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who we are in the languages we speak

Jan. 7th, 2010 | 12:55 pm

[From student views on language] What I found interesting was the depth of their (students’) awareness of where they were ‘at’ culturally in comparison to their parents. Almost all of the students acknowledged that they had a ‘lacking’ of some sort when it came to their first language and culture. However, they all stated that they were ‘someone’ because of their bilingualism. As one student said, “I feel weird because my Tongan language is not much (spoken), but without it, I'm not much!"

From my findings, I can evaluate that, on a positive note, most Pasifika students in my geography class are keen to use their first language as a ‘hook’ to hang their self-identity on, especially at school. However, these students are not completely confident in using their first languages at home, based on the notion that they are not as well-spoken as their parents or not as culturally engrained as their parents.


[From Alastair Reid on the art of translation] But merely learning another language by way of market and kitchen leaves you stranded on the plateau of daily needs. Living in another language means growing another self. 'The Spanish I was acquiring was devoid of context, for I had no past in that language'.

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reporting somewhere over the western pacific

Dec. 31st, 2009 | 05:21 pm

Richard Rodriguez in Harpers:
In truth, we built the Model-T Ford because we had changed; we wanted to remake the world to accommodate our restlessness. We might now say: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor? The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I.” Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city.

There was that week I watched all five seasons of The Wire and was mightily disoriented every time I wobbled down the stairs to emerge into Yeoksam.

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granta-colored goggles

Dec. 28th, 2009 | 11:21 pm

Scene: two tourists upon their arrival

“Isn’t this great? What a tub? Wonder when they built it—must be before the war.”

“Is it safe, do you think?”

Matano smiles to himself. He looks out at the ferry, and allows himself to see it through their eyes.

Stomach plummets: fear, thrill. Trippy. So real. Smell of old oil, sweat and spices. So exotic.

Color: women in their robes, eyes covered, rimmed with Kohl; other women dark and dressed in skirts and blouses looking drab; other women sort of in-between cultures, a chiffon blouse, and a wraparound sarong with bright yellow, green, and blue designs. Many people are barefoot. An old Arab man, with an emaciated face and a hooked nose, in a white robe, sitting on a platform above, one deformed toenail sweeping up like an Ali Baba shoe. A foot like varnished old wood, full of cracks. He is stripping some stems and chewing the flesh inside. There is a bulge on one cheek, and he spits and spits and spits all the way to the mainland. Brownish spit lands on some rusty metal, pools and trickles, slips off the side onto some rope that lies coiled on the floor.

The tourists’ eyes are transfixed: somewhere between horror and excitement. How real! Must send a piece to Granta.

Same scene through Matano’s eyes:

Abdullahi is chewing miraa again, a son of Old Town society: banished son of one of the Coast’s oldest Swahili families, who abandoned the trucking business for the excitement of sex, drugs, and Europop (had a band that did Abba covers in hotels, in Swahili, dressed in kanzus: Waterloo, niliamua kukupenda milele . . . ). Now he is too old to appeal to the German blondes looking for excitement in a hooked nose, and cruel desert eyes. To the Euro-wielding market, there are no savage (yet tender) Arab sheiks in Mills and Boon romance books anymore; Arabs are now gun-toting losers, or compilers of mezze platters, or servers of humus, or soft-palmed mummy’s boys in European private schools. There are no Abba fans under sixty, now that everyone listens to Eminem and Tupak.

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family vacation pictures

Dec. 28th, 2009 | 02:29 am

this is sorta wonderful. i know there are other artists who recreate childhood photos, but in this case, the motion makes the meaning.

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mutilated metaphor for the day

Dec. 14th, 2009 | 07:14 pm

Have decided the stuff we buy function like concrete tetrapods scattered to prevent erosion at the crumbling shore of our personality. Bulwarks against all the other people you could be if you bought all the other stuff there is to buy. You're not necessarily trying to convince anyone but yourself. Books in particular, because I need reminders about what I like and what matters. If you took the shelves of my room you might be able to reconstruct me.

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two girls in hoodies with fuzzy bear ears

Dec. 12th, 2009 | 01:20 am

Back in Seoul for the holidays.

So many Korean cheeks to pinch, the couple eating their matching toasted sandwiches, the two girls in hoodies with fuzzy bear ears, the grampa singing his way down Yongsan tunnel, the pink-outfitted girl with whiskers drawn on her two cheeks (During the literary translation class, I learned that in Korean, you must count cheeks as you describe them. Her cheeks cannot be rosy, it is always her two cheeks that are rosy!). 두 뺨 너 뺨 나 뺨!

Something to listen to on a bus:

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three weeks now

Oct. 3rd, 2009 | 03:04 am

The first Friday I got here I tottered to downtown Honolulu to see a performance of The Statehood Project at Kumu Kahua Theatre. 18 sketches on what the last 50 years of statehood has meant to people in Hawai'i that has prodded me to pondering. "Last star on, first star off." (square roots are better anyway) Ambivalence about statehood isn't that uncommon, see Sarah Palin's husband, Texas, the part of Oregon sometimes known as Jefferson Republic, and Live Free or Die New Hampshire, though a lot of those secessionist/Don't Tread On Me movements seem more inspired by gibbering fear of the federal government than any sense of ancestral and spiritual connection to the land. (Pretty much most discussions of states' rights make me think of either the 1860s or the 1960s.)

Last year when I came to Oahu, a relative or maybe a family friend produced the common ex-post-facto rationalization of annexation that I hear from apologists for colonial rule in Asia or neo-con hawks shopping at Nation Depot for their next build-it-yourself democracy project. "Look how much better off Hawai'i is compared to those other Pacific islands." America brought civilization and spam to the luau, woohoo.

Characters in the Statehood Project echoed this impatience with the sovereignty movement. The high school kid in the piece "Detention" dismissed activist persistence with offhand valley girl skepticism, "take over Iolani Palace again?" So what if the 1893 overthrow of an independent kingdom was illegal, taking over some building wasn't going to change anything now. (Maybe spreading old ideas of land usage is a better repertoire of contention.)

I think a lot about localness wherever I go, maybe to the point of self-conscious paralysis. Honolulu resident with one lei. Freshly minted. What's the value of pronouncing Hawai'i correctly? Should you signal you don't belong/you don't care/you want to belong/you just got here? I think about all the times I cringed as Korean places and names were butchered and yes, I fully acknowledge revised romanization is torturous at first glance (Yeouido? All the vowels but A in a row? really????) So the tourist staring at the subway map before announcing he's headed to Elijah-ro (for Euljiro), the U.S. Armed Forces Korea dj with alternate pronunciations for even major military bases. Depending on the day, I didn't always lodge a complaint against the casual brutality of carelessness. After all, you aren't from there.

A Japanese American character in the Statehood Project used the word "settler" to describe her family. We don't belong here. Maybe three vignettes later a real samurai grampa argued for shared suffering as a sufficient toll. "We bleed on this land too." A sovereignty activist in one of the last pieces alluded to Gov. Lingle with a bitter aside about his cat named Linda who only paid attention to him when she needed something and seemed to have forgotten that she was living in his house. Who has a right to be anywhere. When do you decide you get to belong? ("Where are you really from" she asks the little Asian girl.) Birth, blood, the passage of time? Hell, maybe activists should set up an immigration checkpoint outside the airport and make tourists get another visa stamp for entry to the Hawaiian kingdom.

Two months ago I wrote a 1000 word article about travelling in Laos that blubbered happily about all the sustainable tourism outfits. Tourism here (thanks Mark Twain) got started a lot earlier before niceties such as local-owned businesses. Another line that reverberated in my Spam-saturated skull: "scream quietly or the tourists will hear. D'you wanna scare the wallets away?"

Anyway, still thinking and reading but for the time being, a multiple choice question.

What can be taken away from you
- language
- name
- religion
- land
- self-determination

P.S. What I learned about state history during junior high school in Illinois was a splash of Great Man Canonization (license plate "Land of Lincoln"), some childish cracks about Mrs. O'Leary's arsonist cow, and a few barely audible mutters about the people who had lived along the shores of Lake Michigan before the slaughterhouses, the St. Patrick's Day parade, and John Hughes.

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deep structure

Aug. 30th, 2009 | 11:01 am

The authors delineate three different styles of identity adopted by children of immigrants —“ethnic flight” (abandoning their own ethnic group and mimicking the dominant group), “adversarial identities” (constructing identity in opposition to the mainstream culture and its institutions), and “transcultural [bicultural] identities” (developing competence to function in both cultures). (From a review of Children of Immigration by Carola Suárez-Orozco and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco)

I asked a few friends when they felt/feel the most "Korean", however they choose to define Koreanness (a fondness for sweet pickles with pizza, a hyperawareness of age). Probably all of us have contracted one strain of transculturality or another, just by extended exposure to more than one culture and language, regardless of ancestry. But transculturality seems deeper than the habits enumerated in the "You know you've been in Korea too long when you..."lists (the type compiled by expats chuckling over scissors as a fine dining tool, or maybe and a rueful recognition that scissors are just more practical in getting the job done).

They discuss the issue through two concepts, “instrumental culture”—“the skills, competencies, and social behaviors that are required to successfully make a living and contribute to a society” (p. 156) — and “expressive culture” –- “the realm of values, worldviews, and patterning of interpersonal relations that give meaning and sustain the sense of self” (Children of Immigration)

Anyway, I'm still mucking around in incoherence here, but I think the distinction between instrumental culture and expressive culture is what I need to delineate. The "You know you are Korean American when you..." lists have some surface shibboleths (nubby long underwear and BYC socks) but it's in the interpersonal relations (running barefoot down the driveway after departing guests calling 안녕히가세요) where I felt the most Korean, even deliberately constructed Asian American prep school me.



peru public art
From Wooster Collective

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the NYT sometimes ends articles with jawdroppers

Aug. 5th, 2009 | 09:39 am

“He was a cruel man but he led our country to greatness,” said Munkochir at the Chinggis Khaan bar... “If you look at Lincoln, Hitler and Julius Caesar, it’s kind of the same thing.”

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some chapters from my book "Re-learning to Live in America" (self-published, 2009)

Jul. 31st, 2009 | 04:23 pm

Chapter Three. Halloween is important here, even if you aren't a kid.
Amy Stein's Halloween in Harlem project

Chapter Twelve. Banks charge you for crazy stuff, especially when you are broke.

Chapter Fifteen. People you pass on the street will give you unsolicited advice, most often when you are in a bad mood. Usually men.

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