Monthly Archives: February 2007

China Train Trips: Back Home in the Cold South

In addition to the Far Outliers, there was one other foreign English teacher family in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China, in 1987–88. They averred that the winter we shared with them in “subtropical” south China was the coldest they had ever experienced—and they were from Winnipeg, Canada! The difference was that people in Canada heated their houses and transport and workplaces during the winter, while people in south China did not. So, below China’s Mason-Dixon line—the Yangtze River—there was nowhere you could go to get out of the cold. That was the strongest memory of our trip back home to Guangdong after our vacation trip for Chinese New Year that February.

We started south from Jingdezhen, this time traveling soft class. Our hosts in Jiangxi Province and fellow teachers in Guangdong Province boarded the same train but traveled hard class. (They didn’t have a child at that time.) We had to change trains in Yingtan, a cold and drab railway junction city on the Shanghai–Guangzhou line. We had a long layover, with not much to see, no nice places to eat, and nowhere to take an afternoon nap. Fortunately, our friends found a small, cheap restaurant with hot food, but with a dirt floor and a doorway open to the cold; then they took us to a railway workers’ dormitory and talked the supervisors into letting us all spend a little siesta time under warm blankets on dormitory beds.

The rest of our train trip south was uneventful, but we arrived at Guangzhou after midnight, too late to find a room in the fairly reasonable Liuhua Hotel near the station. So we tramped over to a much more expensive hotel where we spent the remaining few hours of the night in warmth before catching a bus back over the long, muddy, congested road to Zhongshan City the next morning. Our big concrete and tile apartment offered no respite from the cold. It had no heating, and the damp north wind off the rice paddies leaked through every door and window. It was cold, sweet home.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, travel

Pamuk on the Exotic—and What Was Done about It

In “The Return of the Flaneur,” Walter Benjamin begins his review of Franz Hessel’s Berlin Walks by noting, “If we were to divide all the existing descriptions of cities into two groups according to the birthplace of the authors, we would certainly find that those written by natives of the cities concerned are greatly in the minority.” According to Benjamin, the enthusiasm for seeing a city from the outside is the exotic or the picturesque. For natives of a city, the connection is always mediated by memories.

What I am describing may not, in the end, be special to Istanbul, and perhaps, with the westernization of the entire world, it is inevitable. Perhaps this is why I sometimes read Westerners’ accounts not at arm’s length, as someone else’s exotic dreams, but drawn close by, as if they were my own memories. I enjoy coming across a detail that I have noticed but never remarked upon, perhaps because no one else I know has either. I love Knut Hamsun’s description of the Galata Bridge I knew as a child—supported by barges and swaying under the weight of its traffic—just as I love Hans Christian Andersen’s description of the “darkness” of the cypresses lining the cemeteries. To see Istanbul through the eyes of a foreigner always gives me pleasure, in no small part because the picture helps me fend off narrow nationalism and pressures to conform. Their occasionally accurate (and therefore somewhat embarrassing) descriptions of the harem, Ottoman dress, and Ottoman rituals are so distant from my own experience that even though I know they have some basis in fact, they seem to be describing someone else’s city. Westernization has allowed me and millions of other İstanbullus the luxury of enjoying our own past as “exotic,” of relishing the picturesque….

What grievance I feel when I read western travelers on Istanbul is above all that of hindsight: Many of the local features these observers, some of them brilliant writers, noted and exaggerated were to vanish from the city soon after having been remarked. It was a brutal symbiosis: Western observers love to identify the things that make Istanbul exotic, nonwestern, whereas the westernizers among us register all the same things as obstacles to be erased from the face of the city as fast as possible.

Here’s a short list:

The Janissaries, those elite troops of great interest to western travelers until the nineteenth century, were the first to be dissolved. The slave market, another focus of western curiosity, vanished soon after they began writing about it. The Rufai dervishes with their waving skewers and the Mevlevi dervish lodges closed with the founding of the Republic. The Ottoman clothing that so many western artists painted was abolished soon after Andre Gide complained about it. The harem, another favorite, also gone. Seventy-five years after Flaubert told his beloved friend that he was going to the market to have his name written in calligraphy, all of Turkey moved from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet, and this exotic joy ended too. Of all these losses, I think the hardest for İstanbullus has been the removal of graves and cemeteries from the gardens and squares of our everyday lives to terrifying high-walled lots, bereft of cypress or view. The hamals and their burdens, noted by so many travelers of the republican period—like the old American cars that Brodsky noted—were no sooner described by foreigners than they vanished.

Only one of the city’s idiosyncracies has refused to melt away under the western gaze: the packs of dogs that still roam the streets.

SOURCE: Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk (Vintage, 2006), pp. 240-243

Leave a comment

Filed under Turkey

Robert Lang: An American Master of Extreme Origami

The New Yorker this week profiles an American master of extreme origami.

One of the few Americans to see action during the Bug Wars of the nineteen-nineties was Robert J. Lang, a lanky Californian who was on the front lines throughout, from the battle of the Kabutomushi Beetle to the battle of the Menacing Mantis and the battle of the Long-Legged Wasp. Most combatants in the Bug Wars—which were, in fact, origami contests—were members of the Origami Detectives, a group of artists in Japan who liked to try outdoing one another with extreme designs of assigned subjects….

Lang is accustomed to being surprising. Some years ago, he was the mystery guest on the television game show “Naruhodo! Za Warudo”—the Japanese version of “What’s My Line?”—and he amazed the audience and the contestants, because they couldn’t believe that an American could be an origami expert. People who know him as a scientist are flabbergasted when they hear that he is one of the world’s foremost paper-folding artists, and are often surprised that such a thing as a professional origami artist even exists. People expecting him to be kooky—or, at the very least, Japanese—find his academic accomplishments and his white male Americanness puzzling. Recently, he was commissioned by Lalique, the French crystal company, to demonstrate folding at a launch for its new collection of vases, which are rippled and creased in an origami-like way. The launch was at a Neiman Marcus in Troy, Michigan, on a cold night just before Christmas. It was intended for Neiman Marcus’s favorite customers, and there was music playing and waiters offering hors d’oeuvres and glasses of wine. Lang was set up in the china-and-crystal department, behind a Regency-style desk. On one side of the desk was a stack of thin, square sheets of Japanese origami paper, as brightly colored as a roll of Life Savers. He had with him a laptop computer, and during a break he showed me software that he was designing with his brother, a botany professor, which simulates the growth of cherry trees and will allow farmers to test pruning and fertilizing techniques on a computer, rather than in their orchards. Lang is now forty-five. He is tall, with slim, fine-looking hands, a tidy Silicon Valley-style beard, and the clean, comfortable good looks of a park ranger….

Lang was, by all accounts, good at his science jobs: he wrote more than eighty technical papers and holds forty-six patents on lasers and optoelectronics. All the while, he was plotting how he would find time to write origami books. He published several while he was still in the laser world, starting with “The Complete Book of Origami,” in 1989, but he knew that it would require all his time to write the one he had in mind, which, instead of providing patterns for folders to follow—the typical origami book—would teach them how to design their own….

Something about origami’s simplicity and its apparently endless possibilities appeals to people. In 2003, the Mingei International Museum, in San Diego, mounted an exhibition called “Origami Masterworks,” which included several of Lang’s pieces. It was supposed to run six months, but attendance was so robust that the show was extended for six months, then for eight more. In Japan, the “Survivor”-style show “TV Champion” has often featured contestants engaging in extreme origami—folding with their hands in a box, or while balanced on stools with the paper suspended above them, or while snorkelling in a fishtank. A surprising number of countries have origami organizations; the Origami Society of the Netherlands has more than fifteen hundred members—probably the highest per-capita membership in the world. There is a soothing element in the monotony of folding and unfolding. In fact, origami as therapy has its proponents: in 1991, at the Conference on Origami in Education and Therapy, a mental-health professional presented a paper detailing her origami work with prisoners. “The most rewarding of experiences,” she wrote, “was that of observing the effect that Origami had on psychopathic killers.”

via Arts & Letters Daily

My middle brother used to be able to fold a whole train—from locomotive to caboose—from a single, long piece of butcher paper.

3 Comments

Filed under Japan, science, U.S.

Kanak Language Academy

NOUMEA, February 27 (Oceania Flash) – New Caledonia’s government has officially appointed late last week its Vice-President, Déwé Gorodey, to the position of Chairman of the newly-created indigenous Kanak language academy.

The cabinet decision follows the inception, late January, by New Caledonia’s legislative assembly, the Congress, of the French territory’s first indigenous Kanak languages Academy.

The main aim of the Kanak languages Academy is to preserve New Caledonia’s rich cultural indigenous heritage of up to 40 indigenous known languages and dialects.

On the institutional level, the new academy’s other task is to “normalise, promote and develop” New Caledonia’s linguistic heritage….

The Kanak Language Academy (KLA) was a concept introduced back in 1998, as part of the autonomy Nouméa Accord that were signed by the French government, as well as pro-French and pro-independence parties.

The pact, which paves the way for a gradual transfer of powers from metropolitan France to local authorities and a possible referendum on independence between 2013 and 2018, also gave special recognition, for the first time, to the indigenous Kanak peoples.

“(Kanak) languages are an essential, but all too often forgotten component of the world’s cultural heritage in so far as they represent not only a means of communication, but also a unique perspective of the world”, New Caledonia’s government said.

New Caledonia’s Kanak indigenous languages are mostly classified as being part of the Austronesian family of human languages.

According to recent population data, it is also estimated that around 60,000 of the some 230,000 inhabitants of New Caledonia speak at least one of these indigenous languages.

See the Head Heeb for a characteristically thorough analysis of the political context and ramifications of the Kanak Academy.

Leave a comment

Filed under France, language, Pacific

Rats, Cats, and Mongooses

The January 2007 issue of Pacific Science (subscription required to either Project Muse or BioOne.2) inaugurates a new series of articles on the Biology and Impacts of Pacific Island Invasive Species with A Worldwide Review of Effects of the Small Indian Mongoose, Herpestes javanicus (Carnivora: Herpestidae) by Warren S. T. Hays and Sheila Conant, who explode a few bits of conventional wisdom.

Abstract: The small Indian mongoose, Herpestes javanicus (E. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1818), was intentionally introduced to at least 45 islands (including 8 in the Pacific) and one continental mainland between 1872 and 1979. This small carnivore is now found on the mainland or islands of Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, South America, and Oceania. In this review we document the impact of this species on native birds, mammals, and herpetofauna in these areas of introduction.

There is a common story in Hawai‘i that small Indian mongooses failed to control rats in areas of introduction because the mongoose is diurnal and rats are primarily nocturnal (Stone et al. 1994). Most published accounts dispute this story, asserting that the small Indian mongoose served as an excellent cane-field ratter (Pemberton 1925, Barnum 1930, Doty 1945), though it was eventually made obsolete by the development of improved techniques of rat poisoning (Doty 1945).

On Trinidad, Urich (1931) found that rats were rare in cane fields, though they had been a major pest before the introduction of the mongoose in the 1870s. By 1882, a government botanist estimated that the mongoose in Jamaica was saving the colony 100,000 pounds sterling (current value: $8.3 million) per year (Espeut 1882). Spencer (1950, cited by Seaman [1952]), however, found that roof rat populations were as high as 50 per hectare in some parts of St. Croix, despite the presence of mongooses. Seaman (1952) wrote that some cane fields on St. Croix still suffered 25% crop loss due to rats and believed that rats were as much a problem as before the introduction of the mongoose.

Another common story is that mongooses drove rats to become arboreal nesters in areas of introduction (Nellis and Everard 1983). On Hawaiian islands with mongooses, Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) and Norway rats are terrestrial nesters, whereas roof rats are arboreal nesters. This appears to be true on islands with and without mongooses in Hawai‘i and throughout the world (Baldwin et al. 1952). There is, however, evidence that mongooses alter the relative abundance of rats in favor of arboreal roof rats (Walker 1945). In Puerto Rico, Norway rats are common only in mongoose-free urban areas, whereas roof rats are found in mongoose habitat (Pimentel 1955). Hoagland et al. (1989) made a census of populations of mongooses and rats on St. Croix and Jamaica, and found more roof rats and fewer Norway rats in mongoose habitat.

Nellis (1989) stated that mongooses ‘‘often dominate over’’ cats (Felis catus [domesticus]), though the degree to which they limit the abundance of feral cats in areas of sympatry has not been studied. Feral cats and wild mongooses peacefully share food at artificial feeding sites on O‘ahu, feeding within centimeters of each other (W.S.T.H., pers. obs.). More pertinently, on 3 June 1999, while doing a radio-tracking study, one of us (W.S.T.H.) observed two large male mongooses pass together within 3 m of an adult feral cat, in a relatively undisturbed woodlot and apparently by coincidence, without any of the animals involved showing any sign of excitement or stress even while making eye contact. This anecdotal observation suggests that adults of these species can coexist in peaceful sympatry, at least under some conditions, though it is also possible that they may harry or prey upon each other’s young….

In 1883, sugar planters imported the small Indian mongoose from Jamaica to four Hawaiian islands (Hawai‘i, O‘ahu, Maui, and Kaua‘i) and to the Fijian island of Viti Levu (Gorman 1975, Nellis and Everard 1983). For unknown reasons, the crate of mongooses was kicked off the dock at Kaua‘i, and to date the mongoose has apparently not established there, although a dead mongoose was found in Kaua‘i in 1976 (Tomich 1986). Mongooses were later introduced to the Hawaiian island of Moloka‘i and to the Fijian island of Vanua Levu.

Leave a comment

Filed under Pacific, science

What Distinguishes Coastal Peoples?

The December 2006 issue of the Journal of World History (Project Muse subscription required) starts off with an interesting article by Michael N. Pearson on littoral society.

Who are the people who live on or near the beach, those who inhabit the coastal zone, not just the beach? They have been called the shore folk, or sea nomads, or members of a littoral society. The place of port cities in littoral society is a matter of dispute. In terms of location they may qualify, though Ashin Das Gupta in his classic book on Surat made an important distinction. “To begin with there was coastal Gujarat, marshy, irregular, often broken by estuaries of the rivers and dotted with tidal flats which were submerged at high tide…. It was peopled by the truly maritime men who fished and who sailed the vessels on which trade depended. The coastal cities usually stood back a little.” On our other two criteria, occupation and culture, definition is more difficult, and things change over time. In premodern times port cities had more of a whiff of ozone about them than is the case today. The occupations of many of the inhabitants were intricately connected to the foreland and hinterland, thus making these people truly littoral. However, their economic functions and influences extended much further than their fellows on the coast, with much more extended forelands and hinterlands. Culturally, the port cities, where populations are more concentrated, are more exposed to external influences, such as élite norms from the inland, or the attentions of seafaring scholars and religious folk. Ibn Battuta traveled around the Indian Ocean, calling at port cities and being recognized for his scholarship. In return he tried to improve the quality of Islam in these places.

One way to separate out littoral from port city is to insist that littoral people live on the coast and seldom travel. Some people in the port cities—sailors, merchants—indeed go to sea and have important maritime experiences, but my concern is with fisherfolk, or people who tend the lighters that go out to meet the big ships. These folk live on shore, but work on the sea: they are very precisely littoral.

Greg Dening wrote, “Beaches are beginnings and endings. They are frontiers and boundaries of islands. For some life forms the division between land and sea is not abrupt but for human beings beaches divide the world between here and there, us and them, good and bad, familiar and strange”—an extravagant claim indeed, even if meant metaphorically. I would argue exactly the opposite, as does Jan Heesterman. He stressed that “The littoral forms a frontier zone that is not there to separate or enclose, but which rather finds its meaning in its permeability.” Braudel wrote evocatively about coastal society, stressing that it was as much land oriented as sea oriented. The life of the coast of the Mediterranean “is linked to the land, its poetry more than half-rural, its sailors may turn peasant with the seasons; it is the sea of vineyards and olive trees just as much as the sea of the long-oared galleys and the round-ships of merchants, and its history can no more be separated from that of the lands surrounding it than the clay can be separated from the hands of the potter who shapes it.”

Several modern scholars have described the shore folk of the Indian Ocean. John Middleton focused on the east African coast. “Part of the coast is the sea: the two cannot be separated. The Swahili are a maritime people and the stretches of lagoon, creek, and open sea beyond the reefs are as much part of their environment as are the coastlands. The sea, rivers, and lagoons are not merely stretches of water but highly productive food resources, divided into territories that are owned by families and protected by spirits just as are stretches of land. The Swahili use the sea as though it were a network of roads.” The very term “Swahili” means “shore folk,” those who live on the edge of the ocean. As Randall L. Pouwels has it, Swahili culture was “a child of its human and physical environment, being neither wholly ‘African’ nor ‘Arab,’ but distinctly ‘coastal,’ the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.”…

Certain languages achieved wide currency, this providing commonality around the shores of the Indian Ocean. In the earlier centuries it was Arabic. There are some five thousand words of Arabic influence in Malay, and more than that in Swahili, and about 80 percent of these are the same in Malay and Swahili, so that we have a “corpus of travelling Arabic words.” Later, a sort of nautical Portuguese and, today, some variant of English, have achieved a quasi-universal status.

Languages know no boundaries, and this also applies to coastal people. For most of history they knew little of political borders. Smuggling was an occupation, not a crime, as was the plunder of ships driven ashore. Dian Murray, an expert on piracy, wrote of a “water world,” where boundaries were indistinct, just like Villiers’s delta region. Robert Antony recently modified Murray slightly, writing of a water world of “shared social, economic, and cultural activities, and patterns that are not easily defined and delimited by ethnic and linguistic differences or by national boundaries.” He and Murray are concerned with the southern China coast, but their findings apply precisely to other coasts.

In a water world, coastal religion is also distinctive. Littoral people, living in a more cosmopolitan environment than those inland, are more likely to convert. In the case of the Indian Ocean, the cosmopolitan, international aspect of Islam has often been cited as a prime motivation for conversion, and while this applied most strongly in the port cities, it also was evident on the coasts between them. Coastal people especially found their indigenous beliefs, localized and very specific, to be inadequate as their world expanded. When they were exposed to a universal faith—Islam as exemplified by visitors from the north—the attraction was obvious, and the results can be seen all over the Indian Ocean world from the early modern period onward. There were and are widespread Islamic religious connections around the coasts. In Zanzibar one group uses a certificate of authenticity and authority issued in Indonesia. In Mayotte, off Madagascar, South Asian Islamic reformers are active. A devotional text in Indonesia was probably originally written in Arabic, either in the Middle East or in Indonesia itself, and is now available in Javanese and Acehinese. In Zanzibar Islamic books, including Qur’ans, come from Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, and Pakistan.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, India, Indonesia, language, religion

Gaddis on the Able Archer Missile Crisis, 1980s

Reagan was deeply committed to SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative]: it was not a bargaining chip to give up in future negotiations. That did not preclude, though, using it as a bluff: the United States was years, even decades, away from developing a missile defense capability, but Reagan’s speech persuaded the increasingly frightened Soviet leaders that this was about to happen. They were convinced, Dobrynin recalled, “that the great technological potential of the United States had scored again and treated Reagan’s statement as a real threat.” Having exhausted their country by catching up in offensive missiles, they suddenly faced a new round of competition demanding skills they had no hope of mastering. And the Americans seemed not even to have broken into a sweat.

The reaction, in the Kremlin, approached panic. Andropov had concluded, while still head of the K.G.B., that the new administration in Washington might be planning a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. “Reagan is unpredictable,” he warned. “You should expect anything from him.” There followed a two-year intelligence alert, with agents throughout the world ordered to look for evidence that such preparations were under way. The tension became so great that when a South Korean airliner accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace over Sakhalin on September 1, 1983, the military authorities in Moscow assumed the worst and ordered it shot down, killing 269 civilians, 63 of them Americans. Unwilling to admit the mistake, Andropov maintained that the incident had been a “sophisticated provocation organized by the U.S. special services.”

Then something even scarier happened that attracted no public notice. The United States and its NATO allies had for years carried out fall military exercises, but the ones that took place in November—designated “Able Archer 83″—involved a higher level of leadership participation than was usual. The Soviet intelligence agencies kept a close watch on these maneuvers, and their reports caused Andropov and his top aides to conclude—briefly—that a nuclear attack was imminent. It was probably the most dangerous moment since the Cuban missile crisis, and yet no one in Washington knew of it until a well-placed spy in the K.G.B.’s London headquarters alerted British intelligence, which passed the information along to the Americans.

That definitely got Reagan’s attention. Long worried about the danger of a nuclear war, the president had already initiated a series of quiet contacts with Soviet officials—mostly unreciprocated—aimed at defusing tensions. The Able Archer crisis convinced him that he had pushed the Russians far enough, that it was time for another speech. It came at the beginning of Orwell’s fateful year, on January 16, 1984, but Big Brother was nowhere to be seen. Instead, in lines only he could have composed, Reagan suggested placing the Soviet-American relationship in the capably reassuring hands of Jim and Sally and Ivan and Anya. One White House staffer, puzzled by the hand-written addendum to the prepared text, exclaimed a bit too loudly: “Who wrote this shit?”

Once again, the old actor’s timing was excellent. Andropov died the following month, to be succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, an enfeebled geriatric so zombie-like as to be beyond assessing intelligence reports, alarming or not. Having failed to prevent the NATO missile deployments, Foreign Minister Gromyko soon grudgingly agreed to resume arms control negotiations. Meanwhile Reagan was running for re-election as both a hawk and a dove: in November he trounced his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale. And when Chernenko died in March, 1985, at the age of seventy-four, it seemed an all-too-literal validation of Reagan’s predictions about “last pages” and historical “ash-heaps.” Seventy-four himself at the time, the president had another line ready: “How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians, if they keep dying on me?”

SOURCE: The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis (Penguin, 2005), pp. 227-228

That was the (American) academic year I spent in Ceauşescu’s Romania, 1983–84.

Leave a comment

Filed under U.S., USSR, war