — we would visit at each other’s houses and let our children play while we discussed topics that kept us slightly in touch with adult life. 

During these days when my two oldest daughters were small, I also went to a tire store and persuaded the employees to give me a discarded, large automobile tire.  I drilled four holes in the side of the tire, then I used washers to anchor ropes so that it would sit horizontally.  The ropes were of course thrown over the branch of a large tree, making the tire into a large, horizontal swing that would seat four children at one time.  I had a few other large toys in the back yard.  My grandmother had
given me a large merry go round that would seat four children.  Now that the
grandchildren had outgrown it, she said, she wanted to give it to me for the great
grandchildren.  Margie had sent a huge teeter totter that would seat
three children at once, and I had purchased a few other large "Little Tyke" brand toys that could be used in the back garden.

Because of these toys and the tire swing, my house became the place where children wanted to play.  They would invariably end up on the tire swing.  We mommies would take turns pushing them very high, so high that our arms would extend fully over our heads as we pushed the swing overhead and ran underneath it, hearing their squeals of delight as they swung as "high as the sky".  The children were very secure because in addition to hanging on with two hands, they could also brace their feet against the inside of the tire.  No one ever fell even though I sometimes couldn’t believe we would push two year olds that high!

Our back patio also had a big wooden picnic table.  One year, I invited a group of mommies and children over to my house to dye Easter eggs.  When we finished, we went inside to eat lunch and to let the eggs dry.  When we came back outside, we found that our dog, a Golden Retriever, had eaten every one of the eggs!  Another time when one of these friends came over and sat on my sofa, our yard-sale quality furniture was so old and rickety that the sofa broke.

At the time when we were in the midst of living this life, I wasn’t so amused by the dog eating the eggs or the sofa breaking.  I thought of ourselves as just "making do".  But then, one night as we were preparing for our move to China, I was packing and I found myself looking through an old photo album of those days. 

Looking back at those photos, the old man came back to my mind, for I had gained a radically different perspective.  Just as the old man had predicted — as I looked at a photo of myself sitting in my bathing suit in the three inches of baby pool water in the back yard, with a small child dumping water over me — I realized that those days were among the happiest of my memories.  He was right!  There truly can be joy in the mundane, in the ordinary.  I’m really glad I took time for it. 

And suddenly it is over.  My two oldest children are "up and gone".  They’ve turned into their very own selves, no longer toddlers, no longer so needy for a mom, launched and well on their way in the world. 

When I first quit my job to become a stay home mom, I noticed one thing that was really different than anything I had ever experienced, in a psychological sense:  I wasn’t getting so much feedback about how I was doing in this endeavor of raising a child.  This was a huge contrast with my former life as a student, as a worker, as a lawyer.  When I was in school, I’d study for a test and then receive immediate feedback in the form of a good grade.  In law, I’d work on a case and win it.  I’d work hard at my job and get a good review and more money.  In the world of work and school, there had always some feedback system to say whether I was doing a good job or not.  I got a lot of rewarding feedback that way.  I was used to hearing someone say, "Good job!"  But there is no such feedback system for parents.  

Raising a child is, I decided, a lot like watching how the shore of the ocean changes over time.  The sun comes up, the sun goes down, there are storms and tides, but pretty much the ocean is so vast that it doesn’t change much, and the shoreline doesn’t vary so much from day to day either.  In this same sense, it can be hard to say whether what we do is making much difference, good or bad, from day to day.  Does it matter if I enforce a strict "schedule" or not?  What about an exception this one time, does that matter?  Will it break the world if my child skips brushing his teeth tonight?  But how will I feel if he gets a cavity? 

If some expert is telling me what to do, well where does his expertise come from?  Has he studied the effects of his advice over the course of 20 or 30 years?  For it’s not until we see a pattern of over a period of years that we realize how the beach is shaping up.  Indeed,  the effects of those parenting decisions may not even be apparent until the next generation!  (This is most well documented in the case where patterns of spouse and child abuse are passed down from one generation to the next, with little boys and little girls learning basic patterns of relationships from their own parents and then living out patterns that are incredibly difficult to break.) 

To see my children appear so well launched is a nice thing.  It’s a good affirmation that perhaps I did something right twenty years ago, when I was so overwhelmed by diapers and dirty dishes and little ones needing naps.  I certainly enjoyed my children then.  There is nothing quite like the trust and love of a small child.  But I enjoy them now, too, as they become very different people all grown up. 

They’ve become nice friends
to have around.  The tables are flipping.  I find myself asking them
for their advice and guidance and insight.  Today one of them gave me a
link to a blog she enjoys.  Here it is:  http://waiterrant.net/?p=88  
I enjoy the writing, but even more I enjoy her choice of what she
chooses to read, what she thinks is important in life.  Having
daughters as great as these makes the thought of getting old a bit more
palatable.  My eyes gaze toward the horizon, to a time when my daughters are all launched with their own families, securely placing me as merely one person woven into the web of life rather than the center of my own existence. 

In hindsight, more or less twenty years after the first hard decisions about where to place my priorities, I feel like my investment has been put in the right place.  I feel really good about my children, even if my treasure is of a kind that’s not so easy to measure.

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Perapera-kun Translation Tool

Perapera-kun Translation Tool

 

My friend Keith just told me about the Perapera-kun Chinese Translation tool, which is a free add on for the Firefox web browser.  I’m sold on it!  I’m finding it to be a fantastic resource for learning Chinese because of the way it translates individual characters into Pin yin and English.  The reason it works so well is because it’s so easy to use.  It’s so simple!  When you hover your mouse over a Chinese character, a small window pops up.  In the window, you see the character, the pinyin, and the English translation of that character. 

 

Guess what?  One of my Chinese friends was at my house today.  She thinks it’s a great resource to help Chinese native speakers learn English!  This is because she can click on a character, and the English word pops up along with the Pinyin.   

 

This download is only available to users of Firefox.  If you don’t already have Firefox, you can download the Firefox web browser from here:

 http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/

 

Once you download and install Firefox, then you can add the translator program, available for free from here: 

https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/3349

 

To turn on the translator, you right mouse click and then go to the bottom of the pull down list where it says “toggle Chinese Pera-Kun”. 

 

Have fun!   

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A Sense of Style

One of the first things I noticed, when I arrived in China, was that people here have a different sense of clothing style.  Growing up, I learned the norms of my own society about how to put together an outfit of clothing.  This includes a sense of what colors go together or clash, what colors are worn where and when, what styles are reserved for what occasions, what textures match well together. 

I remember in the USA one time helping an Indian friend shop for clothing appropriate for an American funeral.  We were looking at black suits.  My friend told me how difficult it was for her not to wear white, because white is the appropriate color for an Indian funeral (it represents "going beyond" the material world into the lightness of the spiritual world, she said). 

I also remember one time putting together, during high school, an outfit that had a pattern on top and stripes down below.  My mom informed me that even though the colors and textures went well together, the two fabrics didn’t go together because the patterns were considered, in combination, to be too busy.  These ideas about color and texture are just the most fundamental culturally based considerations about style.  Beyond these rules (which are sometimes deliberately broken by fashion designers), Fashion adds another layer of complexity in style.    

Here in Asia, in my experience, people are much less concerned about color than they would be in the West.  But in fact they are just as particular.  They are concerned about different things — more concerned about fabric textures and shapes.  People, in general, seem to be more liberal about what they think goes together and when it can be worn.  Basically, if a woman thinks something is pretty, she will probably wear it even if in another culture it might be considered too dressy.  For example, just yesterday I saw a woman out shopping in a black satin dress with lace sleeves.  In another culture, such a dress might be considered out of place anywhere but at a cocktail party.  It would not have been worn during the day on a shopping excursion.  But she liked that dress and she didn’t know that rule.  She looked very pretty. 

(On the other hand, I rarely see variations toward being more casual in
the grand scale of what is acceptable, but then Americans can be about
as casual as they get.  Case in point?  You will virtually never see a
conservative Chinese woman wearing spaghetti straps, more likely a
blouse will cover all the shoulder.)

Over time, I’ve become more Chinese in my own visual taste, as well.  The other day Munchkin dressed herself for school in a perfectly nice, well matched outfit. Well matched from a Chinese viewpoint, that is.  I thought it looked nice.  But from an American viewpoint, I knew that the colors and patterns didn’t go together.  So, I had her revise her outfit in such a way that it would comply with both American and Chinese ideas of what looked nice. 

Anyway, occasionally I see something striking and take a picture of it.  The whole purpose of this blog entry is to illustrate the photo, attached. 

The photo says something else about fashion besides just the fact that the colors are "mismatched" by American standards.  If you think this outfit looks odd, just wait, because before long this will probably be in style where you live.  When I first came here, I first saw some really, really long, pointy toed dress shoes.  These shoes had such long, pointy toes that they looked like a cross between ordinary western dress shoes and some long, curled slippers the genie might have worn when he popped out of Aladdin’s lamp.  I thought to myself, "Boy, the Chinese styles are really odd."  I also saw Chinese girls wearing multiple layers of lightweight, gauzy, frilly fabrics.  I thought to myself, "Boy, the Chinese styles are really different." 

But the next summer when I went back to the USA, I noticed that the styles in the USA had shifted to be more like those I had seen in China.  The world was following Chinese style, not vice versa!  I developed a theory that the shift in style was because buyers for stores are coming over here to shop.  They’re being influenced by what’s available in the Chinese market. 

Well,  back to the photo.  I ran across this photo in an old photo album tonight.  It’s about a year old now.  Has this style made it to your neck of the woods yet?  I have some more photos of unique clothing buried here and there.  When I find them, I’ll post them.  This girl was conscientiously dressed so as to be (in her world anyway) the height of fashion.  I’d say its a knockout for sure! 

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Winding It Down

Winding It Down

16 April 2008

 

My time as an expat in China is soon coming to an end.  I sent email to a Chinese friend yesterday and told her we must not put off meeting because I’m only in China ten more weeks.  She called me right away and told me the thought of that made her very sad.  I agree. 

 

When we came to China, we anticipated we would return to the USA, so saying “goodbye” to our friends had no sense of finality to it.  The opposite will be true when we leave China.  Every one of us will know that there’s a good likelihood we won’t see each other again.  This is one reason I fear that leaving China may be harder than arriving. 

 

In books about Expat life, they say that the adjustment to repatriation is as hard, or harder than, the initial adjustment to the overseas living.  When we were anticipating the adventure, and living it, we tended to gloss over the eventual challenges of the perhaps bumpy landing back home.  But now that the journey home gets nearer, I’m rather dreading the thought of what will be happening in the next several weeks and then this summer as we try to sort out again how to manage life in the USA. 

 

Some of the things mentioned in books (such as the Expert Expatriate, in my book list on this blog), are issues related to career.  The expat manager is in a different environment, often functioning on his own in very challenging circumstances.  He develops a lot of new skill, resilience, creativity, and independence.  In short, expat managers tend to grow exponentially as a result of facing and conquering difficult tasks.  Their companies, on the other hand, aren’t fully aware of the challenges and don’t necessarily appreciate what the manager is doing in terms of work assignment.  This leads to a mismatch between reality and perception, where the manager is concerned.   So, if there is a job at all back home for the expat manager, it’s often a job that is smaller and more confined than what the manager has grown used to.  He feels unappreciated and underchallenged – underwhelmed like a hermit crab trying to return to a shell he left long ago. 

 

But there are other, personal, challenges besides just adjustment to the lifestyle “back home.”   For one thing, since you are returning to your home culture, people don’t expect there to be any adjustment issues.  Thus, they are less tolerant when there (inevitably) are some adjustment issues.  My daughter in university recently commented that some of her USA friends don’t even want to hear her talk about things she did in high school.  They see it as tiresome bragging about her exotic life.  She thus had to quit talking about anything she did during the two years she lived in China, even though for her it was simply talking about two years in her daily life. 

 

On the other hand, when we’re not being exotic, there’s simply the fact that our experience has been so different from that of many Americans that they can’t relate at all.  For example, when I tell an American that my husband works in China, the person will often ask, “Is he in the military?”  I’m sorry, but that kind of ignorance of geography and basic political reality is, in my view, inexcusable!   I think if an American military plane flew into Chinese air space, as one did several years ago, it would be shot down (as one was several years ago over Hainan Island).  I personally was most impressed by the time we took the ferry into Hong Kong Harbor while there was an American aircraft carrier there on shore leave.  The aircraft carrier was surrounded by about ten Chinese warships.  So when a person asks me if my husband is in China because he’s in the military, sometimes I’m tempted to quiz them, “Exactly which military base in China do you think he would be stationed at?”     

 

I’ll write more about those issues as they come up.  At the moment, things like the fact I wish I were more fluent in Chinese and that I had studied Guzheng more and spent more time with my friends here and been to more places in China are coming to my mind, simply because I realize my chance to do these things is coming to an end.  Like a person who is facing death, I’m looking back and saying, "here’s how I wish I had lived my life differently." 

 

We did some things right.  We traveled, even when we couldn’t really afford it.  As a result, we’ve been places and seen things and met people and done things that greatly enriched our lives. 

 

And we did a lot of things wrong.  For one thing, we underestimated the challenges!  It’s one thing to read about cultural differences (especially in business), something different to experience them!  To prepare a potential expat for that, some of the books on my blog like Negotiating China might help. 

 

And in terms of what I wish I had done differently, that’s leading back around to Chinese language.  I do wish I had devoted more of my energies to learning more Chinese language and to more learning things I can only do while I’m here in China, like Guzheng.  One of my Chinese friends said to me the other day, "My girlfriend in the USA tells me there are lots of places to study Guzheng!"  Hmm.  Maybe so.  Maybe in San Francisco or Seattle or Atlanta.  But not in my small town. 

 

The closest thing I can do in my small town to get an authentic Chinese experience is to go to the local Japanese restaurant and talk there to the Sushi chef, who is from China and who helps me practice Chinese.  I exaggerate just a bit, perhaps.  I think every town, even a small one, has its version of "Chinatown." We who live in small towns just need to look a bit harder to find it.  I can also think of a small storefront where the owner only sells imported Asian groceries.  I’m pretty sure she’ll speak some Chinese with me too, when I return. 

 

When our friend Ernie learned that we were moving to China, several years ago, he began talking to us in Chinese.  We were shocked.  He was just an ordinary guy in our church, far past retirement age.  How did he learn Chinese, we asked?!  He told us that he had spent two years in China assisting in the resistance against the Japanese during World War II.  (I wish I had learned more.  At the time, I didn’t understand the significance of the Flying Tigers.  Since my hometown was home to the Dolittle Raiders, the big focus in my town is on the Dolittle Raiders rather than Flying Tigers.)  Well, even more than forty years after returning to the USA, Ernie was always eager to find someone to speak Chinese with.  I guess when I return, I’ll be a bit like Ernie, taking a little bit of China inside my heart with me when I go!  One thing’s for certain.  I know I’ll never be the same.

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Never Enough

Never Enough

11 April 2008

 

I just had a phone conversation with a Chinese friend on the phone.  When I got off the phone, my spouse sitting beside me asked, "Do you feel good?"  It took me a moment to figure out he was talking about.  What he meant was, "Do you feel good about having the ability to carry on a conversation in Chinese?" 

 

I replied somewhat incredulously, "Was I really speaking Chinese?"  

 

“Yes,” he replied, "the entire conversation was in Chinese." 

 

Wow!  I was amazed at the thought.  In a sense, I should feel good about that.  And I do, sort of.  But on the other hand, there’s always more to go.  In honesty, my answer to the question "do you feel good about it?" is, “No!  I feel very inadequate!”    

 

We’re all familiar with the person who knows enough words of a language to pretend they can speak it, until they actually get into a situation where they need to have some useful conversation and they’re totally lost.  One of my best friends in high school used to tell me every morning in Russian, “the blue frog loves you.”  We would both laugh, because we both knew that was the total extent of his fluency.  Sometimes I feel as if the only thing I can say in Chinese is the equivalent of “the blue frog loves you”!  I wish my conversational skill was at a higher level!  My Chinese is never good enough to make me feel happy about how I’ve done.  During that conversation just now, I didn’t feel fluent at all. 

 

Subjectively, the phone conversation felt rather as if I were running through a field of tree stumps, trying to get to the other side of the conversation without stumbling over a stump or tripping on my feet.  And, just like a field cleared of trees where the stumps remain, it wasn’t a very pretty picture. 

 

If I had been searching for mental images to use as analogies, I don’t think I would have considered “tree stumps” as being at the top of the list. But as I thought about it, the image of tree stumps (and trying to run through them) feels about right.  If I try to engage in some Freudian style speculation about this image, perhaps tree stumps represent the English language that has been cut down, except that some stumps remain to trip me up.  I’m unable to use English to communicate, hence the trees are gone.  The stumps of English remain, however, in the form of the way my mind attempts to form the grammar and syntax as I navigate through the conversation. 

 

In order to speak Chinese, I have to step around obstacles that are created by the fact that my mind automatically applies the layer of English grammar and syntax to my every thought.  Like tree stumps, these vestiges of my native language shape the initial way my mind attempts to construct the language, thereby interfering with my ability to "run" across the a very different field.  I have to consciously navigate around the stumps, looking down at my feet to make sure I don’t misstep, instead of looking at the horizon. 

 

The tree stumps aren’t limited to grammar and word order, either.  I also have to consciously bear in mind that Chinese language makes distinctions that are not made in the English language.  Measure words are just one example.  For instance one chair is "yi ge __ ", but one piece of paper is "yi zhang ___",  one tiger is "yi zhe ___", and one person is "yi wei ___".   Over time, using these distinctions becomes more natural, but in the beginning it’s very difficult.  Perhaps, it’s as if my mind learns where the tree stumps are and learns how to run around them without tripping.  Practice really does make it easier.  The hardest, single tree stump for me, so far, has been the very different way of saying in Chinese, “please x (today’s verb) at the same place where we did y (yesterday’s verb)".  For instance, the grammar for, "Please drop me off at the same place as last week,” is very different from English!  The word order is, "y place please x," (as in, "at last week get out of car place, please drop me off”).    

 

Well, whenever I get stumped up by all those trees, I try to collect myself, trip along in spite of my bummed toes, and keep on trying.  After all, the blue frog loves me.  And if I try hard enough, stumble enough times and learn from those stumbles, eventually I do (usually) find a way to get through the field. 

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Guzheng ( 古筝) Update #2

Guzheng Update

April 7, 2008

Last year I wrote about my progress in my guzheng lessons.  The news now is that there has been no progress at all recently.  Last spring I lost my steam after the long bout with bronchitis, and the little engine never got going again.  

However, I still love the instrument.  To whet your appetite, I’ve uploaded a couple of YouTube videos to my blog.  They’re on the main page.   

Like a trained dog, I also have a new trick.  I learned how to do a google search using chinese characters. You just type them in!  To do this, you need to know the word at least in pinyin (phonetic spelling) but I’m going to help you out.  Here are the two Chinese characters for GU and ZHENG.  古筝   .  To find videos or web pages about guzheng, uploaded in Chinese, input these characters into your search on YouTube or in Google.  I’ve also fallen in love with the Er Hu  二胡   .   If you have time, you may as well try a peek at that instrument, too!  (The word er hu means "two strings" — you will be utterly amazed at what someone can do with two strings and no frets.)  

If you’re feeling really brave, try this same search on Toudou! C’mon try it!  The search box for Toudou is on the upper right hand side of the main page at http://www.tudou.com .  What have you got to lose?  Sure, it’s all in Chinese and so a bit confusing if you don’t read any Chinese, but hey, look at it this way:  If you make a mistake nobody is going to jump out of the computer screen and bite you! 

In fact, here’s another suggestion. If the Chinese on Tudou is still too overwhelming, use Babelfish to translate the page!  Here’s how: Copy the address for the main Tudou web page, and then (after you’ve copied the address onto your clipboard) go to http://babelfish.altavista.com/tr .  At Babelfish, copy the Tudou address into the link to "translate the page," and direct the program to translate from simplified Chinese into English.  It works pretty well!  On this side of the world, Tudou is faster and has a lot more videos.  In fact, did you now that according to something I just read, Tudou is bigger than YouTube?  Ya, just remember, there are more cell phones  in China than there are land lines  in the USA!  [Though I understand that at the moment many of them (along with computer and telephone lines) in the more restive provinces are not working.  ] 

Have fun and HAPPY HUNTING! 


*You may need to go to the Microsoft web site and download simplified chinese characters in order to cut and paste the Chinese Characters. But the good news is that you don’t have to type the characters yourself, because I’ve already done that for you!  Just cut and paste.  😉   It’s very easy to download "simplified Chinese characters" for your OS (in my case, from http://www.microsoft.com ).

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Jian Fei!

April 6, 2008

 

Jian Fei is the Chinese word for lose fat.  Until I came to China, I never realized how fat I was.  Jian Fei is something I need to do a lot of! 


 

In the USA, where everyone is supersized, I fit right in for the most part.  Here, where people are rather smaller, I’m often the subject of curious stares.  Until recently, I thought the stares were due to things I’m more tuned in to, like hair and eye color and strange accents.  But some of it is also surely because I am so large.  Have you ever seen the Budweiser Clydesdale Horses?  I imagine that sometimes when people see me approaching, it’s something like the Budweiser Clydesdales:  the foreigner (known by various idiomatic names like "white ghost," "big nose," "horse face") is coming by, let’s go see!  I’m exotic, colorful, and big!  I guess I’m just a standout!

 

Size is partly a matter of genetics, and partly a matter of diet.  In the USA we really are a melting pot.  A large percentage of Americans would be hard pressed to name one, single country where all their ancestors originated.  No matter what our skin color, many of us are like Barak Obama, with ancestors hailing from many different countries in our background.  One of my daughters once asked me if I thought she would grow much more. She was obviously hoping I’d say “Yes, of course.”  I had to remind her that her own gene pool had tall people, short people, and people in between.  Based on her genetics, she could land anywhere in that spectrum.  

 

Not so for Europeans or Chinese, where genetics have been much more stable as populations mostly stayed in the same location for centuries.  One of the first things I noticed here is that the Europeans are obviously not melting pot peoples.  For example, the Dutch are tall.  Yep, like “wowie” tall.  One of my Dutch friends says she’s tall because milk is the national drink of Holland.  But it also doesn’t hurt that her father is close to seven feet tall (2 M plus several CM).    

 

Making a sweeping generalization, Southern Chinese are genetically programmed to be a bit smaller than Northern Chinese.  And we are in the South here.  Yesterday in a food store I saw a man who wasn’t much more than four feet tall, with tiny perfectly proportioned features.  And then nutritionally, I’m sure there are differences between the American and Chinese diet, as well.  The plentiful American diet is loaded up in fats, proteins, and carbohydrates (and, these days, antibiotics and hormones that come in meat).  Like a plant that receives lots of fertilizer, the American child might grow larger overall than a child who didn’t receive good nutrition (and perhaps a does of those hormones). 

 

And then there’s the continuing issue:  I eat too much and exercise too little. 

 

I read that the average city dweller walks five miles per day.   From what I’ve seen of habits in the city, that’s certainly true here.   Americans, on the other hand, living in the suburbs or rural areas, are so lazy they’ll hop in their car to drive even one kilometer.  This is evident in the amazing lack of exercise that one sees on ordinary streets in the USA.  I can’t speak in terms of big cities (which do have more people walking), but the contrast between roads in China and roads in the USA is extremely dramatic:  In China, the roads have all manner of people bicycling, tricycling, walking, as they go about their daily business. In the USA you don’t see people bicycling to work or delivering a refrigerator on the back of a tricycle.  The only time you see anyone on a bicycle is when he’s engaged in a specific activity called “exercise”. 

 

One of the photos circulated here in China as a joke about life in the USA is a photo of an escalator leading up into a fitness club.   People here find that hilarious.  First of all, it’s hilarious that exercise must be set aside from the chores of everyday living.  But more importantly, the idea that someone seeking to exercise would fail to walk up the stairs is a hilariously incongruous thought.   

 

Okay, well back to earth:  I finally figured it out:  I’m a lot bigger than most Chinese.  In the USA, I’m just slightly pudgy.  Here, I’m downright fat and huge.  And it’s not a taboo  topic of conversation to talk about that, as it would be in the USA.  It’s just a fact, as if I had brown hair or blue eyes.  My Chinese friends sometimes tell me that my fatness means I’m strong, in the sense that my body has some resilience to it.  Next time there’s a famine, I won’t be the first to go, I guess. 

 

And in a similar type of culture bias, while some in this culture would view me as fat, I would view many models in this culture as looking anorexic.  This year’s models on the runway look particularly sallow and unhealthy to me, emaciated with dark makeup on their faces.  I don’t think that is a good role model for women anywhere in the world.  Even in China.  Somewhere between fat and emaciated, we all must find a healthy balance.   I just haven’t found mine yet! 

 

Well, all this is academic except for one thing:  I don’t have anything to wear for the GWIC annual ball next Saturday!  I don’t know why, for the life of me, I left my carefully collected, expensive evening clothes all in storage in the USA.  Last year, when I also had nothing to wear, I ended up with a huge disaster.  I paid a tailor to make what was supposed to be a beautiful dress.  Having paid a fortune for 5 meters of a beautiful silk, I ended up with something that was just a waste of fine fabric.  This year, I’d prefer to buy off the shelf, if possible. 

 

One of my friends told me about a market where I can find western, name brand designer evening wear, and where some shops would even have my size!  Thrilled, I found the market and spent all day on Thursday walking around in it.  It has beautiful clothing; perfect for my daughters and for my friends who can wear a size 6.  But for the most part, six is the largest size carried by the shops:  Small is size 0-2, Medium is size 4, and Large is size 6.  One or two shops had a few size 8’s, mostly in styles that were shaped something like an umbrella.  Lo and behold, one man was kind enough to dig an XXL out of the bottom of a bag.  Besides being made as a prom dress for a 20 something year old, it was a size 12. He insisted it would fit fine, but hmm.  I don’t think it was meant to cling to one’s body like a piece of saran wrap.    

 

Well, as they say, there’s nothing like shopping to supply motivation to lose weight!  But even when I was 22 years old, extremely fit, 5’5” and 125 lbs. (a pretty healthy weight) I was never a size six.   If I were to be a size six, it would be unhealthy.  In our family, in our gene pool, we’re just not built that way.  We have to remember that, but not use it as an excuse.  No matter what our ideal weight, there’s no substitute for healthy eating and regular exercise. 

 
                                        

 

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