02/28/13

Who’s Afraid of China?

I’ll be giving a keyonte at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s first annual Asian Studies Undergraduate Research Conference, title “Who’s Afraid of China?” One of the pleasures of writing the talk was the opportunity to go back to these sentences, which I wrote in 2002, whose context was the shift caused by 9/11, in which we went from potentially being enemies of China (you’ll remember the Belgrade embassy bombing of 1999 and the spy plane controversy of 2001) to being allies in the war on Muslim terror.

The insistence on Chineseness as a particularly odd combination of ancient past and scientific future has clearly demonstrated its ability to resurface when needed. Should the geopolitics change again, we will find ourselves right back in the middle of more “coming conflict” literature, perhaps this time forced to work against it in the face of events that will make its predictions seem all the more prescient.

I don’t make predictions much, but this one has come delightfully and perfectly true, so I feel obliged to brag about it. Of course, no one since 1600 would have ever lost money betting on the eventual appearance of anti-Chinese Yellow Perilist sentiment, which will make my back-patting fairly mild.

02/11/13

Air pollution in China: alpha/omega?

Useful and interesting discussion at China File on “airpocalypse now.”

Quote from Alex Wang to set up the discussion:

My own view is that China’s tipping point, in a sense, already arrived a few years ago. But the official response has been wholly inadequate to the task. Fundamental weaknesses in the way that China has approached its environmental protection efforts mean that the environmental crisis has continued to run amok.

Put all this in the “why I’m down on China” file, whose contents explain why my family will not be spending my 2013-14 sabbatical there.

01/9/13

Slurp!: An Interview

I had a great time talking with Barak Kushner about his recent book on the history of ramen in Japan and beyond. You can listen to our conversation here.

(For a list of previous interviews on NBEAS, click me.)

12/8/12

Goodbye to Aleppo

For Inna, Jörg and Ilonka

 

Clashes are raging in the Syrian city of Aleppo as government troops and rebel forces battle for control. (DemocracyNow! Headlines, July 24, 2012)

Whereas I used to follow the reports on the popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, I have caught myself shunning news from Syria, especially the visual footage from the urban battlefields: Daraa-Damascus-Hama- … When about two years ago the tumult of the Arab Spring broke out in the Middle East, an anxious thought of Syria immediately crossed my mind. I expected Syria to join. Knowing the country’s uneasy political past, I sensed how badly it was likely to turn out. The long-lasting silence from Syria was ambiguous: It could be a sign that Syria was doing better and would be able to solve its long suppressed conflicts by taking a path of reform. Or maybe it was the silence of a population too broken in spirit to mount a protest. Deep down, however, this silence gave me hope that Syria might be spared this time the bloodshed of post-revolutionary Egypt and especially that of the excruciatingly brutal civil war in Libya. When the protests finally started, I did not follow them. Glancing only briefly at the headlines, I inexplicably and for a long time hurried to turn away to something else. I did not want to dwell on my reaction, until suddenly in mid-summer I saw Aleppo in the headlines.

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11/30/12

On the Phone

It was a few years back, at some big reception at the Goethe-Institut or the British Council, in Hong Kong or Taipei– forgive me, I’ve been to a lot of parties. (The fact that I can’t remember the details doesn’t mean I had an exceptionally good time.) As my friend and I were navigating the big room, looking for anyone we knew, I heard some French being spoken over to the side, and halloed: “Bonjour les francophones!” The answer came back: “Pas francophones, nous sommes français.”

The category corrective meant this: although in principle all French-speakers are Francophones, because that’s what the word means (Frankos, “French,” plus “phonê,” voice*), in practice the word is restricted to “people who speak French or something like it, and aren’t French.” French people don’t refer to themselves as francophones, unless by chance they work for the ministerial office of Francophonie, which really exists. The office, that is, exists; it exists in order to make Francophonie, a virtual nation spread out through Europe, Africa, North America, the Caribbean and parts of Asia, exist. The large area of Francophonie is to the small country of France like a sail that pulls the boat ahead into future history and away from extinction. But when it comes down to it, to be a mere Francophone is, as my interlocutors showed with their instantaneous reaction, a second-best to being French.

It would be more normal for France to count itself among Francophone nations, but what would that take? A definitive overcoming of colonial relations between the ex-metropole and the former outposts? A stronger sense among French that their place in the world depends on that of their fellows in Francophonie?

Languages have wobbly borders that don’t usually coincide with states, citizenships, or ethnicities. It is useful– sometimes, even, useful to nations– to have a way of referring to speech communities apart from political jurisdictions. In the case of Francophonie, to mark the difference that follows (perhaps, too, that which preceded) political independence; in the case of Sinophonie, to mark the difference between the big nation that thinks of itself as the One True China and the other nations, areas or diasporic groups that use the Chinese language** while carrying a variety of passports.

Sinophonie? Does anyone say that? Sinophonia? In French, the suffix “-phonie” is what the linguists call productive, that is, it confers meaning on the compounds to which it is attached. I might refer to a Mexican village as “Tlotzilophone,” to distinguish it from the Hispanophone one just to its north. If you never heard of Tlotzil, you’d now know that it was a language, the language spoken throughout Tlotzilophonie. But the power of the suffix to make sense weakens when it’s carried over into English (as it has been probably only a handful of times).

When people talk about “the sinophone”– to back up my last assertion, the suffix seems almost exclusively destined to a career among adjectives– in English, it’s not to exclude Big China, or is it? I’ve heard people speak of “Sinophone literature” in such a way as to exclude what we might call “Chinese and Taiwanese literature,” in other words to reserve the sinophone label for cases where Chinese is used as a minority language. At other times I’ve heard people use “sinophone” in the inclusive sense, meaning all Chinese-speaking areas including the putative Chinas. (Chinese, however you define it, is hardly a minority language in China, though those who know a little more about the place will chip in here to remind us that there are plenty of non-Sinophone citizens of Big China, people who speak languages related to Turkic or Thai or Tibetan, for example, and have putonghua or another topolect of Chinese only as an auxiliary language.)

“Sinophone” operates as a calque on “Francophone,” as the application of the logic of Francophonie to the domain of Chinese extraterritorial speech. But that analogy is sure to hiccup, like all analogies, at certain points. Some, but not all, Francophone regions are populated by descendants of French emigrants, as virtually all of Sinophonia (I think) is populated by descendants of Chinese emigrants. Other regions, the majority in both area and population, are Francophone as a result of conquest or enslavement. That might be true of some areas of China too, but in a far more distant past. And at another level, the persistence of French had to do with the exportation of educational protocols by the Grande Nation herself, something that wasn’t obviously true of the Middle Kingdom in recent decades but now, with the Confucius Institutes, is perhaps taking form.

The relevance of “-phone” comes into view when there is a doubt about the coincidence of nationality and language– that much I’m sure of. But just what the relations of inclusion and exclusion are, and how they came about, and to what degree the different “-phonies” are usefully talked about as a set, are all up in the air for me. What do you say, Shu-mei Shih? Victor Mair? Can I get you on the phone?


* The residual purist in me shudders at the Latin-Greek kludge. In Greek “Frangoi” are Franks, i.e., Western Europeans. “Gallophone” would be the Greek-Greek suture, but no longer recognizable to any French speakers but perhaps Gaullists or Gaulois.
** More accurately, “a Chinese language.” And the mechanism whereby these languages are recognized as Chinese has little to do with speech, phonê, but mostly with the writing system. A poor workman blames his tools.

11/8/12

The New Asian City: An Interview

I recently spoke with Jini Kim Watson about  her fascinating book on fictions of urban transformation in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. You can listen to our conversation for New Books in East Asian Studies here.

10/22/12

Lost Vegas

I just spent three days in Las Vegas, to which I must reluctantly return in another three days for another conference. I have to say that it’s the most horrible place in the world.

People

This is, I recognize, a feeling profoundly mediated by social class. The word “vulgar” kept coming to mind. And of course it came to mind about other people (though not just people) who were clearly having the time of their lives in Vegas. It would be a mistake to confuse those people with America–to take all this as the felt symptom of a difference between me and them that would reinforce precisely the suspicious class structure of the word “vulgar.” Instead it would be good, with compassion, to figure out who exactly loves Vegas, and to ask ourselves what needs are being met by it–what forms of inadequacy in their own lives makes the forms of Vegas an adequation or a salve. A project for some other time.

Environment

Even the outside feels like it’s inside. It’s in this sense that it’s like Disneyland–the sense of a fully consistent experience, of living inside a Gesamntkunstwerk, is common to both. No escape, visually, spatially, aurally.

I have never been in a place that felt so contemptuous of its living environment. The absolute and total violence of the disregard for the living desert–which I can only imagine, since at this point it’s completely dead–is what allows someone to build up buildings that smash down and erase every trace of the land and its otherness. That done, of course, you need to build a new outside, which the hotels have done, in the form of interior gardens designed to approximate living spaces the builders do respect. These of course borrow their architecture and flora from southern Europe.

Adventure

We’re at a ridiculous and expensive steakhouse in the Bellagio. (We had made reservations at a Japanese place in the same hotel but somehow the reservation got switched.) Fifteen minutes in, we have drinks and are talking. A woman comes up and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I take your picture to celebrate this occasion and these beautiful ladies [handwave at the XXs of the group]?” No, of course.

But for whom is the picture meaningful? For someone for whom this is a memorable occasion, someone for whom the memorialization of a once-in-a-lifetime meal turns it into an “experience.” I was reminded of the photographs that are automatically taken at the roller coasters in amusement parks, so that one gets off the thing and looks at the pictures, delighting in the expressions of fear, horror, and pleasure as they were recorded only minutes ago. Perhaps the Bellagio can move to such a system in the future, so that guests would leave the restaurant to spend minutes looking at photographs of themselves eating, drinking, talking, or, in some undreamt-of but surely plausible future, of themselves looking at photographs of themselves eating and drinking and talking, or of photographs of themselves looking at photographs, looking at photographs, looking at photographs.

10/19/12

Duties of citizenship

All this talk of taxes keeps making me think of my naturalization interview.

Earlier this year I applied for Korean citizenship. (I will still retain my U.S. citizenship.) As in the U.S., the naturalization process requires an interview, for which I diligently prepared (mostly the night before). The interview tests the applicant’s knowledge of:

1. 애국가 The national anthem (first verse)
2. 한국어 능력 Korean language ability
3. 국민으로서의 자세 Citizen’s comportment (the 4 duties, community spirit, national holidays)
4. 자유민주적 기본질서 Basic tenets of liberal democracy
5. 국민으로서 기본소양 Basic knowledge (using public transportation, dialing 112 in case of emergency, where to throw away trash)

(these are my poor translations from the information sheet, which you can download here)

The U.S. publishes its list of questions that might be asked in a naturalization interview. (If you’re interested in these questions, see SL Kim’s excellent old post.) But in the above list, only three are specific: the national anthem, the 4 duties, and the national holidays. It’s the 4 duties which really interest me. These are:

국방의 의무 National defense duty
납세의 의무 Duty to pay tax
교육의 의무 Educational duty
근로의 의무 Duty to work

My eldest son happens to be studying democracy in his 6th grade social studies class, and his textbook emphasizes the balance between rights and duties. But in the naturalization interview there were no questions about rights. Only duties. Not just to defend the country and pay tax (which one might guess) but also the duty to educate oneself for the required amount of time and use that education to help the country develop (“개인의 성장 및 나라의 발전에 이바지하기 위해 필요함”). The duty to work in order to help the country develop but also for one’s own happiness and competitiveness (모든 국민이 나라의 발전을 위해 일을 해야 할 의무, 개인의 행복과 나라의 경쟁력을 높이기 위해 필요함).

In the actual interview, I was asked a lot of other questions, from all sorts of areas (including a question about Dokdo, and another about whether I would choose to stay here or be evacuated with the Americans if war should occur). But the duty question was what stayed with me, especially as I watched the presidential debates.

Perhaps more on this later. It’s been a long time since I blogged. Baby steps.