Identity Through a Yiddish Lens

Seems like all over the world identity politics exist for the rude thrills of identity politics. Identity is decoupled from need. And identity politics is tedious because the identities being politicked are voluntary ones, they can too easily be changed. Today we can instantly join digital ranks and summarily denounce Cecil Rhodes. There is a mismatch because Cecil Rhodes had way fewer options than we do today. So if we judge Cecil Rhodes, shouldn't we simply begin our interrogation considering he very well may have needed to be such and such a person, with such and such constraints, for he lived in such and such a time? Is that not a practical question? There are universal virtues, maybe, but surely identity changes over time.

You can't help but read Yiddishkeit and get a notion that everything about Yiddish was in a word practical

Yes, I too like practical identity. I'm always biased to valuing higher positive actions

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Ethnicity as Laundry List

Sure, most people don’t think that by naming 5 ethnicities they have claims to 5 different club memberships. But then again some people are that vain. The warming notion that there is something hip about being a child of the world, by being born into this world love of multi-ethnicities, well, I guess people decide, shucks “it’s kinda cool; I’ll just play along.”

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Rebuttal to Eric Liu's 8/29 Piece in WSJ

I was browsing the WSJ, on its very capable iOS app, and came across the headline: “Why I Can’t Just Become Chinese” by Eric Liu. A headline like that jumps out at you, especially if you are writing an upcoming book on Chinese and Western culture as I am. So, naturally I clicked on it. 

I didn’t know what to expect, really, but I think Mr. Liu gets it wrong. I think he gets both China and the U.S. wrong.

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More on Bouncing Around (The Frank and Ernest Story)

One of the side effects to bouncing around, as described in yesterday's post, is that tweaking your approach to every particular situation, being ad hoc in every instance, means you often sink to the lowest common denominator. You settle. You are like a fire truck, zipping around reactively putting out fires. You come under enormous pressure to base your decisions on pissing off the fewest number of people. And let us sing it: These are not the foundations to developing leadership. You will game situations, as we mentioned, doubting your own instincts as your rational brain whirrs up, informing you of all the reasons each side has their own legitimate grievances, each worth their own hearing. The amount of situational awareness, patience, and energy you have to gather, and stay on top of is burdensome to say the least. 

There are other, maybe even more troublesome aspects of bouncing around.

Samuel L. Jackson's character, Mitch Henessey, in The Long Kiss Goodnight delivers one of his most memorable lines of the movie, on a fake version of Larry King Live: "I'm always frank and earnest with women. Uh, in New York I'm Frank, and Chicago I'm Ernest.

It is funny. It is. Well, Samuel L. is funny, almost no matter what. Anyhow, I do want to tie this into the discussion of mixed race, and again I am speaking about what I know, specifically Chinese and Western.

He is a lovable ol' dirty bastard, who gets away with his schthick because he is on the right side of creepy. But Samuel L. is clearly "bouncing around." He's grabbing the low-hanging fruit. The delivery is funny and all, but intuitively we know something is off. If only the women in Chicago knew that he wasn't Ernest when he's in New York- we know he'd be in deep trouble. 

He'd be doo doo in Chicago and pxx pxx in New York instead.

I think that in the case of mixed people, there is something similar that goes on. It is not exactly the same- it doesn't have to do with licentiousness or New York or Chicago- but it is similar and it happens chronically.

That is, you play up the Chinese when it suits you, and play up the Western when that suits. For example:

  • You are Chinese amongst a Western group when, for example:
    • Chinese food comes up, or Chinese History, or Confucius or Aaron Kwok, or elite Chinese politics, or Beijing, or Chinese manners come up- and you embrace the sudden authority you have, all of a sudden. The only problem is this is a topic that you don't know that much about. 
  • You are Western amongst a Chinese group when, for example:
    • You are observing some arcane funereal rite, or you are visiting someone's distant relatives, or reading the social tea leaves, or required to be quiet or deferential or obsequious. 

One of the problems is that you are committing argumentum ab auctoritate: you are arguing from a position of inappropriate authority. On the flipside- the problem is you are taking a powder on the very type of topics you were supposed to be an expert in with your Western friends. 

If only the Western friends knew what you were saying to your Chinese friends! And vice versa! Welcome to Chi-York!!!

The danger in all of this is you become a musical conductor who loses sight of the composition. If that happens, all you are left with is a bundle of harmonious notes. You don't want to bounce around, because even though you may think to yourself- well, I'm just doing it for this one instance, for this one day, or for this one task, every time you do it you forget what it is you are bouncing from, and bouncing to.

In the end, you just want to be you- right?




My Afghan Roommate at Fletcher

One of my roommates at The Fletcher School, a few years back, was an Afghan. He was an ethnic Hazara and grew up displaced from his homeland, spending twenty years in Iran. He, my other roommate, a tall Swiss Army Officer, and I would routinely sit down and talk in our humble but cozy suite at Blakeley Hall, on the Tufts Campus. Some of us would drink tea. Others would partake in cold Swedish snus, straight out of the Haier mini-fridge. One evening, my Swiss roommate intimated that he might propose to his girlfriend. “Awesome!” we said.

Our Afghan roommate, found this an opportunity to open up a little bit, and he proceeded to tell us about his marriage. He was, at the time, the only married man amongst the three of us. He was clearly bitter about some of his experiences, being a refugee, and now with every Skype call back home there was probably a small gulp down his throat as he was told the days news in Afghanistan, as the ratio of bad news to good news was usually much higher. He told us about how the concept of intermarriage, inter-ethnicity is extremely taboo, especially between Hazaras and Pashtuns. He told us about how he was thinking of running for office in Afghanistan, and how no Pashtun would ever vote for him, but if Hazara tribal leaders affirmed him he could expect 90% plus of the Hazara votes. He told us about how he was planning to start a family.

He told us about his wedding. He said: “well, so, we were in X valley in Afghanistan, and there were many people in attendance, and anyhow, I was pretty tired from planning it…”  “Wait, dear Afghan roommate, yeah right, you mean you were tired from helping your fiancé plan it, right? I said. “Oh, no, I planned the wedding. In Afghanistan and Iran, of course the men plan the weddings,” he said.

The point of the Afghani interlude is to reflect on our whole enterprise, of contrasting these opposing forces. Really, they are on a spectrum, like masculinity and femininity these concepts are jumbled up even in the more alpha or omega characters, its only in comic books that they appear in entire, pure form. The men planning weddings in Afghanistan and Iran is just an example that the same spectrum also warps around a curve, and actually completes itself in a circle, sort of how anarchists and fascists are so far apart that they horseshoe close to each other, also close enough to kiss.

In other words, the manly men in Iran are so controlling, so dominating over the women, in their macho social structure, that they end up planning the weddings too. They are the ones picking out the processional music, deliberating over outfits, or puzzling over particular shades of Lapis Lazuli for the table arrangements- people will ultimately find their own equilibrium of Masculinity vs. Femininity.


Cantonese and Other Dialects

I met someone in Hong Kong the other night from a publicly listed Chinese Tech company. His company is headquartered in Shenzhen. I wondered whether or not he speaks Cantonese (粵語,廣東話,or more colloquially on the Mainland 廣州話).

Baidu gives a number of eighty dialects, but the specifics of what counts as a dialect and what doesn’t is a doozy. To those hailing from smaller communities, which in China probably means entities containing fewer than 100,000 people, with fewer tongues speaking that particular vintage of local dialect, why doesn’t theirs “count?” To Beijingers for example, the Cantonese dialect that is spoken by about as many people as speak Italian around the world, Cantonese is “earthy.” It is “bird talk.” If a Beijinger wants to amp up the insult factor, they would call a Cantonese speaker, or probably a speaker of any other dialect, a “bird person.”

It turns out he does speak Cantonese- that is his lingo. Anyone who visits Hong Kong and predicts that because Mandarin is more and more commonly heard, means that this comes at the expense of Cantonese, only has part of the picture. Hong Kong's facility in English is what is declining- but with tens of millions+ strong native Canto speakers in the Mainland, and a wider group who speak it as a second tongue (I'm thinking Fujiannese, Guangxinese, Hainannese), Cantonese is doing just fine.

Balance 6.4

Hong Kongers are practical. This is the ethos; this is verifiable fact.

Practical can mean balanced. It means keeping your head down and "getting on with it." It means walking past the nutters, ignoring the quacks.

But every once in a while, even the most practical people, those who would much, much prefer business-like stoicism must say something. 

There is a group in Hong Kong called the "Voice of Loving Hong Kong" (香港之聲). They have a multimedia campaign that pronounces that no casualties were suffered, at all, twenty five years ago.

There are political reasons why these are "sensitive issues." We get it. No savvy HK person doesn't get that. But to be so crass- so smug- to not only say "no comment," but to brazenly affirm that nothing happened is just such an affront. Such a baldfaced disregard for one's own plausible deniability (in the case the facts do, at some point, prove them wrong), is shocking, if not just sad. Shame on "Voice of Loving Hong Kong."