Cross-cultural Books for the First Year of the Rest of Your Life

November 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Did you know that penguins (the birds that swim instead of fly) thrive in saltwater environments because they have a gland above their eyes that filters salt from their blood, and then the salt is excreted through their bills, either as a drip or by a sneeze?

And did you know that Penguin (the publisher that’s part of Penguin Random House) puts out a list each year aimed at first-year college students, called “Penguin Books for First-Year Experience and Common Reading Programs“?

(The rest of this post is going to elaborate on the second fact above, though the first one is pretty cool.)

Many colleges and universities have first-year-experience (FYE) programs aimed at laying an introductory foundation for beginning students. Programs often have as their focus a course taken by all new students and may also include a common text that students share in reading. Chosen well, this book expands the world of incoming students and creates avenues for growth and discussion.

Look at Penguin’s 2017-18 catalog of books recommended as common readings and you’ll find plenty of award-winning works, filled with inspiration and covering a myriad of challenging topics, and you don’t need to be a college freshman to appreciate the width and depth represented there. And within that list, you’ll also find a lot with cross-cultural and international themes—so many, in fact, that they’re worth listing here.

I’ve divided them into the categories that Penguin uses in its catalog, showing the title and author, followed by the place or situation, if not already apparent. I can’t personally vouch for all of these books, since, regrettably, I haven’t read any of them. But I can certainly say that I’d like to use these titles to start a to-read list . . . or maybe a list for Christmas.

Nonfiction:

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom
Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War
Lynsey Addario

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border
Francisco Cantú
(at the Mexico/US border)

Fiction:

The Association of Small Bombs
Karan Mahajan
(India and the US)

City of Saints and Thieves
Natalie C. Anderson
(Kenya)

Everything I Never Told You
Celeste Ng
(Chinese Americans)

Exit West
Mohsin Hamid
(imagined world of refugees)

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Mohsin Hamid

Quiet until the Thaw
Alexandra Fuller
(Native Americans)

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon
Fatima Bhutto
(Afghanistan and Pakistan)

Contemporary Fiction:

And the Mountains Echoed
Khaled Hosseini
(Kabul, Paris, San Francisco, and the Greek island of Tinos)

The Cellist of Sarajevo
Steven Galloway

Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid
Giuseppe Catozzella
(a Somali girl and the Olympics)

Ghachar Ghochar
Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur
(Bangalore)

Girl in Translation
Jean Kwok
(an immigrant from Hong Kong to Brooklyn)

Home Fire
Kamila Shamsie
(Pakistani immigrants in London and Massachusetts)

How I Became a North Korean
Krys Lee
(at the Chinese border with North Korea)

The Idiot
Elif Batuman
(immigrant and international students at Harvard)

In the Language of Miracles
Rajia Hassib
(Egyptian immigrants to the US)

Lucky Boy
Shanthi Sekaran
(an undocumented Mexican immigrant and Indian-American in the US)

Redeployment
Phil Klay
(US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and returning home)

Refuge
Dina Nayeri
(an immigrant from Iran to the US to Europe)

Reputations
Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean
(Colombia)

The Shape of Bones
Daniel Galera
(Brazil)

A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki
(Tokyo)

A Word for Love
Emily Robbins
(Syria)

General Nonfiction

Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of the Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World
Katherine Zoepf

A School for My Village: A Promise to the Orphans of Nyaka
Twesigye Jackson Kaguri with Susan Urbanek Linville
(Uganda)

Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War
Thomas J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly
(Afghanistan and Iraq)

The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine
Ben Ehrenreich

Memoir and Biography

Autumn
Karl Ove Knausgaard
(Sweden)

The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return
Kenan Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Daniel James Brown

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Blaine Harden

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family
Najla Said

An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography
Paul Rusesabagina and Tom Zoellner
(Rwanda)

Shoot like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front
Mary Jennings Hegar

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner
Bich Minh Nguyen
(Vietnamese immigrant in Michigan)

Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League
Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Wine to Water: How One Man Saved Himself While Trying to Save the World
Doc Hendley

You Will Not Have My Hate
Antoine Leiris
(Paris)

And finally, a few books on listening and telling stories, all from David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps:

Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work

Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project

Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps

[photo: “Happy World Penguin Day,” by Christopher Michel, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Seaweed, It’s Not Just for the Fishes

November 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

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On Wednesday, while we were watching Game 6 of the World Series, I saw a commercial that featured a young girl introducing herself to her new classmates. Her parents met in Texas, she tells them, then relocated to Washington, and she was born at Fort Knox. Next came Georgia and then Korea. “Mmm,” she says, pointing to South Korea on the wall map, “Seaweed snacks.”

Her fellow students think that sounds pretty awful, but my son, who was born in Taiwan, yelled out, “See? See? I’m not the only one!”

She ends her introduction with “And now we live here for good.”

What were they advertising? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find the commercial online and watch it again. I Googled “home ad seaweed.” Google asked if I meant “home and seaweed” and showed me 5 Creative Uses for Seaweed in the Home, from Rodale’s OrganicLife: fertilizer, dietary supplement, East Asian cuisine ingredient, pet food ingredient, and beer additive. It also led me to a Wired article telling me, “This Seaweed-Covered House Is the World’s Coziest Sushi Roll” (“The primary challenge for the designers was turning an unruly weed into a consistent building material”), and The New York Times sharing that “Seaweed’ Clothing Has None, Tests Show” (“the labs found no evidence of seaweed in the Lululemon clothing”).

Thinking the commercial might be selling houses, I searched for “real estate commercial seaweed,” but that honed in on “commercial seaweed,” which gave me Grand View Research’s “Commercial Seaweed Market to Reach $22.13 Billion by 2024,” and “The Power of Seaweed, from the Wall Street Journal (“there’s growing evidence that seaweed might fit the bill as a raw material for biofuel, and one Indian entrepreneur is hoping to exploit it”).

No World Series commercial yet, but I didn’t give up. And through some combination of search terms, I found what I was looking for. The ad is from Navy Federal Credit Union and is titled “Here for Good.” I couldn’t embed it, but you can watch it at iSpot.tv.

Are you like the students in the commercial and you think that eating seaweed is more yuck than yum? Or are you like my son: “Edible seaweed? What’s not to like?” Either way, if you want to find out more about “the new potato chip,” edible seaweed (nori in Japanese, hai tai in Mandarin, or kim in Korean), take a look at KQED’s “Savoring Seaweeds: What You Need to Know before Diving In.” More options? Well Deutsche Welle would like you to know “Seaweed Wine Hits Germany’s Stores, and The Portland Phoenix wants to introduce you to “Seaweed Tea: The Next Big Drink Trend?

Of course, the chips aren’t made from potatoes, the wine isn’t made from grapes, and the tea isn’t made from tea. They’re all made from marine algae.

So, how long before you’re saying, “Mmm. Marine algae.”

[photo: “Wasabi flavored snack nori わさび风味のり,” by kattebelletje, used under a Creative Commons license]

What Did I Do Today? I Made a Copy. Woohoo! [—at A Life Overseas]

October 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

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An imagined but quite possible day in a life overseas . . .

This morning I woke up with my to-do list waiting for me on the nightstand. Item number one was Get out of bed (I’d written that one down so I could start the day by crossing it off). Number two said Copy document. That’s because yesterday at the county government office, when I went to get my resident permit renewed, the lady behind the desk told me I needed to bring a copy of my registration letter to leave with them.

I was more than ready to get that taken care of and move on to the other, bigger, better, more important things on my list. It was an impressive list. I had quite the day planned.

After a quick shower and a slice of toast for breakfast, I grabbed my permit documents and walked the four blocks to the bus stop and took the bus to the copy shop, about 15 minutes away. But when I stepped off the bus I saw that the copy shop wasn’t a copy shop anymore. Instead,  sometime over the weekend, it had been turned into a KFG Chicken restaurant. (That’s right, a KFG not a KFC. This one had a big green smiling rooster on its sign.) I called my teammate to get her advice, and she said I could get a copy at a bank. There was a bank down the street, and after going there and standing in line, I asked the teller if she could help me make a copy. She said that was impossible.

On the way back to the bus stop, I called another teammate, and he told me to try the photo shop next to the new high school. I decided to take a taxi there to save time, but the only cash I had was a large bill and I figured the driver wouldn’t have change for it, so I walked back to the bank to withdraw some money from the ATM. But then the ATM ate my card and wouldn’t spit it out no matter how many buttons I pushed. I went back into the bank to retrieve it, but they said that was impossible—at least until after two business days.

You can read the rest at A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Braden’s Woohoo!,” by Laura Molnar, used under a Creative Commons license]

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]

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

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