Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Other People, not me..."

The narratives that we tell ourselves never cease to amaze me.  There appears to be a disconnect between the experiences of the self and the experiences of others.  During this past year I have been consistently confronted with two canned stories in particular that, despite their constant repetition, still get told as if this time it will somehow be unique.

I have read a few articles online about the current state of economic affairs in the USA. As well as hearing some first hand accounts from people back home or from people who have chosen to run away from it (i.e. show up here in Asia looking for work). Among the many bewildering claims that people have made there is one meme in particular that strikes me as disappointing...

It’s the average people stories; specifically  the articles that interview the previously hardworking average citizen that is now forced onto welfare/food stamps. The interviewees tell the tragic tale of how this came to be and then, without fail, they make a point of letting everyone know that they are not like "those other people" on public assistance who are lazy and just want to milk the system.  No, the interviewee just fell on some bad luck and needs a little help right now, but in general, they are still against public assistance and think people should go out and get a job.

Well, if people should go out and get a job, then what is their problem? Why don’t they go out and get a job? Oh wait, that’s right, they just fell on some hard times and need a little help, but that obviously can’t be true of anyone else during these glorious of plenty.

The second narrative concerns the stories that foreigners in Taiwan tell about each other (read: themselves).  Foreigners here often claim that most foreigners come to Asia for a set of standard reasons:

1. They have no marketable skills and can’t get a job back home.

2. They are weird and cannot fit in socially back home.

3. They have a bad case of "yellow fever." (A strong attraction to Asian women due to orientalization. Many claim it is partially caused by an inability to attract women back home, thus leaving the men no choice but to rely on their own exoticism as foreigners in order to find a mate.)

Most often these memes are repeated in a disparaging manner and are directed towards other foreigners.  Rarely (though it has happened) a foreigner will openly admit that they fit into one of these categories themselves.  In those few cases it is interesting to note that sometimes the list will still be derogatorily directed towards other people.

Leaving aside the issue of yellow fever for a moment, I wonder why it is deemed such a terrible trait to not fit in where one is born? If someone can find happiness living in a foreign land why is that a mark against that individual? - Especially among a group of people who have done just that!

Now, I know.  I have done the obligatory reading on social theory and identity.  I can see what is going on and on one level I do understand it.  What I don’t understand yet, is why we can’t move beyond this selfish narrative. 

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Technology? 好不好?

It was months ago now, but I will never forget registration at the college where I studied Chinese.  I walked into the main entryway to find a mass of lost foreign students trying to figure out which line (there were sort of some lines forming) they needed to be in to get the information they needed in the native language (or at least some language they could read).

After getting my English language instructions, I went into the auditorium behind this entryway and got into another line to pick up forms I had to fill out, and then another line, and another.  All of the paperwork was done on actual paper and tuition had to be paid in cash only.

I was floored.  In the very country where so many high tech computers and components are made there was no online registration or pay by credit card options. It reminded me of a story my mother once told me about what it was like to register for college classes back in her day.

Fast-forward 9 months to yesterday.  I received an email from my home university back in the US that said, "

Each time a credit card pays *** charges, the credit card companies pass on a usage cost to the university.  This past year *** offered VISA credit cards as another online payment option and changed from charging a percentage on each credit card payment to a fixed $6.00 convenience fee on each transaction…

The email goes on the explain how the university ended up absorbing a large amount of fees due to these changes and so will no longer be accepting VISA.  They will still except other credit cards, but the student will be charged a 2.5% convenience fee.

Wait, what? First, I want my institution to be spending its money on educational things, not on credit cards.  Second, as a broke college student, I want to be spending my money on educational things, not credit cards. At 2.5% added to robber baron tuition hikes every year (tuition gets to rise with inflation these days unlike paychecks) a student could easily be looking at around $200 in fees a year spent on basically nothing. 

As strange as I found Taiwan’s cash based economy when I first arrived here, I have come to appreciate it. Just because we have the technological ability to do something does mean that it is in our best interest to do/use it. I wonder now how much cheaper things would be back home if stores weren’t paying so much out to credit card companies.

I think this fall, when I return to my college in the US, I will go to campus, stand in line, and pay in cash. 

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Sometimes It Is Good to Trip and Fall

I went out to dinner with a friend the other day and he said the strangest thing.  We were in the middle of a conversation when I got distracted by something.  After the distraction passed, my friend said, "Ok, to get back to the anthropology, so in Team Fortress 2..."

Now, I am in Taiwan to study video games, so perhaps it should not seem odd to me that my friend would refer to our discussion of video games as anthropology, but it did.  It struck me because I had not been thinking of terms of research all night. 

My friend had called me up and asked if I wanted to get dinner.  I had been studying all day for prelims and so I welcomed the break.  I put my studying aside and immediately turned my attention away from anthropology and onto food…so much so in fact that it didn’t even immediately register when our conversation turned to Team Fortress 2.  Why would it? We talk about video games all the time.  It was normal.

I knew before I came to Taiwan that fieldwork was not confined to formal interviews or that it ever took place in contrived settings.  I learned from my previous research that the best information is that which I trip over when I am not looking for it.  Even so, here I am, still being surprised when I trip again. 

So much for that break.