Summer: Refreshing Chinese

Learning and refreshing my knowledge of a language has been a recurring summer theme for me for the past five years. In the last two summers, I refreshed, and improved my German. This year, I am back on learning more Chinese vocabulary. Over a course of learning new languages for the past 20 years, I recognized that the essence of learning and being able to use a language fluently is having sizable vocabulary, and knowing how to use it well. So in essence my language learning journey has been a word hoarding endeavor.

Another thing I have recognized is that I like to “binge-learn:” that is, I cram a lot of words, and grammar items in one sitting. This learning period would extend for a couple of weeks. Then my brain would be completely overstuffed with new Chinese words that I barely use on a daily basis. Then my brain stops learning, and starts to venture to something else. Learning new words stops being fun.

In the past two weeks, I dusted off an old set of Chinese textbooks: A Course in Contemporary Chinese by Taiwan National Normal University.  There are six books in the set. I finished the first two books in Taiwan three years go. So this year, I took book No. 3 and 4 out, and aimed to learn them over the summer. Books 3 and 4 are at the intermediate level. That means when I finish the two books, I can confidently say that my Chinese level is intermediate. That is when I can hold a conversation well in Chinese, and could possibly read some short news articles.

Studying on my own is pretty boring especially for a difficult language like Chinese. So I decided to get some help from a native speaker. I found a tutor on Italki.com, my go-to website when I want to learn a new language. So far I have been able to learn a lot of Chinese and Hindi on this website. There are many people who would speak to me in their native tongue. I found a community tutor from Taiwan, and we have been studying together for the past two weeks. We simply go through one chapter in the textbook at a time. The teacher helps me to understand the usage of each new word, and new grammar items that I cannot possibly understand on my own.

Additionally, I also listen to a Chinese podcast. As for how I do anything else, I also binge listen to podcasts. Some people on Italki.com suggested that I should listen to 喜马拉雅FM, or Ximalaya FM, or Himalaya FM. I found it on Apple Podcast App, and started listening to it. What I did not know is that the show that I found on Apple podcast app does not fully describe how useful Ximalaya FM is for Chinese language learners. According to Crunchbase, Ximalaya FM is an online sharing platform for audio content. That means, it is more or less equivalent to Soundcloud.com for an American audience. There are lots of content on this website, and one can hear Chinese spoken by many different types of people (old, young, female, male, etc.).

The show that I listen to on a daily basis has this icon:

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The content of the podcast is pretty diverse. That means I can listen to different discussions, lectures, and even short stories on it. Yet the majority of show hosts are men. I did not like that part. Furthermore, since I have studied Chinese in Taiwan, and continue to prefer the Taiwanese pronunciation of certain words, Mainland Chinese pronunciation sounds harsh to me sometimes. Especially when “r” at the end of a word is pronounced.

Despite these two concerns, I am enjoying learning new words, and listening to a variety of audio content on this podcast. In the next couple of weeks, I will also try to go to the website, and listen to the content on the website to find out my favorite Chinese female voice, and southern accent.

 

Fictional Worlds

If I could re-do my undergraduate studies, I would major in English literature. I never quite figured out why I was never into reading novels when I was a teenager. However, the art, and appeals of fictional work became more clear to me after having taken a writing for publication course. Something about the genre of novels was not intuitive and native to my way of thinking before. Now having read probably hundreds of them in the English language in the past decade, I recognized an already proven truth: that is, fiction is one of the best art forms on earth. Something apparently clicked.

Reading a novel is an act of exploration. Each novel transports the reader into a completely different world. It is very different from reading non-fictions which value facts, analyses, and arguments. Novels often describe a world that might not be real, but believable enough that it is able to suspend readers’ desire to know about facts, and truth. Sometimes they ask moral questions, create dilemmas that one can relate to. Sometimes a novel is being told from the point of view of one character. Sometimes it is told with multiple voices from many characters. These voices orientate the reader’s understanding of how this fictional world develops. The power of fictional works lies in their description, and imaginativeness.

One could argue that watching a movie or TV show would give the same effect. Of course, visual presentations of a fictional world could transport the viewers to a different world. For example, the movie It  show a world of a fictional New England town, where children have their mysterious, and scary adventures during the summer months. It is so relatable that one might believe that town does exist. Yet novels ignite another level of imagination. While a TV show would give everything away, fictional work leaves room for interpretation. TV shows would often do the job of interpreting on behalf of  the viewers. Reading a novel is an active endeavor; watching TV is a passive activity.

To me reading a novel is a much more fulfilling daily activity than binge-watching something on Netflix. Time is an important factor here. Watching TV is instant gratification, while reading a novel is delayed gratification. One can hardly finish a 500-page novel in one sitting. Thus one has to go about doing daily choirs, and other activities. During that time, the story is still unraveling in the back of our mind. Our brain works its wonder, and fills into the void where the author left off new details. We are actively filling in the details that are not described in the novel.

Recently I just finished three novels: The Book Thief, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Poisoonwood Bible. The first was written by a male author, and the main protagonist is a female teenager. The other two were written by two famous southern female novelists. Each novel brings me to a completely different world, and presents me with different moral dilemmas. All somehow deal with biting social problems of the time periods in which the stories are set. For example, The Poisonwood Bible weaves historical narratives of the Congo before and after independence, and how these historical events have an impact on each female individual  of a missionary family. The independence of Congo is the watershed event in the novel. It determines what goes on within a white missionary family, in a rural village in the Congo. Then it affects all of their lives once the Congo gets independence. How does the Congo change these white individuals? This is the central question that I kept in mind when reading the book.

Choosing what novel to read is sometimes a dilemma. I wish somebody just hands me a list of must-read books to make my life easier. Yet if that was the case, it would take the fun of coming up with my own list out of the entire process. Along the line of trying to read two to three novels a week, I decided that I would read mostly from female writers. Among the three aforementioned novels, I love The Poisoonwood Bible. The author, Barbara Kingsolver writes with grace, sensitivity, and humanity. She is insightful when she describes family dilemmas, and racial/ethnic conflicts. She is observant when describing how the landscape in the Congo or Southern Georgia would look. Her femininity permeates throughout the novel. It is this femininity that I am longing for. She shows that a female writer does not have to write like a man. She does not have to over-rationalize, or make blunt jokes  in order to be appreciated. The key is to have one’s own voice, and one’s own understanding of the world. 

Another goal of my summer break is to refresh my Chinese language. I am secretly hoping that someday my Chinese would be so good, I could read and write in Chinese. Then I could explore the fictional landscape of this language. It must be so different from what I am used to. My dream is to have a personal library with three equally distributed sections of English novels, Chinese novels, and German novels. The perk of knowing more than one language is that I can explore the imagined worlds in those languages. Again, if I could do a second bachelor degree for fun, I would study English literature.

Winter Traveling: Myanmar, India & Vietnam

Similar to the last winter break, I bought an air ticket out of New York City as soon as the semester was over. However, unlike last year I did not arrive in Vietnam completely burnt-out. Instead, I was more relaxed, and felt eager to spend a good break with my family, with whom I barely spent enough time for the past decade. Our plan was to visit Myanmar, and India over the break.

While traveling, I was too occupied with the logistics and sight-seeing of the two countries, so I did not blog about the experience. Meanwhile WordPress is now totally blocked in Vietnam. Over the course of one year, it appeared that freedom of expression has been grossly diminished in Vietnam. First, in May 12, Vietnam’s legislature voted on a national cybersecurity law, which basically required global platforms such as Facebook, Google, and others to store data of Vietnamese users in Vietnam. From the point of view of the Vietnamese government, it was an attempt to manage the digital sphere. In many ways, they are attempting to censor social discussions on global platforms that are not entirely regulated by their law and legislation. Second, dissidents in Vietnam have been constantly threatened by government officers. Instances of dissidents being beaten in public spaces are well documented. In other words, having a contrarian point of view, or being critical of what the government is doing for the economy, and society is never a right. It is something that Vietnamese citizens are doing with caution. Having observed the worsening situation in Vietnam from afar for awhile, I was not surprised that I could not blog about my experience there. Hence, I had to wait until I come back to New York to write about my Asian winter break.

One thing I learned during the one month long experience was that Southeast Asia and India are two big too travel for only a winter break.

We started our adventure in Yangon, where we attended a local wedding. One of my best friends from college invited us to her brother’s wedding. My friend was Chinese ethnic, and her brother also got married to a Chinese ethnic there. I was delighted to attend the first Chinese wedding reception in my life. The bride and groom were beautiful, full of energy, and the party was really fun. My family and I both enjoyed the ceremony, and the food. On top of all the delicacy from Myanmar, I was sitting at a table with a few people from Mainland China, and a few Burmese Chinese. They made great interlocutors because of their diverse experience. More importantly, I had a chance to practice my elementary school Chinese. Regardless of the language barrier, food and wine lubricate the conversations extremely well.

Then we did lots of sight-seeing, visiting as many temples as we could manage in a week. Myanmar is the most impressive Buddhist country that I have been to in the past decade. All of us were amazed by the golden temple structures that we saw, the history that we heard, and how kind each and every Burmese was. People were friendly, and really hospitable to us. We also learned about the Rohingya issue from a Burmese point of view, thus understood that it is such a complex social and political problem that took root back in the British colonial time.

 

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One of the largest temple in Yangon.

Saying goodbye to the land of golden temples, we spent more than a week in India, visiting New Delhi, Mathura, Agra, and Lucknow. Each city offered us with different historical sites, and cultural heritage. Our hosts in India, as devout Hindus, showed us their sacred sites, introduced us to various Krishna mythology, and taught us what a joyous and happy life they lead following Krishna. We were exposed to how Indian elites in New Delhi partied at New Year’s. My aunt and mother wondered why Indians did not have fireworks to celebrate New Year’s Eve, but individuals would pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars to get entry to private parties in the capital of India. The level of extreme inequality that we experienced on the streets of New Delhi was unmatched, comparing with all places that we have been to. Then, we visited some of the most holy sites of Hinduism in Mathura, a city in between New Delhi and Agra. At one temple in Mathura, our hosts told us the story of how Muslim invaders back in the day restructured a Hindu temple into a mosque, and built a mosque on top of the original Hindu temple. Yet in contemporary time, Hindu nationalists want to destroy the mosque to rebuild a bigger, and larger Hindu temple on the original foundations of the holy site. Whether this act is acceptable is a hot button issue in contemporary India. And this is a wide-spread religious conflict because there are many holy sites that are affected by such strong Hindu nationalist sentiment. My family, situated squarely in the agnostic category, could not comprehend why this debate has become a national issue. They were simply surprised by the fact that Indian politics gave religious conflicts a priority over economic development.

 

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Ladies meditating under Indian sun at one of the temples in Mathura

Finally, we routed back to Vietnam, where I spent an entire week just to recover, and eat as much as I could. Now being back in New York, I am still recovering from all the flights, the foods, and the tiredness in my muscles. The trip wore me out physically, but mentally I felt so much happier because I have visited those places with my family, learning about Burmese and Indian history, their historical and contemporary struggles and conflicts. All in all, it was time well spent, and I have no regret about it.

 

Personal Hobbies & Character Building

Lately I have talked with friends, family members, and graduate school mentees about the importance for having a hobby outside of work, school, and family. Why is it so important for an individual character development? The concept hobby comes up again and again in all of my discussions about how to be satisfied with oneself and with one’s life. The central question around all of my conversations is how can one feel content and happy alone independent of negative influences around?

I caught up with a Vietnamese friend, who attended Agnes Scott at the same time as I did.  Our conversation revolved around how come both of us have various recent unpleasant experience with our middle-aged mothers. We concluded that our mothers who are about to retire from their jobs are experiencing through some forms of mid-life crises. My mom’s problem is that she doesnt know what she would do when she’s a retiree. She does not have a stable hobby. Her social support system is mainly comprised of extended family members. Her friends from college and high school do not live in the same area, and work the same job as she does. When I was still living at home with her, she barely spent time with friends of her own. Most of her time was spent on kids, and extended family members. My friend’s mom displayed similar behaviors: that is, she has sacrificed too much for her family, and has not had time to discover her own desire, interests, and herself. In other words, both of our mothers have never had time to discover her true selves. Therefore, when they have extra free time without any social obligations attached, they could not figure out where to find meaning independent of their family or work. I suggested my friends to to encourage her mother to develop a hobby, something that she does for fun independent of her family. Our observation is that our parents’ generation growing up in Vietnam during the Vietnam War did not have leisure time and material wealth to pursue an individual hobby. Now it’s the time of consumption, and of globalization, they should pursue a hobby to enrich their lives, and feel content with their situations.  Of course, both of us valued the Rousseauian version of the authentic self, a true self that sets an individual apart from the crowd. It is the version of  the self that our parents were never taught to embrace. We could not fully explain to our mothers that what they were lacking in their upbringings or what the society has shaped them into who they are now; yet we know that encouraging our mothers to pursue a hobby of their own during their free time is the right thing to do. This quick conclusion made me think deeper about the role of personal hobbies in shaping individual characters in a long run.

While advising junior students how to best spend their time in graduate school, I often tell them to  pursue a hobby outside of school such as joining a choir, participating in a cycling club, doing salsa or swing dance. I personally believe that graduate school should be thought of as a full-time job instead of an all-encompassing activity that consumes one’s life completely.  Hobbies help one with work/life balance, and maintain one’s mental health for a long marathon which is called graduate school. In Grad Skool Rulz, Fabio Rojas suggested that graduate students should pursue an outside hobby that is independent of school work. It helps one remain sane to engage in productive intellectual work. I completely agree with this suggestion. Yet after having given people this abstract advice, I stumbled upon the question: what is my real hobby outside of school? I seem to be interested in many things, but I ever do one thing passionately, for a sustained period of time.

In order to answer that what question, I want to solve the why question first. Why is hobby important?

It enriches one’s life and helps to separate work and personal life for many people. It is the leisure concept in economics here that undergirds my understanding of how one could use one’s time. The more one works, the less leisure time one has to dedicate to other things such as family, hobbies, and going out. As a graduate student in their 20s, one is not often expected to perform family duties, and obligations. That means leisure time is often used for social activities, and personal hobbies. If anyone has problems with work/life balance, having a defined hobby would help. It is my way to police my previous time, and protect my mental health in graduate school.

Hobbies develop one’s character. It is about the self. One finds that one behaves differently in at a board game than at a music concert or in a trial. The idea of enriching one’s soul, one’s character is important here. Other than being a worker, a graduate student, a human being is a complex social phenomenon. I want to know a person when I approach them at a conference more than just what research they are conducting at the moment. When I was in college, I took an upper level mathematics class called Differential Equations. The professor was brilliant. I remember that his problem sets were oftentimes very difficult, and every time when I took a midterm or a final, my brain would be fried.  I would crashed after the 3-hour take-home exam. However the content that he taught is now completely oblivious to me. All the sophisticated polynomial equation manipulations just went out of my brain at the moment that I received my college degree.

What I remember most about my college math professor is his passion for designing cross-stitch patterns that bring together both his mathematical insights, and the art of cross-stitching. He designed cross stitch pattern using iterated function system. He created a software to generate those patterns for cross-stitch enthusiasts. In my last week of college, I advertised on Facebook that I was selling my knick-knacks including a cross-stitch kit because I was moving overseas.  My brilliant math professor, Larry Riddle was one of the first who showed up at my move-away sale, and bought the entire kit. I sawhappiness in his eyes when he saw the kit with lots of cloth, needles and threads. His eyes were sparkling with ideas of how to use those materials. He has won many creative awards from the American Mathematical Associations for those designs. It was the moment that I felt like I could relate on a personal level with the brilliant, yet reserved math professor. In many ways, I don’t remember much of his professional identity other than that he taught me Differential Equations. Yet I remember vividly that he’s a creative cross-stitch enthusiast. Whenever I think about my college experience, I thought of his buying my cross-stitch kit, and I could relate to him.

Hobbies are the magic glue that bind people and create a community of hobbyists. Alienation in modern society is one of the main themes in sociology. One is alienated by various factors such as work, technology, and distance. Sociologists often seek to understand how to counter this process of alienation. To me, having a hobby is definitely one solution. One can enter both online and offline communities where people share their enthusiasm about something. There are myriad of outlets to communicate and show your enthusiasm of doing something that is completely independent of other material and social gains . There are both online and offline communities for one to join. I am in many ways lucky because I live in New York where there is virtually a community for everything.  But what is exactly my hobby?

I always thought that I did not have one. Having to write this very blog post  made me I sit down, and think through how I have spent time in the past three and a half years in graduate school. What has become apparent is that I have spent a lot of time both alone and in group learning languages. Since I started graduate school until now, I have started learning three new languages: Chinese, French, and Hindi. My German level has also increased significantly because I have read more German literature and acquired broader vocabulary. The definitive answer is learning foreign languages. I am happy learning any new language. It is both challenging, and exhilarating.

Without any teacher, I can learn a new language by reading textbooks, and listening to audio tapes on my own. When I go to a polyglot gathering, I feel like I belong. People are so nice, and talk to me instantaneously in whatever language that I want to practice. I just feel pure happiness as I could spontaneously shifting from one language to another. For the past four months, in preparation for my qualifying exam, I have stopped learning languages. I have not learned any new words. I missed it very much.

Why did I never think of learning languages to be a hobby? I thought that having command of a foreign language contributes directly to the outcome of my academic productivity. In other words, I thought of learning language very instrumentally. Learning languages is a means to an end, which is to have a better academic career. However now I recognize that I am happy learning languages independent of my intellectual project. Learning languages is definitely a mental activity. Unlike crocheting, cross-stitching, and fixing bicycle, this activity requires brain power. That is the reason why I counted it to be work-related activity. But now I understand that I am happy doing it voluntarily and happily. That means learning languages is a brainy, intellectual hobby that doesn’t give you any tangible product. A person who paints could create a painting, a hobbyist ceramicist could produce china cups, etc. I don’t produce tangible products. I produce sounds and words, and maybe a meaningful conversation. Because the products have been so intangible and difficult to measure, I have pigeonholed it into the work-related activity category. Now I have seen that it is really a built-in part of my life, and that I miss it so much when I don’t do it. I recognize what a character building activity it  is to my essential self.

I have heard many stories from sociologists about what a cool sociologist Howard Becker is. Despite not having read much of his work, I am aware that Howard is a very versatile and talented man, whose intellectual and personal interests cover a wide range of activities. Many people have suggested that because of his wide range of interests, he has been able to produce many sociological monographs that cover many fields. I am hoping that one day I can turn my obsession with language into a book project.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Reading Novels?

Every April, Agnes Scott College, my alma mater, organizes its famous annual writer festival. I got introduced to it my first year, took a creative writing workshop in my second year. Danzy Senna, a mixed race novelist, whose main themes deal with growing up as a mixed race person in American race-conscious society, showed me how one can write to provoke sensory experiences, regardless of whether those experiences are relatable to an English speaking audience. She urged me to include foreign languages: Vietnamese, Khmer. “Transport your audience to another world,” suggested Danzy. I benefited from Agnes Scott’s tradition of bringing great writers in to show students how to be a good writer. But it seemed no Asian writer was ever invited to give a workshop on writing. That changed in my last two months of college.

In early April, 2013, Gish Jen, gave a powerful public lecture on how she became a writer by dropping out of a business school. Additionally, there must be someone to break the stereotype that Asians do not become writers because writers dont earn money. Pursuing your passion was essentially the message.

During her speech, Gish Jen told us where her inspirations come from. Particularly, how to organize ideas, and develop a story out of an idea. The method is to keep a binder of words, phrases, sometimes quotes, and sayings. Then at a later date, sift through them, pick one good idea, and develop a story from that word. We’re all wordsmiths.

The image that stuck with me particularly was her description of tall ancient pine trees at Confucius Temple in Qufu, China. A month after her speech, I bought a one way ticket to China, and spent the summer there. Without any real meaningful connection to China.  I did have a few Chinese friends in college. One of my cousin studied abroad in Chengdu, Sichuan. Yet I knew not much about the place, nor I knew any Chinese word then. It was a bold decision. Two months later, volunteering at the Confucius Temple Complex, standing in front of rows of “ancient pine trees,” I felt accomplished. The trees were not really ancient and mysterious like those in Avatar.  They were well-kept, had more trunks and barks than leaves. Standing in the temple yard, I tried to absorb all the wisdom of time, air, water, and soil of the place. It felt sacred. “I have arrived,” I mumbled to myself while collecting soda cans thrown on the sidewalks by tourists. This experience showed me how imagination could influence me, it urged me to act, albeit on trivial matter such as traveling to another country. Gish Jen was persuasive in her argument that one ought to experience the place before really trying to describe it in own’s writing. Besides, I can relate to everything she told us that day. She had power of a great novelist. I could relate to her words, to her kinship stories, which spanned both the United States and China. At the end of the summer, I felt happy traveling in China, and seeing it partly through Gish Jen’s eyes, partly through my own curiosity.

The title of the blog post is “why should anyone read novels?” Reading novels is a luxury for many. In the age of “info glut,” few people have enough time to sit down, and read a novel from cover to cover. How many have patience to read Anna Karenina, a tome of almost 1000 pages? Yet “reading novels” is the advice that I constantly got since the first day in graduate school. “If you want to talk like a normal person, read novels instead of academic articles or books,” said one friend. “If you want to write well, learn it from good writers. Academics don’t make good writers,” advised my writing professor.

One suggested me to read works of fiction so I can talk like a normal person rather than like an academic. The other suggested me to read good novels to learn how to write well. There are two problems here. First, why academics get such a bad rap? Their writings are dry, full of jargon, and don’t mean much to lay readers. Second, why reading fictions is worthwhile for anyone who wants to write and read well? I will attempt to answer the second question. The first question will be dealt with in another blog post that focuses on something I call “academic habitus.”

So why reading novels? Because of good sentences, and more importantly  because of images that are embedded in each book. Recently I watched some videos in a Coursera course on creative writing. The teacher explained what makes good writing with a pyramid of elements.

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Any good writing would have all the layers. Occupying the bottom level are meaning, sense, clarity. In other words, sentences must make sense. At the second level, it’s about evoking sensory experiences that everyone has. I would argue that these senses are culturally conditioned. In other words, some senses make more sense to some readers than others. For example, bacon smell would mean a lot to my American friends than to my mother who came of age in a village in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Following these raw senses are voice, mood, and connotation. This is where the writer’s personality comes out, and where the reader remembers them as a writer. Then the last three layers deal with subtext, metaphor, and fancy stuff. I would also argue that these parts are culturally dependent, and they are the parts that distinguish ingenious works of fiction from basic good writings.

Almost always, good social science writers operate on the first three levels. They prioritize most on the first level. Sometimes they don’t even make sense. That means they are down on the basement of the pyramid: using esoteric, vague language. Yet if one looks closely enough, one would encounter good writings that cover all three levels. A few examples are Sidewalk by Mitch Duneier, Dealing in Desire by Kimberly Hoang, and Evicted by Matthew Desmond. Most good ethnographies are worth reading. The authors write with novel-quality in mind. However, social scientists almost always stay away from the top three levels of the pyramid. The boundary between the third and fourth level demarcates where a novelist begins, and where just common good writers end. Social scientists stay away from the meaning making project that novelists actively engage in. We want to analyze metaphors instead of creating new metaphors, and new literary associations. The subtext should be out of the door because it invokes speculation, and we’re not in a speculating business.

Now back to Gish Jen. She’s so good at evoking senses by just describing a few old pine trees. Her voice was strong because she made the experience personal: telling all stories from the first person point of view. The subtext? Metaphor? And fancy stuff I wasn’t sure about any of them. Yet I knew for sure that her writing urged me to imagine, and to act upon my imagination. My sensory experiences are evoked enough that I could not sit in Atlanta any more. I wanted to get in touch with my feelings by going to Asia. That’s it. Reading good works of fiction let one be in touch with one’s inner feelings, and emotions. That is why everyone should read them. We have suppress them enough in the modern world in order to be a good student, an efficient worker, and a strict parent. We barely explore what our feelings are. We manage our anger. We refrain from showing our raw feelings lest other people judge. This is why fictions are needed more than ever for both social scientists and lay readers alike. Let our imagination take hold, and be in touch with our emotion via someone else’s writing!

Soziopod: Sociology Podcast from Germany

In the past, I have reviewed two sociology podcasts from the United States and the United Kingdom, namely The Annex Sociology, and Thinking Allowed (Than 2017). Still an avid listener of both channels, I am constantly learning about new ideas and the development in my field on the two sides of the Atlantic. Yet, the previous blog post reveals that my consumption of sociological knowledge is very Anglo-American centric. That is, outside of what is available in the English language, I almost never tried to read sociological knowledge written in another language. While in Berlin, I discussed this issue with a good friend, Herrmann Königs, a sociologist in training at Humboldt University in Berlin. He suggested that I should listen to a sociology podcast in German. It’s called Soziopod. I took a listen, and was pleasantly surprised by its content, the quality of the debates, and the number of episodes available. This blog post summarizes my overall evaluation of the podcast.

Soziopod

One can find more information about the podcast here. According to Wikipedia, it is dedicated to sociological and philosophical topics, and started in 2011. The podcast is unfortunately in German, which means that it is non-accessible to many. Unlike the two podcasts mentioned above, which focus mainly on sociology and other related social sciences, this podcast brings philosophy to the center of all social debates. This element in itself is very refreshing.

The podcast is hosted by Dr. Nils Köbel and Patrick Breitenbach. Dr. Köbel is a trained sociologist of children, youth, and religion, and Patrick Breitenbach is an expert in digital media. They make a good pair of hosts because both of them are invested in various topics. Since one of them is a media expert, he could translate abstract concepts into layman’s language. Many a times, the podcast avoids sociological jargon, which only insiders could understand.  The purpose of the podcast is to make sociological knowledge accessible to everyone. Dr. Köbel stated that they try present the topics in a manner of general understanding to “bring Sociology to the streets, where it belongs.”

A typical episode lasts around one hour. It is structured around a topic such as social inequality, migration, power, right-wing extremism, religion, or the Frankfurt School of social theory. That means, it’s a wealth of knowledge for anybody who is interested in social debates in Germany. Every once in a while, they also air a special episode where the hosts discuss an issue with a body of audience, and interact with them. Sometimes they invite experts to comment on certain topics. That means listeners could directly raise a question to the hosts/moderators, and sometimes debate with the two hosts as well. Since its inception in 2011, the program has produced more than 70 episodes, a few public forums for an audience to interact with the hosts, and they have published one book. This is quite impressive!

After the topic is being introduced, the hosts would define an important concept or concepts. Then they introduce the different social theorists who have written about the topic, and elaborate more on how these theorists are in conversation with one another. More importantly the discussions are situated in the context of contemporary Germany, which makes abstract scholarly debates relatable to daily life experience.

The discussions have a lot of pedagogical values. During the course of one hour, one can learn many important social theory concepts, and could look for appropriate examples to make sense a particular concept.  Each episode contains lots of knowledge about social theory.  The hosts often highlight theoretical concepts which have been invented by German theorists such as Jürgen Harbamas,  Thomas Luhmann,  or Theodor Adorno. I found these discussions fascinating because I have never really read these authors closely, nor used any of their works before. What is even more intriguing is that the hosts would relate sociological concepts to philosophical concepts. In other words, they acknowledge the foundation of sociology: philosophy. When unearthing the genealogy of a particular term, one could trace it back to some philosopher who wrote about similar topics. This is a contrast to my current sociological training in the United States, which as a field has developed into something that has been moved quite far from philosophy, or social theory.

Even though the podcast is a great pedagogical channel, as an American trained student of sociology, I cannot help but point out some of its shortcomings. First, its main topics would be categorized under the umbrellas of social theory or political sociology in American sociology terms. According to the recent sections that are listed on the American Sociological Association’s website, social theory and political sociology are two among its 52 official sections. In other words, the podcast covers a very small fraction of all possible sociological topics that one can study.

Given the nature of its leaning toward social theory, and philosophy,  most discussions stay on the abstract level. The discussions are centered around a topic, relevant sociological concepts, and different possible directions that could be taken to deal with the topic. What is barely discussed is empirical evidence to test whether the theory actually works on the grounds. The general structure of one episode is organized as follows:

  1. Definition of a concept
  2. How to operationalize the concept?
  3. Can one use the concept in a particular context in relation to the given topic?
  4. Who else has talked about the concept and this phenomenon since ancient philosophy?
  5. What else can we learn about the phenomenon?
  6. Is there any unresolved contradiction?

The hosts barely cite new research conducted in contemporary Germany. They often talk about big thinkers, who came up with concepts that could be applied universally. There are almost no discussions about methodology and data, which in my opinion are the strength of sociology. We are a pluralistic bunch of scientists who employ a variety of methods, theories, and data to study the social world. The podcast’s main focuses are concepts, and argumentation. As a student of immigration, work, and the urban, I find the podcast lacking because those fields are by definition not the main focus of the podcast. Because of its emphasis on theory, the podcast is also not paying enough attention to the lived experience of a particular group, which quintessentially showcases how a person inhabits their living environment, and reveals their social world.

When I brought up my observation about the lack of empirical research discussions in the podcast, my friend, Herrmann Königs, commented that this illustrates what is valued and emphasized in sociological research and pedagogy in Germany. In his words: “German sociology emphasizes intellectual history of a concept, and whether the concept could be applied universally.” We then went on to debate the question: Is it necessary to learn about the historical context, through which the concept arose in order to understand a contemporary social phenomenon? We couldn’t come up with a consensus whether it is productive to learn about intellectual history of a concept, or whether it is more productive to learn how to apply it in a contemporary situation. However, our discussion highlights the differences in our training on the two sides of the Atlantic. American sociological training tends to emphasize the empirical; the German, the theoretical.

Due to their training, my German counterparts impress me with their expertise in close reading of original texts, and the logic of their argumentation. However, I find their main interests on formal institutions such as the church, the school, and the state to be limiting. Sociologists can also study sub-cultures such as that of the urban squatters, Punk Rock culture, the Fusion (the equivalent of the Burning Man), the proliferation of Yoga, and the immigrants. All of those marginal groups might one day become mainstream, and by studying these subgroups, sociologists could reveal social transformations.

One could criticize that I am too American-centric, and that I cannot impose an agenda set by my profession on one side of the Atlantic to the other. I agree that I am an American trained sociologist, but I also think that as a profession, scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have much to learn from each other. German sociology provides rigorous theoretical training that I wish American graduate programs could provide. I would like to see students from day one to engage more with theoretical texts, and learn how to do it properly rather than seeing people like myself scared of social theory, and opt to do empirical research from day one. Thus, many a times sociology papers read a-theoretical to me. However, American pragmatism is much to be praised. With this pragmatic orientation in mind, we are looking for mechanism of why something is the case, and using our sociological imagination to reveal it. The two papers that I have read lately that showcase how a mechanism-focused researcher could be done are “When two bodies are (not) a problem” by Lauren Rivera (2017), and “All that is Solid” by David Peterson (2015). They exemplify some of the best contemporary sociological research that American academia has to offer.

Another aspect that I find not satisfactory is that the main (if not only) geographical focus of the podcast is Germany. It doesn’t give any air time other German speaking countries such as Switzerland, Austria, and Lichtenstein. If the social concepts are so universally applicable, why are they not applied in other cultural, sociopolitical contexts? According to Jaeeum Kim(2017), the field of sociology is openly anti-area studies. In other words, American sociologists tend to study American society; Germans study German one. Despite all odds, many sociologists travel across nation-state boundaries to study a particular social phenomenon. A few great books that I have read in the past two years include Jaeeun Kim (2016)’s Contested Embrace, where the author examined immigration from the Korean Peninsula, and their diasporic politics in the 20th century. Another example is Kimberly Hoang (2015)’s Dealing in Desire, which is an excellent ethnography that looks at the co-production of gender and capital in the sex market place in the context of globalizing Vietnam. Two growing subfields of sociological research are China Studies and Asian Studies. The 21st century has been dubbed as the Asian Century. It would be a mistake to not pay any attention to this important geographical area. In other words, only paying attention to social phenomena that occur within the geographical boundary of the German nation is a disadvantage for German sociologists in the context of increasing interdependence and interconnections of different areas of the world.

In conclusion, Sociopod has provided me with a substantial vocabulary to talk with my sociology colleagues on this side of the Atlantic. If you’re comfortable with social theory, political sociology, or pedagogy, you should give it a try. It is packed with bite-size discussions of theoretical knowledge. Its ability to reach a popular audience is aspiring. Bringing sociology to the street is such an inspiring goal, and it ought to be supported. In the context of the increasing emphasis of public sociology, I wish that all academics could use some of the hosts’ techniques to mainstream sociological knowledge to the wider audience. Sociology indeed belongs to the street, and that the knowledge of the profession should not be contained within the walls of the academe.

 

 

 

“Ausländer Raus!” : The Unleashing of Populism & Collateral Damage to All Ethnicities

Last weekend, I planned a trip to Hamburg to hang out with some friends. At 6 o’clock  on Saturday, I darted out of the apartment headed to Ostbahnhof Station, which is located in the Eastern Part of Berlin. With my rucksack on my back, and a tot bag on my shoulder, I hurried to get out of the door. On the way, while waiting for the pedestrian traffic light to turn green, I saw two men in their late 20s or early 30s on their bikes approach the zebra crossing. Three of us were to converge at the same crossing line. As soon as the light turned green, I headed toward the other side of the road. While trying to plug the earphones to Iphones, I heard: Ausländer Raus!,” which means “Foreigner  Out!.” Puzzled, and shocked, I looked around, trying to figure out where the voice came from.  There were only three people on the street: two German men on their bikes, and myself, an Asian woman walking across the street. I stared at them for a moment, puzzled, upset, and literally FURIOUS. Agitated, I held my hands up, gave each of them a middle finger. Then one of them said “not you” in English. I didn’t want to pick up a fight, and knew that if the fight had happened, I would not have been able to handle it. Instead I kept walking without looking back.

The entire interaction unfolded in less than 30 seconds, but it took me almost a week to digest, and come to terms with what happened. How did these men dare to shout such a xenophobic phrase at me? Who were they? What did they really mean? Why did they say “not you” at the end?

The Expression „Ausländer Raus!”

To me the expression represents the AfD’s position towards immigration. They basically do not want any person with an immigration background in Germany. I learned it in Dresden 4 years ago, when Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, was demonstrating frequently in Dresden to show that their Islamophobia and anti-immigration politics. Simply put, they don’t want any Muslim person in Germany. This sentiment has been going on in Germany for a long time, and those demonstrations took place even before the European refugee crisis, starting in 2015. Then every time I visited Dresden, what I didn’t receive any a direct anti-immigration utterance, but silent stare from Dresdeners. It was not comfortable, yet I didn’t feel that my existence was being attacked physically or psychologically. The harmless stare could mean many things. There was simply not enough evidence to come to any hasty conclusion.

This incidence was different. It challenged my physical appearance, and it left a permanent psychological disturbance. It took place in the neighborhood of Friedrichshain in East Berlin, where the majority voted for the Green Party, or the Linke in the last state election. I didn’t expect such a characteristically AfD behavior on the streets of the district. In the period of two years I had lived in Germany before, I never encountered such an incidence. Yet now as a tourist, the expression was directed to me, and it disturbed me tremendously. How daily civility has changed in this city!

Men in their late 20s, early 30s during day time brazenly showed their hostility toward me. What emboldened this behavior? Is that true that Germany can no longer contain, or manage xenophobic sentiments toward any person who doesn’t fit in the popular imagination of who a German should be? Why is it happening now?

What did “not you” mean at the end?

For a moment, I thought the phrase “Ausländer Raus” was a word play or a game between the two of them. Trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, I  fancied that they maybe didn’t mean it. First of all, they were young men of the age of late 20s, or early 30s. They were out and about at a very early hour in the morning. Possibly, they were coming back from a party; hence they’re possibly drunk. Maybe they thought that I didn’t understand German, and wanted to test to see whether I was indeed a foreigner. But “Ausländer Raus” was not an expression to approach a stranger regardless of their nationality. It’s rude, and it’s hurtful. Assuming that I didn’t understand German, and I simply walked away without any reaction, what would they have talked among themselves after I had left? Would they triumphantly claim that I was indeed a foreigner, and I had no right to be in Berlin at any moment in time? Was the expression “Ausländer raus” a Freudian slip after an entire night of drinking?

The men didn’t look violent to me. They rather look like some of my Berliner friends whom I would hang out with whenever I were in Germany. They seemed to be like any young Berliner, who enjoyed techno music, good beer, and would cheer for their national team during the World Cup. They didn’t look like “Nipsters,” which refer to young neo-Nazis who embrace the hipster culture. In other words, they looked like any resident of Friedrichshain: maybe students, maybe working class men. They were on their bikes. That is to say, they possibly supported a pro-environment life style. But they expressed some of the most anti-foreigner utterances toward me. People can be leftist on one thing, and extreme-far-right on another. It’s politics: full of contradictions.

Why did they say “not you” in English to me at the end? Maybe they wanted to make up for their racist/xenophobic utterance. Now they assumed that I understood English. How many more assumptions did they have about me? How would those assumptions help or hurt our interactions? Did they really mean not me or just not people who look like me? At that traffic intersection, there were only three people: two of them, and myself. Who’s the foreigner here?, I asked myself. I was outraged. The damage was done on my psychological being, and no amendment could be made. If I could stand there, and call the police, I would. I would like to suit them for psychological damage if possible. I wonder how many therapy sections I would need to unpack the various layers of meaning of this very incidence. Over the weekend, friends freely gave me some quick kitchen therapy, so I could let my outrage out, and to come to terms with what happened.

My expectation was the word “sorry,” not the phrase “not you.” To me speaking English didn’t signify a level of cosmopolitanism that these men had cultivated. It just showed the most ignorant way of correcting a wrongdoing. Almost three decades ago, this very neighborhood was squarely located in one of the most closed-off country one earth – the GDR. As much as they tried to be cosmopolitan, this recent past could not be erased that fast. As much as they tried to show their understanding of the new global linguistic hierarchy, the bridge had been burnt. It often takes more time and effort to build a bridge than to destroy one.  The bridge between me and them was not even been constructed yet, they already smashed it by a simple phrase.

“Politics of Silence”

What I am most uncomfortable with in Germany is not that there was no right to free speech, but the right to remain silent. There is no vocabulary to discuss about racism because the concept “race” has been artificially suppressed. Of course, the reason for the lack of the concept has to do with the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, this absence of a controversial topic has helped German society to move on from their past experience. Yet the lack of it made people of non-German background to be not able to express their lived experience. It is estimated that actually out of the 82 million people, 62 million are actually German. That leaves 20 million other people to be of immigration background. That is to say, almost a quarter of the population do not have the right vocabulary to describe their lived experience.

In the absence of the vocabulary one has to resort to the next best thing. Now one of the controversial discourses about integration in Germany has to do with cultural assimilation of Muslim immigrants, and refugees. The framing that immigrants are un-assimilable because they come from a different culture would not really result in any substantial change. Assuming that all Muslim persons in Germany gave up their religion, cultural practices, their lived experience would still be very different from an average German simply because of their physical appearance. Taking one’s ethnicity, and other factors into consideration, cultural assimilation does not lead to social, political, and labor market assimilation. Assimilating an immigrant culturally first does not guarantee other integration aspects. In many ways, cultural assimilation is something that one cares the least about when one’s being an immigrant. Who cares about giving up some bit of cultural practices, when you don’t know where to sleep tomorrow?

Regardless of how much I have been Germanized, I would still be a visible minority, if I were to settle in Germany. This would be a hard fact. In other words, the silence of a discourse results in the proliferation of another discourse that might not lead to any concrete result. The current cultural conflict discourse could be very much enter a vicious circle, which brings everyone back to the starting point, which is everybody who doesn’t look like an imaginary average German is deemed to be un-assimilable. 

Collateral Damage of the “Not-you” Mentality

The two men assumed that by saying “not you,” I would be able to forgive their behavior. That’s wrong! In contemporary immigration history of reunified Germany, that mentality has had a serious consequence. People who looked like me: the Vietnamese, suffered from collateral damage because of a xenophobic attack against the Roma refugees in Rostock in 1992. Let me remind everyone of the Rostock-Lichtenhagen riots in 1992. Young neo-Nazis didn’t plan to attack the Vietnamese, those who came in the GDR as contract workers, who then remained living in Germany after the reunification. Their targets were the Roma asylum seekers. The young men and women of the town set a few residential buildings where immigrants, and refugees lived on fire, while the police were silently witnessing those houses burned down to the ground. In that situation, everyone was hurt. The politics of silence contributed to the violent act of young people. The Romas got hurt; the Vietnamese were terrorized, psychologically and physically damaged. The entire episode was documented well, and one could watch the movie “Wir sind jung. Wir sind stark” or  “We are young. We are strong,” on Netflix to remind oneself of the violent recent past.

How many generations of immigrants have been psychologically terrorized by these seemingly harmless incidences on the streets? Have immigrants transmit that knowledge to their kids? The concept “Cultural Trauma” by Jeffrey Alexander might be helpful when thinking about this inter-generational phenomenon. One could predict that these interactions will have generational effect from one generation to another. Coupling with the politics of silence in Germany, one will have to deal with it throughout life. Instead of collectively mourning over these incidences, one is asked to privatized those feelings, and seek to fix those feelings oneself. Maybe God helps. Maybe a personal therapist.

I love Germany no doubt. But the more I love this country, its culture, and its people, I would hope it to be different when working with its refugees, immigrants, and minority groups. The people who are called “undeutsch” by  Fatima El-Tayeb, or people of color in the American context, would keep their experience private, or suppress their feelings because they are not able to mourn about their existence. Besides, blaming all xenophobic acts to the neo-Nazi youngsters would never be sufficient. It’s a systematic failure to address the politics of silence that is at the heart of the problem. What if the youngster neo-Nazis don’t grow out of their teenager ideology; they simply grow old, and become gatekeepers of various institutions in Germany? What if one of them became a director of a social science research institute?

Clearly, more questions than answers have been raised in this blog post. Mostly likely I will talk to a therapist when I get back to New York to unpack the convoluted feelings evoked during this summer. In the future, I might forget that this encounter ever happened. Yet not all “undeutsch” people have the privilege to bring a complex social problem to solve in a private office of a well-trained psychologist. Not everyone has the option to leave Germany. Many people immigrate to this land, and are stuck in their situations for various reasons. At the end of the day, all visible minorities suffer regardless of which group is being targeted. Once populism is unleashed, harm is being done to everyone on a daily basis. This year Germany celebrates the 200th birthday of one of the most well-known, and well-celebrated German philosophers and social theorists: Karl Marx. Instead of writing more biographies about him, I would call for more reflection on his  seminal essay: “On the Jewish Question.”  It’s an attempt to deal with the question of race in Germany almost 2 centuries ago. It’s already the time to re-open the question.

 

Learning to Listen: Acquiring a New Language vs. Doing Sociology with One’s Ears

I have mentioned in various blog posts that Hindi is the language that I am learning this year (Than 2017a, Than 2017b). My current level is A1 according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. My goal is to move to the next level by the end of April. Before starting my Hindi language learning journey I messaged a couple of polyglot friends, and they sent me materials to self-learn the language. Yet to be honest, I am nowhere at the level where I can teach myself a language that I have had very little contact with. Therefore, looking for a language teacher online was my solution. I found one from Mumbai. Rachna Singh is her name. She is very patient, and positive all the time.  We have had regular lessons for almost two months.

My Hindi learning routine goes as follows: 5 minutes of learning new vocabulary in the morning with the app Drops , then 1 minute of a voice blog. Rachna would sporadically listen to my voice blogs, correct pronunciation, and grammar, where appropriate. During my commute to school,  I would listen to Hindi popular songs, which I have learned that they are often official sound tracks from Bollywood movies. For my listening practice purposes, the lyrics, and the underlying meanings are not yet important to me. Yet sometimes, I can detect familiar sounds, and would sing along, which is quite a bizarre experience especially if I sing aloud on a crowded train. Having seen my speaking and listening skills improve relatively fast, Rachna asked me to read a children’s story in Hindi, which looks like this:Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 22.25.13

The one-hour reading lesson wrecked my brain because I am completely illiterate in Hindi. I needed to piece together how each letter is pronounced, and how they are spoken when put together. Instead of breezing through an A1-level conversation, I was held back by not being able to articulate the simplest words. It was laborious. It was painful. Being forced to slow down my progress, I was upset. Yet, now having had enough time to reflect on what it means to have any progress at all  in language learning, I realized that slowing down is not a bad thing after all. When one has little knowledge about the subject matter, any step forward counts. Despite the fact that my brain was partially impaired for half a day, I got a challenge to look forward to.

Besides learning languages, I am a full-time sociologist in training. My day job is to read books in social sciences, and sometimes I interview entrepreneurs for a side project.  The project concerns with new entrepreneurs who have only established their businesses in the past 1-2 years. During those interviews, I recognize that the way that I ask my informants questions is not so different from how I ask Rachna during my language lessons. In both situations, I assume the position of not knowing anything about their language or their social world, and ask the most mundane, and obvious questions. There are a lot of clarifying questions. In both situations, I aim to understand the underlying logic: one has to with linguistic logic, while the other has to do with social logic. Sometimes I feel that I must appear really dumb to my interlocutors.

When interviewing a New Yorker, one is often amazed by the various facts about the city that one is absolutely not aware of. It seems that New Yorkers are very cosmopolitan; they are also very parochial. They could tell you where a building is located. Yes buildings here have names! This level of nuance is challenging for me. Before becoming a researcher, I thought one has to be all-knowing in order to be an academic. But now I recognize that one knows very little about this world.

In doing qualitative sociology, there is a debate whether interviewing or doing ethnography is better at studying a social phenomenon. Shamus Khan and Colin Jeromack (2014) argue that interviewing alone is not enough, and that ethnography is superior to get at some truth. The other camp, Michele Lamont and Ann Swindler (2014) maintain that the trick of the trade is to interview people, and that sociologists should embrace “methodological pluralism,” instead of pitting one method against another. As of now, I am a serial interviewer, I have been doing some participant observation. But that is about it. I have not done any serious ethnography because I do not have enough patience to write field notes. One hour of observation could potentially lead to 10 pages of field notes. Then if I observe something for 8 hours a day, I would probably produce up to 50 pages of field notes for that day only. And doing ethnography is often joked as doing “deep hangout.” Erving Goffman(1974) in an address to the American Sociological Association suggested that one should stay in the field for at least a year.  Just think about it. There will be a lot of notes for sure. Writing is exhausting. It is a physical activity, like a sport!!! It’s mental gymnastics. I could barely fathom that I would be able to write up to 5 hours a day. Therefore, I prefer to interview people, and corroborate what they say with other materials that I can get my hands at such as archival materials, newspaper, audios, and videos. In a sense, I fall under Lamont & Swindler’s camp: embracing methodological pluralism, and pragmatism.

In those two camps, my layman’s feeling is that the biggest difference is between observing and listening. Ethnographers are very attentive at what they experience, and what they see, while serial interviewers like me are attentive at what the other person says. I ask follow-up and clarifying questions all the time. I find the answers to those questions to be revealing of how they think about themselves, and how they experience their own social world. Their claims can be exaggerated. Yet how they understand their role in their social world is important for me.

Before going to an interview, I know that I need to follow an interview schedule with a long list of questions. However, during the interview, I am learning the language that the other person is using, and I couldn’t find anything more interesting than listening to the sound of their voice, and entering their lingual world. It is like Alice entering the Wonderland. I am fascinated by the small differences. Sometimes things jump at me. People don’t need to say something radical or extraordinary. I only want to know how one thing is slightly different from another thing. That is enough to keep me engaged for an hour or more. I don’t disagree with them. I just want to them to let me into their wonderland, where the trees might look different from what I thought they should look like.

Gradually, I get addicted to interviewing strangers. Sometimes when I am not supposed to interview anybody, then I would call up one of my former informants and ask how they are doing, and ask to  see if we could get a coffee together so I could catch up with them!

Back to my Hindi lesson, listening has become more of a fun activity, and I enjoy it very much. Yet in order to go to the A2 level, I ought to not only acquire more vocabulary. I think my listening strategy has been working. So I’ll stick to it. My illiteracy problem will be solved slower because it needs more deliberate practices.
References:

Jerolmack, C., & Khan, S. (2014). Talk is cheap: Ethnography and the attitudinal fallacy. Sociological Methods & Research, 43(2), 178-209.

Lamont, M., & Swidler, A. (2014). Methodological pluralism and the possibilities and limits of interviewing. Qualitative Sociology, 37(2), 153-171.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Name and Identity: Daily resistance to diversity

In my new year’s resolutions blog post, I made it a goal to co-author more with my friends, colleagues, and fellow bloggers. This post is the first attempt to realize the goal. My first co-author is Sejung (Sage) Yim, who is also a sociology PhD student at CUNY – the Graduate Center. We will reflect upon our identity formation as international students and immigrants in the United States through the experiences of how we have chosen to be called in various institutional settings.

According to social interactionists, by naming objects, we give meaning to them, and this serves as an integral part in forming our perceptions and our subsequent behaviors (Sandstrom 2018, p. 25). This process is not fixed, but it is undeniably affected by various circumstances depending on where one is situated. One might think that one’s first name is free from this meaning making process because, for most people, their names are not subject to change. However, this is not always the case. In this extended essay, we share our experiences regarding the use of our own real and constructed names as immigrants in the United States. We focus on how we have dealt with our own names in different ways, and how we have adapted or (re)claimed our identities in navigating our lives in new social settings.

Sejung/Sage’s story

I was born and raised in South Korea, where the overwhelming majority of the population is comprised of ethnic Koreans. Before moving to the United States, I never had to think much about my Korean name nor my Korean identity. My name was totally typical and “normal” in that it is comprised of three syllables—one for the family name and two for the given name. Since my name is so typically Korean, I never consciously had to make an effort to think about it in terms of my identity. I simply took both for granted.

When I first came to New York in 2012 to pursue my master’s degree at Queens College, I used my Korean name without thinking twice. I spelled my first name “Se Jung,” which is how it is written in my passport. However, I started removing the space between Se and Jung and decided to write my name as “Sejung” after a while. I did this because people and institutions (such as banks, government offices, schools, etc.) often mistook Se as my first name and Jung as my middle name. I would sometimes receive mail addressed to Se Yim or Se J Yim, which looked weird and awkward, since “Se” is only half of my first name. Although I couldn’t blame some default computer settings which treated the second syllable of my given name as a middle name due to the space between Se and Jung, it never felt quite right to see my name as being incomplete or truncated. But the spelling of my name wasn’t the only issue.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that my name is not easy for non-Koreans to pronounce—even though I do acknowledge that some Korean names are way more difficult than mine in English. When I introduced myself in class or in other social settings, less than half of the people would be able to remember my name, let alone pronounce it correctly. I tried to teach people the correct pronunciation by making it sound easier to English speakers, but very few were actually willing to put forth the effort. Although it is extremely difficult to communicate the precise Korean pronunciation of my name in English due to vast differences in accent and phonetics, it is not impossible to get a close-enough approximation. It just takes a little effort and willingness.

Here’s how to correctly pronounce my Korean name, Sejung Yim. The first syllable of my given name, “Sejung,” is pronounced like “Seh;” the “e” sound is short, as in “red” or “bed.” People tend to pronounce it more like “Say,” which is somewhat close, but conspicuously incorrect. The “j” in the second syllable of my name, “Jung,” is a typical American English “j” sound, as in “jealous,” and the “u” is a typical short “u” sound, as in “under,” and it rhymes with “hung.” The “y” in my family name “Yim” is silent, so in Korean, it is pronounced more like “Eem,” whereas when American people say it, it rhymes with “Jim,” and they pronounce the “y.” There is no short “i” sound in the Korean language, e.g., “slim” or “in.” I think that this clumsy and long-winded attempt to describe the correct pronunciation of my name is indicative of some of the challenges I faced.

Even some of my professors had trouble with my name, and they tended to avoid saying it. I guess either because they couldn’t remember it or because, understandably, they were afraid of mispronouncing it. When I would raise my hand in class to participate in discussions, some would ambiguously point at me rather than call me by name. This was notable because the majority of my classmates were called on by name. I was sure that the professors were not doing this with malicious intent, but it still hurt my feelings and sometimes made me feel insecure and isolated. I didn’t like that. At times, I subconsciously felt ashamed for not having an easy name for English speakers to pronounce or remember, even though there was nothing wrong with my Korean name. I gradually accepted my situation, though I sometimes felt sorry for myself for having to experience these unpleasant feelings.

Upon starting my PhD program at CUNY – the Graduate Center, I decided to adopt an English name. For the record, no one ever explicitly told me that I should choose one, nor did anyone ever ask me if I already had one. The decision was solely voluntary. Still, I must admit that there was some invisible pressure that made me think that I was making a good choice based on my past daily experiences. I had a feeling that if I changed my name in a way that would sound more familiar and less foreign or intimidating to others, I would become more recognized and approachable.

After much thought, I chose an English name, Sage. More precisely, it is kind of like an Anglicized version of my Korean name. I picked this name because it has a positive meaning (“wise,” or “someone who possesses wisdom”) and it also sounds fairly close to my real name. I didn’t want to just choose a random “American” name like Rachel or Emily. I wanted my new name to have some sort of meaning or significance because I felt that I needed to justify the change to myself. Deep down, I somehow didn’t like the fact that I had to create a new name. Although I took the initiative in coming up with a new name, I was annoyed because I felt like it wasn’t really based on my own free will. Rather, I felt like it was a compromise to make my life in the U.S. somehow smoother or easier. I wonder if others (not just Koreans) also felt the same way when for whatever reason they were creating a new name for themselves.

In her book, The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work, Miliann Kang (2010) describes how some Korean manicurists voluntarily or involuntarily conform to their status as service workers by Americanizing their Korean names—for example, changing Eunju to Eunice or Haeran to Helen. Though I can’t draw a direct analogy, I think it also reflects how I felt when I Americanized Sejung into Sage. In a way, the reason I decided to go by Sage was not just for my own sake, but rather for other English speakers. Also, it was to help me adjust more smoothly in the U.S. as an immigrant. Yet, I didn’t fully realize that I was constructing a new identity at the same time I created my new name, Sage.

These days, most people don’t have a problem saying my name, and they tend to remember my name immediately. In addition, I don’t hesitate to tell my name to others (non-Koreans) anymore, regardless of whether they are classmates, professors, strangers, or retail/service industry employees. For instance, I no longer pause for a second to quickly think if I want to say my real name or an improvised, Americanized, or fake name while ordering a drink at a café or putting my name on a waiting list at a restaurant. I was surprised at how much easier my day-to-day life became simply because I chose an Anglicized name.

However, occasionally I find myself having an internal conflict for having two names. I introduce myself by different names depending on who I talk to. If I encounter other Korean or even other East Asian people, I introduce myself as Sejung or even by my full name, Yim Sejung (in most East Asian cultures, people conventionally put the family name first). On the other hand, if I meet non-Korean or non-Asian people, I introduce myself as Sage. It is almost as if I have two distinct identities.

I am Sejung and Sage at the same time. I am the same person, or at least that is how I am perceived by others. However, when I introduce myself as Sejung or I am called Sejung, my Korean side or personality naturally comes out more. My self-presentation and self-perception also largely depend on which language I am speaking at the moment. Since I feel most comfortable speaking Korean, Sejung feels more like myself, and I also realize that some of this is connected to associating Sejung with my Koreanness. To those who know me as both Sejung and Sage, and for those who more or less know how to correctly pronounce Sejung, I tell them that I prefer being called Sejung. This seems silly, and in a way, I feel as if I am making things unnecessarily complicated and confusing others. But I still do like being called Sejung even though I am now completely used to being called Sage.

When I introduce myself as Sage or when other people refer to me by that name, I no longer feel stress or anxiety that people will mispronounce or immediately forget my name. It often gives me more confidence adjusting to U.S. society. However, at the same time, I feel as if it gives me added pressure to fit into American culture. The Anglicized name affects how I think or behave, and it seems like I am subconsciously trying to conform to some kind of expectation others may have when they hear my name, regardless of whether people actually have any expectations of me. Moreover, every now and then, I face inner conflict for choosing to use an American name. Sometimes I feel like I am betraying my Koreanness by making a choice to compromise my real name so Westerners can pronounce or remember it more easily. Some may say I am making things too complicated. Perhaps I am. I feel like I have two identities, and I often feel trapped between the two as a result.

I write my name as Sejung Sage Yim, Sejung Yim, Sejung (Sage) Yim, or Sage Yim, depending on circumstances. My name is still listed as Se Jung Yim on most of my official documents, such as my passport, state ID card, and immigration papers. When I make initial contact with people, whether it is meeting them for the first time face-to-face or writing an email, I have to pick one identity that I want to go with. When signing an email after formally introducing myself as Sejung Sage Yim, I have to pause for a few seconds. Should I sign with Sejung or Sage? Which side of me do I want to emphasize? Or what is more appropriate? I now have some broad ground rules for dealing with my situational identity, but it is never a clear-cut thing. Honestly, sometimes I wish I never had an English name to begin with.

 

—Nga’s story—

“Do you have an American name?” is a question that I have received quite often in the U.S.

When I was in college, I often heard my fellow international students introduce themselves in the following manner: “My name is so-and-so, and I also go by Sophie or Jennifer or Katherine.” At first, this practice appeared bizarre to me, yet gradually I got used to the fact that in an American college context, one could choose how to be called. It was my first cultural “mini-shock” about the question of name and identity. One is free to choose how others perceive them vis-à-vis their chosen name instead of their name given at birth. This freedom to choose how to be called at times appeared liberating, but at other times, it confused me. In Vietnam, particularly in an educational context, people rarely choose another name other than the one given to them at birth. Choosing how to be called was a new practice to me. Even more complicated, I needed to remember how people preferred to be called, and be sensitive to their choice.

I did have an American name for a while. It was Lucy. The act of choosing an American name was not a response to the question whether I had an American name or not. I wasn’t forced to choose it because I felt embarrassed about my Vietnamese name: Nga. I chose it voluntarily out of necessity and good intention.

After my freshman year in college, I interned at Dekalb Workforce Development , where the local government provided the local workforce with training and workshops to prepare them for the workforce. I was working in a group that assisted local teenagers to get temporary summer jobs. Basically, the program collaborated with local businesses to create jobs for them. It paid teenagers on behalf of the businesses, hoping that the kids would gain practical job skills, and the business get to know them. Some did get hired by the business at the end of the summer. In other words, it was a social program that created jobs for underprivileged youth.

My job was relatively simple: inputting social work cases into a computer system. In order to manage almost 1000 cases, the program divided them into different teams. Each team was managed by a social worker, who would go to business locations to observe, talk to teenage workers, and business owners, or managers, document the youth’s behavior, and mediate conflicts should they arise. If one has ever worked as a social worker, one knows how dreadful the typing up notes after the visit/interview can be. It’s the worst part of the job because it takes a long time, and one does not know whether one should document everything. Deciding what is important, and what is relevant is the most difficult cognitive part. Then having to type all the hand-written notes into an administrative system is the second worst task. In addition, the system is often not working properly. It is slow, and like any extensive bureaucratic system, it’s confusing, and there is a lot of redundancy. My job as an intern essentially was to do the second worst task for social workers. That is to say, I had to collect cases, and type the hand-written notes into the system. In short, I helped them digitize their cases.

Most social workers enjoyed working with me because I was agreeable, efficient, and I seemed to type fast. They could not be any happier to outsource that task to me because after a full day driving around Atlanta, and talking to teenagers and business owners, they couldn’t care less about typing 2 pages of notes into an unreliable, bureaucratic computer system. I was happy to do the job because I didn’t have to go anywhere, yet I was able to learn so much about workforce development programs. That was all that I wanted for my first summer internship: learning how low-level bureaucracy worked in America. It gave me an overview of the job, how much paperwork was involved, and how much I didn’t want to work for the local government, nor work as a social worker.

In the first week at work, I realized that most people would call me “N” “ga” as if there were two syllables in my name. There is no “Ng” diphthong in English. It threw people off. The majority of social workers I worked with wanted me to help them, but there was an invisible distance between us, which was my name. They hesitated to talk with me or include me into office chats. I felt a burden on myself: a burden to make myself approachable, which would facilitate the team’s workflow. Having thought about getting an American name for a while, the internship experience was a decisive moment which nudged my decision to adopt an American name. I chose the name Lucy, simply because I was reading the the novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, at that time. In one scene, the main characters went through a list of possible names for their their baby girl. “Lucy” stood out to me, as it was easy, and was interpreted as “you’re wonderful” in the novel. In Vietnamese culture, a name often has a meaning behind it. I thought it would work.

The summer went by, and the name stuck. I started introducing myself as “Lucy” instead of “Nga” in most occasions.  It was confusing for close friends who knew me as Nga. It was also confusing for me, as I felt that I behaved differently as I took on the role of Lucy. It wasn’t about the shrinking invisible distance between me and others. It was about my conception of Lucy as a character. She was created to be an assistant, to be approachable, and relate-able; whereas, I had been always a rebel, a stubborn, and opinionated person. The two characters were not compatible in many ways.

The name stayed with me for quite a long time, until I moved to Germany. Then I worked as a research assistant with cultural anthropologists, whose language skills were superb, and whose cultural sensitivity made me aware that one did not have to use an Anglo-American name in an institution to facilitate bureaucratic efficiency, and lower cultural barriers. In addition, the majority of my friends outside of work were either Vietnamese, or Germans who spoke Vietnamese. Instead of asking whether I had “a German name,” they questioned why I was not using my Vietnamese name. Managing two identities as “Nga” and “Lucy” became increasingly burdensome as the amount of time that I spent with the Vietnamese community there increased. Toward the end of my time in Germany, I introduced myself solely as “Nga.” It was the moment that I reclaimed my Vietnamese identity, and I was very comfortable with it.

Graduate school started; I moved to New York. I decided that in order to keep my professional identity and personal identity consistent, I would only use one name – my real Vietnamese name: Nga Than. Regardless of how it gets mispronounced, I would stick with it. The majority pronounce my first name as “Nah.” It actually sounds endearing at times. Many a times, the word is butchered into two syllables: “N” and “Ga”. When that happens, I would try to make it easier by saying that it’s pronounced almost like /Nah/, as if the “g” is silent. Deep down I know it’s not, but the diphthong “ng” does not exist in English as a starting consonant. Plus I have never learned Vietnamese consciously, so I don’t know where my tongue position is either.  The closest explanation of how to pronounce the “ng” that I came across in a Hindi textbook. The diphthong is considered as a nasal consonant, and it only exists at the end of Hindi words such as the following example:

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 18.04.25

If one is to conceptualize “ng” as a nasal consonant, one can imagine that it also exists in English as in the ending for “sing.” So let’s say “sing-A,” and you get it!

Sometimes I inadvertently make my interlocutor into a student of the Vietnamese language. They would learn a few spelling rules, a few phonetics, and a few tones. As long as they can process the information, I will gladly show them how to say a short sentence in Vietnamese. If they become overwhelmed with the amount of information, I will divert the conversation to another direction.

One might think that the amount of effort I have put in to make my name legible to an American is not worth it. Isn’t it easier to just keep the name Lucy so that the conversation could be smoother? Yes and No. It is yes from my interlocutor’s point of view because he or she does not have to consciously think about sounds that he/she is brought up to not be able to distinguish. My guitar teacher keeps telling me to practice listening to all different notes every day because “one is not trained to distinguish a lot of sounds.” It is a matter of practice, customs, and willingness to hear. From my side of the equation, there is a bit of friction when using the Lucy identity. It never felt right. I constructed an identity, but frankly I never fully imagined how this character would grow. She’s more fictional than real. She was like one identity mask that I had to put on when I interacted with people. Professional actors would not hesitate to say that playing a character is exhausting because they have to consciously think about how this person would behave. In reality, there is no script for me to play Lucy, but I always knew that she wasn’t me. Sometimes she existed independent of me. In other words, I suffered from an internal identity conflict, and after a period of time, I no longer desired to juggle multiple identities anymore. I quit!

Lucy came out of a fiction, and when I moved to New York, she was put back into the novel. I would live my life instead of hers.  Nga is all I am now. And I am happy with this sole name.

 

Sejung Yim & Nga Than

February, 2018

New York

New Year’s Resolutions

Every year I would write a list of new year’s resolutions, and then forget what they were or whether I follow through with any of them by the end of the year. Regardless of whether I achieve the goals that I set out to do, I think the act of writing down those goals is important. It helps me reflect upon what is important, and what is attainable. Following Cal Newport’s suggestion: “think small, act big,”  I will sketch some general goals that I would like to achieve for this year.

Writing/ Blogging

One cannot stress enough the importance of writing in a life of an academic. It does not matter what one writes. What matters is one writes regularly. In Write No Matter What, Joli Jensen (2017) advocates that an academic ought to write regardless of what she is interested in at that moment. One’s research is oftentimes influenced by many factors: availability of data, of advisors, research partners, time, resources, general interests of the academic community, etc. Yet, writing every day is a must. As of now, my research has not been clearly defined yet, but I do want to practice writing. This blog is an appropriate venue for me to practice this most important skill, and it is a platform for me to exchange ideas with others. Ultimately, a blog is an auto-ethnography whereby I experiment with C. Wright Mills’s idea of the intersection between public issues and personal problems, of personal biography and history.

An upper year PhD student briefed me over lunch last week that she is struggling writing another dissertation chapter because she is not confident with her writing. She suggested that I should practice writing every day. Furthermore, I should start before the dissertation phase whereby I have a final project of 100,000 words to submit to my committee. My brain could not help but entertain a scenario: If I write only 1000 words a day. Then it takes me only 100 days to finish writing. What is so difficult?

I was wrong. Writing a big project like that is not like writing blog posts, where I ramble about whatever in my mind. A bigger project takes more planning, conceptualizing, connecting intellectual dots, and executing it. Having published a few blog posts helped me recognize that I cannot write so fast. I learned that I write and edit at a rate of 200 words per hour. That means if I want to finish a 1000-word product of academic writing, it would take me at least 5 hours a day. Now let imagine my speed for academic writing is half of my blog writing. Then it takes 10 hours to write and edit the 1000 word quota. Many people do not have the luxury to dedicate 5 continuous hours to writing, let alone 10 hours straight. More realistically, I might be able to write up to 400-500 words a day during the dissertation phase, which means it would take me about 200-250 working days to complete it. Well, it is literally a year-long project.

My goal is to regularly pen a post on this blog. What is new and exciting this year is that I am looking for co-authoring with other people on this blog. Two student fellows have agreed to co-author something with me. One would reflect on the topic of name and identity, and the other is still thinking about what he would write with me. If you would like to co-pen with me about something that is burning in you, let me know. I keep a log of topics that I want to write about, and have never got time to develop them into a full-2000-word reflection piece.

Social Media & Internet Junks

Recently I listened to a podcast that interviewed Jaron Lanier, a computer philosopher, who coined the term “virtual reality.” He firmly believes that the addiction model that social media companies employ to keep users go back to check on them is harmful to an individual’s mental health, and society at large. Technocrats, intellectuals, and academics alike are increasingly advocating for us to restrict our time spending on the Internet, checking email, and checking social media feeds/ messages. For example, Chamath Palihapitiya, the founder of Social Capital, and former Facebook executive has publicly announced that Facebook is bad for social cohesion.  Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, the author of Deep Work, also supports this position. Newport (2016) even goes further arguing that as a knowledge worker, which I am, should focus on doing mentally demanding tasks, which one could only spend around 4 hours a day on. The intensity of academic work makes a knowledge worker wear out fast mentally, and social media and emails do not help us to recuperate, but burden us with unnecessary information. In other words, to produce intellectual work, one ought to stay away from social media.

I could not afford to write on my website, or syllabus “I do not use e-mail” like what Alan Lightman, a physicist, and novelist at MIT does. But I can certainly delete all social media apps on my cell phone, and stay away from them on my desktop. The amount time saved would be spent on reading, writing, refining research questions, spending time with close friends, doing yoga and taking as many walks as possible.

My goal is to trim down all the Internet fat that I have been accumulating in the past decade. It’s all for a better work/life balance that I am aiming to have.

Health – Sleep

My sociologist friend, Larry Liu, over a glass of beer, confided to me, that he could not sleep without having a skeleton of his dissertation research in mind. I keep wondering whether not having a skeleton of my big research project has been the cause of my not being able to get enough sleep. Certainly, it’s not the only cause. My battle with having 8 hours of sleep has been a long struggle for the past decade or even more. It’s various kind of anxiety that has kept me awake. My anxiety would never go away, but I believe that if I’m intentional about sleeping, I will be able to get enough of it.

Hobbies

Cello

Frankly speaking, I do not know how to distract myself from academic work. I need someone who is not my colleague/co-worker to distract me from theorizing about human life. My interest in learning an instrument has been renewed since I started living with a jazz musician. Plus, I have been dreaming of playing the cello for quite a while. My landlord has agreed to introduce me to a jazz musician who plays bass, and cello to give me lessons. The idea sounds like fun, and I feel that the free form of jazz would free me up from thinking about music structure, and music theory which I have a love/hate relationship with.

Language

Over the break I started learning Hindi. My polyglot friend, Kevin Fei Sun, sent me some materials to learn Hindi. I also signed up for an informal tutoring lesson with a Hindi teacher on Italki.com, and started watching Bollywood movies available on Netflix. Hopefully by the end of the year, I could visit India, get around and order some food on my own. Again, this is a hobby that brings me joy, and keeps me away from thinking about any sociological problem.

Travel

Traveling is an integral part of one’s quest for knowledge. It does not matter where one goes. What matters is what one learns from a new place. Sometimes I wonder why I have this insatiable desire to travel, and often end up going to random places like Belgrade in Serbia, or Leipzig in Germany, or Coventry in England.  My winter trip to Vietnam, and Bryan Turner’s sociology of generation helped me think through my constant desire to see new places. Finally I recognized that I am a part of a generation of Vietnamese who have the quest to see the world. The Vietnamese Millennials are akin to the Baby Boomers in the Anglo-American world. They are both lucky generations.

How do the Vietnamese Millennials resemble the Baby Boomers in Anglo-American countries? First, the Vietnamese youth were born after the Vietnam War, which meant they could enjoy various kind of economic expansion opportunities. My parents could not see the world because Vietnam was closed off to the world due to the Vietnam War, and the immediate period after it. The Vietnamese Millennials dream to see the world for themselves and for their ancestors who have never been a part of the global economy. Second, because of the rapid economic integration into the world economy, this generation is observing a rapid rise in income similar to their peers in other developing countries such as China, and Indonesia (Milanovic, 2016). Third, half of the Vietnamese population are younger than 35 years old (Statista), which makes the Millenials to be the main actors who drive the consumer market, and set trends in any market. They could be bothered little about the Vietnam War because they have little social memory about it. Instead, they aspire to a consumer culture that K-pop celebrities show them how to live an American life-style within an Asian cultural framework.

All young Vietnamese are on the road. They want to see the part of the country that they have never been to. They want to see the part of the world that neither they nor their parents  have never been to. National TV channels are dominated with news about new tourist attractions, with what one can see and eat in a foreign country. Everybody talks about “phuot,” or backpacking. I am not different. I transitioned to my adulthood reading books with titles like Xách Balô Lên và Đi, or Pick up the Backpack and Go [Backpacking]. I am carrying that “phuot” mentality by way of being a part of the Vietnamese “phuot” generation. We all want to acquire experiential knowledge that one ought to have as a young adult. Being the largest generation in Vietnam at this point, we have the power to decide what the tourism culture should be.

Since I am learning Hindi, the obvious next destination to visit is India. Let see how my language and travel plans work together. Planning is not as important as having some objectives, and working on them on a daily basis. These aforementioned goals are contingent to my main academic work. Yet, they make me a better academic as they help me orientate and make my life more interesting this year.

Bookstores as Cultural Institutions: Amazon Bookstore vs. The Strand

The summer before starting my PhD program, I backpacked through the UK. Out of all places, I loved my alone time on the coast of Aberdeen in Scotland the most. The city embodied Scottish charm, and provided me with familiarity: huge American SUVs running alongside rows of granite houses. The coast was beautiful, and the water was ice cold. My favorite discovery in the old town was King’s College at University of Aberdeen. That was the place where I discovered the magical feeling of reading and feeling leather-bound books.

King's College at University of Aberdeen
King’s College at University of Aberdeen

I took a walking tour of the college, and finally ended up spending two hours in a two-story lecture hall, whose bookshelves covered the entire second floor. My attention was fixated on Treasure Island, by the famous Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson. The book embodied the idea of what is old, and good about British literature. It was a leather bound red novel covered with dust of time. I guessed that generations of Scottish must have studied this lecture hall, and took this book home with them. Ever since I became obsessed with leather bound books. I would go for a leather-bound copy if I could afford a book.

 

Treasure Island

 

Since coming back to the United States, the only one place that I ever found leather-bound books on sale is the Strand at Union Square. One day I stumbled upon it while just hanging out with a friend. My first impression was that there were so many books, and I could not possibly know what I wanted. The sheer numbers of book overwhelmed me. Yet the first shelf that drew me to was a book shelf with leather bound books. I took one book down, and examined from the beginning to the end of the book. It did not have the magical feeling of an old book that was taken care of by generations. It was a new book on sale. I cannot remember the title of the book any more, but I do remember one thing: It was printed in the United States, and leather bounded in Switzerland. “Yes of course,” I thought to myself, “the paper is too white, too thin; it must be printed in the United States.” The fact that the leather cover was bounded in Switzerland still until this day puzzled me. At times, I wonder whether the United States never developed this leather-bound books industry like in Europe. Or because of industrialization and de-skilling of certain trades that this market was never big in the United States to start with. These are hypotheses to be tested. The fact is that leather bound books that I encountered were not bounded in the United States. One rarely find them at a chain bookstore like Barnes and Noble, and lately at Amazon physical bookstores.

In September this year, Amazon opened a physical bookstore on 34th Street and 5th Ave, which is on my way to work every day. The store front is not so big, but enticing because of its big tall glass windows. One day I ventured inside to study what was sold inside, I reckoned that the number of books it carried was not so impressive for a physical bookstore. The Strand obviously has a lot more books. Yet Amazon bookstore still triggered my curiosity, and attention. It sold very specific books. I still could not figure out what algorithm it used to decide which books should be on display or not, but a cursory search shows me that the majority of books have a lot of reviews on it globally. I wonder what it means by globally. One of my favorite books on display was Fatelessness by Imre Kertész. It was first published in Hungarian. I read it in German, and was so happy to see that Americans also read it. For every book, there is a little tag with a review on it, and also the number of stars it has. I wonder whether 90 reviews here are aggregated globally, or just in Amazon American market.

Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz

The store is well organized, and it does not overwhelm customers with a sheer number of books. Yet, somehow it does not look warm or inviting to me. A sociologist friend once told me, it is only “a place that tries to sell you stuff.” What does he really mean by trying to sell you stuff? Does he mean Amazon Bookstore is only a market place, and the marketplace functions every more efficiently with assistance from technology. Everyone can rate, and write reviews on Amazon. These rates, and reviews in turn determine what books could be on display in Midtown, Manhattan. Yet, to me a bookstore is not only a marketplace where books are exchanged, but it is also a cultural institution where knowledge and practices are transferred.

Does Amazon bookstore play this role of cultural carrier? No. But the Strand, yes. The Strand facilitates social and human interactions by displaying the sign that if you do not know anything: please ask. The chaotic display of books at the Strand invites confusion, and interactions between customers and staff members. The organizing logic here is not only about assisting customers with their purchase, but also about inviting  conversations around books, and around cultural consumption between two social groups. Through those customer-staff interactions, consumers gain something, and staff members gain something, and thus contribute to the maintenance, and reproduction of the reading culture.

My favorite corner at the Strand

My interactions with staff at Amazon were never unpleasant, but never fulfilling. They were instrumental at best. I needed a staff for information about a certain book, which I could look up on my smartphone. I never bothered to ask about book suggestions. I never looked at Amazon staff with an awe of respect because of the length of time that they have worked there, and that they know everything about what the store carried. They have worked there at best a few months, and at most a year. They have not acquired the kind of institutional knowledge for me to trust their expert knowledge. Besides, in order to reduce staff-customer interactions, Amazon equips various machines around the store so that customers could look up the information themselves. I wonder whether one goes to a bookstore to find it a solitary experience. If a seasoned staff member could introduce me to the kind of books that I have never read before, but I might be interested in, that would be terrific. I would love to read science fictions from Poland such as those written LEM, or a thriller by a Norwegian author. On my own, I would never discover those treasures, unless a well-read staff that I trust would introduce me to those.

I would ask a staff at the Strand for recommendations, but I could not imagine myself doing it at Amazon bookstore. It is not a place for discovery. It’s a store whose appearance facilitates instrumental interactions between people, and between humans and machines. It’s efficient in terms of facilitating a financial transaction. But it is not at all efficient in building up and/or sustaining a reading culture. At the end of the day reading is a cultural activity. Books are cultural objects. Buying books is just one step, and one small component in the entire enterprise. Amazon bookstore has not introduced any other aspect in sustaining this longer and bigger picture of the entire enterprise. Its vision in running its various bookstores is maximizing profits, and reducing human interactions. How would the expansion of Amazon affects book culture in a long run? I don’t know. I am yearning for a place where a staff member could tell me precisely what edition of the book it is, and where the book was printed and bounded, instead of just telling me to look up on Amazon, and see all the information there. If it was the case, I feel depressed after a book shopping experience.

 

Identity Again!

Identity is the messiest topic that I have ever dealt with both on an intellectual level and on a personal level.

I have a few fixed identities that I can absolutely say without any reservation. For example, I am a woman; my ethnicity and nationality are Vietnamese. My occupational identity is sociology; I am a sociologist in training to be exact. Yet the processes, through which I arrived at the conclusion that I have each of those identities, have never been clear to me. Actually I have never taken time to think deeply about any of those identities. I always take them for granted. To my dismay, identity is one of the topics that sociologists study, talk about, debate about, and will never stop coming up with sophisticated research projects to investigate some identity. Why? Because identities change!

So an identity is not fixed. For example, if I change my job, my occupational identity changes accordingly. Imagine suddenly I became so sick of academia, and decided to run a startup. Instead of writing journal articles day in day out, I would network with venture capitalists, and try to sell my brilliant ideas/ products. My job then was to persuade the world that I was an entrepreneur, and I would be better off thinking of myself as entrepreneur. Voila! My occupational identity changed regardless of how much I would like to think of myself as a sociologist.

What is more bizarre to me is the ethnicity category. When I was in Germany, I had to assert myself over and over again that I am Vietnamese. Sometimes my German peers would remind me that I was Vietnamese instead of being any Asian. They wanted me to be specific. Then once I came back to the U.S., I often forget the category, Vietnamese, because I use the category Asian more often. The minute difference in how I think of my ethnicity in two different contexts: Germany and America makes me realize that identity, identity formation and reproduction are quintessentially social. I alone cannot produce a social category such as Vietnamese, Asian, sociologist, or startup. In that sense, I agree with Howard Becker, who argues that it takes more than one ethnic group to create an ethnicity:

An ethnic group is not one because of the degree of measurable or observable difference from other groups; it is an ethnic group, on the contrary, because the people in and the people out of it know that it is one; because both the ins and the outs talk, feel, and acts as it were a separate group. (Becker 1998:2)

 

If I use Becker’s framework to understand my ethnicity or any identity, I could only be defined as one in relations to other groups. I can understand myself as a woman in relations to other genders. I know that I am Vietnamese because I am not Chinese or Korean. I am a sociologist because the anthropology department or the economics department would be furious if I move my stuff to their offices, and claim myself as one of them. Social boundaries, in other words, are defined, and policed outside of my control most of the time.

On the one hand, the more I get trained in sociology, the more I recognize that I am actually interested in knowing more about identity formation. On the other hand, I am not at all at ease with the topic because I think that as a scientist, especially an empiricist like myself, one should come up with a hypothesis and test it. However, when one cannot define a mushy concept, how can the hypothesis be formed and be tested?

If anybody has a way to think about a specific kind of identity, please do let me know.

 

Reference:

 

Becker, H. S. (2008). Tricks of the trade: How to think about your research while you’re doing it. University of Chicago Press.

 

Language and Identity

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Learning languages comforts me because my mind is opened up to new ways of thinking, and to connect to more people in an interesting way. It is a relief to know that I can make mistakes when I speak a language other than my mother tongue. Researchers have shown that multilingualism gives one advantages socially and psychologically, and also physically (The Guardian, 2016). I feel extremely happy when I go to a new country, and can understand what other people were saying without using a single English word.

 

Yet feeling comfortable in being able to communicate in another language other than your mother tongue is not the entire story. Sometimes all of my languages fail me. Sometimes I feel trapped in certain level of vocabulary, and behave out of character.

 

When I think about how languages have failed me, I realized that it comes down to vocabulary problems.

 

Let take a look at a few examples.

 

My mother tongue: Vietnamese

 

I speak Vietnamese with a standard northern accent. When I moved to the U.S., I started picking up a few southern words here and there because many friends I hung out with were mostly from the South of Vietnam. To neutralize my accent, I softened how I pronounce certain words.

 

I used to think that I have no problem with Vietnamese. Nope! There are a few problems. I left Vietnam when I was 19. Since then I only think of the country as a vacation place where I would spend time to catch up with my family, relatives, and friends. I hardly spend any time reflecting on how I used the language when I am in the country. My Vietnamese vocabulary seems to have stopped growing. It has never expanded. I never bother thinking about how limited or expansive my vocabulary is, or how to develop it. When I am home, I talk to my parents like a teenager, still figuring out my life. For almost 10 years, I have missed many weddings, funerals, and other occasions. People try to catch me up on these things, but they know that I would never be able to fill in all the temporal holes. So they let me be.

 

Whenever I visit Vietnam, I would listen attentively for the first weeks to pick up new words, new meanings of old phrases, and learning new idioms. It is the process of culturally re-integration that I am willing to do every once in a while.

 

English – the language that I dream in

 

When I first started learning English, I had a terrible accent. My teacher, a Vietnamese American from Illinois, would tell me: “Nga! Your pronunciation is fine, but when you read a whole paragraph out loud. It sounds laborious.” What he really meant was that I did not feel the language. I was not at ease when I spoke it. I did not feel its internal musicality. In order to fix that, I listened to audios from VOA America. I would take a 5-minute audio, read along with the transcript, and then recorded my own voice to hear the differences. I was 16 at the time. Yet in some recordings, I sounded like a 50-year old lady from the Midwest; sometimes I would sound like a man from Louisiana. Now thinking back, I wished I had watched some teenage TV shows, picked a character, and mimicked her accent consistently. However American TV shows were not a thing when and where I was growing up. Now my accent is ok. It’s consistent. I still pronounce things wrong all the time, and I would laugh at myself when it happens.

 

Having gone through four years of college in Atlanta, I thought I was prepared to deal with life in America. Not really! There is something that is called grad school. It is the place where I meet people who get a perfect GRE verbal. That is the place where I teach American college students about their own society. At this level, I cannot just listen and pick up words using my mental notes any more. Sometimes in a seminar, listening to a classmate beautifully describe a social phenomenon, I would be enchanted, yet feel sad that I would never be able to do the same thing.

 

Teaching is even more challenging. Sometimes what I would say in class makes sense but not beautifully put. Sometimes I run short on vocabulary. Other times my students would say something so interesting, and that there is a word that I feel like I heard before but I never checked its definition. I could not write it down to double-check later. I could not use my learning mode while standing in front of 30 undergraduate students.

 

Think about it! One often hears that teaching is learning. But switching between teaching, and learning modes is confusing to both the teacher, and the students. How weird would it be when suddenly I would quietly repeat the word after a student? I teach sociology, not linguistics. We do not have time to analyze a word such as how it sounds and its etymology.

 

Yes even I dream in English, I still feel like a handicap on a daily basis.

 

German – feeling like a teenager

 

I do read German, and listen to German radio shows. But when I speak German, I have this fear that I would sound like a teenager. It was a comment that I got very often three years ago when I was learning German, and expanding my vocabulary. It takes some warm-up each time I speak German now. I need to put on my German self, or in Goffmanian terms, “a German mask,” which is more reflexive, less repulsive, more attentive, and more reserved.

 

Whenever I speak a different language, I feel that I have a different self. The Vietnamese one is warm and playful. The English self is rather argumentative. The German one is the most reserved, reflexive, and intellectual one. The question is then what is my authentic self in regard to languages?

 

It seems that I would agree with Sociologist Erving Goffman. There is no true self. One’s identity is performed appropriate to the social situation that one is in.

 

References

 

The Guardian, “Why being bilingual works wonders for your brain” https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/aug/07/being-bilingual-good-for-brain-mental-health

 

A summary of Erving Goffman’s ideas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Z0XS-QLDWM