Thursday, March 29, 2007

Speak of the future...

Just a little after writing yesterday's post I happened to check the BBC News website, and lo and behold: US 'no longer technology king'. So it's happened already. I wonder how long it will take until the reality sinks in here. One day, there will be a lot of wounded national pride here - especially because this is the only Western country I've been in that, well, has any significant amount of national pride outside the soccer world cup. National pride is very last century and, frankly, not very compatible with globalization. It may be very easy to say for a person who regards citizenship as a red tape game, but it's true. Nation-states probably won't disappear, but their importance is declining. Fortunately for America, not everyone is blind to this problem. Curtis Stalbank makes fun of the implications of nationalism in the 21st century in his op-ed I'm Prepared To Give My Life For This Or Any Country on The Onion.

In a sidebar to the technology article, I saw that the BBC reports that Nordics show way in sex equality. Yet another matter that the US is assuming they are leading the world in, when they are in fact in need of playing catch-up and don't even realize it. As the Swedes would say: Högmod går före fall.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Generation e - or x?

I've been listening to a radio station I created on Pandora Internet Radio from the song Encore Un Fois by Sash!. (It was a huge hit in the 90s in Europe.) So, I've been getting a mix of trance and goa, mostly, and listening to that while calculating things from some data has made me think about The Future and how it's imagined in different cultures. I come back to this from time to time, because as a young global person it's hard not to notice how people imagine the future and how they see their role in it may differ a lot from how I see it. When I listen to electronic music in general, whether it be trip-hop, trance or drum and bass, I feel like I'm striding into a new global world that will overturn the world of my parents. I feel like I belong to a new generation that understands the globalized world and globalized technology better than my parents' generation did, and we're moving the world in new directions. My work is to discover new things. To discover new science, I am also seeing the world socially in a new way. I feel like a vanguard of change. But when I look around, I don't feel connected to those my age around me. They don't seem to be interested in new ideas and visions of the world, nor aware of that the world has changed in the first place.

It's striking to me how there is an almost absence of ideas among young people in America of what the future will be like. No bold visions of instant metal connectivity to the internet via implanted wireless cards in your head. No huge LCD screens in public. No visions of a Brave New World that we are building. And no alternative vision. People - young and old alike - seem to lumber on in some kind of certainty that tomorrow will be like today, except perhaps will bigger televisions and smaller mobiles. No one seems too aware that those smaller mobiles will likely be developed outside the US and then imported here, nor that the best mobile telephony standards weren't developed here. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that technical vocabulary isn't used very much here, not even for something as commonplace as mobiles. Very, very few Americans know what an SMS is. They say "text message". Very few of them know what a SIM card is, nor what SIM cards have to do with GSM and (not) CDMA. American mobile companies' websites don't even use these terms - multiple band phones are referred to as "international phones", making it difficult to know what you're buying. Even calling them to ask is difficult, because the service representatives don't always know either. I've never heard anyone mention - in conversations or in news broadcasts - anything about 3G.

Many of my friends listen to the same music that their parents listened to. There's nothing wrong with that, per se. It's good music that has stood the test of time better than I expect many bands and songs currently getting airplay on the radio here to. However, there is no new youth movement. Without raves and rave culture, their parents know and understand everything that they do. This generation isn't creating its own voice. There is no new dream to replace the dying American Dream. No one plans for a future where we travel more and more. Both generation e and the Erasmus generation are missing in action. Young people in Europe and Australia, and to at least some extent Asia, are creating a new vision around PLUR (Peace Love Understanding Respect) and meeting to celebrate it in clubs and at raves worldwide. Americans are left out. Indeed, many Americans, especially older ones, seem to view the world through the lens of that it's still the '70s, and those damn hippies are still around. People who care about the environment must be damn communist hippies, not rational (and often conservative!). Very little transformation of that pop culture imagery has occurred. Americans overall seem very blind to just how much the world has changed, in so many ways, since the 70s. They seem almost stuck in the past.

Sometimes it feels like the winds of change are blowing all around, except here, where the air is stagnating. While young people elsewhere area learning how to wind surf, people here are suntanning. Suntanning can be nice and all, but there's only so long I can lie on a beach. I can't help but get the feeling that when the waves and winds of globalization hit the suntanners on the beach, it will be a very cold shock indeed. It seems like when people here get hit by spray from the waves, they think it's raining and ask for an umbrella. The day it is no longer possible to think it's just rain, and it's painfully obvious a tide is coming in, what will they do? There's no vision now, how can you construct one while you're busy scrambling in suprise?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Relationships to food

This morning, I stopped by the new postdoc's office to offer some settling-in support. He just arrived from Germany, where he got his Ph. D., although he's Spanish. His wife is here in the chemistry department, so he wanted to come here, and my advisor is old friends with his advisor. I mentioned not bothering to eat American food, and he said they'd already reached that conclusion and are eating at home, just like me. I recently saw dealing with American food likened to shellshock. That's probably not far off the mark. It's definetly a shock when you first come here/come back here. It's almost like a caricature, with mountains of food served on serving-platter-sized plates and half of the menu fried. Supermarkets are huge, like the Americans themselves, and carry meter after shelf meter of processed and frozen food. You actually have to find the fresh foods among them. Then your eyes glaze over, and you only see the fruit and vegetable, bread, meat and dairy sections and consider the shelves between them transport stretches. But every so often, something happens to revive the original shock, like eating out at a restaurant and being faced with so much food that eating feels like a chore or you plain lose your appetite. Sometimes I feel like a child in a world where everything is adult-sized, because living here is like being a child again, where everything is too big for you, and you need special kid-sized versions of everything. Except I'm not going to 'grow up' and find everything sized just right this time. Whoever said that Chinese are obsessed with fresh food must have been an American, because I've never seen a country so uninterested in fresh food. (I thought Chinese supermarkets carry a lot of preserved and frozen food.)

I didn't have leftovers to bring for lunch today, and I forgot about it until this morning. After missing two buses, I was so hungry I went out to eat, albeit grudgingly, because I'm tired of American junk food and didn't want to pay a lot of money for something I don't like. I walked another route than I usually do, and walked past a Chinese restaurant called 萬家香, I guess roughly translated into English as 'The fragrance of ten thousand home kitchens', and had a look at the menu. I saw 黑椒牛肉 (black pepper beef), which I have been looking for here but haven't seen yet. I didn't see 魚香茄字 (I've seen it translated as fragrant eggplant, but the literal translation is fish-smelling eggplant - fish-smelling sauce doesn't really smell like fish to me, but it's one of those common fixed-recipe sauces you can put on all kinds of things), which is one of my favorite dishes, but I figured they can probably make it whether it's on the menu or not. It was in a small, unassuming strip-mall-like set of storefronts - the American version of a hole in the wall. So I went in and ordered black pepper beef. I got the usual compliments on my Chinese, and the usual "You speak like a Beijing person!" comment. (I add 兒 (like an American 'r') to many words that don't have them in pure putonghua (gong1 yuar2 公元兒 instead of gong1 yuan2 公元, mer 門兒 instead of men 門), and use forms of words that are Beijing dialect like zhar4 這兒 and nar3 哪兒 instead of zhe4 這 and na3 哪) I asked if there was tea, and there was. As I sat down, I noticed I was the only Westerner in the restaurant. And then I felt at home.

I got free soup and my food was called out in Chinese, not English. It was a distant proximity. America and China were mixed. It was an American hole in the wall where I was the 外国人 wai4guo2ren2 (foreigner - but its reference point in Chinese is always China for me, whereas in English it's not so clear, even though 'foreigner' in English has taken on some of the connotation of the Chinese word for me). Free soup for Chinese skills, and only the real foreigner - who walked in later - got their food called in English.

I realized while eating my food that a 外国人 is exactly what I was there. Not American, not Swedish, not European. My Chinese tells people I'm from Beijing, not where the genes for my pale face and tall height came from. I've thought about this in China as well. I broadcast my third-cultureness in being a foreigner who speaks putonghua with a Beijing accent. Everyone knows I'm not like them, but I'm not like other foreigners either. It's a very comfortable place to be.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Day in a TCKs Family Life

I often eat breakfast on the phone with my mother, because both of our jobs are independent to the point of being lonely sometimes. This morning, my father was still at home, because he had a flight to catch mid-morning and figured he could save time by working from home instead of going in to the office. He was in a talkative mood and asked to talk to me. I told him about my automatic coffeemaker, because he's stubbornly insisted on brewing coffee the old-fashioned way, he mentioned he flew over the city I live in yesterday and how convenient those flight times were, we talked about what kinds of financial holdings outside the US you need to report to the IRS (Internal Revenue Service, the American tax agency), whether the divedends from my mutual funds in Europe are big enough to need reporting (which I didn't think, because I've never seen any information on that I should, and they're not large enough for me to be taxed for them locally), and then he said he had to go to Peru, and he handed the phone back to my mother.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Global Culturati Community and Forums

Last night, I found an interesting online community called Global Culturati. It's small right now, but it has message boards, something I wish my page had. When I first found out I was a TCK, I had an intense need to talk to someone else who was. Perhaps this can be like a Usenet group for talking and connecting, but one that people might actually find. I hope the community continues to grow and discussions develop further. I joined up. Let's see where this goes.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Waging Peace

The Globalist has reprinted parts of a speech by de Villepin to the UN Security Council before the war in Iraq began. I wish the US would have listened. The US is dangerously out of step with changing global realities that they are both subject to and help shape. They also seem to have forgotten - or never learned in the first place - the lessons that Europe learned the hard way in the past 500 years or so, especially in the 20th century. Europe shed volumes of blood and tears to learn the value of peace and of diplomacy and negotiation, and the impossibility of waging a humane war. There is no need for the Iraqi people to teach the Americans with their own blood and tears the same lesson.

The US military could be a wonderful, positive force in the world. If it were used to save civilian lives in places like northern Uganda, to save children from being child soldiers, to save women from rape, to enforce the arrest warrants of the International Criminal Court to bring perpetrators of crimes against humanity and genocide to justice in a legal due process, its capacity for death could be used in the most constructive way possible. Alas, this will never happen as long as nation-states and their military organizations conceive of themselves as agents only of their own national good.

Every country needs to understand that our fates are all linked together, and we need to behave accordingly. Some countries have understood this better than others, but none as fully as I think is needed in the future.

Concert traditions

I recently attended a concert by the National Philharmonic of Russia, conducted by Vladimir Spivakov. The highlight of the evening was Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. I played that piece as a second violin in an orchestra that was a fusion of professional and student players, and it was a blast. Being there, hearing the piece that I've played myself (but not nearly as well as the National Philharmonic), made me think of concert traditions here and there.

When we lived in Sweden, I learned how to play the violin and eventually became the concertmaster of our school symphony orchestra. My parents, my mother especially, considered theater plays, operas and concerts as Events To Go To, and brought me along when I was old enough to sit still and at least somewhat appreciate it. As a result, I was brought up in the cultural tradition of especially symphonic orchestras in the Western tradition. Or perhaps I should say European tradition. I have noticed before that outside Europe, in or out of Western countries, people do not have the same set of cultural rules for proper behavior as I do. Now, Sweden never has been one of the great centers of cultural influence in Europe, and for most of its history has been somewhat of a backwater, really. If one can acquire that set of rules for proper behavior there, odds are good they're general for Europe.

When I walk into a concert venue, I feel underdressed unless I am wearing something significantly nicer than I would wear to school. Now that I'm older and am generally expected (more in my head than by my actual American environment) to dress better than as a child, the difference is less marked, but it remains. Men are lucky; they can go from work to a concert, since suits are suits. But I should be wearing high-heeled shoes, either fine pants or a skirt, a blouse, and some jewelry. A dress is even better. (It should be noted this is difficult during large parts of the year in Sweden, where anything presentable when it comes to shoes is miserably too cold to wear outside - so one has to bring two pairs of shoes. One just cannot clomp into a concert hall in winter boots of the sort that are actually practical in Sweden in winter.) When I walk in, I straighten up and hold my head high.

Elsewhere, I can slouch or have unbrushed hair while obsessing over some calculation at work. In a concert hall, I cannot. One must speak discreetly, exercise one's best manners, and carry oneself with some pride and dignity. It's Eurocentric ideas of proper behavior and dress full blast. Children are scolded or corrected when they slouch, when they put their feet up on the seat in front of them or when they speak loudly. And here, I know from an honest examination of myself, there is little tolerance for other customs. Children and foreigners are only excused for their natural ignorance for so long. Failure to behave according to the proper norms will result in social outsidership. To the extent that the norms change, they change slowly, as modernity changes reality. Entrance to this world is contingent on the right dress and the right behavior. Those children who do not learn will slowly be rejected as they become older as being of lower class or as a little uncultured. Foreigners who do not learn will be declared resistant to integrate or a little ignorant, regardless of skin color - Americans in shorts and t-shirts need not apply. And those children who never had a chance to learn will certainly be looked upon as lower-class adults, no matter how much money they have - at least while they're in the concert hall.

My mother has often whispered to me about someone else's improper behavior to make clear that I should not do the same. The negative implications of not knowing how to behave never needed explaining. It was in her voice, and others' faces. What to wear, when to applaud, how to applaud - it's all culturally transmitted as part of a system of social codes to use to communicate in a concert hall.

People with different cultural and socioeconomic perspectives may have different opinions on this. Personally, I am torn. Perhaps this is one of the most difficult issues for me to consider from a global perspective, because this concert culture is absent elsewhere, and I'm not sure what an appropriate equivalent tradition might be. I have only grown up with the European view, with nothing to counter it.

On one hand, this is a European tradition. On the other, European classical music is known, played and studied worldwide. At what point should what was a local tradition change into a global tradition? At what point does considering a previously local tradition a global one become imperialism? At what point does continuing to consider a previously local tradition that is spreading elsewhere local become imperialism? I do not know the answers. I'm not sure I know how to start answering. In part, this is because I know I do not know non-Europeans' relationship to classical European music, not even the Americans'. I will never fully know, because I know the European relation all too well. (Including the disinterest that most young people have in it.)

My best impression is that in the States, very few people are raised with anything resembling my experience of playing in a symphony orchestra in high school. Instead, as with so many things European and/or old, it seems to be something Americans use to declare themselves "cultural." I recently ordered coffee from Gevalia, who clearly has an excellent cultural advisory team for North American operations, because in their coffee catalogue they do not only sell coffee - but all kinds of other things (that Gevalia has no expertise in making, I have to note), including something called "Coffee Treats Recipe and Music Set", described as "A delightful duo: luscious recipes to serve with coffee and music to enjoy while baking them. Includes a CD (made in USA) of Bach's Branderburg Concertos Nos. 2,3,4 and 5, with recipes for ginger scones, lemon poppyseed bread, health nut muffins and more, a total of 16 recipes (imported)." Now, I've never been served lemon poppyseed bread anywhere but the US, and I certainly don't know a lot of Europeans who spend their days listening to Bach and making little coffee treats. The most European thing about this set is that it includes recipes insted of mixes or ready-made cookies. Gevalia is already pumping Americans' perception of anything European as "refined" for all that it's worth. I can't blame them, from a profit point of view. However, it may say more about Americans' ideas about European cultural traditions than it does about Europe.

At the concert and ballet performances I've been to in the US, it's obvious that many or most of the audience do not feel the finger of shame pointing at them for improper behavior. From the program selections, it is also evident that many or most of the audience has not been exposed to symphonic music or ballet to any great extent. I've gotten the impression that audiences here go for light entertainment or to be able to claim that they are "cultural" and/or "refined". This is rather ironic to me, as in the process of trying to be refined they are busy excommunicating themselves from the European tradition they are trying to belong to. It is also clear that there isn't enough people - at least not where I have lived, but I hope it is different in at least New York - that know the European traditions to pass them on to audiences and performers. There is nothing wrong with not knowing the European tradition - after all, where would one learn it other than Europe? - but pretending to be part of it is just silly. The European concert tradition isn't very flexible. Either you conform to it - and accept the judgements of others for improper behavior - or you do something else.

Here is where I am not sure what to think. The thought of accepting the behavior of some Americans (and therefore other non-Europeans) at concerts and ballets makes me wince. After all, this is a tradition we are talking about. Symphonic concerts are not a supermarket commodity you can order in any color you want. This music has a rich tradition, both of composers, virtuosos and of study and technique. Those who study, play and listen to it today are continuing the tradition, perhaps even as they change it. If you learn to play the violin, you will play in that tradition. You will be taught norms of beauty and of skill. You will be taught what to do when you want to applaud someone when you have a violin in one hand and a bow in another and have no more hands to clap with. You will be taught how to show the conductor respect, and will learn how s/he shows respect for you as a musician. As an audience member, you will be taught how to let the musicians know that you appreciated what they played. You will be taught how to ask the orchestra to play more after they are done. You will be taught how to welcome them and how to show any previous high expectations of them. You will learn how to let a particular solist know that they played well without interrupting the music. The norms of behavior also fill practical functions of communicating between a mass of people in the audience and the orchestra both as a whole and in parts. To throw out that communication in the name of diversity wouldn't help anyone.

However, as classical music is studied and played outside Europe, perhaps it's not fair to ask either musicians nor audiences to be familiar with the full European tradition. It is a tradition of the sort that is transmitted fully from person to person, not on paper or by general descriptions. It is also a tradition embedded in a larger general set of ideas of behavior. My parents attended a concert by Li Yundi - a piano prodigy that's probably the best pianist I've ever heard - in Chongqing. It was the first leg of a world tour, starting with several stops in China. Li Yundi is from Chongqing, and therefore he started his tour there. They said that the concert was breathtaking - my mother, who never liked Chopin very much, suddenly became a fan of Chopin when played by Li - but that despite requests for parents to keep their children in order, there were children playing and yelling at the very front of the hall, disturbing the music. Our reactions were to be appalled. Apparently this was also Li's reaction, because no children were allowed at any of the subsequent China concerts. I do not know where Li studied music, so I don't know whether banning children from the concerts came from Chinese or European thought, or both. But it is conceivable that he is part of the European tradition of classical music. In that case - what does it mean for a Chinese musician trained in the European tradition to ask Chinese audiences to conform, at least nominally, to European norms of concert behavior? Is this expansion of what was previously exclusively an European tradition into a more global and less exclusive tradition? Or is this cultural imperialism?

My practical solution, perhaps characteristic of the cultural switching I do anyway, is to apply the original cultural traditions, no matter who is edging into their territory or where those people are located. If European classical music is played somewhere, I expect all people present at the concert, European or not, to use the European traditional standard of behavior. I don't see it as being different from learning to play the erhu and sticking to traditional Chinese music, or following folk music traditions when playing folk music, or becoming part of the style of African traditional music. But what the ideological implications of my solution are, I'm not sure. Sometimes it seems declaring certain things to be Europe's way or the highway isn't accepted, and there certainly is a danger in doing so. But in a sense the tradition is a meritocracy - if you master the tradition, clearly you are part of it. Li Yundi and Vanessa-Mae (Chen Mei) are examples of ethnically and culturally (in the case of Li Yundi) Asian people who have been accepted and acclaimed as continuing European traditions. It is hardly the case that whiteness or Europeanness is a passkey; the system functions in fact in part to distinguish between some white Europeans and other white Europeans. It has developed during a time when almost everyone residing in Europe was a native, white European. Colonial and post-colonial (as well as revolutionary and post-revolutionary) debates about European classical music are recent and can perhaps be left behind, if not completely, then in large part for a more global and simultaneously inclusive and exclusive view of traditions. Perhaps one day, we will lose the epithet 'European', and it will just be one musical tradition among others that are widely practiced, but one that must be adhered to in order to be said to be part of it.