This blog explores migrants, exiles, expatriates, and out-of-the-way peoples, places, and times, mostly in the Asia-Pacific region.
If you wish to reach me, leave a comment or send a message to faroutliers at gmail.
The following interview was conducted by Andrés Gentry on 7 December 2004, about a year after I started blogging.
1. When did you start blogging?
* Saturday, 20 December 2003.
2. Why did you start?
* As an experiment to see how easy it might be to use blogger.com. It was so easy that I started blogging right away. Nathan Hamm’s The Argus somehow discovered my second post, about Germans in Russia (my spouse’s heritage), and I was on my way.
3. When you started, what blogs initially inspired your interest in blogging? What are your favorite blogs now?
* Geitner Simmons’s Regions of Mind and Eamonn Fitzgerald’s Rainy Day inspired me to start. Both write well and bring creative perspectives to bear on familiar issues. I especially liked the daily diary excerpts Rainy Day used to include. But my initial plan was to do a sort of Regions of Mind focused on Asia, the Pacific, and anywhere else over the horizon or under the radar of North America. In fact, I corresponded with Geitner first and he was (and remains) very supportive. He’s also an expatriate Southerner, less expatriate and more Southern than me.
4. What are your goals for your blog?
* To add broader regional, historical, and personal perspectives on current events that the news media often report without any but the most hackneyed context; to “read aloud” interesting passages of books I’ve been reading to whomoever might be interested; to do some good old-fashioned storytelling from my own unusual experiences. But most of all, to be a “bridge person” (as my saintly college Japanese teacher used to call it) between East and West, North and South, Left and Right, city and country, ivory-tower ideals and real-world details, believers and skeptics.
5. Why have you chosen your particular blogging format, i.e., extensive quoting from books?
* A lot of bloggers quote extensively from stuff already on the web, but I began quoting longer passages from printed sources once I began scanning and OCRing the text rather than retyping it. I’m particularly interested in sources that were saying things we should have been paying more attention to during the 1980s and 1990s. The world didn’t just suddenly start going wrong in 2001.
6. Why the interest in “exceptions” and “outliers”?
* I’ve been an exception, an outlier, a foreigner, a barbarian and a contrarian for most of my life. Been referred to and sometimes even addressed as ‘foreigner’ for many years of my life: gaijin in Japanese neighborhoods, ngabchay in a Micronesian village, bumewe in a New Guinea village, waiguoren (or its local equivalent) in China, even haole in Hawai`i. (Romania is a longer story.) I identify with others in similar circumstances. I’m a bit of a xenophile, I’m afraid.
7. How did your military experience affect your view on life and politics?
* At the time I went into the Army, I had spent 3/4 of my life in Japan, with spells of only 1-2 years at a time in the U.S. By the time I got out, I felt like I had become an American. I had also led a fairly privileged life in Japan, with an excellent education in international schools. In the U.S., I was suddenly declassé. Army boot camp was in some sense the apotheosis of my fall from grace (even if that is an oxymoron). But it gave me enough renewed ambition and (GI Bill) funding to continue my formal education all the way up to a Ph.D., after which I once again had to start over from scratch, this time in the world of accountants and bankers.
* As for how the Army affected my politics: Having been in the enlisted ranks rather than an officer, my sympathies lie with the former, and I remain deeply skeptical that social or educational elites know what’s best for everybody else. Although I resented the military at the time, just as I resented religion when it ruled my youth, I have become less and less antimilitary and antireligious over time. These tendencies make me an unreliable leftist.
8. What migrations particularly interest you? Why?
* Individual migrations, or those of one family at a time. I’m not that interested in herds.
9. How do you see East Asia in the future? Specifically, how do you see China’s rise affecting international relations in this part of the world? What other significant trends do you see in East Asian international politics?
* China is gradually resuming its historical dominance in East Asia. As it does so, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam will get more and more nervous. Japan and Vietnam will seek to remain independent, but Korea might once again become China’s dependent as a way of demonstrating its independence from Japan and the U.S. I have no idea when North Korea will collapse, but when it does South Koreans will blame the U.S. and Japan (with good reason), completely absolve the Kim dynasty and its ideology, and expect other countries to pay for reconstruction while letting SK call all the shots. Within 5 years into reconstruction, South Koreans in NK will be as popular as Yankee carpetbaggers in Reconstruction-era Mississippi. Japanese and Chinese employers will be preferred to South Korean. I have no idea whether or when China will try to retake Taiwan. Not soon, I hope.
* Although I feel closest to Japan, I have to admit that China is far more varied and fascinating than Japan and Korea put together. A larger proportion of Chinese I’ve met have seemed far more egalitarian and tolerant of cultural and linguistic differences in their countrymen than Japanese and especially Koreans seem to be. China’s incredibly capricious and incompetent authoritarian rulers probably have a lot to do with encouraging its citizens to distrust government more than Koreans and far more than Japanese. These are broad impressions and I know more than a few refreshing exceptions to each generalization.
10. How has East Asia changed since you first ventured here?
* When I was a kid, East Asia was dirt poor. We had a Japanese maid and an American car during the 1950s. Then a Japanese car and no maid by the mid 1960s. Many parts of China in the 1980s reminded me a lot of Japan in the 1950s.
11. What languages do you speak?
* I’m only conversant in Romanian, Tok Pisin (New Guinea Pidgin), and limited Japanese, but I’ve dabbled in Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, German, Indonesian, Tagalog, Hawaiian, two smaller New Guinea languages, and Yapese. In most cases I know a lot more about them than I do how to use them, but a little sustained exposure brings a lot of dormant capacity back to life.
12. Where have you lived abroad? For how long? Why?
* Japan, 14 years, missionary kid; Yap, 4 months, linguist; Papua New Guinea, 10 months, linguist; Romania, 1 year, linguist; China, 1 year, English teacher; Indonesia, 6 weeks, educator on junket; Korea, 5 weeks, educator on junket
12A. Could you talk a little bit more about your experiences growing up in Japan?
* My parents had considered becoming missionaries in Brazil before they (or He!) decided on Japan. Sometimes I used to wish they had. Japan does not assimilate foreigners the way Brazil does. Japan represents the Old World and Brazil the New World in that respect.
* Other than Japanese kindergarten, I went to English-medium schools, so I didn’t learn Japanese as thoroughly as some missionary kids did. On the other hand, I didn’t have as many adjustment problems as some kids did when they transferred from Japanese to English-medium schools after elementary or middle school. A lot of American missionary kids had severe adjustment problems after returning “home” to the U.S. (We used to use the verb kaeru ‘to go home’ no matter which direction we were travelling.) Some never have adjusted. Several of my agemates dropped out of college and then had to face the draft during the Vietnam era.
* But I believe our parents had the harder adjustment. In many cases, they were the first in their families to leave the farm, the first to attend college, and the first to go live in a foreign country (apart from the military, who brought a lot more of the home country with them). For instance, my father grew up one of 7 kids on a tenant farm. Most of his siblings never finished high school, let alone college. Barely two decades off the farm, he had finished college, gone to seminary, learned Japanese, and served as chaplain of a hospital in Japan, presiding over funerals for movie stars in Kyoto (on the set of the movie ‘Escapade in Japan’, 1957*) and inviting a ‘born again’ Felipe Alou of the touring SF Giants to speak in our Japanese church. (I still have my book with autographs of Willie Mays, Felipe Alou, Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal, and … the mayor of Kyoto in 1960.)
* Professional foreigners often end up thinking they’re more important than they are. That was certainly true of many missionaries and their kids. It was very tough to preserve your egalitarian ideology in Japan, where (in those days) you were routinely assigned a higher status than you deserved. And then it was a big comedown to become a nobody again back in your “home” country. Actually, the missionaries were often lionized while on furlough back home, but the kids definitely weren’t. My youngest brother happened to be in junior high school on one furlough and he was called a “Jap” and bullied the whole year. He felt far more accepted at his tiny U.S. Marine base high school in Japan.
** I made a mistake in my Japan account. The movie made in Kyoto was Sayonara (1957), not Escapade in Japan. Marlon Brando and Red Buttons were at the funeral service (for a member of the cast), which had to be scheduled for midday because the stars would be too drunk by the evening.
13. Do you see any similarities between pre-1989 (or post-1989) Eastern Europe and present-day China? Any similarities between present-day Ukraine and China?
* The contrast between Romania in 1984 and China in 1988 was stark. Romanians were dreary, depressed, suspicious, careful in what they said, and short of everything. Chinese were optimistic, hustling, curious, talkative, and acquisitive. Romania seemed obsessed with ideology regardless of material results (as if it were run by the [U.S.] National Education Association), while China seemed obsessed with material results regardless of ideology (as if it were run by the Pentagon). I found China far more congenial. I hope present-day Ukraine has turned that same corner.
14. What were your impressions of Eastern Europe in the 1980s?
* In 1983-84, Bucharest was the coldest, darkest capital in Eastern Europe, according to my East German classmates there. (None of us had been to Albania.) In Budapest, we were surprised to see pedestrian signal buttons at crosswalks, leftover meat in butcher shops that had closed for the day, popular music that included ‘Smokestack Lightning’ sung in Magyar, and restaurants that had most of the entrees on their menu. (In fact one of our fanciest dinners ever was at the world-famous Gundel.) In Bratislava, we were shocked to find bananas still in shops that had closed, real coffee in the many kaviaren, and public telephone books with private listings that enabled us to call a professor of Asian and Polynesian linguistics who promptly came to meet us for dinner.
14A. Have you read Timothy Garton Ash’s books about Central and Eastern Europe? If you have, could you give us your impressions of his impressions?
* I don’t believe I’ve read any of Ash’s books, only some of his essays, which I’ve generally liked, but I’m afraid I don’t really have much to say about his work. Of books on current travails in the Balkans, I’ve read several by Robert Kaplan and Tim Judah. It’s mostly histories otherwise.
15. Do intellectuals like Havel or Michnik have a place in society? What role might that be? Are there comparable intellectuals in East Asia?
* I don’t see much place for public intellectuals on the Eastern European model unless they are ‘one with the people’, so to speak. That pretty much rules out most members of the educational and social elite in the West, where intellectuals are hardly oppressed–despite their protestations to the contrary. (If being generally ignored or publicly criticized constitutes oppression, then the masses are routinely oppressed by most intellectuals!) The only intellectuals who stand a chance of being ‘one with the people’ are those who share the suffering of the masses under truly oppressive regimes.
16. Who are your intellectual heroes?
* I tend to favor intellectuals who focus on the compromises of the real world rather than the purity of an ideal world, who inspire people to endure with decency in the face of daunting adversity. Eastern Europeans tend to predominate: Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov.
16A. Why do you think Eastern Europe has produced such a surfeit of intellectuals with high moral stature? Is it only because it has suffered so much this past half century or does the cause lie elsewhere?
* I’m not sure I buy the premise. I think many Eastern European dissidents achieved renown because (1) the communication networks between Eastern Europe and the West were far thicker, (2) many Eastern Europeans were able to express themselves well in a variety of Western languages and in familiar paradigms, and (3) Cold War politics conferred on them considerable propaganda value. In short, the West was better able to hear them, to understand them, and to assign high value to their words. I suspect there were legions of Chinese intellectuals of high moral stature who never survived the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. No doubt a huge majority broke under the strain and fatally compromised themselves, but the same can be said of their counterparts in Eastern Europe. Fang Lizhi, “China’s Sakharov,” is perhaps the best known among those dissidents who survived.
* BTW, I think my favorite Chinese philospher may be Deng Xiaoping. His best-known aphorisms are such a wonderful antidote to Mao’s: “Seek truths from facts” and “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice” are wonderful guides for people recovering from a surfeit of ideology-driven agendas, as I feel I am.
17. Who are your political heroes?
18. What was the most powerful book you ever read?
* I’ve mostly read history for many years, but I suppose I might have to name a few books I read during my first apostasy during my youth, when I was abandoning the theology of Christianity, my family heritage: Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, reinforced by Endo Shusaku’s Silence, and Ooka Shohei’s Fires on the Plain.
* I’m now undergoing my second apostasy, abandoning the demonology of the Left, my primary intellectual heritage. No book has yet captured it for me. Both apostasies have been driven by (1) the overwhelming hypocrisy of the most ardent believers, and (2) the failure of those beliefs to make sense of the most important issues of the day. In both cases, I have flirted with alternative systems of belief, but have chosen to remain an unbeliever.
19. What was your most memorable experience travelling abroad?
* Hard to pick just one. Maybe sharing a meal in muddy Jingdezhen in 1988 with a Chinese friend’s father who had fought against Americans in Korea and never had any further contact with them. He was overcome and had to leave the table for a while. Or a romantic Christmas trip to Budapest, Vienna, and Bratislava after an increasingly dismal 5 months in Bucharest. Or maybe my first visit to the New Guinea village where I would do fieldwork, traveling down the dark coast under a bright moon lying atop a noisy diesel boat with my bladder about to burst for hours.
* Or a later boat trip in which the engine died and the boat nearly capsized in a squall.
* Or a group trip from the old Sultanate of Ternate all the way to Galela at the northern tip of Halmahera in a bus with a twisted axle. One of my earliest blogposts was Farflung Christmas Memories
20. What is the most unexpected outlier group you have run across?