Monday, February 23, 2009

Horror in Muslim America

The Muslim-American community is trying to cope with the horrifying news out of Buffalo that a Muslim-American man who helped found "a television station to fight Muslim stereotypes is to appear on Wednesday in a suburban Buffalo court on charges that he decapitated his wife last week." NYT That description really says it all.

There's a lot of focus on whether this was an "honor killing." It's unclear whether it was -- especially since the suspect was apparently not nearly as religious as his wife -- but one thing is very clear. The Muslim-American community (and I'll put myself in that community, despite my agnosticism) needs to address the insidious issue of domestic violence.

It is devastating to read a story like this -- it's incomprehensible how someone could be moved to this inhuman level of violence. And on top of that, you know exactly how a story like this will be seized upon by some to demonize all Muslims. See, for example, Michelle Malkin. And I'll be honest: I had mixed feelings about posting this story, but I think it's important that this event be discussed. We can't keep tragic stories about domestic violence such as this one in the dark.

Focusing on religion in this instance is likely besides the point. It's a sad fact that levels of domestic violence are unacceptably high among immigrant communities. Muslim Americans must recognize the pervasiveness of domestic violence in our community and must no longer allow it to remain a dirty secret. We must speak out against domestic violence and make clear that it is unacceptable and unjustified by any sensible interpretation of Islam. To paraphrase the famous saying, the change we wish to see in the world starts at home.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Speaking French like a Spanish cow: a long and boring post on languages and dilettantism

There just isn't time to do everything. I should've learned that by now, but I haven't. I continue to act like I'm in middle school, filling my weeks with a full schedule of language classes and soccer and basketball games. It may just be, as people always say about career students, that I was most comfortable in the regimented, graduated staircase of school; the world of work and careers leaves me feeling at sea. What is the point? Where am I going?

You can get better at your job, but even when you're improving or learning something it still feels like work, and therefore, in some fundamental way, joyless. I think it's something about the psychological associations with work: just the fact that a certain task is "work" makes it sort of unbearable, mentally: everything in the world seems more fascinating than any obligatory tasks at hand. There is no time that I am more deeply interested in, say, the history of Uzbekistan than when I have a pressing deadline at work.

I'm not sure what this all has to do with my compulsive need to try to learn new languages. At the present time, I think it's fair to say that I'm trying to learn or improve my ability in the following languages: Vietnamese, Japanese, Spanish, French, and Italian, and sometimes Bengali.

I've been taking a Vietnamese class once a week for the past two years, and I'm now at the point where I can have small, rudimentary conversations with Mrs. Octopus's parents, maybe comment on the weather, food, etc. The six tones now seem to come a little more naturally, though I often wonder what my horrendous accent must sound like to native speakers. As English speakers, we have a sense of what French-accented English sounds like, Chinese-accented English, etc. I'm really curious to know what American English-accented Vietnamese sounds like. (I can only imagine that it's horrific and painful for native Vietnamese speakers to endure.) Vietnamese seems like the most sensible language for me to study right now, as Mrs. Octopus is able to help me with it (although my scintillating discussions of the weather and how tasty dinner is get boring for her after a while), and I can practice every couple days on the phone or in person with her parents. I did have a chance to speak a bit during our recent trip to Vietnam, but Mrs. Octopus, who seems to be nearly fluent in Vietnamese, was doing most of the talking, and I was doing a lot of listening. Every now and then I would say something in Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese people we were talking to would find it hilarious -- I was like a walking party trick. Then they would turn to Mrs. Octopus and say something to the effect of "You've done a good job training your husband."

I'm still taking Japanese classes on Saturdays here in Pasadena; the classes are my only opportunity to speak Japanese to anyone (I don't know anyone else with whom I can speak Japanese.) My Japanese ability is probably better than my ability in any other language -- including Bengali -- but it's just not clear to me what use I have for the language. Japanese is basically useful in Japan, and maybe some places in Sao Paolo, San Francisco, L.A., New York, and if you run into Japanese people travelling. Otherwise, it's not really a language that reaches to all parts of the world, like English, Spanish, French, Arabic, etc. Still, I've probably invested too much time studying Japanese on and off since 1996 (it's a shame that my Japanese is not better than it is given that amount of time) to drop it at this point.

Spanish is the language I've been trying to learn for the longest time: the public schools in Glastonbury were pretty good about their language programs, and had us start with Spanish in second grade. I took it straight through my senior year of high school. When I was in elementary school, I loved Spanish as much as I loved anything to do with reading and writing in English. It seemed like just another way to say funny things to try to make people laugh. But in middle school and high school, Spanish got more regimented, more disciplined, more structured, and began to seem much less fun. I've tried to keep my Spanish up on my own, with old textbooks and teach-yourself CDs and books from the library. I go through periods where I read Spanish-language newspapers every day and try to listen to only Spanish language radio. And I went through intense bursts of Spanish review before various trips to Latin America or Spain. But I always get distracted, usually by a new language that seems sexier or more exciting (more about this final point later).

I never really wanted to learn French -- I was more interested in learning Italian or Portuguese -- but I have the good luck of having a friend here in L.A. whom I can pester for help with learning French. (One of my new guidelines for picking up a language is that I shouldn't be trying to pick up a language that I have no opportunity to speak with anyone (i.e., Japanese).) I really enjoy trying to pronounce French, and the manner in which consonants are elided at the ends of words, the vowel endings of so many of the verbs and nouns. But my pronunciation is atrocious and infected with Spanish; my French friend tells me there's a French expression appropriate for my pronunciation: "You speak French like a Spanish cow." Still, French seems like a useful global language, with its reach into the Middle East, Africa, through Europe, etc.

Where French is incredibly difficult to pronounce, Italian seems to come easily -- but perhaps that's because my idea of proper pronunciation is to speak like Mario or Luigi from Mario Brothers. Italian seems relatively easy to pick up if you have a good foundation in Spanish. Like Japanese, Italian doesn't seem like a very useful language outside of Italy and maybe certain U.S. cities. But it is a language that pops up all the time in food and music, and it also seems like a good way to back into learning Latin, as Italian is probably the most conservative of the Romance languages in preserving its links to Mother Latin.

I haven't been studying Bengali much lately. Before we went to Bangladesh and India this summer, I spent a lot of time trying to brush up my Bengali speaking and reading. There was a time, after I took a Bengali class during law school, where my Bengali reading ability was actually decent, but I haven't kept it up enough. My parents and family still speak to me in Bengali, and my comprehension is good, but I'm just not in enough practice to be able to produce Bengali fluently. On a sheer numerical basis, Bengali is a useful language, since it has about 230 million speakers worldwide (it's the second-most widely spoken language in India).

I'm sorry for all the tedious details. The main purpose of this post was meant to be an attempt to figure out why I am so eager to learn new languages when I have yet to master (or become anything near fluent in) any of them. This is an issue I have with books as well. There is nothing I like more than starting a book -- the introduction, the first few pages, seem to open up huge vistas of possibility and promise, and bring the excitement of knowing that I am finally actually reading some book I've always meant to read, looked forward to, etc. In the same way, there is nothing I love more than beginning to learn the basics of a language -- basic greetings, discussing the weather, asking directions, counting to ten, etc. I also really like learning to read new writing systems, especially the more distant they are from the Roman alphabet. I really enjoyed learning the Bengali and Japanese scripts and characters. A few months ago (and during a recent stop-over in Korea) I spent a few hours learning how to read Hangul, the Korean writing system -- not that I know any Korean (but (shocker) I'd like to learn). But just as my interest in a new book often wanes a bit after I've gotten past the first thirty or forty pages, my interest in a new language often begins to fade as I get into the difficult and painful details of conjugation, articles, proper forms of adjectives, etc. At that point, it's no longer fun and novel, but hard work. Ultimately, my dilettantism is self indulgence, laced with laziness.

I remember having a discussion with a friend about my inability to simply focus on one language and master it; my friend (who speaks French very well) suggested that it probably made sense to master one foreign language, rather than learning bits and scraps of several. She's probably right, though I don't know what I would do with "mastery" of any particular language. Perhaps it would be a good thing, but I do also enjoy having some elementary feel of various languages, and getting that dizzying sense of the possibilities out there, the multiple ways of describing the world. I guess it makes sense that the word "dilettante" is derived from the Italian delittare (to delight), which in turn is from the Latin dilectare. My dabbling in languages is not about mastery, really-- it's about delight, a somewhat intense form of sampling.

But this year is about finishing things for me. I have my ridiculous reading list that I put together, and I intend to get through that. (Updates coming soon.) I'm trying to focus and get away from my impractical and foolish attempt to learn five languages at once. My main language goal for the year is to get my Spanish to a very good level, to the point that I am comfortable having conversations that are maybe beyond a fourth-grade level. I have to come to grips with the fact that here just isn't time to do everything. You have to make choices, and leave somethings behind, or for later. But there's nothing wrong with getting a taste of as many things as you can.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A New Day in Cambodia

You want to root for the Cambodians. After the incomprehensible horrors these people have been through, with nearly a quarter of the population (nearly 2 million people) massacred by the Khmer Rouge, with nearly 250,000 killed by U.S. bombing over the course of four years in the late sixties and early seventies, with the untold misery wrought by the extensive land mines strewn throughout the country -- after all of this, any visitor to Cambodia will find that these are some of the kindest and warmest people anywhere.

This is still a small country, with a population today of only 14 million (which is growing at a rapid clip). The tourism industry here is still relatively young, but the slickness and professionalism of Siem Reap's tourist services make you realize that the Cambodians learn quickly. It's incredible how many people here speak English -- and how well they speak it. And it's not only English -- you run into Cambodians everywhere here that speak French, Japanese, German, Korean, Italian, and Chinese with remarkable ease and assurance.

And it's not only the tour guides and hotel staff. Everywhere you go on Angkor, you are trailed by Cambodian kids who want to sell you cold drinks, t-shirts, magnets, or bamboo flutes. Some tourists seem to find this annoying, but the kids are actually really interesting and shockingly smart. Mrs. Octopus and I started talking to a boy named Chai who must've been about 10 or so while we were waiting to watch the sunset at Pre Rup. We bought a magnet from him and told him our names and that we lived in California. He then proceeded to say the following: "The capital of your state is Sacramento. The capital of your country is Washington, D.C. The population of your country is 300 million people."

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that many American adults -- never mind American 10 year-olds -- wouldn't know all of that. Chai told us he learned some of this stuff in school (where he said he had just come from), and some of it from tourists. We told him that his English was excellent and that he should keep studying hard in school. After Chai left us, he went over to sell stuff to some Japanese and Korean tourists, surprising them by appealing to them in their respective languages, and bargaining with them in their languages as well. (Chai was pretty happy to have us take his picture -- I'll try to post it when I get back. UPDATE: Photo below.)

There are undoubtedly unimaginable reservoirs of grief and misery behind the grace and warmth of the Cambodian people you meet during a brief stay here as a tourist. But you can sense that these people are ready to rejoin their neighbors in Southeast Asia and in greater Asia as the continent races into what looks to be the Asian century. Once great civilizations are ascendant once again in India and China. As long as it remains standing, Angkor Wat will remind the world that Cambodia was also once home to a great empire, and a civilization that produced some of the greatest works of art on earth. I, for one, hope that the darkness is beginning to lift here in Cambodia, and that its people will benefit and prosper as Cambodia retakes its place in the world community.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

In Thailand Defeated

That is in fact what Siem Reap means -- "Thailand defeated" -- which may irk visitors to Angkor from that other Indianized Southeast Asian country. Apparently, in Thai schools children are taught that the Thais actually built Angkor Wat; as you can imagine, this pisses off the Cambodians.

The Siem Reap airport, which was built just a few years ago, is pretty snazzy. The entire town exists as a launching pad for tours of the temples of Angkor, and the flow of tourism here has apparently exploded over the past decade or so. We haven't been into town to see the restaurants and shops yet, but you can pretty much get anything you want here now, and there are some fantastic food options.

The flight here from Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines was pretty painless. The VA flight was on a brand new Airbus, and everything ran smoothly. Our flight was packed with Koreans wearing conical Vietnamese hats. I've seen tons of Korean tourists on this trip so far. There seemed to be a ton of Korean businesses with footholds in Vietnam. There were even entire rest stop/tourist trap areas on the heavily travelled route between Hanoi and Halong Bay devoted entirely to Korean tourists. My impressionistic and unscientific take so far is that Korea seems to be emerging in a huge way in Asia, especially in its overseas involvements in places like Southeast Asia -- and may be supplanting Japan in some ways. It definitely feels like the younger, more dynamic economy. Korean brands seem to be ubiquitous here in Southeast Asia -- especially LG and Samsung. I've been thinking for a while that Samsung is now the new Sony. (Of course, I may be biased since we recently got a Samsung TV, on the theory that Samsung's technology was now superior to Sony's.)

Tomorrow we visit the temples in Angkor. I'll have to write later about our quick visit to the frigid Ho Chi Mausoleum, where we filed past the embalmed (and refrigerated) Uncle Ho.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Heroic Turtles of Hanoi

Mrs. Octopus and I are in Hanoi where we have so far avoided being run over by the insane scooter and moped traffic. We've come pretty close, though.

The people of Hanoi love their turtles. Local legend has it that 15th century military hero Le Loi received a magic sword from a giant golden turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake (located in the center of Hanoi). Le Loi used the sword to help defeat an invading Chinese army (beating back invading armies -- usually Chinese -- is a theme you come across often here). We saw a preserved giant turtle at the Ngoc Sien Temple at Hoan Kiem Lake. Its genitals were, for some reason, separately preserved. Also in Hanoi, at the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), which was Vietnam's first university (founded in 1070), 82 stone turtles bear massive stelae on their backs; the stelae are inscribed with the names of students who received their degrees at the university. Visitors seem to like to rub the turtles' heads.

My favorite Vietnamese turtle story is one I came across in Keith Taylor's Birth of Vietnam. It involves another legendary golden turtle:
According to this legend, construction of the ["Old Snail City"] citadel was stalled because each day's work was mysteriously undone during the night by the spirits of the land; these spirits were assisting the son of the previous king to gain revenge for the loss of his inheritance. The local spirits were led by a thousand-year-old white chicken perched on nearby Mount Tam-dao. A golden turtle appeared, subdued the white chicken, and remained with King An Duong until the citadel was completed. When he departed, he gave one of his claws to be used as the trigger of the king's crossbow, with the assurance that with it he could destroy any foe. King An Duong commissioned a man named Cao Lo to construct the crossbow and christened it "Saintly Crossbow of the Supernaturally Golden Claw."
Taylor, Birth of Vietnam at 21.

We're going to go out for some pho for dinner in a few minutes. Tomorrow we head down to Halong Bay for an overnight stay on a junk. I'm going to keep an eye out for golden turtles (and malicious thousand-year-old white chicken).

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Howard Dean, M.D. for H.H.S.

The first time I saw Howard Dean speak was in the spring of 2003. It was a very dark time. We were being driven into a pre-emptive and utterly unnecessary and foolish war on not much more than bald-faced lies; the media was obediently purveying the administration's spin and hype, leaping at the chance to be "embedded," and dared not criticize the President or his brave host of steely-eyed, visionary advisors. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz had decided how the world was going to look -- fuck the facts -- and we were all supposed to shut up and get with the program.

Dean in March 2003

The first thing I noticed when I heard Dean speak was his intensity -- the raw, clipped energy of his attacks on the mendacity of the Bush administration. Dean was a short amped-up firebrand -- and he was saying exactly what I felt. Dean gave voice to the millions of us -- including then State Senator Barack Obama -- who felt absolutely horrified and powerless in the face of the collective, unthinking nationalistic swoon the country had fallen into, cowed and confused by 9/11 -- a swoon that the Bush administration exploited to launch its long-desired invasion of Iraq.

Dean gave millions of us hope. Dean represented an independent-minded side of America that would not drink the Bush administration's Kool-Aid. Dean was the first major politician to mobilize the full wrath of those Americans who, like him, were disgusted by the Bush administration's cynical tactics and were ready to say so.

Despite the political assassination of Dean through the endless and juvenile exploitation of the Dean Scream, one can in fact draw a straight line from Dean's insurgent campaign that first harnessed the power of the netroots and the ultimate glory of the 2008 Obama campaign. And Obama owes much to Dean's pathbreaking 50-state strategy as D.N.C. Chairman. Let us not forget that during Dean's tenure as D.N.C. Chairman, the Democrats took back both houses of Congress in 2006, and won states they had not won in decades as Obama took the White House in 2008.

Howard Dean was there for us in our darkest moments, at the very nadir of the long and dark tenure of the Bush administration. He spoke for us then. He spoke for us -- and won for us -- as D.N.C. Chairman. We know who Howard Dean is, and we know what he will do for us: he will fight like a banshee and not be afraid to kick the motherfuckers' teeth in (to the extent that can be done on C-Span, of course).

Nearly 50 million Americans live without health insurance -- and that number continues to rise dramatically as the economic crisis lays waste to thousands of jobs. This needs to change. Howard Dean is the man for the job.

Howard Dean for Secretary of Health and Human Services. Write President Obama.

No More New Car Smell?

The recent dismaying turn of events with the Daschle nomination seemed to me like the first ding you get on the side of your new car. It doesn’t really damage anything, and you’ll probably forget about it pretty quickly, but the little ding does take the sheen off the whole new car thing. Alternatively, it could be like spilling some ketchup inside your new car. To extend this stupid metaphor, Geithner’s nomination turbulence was like the first time someone bumps into your new car’s bumper as they are trying to parallel park in front of you. No damage done, but your previously pristine new baby has been violated.

At lunch today, I walked past an empty loft on Colorado Avenue in Pasadena, and past L.A. Times dispensers displaying today’s dispiriting headline: “Obama frustrated by stumbles”. For some reason, I thought back to the building excitement of late September of last year, when I rode my bike down Colorado Avenue in Pasadena with a big Obama bumper sticker pasted across the bike frame. At that point, an Obama presidency seemed a thing of unbounded promise, limitless potential – a beautiful dream.

We’re two weeks into the Obama presidency. We’re not seeing “failure” or the collapse of Obama’s mandate to make sweeping changes in the federal government. Rather, we’re just seeing that beautiful dream in the grimy February light of Washington. The Daschle nomination was a fuck-up, and it’s to Obama’s credit that he was quick to say so – though that doesn’t quite make it all better. How could he and his staff have missed this, knowing Daschle as well as they do, and why was Obama backing a known loser like Daschle for this spot in the first place?

I was a little troubled to hear yesterday that Obama said he felt “surprisingly comfortable” as President. I don’t want him to feel “surprisingly comfortable.” Tom Daschle’s stupid glasses were probably “surprisingly comfortable.” I want Obama to be desperate to get shit done, and to get it done right. Half-ass hacks like Daschle – and maybe Geithner (though I’m withholding judgment for the time being) – will not get this done. Two weeks, and it looks like the honeymoon may be over sooner than we thought. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.