2014年2月23日星期日

On Constructing the National Myth

I am familiar with the historical narratives of grand nations such as China and Spain. Both have easy themes to follow for the middle school history textbook writers, such as Spain's imperial conquest and China's recovery from Western powers' invasionsDoes modern Spain try to downplay the Islamic part of their history Al-Andalus (711-1492)? It would not be difficult because Communist China successfully downplays other parts of its modern history deftly. The Tiananmen Square can still serve as symbolic, political space for modern China, because that is where Mao declared the establishment of the PRC. What happened on 1989 at the same location is just a wrinkle that can be overlooked, again and again. But not all countries have the convenience of 5000 years of culture and narrative capital. 
I have yet to read the textbooks of nations in decline, such as those of Cambodia's. I have written a historical sketch on the methods used for analyzing Pre-Angkor Cambodia in the book. In subsequent chapters, the author John Tully delves into the meat of colonialism, or I expected him to. I have heard many anti-colonial stories about the power of the colonizers, yet the French efforts seemed surprisingly clumsy. Tully shows that the French never really got their way in Cambodia for the sake of Vietnam to the extent that the British Empire meddled with Burma politics for the sake of India. Tully list an endless story of occupations and incursions of Vietnam, Siam, and eventually the French, three aggressors which are never independent of the others' influence. For example, one could argue that Vietnam saved Khmer culture by eliminating Muslim Cham domination and balancing Siam aggression 17th-18th century. Then Vietnam domestic insurgencies stalled all-out French domination of Cambodia in the 19th century.
Crafting and selling a Cambodian nationalism narrative would give anyone a headache. It is much easier for the state historian to white-wash the errors of the current dynasty/regime than to  make a coherent narrative from alternating foreign occupations and prolonged decentralization. Angkor Wat is one of the sites that struggles to fit into modern Cambodia's narrative. My friend and I had a brief disagreement about the lack of commercial billboards in the tourist region. She thought that the scenic area is perfect without billboards, while I thought that the Cambodian government could generate more revenue if they created more billboards surrounding Angkor Wat. Overall, I had the impression that the government could put more effort in preserving the area instead of relying on other countries' archaeological teams such as India, Japan, and China. Today, when reading The Short History of Cambodia, I realized that the Cambodian government may be purposefully sidelining Angkor Wat because the past-glory haunted modern Cambodia. Acknowledging the the Angkor Empire, then Southeast Asia's largest, would subsequently lead to the depressing downfalls and decline of Khmer culture. More research should be done before drawing conclusion between Cambodia's current state ideology and policy of neglect (given that there is one).
Yet perhaps Cambodia does not need an all-inclusive national myth. My college religious studies professor Oona Eisenstadt argued strongly against the Meta-narrative and influenced my view of history. The necessity for a neat conclusion from fairy tales to History erases the Other and possibly leads to violenceChristianity's Providence and Marxism's Revolution both erase the Other. Oona gave an intriguing speech on this matter by analyzing the Hunger Games with incisive opinionsGerman-Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin wrote about his ambivalence regarding revolution and a linear path towards "progress" in On the Concept of HistorySubaltern historians similarly critiques nationalist narratives of India that oversimplifies. I have always sough to complicate the metanarrative: I pay attention to regional movements in China, such as the rising prominence of Uyghur identity and Shanghai identity, to name a few.
One friend challenged this critique on philosophical grounds: one essentialism (arguments for the particular) overtakes another essentialism (i.e. Orientalism or nationalism). He is not as optimistic of historiography as I am. I believe in the power of retelling the story from different perspectives and the impact it can have on future generations. Perhaps Cambodia can and has been exploring new ways of narrating the country's history without a linear one, which indicates doom and gloom since Angkor Wat.

2014年2月21日星期五

Personal Examples of Globalization and the Migrant Worker

What do we think about when we think of immigration? Back in the 1980s and 90s, many Chinese student-immigrants with grants had to work in restaurants to make ends meet. Writer Ha Jin describes about the work in many of his novels, such as A Free Life. When you ask a Chinese student-immigrant in the U.S. nowadays, the class condition has moved up a notch and consequently affected their view of American society. I recently got into a heated debate with a Chinese IT worker in the U.S. on social media about affirmative action. She defiantly called affirmative a "fascist policy." She argued in a libertarian vein against preferential for African Americans in principle since Americans have free access to 12 years of public schooling, blind-sighted to the inequality of educational resources. I was thus alarmed by how some mainland Chinese are drawn to the rights of US citizenship without understanding the movement that created the freedom, namely the Civil Rights Movement. Aside from the lack of historical education and racial sensitivity, which I should discuss in a future post about Chinese people's views of other minorities in the U.S., this particular Chinese immigrant's positioning is definitely an upper-middle class one. She worried about her kid's education and how affirmative action could affect her child's university choice in the next decade. The Chinese students who study abroad nowadays probably have even fewer chances to interact with possibly undocumented immigrants than back in the 1990s.
My perspective of immigration is also mostly preoccupied with the influx of middle class immigrants into America. As I have mentioned in my previous post about civic awareness among mainland Chinese immigrants and U.S. immigration reform, my friends are waiting on H1B visas, which provide for immigrants with technical skills. Recently, the Canadian government decided to abolish its investment immigration program and eliminate the backlog of applications, which will also affect the future of a lot of Chinese upper-middle class. Here is a post for a few class-conscious stories of migration brought to my mind through the internet and personal experience. 
Traveling across borders means different conditions for different classes. I am definitely do not have to deal with the circumstances of the working class. Documentation and sponsorship are always important. JD, an Indian cook who dislikes MSG, travels around the world. He does not know English very well but has enjoyed living in most countries, including Cambodia and Germany. He sought my help for obtaining a Portuguese visitor’s visa in China. He had no printer or computer at his command and needed to rely on friends and acquaintances like me for advice and resources. I am simply amazed by how far JD has gone despite his lack of English skills and internet access. 
Laurie Taylor of BBC's Thinking Allowed podcast interviewed Kimberly Kay Hoang, a Boston College professor and sociologist, on her field work of sex work and international migration. Hoang’s field work focused on Vietnamese sex workers who intend to marry up to “first world” countries such as Britain and Australia. Of those who make it as brides eventually, many become the breadwinners of the family and work in jobs such as nail salons. Many would not return to Vietnam unless they have enough money to start a business. Globalization never meant much to me personally until I realized that my friend Vikash faced the same dilemma as the Vietnamese brides. He works in China in the service sector with terrible conditions, without minimum legal counsel or a union for protecting his rights. He has finally won back his passport which has been illegally held onto by his boss for four months. He misses his home in Uttarakhand, India, yet he refuses to go home empty-handed. A lot of pride is associated with leaving one’s home, which the Chinese idiom captures so well--“return to one's home (only) with silk clothes (衣锦还乡).” But what is the level upward mobility for these cross-border migrants? How many return home successfully according to their expectations? Or does their contribution only come as remittances?
The border-crossers chose the less-trodden road and are determined to bear many hardships. When one speaks of immigration reform, PACs like FWD.us try to focus it on middle class. The DREAM Act focuses it on the image of a disciplined and self-sacrificing youth. The migrant worker certainly has her own perspective of the issue and would not share either the DREAM Act version or the FWD.us version. Invoking different class experiences is important when discussing immigration, because different experiences would lead to very different conclusions.

2014年2月20日星期四

The Economics of Reading and Writing in this Day and Age

I have been reading much discussion surrounding young artists and writers about how to earn a living with their craft. As Keith Gessen put it, “There are four ways to survive as a writer in the US in 2006: the university; journalism; odd jobs; and independent wealth” in an early piece titled Money. On writers with odd jobs such as copy-editing, he commented, “You have no social position outside the artistic community; you have limited funds; you call yourself a writer but your name does not appear anywhere in print.” Gessen is similarly critical of journalism, in which writers risk falling into bad magazines that “vulgarize your ideas and literally spray your pages with cologne.”
Hannah Horvath in Girls Season 2 Episode 6 gives in to the pressure and takes a faux-journalist position at GQ mag. She appears utterly shocked that fellow advertorial content writers for once published in more established literary venues. She briefly considers quitting the GQ gig because she still wanted to produce real writing. "I'm just realizing how easy it is to get seduced by the perks and the money and the free snacks, and then suddenly I wake up in 10 years and I'm not a writer anymore," she exclaims, but does not actually leave. Stephen Elliot of the Daily Rumpus also writes about balancing financial concerns with art-related ambitions. Specifically how he stitches his finance together in the Newsletter and the trials of his last Kickstarter funding venture for Happy Baby.
“Someone asked me yesterday, or a couple of days ago, how do I get by. And I answered that I was all small time. I was responsible for this online magazine I created, and I'd written some books, though it had been awhile. I made a movie I didn't get paid for and another movie is being made out of one of my books that I would be paid for but wouldn't ever see. I said I was looking forward to being interviewed and asked what I thought of the movie so I could say, I don't know, I've never seen it, but I hear it's good. I told her I taught classes on occasion. You see, just a little bit here, a little bit there. Occasionally I would airbandb my place. Little things, stitched together. But I wouldn't call it a quilt.” 
Articles from the new n+1 collection MFA v. NYC also talk about the rise of fellowships and how it affects writers. A more personal example: I recently heard from a China-based American freelance journalist in his 30s was not only willing to ask his parents for money when he visited the East Coast, but also looked forward to financial support in the five-figure range. They would to see their grandchildren, he reasoned, and would thus pay up for the sake of the grandchildren. Times are dire for journalists and writers. 

I guiltily finished reading George Packer’s New Yorker article Cheap Words, because I rely on Amazon for books with increasingly low retail prices that affects the quality of new and upcoming writing. Packer makes the case that Amazon’s predatory bargaining strategy pressured publishing houses to give Amazon nearly fifty percent of a book’s list price, while only twenty-five percent goes to “for editorial counsel, production costs, publicity, paying the author, and whatever profit might be left over.” Similarly, Amazon’s algorithm mass approach and has decreased the distribution venues for serious fiction and nonfiction work. Even back in 2006, Keith Gessen bemoans that publishers meet potential writers “armed with Nielsen BookScan” to match a book with their short-term sales and popularity. Gessen writes, “The very precision of the numbers numbs the publishers into a false sense of their finality. They cannot imagine a book good enough to have its sales in the future.” He would probably agree with Packer that this short-term approach reduces the number of potential “mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring.” I pondered on my loyalty to Amazon and my ethics of consumption. Then I realized, since I write for some publications for free, I am also a victim of this digitization trend, the karmic repercussions of buying Amazon distributed books balances out. Packer also finds it amusing that the harshest critics of Amazon in the publishing world still use the service. 
The discussion about free content also looms large in the blogosphere. Publications such as The Atlantic and Though Catalog expect writers to contribute for free, which is an issue I wish George Packer delved into more. He briefly mentioned that some e-book writers only make 500 dollars a year, but not on how online writing affects the publishers’ economics. Hannah Horvath also dabbled in the e-book publishing industry briefly, until her editor fell through... When staff writers of magazine institutions openly discuss the issue of writing for free, almost no one mention any form of unionization or collective action. As Packer and MFA v. NYC points out, no writer is ever just a writer anymore. They are celebrities, professors, or other affiliates of academia. Even if the freelancers considered forming a union, they would not be able to exercise forms of strikes such as stopping production. You are “doing what you love,” a classist term called out by a Jacobin article as a privileged upper middle-class terminology. Or, the more common argument is that when you write, you can promote your brand or your own cause. As a result, self-promotion and self-expression is blurred with art, opinion is blurred with factual articles. 
 On the consuming end of the spectrum, Packer does not seem confident about the future of reading for leisure, citing the rise of addictive iPad apps. Packer argues vaguely for some kind of public good and think that people ideally should read for their own betterment. But he focuses only on the individual consumer aspect and does not touch on the situation of library (though he does mention that librarians are a dying species). N+1’s excellent two-part piece Lion’s Winter (1) & (2) on New York Public Library laments the digitization of library resources. Board members of NYPL believe that they are democratizing reading, an effort also championed by publishers in favor of Amazon’s way of distribution. NYPL board members argues in the populist vein that they can increase studying space for regular readers by reducing obscure books. But the author Charles Petersen shows that the individual researcher cannot find many physical resources since databases of scanned, “obscure” books of NYPL are now only accessible to enrolled students and academics with institutions. In this case, while public libraries are not profit-seeking like Amazon, they also have to bend to efficiency measurements, such as organizing with data that rank which physical books are most popular and should be kept on shelves. 
The Amazon effect investigated by George Packer and others share the same theme with the public library changes. As Jeff Bezos said, “Amazon is not happening to bookselling. The future is happening to bookselling.” Bezos would definitely think that the future is also happening to (public) library management. I would recommend reading the two articles in succession. But that reading sequence could also leave the reader quite depressed about the future of letters and arts. Maybe Hannah Horvath has the better chance of finding her dignity as a writer in the end; Keith Gessen and Stephen Elliot certainly have kept on writing and making art.