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.   

leaving port

it is funny, sort of, thinking back to my leaving taiwan last year to return to shandong in late february. i decided to try the ferry, which i had heard about from one of sara's friends. a four hour sailing to fujian province across the strait. i was so nervous on the way to taichung harbor. i had not travelled alone in quite a long time. the day seemed fine, a slight wind; on facebook i had written that it seemed a good day for sailing.

the slow movement out of port elated me: the stately ships and loading cranes sliding sedately by. the sun shone, i stood on the ferry's stern, some staff chatted with me; the worst part -- leaving sara and the kids behind and getting on the ship, alone -- was behind me. then the staff person next to me commented, 'it is going to be a rough sail.' really, i said, taken aback. 'just look over there,' he said, pointing to the long break water protecting the harbor's mouth from the north. it had just come into view.

on this side of the cement barrier, placid green water. on the other side, an angry ocean, churning grey. not ten seconds after he had said those words and ducked inside, the 700-seat ship began to rise and dip. and then to heave. a minute later, a huge wave crashed against the north side of the ship and splashed down over me. i staggered inside, dripping, holding onto seat backs.

a miserable-looking snack counter staffer handed me a packet of tissues without a word. there would be no sales at the snack counter. people hunkered down over puke sacks.

thank god, a half hour later or so the captain had mercy and slowed the ship, saving us the terrifying sensation of the vessel taking air off large waves and crashing back down, the shock shuddering loudly through the entire superstructure and nearly knocking us from our seats. but the horrible hong kong police movie didn't let up, the same arrogant, wronged tones of the villain speaking, hour after hour it felt, the same slow enunciation, the same heroic violence, depressing underworld, sadistic cruelty against hostages for their children to see, upscale bar, women threatened and saved. . .

it was getting dark by the time we finally docked next to a huge building on a desolate coast.