Spanish Basketballers Go Pee Pee in Your Coke

•August 13, 2008 • 5 Comments

Are they serious?  Unfortunately, they are.  This is a real advertisement from Spanish sports newspaper Marca, featuring the national basketball team doing the “Asian slant-eyes” trick for the camera.  You know, the one little kids at school do.  The same little kids that say, “Me Chinese, me play joke, me go pee pee in your Coke!”

To recap: I’m Chinese-American and have lived in Madrid.  Apropos of my blog on racism in Spain, and given its notoriously poor record of racial abuse in athletic arenas, this is sadly unsurprising.  According to the British newspaper The Guardian, which first reported the story, and the players involved in the photo, the pose was not meant to be offensive.  Based on my experience in Spain, I believe this, but that’s unfortunately beside the point.  As I mentioned before, while I feel most Spanish people have their heart in the right place, many are bafflingly ignorant when it comes to decoding what actions would be interpreted as racially offensive.  

Now that this has turned into an international flap, the Spanish paper El Mundo has started a forum for readers to comment on the photo called “Racism or an Affectionate Wink?”  Just going through these comments is a fascinating look into the Spanish perspective on race.   Most reader comments angrily accuse the British press of trying to fan the flames of paranoia, and of the American press of subverting their attempt at hosting the games in 2016 (you can bet this photograph will resurface during that campaign.)  However, as some readers have rightly pointed out, it doesn’t matter what we (Spaniards) think; if people are offended by it, then it is by definition, offensive.  Another reader writes that “The problem here is one of ignorance.”  That’s one step in the right direction.

Interestingly, as the NY Times reports, the Spanish Basketball team is sponsored by Li-Ning, a Chinese footwear company, and evidently their pose was a “wink” towards their sponsor, as directed by the photographer.  (By the way, reading the comments on the Times page gives you a fascinating look into the American perspective on the Spanish perspective on race.)  One of their players has said that “Anyone who wants to interpret this differently is totally confused.”  He goes on to express his “great respect for Asia and its people”, but then proceeds to talk about his Asian friends in Toronto (in Spain they don’t know that doing something racist and then denying it by claiming friends of the offended race is just so 1980’s), where he plays for the Raptors.  Let’s see if he still has those friends when he gets back from Beijing.

Obviously, it’s all about cultural context (remember all those HSBC ads in the airport?).  A gesture that might be “affectionate” in Spain may be the same that’s been used historically to malign a demographic for looking different in a white population.  In China, this gesture is probably only seen as absurd, as would be any used to manufacture a physical attribute that is shared by the other 1.3 billion people around you.  

I honestly believe these players didn’t believe they were doing anything wrong or insensitive.  And therein lies the problem.

Yeah, baby.

•June 4, 2008 • Leave a Comment

This Will Make You Smile

•February 26, 2008 • 1 Comment

I dare you to watch this video and try not to smile.  Who knew that public restrooms could be so fun?   This woman’s name is Maia Hirasawa and she hails from the fair country of Sweden.  Enjoy!    

Are We Americans Really Just, Like, Totally Dumb?

•February 18, 2008 • 2 Comments

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In 2004, the rest of the world collectively thought, “Uh, yeah.”

On September 11th, 2001, author Susan Jacoby wandered into a bar on the Upper East Side and overheard two men comparing the day’s tragic events to Pearl Harbor. When one man asks what Pearl Harbor was, the other responds, “That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War.”The exchange prompted her to write The Age of American Unreason, a book recently profiled in the NY Times for its assertion that modern American culture is anti-intellectual. The article was accompanied by a general question posed to readers that quickly sparked over 500 responses in a matter of hours:

“Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?”

It’s trendy to beat up on Americans, even in America. The reputation of the Ugly American continues to precede us in all manner of global affairs, and not without reason: for starters, we have publicly embarrassed ourselves in the past two presidential elections, we consume a shamefully disproportionate amount of energy and fossil fuels in comparison to other industrialized countries, and the advent of YouTube allows people from Lahore to La Mancha to type in the words “Miss Teen South Carolina” and watch this video:

(which they understand because they likely speak our language, though we may not speak theirs) affirming their belief that we are a nation of imbeciles, the type of imbeciles who also start wars they can’t finish. And we still don’t use the metric system! Fine. Guilty as charged.

But are we hostile to knowledge? Obviously this is a deliberately inflammatory question. However, I’ll answer in earnest, because there may be a kernel of truth wedged into such a smug grin. Most of this reputation has to do with our limited knowledge of geography, our inability to speak other languages, or recently to other Western European nations, the fact that as a modern superpower, we have a politically influential populace that practices Christianity and votes based on “religious” issues like abortion, gay marriage, and the death penalty. (“Don’t we have a separation of church and state?” they ask.)

The American mentality has always been this: me and mine first. Now before you bob your head condescendingly, consider that this is the mentality that has resulted in our country becoming arguably the most desired patch of real estate on the planet for the past two hundred years. Post-World War II modern America became the leader in global commerce, higher education, free-market enterprise, and the locus of innovative creativity from art to technology. We’re responsible for both Mickey Mouse and the computer mouse. My point is that more than being anti-intellectual, our culture is simply self-absorbed.

My Norwegian friend Nils Olaf points this out when he sees something as innocuous as a bottle of antibacterial hand soap in my bathroom. It’s not uncommon knowledge that while it might help my palms stay germ free in the short run, antibacterial soap will ultimately assist in breeding more powerful, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the long run. The American mentality, this implies, is that hopefully I (the antibacterial soap consumer) will be dead before then. But at least my kids and I will be safe. Screw the rest. Never met ‘em, never liked ‘em.

How did we get to be like this? As much as I like to think Reality Television is the root of all evil, I think it’s a chicken and the egg theory. It’s easily argued that this has always been our culture, and that it’s just become more pronounced because we enjoy an uncommon influence on the rest of the planet economically, militarily, culturally, and environmentally speaking. However, I think it’s become more extreme because we live in an age of runaway decadence. We enjoy infinite variety in access to lifestyle choices, consumer products, and food and cuisine. We want what we want, and we wanted it yesterday (I’m waiting for Amazon.com to have a ‘Get it Yesterday’ option available for a nominal fee). And given the massive geography of our country, plus the expense involved in traveling abroad, it’s easy to see how the average middle-class American would have no need or desire to leave America, in comparison to a Swiss or Belgian who can leave their country without a passport for the weekend and needs to speak two or more languages even within their own national borders.  In comparison, our Joe Six-Pack would seem frightfully provincial.

The good news is that we Americans are programmed for change. It’s what forms the basis of our Constitution and informed our earliest national mythologies; from Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac” to the earliest Puritan work ethic, our primary national principles have always been self-improvement and Free Will over Divine Providence: if you don’t like it, change it. The fact that we will have a non-white male presidential nominee for the first time in our nation’s history speaks to the powerful undercurrents of change happening right now. One of the reasons I love the idea of a President Obama is that having lived in Indonesia as a child, he understands and respects growing up on the flip-side of a culture, not to mention a Muslim one at that. Personally, I believe our government should subsidize any American student who wants to study abroad in high school or university regardless of race or socioeconomic background. It’s the least we could do to encourage international exposure.

In my own travels, I’ve met quite a few people who assumed that as an American, I would have the IQ equivalent of whatever they ate for lunch that day. But I’m happy to report that the majority of Americans I’ve met abroad have been wonderfully open-minded, curious, well-read, bi or multi-lingual, humorous, and generous in spirit. Most importantly, they knew they wanted to know more. (Now if I could only meet more of these within our own borders!) So yes, maybe we have an unhealthy obsession with celebrity. Yes, perhaps we have a horrifying obesity rate. Yes, in comparison with the rest of the world, we suck at math. But we also have a history of promoting and instituting massive social change within an incredibly short period of time. And I think we’re slowly, ever so slowly moving back in the right direction. So don’t give up on us just yet. Maybe it won’t happen in my lifetime, but you never know. Hopefully that antibiotic-resistant super bacteria won’t get to me first.

Jazz vs. the Grammys

•February 13, 2008 • Leave a Comment

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Herbie Hancock, laughing all the way to the bank

No, not the Utah Jazz, but rather an entire genre of music scored an unexpected ‘triumph’ at The Grammy Awards last night with Herbie Hancock’s most recent duets album, “River: The Joni Letters” upsetting both Amy Winehouse and Kanye West for Album of the Year.  I use the word triumph in quotes because winning Album of the Year at the Grammys has very little to do with actually ‘winning’ anything (except hopefully more album sales).  Yet the result immediately sparked a controversy among commercial music pundits and a strangely surly article by NY Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff that inadvertently exposes the uselessness of the Grammys as a yardstick for creative achievement.  I’ve honestly never appreciated the Grammy Awards, mostly because I don’t think they make any cohesive sense and the criteria for winning is shrouded in confusion.   And I still don’t understand the difference between “Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year’.  But to place Herbie Hancock in a category with the Foo Fighters, in the same category with Vince Gill, next to Kanye West and Amy Winehouse is just bizarre.  Not only are they not in the same food group, they shouldn’t even be in the same aisle.  This is a direct reflection of the unfocused thrashing of the recorded music industry in general.  And to choose ‘the best’ of them seems strangely juvenile. 

In his article, Ratliff suggests that Hancock’s album (which he calls “Grammy-ish” – red flag there already dear reader) was really an artistic compromise between both the pianist and each of his collaborators that although diluted the mojo of those involved, ultimately soothed the savage Grammy beast with its “chastened” drums and “almost drowsy” properties.  “Institutions like to congratulate themselves,” he writes.  Not a ringing endorsement for either the album or the validity of the awards.  “‘Good taste'” (his quotes) is the suggested reason for Hancock’s win.  I suggest that the Grammys should not try at this stage in the game to become tastemakers (too little, too late, I say).   Instead, they should be concerned about the most seemingly callous of things: people buying records.  

The Tony Awards (for Broadway theatre) were specifically created to drive ticket sales, plain and simple.  They are strategically placed in the beginning of the summer, immediately before peak tourist season, to help visitors to Broadway select which show they’ll plunk down their Benjamins for.  The record industry should be doing the same thing.  Grammys for everyone!  It’s almost like that already, given that there are exist (separate) categories for Best Recording Package and Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package. (The existence of the oft-ridiculed “Best Album Notes” category doesn’t bother me so much as it points to the non-existence a “Best Lyrics” category.  I mean, what’s more important?  The words in the song, or the words describing the words in the song?) 

The real winner in all of this?  Herbie Hancock.  He’s too much of a cultural giant to be disrespected by his fellow nominees, and he’s too much of a bad-ass to actually care that he won.  He may embrace the recognition (and the extra royalties) but hopefully it won’t affect who he is as an artist.  The irony is that the Grammys awarded the one person in the category who doesn’t need it and for whom it will ultimately have the least impact, unless he does nothing more than make duet records for the rest of his career.  In the end, like record labels, the Grammy awards are slowly but surely proving themselves disposable.

Yes We Can

•February 5, 2008 • Leave a Comment

It’s Super Tuesday today and time to do your job — your other job, that of choosing by whom we will be governed, which considering the state of the world, is sort of important… I’m not usually a sucker for these kinds of ads but damn it if this didn’t actually move me.  Please don’t forget to vote.

Time Out for Tango

•December 17, 2007 • 1 Comment

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One of my favorite venues in Bs As, La Catedral in Abasto

Who’d have thunk that after 3 months in Bs As I’d be considered something of an authority on tango orchestras? Apparently, the editors at Time Out Buenos Aires did, as I’ve just completed an article for their 2008 guidebook on the young, burgeoning tango music scene. The article highlights four of my favorite, yet still underground (to tourists at least) ‘young guard’ orchestras in the city, and will be published in April of next year. Look for it at your local bookstore if you can remember that far ahead.