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Tag: culture

Food Can Be A Cultural Landmine

Not long after I wrote my previous post, I came across this article where the magazine Food & Wine apologized for messing up some traditional cuisine just because they wanted to interject their own aesthetics into the picture. Which made me wonder if my attempts at kolokythopita was an exercise in exerting my “privilege” (which seems very strange to say since I’m not a white dude and almost no one ever listens to me anyway) over an ethnic cuisine. I ultimately decided that my attempts at cooking was not the same thing because: 1) I admit I’m no expert at cooking, 2) I make no claims on authenticity and readily admit to any changes I made with the recipe, and 3) I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone else that my adjustments to the recipe made it better, aesthetically or otherwise.

These days, if food tastes good, I’ll eat it. I think it’s because I live in a place where there is an ever present mingling of cuisines  in  pretty much any location that sells food. And I think everyone knows intuitively that it’s a fusion. No one’s seriously claiming to be an expert at an authentic cuisine–instead, everyone’s claiming to be the new hot thing. I think, too, that the blending of cuisines happens because there are the intersections of culture. While food can be a marker of identity, it’s also an easy way for different cultures to start understanding each other. 

Arguing about food’s authenticity is another matter. For example, I’ve had an antipathy for Chinese American restaurants because I didn’t think the food was authentic and it contributed to the stereotype that Asian Americans, and particularly Chinese Americans, liked this type of food and had the lifestyle that these restaurants conveyed. Of course now, I understand that the owners of these restaurants were just trying to earn a living like everyone else. And if they had to Americanize their menu to get the orders in, then that was what they were going to do. These days, I would argue that Chinese American cuisine is its own distinct entity.

But for the experienced chefs and other food experts of a particular culture who have spent a significant part of their lives mastering and understanding their own culture’s authentic cuisine? It would be terrible to override their knowledge just because you thought that your way was better. I don’t think this is any different than some prudish editor bowlderizing a work of literature or some new age guru misrepresenting a non-Western religion just to make a quick buck.

The TBR of “Shame”

A recent YouTube video that popped up for me as a recommendation was “Pile of Shame Reading Vlog || Books with Emily Fox.  It’s not so much the books that are depicted in the video but the idea that everyone has books lying around that they’ve started but not finished that had piqued my interest. I have a lot of books which I’ve started and not finished, but I thought I’d list some of them here. For the sake of not boring everyone to tears, I’ve limited this list to non-fiction, plus one fiction book that is masquerading as non-fiction.

  • Jewels: A Secret History by Victoria Finlay – I’m actively reading this one right now. Each section of the book is divided up by gem by increasing hardness on the Mohs scale. It’s a mix of history, science, folklore, and personal anecdotes all rolled into a mix that somehow works. It’s all very interesting and easy reading.
  • Shinto: A History by Helen Hardacre – I bought this book before going on my trip to Japan last year because I knew I would be visiting a lot of temples and shrines. Unfortunately, I’m not even halfway through it yet. The writing is very academic, but I’m still interested. I’m reading this in parallel with Jewels, but this one is quite a bit more slow going.
  • Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen – This book is so relevant with COVID-19 right now, but I actually started this book much earlier. I really do like Quammen’s writing, but at the moment, between reading papers for work on infectious disease and this book–I’d prioritize the papers. And while I find the subject fascinating, reading this just feels like more work at the moment. If you find this interesting too but don’t have time to read this, I recommend watching Joe Scott’s interview with David Quammen.
  • Feeding a Thousand Souls: Women, Ritual, and Ecology in India – An Exploration of the Kolam by Vijaya Nagarajan – I bought this book right after hearing the author speak about her experience with the ritual of kolam in India. It bears a striking resemblance to other magical customs around the world using signs to invoke protection and luck. I’ve never heard about kolam before this but I’m always up for learning about superstition and folklore and how it relates to the societies that come up with them.
  • The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair – This book is divided up by different colors with lots of trivia about those particular colors. I got halfway through and then got distracted by other things. It’s supposed to be a quick read, so I need to get on this.
  • Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova – This is a mix of memoir and travelogue, reporting and essay. The author travels back to where she spent her childhood, in the confluence of Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece. There’s some absolutely wonderful writing in here and I can’t wait to get back to this one once I’ve finished the books I’m actively reading.
  • Cyclonopedia: Complicity by Anonymous Materials by Reza Negarestani – This is a horror novel masquerading as someone’s lost thesis. It’s weird and bonkers at the same time and definitely not something you can breeze through in one sitting. There’s something really compelling about it too, so I’ll be slowly inching towards the end no matter how long it takes.
  • Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel – I am very much aware that this is viewed through the eyes of a French woman in the 1920s, but considering her scholarly achievements in Asia and Buddhism, she’s possibly a better narrator than, say, a random white dude barging into a culture they have no experience with. This has apparently served as inspiration for a number of writers in the Beat Generation so it would be good background reading.

Wasting Time on the Internet

One would think that with all these months trapped at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I would have had plenty of time to catch up on my reading, but strangely (or perhaps not strangely) enough, that wasn’t the case. I’m as busy as ever, but maybe that’s not surprising considering my field of work.

Recently I managed to finish one of those books in my gigantic to-be-read pile: Wasting Time on the Internet by Kenneth Goldsmith. This particular blog post isn’t going to be critiquing this particular book–although I will say that Goldsmith’s thesis, that the internet has changed how we live and think and spend our time, is an interesting one. Certainly, many things happening in the world now (for better or worse) wouldn’t have been possible without the internet.

This has mostly made me think of what I usually do to “waste time” on the internet. There are so many things. But perhaps I can narrow this down to just stuff I watch on YouTube and maybe I can provide kind of a hodge-podge list of what I do watch.

Cats: These are probably the most time wasting sort of videos I watch. Although–they can also be informative. I also have a cat, after all.

 

Kpop reactions: It’s not so much the kpop videos themselves that I find interesting, but the whole ecosystem of react channels that have sprung up around it. The more watchable ones, obviously, are the ones with actual commentary instead of incoherent fangirling/fanboying.

 

Book and writing commentary: Food for thought, basically. You might disagree with their picks, but it’ll get you thinking about your own literary tastes.

 

People eating weird stuff: Totally mindless but at the same time, completely entertaining.

 

Music: This is just a small selection of the type of stuff I listen to.

 

Horror/RPG: I find the storytelling and the intersection of that with this particular genre very interesting. This scratches a different itch than the book/writing commentary channels above.

 

Science: I’m a scientist. Of course I like watching science videos on YouTube. This is just a small selection. I’m sure there are some other very interesting channels I’ve missed.

 

Linguistics: These are the channels I find more engaging. I’ve tried some other linguistics/language channels which also are very popular, but I find myself wanting to fall asleep in the middle of them.

 

Culture: Just some really cool and random stuff all around.

 

Starting Small

It’s been a while since I’ve posted regularly in this blog. I don’t want to have a resolution saying that I will start posting regularly from now on, because let’s face it, most resolutions end up as failures as the rest of life gets in the way and attempts at establishing new habits get broken. But, perhaps I’ll start small with bits and pieces of observations rather than starting big with essays encompassing large ideas and perhaps that will make it easier to go on.

Anyways, I wanted to share my latest binge watching: Begin Japanology and Japanology Plus (it’s actually the same program, but the name changed). I discovered this on YouTube because the site began recommending this to me after I had been watching other documentary videos. I love these types of videos because it tells about different cultures through seemingly very simple things like home appliances and umbrellas as well as the more obvious cultural markers like food, literature, and religion.

I have to admit, part of the fun of watching this particular show on YouTube is reading the comments. (Yes, yes, I know. Never read the comments. But I can’t help myself.) It’s usually overwhelmingly positive for the main host, Peter Barakan, who has a very calm, British demeanor. But the commenters have such a hate-on for the host of the “Plus” segments, Matt Alt. It’s probably because Alt’s character is so obviously that of an exuberant American that for whatever reason, fans of the show find too jarring in comparison to the subject matter and the other host. I personally don’t get the hate (Alt definitely has a different style of presenting, but I’ve seen worse), but I do find it amusing that in the comments of the later episodes, the haters reluctantly post that he’s “getting better”. Maybe they don’t want to admit that Alt is growing on them.

MisCon 28: Developing Cultures for Storytellers

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Developing Cultures for Storytellers
Panel members: Steven Erikson, John Goff, Ken Scholes
Panel description: In this panel we’ll learn how to develop unique cultures, economies, art, history, culture, music, language, expletives, etc. to fill your stories with juicy, realistic details. We’ll discuss how culture influences your characters, your world, and its history. Come learn from anthropologists, archaeologists, and writers.

KS: There’s rhythm for believable histories. In my five book series, there’s culture and conflict. In the beginning, the protagonists don’t know there’s another culture. That’s a mystery. All stories have their own world. Even in short fiction, you can’t suspend disbelief if you don’t have a culture.

SE: I recommend that beginning writers find an introductory anthropology textbook. Conflict comes from the clash of cultures. Geography dictates culture and history. Between my ninth and tenth books, I went to Mongolia with a group of Russian anthropologists. I observed the differences in culture between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians are bigger than the people in China. In order to understand why Europeans called them the scourge, you have to know that their diet of dairy and protein made them a bigger people. Understand what effects shape culture. Once we had farming, there was a consequence for not hunting food anymore. People started hunting each other–which became warfare.

KS: Is there any anthropological theory you like?

SE: I like the Neo-Marxist model, without the communism stuff. The hunter gatherers became sedentary and developed pastoral agriculture. Civilization expanded and specialized and increased in complexity. And with the industrial age, it all did damage.

Q: Was Mongolians versus Chinese like Romans versus the Gauls?

SE: Not really. The Romans collectively imposed their rule, but the Gauls (and the Celts) fought as individuals instead.

JG: I work for a licensed property so I build on what was already created. I work on Deadlands which is an alternative history of the American West. In this world, the Civil War grinds to a halt without a resolution and we discover that magic can only be used by certain cultures. This can play up the conflict.

Q: How do you view technology changing culture?

SE: It basically improves methods for people to destroy each other. When I was in Winnipeg, I saw some Lakota and Sioux artifacts and some what if questions became a story idea. What if the Sioux had the power to defeat the U.S. army? They would have still been devoured by the dominant culture.

JG: In the game I’m working on, there is a northern tribe that shuns technology and a southern tribe that embraces technology. In the end, it is the southern tribe that loses its culture. If you can visit a place in real life, you should go.

KS: Experience the world if you can. Stories are everywhere. Go places and experience the people. I went to France for my French publisher and I made friends with just my guitar. I let people tell me their story.

Q: I’m trying to figure out what western ideology that may be inadvertently ingrained in my world building.

SE: Ask yourself what rules you used to create the world. What if magic worked? Then decide if the magic is gender based or learned. Removing sexist language is hard, but consider how you created the world.

KS: I used to be a fundamentalist Baptist minister, but it was a slow path to what I am now as a secular humanist. Old preachers are a culture in themselves.

SE: Cultures are not monolithic. There are cultures within cultures.

JG: I also run into that in gaming. Try to be respectful. Call out the differences so players can build on it.

KS: How do you handle cultural appropriation?

SE: I grew up in Winnipeg which had the largest population of Native Americans in Canada, so I must include them. It would be a disservice to excise them. There are people in our country who live entirely different lives. Stealing myths and transforming them is not good.

Q: What’s your opinion on appropriation of myth?

KS: There’s a lot of stuff I had to unlearn with privilege, etc. So I still have to find my own way. Be respectful, don’t exploit.

JG: As long as you are respectful, then it’s fair game. There are a number of Japanese films that are westerns transposed to Japan. Then Italians transposed those films back into America, becoming the spaghetti western. As we grow closer together in the world, there’s a lot of cross-pollination.

SE: Karagawa does Shakespeare in Japanese.

JG: I don’t like The Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves where the culture is only accepted if there’s a white dude in it. It’s not respectful. Marketing underestimates the audience.

SE: I recommend 1491 and 1493 for books on culture.

KS: When I had been a pastor, I saw Dances with Wolves and at the time I thought it was the tribe who redeemed him.

SE: When a white man went native, he got a bounty on his head because he was getting a better life. We carry many biases. What would you think if we replaced fifth century Greeks with the Congolese?

KS: I became pro-choice because of Cider House Rules and pro-gay because of Brokeback Mountain. There’s a fine line between outraged enough and not outraged enough.

Q: Save the Pearls is a novel about white people (pearls) subjected to black people (coals). What do you think of inverting race?

SE: Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book where disease wiped out the European population so the Europeans became slaves.

KS: In The Forever War the protagonist had to adjust when the culture became more gay than straight. It shook me up and made me think.

JG: A friend’s daughter attended a class where they did an exercise like that in order to teach how some people are still treated like second class citizens, but it backfired and made it worse.

Q: If you’re inverting the culture, be careful it’s not too heavy handed. Otherwise it would be more like a photo negative. Look at the point of view of that culture.

JG: Be aware of your biases.

SE: It’s an enormous can of worms with cultural relativism. There are many apologists for horrible things. You have to determine why they’re doing it. If a culture is on the edge of subsistence, they are more conservative. They want to keep the status quo or they’ll starve.

KS: Write with empathy.

Some Thoughts on Fan Culture

From the recent discussions on fans and fandom I’ve read going around the internet, I’ve been thinking about the topic and how I am a fan (or not) of things I like. I’ve come to the conclusion that being a fan means you like “X”, whatever that is. If you want to call yourself a fan, go knock yourself out. No one has the authority to bestow the title “fan” to anyone. Gatekeeping is for obnoxious clique defenders. Being a fan is NOT the same as getting a Ph.D. Fans don’t need to buy all the merchandise, read or watch all the “classics” (whatever the hell that is), ace a qualifying exam stuffed with trivia like a Jeopardy pro, and/or write several theses worth of fan fiction. What separates the fan from the normal person who likes “X” is degree of obsession. I admit, it’s a blurry line. For instance, I would consider myself someone who simply likes and enjoys “X” if I interact with it because someone’s put it there in front of me or I came across it by accident. Otherwise, I don’t think about “X” much. I am a fan, however, if I go out of my way to engage with “X” even after initial exposure.

What gets confusing is the terms “fan” and “fandom.” They’re not the same thing. You can be a fan and still not be in fandom. But all people in fandom are fans. In other words, fandom is a subset of all fans. When people start yelling at each other about who is a “true fan,” it’s usually because someone’s thinking that “fan” is an exact synonym for the word “fandom.” It’s no longer about liking (or even obsessing) about something but passing all these particular checkpoints (whether or not it’s even relevant to “X”) in order to get into a particular clique labeled as “fandom.”

I think of fandom as a community of fans who are governed by rules, explicit or implicit, which dictate how they behave towards one another and how one must engage with the topic of interest. Depending on the fandom or clique, these rules can be flexible and inclusive or rigid and exclusionary. People are social animals so, of course, they want to join the group which likes the thing that they like. Unfortunately, if you don’t follow the conventions of the fandom in a way that it likes or accepts, you are persona non grata. In any case, there will always be fans because people will always like stuff. The existence of fans is independent of social behavior. But fandoms will rise and fall depending on outside factors like politics, social change, fashion, style, and technology.

As for me, well, I’m a fan of some things. But I don’t consider myself part of fandom. It’s not because I think fandom is inherently bad (or good). Whatever that I am a fan of may have changed me, but I’ve never interacted with any fandom in such a way that fandom itself has significantly influenced the course of my life. Simply put: I like what I like. I’m happy to talk to other people about it, but being a fan is a personal thing that has nothing to do with what other people like or how they think one should engage with it.

(As an aside: This naturally leads into the topic of “fans” and “professionals.” While fandom is a subset of fans, there can only be an intersection of professionals and fans. Certainly, professionals can be fans but they have strict rules for behavior. In fact, they are even more strict than those implicit/explicit rules in “fandom” because money and ethics are involved. I feel that if you are both a pro and a fan, the behavioral rules for being a pro trump those of being a fan.)