Umbrellas, 2, 3, 4

August 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

“The Public Shaming of England’s First Umbrella User”

In the early 1750s, an Englishman by the name of Jonas Hanway, lately returned from a trip to France, began carrying an umbrella around the rainy streets of London.

. . . . . .

Hanway was the first man to parade an umbrella unashamed in 18th-century England, a time and place in which umbrellas were strictly taboo. In the minds of many Brits, umbrella usage was symptomatic of a weakness of character, particularly among men. Few people ever dared to be seen with such a detestable, effeminate contraption. To carry an umbrella when it rained was to incur public ridicule.

The British also regarded umbrellas as too French—inspired by the parasol, a Far Eastern contraption that for centuries kept nobles protected from the sun, the umbrella had begun to flourish in France in the early 18th century. . . . Later British umbrella users reported being called “mincing Frenchm[e]n” for carrying them in public.

Michael Walters, Atlas Obscura, July 27, 2016

China: Making Its Case with Pop-aganda

July 13, 2016 § Leave a comment


The verdict is in. Yesterday, an international tribunal in the Hague sided with the Philippines, ruling that China cannot lay claim to most of the South China Sea. As expected, Chinese President Xi Jinping is dismissing the decision out of hand, stating that China has no intentions of complying.

How can the most populous nation on earth ignore the Permanent Court of Arbitration? That’s easy. It’s because China is taking its case to another court . . . the court of public opinion. And what better way to sway the jury than through viral videos (or at least videos that they’d like to go viral)?

Exhibit A: In June, China released the video below to win hearts and minds around the globe. It’s title is the rhetorical question “Who Is Stirring Up Trouble in the South China Sea?” My favorite lines are

Do you want to buy the most fashionable clothes or electronic devices with the state-of-the-art technology? You’d better pray for the peace and safety of the ocean.

And then there are these words from the mouth of Uncle Sam:

@#¥······! @#%!

From the next two videos, we can see that the apparent target demographic is young, hip, cool, and English speaking . . . kind of like you and me. And the spokespeople are international students in Beijing and a cartoon band that looks like a modern version of the gang from Scooby Doo singing on top of the Mystery Machine.

I can laugh, but then again, they got me to watch a video about China’s five-year economic plan!

[photo: “Courtroom One Gavel,” by Joe Gratz, public domain]

All the World’s a Drum

April 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

One thing often leads to another. . . .

While I was working on the topic of Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, I found the Global Musician Workshop, which led me to Maeve Gilchrist, which led me to Nic Gareiss. Scotland-born Gilchrist is an improvisational folk-jazz-fusion harpist. Gareiss is a Michigan-born percussive dancer.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as a percussive dancer. Not only do I like the clapping and the stepping, but I’m impressed with a harpist who can play so beautifully and push her hair off her face without missing a note.

So what other kinds of percussive dancers are there?

Well, there’s Step Africa!

There’s Riverdance, here gearing up for their 20th anniversary tour.

There’s Flamenco dancing—with Maria Pages.

And finally, I found the Egyptian group The Percussion Show.

To percussive feet, all the world’s a drum.

Football, 2, 3, 4

February 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

“How the World Sees American Football: Foreign Students Throw the Pigskin”

The glee of Maximilian Bushe of Berlin could have been used for a billboard to advertise the clinic. He had run a pass pattern as if he were a wide receiver in the American game. He snatched the ball thrown to him and scored a make-believe touchdown. He was overjoyed, almost breathless as he stood with the ball he held out in front of him with two hands. The Georgia Tech football players—the real ones helping conduct the clinic—made a boisterous scene of cheering around him for his catch.

Then Bushe did what any good American football player would do. He did an end zone celebration, a little dance.

“I am just surprised I caught the football,” he said, smiling wide. “A little bit is OK, right?” he asked about celebrating. No, not really. In the NCAA, what he did would earn a yellow flag and 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration.

. . . . . .

“Back home, they think it’s boring, and that’s totally wrong,” Bushe said. “We don’t know anything about it in Germany. We just see it in the movies—somebody has the ball, and 20 people jump on him and pile up in a big, big tower. Once you get the whole game, it gets really interesting. You watch the game and cheer for your team, and it’s awesome.”

Ray Glier, Aljazeera America, April 25, 2015

Airport Chocolate: The Triangle and the Sphere

December 31, 2015 § Leave a comment


For me, they’re the airport candy: Toblerone and Ferrero Rocher. If you forgot to pick up a souvenir on your travels, you could always impress the kids with exotic chocolates from the airport. Even now that you can get them at Wal-Mart and Walgreens, to me they’re still the airport candy.

According to the Toblerone website, in 1900, a confectioner in Bern, Switzerland, Jean Tobler, handed his chocolate factory over to his son Theodor. Eight years later, Theodor, along with his cousin, created Toblerone, a chocolate bar made with honey and almond nougat and formed into a distinctive triangular shape. The name comes from Theodor’s family name and torrone, Italian for the type of nougat used in the bar.

Toblerone is now owned by the US company Mondelēz International, formerly Kraft Foods.

You can impress your friends by showing them the bear hidden in the picture of the mountain on the candy’s package. The bear has long been a heraldic symbol on the Bern coat of arms.

Ferrero Rocher
When it comes to chocolate, Ferrero Rocher has its own distinctive shape. Wrapped in golden foil, each candy is a small sphere made of a hazelnut, chocolaty cream, a crisp shell, and milk chocolate, sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts—in order, from the center out.

Italian confectioner Pietro Ferrero began selling chocolates in 1942, and the Ferrero company was founded four years later. But it wasn’t until 1982 that Ferrero Rocher was born. The Ferrero Group, now headquartered in Germany, has grown to become the third-largest producer of chocolate confectionaries, behind Mars and Mondelēz, and before Nestlé.

In the forty years before Ferrero Rocher was born, the Ferrero company was anything but dormant. During that time it introduced Nutella and Tic Tacs, as well as the Kinder line of candies. Kinder, of course, includes the Kinder Surprise, or Kinder Egg, an egg-shaped chocolate candy with a hollow center that contains a small toy.

While Kinder is also a staple of many airport stores, don’t make the mistake of trying to bring them into the US. If you do, and you’re caught, the candy will be confiscated, and you could get tagged with a fine. That’s because they’re considered a choking hazard and are banned in the States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that in 2011 they seized more than 60,000 Kinder Eggs coming in with travelers and in international mail.

(“The Chocolate Industry,” International Cocoa Organization, January 23, 2015; “Don’t Be ‘Surprised’ by Kinder Eggs: Seizures Double,” April 5, 2012)

McDonald’s, You’re like Framily

May 23, 2015 § Leave a comment


Growing up on a farm, we didn’t eat out much, but I seem to remember enjoying a few Quarter Pounders with fries during my high-school days.

Then, during my time as a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, my go-to lunch was a salad with a side of fries at the basement McDonald’s on Lowery Mall, across from the library. When I took my daughter for a campus visit to MU a few weeks ago, our student tour guide (who did an excellent job, I might add) pointed out where the McDonald’s used to be. He said at one time it was the highest-grossing McDonald’s location in the US. In the 80s, when I was there, we heard it was the busiest McDonald’s in the world. I think both statements are part of a Columbia urban legend—though I’d love someone to prove me wrong with some documentation.

When my family lived in Taiwan, we found McDonald’s in every city. That was especially welcome when we first arrived and couldn’t speak Chinese. It’s a lot easier to ask for a “Number 5” than to learn the vocabulary for ordering à la carte.

655846832_58ee159407_zMcDonald’s was popular with the locals, too, especially high school kids. It was common to see them gather there to study or work on class projects. It was a new experience for us to see young people in that group-centered culture pour all their french fries into a pile and share them together.

McDonald’s certainly is a global juggernaut. According to the company website, their more than 33,000 restaurants in over 100 countries serve over 69 million people each day. But there’s more to McDonald’s than just huge numbers. In honor of the chain’s 75th anniversary this year, Reader’s Digest ran a list of “75 Mind-blowing Facts.” Here are my favorites:

#2. The first McDonald’s drive-thru—in Sierra Vista, Arizona—didn’t open until 1975.

#22-22. French fries, McDonald’s best-selling item, were added to the menu in 1949. Before that, it was potato chips.

#50. As the result of a 1973 lawsuit, McDonald’s paid Sid and Marty Kroftt $1 million because the brothers claimed that McDonaldland had stolen the “concept and feel” of their Saturday-morning TV show H.R. Pufnstuf. (Remember that one?)

#58. Giving away (selling?) 1.5 billion toys each year in its Happy Meals makes McDonalds’ the largest distributer of toys in the world. (OK, that’s one of those “huge numbers.”)

#60. One out of every eight workers in the U.S. has at some time had a job at McDonald’s.

#66. Have you heard of the “Big Mac Index”? It was developed by The Economist in 1986 to use the local cost of a Big Mac to compare economies around the world.

I used to tell my Asian college-age friends that I don’t actually like McDonald’s, that most people in the US don’t actually like McDonald’s. But here’s what happens: You’re in a van with a bunch of young people on a trip and you ask them where they want to stop and eat and they say “Anywhere but McDonald’s” and they name other possibilities but when you exit the highway you don’t see any of the places they suggested and you’re running out of time and you decide to eat at the next place you see and—guess what?—it’s a McDonald’s. There’s always a McDonald’s close by, so that’s where you stop. It’s just too convenient.

This guy notwithstanding, McDonald’s burgers don’t garner much praise. In fact, when readers of Consumer Reports rated the hamburgers of 21 fast-food chains, they put the ones from McDonald’s dead last. The magazine called them a “Mc-disappointment.” When our local McDonald’s in Taipei ran out of hamburgers one day (I kid you not), maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

But there are those “world-famous fries.” McDonald’s calls them “golden on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside.” I don’t disagree. And a whole lot of other people seem to be on board, as well.

Mark Eichenlaub, a graduate student in physics, decided to figure out just how many french fries McDonald’s has sold. He used the formula


and came up with the figure “4 trillion, give or take a few.” I have a hard time following his detailed explanation (he lost me when I saw that squiggly S-thing before the numbers), but I’m pretty sure his estimate doesn’t even count fries sold outside the US.

Of course, McDonald’s gets knocked for a lot of things besides what’s on their menu. For instance, right now they’re the target of protests over low wages. Sometimes their negatives are symptomatic of the ills of American culture, but they’re magnified with McDonald’s because of the franchise’s large scale. And abroad, their ubiquity and visibility often make them a symbol of Western encroachment.

McDonald’s does give us plenty of reasons not to be “Lovin’ it.”

But again . . . there are those fries.

My second oldest son graduated from university last week. He drove about seven hours round trip to pick up my mother so she could attend the ceremony. The next day I took her back home, with an extra hour added on each way. After I dropped her off, she was worried that I’d fall asleep on the way back, but I told her I’d pull over and rest if I got tired.

4011734182_dc8d2f9bde_zA couple hours from home, in Lebanon, MO, I decided to stop and get something to eat. I parked at a McDonald’s, to go inside and stretch my legs and to use the free wifi. That and I got an order of fries.

The lady at the counter greeted me with “Welcome back.” How many businesses can say that to every customer and rarely, if ever, be wrong?

Sounds like framily. And when I say “framily,” I’m thinking of the Sprint commercials with their odd collection of characters—Ronald McDonald, Grimace, Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese, Captain Crook and the rest of the citizens of McDonaldland. It’s an imperfect, dysfunctional framily at times, but it’s still framily.

In the Lebanon McDonald’s, the fries were good, as they nearly always are.

There’s something to be said about consistency. And there’s something to be said about always being close by.


(Daryl Chen and Brooke Wanser, “75 Mind-Blowing Facts about McDonald’s to Celebrate Its 75th Anniversary,” Reader’s Digest; “Best and Worst Fast-Food Restaurants in America,” Consumer Reports, July 2014; Mark Eichenlaub, “How Many Fries Has McDonald’s Served?Quora)

[photos: “McDonald’s,” by Mike Mozart, used under a Creative Commons license; “4 Combos Fries Mix,” by Shippou, used under a Creative Commons license; “plexi • burger.dude,” by Don Shall, used under a Creative Commons license]

Why Is IKEA One of the Most “Meaningful” Companies in the World? 10 Reasons

November 8, 2014 § 4 Comments


What is it that makes IKEA a global phenomenon? Is it the DIY furniture? Is it the maze-like stores with free childcare? Is it the lingonberry jam?

Whatever the cause, the behemoth that is IKEA is not only the biggest producer and manufacturer of furniture in the world but also the most “meaningful.”

According to Paris-based Havas Media, IKEA ranks #6 on its list of “Meaningful Brands,” the result of a global survey measuring how people think companies benefit their “personal and collective well-being.” (Three years ago, IKEA was #1.)

(“Meaningful Brands,” Havas Media; Jennifer Rooney, “Ikea, Google, Nestle Tops in ‘Meaningful’ Impact: Survey,” Forbes, November 8, 2011)

Here’s my list of 10 things that give IKEA meaning in today’s world.

1. It’s big, Big, BIG

As of October 15, IKEA has 364 stores in 46 countries (map). These include the two stores in Taipei, where I was first introduced to the chain, and the newest store in the US, which opened last month in Meriam, KS, about two hours from my home.

(“Bringing the IKEA Concept Worldwide,” Inter IKEA Systems B.V.)

2. It has an “effect” named after it

IKEA is known for it’s “flat box” furniture, bought in a box at the store and assembled at home by the customer. While this can cause frustrations, especially if a piece is missing, it has it’s upsides. Researchers from Harvard, Yale, and Duke found that when people put effort into creating something, they like it more, even valuing their creations over others of higher quality. They dub this the “IKEA effect.”

(Michael Norton, “The IKEA Effect: When Labor Leads to Love,” Harvard Business Review, 2009)

3. Now it’s a kind of diplomacy, as well

It’s too early to say for sure, but I think the term IKEA diplomacy is going to catch on, too. Just a little over a week ago, Sweden recognized Palestinian statehood. This was followed by a swift condemnation from Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who said, “Sweden must understand that relations in the Middle East are much more complicated than self-assembly furniture at Ikea.”

“I will be happy to send Israeli FM Lieberman an Ikea flat pack to assemble,” responded the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom. “He’ll see it requires a partner, co-operation, and a good manual.”

(Inna Lazareva, “Ikea and Peace in the Middle East,” The Telegraph, November 1, 2014)

4. IKEA’s catalog is published in biblical proportions

Each year, IKEA prints millions of its catalogs each year. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2012 the company planned to distribute 208 million, which is estimated to be more than twice the amount of Bibles that are produced each year.

In 2012, the IKEA catalog made news when the company removed images of women from photos in the version distributed in Saudi Arabia. IKEA later apologized.

And September marked the announcement of the 2015 catalog in the highly innovative—dare I say groundbreakingform of the “bookbook.” Genius.

(Jens Hansard, “IKEA’s New Catalogs: Less Pine, More Pixels,” Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2012; “Is the IKEA Catalogue Being Distributed in More Prints than the Bible?” Skeptics Stack Exchange; Ben Quinn, “IKEA Apologises over Removal of Women from Saudi Arabia Catalogue,” The Guardian, October 1, 2012; )

5. Its product names are just so Kwïrki

If you’ve shopped at an IKEA or browsed a catalog, then you know that each product carries some kind of Swedish—or Swedish-ish—name. They often sound odd (a shelf named Ekby Bjärnmum), sometimes funny (a soil block is called Kokosnöt), and sometimes unfortunate (I’ll let you Google for these yourself).

Of course, this isn’t just a Swedish-to-English issue. The Wall Street Journal reports that before opening a store in Thailand, IKEA put together a team with the sole purpose of catching names that sound off-color to the Thai ear, such as Redalen (a bed) and Jättebra (a plant pot), both of which sound like Thai sexual terms.

And then there’s Lufsig, IKEA’s stuffed wolf toy. In December of last year, an anti-government protestor in Hong Kong threw one at Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Cy Leung during a town-hall meeting. The man tossed the toy because Leung is called “wolf” by his critics. The action took on more meaning since the Cantonese name for the stuffed toy sounds like a crude sexual term in that language. Lfusigs became a must-have item and soon sold out.

(James Hookway, “IKEA’s Products Make Shoppers Blush in Thailand,” The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2012; Per Lilies, “Stuffed IKEA Toy Becomes Offensive Anti-Government Symbol in Hong Kong,” Time, December 10, 2013)

6. Name another furniture store that’s known for it’s food

According to The Wall Street Journal, IKEA’s food division is on par in sales with Panera’s and Arby’s. And the cornerstone of its in-store restaurants and grocery products is the humble Swedish meatball, of which they sell around 150 million each year.

The meatballs are nothing fancy, just really, really good. Here’s how they’re described on the company website, in typical Scandinavian understatement:

Meatballs, frozen
Key features
– Meatballs are minced meat formed into round balls and then fried. Serve with boiled potatoes, lingonberry jam and cream sauce.

Even after its meatballs were recalled across Europe early last year, the store’s culinary reputation survived. Why the recall? Trace amounts of horse meat were discovered in a batch made by a Swedish supplier. If that news still gives you pause, have patience. Next year IKEA plans to roll out meatless vegetarian meatballs.

In the UK, IKEA even brews its own line of dark lager and regular brew beers.

Remember, this is a furniture chain we’re talking about.

(Jens Hansegard, “IKEA’s Path to Selling 150 Million Meatballs,” The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2013; Andrew Higgins and Stephen Castle, “Ikea Recalls Meatballs after Detection of Horse Meat,” The New York Times, February 25, 2013; April Gosden, “Ikea Plans ‘Green’ Meatballs to Help Tackle Climate Change,” The Telegraph, April 17, 2014; Laura Stampler, “IKEA Now Brews and Sells Its Own Beer,” Business Insider, July 18, 2012)

7. It doesn’t want only to sustain its business, it wants to sustain the planet, too

Vegetarian meatballs aren’t the only thing “green” about IKEA.

The company started selling roof-top solar panels in the UK last year and in September it announced plans to expand that offering to 8 more countries in the following 18 months. It’s starting with the Netherlands and Switzerland and will move on from there.

As reported by Reuters, IKEA has installed 700,000 solar panels on its own rooftops at stores around the world and has plans to up its global use of wind turbines to 224. Other green initiatives include plans to replace, by 2020, all the plastic in its products with recycled plastic or renewable materials, such as wood.

And if you’re driving your electric car in the United Kingdom, you’ll appreciate IKEA’s announcement that all UK stores now have free electric vehicle rapid recharging points installed in their parking lots.

(“IKEA to Widen Solar Panel Sales to Eight New Nations from UK,” Reuters, September 22, 2014; “Electric Vehicle Charging,” IKEA)

8. In the time it takes to put together a couple bookcases, you could build a shelter for a refugee

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the IKEA Foundation has invested $4.8 million to develop portable shelters, to be used by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Last year, 50 prototypes were shipped, in flat-pack boxes, to Syrian refugee camps. Olivier Delarue, UNHCR head of innovation, says that his agency was looking for an improvement on the tents typically used to house the displaced around the world and turned to IKEA for its “expertise in certain areas—such as logistics and flatpacking—that we could learn from.”

According to The Boston Globe, each 188-square-foot unit takes about four hours to assemble. The cost of a prototypes is $10,000 but is expected to fall below $1,000.

(Caroline Winter, “Ikea Sends its New Flatpack Refugee Shelter to Syria,” Bloomberg Businessweek, September 11, 2013; “Ikea: Refuge in a Flat Box,” The Boston Globe, July 5, 2013)

9. An IKEA store is like a 20-bedroom home away from home

It seems that many IKEAs not only have lines of people waiting to buy home furnishings, they also have lines of people wanting to make themselves at home.

Take, for instance, shoppers in China who lounge on the couches and climb under the covers for naps in the beds (photos at ChinaHush). Camilla Hammar, marketing director for IKEA in China, tells Advertising Age that stores there don’t just allow the try-it-out approach, they welcome it, embracing the idea that for the Chinese, shopping at IKEA can be an emotional experience. “It tends to initiate very romantic feelings,” she says. “The first time some couples start talking about getting married is in our showrooms. So that’s something we’ve tapped into.” And that’s why the store in Nanjing hosted three Swedish-style weddings for three couples as a PR event.

But it’s not just the Chinese who want to take advantage of the store’s sleeping—or wedding—accommodations. When Havas Media UK was looking for a way to promote the chain, they found a Facebook group called “I wanna have a sleepover at IKEA.” They latched on to the idea and organized “IKEA’s Big Sleepover” for 100 lucky customers.

And when couple in Maryland looked for a venue for their wedding in 2012, they chose the IKEA store where they had their first date. Another pair, this time in New Jersey, got married last year in  an IKEA framing department, the same place where they’d met eight years earlier.

Even Hollywood knows that domestic magic can happen in IKEA.

(Key, “IKEA in China, ‘Our Home Is Your Home,” ChinaHush, July 27, 2012; “Happy to Bed,” Havas Media; “A Wedding in Aisle 3? Why Ikea Encourages Chinese to Make Its Stores Their Own,” Ad Age, December 10, 2013; David Boroff, “Couple Gets Married in Maryland IKEA,” New York Daily News, April 20, 2012; Eliza Murphy, “Couple Says ‘I Do’ in IKEA’s Framing Department,” ABC News, June 11, 2013)

10. And it can put your love to the ultimate test

Of course, adding IKEA to a relationship doesn’t ensure bliss—even in Sweden. A story in The Local last year recounts how police were called to a home in Strömstad by neighbors who were concerned about loud noises during the early morning hours. The authorities found that the “banging and screaming” was caused by a couple putting together a piece of IKEA furniture, and by their crying child.

There’s nothing like assembling furniture to check your love for your significant other. Well, maybe shopping for furniture can have the same effect. A trip to IKEA could be the perfect premarital outing for couples wanting to see if their love has what it takes to go the distance. Take a look at the video below to get an off-kilter view of the store that just might be “the number one place where couples realize they actually can’t stand each other.”

(“Police Called to Swedish Family’s IKEA Nightmare,” The Local, November 8, 2013)

[photo: “IKEA of Sweden,” by Håkan Dahlström, used under a Creative Commons license]

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