Saturday, February 27, 2010

Here are some thoughts inspired by the This I Believe series:

I believe in asking for directions. Growing up, every summer our family went on a two week summer vacation. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we would economize by staying at campsites, or on rare occasions, not too expensive motels. We would also tend to plan too many activities, and because we were “in a hurry” to get to someplace, would get lost. (These were the days before GPS or Google Maps.) Usually my dad would be driving at such times, and he would never stop to ask for directions; he would keep driving forward, believing that “we would get there eventually.” At such times my mom would not be happy. She’d say, “Stop Bob! Ask for directions! Turn around!” But he kept going, and only when all hope was lost reluctantly back track in the direction we should have gone.

Years later, when I was a junior in college, I spent a semester abroad in Greece. As part of our educational experience, during holidays (and they happened quite often), the school would shut down and we were told to leave the city, go out, and find our way using the Greek phrases we had been studying. On one of these trips I decided to go visit a city in the northwest, Ionnina. But I didn’t know the way. I didn’t even know where was the bus station to Ionnina. However, I had learned the phrase, “Apo pou fevgei ton leoforenon ston Ionnina?” (Where is the bus to Ionnina?) And I knew from experience that I had to ask at least three different people to make sure I was going the right way. Greek people are very friendly and feel obligated to answer you whenever you ask them a question. But an answer doesn’t necessarily have to be the “right” answer. So I kept asking, and after a time I did find my way to Ionnina. When I got there I was somewhat disappointed and did not find the place to be what I expected. But on the way back to Athens I realized that the journey, not the destination, was the real gain.

I took this attitude and practice of asking for directions with me when I went to Taiwan. When I arrived, I spoke not a word of Chinese, could not recognize a single character. But I asked, and I learned, and I traveled. Sometimes I did not reach my intended destination. Nevertheless, what was more valuable was the journey, and the unexpected pleasure of making a connection with a stranger whenever I asked for directions, receiving a warm smile and note of encouragement.

One time I went on a trip to China’s Sichuan Province. We were hosted by a university, and they hired a driver and took us to visit the world famous panda research center. However, with roads going up every where, and seemingly overnight, our driver got lost on the way. We kept circling around and around an intersection on a newly built freeway. I wondered why he didn’t stop and ask for directions. Then I noticed that there were people standing along the side of the road, holding signs which read, “Wen Lu,” which literally means “Ask Road.” These were people who could tell you directions! So I asked the driver why we didn’t ask these people. He said these people would only give you directions if you paid them, and they might even purposely tell you the wrong way, and then when you were lost want even more money for the “correct” information. We didn’t ask, but fortunately our driver finally found the way.

I believe in asking for directions. Sure there are some who won’t tell you the right way, or will want unreasonable payment. Others may politely tell you “a way” that may not be “the way.” When you are lost you can stubbornly keep going forward and maybe figure out the way on your own. But for me, I’d rather ask along the way; the journey is more important than the destination.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Are Americans Outliers?

As a professor of Communication, a field of study some consider to be a "Social Science," like Psychologists, Sociologists, and Economists, I am interested in studying and understanding human behavior and beliefs. However, I am unusual as most of my research and interest comes from the years I have spent living on the small island of Taiwan. As someone born and raised in the US, Taiwan strikes me as a fascinating place full of interesting surprises and contrasts with what may count as "normal" in the US. But then my wife, native of Taiwan, often asks me why anyone would be interested in learning about Taiwan? Why would Americans care about this island nation-in-dispute?

So should I be like most of my colleagues in the US who spend most of their time and interest surveying, conducting experiments, observing, recording the activities and reactions of Americans? Or, to put it more accurately, should I follow the vast majority who spend their time studying samples of students at a "major university" in the US? If I did so, then I wouldn't have to be concerned with the "culture" problem every time I write up a study. Or would I?

The more I reflect upon Americans' behavior and beliefs, the more convinced I become that if there exists a "central tendency" of universal human behavior, the US of A is not the place to find it. Americans are far more individualistic than most peoples of this world. For example, it is most disheartening to see the political discourse and see so many people protesting/blocking/impeding health reform. How can anyone see that the US does not have a health care system (it only has markets), what exists now is dysfunctional, out of control, and must be reformed now? But my guess is that those who yell loudest look at their own situation and think that it's okay. They don't want to risk having to pay more, sacrifice any more for the benefit of others. I'm not saying that Americans are not generous and don't have many excellent qualities, that make this a far better place to live than most other places. Nevertheless, we are not the norm; there is no "universal" norm; all people, all cultures, all groups, create and constitute what for them is "common sense."

Monday, February 8, 2010

Blog theme--seeking wisdom

I've been talking with people about my newly created blog, and someone suggested to me that to write a good one, you need to have a theme. This is a great idea. One theme could be reflections on my work and experiences in Taiwan. But I'm currently not in Taiwan. So, at present I am more interested in the process of analyzing, writing, and reflecting. This is what I am doing in my "job" as teacher and adviser at the University of Oklahoma. And what comes from and through this process is the theme of "wisdom." How can wisdom be pursued, understood, and conceptualized? This is my theme.

My first reflection comes from notes taken from a wonderful book, Senses of Place (1996). Edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso. The second chapter in this book, by Basso, is titled "Wisdom sits in Places." In it Basso discusses the process of learning and understanding wisdom from the point of view of the Western Apache of the Cibecue reservation. Below I'm pasting notes from this chapter:

What if scholars, such as those in the field of Communication, saw the world as the Apache do? How would this affect how they study communicative practice and belief? Would they be interested in the thoughts and behaviors of 18-25 year olds, who are mostly unmarried, who are not financially independent, who have limited life experience? No. This is a highly unlikely group of people one would look to if you were interested in pursuing, acquiring, and understanding wisdom. It would also mean that you would not want to look for the medium response, those within one standard deviation of the norm. Those who are considered wise are the few; hence they cannot be the norm. Rather, you would want to study the exceptional.

Now here is the Apache understanding of wisdom, a "folk theory" of the mind:

On page 71 Basso lays out this ethnotheory of wisdom: “Apache conceptions of wisdom differed markedly from those contained in Western ideologies. . . . Apache conceptions were grounded in an informal theory of mind which asserts that wisdom arises from a small set of antecedent conditions. Because these conditions are also qualities of mind, and because they vary from mind to mind, the theory explains why some people are wiser than others.”

Wisdom is a “heightened mental capacity that facilitates the avoidance of harmful events by detecting threatening circumstances when none are apparent.” It is “produced and sustained” by three mental conditions: smoothness of mind, resilience of mind, and steadiness of mind. “Each must be cultivated in a conscientious manner by acquiring relevant bodies of knowledge and applying them critically to the workings of one’s mind. Knowledge of places and their cultural significance is crucial in this regard because it illustrates with numerous examples the mental conditions needed for wisdom as well as the practical advantages that wisdom confers on persons who confess it.”

Such knowledge is contained in stories “attributed to the ancestors” that are symbolically linked to and expressed through places. Furthermore, wisdom is “present in varying degrees” “and only a few persons are ever completely wise.” Those with such wisdom have “unusual mental powers” and “are able to foresee disaster, fend off misfortune, and avoid explosive conflicts with other persons. For these and other reasons, they are highly respected and often live to be very old.”

We see in the above a number of cause and effect relationships:

Those who are “wise” are those with a heightened mental capacity that is “smooth, resilient, and steady.” They have acquired (through cultivation) knowledge of places and stories of the ancestors. This knowledge, which they understand, has the effect of serving them well, marked by the ability to avoid and fend off a host of problems.