Page 2 of 3

Our Culture in a Headline: “Beyoncé convinced Jay Z is hiding things from her”

I saw this headline on a news site the other day. I simply have one question: do people really care? I’m serious. Are there people out there who will gladly click on that link to find the latest gossip?

I know the answer to that. I’ve come across Justin Beiber groupies and Miley Cyrus fans who certainly wouldn’t know who the vice president is. We really are entertaining ourselves to death, aren’t we?

I have nothing against entertainment. I’m a writer, after all, and I hope to entertain people with my stories. But when entertainment becomes elevated into the realm of obsession – to the detriment of having well-rounded citizens, then I start to fear for the future of the USA (as my home country) or any other country which follows suite.

The amount of entertainment that we consume is staggering. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons that the quality of the mainstream news has steadily declined – they have to compete with so much superfluous culture. They have to grab attention from a myriad of consumers who have their brains loosely connected to a thousand things at once. Therefore, stories become sensationalized and, perhaps, even embellished. (Brian Williams anyone?)

The frightening part about all of this for me is that there are many who really don’t care what’s going on in the world. They really don’t care about ISIS, or politics, or healthcare, or race issues, or Ukrainian conflicts. Many people are so consumed about their own business that many of us have lost touch with the outside world.

I’ve been recently re-watching Ken Burns’ “The War” and what strikes me the most about the Greatest Generation who watched the war from the home-front is how engaged everyone was in the process of war. It was an entire society that was completely committed, completely enthralled, completely wanting to know every detail. That didn’t make it a homogeneous society – far from it. America was then and is today extremely diverse, but there was a sense of unity, a sense of understanding, a sense of duty, a sense of collectiveness that is lacking in today’s society. There many be many reasons for this – one simply being our pluralistic society (which if you go back a few days and look at my post about pluralism you’ll understand how necessary it is), but one of the main reasons that many in our country don’t care what is going on is because they are wrapped up in the lives of Beyonce and Jay-Z. I hope we can wake up  before it’s too late.

Community Shopping Carts

A scene, perhaps, unique to Asia.

I was heading off on my powerful Honda 100cc scooter, approaching the large Tesco Supercenter complex not too far from my house.

About a quarter of a mile before getting to Tesco is a small enclave of houses. The houses are small too. It is a mainly Malay village – modest homes – sweet people – fried bananas boiled in oil on the side of the road – a sidewalk shop that literally takes over more of the sidewalk each year without the authorities enforcing anything – an open air market with plenty of food stalls hidden underneath coconut trees. You get the picture.

As I’m sitting at the stop light with Tesco in full view just up the way, I notice a man with a fluorescent vest pushing about 8 shopping carts. He looks back and waves at someone else, a young man wearing a blue vest also pushing about the same number of shopping carts. He darts across the street in front of traffic, defying the stop light, and lines up behind the fluorescent vest man. Both of them continue their trek towards the shopping haven in the distance.

As I finally go through the light, it becomes easy to see that the young man’s blue vest reads “Tesco” on the back of it. The other man had a Tesco security fluorescent vest on.

It made me chuckle. Tesco had finally commanded their workers to go into the community, find their shopping carts, and bring them back.

They obviously weren’t hard to find them. It can easily be assumed that well-intentioned folks has “borrowed” the carts to transport their gallons of oil for their stall, or to transport the large bags of chillies and chilled fish.

Might this be thievery? Are these carts stolen merchandise? Are the police going to punish the souls who saved their arms some work?

Certainly not. All in good fun, they are community shopping carts.

Is it irritating to Tesco? Most likely yes!

But in laid-back Asian societies which value community over individualism and favor turning a blind eye to confronting a problem, the AWOL shopping carts is nothing to get riled up about.

I can just hear the explanations now: “Sir, I did not steal that cart. I’m bringing it back on my next trip. You should thank me for supporting your store. And the cart says ‘Tesco’. We are helping you advertise.”

“Sir, my mother is sick and can’t carry the wares anymore. Our food stall is our only source of income. This cart saved her a lot of work. You are providing a great service for our community.”

I love living in Asia.

Silent Cal, Social Media, & Conversation (redux)

When my blog was incredibly young nearly two years ago, I posted an article I entitled, “Silent Cal, Social Media, & Conversation.”  Its timely message has become more and more important with each passing year. We all spend so much time using social media that I do wonder when the day will come when we ourselves will be the media. Google Glass is going to be making media part of our fashion, so it will be always on, and always on us. That can only lead to us, ourselves, our bodies, our beings actually one day becoming the device. What will then happen with social conventions such as face to face conversations? Once again, here is the original post, “Silent Cal, Social Media, & Conversation.”

Former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge knew how to keep his cool.  He was so tight lipped that people dubbed him ‘Silent Cal.’  As one story goes, during a black tie affair at the White House, one lady guest said to the president, “I bet I can get you to say more than two words this evening.”  Without missing a beat, the president turned his head and wryly replied, “You lose.”

It got me thinking.  Would Silent Cal have loved today’s social media?  You can say so much without saying anything at all.

A friend posted the other day that she was in a room with many other people, but it was eerily quiet as each one had their own device where they played, tweeted, communicated, and shared information with someone, somewhere that may or may not have been in that room.

So what is becoming of conversation – I mean real face to face conversation.  What will real conversation be like in twenty years?  How is this affecting our kids who are growing up in social media, not social face-to-face conversation.

Being an introvert, I’ve never been a great conversationalist.  Silent Cal and I would have gotten along real well.  But, I understand that conversation is important.  Kids need to learn how to appropriately and effectively communicate with others when it’s not all lol, rotflol, and all these other abbreviations which I frequently misunderstand.

Let’s start with family dinner.  How many families continue to have family dinners with real conversation?  How many dinners take place when the TV is blaring, the cell phones are clicking, or the iPADs are being swiped (I don’t mean stolen)?

A former colleague of mine once said that children need to hear and take part in adult conversation, so they can learn new words in grown-up contexts.  Her contention was that children need to be exposed to ideas, current events, and philosophies which they aren’t going to get on their own or on some social media device.  I completely agree with her.  Children need to learn how to listen, how to think, and then how to speak when it is appropriate.  They need to try out new words and be corrected when their understanding isn’t quite developed.  They need to talk about and explore topics which may be over their heads.  They need to ask questions and ponder whether the answers make sense.  All of this happens in conversation.  It doesn’t happen by texting your friend about Hollywood gossip 500 times a month.

As I teach my students, I continually remember not to “dumb down” a lesson just because they may not understand a word.  I say every sentence the way I would if I was talking to an adult, and then I’ll clarify and re-explain something in different words if necessary.

But I just can’t help but wonder what our social media world will mean to our students twenty years from now.

Will everyone be living in the realm of Silent Cal with a communication gadget strapped to their arms?

Will we still be able to sit at a dinner table and converse with one another without interruption?  I hope so.

Sit down, drink some tea.

“Sit down, drink some tea.”

Never was there such a dreaded phrase if I had a list of tasks to complete, and it’s a phrase I never encounter any more.

When I lived in Vietnam, completing ordinary, everyday tasks was sometimes a huge challenge. Getting something fixed or trying to find the right item to purchase took an extraordinary amount of time, but that dreaded phrase, “Sit down, drink some tea” compounded the issue on a daily basis.

For example, I would pull up to an open-air shop on my motorbike, get off, remove my helmet and sunglasses, and walk towards the shop owner. I could always see the apprehension in her eyes as this tall, big, lumbering, over-sized, freak-of-nature person came at her with all the white skin and brown hair he could muster. But I had the proverbial ace up my sleeve, and I would look at her, smile, and inquire in perfect Vietnamese, “Hello ma’am, do you have any _______ (insert item here).” Her face would light up, and she would start talking a mile a minute, and we would have a polite and friendly conversation about anything and everything except for the item that I wanted to purchase. And then she would pull out her trump card:

“Sit down, drink some tea.”

I would oblige. She would pull out a small teapot, fill the bottom with the world famous Thai Nguyen “che bup” loose green tea leaves and then pour in some steaming hot water from her red thermal water container. She would dump out the first batch of water immediately, then pour in a second, allowing the tea to blend slowly into the hot water. I would sit patiently on the six-inch-high plastic stools, knees almost at my chin, waiting for the tea ritual to end.

After several thimble-sized cup fulls, I would thank her, stand and inquire once again about the item that I needed. She would oblige and after twenty minutes, I was allowed to make the purchase.

When I first came to Vietnam, those rituals caused nothing but frustration. But I learned, eventually, that the best way to accomplish anything in Vietnam (and oftentimes Asia in general) is to sit down, chat, and have tea before doing anything else.

At the university I used to work at in Thai Nguyen, I learned how to play the system. If I had an issue that needed dealt with, I would slyly walk into the Foreign Affairs Office, seemingly with no agenda at all. I always met Ms. Lien (a wonderful woman, who has since passed on), and we would immediately sit down for some tea, chatting for 30 minutes or so until I would then stand up and tell her I had to go. But before I left, I would turn around and say, “By the way, I have a small problem with ….(insert problem).” She gladly would say that she’ll take care of it for me. I would leave. Case closed. Relationship built. Problem solved.

What’s going on here? It’s all about value orientations: Task Orientation vs. Person Orientation.  Westerners are typically taught that tasks, goals, and, achievements are the most important things in life and so we tend not to like it when people get in the way, taking us off task. Asians traditionally come from the mindset that people and relationships should take precedence over tasks. When a westerner charges in and wants immediate action, it must feel like an impersonal cowboy invasion. It can be seen as rude and uncaring. The westerner doesn’t view it that way. He or she just wants to get the task done, then it will be talk time. But for the easterner, the relationship must take precedence over the task.

If a westerner can learn to build relationships and connect with people, they’ll find their time in Asia will go much smoother.

But times are changing in many parts of Asia. I live in Penang now – a very westernized place in many ways – and many of the personal connections are not so easily established as they were in Vietnam. That is probably the one thing I miss the most about living there. I wish I could sit down and drink tea more often.


Fast Food, Globalization, and Culture (Part III)

Here’s part III (the final segment) in this series. The most interesting part (in my opinion) of this post is the fascinating way that fast food has helped change and mold certain parts of modern China. 

Read Part I HERE!

Read Part II HERE!

The new fast food culture that has been introduced into many countries over the past thirty years has also had a profound impact on society at large. Many bemoan the presence of fast-food as the homogenization of the world.  Rightly or not, these behemoths of tidy restaurants with standardized food have become the symbol of American cultural imperialism overseas.  They are often the target of activists who complain of the loss of traditional culture at the expense of corporations pushing low wage “McJobs” and low quality “McFood.”  Whether these criticisms are justified or not, these trans-national corporations have changed many countries.

China provides an interesting study of how the fast-food industry used its’ foresight, capital, and perfect timing to impact a nation.  American fast-food has done nothing less than start a consumer revolution in China which has been led by children (Watson 125).  This is not by accident.  McDonald’s took its playbook from Disney when franchise founder Ray Kroc began successfully marketing to children (Schlosser 33); the franchises in China have done the same thing but merely adapted their approach to local circumstances.   Birthday parties, which never existed a generation or two ago in most parts of East Asia, have become commonplace and the fast food industry has become at the center of it (Watson 126).  McDonald’s has become the ‘hang-out’ for grandparents and the study zone for high school students.  McDonald’s and other like-minded places have taken advantage of the changes in Chinese family life and have adapted their offerings to meet the changing needs of society.  In Hong Kong, McDonald’s has become such a part of the fabric of life there that it is difficult to see exactly where the transnational corporations ends and the local begins (Watson 134).  Chinese scholar James Watson claims that fast food did not create a new market but responded to opportunities which were presented by “the collapse of an outdated Confucian family system” (127).  Even the success of KFC in China is largely due to how it has become local in focus (Phillips 41).  Some contend that societal changes brought about by the rise of fast food is not all bad.  Watson cites cases where fast food restaurants have contributed to teaching Chinese mobs how to properly queue while encouraging other restaurants and eating establishments to raise their standards of restaurant cleanliness to match those of the big franchises (Schlosser 128-129).  Whether fast food has improved or degraded society in China and other countries is a matter of opinion.  However, what is clear is that these corporations have used their vast influence, their tax incentives, and their capital to create a fast food niche supported by a massive food production system which previously did not exist.

How should we properly evaluate these trans-national fast food corporations?  Certainly they have impacted food production, labor, and culture.  But they could not have done it all on their own.  It was a combination of government policy and consumer approval which ultimately had its way. Phillips cites various studies that show that the corporate power and impact of food related trans-national corporations is not a “given” but is a byproduct of many different stake-holders including growers, laborers, investors and marketers (41).   Watson adds that global issues must take the consumers’ perspectives into account (134).  Throwing a brick at a McDonald’s in Mumbai to protest globalization seems to be missing the point.  The corporation is just one of the stakeholders that brought it into existence.  The fast food restaurants have become the cultural domain of Muslims in Malaysia, Buddhists in China and Hindus in India.  When you attack their McDonald’s, you are attacking them, and not a foreign entity. The world has asked to have their burger their own way, and the corporations have gladly provided it.

But what ultimately can be expected from these trans-national food corporations?  Can food globalization ever be proactive to spur on competition, protect labor, and purposefully reduce poverty?  Or is production consolidation, degradation of labor, and more power in fewer hands merely the nature of the capitalistic beast which precludes it from productively contributing to a more equitable society?  It may be foolhardy to presume that profit driven corporations would willingly make the right choices concerning the vulnerability of workers and poverty at large when profit is the driving force.  These powerful corporations are the ones receiving the tax breaks, trimming labor costs and consolidating their grip over supply and distribution.  Many trans-national firms do have social responsibility policies that have been built into their corporate framework, but they have mainly come to fruition in order for them to avoid bad publicity which might ruin their name (Jenkins 528); these policies make sure the corporations are avoiding human rights violations rather than positively moving to reduce poverty in their locality (Jenkins 528).  These token gestures are more smoke screens rather than positive steps which might raise wages, ensure health coverage and safe working environments which would ultimately do a lot to help alleviate global poverty.

The fast food corporations are an easy target to criticize. They are big; they are powerful; they are slick marketers, and shrewd managers of capital.  They seem to represent the best and worst of the capitalist system.  By pushing efficiency, standardization and expansion, they create a marginalized workforce and a depleted market for competition especially in the area of food production.  They have globalized common brand names, yet have adapted the brand to suit the local environment.  Whatever the ultimate verdict on their impact will be, it is clear that there is no stopping their expansion. But the world’s governments would do well to scrutinize their food production policies and determine how “… food citizenship may be developed as a sustainable politics to include everyone, not just the privileged” (Phillips 48).

Works Cited

Jenkins, Rhys.  “Globalization, Corporate Social Responsibility and Poverty.”

International Affairs 81, 3 (2005) 525-540.

Krugman, Paul. “We Are Not the World.”  New York Times  13 February 1997, A33.

Phillips, Lynne. “Food and Globalization.” Annual Review of Anthropology 35.1 (2006): 37-57.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.

Shari, Ishak. “Globalisation and Economic Insecurity: A Need for a New Social Policy in Malaysia.” Asian Journal of Social Science 31.2 (2003): 251-270.

Watson, James L. “China’s Big Mac Attack.” Foreign Affairs 79.3 (2000): 120-134.

Fast Food, Globalization, and Culture (Part II)

Here’s part two of a three part series.

Read Part I HERE!

Many of these food related trans-national corporations are now controlling a large portion of food production and distribution in various parts of the world (Phillips 40).  McDonald’s and other trans-national franchises do not merely set up restaurants overseas but import entire systems of agricultural production (Schlosser 230) by spending years preparing the food and supply lines which will enable them to maintain consistency in quality and presentation from one country to the next.  More than five years before McDonald’s entered India, they began to teach Indian farmers how to grow ice berg lettuce by providing them with the specially designed seeds (Schlosser 230).  This approach puts a growing number of farmers more and more dependent on these corporations.  The list of companies who are currently controlling a large portion of overseas food production in many countries is a veritable list of powerful American led corporations (Schlosser 230-231) who have pushed expansion and consolidation in every market they have entered.  These expansions are in a never ending search for new markets and cheaper labor (Phillips 40) and they are having a strong impact on government policy regarding economic development, capital, and labor.  Ishak Shari from the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies writes “national production systems are increasingly determined by foreign development, and links between firms and parts of transnational enterprise are increasing” (254).  As the food production system continues to be globalized and consolidated, many small overseas farmers like their American counterparts have found themselves in very vulnerable positions (Phillips 41). As the small farmer gives way to larger corporate farms, the continued consolidation will undoubtedly have serious consequences for labor and poverty.

Countries are drawn to trans-national corporations for the promise of capital investment which will, hopefully, spur on development, increase wage earning potential, and help alleviate poverty and unemployment.  These corporations and the capital they bring with them have become major elements into how a country writes labor and social policy (Shari 253).  In many respects, countries desperate for investment increasingly make business conditions more favorable to entice these trans-national corporations.  These investment incentives and enticements give corporations huge advantages which are often too good to ignore.  Shari argues that one of the changes that has occurred is that as capital has become more mobile than labor, the tax burden has been shifted away from capital and placed onto labor (254).  Countries are now competing for foreign investment by offering subsidies for capital investment; the one offering the greatest subsidies wins the investment while other countries are left behind (Shari 254).  Labor is taxed, but capital is subsidized.  This is an example of how money talks and those without it are put at a decided disadvantage.   In essence, the labor and working class of many foreign nations end up subsidizing large, wealthy corporations by virtue of using their tax revenue to subsidize foreign investment.  The carrot at the end of a trans-national corporation’s stick is often too tempting for a developing country to pass up especially with the alternatives of having less investment being even less appetizing; however, the fact remains that the workers and the farmers are often the ones caught in the middle.

The large fast food corporations have brought about large consequences for domestic and overseas labor.  In America, they have created minimum wage jobs which require little training and very little independent thinking.  The consolidation of food production has led to low wage immigrant jobs in the food processing plants and even poverty wages for illegal immigrants (Schlosser 150).  These immigrants often have no recourse of action if their labor is abused and end up being stuck in poverty-like situations.  The same has become true for many of their overseas counterparts. The need for corporate profit continues to push firms to find ways to minimize labor costs whether it is through finding cheap labor overseas or by importing foreign workers who are willing to work for less. More and more overseas firms are depending on temporary workers, part-time workers and outsourcing (Shari 255).   Anyway you look at it the labor force is being pushed around by corporate initiatives and government policies which often allow and encourage these actions.  We must, however, temper our criticism of the trans-national corporations by acknowledging foreign investment has literally helped millions of third world workers who now have unprecedented opportunities because of global expansion (Krugman 33). The wages received by many workers may be low and the conditions may be poor, but it is often better than what they would receive by working for a local company.

Fast Food, Globalization, and Culture (Part I)

A while back, I wrote this (rather long) essay on fast food and culture. I’ll be dividing it up over the next few days. I would appreciate your comments.  

As you travel down Mt. Erskine road in northern Penang Island and look out over the sprawling Hokkien Chinese cemetery which the road splits in two, an unmistakable symbol of Americanism rises like a golden phoenix out of the burnt ashes of incense – the golden arches of McDonald’s. Always packed with customers, the 24-hour McDonald’s seems to have perfect feng shui with its location chosen just as carefully and precisely as the grave markers on the hill above it.  Perhaps it is fitting that a further look beyond the golden arches reveals the busy shipping lanes of the Straits of Malacca with constant container ships moving global goods from Singapore to Thailand and the world beyond. McDonald’s stands as the ultimate symbol of globalization much to the chagrin of many who view this fast food franchise’s world take-over as another example of the western corporate hegemony dictating their profit-laden scheme to homogenize the world.  It may be exaggeration to use such purposefully imperialistic terms to describe fast food chains. However, it remains clear that American trans-national fast food corporations have constructed a model of consolidation and integration that has become the vanguard of corporate globalization which is drastically affecting food production, labor, and culture in the global marketplace.

Fast food’s expansion overseas has taken its cue from the changes in food production and management which affected America over the past fifty years.  During this time span, America saw a fundamental change in the production of agricultural and meat products.  As fast food franchises formed and flourished spreading their homogenized meals to every corner of every small community, these corporations began the move toward consolidation to ensure consistent quality and distribution on a national scale.  To keep up with the rising demands of the ever more powerful fast-food corporations, the agricultural and meat-packing industries became ever more concentrated in the hands of fewer people.   Where once slaughtering houses were local, they became part of huge processing conglomerates.  Four such corporations currently control nearly eighty percent of beef processing in America (Schlosser 136).  Many small farmers have been unable to survive in this new business environment and have ended up selling their farms to corporate entities who then re-hire the same famers to manage that which they had previously owned (Schlosser 118).  The majority of the agricultural system has been vertically integrated under several large corporations.  From growing the potatoes to slaughtering the animals to processing and distribution, fewer and fewer hands control an ever increasing amount of power.  As these fast food corporations began to eye new markets overseas, they continued this consolidation on a more global scale.

The overseas expansion of fast food corporations has been nothing less than staggering.  From the KFC at the northern end of Hanoi’s Returned Sword Lake, to the McDonald’s at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, to Wendy’s and Carl’s Jr. at Kuala Lumpur’s Sunway Pyramid, the urban crawl of American fast food expansionism permeates the world.  From 1990 to 2000, McDonald’s grew from 3000 restaurants outside the United States to more than 17,000 in more than 120 countries (Schlosser 229).  In Brazil, McDonald’s has become the country’s largest private employer (Schlosser 130).  This expansion has produced a seismic shift in who controls the production of food in many nations.

Music, Brazil, & Culture

Let’s mix things up a little bit today. Here’s an excerpt from an essay I wrote about how music in Brazil has mirrored the historical and cultural changes which it has experienced in the modern era. In this excerpt, I highlight the influence of the talented vocalist and musician Milton Nascimento. 

Milton Nascimento is universally hailed as one of the most gifted vocalists not only of Brazil but also of his generation.   He is from a small town in Minas Gerais, a large Brazilian state just off the southwest coast.   Milton’s music is eclectic, ranging from jazz to folk to many genres which are difficult to classify.  Milton’s songs are a collaborative effort as he worked with many talented musicians and lyricists over the years who would help him define his music.  Perhaps his passion, above all else, was to create a lyrical bank of music which epitomizes life in Minas Gerais and by extension Brazil itself.  Charles Perrone says of Milton that he “… crafts melodies that harbor the soul of Minas Gerais, the spirit of Brazil, and fundamental human passions” (“Milton” 162).    One of the most common themes in his work about Minas Gerais is the theme of arriving and departing with the railroad being a common thread that weaves the theme together (Perrone, “Milton” 138).   When thinking of this theme, it is natural, I assume, to think about home – a place you often want to be, but a place you often find yourself away from.  It is this nostalgic, folksy look at his homeland which gives his music its authenticity and potency.   His music was often referred to as “oxcart music” (Perrone, “Milton” 140) which gives one the impression that you are going back in time to a place like childhood, where life moved at a slower pace and where the simple pleasures and hardships of life seemed to come together in a heart-wrenching crescendo which overwhelmed you with regret, loss, peace and love.

In his song “Tres Pontas”, which is the name of a city in Minas Gerais, Milton starts the song with flute and acoustic guitar, and then adds a conga beat with chant like vocals coming in like they were paying homage to something – or meditating on Minas Gerais itself.   Milton’s voice then comes in clear and strong but the chant-like background continues.  Not content to ride one style the whole way, Milton turns the middle of the song into a sentimental crescendo of strings and stirring vocals whose slow pace perhaps echoes the cadences of Tres Pontas city-life.  Likewise, in his song “Itamarandiba”, the name of another Minas Gerais municipality, Milton sings in the style of a solemn love song with piano, guitar, and strings comfortably blended together in a song paying homage to his beloved homeland.

Milton’s music is not only nostalgic views of Minas Gerais; it also tells us a great deal about Brazil.  Milton’s band called the Corner Club replicates the communal nature of traditional Brazilian society.   The naming of his band the Corner Club references a street corner where society meets for social and recreational purposes (Perrone, “Milton” 133), almost like a social club where locals get together to ‘chew over’ the latest gossip or political scandal.  And that is how Milton made music – in collaboration with a social group of peers.  Perrone says he adopted a “communal approach to composition and recording and touches upon essential needs and concerns” (“Milton” 157).

This communal approach shows off the diverse and eclectic styles which typify his musical expression while at the same time showing off the diversity of Brazilian life.  The following three songs illustrate why Milton is so difficult to pigeonhole and often times defies description.   “Simples” starts with a jazzy prelude of keys, strings, and a powerful horn section.  Then Milton’s vocals emerge in a very operatic, powerful manner followed by strings which add a theatrical flair to the whole piece. Another song of Milton’s that confounds comparison and description is “Saidas and Banderais”.   It has an unexpected start with the sound of a piercing stringed instrument being plucked in a style surprisingly reminiscent of Asian folk music.   His vocals are powerful with a perfectly pitched controlled falsetto which one would have difficulty finding an equal.  Lastly, “Grand Circus” (“Gran Circo”) starts with a powerful, dramatic horn section peppered with flute. It brings to mind someone making a grand entrance with all the pomp and pageantry of a king or queen.  It reminds me of an early 1970s progressive style with its theatrical flair.  The song builds to a crescendo of flute versus trumpet with prolific drumming underneath.  The flurry of action quickly dissipates as the song ends in a mellow jaunt of solemn piano.

Milton Nascimento displays an impressive array of musical prowess which puts Brazil and especially his home state of Minas Gerais on display.  He has created a strong cultural expression which celebrates the pride of Brazil in much the same way as the samba is danced and celebrated on the streets of Carnival.   It is this complex mixture of rural life versus urban life and  of upper class society versus lower class black majority that typifies the unique cultural identity of Brazil.  Brazilian music of the twentieth century has continually displayed this tension in creative and influential ways which have made the world take notice.  Brazilians will no doubt continue to express their protests, political ideals, and cultural identity through their music.

(Complete list of Works Cited available upon request.)



East -West Culture: Skin Color & Beauty

Perhaps you’ve seen this graphic spreading around the Internet recently.

Having lived nearly the last twenty years in Asia, I enjoyed seeing these depictions and understanding clearly the different world views, or better yet, value orientations which these graphics represent.

A westerner moving to Asia could learn a lot just by studying and understanding expectations and priorities, and how different they will be when arriving in, especially, East and Southeast Asia.

There was one graphic in particular that I wanted to comment on today: the “Ideal of Beauty.”

The west: darker skin is more beautiful.  The east: lighter skin is more beautiful.

True. I witnessed it in many different situations.

White westerners on the beach strip down to the bare minimum of clothing – wanting the sun, the tan, the darker skin, which makes them look “alive” or “traveled” – especially in the summer months. Tanning booths? Darkening creams? They use them all. Working outside in the sun? No problem. If mowing grass, take off your shirt. If weeding, get your shorts on. Use the opportunity to bring some life back to your skin.

Easterners – I’ve seen it in both Vietnam and Malaysia – avoid the sun at all cost. If on a motorbike, waiting for the traffic light to turn, they will huddle under the shade of a tree a hundred yards from the intersection rather than wait at the line in the sun. And they will wear long sleeves, often shirts or coats put on backwards to make sure their arms are not exposed to the sun when driving. Whitening creams? Oh yes. Many young girls will use them to try to get the bronzish look out of their skin – that same color that westerners will pay money to get. Working in the field, large conical hats are worn to protect as much skin as possible from the sun. I had more than one friend in Vietnam who lamented how they were the “dark” one in their family. Their sister was the fair-skinned beauty – having the lighter town which was basically indistinguishable from the underside of a white westerner’s arm. Dark was undesirable, and white was beautiful. In Malaysia, I have not found this to be the case – at least not in the same way as in Vietnam – and it must be because of the great diverse cultures, including the Indian culture, which has spread its influence into Malaysia.

A Simple Way to Compare and Understand Eastern and Western Culture

I was eating at some outdoor food stalls the other day – you know, the kind I can never get enough of – and we saw it, right outside the food stalls, a dad holding his son’s hand as the young boy peed into the rain gutter. Honestly, I don’t see this nearly as much as I used to see it in Vietnam. It reminded us of something from our first couple of years living in Vietnam. A true way to view culture. It’s awesome. Here it is.

It comes from Mr. Uy. He was a very kind man who helped acclimate the foreign teachers at the Maritime University in Haiphong, Vietnam. This was back in 1994 and 1995. Things certainly were different back then.

The issue of peeing and culture first got my attention when we were on our way to Hanoi via school van, and about mid-way through, the van stopped, and all the guys got out to pee on the side of the road. Mr. Uy asked me if I wanted to join. I think I declined.

Anyways, another time, during one of our conversations with Mr. Uy, he said something very astute. He talked about the time he had spend in Europe – Bulgaria and a few other countries, I believe. One of the first things that caught him off guard was how Europeans kissed in public – something that a Vietnamese couple never would do. A Vietnamese husband and wife won’t even hold hands in public. It’s just not polite.

And so he came up with this axiom – quite profound, actually – which summed up east vs. west culture in just a couple of astute observations. It went something like this:

In the west, they kiss on the street and pee in the bushes.

In the east, they pee on the street and kiss in the bushes.

Wow. This is a wonderful starting point in trying to understand the differences of the east vs. west culture. If you can understand and accept these, you can understand and accept a lot about both cultures.

Thank you to the peeing youngster who brought this one back!