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]

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]

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

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]

Sleep Sounds . . . for Those of You Whose Sandman Lives in the Big City

July 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

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On the evening of the Fourth, as my wife and I were getting ready for bed, the fireworks in our neighborhood started kicking in. Boom! Boom! Ka-boom!

“Here we go,” said my wife as she pulled back the covers.

Then I crawled into bed . . . and fell asleep. Maybe it was because our neighbors ran out of bottle rockets. Or maybe it was because fireworks don’t bother me as much after living in an Asian city—where the lunar new year is like one big month-long Fourth of July. In fact, we got used to sleeping with a fan on while we were in Taipei, to mask the loudest of the city’s sounds. We still use a fan now that we’re back in Missouri, but it’s not because of the noises outside. Instead, it’s the lack of noise that we’re masking. Sometimes quiet can be so loud.

So last week, when I saw this T-Mobile commercial, I could relate.

I couldn’t find this couple’s ambiance video, but that didn’t stop me. If you’re soothed by urban clamor, here are two loooong tracks that should get you well on your way to slumberland (population 5 million).

And if your city soundscape needs some pyrotechnics to complete the full auditory scene, try mixing in one—or both—of these below. Ahhh. I can almost smell the stinky tofu.

(Still not catching any Zs? Maybe long international flights are your recipe for a good snooze. If so, go to “A Biscoff Cookie, an Inflight Magazine, and Some White Noise . . . Welcome Aboard.” It takes all kinds.)

[photo: “Busy Taipei,” by Jen-Hao Kuo, used under a Creative Commons license]

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