Sunday, June 4, 2017

Reflections from Jakarta

I'm back in Jakarta, Indonesia--my fourth visit. I am glad to report that the city shows signs of improvement. It is possible to walk (mostly) unimpeded along major roads, the traffic flows better, and the bus system is improved. If anyone has ever visited Jakarta in the past, you can appreciate how important this is, and how bad the traffic has been in the past.

For this visit I have come during the month of Ramadan, while Muslims observe daylight fasting. It is my first time to be in a Muslim country during Ramadan, and it is interesting to see how it is observed. Life goes on much as before with people working and carrying out their daily routine. Yet street-side vendors who offer food and drink during the day do not have much business. (The non-Muslim population here, comprised primarily of Chinese Indonesians, does not observe Ramadan.) At 6 pm the daylight fast is over, and people go out to eat and drink. The last meal can be taken around 3 am, when people may awaken to take some nourishment, before fasting begins again at 4 am. Here in the hotel where I am staying I have been awoken a couple of nights after 3 am, as people are returning after taking their last meal. This is all new to me, and helps me understand--in a small way--what is Ramadan and how it is observed.

My overall impression is that Jakarta and its people are doing well. The economy is growing. The city is better managed. Society is fairly open and free. This, however, must be understood against the backdrop of the recent election when the Chinese Indonesian man who was in charge of Jakarta and who many claim is responsible for these improvements, A-Hok, lost the recent election and is now in jail on a charge of blasphemy, for comments he made about Muslim extremists. So problems continue and persist.

Yet as I look at my own country of origin, USA, I cannot help but feel great sadness. A great country, the leader of the world, has abdicated its responsibility to lead the world in a positive direction by choosing a man who has no moral virtue, no experience or knowledge of government, no understanding of how the wof orld should work cooperatively to meet and address its problems. The results--almost daily "Twitter rage", withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, disputes with allies in Europe, admiration for un-elected governments and dictators--are most disheartening. Sure, the world is complicated. There are real problems with many very bad people, groups, factions, governments contributing to them. Yet solutions are not to be gained by hurling insults at people, by appealing to base instincts hatred and enmity. We need people and leaders who appeal to what is best in all of us. We need to heed the message of peace, compassion, and harmony, that is at the root of all the world's great religions, and is what the overwhelming majority of the earth's inhabitants want.

I am glad for Indonesia, as it has had a very difficult recent past, and seems to be doing better. But I am sad for the United States, where the damage caused by number 45 is great and increasing. Let us hope and pray for a better future.

Todd from Jakarta, June 5, 2017


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Some reflections on Mosul, Nineveh, and the Prophet Jonah

This past Sunday, Neil, the pastor at Oasis church, gave the first of what will be a series of messages on the book of Jonah. I enjoyed it, as the story of the travails of the most reluctant prophet, Jonah, is one of my favorite books of the Bible. But one thing that I have learned recently, both from watching news of the fighting in Iraq, and from one of the slides Neil showed us, is that ancient Nineveh, the city Jonah was told by God to preach to, today is Mosul. For the past several months a battle has been waged in Mosul, as Iraqi and allied forces are fighting to retake the city from the Islamic State (IS), a truly horrible and repressive regime. The battle is going “well,” although as in every war, unfortunately too many innocent lives are lost and there is much heartache and destruction. We must all pray for the people of Mosul, that they will soon be freed from this awful regime and the scourge of war.

While we can feel sad in the abstract about what is happening in far-away Iraq, Neil said one important thing that brings the lesson of this book near: God may call me to go and preach to the most evil people, even the evil Islamic State! Consider what is written in verse 2: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” In the past when I read this book, it was hard for me to identify with Jonah and his disobedience. I would think, “If God spoke so clearly to me, surely I would obey him. How could I do otherwise?” But when we realize that today’s Nineveh is the city of Mosul, a place that for the past couple of years has been ruled by what I see as a place of “wickedness,” would I obey God, go there and preach to them? It seems crazy. If I went there now, and walked through the city telling the people to repent, it would mean certain death. My guess is that Jonah must have felt the same way. He probably thought that going to such a city to preach against it would mean his death. So he did what was logical, and ran the other way. I now can better understand why Jonah ran away.


I am thankful that I am not called to go to Mosul, or some other city where there is “wickedness,” and preach against it. But I believe that God does call me to preach to the people of Macao, to share God’s good news with them, and for me to be salt and light. This is what it means to be a follower of Christ. This is not something that is conditional, as some people on the Christian right may say, and who are enamored with the allure of wealth and power, on whether the other person is good or bad, or will repent and accept God’s message. God did not tell Jonah what would happen after he preached to the people of Nineveh. All God said was go and preach against it. In the same way, to be a follower of Christ means to be a disciple and witness for Christ. As I think of this now, in light of the book of Jonah, and the current condition of the city of Mosul, I find this to be a “hard teaching.” May God give me, and us all, the grace and power to obey his teachings.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Donald Trump sees himself as god/king!!

Trevor Noah of the Daily Show did an excellent job analyzing the performance of Stephen Miller on the Sunday shows in the US. Toward the end, at 5:20 of the clip, Noah explained:

"His [Miller's] Sunday show appearance wasn't designed to persuade anyone or argue about facts, it was about pledging allegiance to an audience of One! And it worked. Because immediately after his appearance, Don Trump tweeted:

Congratulations Stephen Miller - on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!"

It is not a stretch to see how Trump sees himself--as king of the US. Truth, service to the American people, morality--none of these matter to Donald Trump. The only thing that matters is fealty to him, his image, and his desires. This is what a king wants. Or more accurately, I should say that this is what the despotic king wants. The good king (and there are still good kings in this world--the King of Bhutan for one) would never act like this. But the despotic king desires such praise, adulation, and blind obedience.

To understand how Trump sees himself as god, I need to explain how gods are understand in Chinese folk religion. In Macau, Hong Kong, and across Taiwan, many temples hold annual performances on important days, such as the birthday of a deity. I recently saw one such performance in Taipa Village, Macau, in front of the "North God" 北地公 temple. It was a Chinese opera (Cantonese), performed by actors dressed in vibrant, beautiful costumes, depicting stories that have been passed down for generations. I have seen many other such performances in Taiwan. If done well, they will be watched and enjoyed by many people in the community.

But as explained in documentary on Chinese folk religion, The Long Search: Taoism, A Question of Balance, produced by the BBC decades ago, the primary audience of such performances is not the people who watch them. Rather, these are performed for the god. If performed well, the deity of the temple may be pleased, and then it is believed this god will bless the community and devotees of the temple.

With this in mind, you can now see how Donald Trump sees himself. When "his people" perform, they are doing it in order to please him--the deity Donald Trump. If Trump is pleased by the performance, he then will bless his followers, those who please him, or perhaps it is not a stretch to say those who worship him.

This is a true perversion of the norms of American democracy. I do hope and pray that the American people wake up and see the deception and lies of this evil man. Stop treating him as god/king!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Don't be a Sucker!! An attack on any immigrant or minority group must be resisted!!!

This 1947 war department film, Don't Be a Sucker! terrifyingly resonates with the situation in America (and Europe) today. All must watch this 16 minute film!!!

From Wikipedia: "Don't Be a Sucker! is a short film produced by the US War Department in 1943 and re-released in 1947. It has anti-racist and anti-fascist themes. The film was made to make the case for the desegregation of the United States armed forces. An American who has been listening to a racist and bigoted rabble-rouser is warned off by a naturalized Hungarian immigrant, who explains to him how racist and bigoted demagogy allowed the Nazis to rise to power in Germany, and warns Americans not to fall for similar demagogy propagated by American racists and bigots."

This film argues that the Nazis effectively split German society into competing groups, based upon religion, national origin, and race. This was left unchallenged; then it spread and gained in power and influence, until the world finally had to take notice. The estimated deaths of WWII range from 50 to 80 million, including 6 million Jews in Europe--specifically targeted by Hitler for annihilation.

The narrator rightfully explains that an attack on any minority group, because of race, religion, or affiliation, must be resisted. The same must be stated clearly again today:  an attack on people because of religion, national origin, sexual orientation, race, gender, etc., must be resisted. The demagoguery of Trump, Bannon, Sessions, and too many of their supporters must be opposed. The freedoms of Americans are at stake. And the idea and ideals of freedom, the protection of minorities, and human rights--protecting people from persecution and discrimination due to ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, national origin--are at stake world wide. 

Finally, this film accurately shows how the promises of Trump will ultimately lead to failure. See what happened to those who enthusiastically supported Hitler and the promises of the Nazis.The film shows what was their final end. This must be explained clearly, loudly, and repeatedly. We cannot let the sickness of the Trump Presidency run its full course. The consequences are too horrifying to even imagine.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reflections on Being a Stranger in a Foreign Land

Reflections on Being a Stranger in a Foreign Land

By Todd L. Sandel, Ph.D.

In 1944 the scholar, Alfred Schütz, known for his writings in sociology and phenomenology, published an essay, “The stranger: An essay in social psychology.” He claimed that while most people operate according to the “cultural pattern” of a standardized scheme, with common sense “recipes” for how to act and how to interpret others’ actions, the stranger experiences the world differently. Such a person has moved from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and thus experiences a “crisis”: the stranger “has to place in question nearly everything that seems to be unquestionable to the members of the approached group” (p. 502). What is seen by “in-group” members as an objective, standardized way of navigating the world, to the stranger is experienced as a “subjective chance” that depends more on “personal circumstances and faculties” than an objective, impersonal system open to all.

It is not difficult to see how Schütz’s essay was motivated and informed by his personal experience. A Jew and native of Austria, facing the threat of Hitler’s rise in Germany, in 1939 Schütz moved to the United States and joined the faculty of The New School. When he wrote “The stranger” he had lived in the U. S. three years, and was experiencing life as a stranger. (The manuscript was completed the end of 1942, see Grathoff, 1989.) In an America where anti-Semitism was widespread, and impacted both public policy and private actions, he too was affected. He followed news of the war in Europe, seeing that the outcome was uncertain and unknowable, and that the chance of him returning to Austria, the country where he had lived most of his life, was lessening. He was the stranger in America—an exile and refugee—seeing the cultural patterning of life there from the perspective of the questioning outsider. And he must have felt the “doubtful loyalty of the stranger” both due to the prejudice of the inside group, and his own unwillingness to blindly and unquestioningly adopt the cultural pattern of the host.

Schütz’s concept of the stranger provides a lens for understanding my own experience in Macao (Special Administrative Region of China), both personally and professionally. His work points to an understanding of the stranger as both a person: who crosses from one context to another, and a perspective: someone who does not understand the unwritten and unquestioned rules and patterns of the in-group, and must learn and adapt. This piece is my attempt to describe the opportunities, challenges, and rewards associated with serving as a Communication scholar and professor overseas, outside the United States. In Schütz’s essay I find resonances—both personally and professionally—in what he wrote many decades ago.

As a stranger I perceive that the cultural patterning of life that other in-group members may unquestioningly accept is something that I find novel at best, problematic at worst. I could give many examples to illustrate, most quotidian. For instance, when greeting people in the morning, most people (who are Chinese or “Asian” looking), see my face and don’t say anything. They are not sure if I could understand what they say, just as I am not sure if I should acknowledge their presence, by saying “good morning” in English, Mandarin, or Cantonese. Many times we just ignore each other.

Less quotidian examples involve encounters with Macao’s complex bureaucracy. One challenge that I faced soon after arriving was to receive permission for my spouse to join me. Macao requires proof of a spousal relationship not only via a wedding certificate, but also official documentation that a spousal relationship still exists. (Macao’s land area is very small, and while it is open to millions of tourist visitors, it strictly limits the number who can live and work within its borders.) Since my spouse and I were married in Taiwan and not the U.S., we had to make a trip to Taiwan, visit a government office with a record of our marriage more than 20 years ago, and ask the clerk to produce a document stating that we were still married, and that our names, listed in Chinese on the wedding certificate, were the same as the English names on our U.S. passports. With the document in hand we returned to Macao, uncertain if this would work. Our anxious experience—albeit far more benign—echoed the “passology of exile” that Schütz and others faced when trying to secure visas to remain in the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s.

Another example comes from my role as chair of the University of Macau’s Ethics Panel (this university’s IRB). As a place administered by the Portuguese for over 400 years, and only since 1999 administered by China, Macao has developed laws and bureaucratic procedures based upon both systems. When I was working with colleagues to write a template for an Informed Consent Document, it was pointed out by a colleague from the Faculty of Law that the language I used to describe a minor as “a person under the age of 18” was incorrect. Following Portuguese law, Macao considers persons age 14 to 17 to be “consenting minors.” Therefore, such persons are legally able to grant consent. However, other nearby administrative regions where many scholars conduct research (e.g., China, Taiwan, Hong Kong), do not have this category of consenting minor. How could we write a document that simply states what is the age of consent? I have yet to find a simple solution.

Just as Schütz said the stranger’s loyalties may be seen as suspect, so too do I sometimes experience this in my position. While there are other “foreign” scholars who play important administrative roles at this university, such as department head or associate dean, there is an unstated preference for appointing Chinese scholars to leadership positions. Despite my efforts to adapt and learn local cultural ways, I can never be accepted as a full-fledged member of the in-group. I am a foreigner here—albeit a privileged and well paid one. It is necessary at times to exercise self-censorship, and not discuss or explore certain “political” topics, cognizant of the fact that during the height of the “Occupy Central” protests in Hong Kong, one colleague who encouraged students to observe closely, lost his position. Thus, when asked to comment or vote on a proposal that has come down from “upper management,” I do not protest too loudly. I have adopted the attitude, as expressed to me by a colleague who is also a stranger to Macau: “This is not my country.”

Yet despite these and other challenges, I do not regret my decision to leave the U.S. As a young university (established in 1981), located in a dynamic and growing economy, this institution is expanding, innovating, and attracting scholars from across the globe. For example, in the Department of Communication, with 22 full-time academic instructors, my colleagues hold passports and/or identities from many nations and regions: China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Portugal, New Zealand, Australia, UK, and US. Their terminal degrees were obtained from universities across the globe: US, UK, China, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Macao. My department is not unique, as the University of Macau receives the highest score for the internationalization of its faculty from global ranking services. I am not the only stranger here.

The diversity in the department and across the university means that a hybrid system has emerged. On one hand, we follow elements of the British system of higher education, as the university is led by a Rector and academic units are divided into faculties (colleges in the U.S.). On the other, most of the leadership of this university received their degrees and established careers in the U.S. This hybrid structure can be seen in how some programs (spelled “programmes”) are structured. For example, Ph.D. students must take and complete courses their first year of study, following an American pattern. But following the British system, Ph.D. students are admitted not to a department or program, but admitted by and assigned to a supervisor. From day one a Ph.D. student works with an individual professor, and it is difficult for a student to change this relationship. Furthermore, professors who work with doctoral students bring to bear different styles of supervision, as some employ a more “hands on” approach with students, while others let students work on their own, and see them infrequently. Therefore, the cultural patterning of the University of Macau system may be called “American” by those familiar with a British system, and “British” by those more familiar with an American one.

When considering the practices of universities across this region, we can see that other institutions have recruited faculty members internationally. Based upon my own incomplete survey of nearby institutions, I have found many have recruited scholars from the U.S. and other countries outside Greater China. (Greater China refers to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao.) Hong Kong Baptist University’s Departments of Communication and Journalism have four such scholars; the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism has three; and the two best known programs in Singapore, National University Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, have 10 and 21 such scholars respectively. It should be pointed out, however, that while there are U.S. and other “non-native” scholars working at institutions across East Asia (e.g., China, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, and Korea) they are proportionally fewer in number. This is most likely due to issues of language and remuneration. That is, at these other institutions the language of instruction in communication programs is generally not in English, and the compensation is not as high. Thus, foreign scholars are more likely to be found at institutions where English is the language of instruction, and the salary is better.


While working in a department where colleagues come from across the globe is a draw, a more important concern, however, is the resources available for scholarly work. Unfortunately, across the U.S. many state governments are underfunding higher education, and adversely impacting the quality and quantity of resources available for scholars. The situation at my institution, and at many other institutions across Asia, however, is different. I may apply for internal grants to cover the expense of attending conferences, and travel for research. The latter is important to me as I am a scholar who believes that communication is situated in a context, necessitating field trips to gather and interpret data. I am also at an institution with a well-funded library that purchases subscriptions to the databases that I need. (It should be noted that unlike China, internet access in Macao is not censored.) The library has an extensive and expanding collection of books and work in communication, and purchases almost every new title that I recommend. Hence, I have found that when looking for recent books in communication and related subjects, the University of Macau library has more volumes than my former institution, the University of Oklahoma. And it must be noted that the internet has made a tremendous difference in terms of access to journals and other scholarly information.

Another area of concern for the scholar abroad is the quality of teaching and interaction with students. As can be expected, my experience here at the University of Macau is qualitatively different. English is the language of instruction for all the courses I teach. However, as most students were educated either in Macao or China, for many English is their second (or third) language. Thus, I may modify my teaching style and speak more slowly; sometimes when lecturing—usually to a year one class—I may break the unwritten rule of “English only” in the classroom and explain concepts by speaking alternately in English and Chinese. I also tend to assign less reading, and spend more time helping students edit and improve their writing. These are all challenges.

Yet there are benefits to teaching in this environment. One is to assign students to read my work, which comes primarily from Chinese contexts, and hear and read their responses. Students will often point me in new directions, showing what and where to conduct future research. I also find it interesting that when I assign readings from “standard” American textbooks—used selectively—I must explain and discuss cultural biases evident in such work. The cultural frame of reference is shifted when teaching in Macao, and I find it interesting to present and critically examine work that is published by U.S. scholars who do not realize their own cultural biases.  Thus, I find the teaching experience creates what Bakhtin might call a “surplus of vision,” meaning that I can see and understand more when using scholarship produced in the U.S., than I would if I were presenting these same materials to students in the U.S. 

A related personal benefit for teaching in this context is the opportunity to work with graduate students, at both the MA and Ph.D. level, who develop interesting and innovative research topics. Over the past five years I have supervised and completed 11 MA theses, and am currently supervising four Ph.D. students. Each has developed an interesting research project. For example, one MA thesis was a study of the romantic relationships between Westerners and Chinese living in Macao, another studied the impact of social media on the experiences of Mainland students in Macao, a third studied the acculturation and identity of Macao’s “new immigrants,” a fourth studied how young people mixed Cantonese and Standard Chinese in messages posted on WeChat, a fifth was an in-depth ethnographic study of Chinese immigrants to Sevilla, Spain, and a sixth studied the concept of the “Leftover Women” of China. Each student offers the possibility to study a topic few outside this context know even exists.

In sum, just as is true of any position, there are advantages and disadvantages to working here. But as I write this recent events in the U.S. have brought me even closer to understanding Alfred Schütz’s perspective when he wrote his essay in 1942. Just as from afar—a place of relative safety—he watched his land of birth torn asunder by the horrors of war, I sadly watch from afar—a place of relative safety—my land of birth disrupted by the rancor and policies of the Trump Presidency. The twentieth century was the “American century” when many prominent and budding scholars, from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, left their homes to take up positions and establish careers in institutions across the U.S. Now, at what may be the end of the American century, will we see a reversal? Will there be a wave of scholars who leave the U.S. for opportunities elsewhere? No one can know for certain; each decision to remain or leave is fundamentally personal. Yet I imagine that more American scholars will reassess their situation, and embark on a career as a stranger abroad, following a path Schütz described many years ago.

References

Grathoff, R. (Ed.). (1989). Philosophers in exile: The correspondence of Alfred Schutz and Aron Gurwitsch. (J. C. Evans, Trans.) Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Schuetz, A. (1944). The stranger: An essay in social psychology. American Journal of Sociology, 49(6), 499-507. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/2771547



Todd Lyle Sandel is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Macau. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, associate editor of The International Encyclopedia of Language and Social Interaction, and author of Brides on Sale: Taiwanese Cross Border Marriages in a Globalizing Asia, for which he received the 2016 Outstanding Book Award from the International & Intercultural Division of the National Communication Association. His research has appeared in Language in Society, Research on Language & Social Interaction, Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, Journal of Contemporary China, China Media Research, and elsewhere.




Saturday, January 28, 2017

America's Wall Builder

The freely elected leader (do I call him President?) of the United States of America has "fulfilled" a campaign promise and begun to build his wall. This first wall is not a physical structure, but a political one, in the form of a directive that keeps certain people from entering the US. Fortunately, within 24 hours protests broke out, supported by lawyers and the ACLU, and a judge temporarily and partially blocked the directive. As I write this it is impossible to know what will happen next. But I fear that it will not be good.

A couple months ago, and after the election of November 2016, I wrote an introductory piece as incoming Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International & Intercultural Communication. This is the 10th year of the journal, and in this short piece I looked both forward and backward in time, reflecting on what is the aim of this journal, and what I see it to be in coming years. I framed the piece by reflecting on two November 9 (11-9) events, the first in 1989 when one wall--the Berlin Wall--came down; the second was in 2016 when another wall--DJT declared President-elect--went up. It seems that the backlash to decades of neoliberal economics, and the forces of globalism are now coming to fruition. How we respond in this year--the Year of the Rooster 雞年--is looking to be very important.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Happy New Year!


As 2016 became 2017, we as a family got to celebrate it together. For us this takes some effort as we live and work in multiple places: Donna, Pearl and me in Macau, Sarah in Houston/Rochester, and Robbie in Norman, Oklahoma. But as this picture attests, we got to have a "happy time" together here in this part of the world. And as we approach another "new year" that of the Rooster, I hope and pray that the future takes us to a better time and place.

More thoughts coming soon!