Tuesday, April 14, 2015

electric wave

last week i got an email from the school (shandong u, my employer) announcing yet another official 'scholarly conference,' and inviting papers for submission. the topic: 'the legacy and innovation of qilu culture.'  qilu is the province's nickname, taken from the names of two ancient kingdoms. rather than deleting the email right away, as i usually do when confronted with such officialistic hot air, i paused. could i find some way to plug my pet cause, tiny electric cars, at this conference?

i have researched traffic and how people negotiate the streets and sidewalks here. maybe i could find a plausible angle leading from that to my pet cause, and turn this propagandistic 'scholarly conference' into something interesting, even useful. . . my family and i have driven a little 3 wheeler for more than a year, logging almost 7000 kilometers so far. it is of crappy quality. the door hinges rusted to the point that a 3 year old pulled one of them off. but it is so handy, so practical, that i watch people here clog the narrow streets with SUVs with disbelief. they are chasing a 1950s American dream -- big cars, wide highways -- in the ever-more perilous, crowded, 21st century. and it just doesn't work well. sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, any empty space, is jammed with cars parked pell mell. and a minority of households own cars. these tiny cars are 1/3 the size, or less, of regular cars, yet can carry up to 6 people. and some of them -- not ours -- are solid quality.

the inspiration was an article on huffingtonpost last week which laid out the view of some american transportation experts that the future of city-center transportation is tiny electrical cars, someday driverless and not privately owned. apparently people will be able to 'call' one over, and tell it where to go, pay electronically somehow, and that is it. i thought: the city and provincial government are constantly threatening to 'do something' about the menace of these tiny cars, which are blamed for creating all sorts of problems. (a shortage of taxis makes these cars a sort of gypsy cab for the poor unemployed or retired, and they cluster near bus stations and such plaecs). but this nascent industry, which has shown impressive improvements in quality and function, could become a world leader away from the obsolete pomposity of the 1950s American dream.

so today while waiting for toby at his school, i typed away and completed almost 1500 characters. the target is 5000 or so. i will need someone to polish it, of course. my written chinese is 'rough' at best. but when i ranted on the topic in my urban anthropology class on monday (our topic was the development of the american suburbs in the 1950s), they got it! with a laugh. these little cars are ridiculous. and surely face-deflating. but they are fun and practical. you can park underneath a UPS van, practically.

so, while i doubt i will be lucky enough to present my paper to just the right official, or even anyone paying much attention, at the very least i may be able to meet some academics or officials interested in this issue. and know that i have done something to advance the electric wave.

if only i could find some time to research the topic more deeply . . . no. not going to happen. not with two small kids.

so it's settled: a paper presented at a windy, propagandistic conference on the eternal glories of confucian culture will have to do.

Monday, February 23, 2015

some murders are better than others

the sacred right . . . to parking

taking them out

america is a composite structure, at the bottom a nation-state occupying a certain territory; above, an empire stretching across the world. the fact that the two are commonly lumped together tends to confuse these two entities in the minds of citizens. this confusion is very convenient to the pillars of empire -- arms makers, security subcontractors, the 'intelligence community' (sounds so benign!), transnational corporations, and the politicians and government institutions which service the whole network of power. the 'military industrial complex' described by eisenhower.

the empire is in many senses distant from the lives of ordinary americans. without a draft, the empire is freed to fight many long-running wars with little intrusion onto daily routine. the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a direct response to american imperial power, but people since the Cold War were so tuned out of the existence of empire -- in the very decade it expanded by leaps and bounds across previously Soviet-dominated or allied regions -- that the attacks seemed no more explicable than a sudden execrescence of evil itself.

no rhyme or reason. such (supposed) surprise was, again, very convenient to the empire politically: the more unpredictable and mad these foreign opponents of empire can be made to seem, the more likely will americans unquestioningly support the imperial structure, much as Russians foolishly cling to Putin, even though a rational view would hold that he is ruining Russia in the long run. like the empire, Putin also benefits from terrorism -- especially since most people don't care to know the context of this terrorism, particularly the state terrorism of the US or Russia.

as distant as empire is, our culture is colored by it in subtle and blatant ways. our language, for instance. the phrase 'take them out' has gone from being a tough-guy military phrase to one so mundane that even news anchors and house wives use it. let's compare it to how killing is described by arabic-speaking terrorists. they often use the word 'slaughter,' highlighting the brutal character of the killing they are about to undertake. the victim is turned linguistically into an animal awaiting the knife, the fire. 'take them out' is quite different. it downplays the violence of killing. this downplaying, this deadpanning, is in keeping with the modern american culture of cool, or emotional control. we get a sense of detachment, which is also in keeping with how we wage wars -- from a distance, by drone or by professional military (and attached mercenaries). the terrorist language does the opposite, emphasizing the physical, gory closeness of killer and killed. at least the word 'slaughter' is honest.

after all, people blown apart by drone are as slaughtered as are those killed personally by men in masks.

the macho detachment in american culture turns my stomach; it nourished me growing up, but i can't stand it. especially when it refers to killing. if we -- and here i mean the 'we' of people unwittingly upholding an empire operating against our long-term interests -- are going to kill, we might as well be honest about it. those targets we took out? we slaughtered them.

'take them out' is hypocritical at a deeper level: by evading the full impact of what was done, stylistically at least (we simply removed these enemy units from action, clinically, dispassionately and without hatred), on the one hand, and by embracing and celebrating it -- look how calmly i can throw around the thought of killing, weave it into daily conversation! -- in tone on the other hand.  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

when a language is submerged

my mother-in-law gave me an example of what happens when a language loses its own existence and becomes an adjunct of another, more powerful language. she says lots of young people use a non-taiwanese word for the word 'telephone pole.' it should be 'electric -- talk -- pillar.' (i can't remember how the words sound). but lots of people say 'electric-line-post.' in fact, they are simply using the chinese word, and shifting the pronunciation to taiwanese pronunciation.

a fatal weakness in taiwanese is its lack of an independent and widely used writing system.

even older people's speech is peppered with words that sound to me like chinese, with readjusted pronunciation. i have no doubt that older generations used different words, or maybe did not have a word for the particular thing being named. so this process of sinification has probably been going on for some time.

day two of the new year 初二

day two of the chinese new year is usually when married women can go back to visit their parents. if their parents are dead, they will often go to see their siblings. traffic was terrible that day as we drove to great-grandparent's house; it seemed everyone was on the road, double parked and buying last minute gifts, turning in the wrong place, stopped to buy a late breakfast, whatever. i had never seen tongxiao that busy.

today is day four. people are sort of tying up loose ends, making visits they couldn't do before. one of sara's cousins, now married with kids, stopped by. this morning as i pushed pax out in his stroller a merry group stood in the road, leaving or coming i wasn't sure. the two men, father and son, held beer cans. the father asked if pax would like some beer. the son asked if i had a taiwan residence card.

taiwan is more similar to the US in the ease of talking to strangers. one reason it is easier is lines of separation are clearer, a paradox i struggle to understand.

sara tells me the taiwanese word for gift, 'danlao,' or 'wait in the road,' comes from an old new year's tradition. the married woman returning home would be met halfway by a party from her home. she would bring gifts for them, and then they would lead her there.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

final exam, shandong University

last semester i was forced, finally, to give an official final exam.all the students' names, numbers, and photos are provided to the two test monitors; during the test, school-level inspectors entered the room to check on the monitors. the photos are meant to prevent substitute test-takers.

a seating chart dictates where each student will sit.

  the monitors cut open the official brown sealing strip (red stamp across the seal) and remove the roll of school-printed test forms, as well as forms for the monitors' use (for listing cheaters, for example). i brought my own test question sheet, having modified some questions; the other monitor said i could hand it out as well.