MacGregors, Madras, and Maasai: Rockin’ the Tartan around the Globe

October 20, 2017 § 2 Comments

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I recently visited my sister’s Presbyterian Church, and they, as part of their year-long recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, will be celebrating the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan this month. Not knowing what that was, I did some Googling and learned a thing or two . . . or three or four.

First, according to none other than the Scottish Tartans Authority, the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan was begun (at least in the US) by the Reverend Peter Marshall. Born in Coatbridge, Scotland, in 1902, Marshall came to the States at the age of 24 and eventually became pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and chaplain of the US Senate. While at New York Avenue, he held a kirkin’ service as a way to raise money for World War II.

You might be wondering what it means to kirk a tartan (I know I was). Well, kirk is Scottish for church, and tartan was originally a word for a woolen fabric, and then it became the name for the plaids worn by Scottish Highlanders, with each clan having its own distinct colors and pattern. So to kirk the tartan means to wear your kilts and other Scottish-plaid garments to church.

Since its creation, tartan (plaid) has certainly gotten around and made its mark on the world. In fact, as Elizabeth Wayland Barber writes in The Mummies of Ürümchi, the oldest existing piece of tartan fabric was found in the tomb of a Celtic man (known as Cherchen Man) from around 1,000 BC, unearthed in, of all places, northwest China. And since then, it’s put down roots all over.

In the early 1600s, he British East India Company established a trading post, including Fort St. George, in the fishing village Madraspatnam (later Madras and now Chennai). They chose the location, in part, because of the cotton cloth made there, and developed it into a textile hub. About 100 years later, madras came to the American colonies when the former governor of Fort St. George, Elihu Yale, made a donation, including madras cotton, to the Collegiate School of Connecticut. In recognition of his gift, the school changed its name to Yale College (today’s Yale University). Move ahead another 100 years or so, and the tartan pattern—handed down from the Scots—was woven into Madras cloth and became a hit, so much so that madras is now virtually synonymous with brightly colored plaids.

(There are a lot of sources for the history of madras, but I chose the Gentleman’s Gazette, because not only can they tell us how madras came to the Ivy League, they can also tell us how to wear madras shirts, shorts, jackets, ties, and belts to sport that Ivy League style.)

2415702086_024797459e_zThe British and French brought madras fabric to the Caribbean in the 1600s, and according to Carol Tulloch, in Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning, and Identity, the madras “handkerchief” fabric became “a currency of slavery”—made in India, sold to traders in London, and then “used to barter for slaves in West Africa and to clothe slaves in the West Indies.” It’s unclear to me exactly when the madras cloth flowing into the Caribbean took on its characteristic plaid, but tartan is now part of the national dress of several islands, such as the quadrille of Jamaica and the karabela of Haiti.

7559678650_0542f004fe_zSome say that the use of madras in the slave trade is what brought it to East Africa, where it has become a major element in the traditional dress of the Maasai, in the form of the shuka. Others claim the origin of the “African blanket” is from Scottish troops stationed there or it was introduced by Scottish missionaries. An article in The Star of Kenya includes the tale of tartan coming to East Africa by way of the British, stating that during a visit by Queen Victoria, tartan fabric was used for table coverings and the Maasai were told to clothe themselves with the tablecloths so as not to offend the queen with their nudity. This seems rather apocryphal to me, especially since before wearing the modern cloth shuka, the Maasai wore a version made from animal hides, which would seem to have covered their nakedness just fine.

1118423019_1f7d916359_zIn South Africa, not only do traditional dancers from the Pedi people group wear red plaid, but it’s actually in the form of a kilt. In another somewhat fanciful, but popular, story, as recounted in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, it is said that when British troops came to the area in 1878, they were led by kilt-wearing soldiers. The Pedi, thinking they were fighting against women, refused to shoot until it was too late and the battle was lost. (So maybe the Pedi donned the kilts as a future battle tactic?) But others say the kilts were adopted after the Pedi fought by the side of the Scots during World War II.

Of course, I didn’t need to do any research to know that donning plaids is an essential part of the traditional dress of many tribes. Take, for instance, preppies, lumberjacks, and hipsters. But I certainly hadn’t put the pieces together for tartan’s reach around the globe and beyond.

Beyond? you ask. Lunar module pilot Alan Bean took care of that in 1969 when he carried a swatch of Clan MacBean Tartan to the moon and back during Apollo 12. A few years ago Bean gave a piece of that cloth to the Scottish Tartans Authority for safekeeping.

Now that’s getting around, in style.

(Todd Wilkinson, “The Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan,” Scottish Tartans Authority ; Elizabeth Wayland Barber, The Mummies of ÜrümchiNorton, 1999; Sven Raphael Schneider, “Madras Guide–How the Shirt, Pants & Jackets Became Popular,” Gentleman’s Gazette, July 12, 2013; Carol Tulloch, “That Little Magic Touch: The Headtie,” Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning, and Identity, Amy de la Haye and Elizabeth Wilson, eds, Manchester University, 1999; Andrea Bohnstedt, “The Maasai ‘Shuka’ Has Evolved into a Brand,” The Star, May 17, 2014; Paul Alexander, “The Tale of the Kilt,” Mail & Guardian, June 13, 1997; Todd Wilkinson, “Armstrong’s Lantern: Spaceflight Scottish Connections,” Scottish Tartans Museum)

[photos: “Sporrans on Parade,” by Stuart Grout, used under a Creative Commons license; “Dominican Plaid,” by Ken Bosma, used under a Creative Commons License; “Maasai Mara Adventure,” by Gilad Lotan, used under a Creative Commons License; “Pedi Man,” by firesika, used under a Creative Commons License]

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Of Big Macs, KFCs, and Tall Lattes: A Full Menu of Global Indexes

October 9, 2017 § 1 Comment

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I’ve always wondered about the “heat index” and “chill factor,” ways to say, “We know how hot or cold it is, but here’s how it feels.” Obviously there are scientific factors figured into the calculations, but it makes me think we could also have a “Great Grandma Gordon Index”: “I’m telling you, it’s at least 125 degrees in the shade!” or a “Guy Who Lives Down the Block Index: “It’s so cold I can’t feel my left foot!”

When you travel, you see how much weather standards aren’t standardized around the world, either. For people in hot climates, the winter parkas might come out when the temperature dips below 60°F, or for those where cold is routine, when they register the same temp, it’s time to put on shorts.

But keeping track of relative weather norms isn’t the only concern when going abroad. There’s also that finances thing. You want to know how much money you’ll need to spend while spending time in another city—in terms that make sense. So you might be thinking “How much does, for instance, a Big Mac cost there?”

Well, funny you should ask.

One of the most well-known economic indexes has the answer. Taking its name from the classic McDonald’s sandwich, the Big Mac Index was developed in 1986 by The Economist “as a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their ‘correct’ level.”

“Burgernomics,” says The Economist “was never intended as a precise gauge of currency misalignment, merely a tool to make exchange-rate theory more digestible.” But the Big Mac Index has gotten a lot of weighty attention, garnering coverage in textbooks and academic studies. In fact, the index is taken seriously enough that a New York Times article postulated in 2011 that Argentina was artificially keeping its Big Mac prices down to influence its place on the scale. And Computerworld reported this year that the malware Fatboy, a ransomware-as-a-service (software that locks up a computer and demands payment to decrypt its data) uses the Big Mac Index to determine how much ransom needs to be paid for a particular location.

The Big Mac Index is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity. I’m not an economist, so it’s easy for me to get lost in the weeds on economic theories. But rather than use it as a rigorous currency-valuation metric, I see it more as a quick-and-dirty cost-of-living index.

If you have a hunger for that type of thing, too, I’m glad to tell you there’s much more on the menu than just the Big Mac. Here’s a list to whet your appetite:

The Tall Latte Index
Also called the Starbuck’s index, this is another iteration from The Economist, comparing prices from the coffee chain.

The KFC Index
Because McDonald’s has restaurants in only three African countries, the Big Mac Index doesn’t work very well on that continent. Therefore, Sagaci Research developed an index based on KFCs, which are present in nearly 20 nations in Africa. The metric is based on the price of an Original Recipe 15-piece bucket.

The Mini Mac Index
Invented by Benn Steil and Emma Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations, it compares the global prices of iPad Minis.

McDonald’s Index of Humanitarian Access
Jonathan Whittall, head of humanitarian analysis at Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders writes that

no country with a McDonald’s has ever rejected humanitarianism on ideological grounds. It is in those states where the economic and political influence of the west still has space that all components of the west’s foreign policy are accepted: both McDonald’s and INGOs.

The Coca-Cola Index
This analysis branches out a bit more, showing the relationship of Coke consumption with quality-of-life factors. Using UN figures, The Economist (those guys sure are busy), shows that countries’ higher rates of Coca-Cola drinking correlate with higher wealth, health, and political freedom. Have a Coke and a smile?

The Happy Planet Index
Speaking of smiles, the New Economics Foundation publishes this global ranking of “how efficiently residents of different countries are using environmental resources to lead long, happy lives.” (I really wanted to find a “Happy Meal Index,” but so far, it hasn’t been created yet.)

And while we’re on the topic of quality of life, we have

The Better Life Index
from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

The Legatum Prosperity Index

The Human Development Index and The Gender Development Index
from the United Nations Development Programme, and

The Where-to-Be-Born Index
from the Economist Intelligence Unit

And finally, if you’re looking for some straight-up cost-of-living indexes, take a look at

Expatistan’s Cost of Living Index and

Numbeo Indexes
The Numbeo site describes itself as “the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide.” Not only does it have an overall cost-of-living index, it also includes indexes that compare property prices, crime, health care, pollution, traffic, quality of life, and travel costs.


(D.H. and R.L.W, “The Big Mac Index,” The Economist, July 13, 2017; Daniel Politi, “Argentina’s Big Mac Attack,” Latitude, The New York Times, November 24, 2011; Darlene Storm, “Local Cost of a Big Mac Decides Ransom Amount for Fatboy Ransomware,” Computerworld, May 8, 2017; Jonathan Whittall, “The McDonald’s Index of Humanitarian Access,” MSF Analysis, February 7, 2014)


[photo: “NRT: McDonald’s Menu,” by jpellgen, used under a Creative Commons license]

Are You OK? and Help! Two Things You Really Need to Learn to Say in Your Target Language [—at A Life Overseas]

September 27, 2017 § 2 Comments

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When you visit a country where the people don’t speak your language, there are several important phrases you should know how to say: things such as “Hello” and “Goodbye,” “How much is this?” “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Can I have ice with my water?” But when you move to that country, the stakes become higher. The important words and phrases become deeper and more necessary and more . . . important. They’re usually not covered in the first five chapters of your language book, and you may not end up learning them until you come face to face with the need for them. At least, that’s the way it was for me.

Are You OK?

The streets in Taiwan give new meaning to the phrase flow of traffic. Outnumbering automobiles two to one, scooters zip in and out to fill in the narrow gaps between cars, and when they all come to a red light, they pile up at the intersection, waiting to spill forward again when the light turns green. Watch that whitewater river for long, and you’ll see quite a few accidents.

One morning while I was walking to language school in Taipei, I came up to one of the city’s crowded intersections and waited to cross. As several lanes slowed for the light, a lady on a scooter was unable to stop and broke through the pack, sliding several feet on her side. She wasn’t hit by anyone, but she was slow getting up. My first thought was to run over to her and see how she was. I didn’t make it, though. First of all, by the time I could cross the street, she was back on her way, though pushing, not riding, her scooter now. And second, I didn’t know what to say.

Yes, I knew the greeting “How are you?” but that’s not the right question for someone who might be hurt. I knew how to say several other things, too, but none of them seemed appropriate. I could imagine the woman’s horror having me, a foreigner, rush up to her in her time of need, letting loose with my vocabulary of “Hello. How are you? I’m an American. What part of Taipei are you from? What’s you’re favorite food? I like pizza.”

It’s one thing to be able to say the equivalent of How are you? Howdy, or What’s up? It’s another to go beyond trite formality, to ask a caring question and expect a heartfelt response.

Continue reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “helping-hand,” by Faith @101, used under a Creative Commons license]

Where Are You From? 2, 3, 4

September 20, 2017 § Leave a comment

“Where Are You ‘Really’ From? Try Another Question”

Latinos, Asians and people who fall in between the black-white racial binary in the United States are those who are most likely to be asked, often in casual conversation, about their racial or ethnic roots. On the surface, the question, “Where are you from?” seems innocuous. And for many of those asking the question, it is often an expression of genuine curiosity, an effort to connect, or a way to learn more about someone. But for those on the receiving end, like me, it can be a different experience.

As someone who writes about race and relishes a good conversation about it, maybe I should be the last person saying that being asked where I’m “really from” is tiresome and predictable.

But it is.

Critics of microaggression say people like me are being too sensitive about harmless, everyday questions.

I disagree.

I think it’s about time we questioned the question.

Tanzina Vega, CNN, August 25, 2017

Language Learning: Like Wrestling with the Laundry

September 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

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I wrote the following in a newsletter a few months after moving overseas. That was a long time ago, but my thoughts on language learning haven’t changed much.

Our main goal right now is to learn the language, and we’ve been taking classes for almost three months. One of our teammates, who was here before we arrived, wrote a while back that learning Chinese is the hardest thing he’s ever done. As for me, I think I’ve done harder things, it’s just that I quit doing them after a couple hours.

Maybe you’ve heard it said that a difficult task is “like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.” Learning Chinese isn’t quite like that, but it’s not far off. It’s more like hanging a king-sized bed sheet on a clothesline in a strong wind. (My apologies to everyone who’s only used a clothes dryer.) Every word or sentence pattern we learn is a clothespin that holds up another part of the sheet. With enough clothespins, the sentences and stories make sense. Little by little, there are fewer and fewer sags in the sheet as we pick out and are able to use more and more words and phrases.

The trouble is, on some days, the wind whips the sheet out of our hands. On some days we run out of clothespins or drop the ones we have. On some days it rains. On some days our arms are tired and hanging up sheets is the last thing we want to try to do. And on some days, the sheet just simply turns to Jell-O.

[photo: “auch Borkum,” by Erich Ferdinand, used under a Creative Commons license]

Have a Taste for Cross-cultural Movies?

September 2, 2017 § Leave a comment

I’ve not had much time to write lately, but I did take a few minutes to browse some movie trailers. There are quite a few films making he rounds that deal with cross-cultural themes, and some for which the culture crossing comes (at least from an American’s point of view) in the act of watching the movie itself.

I probably won’t end up seeing most of these, but in the absence of a full meal, appetizers can hit the spot.

Dépaysement: What the French Call That Feeling of . . . um . . . Un-country-ness

August 20, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Dépaysement. It’s a French word that means something like “culture shock,” but it’s for those times when culture shock isn’t enough to capture what you’re feeling.

I could give you my definition, but it would just be a reworking of what I’ve found others saying. Instead, I’d rather let those others speak for themselves:

Dépaysement—

  1. (sentiment dérangeant) disorientation
  2. (sentiment agréable) change of scenery

It’s hard to put your finger on the feeling. You’re away from home, in a foreign land, surrounded by foreign faces. You’re apprehensive, but excited. You’re nervous, but alive.

Every synapse feels like it’s firing when you first set foot in a strange place, when you have to figure out the lay of the land, try to decide if you’re safe or in danger, if you should be elated or afraid. Every part of you is in overdrive.

What do you call that? “Culture shock” doesn’t cut it. “Excitement” doesn’t do it justice either, given that undercurrent of fear. We don’t have a single term that sums all those feelings up.

But the French do.

(Ben Groundwater, “Why ‘Depaysement’ Is the One Foreign Word Every Traveller Should Know,” Stuff, May 4, 2017)

In France, the feeling of being an outsider is known as dépaysement (literally: decountrification). Sometimes it is frustrating, leaving us feeling unsettled and out of place. And then, just sometimes, it swirls us up into a kind of giddiness, only ever felt when far away from home. When the unlikeliest of adventures seem possible. And the world becomes new again.

(Tiffany Watt Smith, Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty—154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel, Little Brown, 2016)

People do some out-of-character things in foreign countries. They strike up conversations with strangers in bars, even if they would never do the same back home. They wear unflattering hats. There’s something about being a stranger in a strange land that’s equal parts exhilarating and disorienting, and this messy mix of feelings is what the French word depaysement . . . means to capture.

(Melissa Dahl, “10 Extremely Precise Words for Emotions You Didn’t Even Know You Had,” Science of Us, New York, June 15, 2016)

The gray and quotidian machinations of metropolitan life must be “deciphered” in order to discover another reality lurking just beneath the surface, the “sous-reality” of the historical marvelous. In surrealist wanderings through old neighborhoods, parks, cafés and restaurants, the city itself is text—the hidden mysteries like the markings on the Rosetta Stone. This mode of archaeological “reading” is linked to a phenomenological position which Jean Pierre Cauvin has identified as “dépaysement”: “the sense of being out of one’s element, of being disoriented in the presence of the uncanny, or disconcerted by the unfamiliarity of a situation experienced for the first time”. Literally, we might interpret “dépaysement” as “out of country”, or “displaced from one’s homeland.” Within the surrealist context, it refers to a cool disassociation from the mores of twentieth-century Parisian culture so that everyday material objects are freed from their ideological trappings and all of Paris opens itself up as a strange civilization to be “read” for the first time.

(Sasha Colby, Stratified Modernism: The Poetics of Excavation from Gautier to Olson, Peter Lang, 2009)

More than a statement of “homesickness,” depaysement implies a sense that you cannot go home again, that you may be forever disconnected from your old world (Smith 2006). Depaysement is reminiscent of a kind of ritualistic “becoming,” but does not imply being caught in the middle, as in Turner’s (1964) “betwixt and between,” because depaysement is not qualitatively transitional. A rite of passage implies a new social role or place in a social structure. Depaysement implies a sense of being stripped of that social structure altogether. It implies a new permanence in one’s experience in the worlds.

(Michael Holenweger, Michael Karl Jager, and Franz Kernic, eds., Leadership in Extreme Situations, Springer, 2017)

And then there are these musicians from Japan who call themselves The Depaysement (no, not “The Basement” or “The Debasement”). Watch their video. I’m sure they’d appreciate your views.


[photo: “Break Fast Languages,” by Enoz, used under a Creative Commons license]

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