Buying Girls from Behind Glass

American_Girl_Molly_McIntire
Wikipedia

While in Los Angeles last month, Tawn and I slipped up to The Grove, a shopping and entertainment center near the Farmers’ Market located at Third and Fairfax Streets near CBS Studios.  While there, we met with a pair of Xangans who were down in LA for the weekend, and also observed first-hand the disturbing trend known as the American Girl Doll.

The Grove is another of these recent developments built to approximate the feel of a real downtown, except with a Disney-esque sense of artifice.  An electric tram runs down the middle of the “street” past big box stores that, if it weren’t for their elaborate façades, would look like any other strip mall.  It is a nice space, much in the same way that Main Street, U.S.A. is a nice place, but I think I’d prefer to stroll down a real main street rather than a recently built recreation.

the_grove
Borrowed from someone on the internet for non-commercial use.

Prominently placed on the main shopping thoroughfare is the American Girl Doll store.  Have you heard of this trend?  It simultaneously fascinates and disturbs me.

The roots of the American Girl Doll are generally impressive.  Originally released in the mid-1980s, these 18-inch dolls represented 10-year old girls from a variety of periods in American history.  They were dressed in period-appropriate costume and were accompanied by a series of books targeted to 8-13 year olds that brought the characters to life while addressing (in an age-appropriate manner) subjects such as poverty, racism, child labor, etc.  In short, a compelling way for young people to identify with and learn about history.

American Girl Doll 1
American Girl website

In the mid-1990s, though, a “Just Like You” line was released, with dolls representing a wide range of skin tones and eye and hair colors, so that you could purchase a doll that looked just like you.  A variety of accessories are available including matching outfits.  (See the picture above.)  The dolls, sans accessories, cost $100, a price that strikes me as ridiculously expensive for a toy targeted at pre-teens.

On the one hand, I can see a lot of positives about a doll that reflects the wide diversity that exists in our world.  Certainly, any number of women of color have shared stories about not being able to find dolls when they were children that looked like them.  At the same time, especially when you can even wear the same clothes as your doll, this seems to be furthering the growth of unhealthy narcissism.  Not only are we gazing more at our own navels, but now we can have a dolls whose navels look like ours.

P1140187

What was even more disturbing, though, was walking into the store and seeing two display cases containing rows of the identically-dressed dolls wearing numbers.  Maybe this is just a sensitivity to the too-visible sex trade that exists in Thailand, but this image of women lined up behind a glass wall, wearing numbers and waiting for you to choose them, is especially disturbing.

I don’t know what to make of the whole thing.  As I mentioned early, it is both fascinating and disturbing.  Reading more about the American Girl Doll phenomenon, the company (now owned by Mattel) seems to do a lot of philanthropy and there are many opportunities for young girls to learn important lessons about the world and about issues they may not often hear about.  The messages on the walls of the store – “A confident girl believes in herself!” – are potentially empowering.  That said, I’m still a bit disturbed.

cp
Courtesy Sheening

The best thing that came out of the experience was the opportunity to finally meet Piyapong, one of those Xangans who doesn’t blog often but whose posts are still interesting.  Also met Sheening again, but he hasn’t blogged in so long on Xanga that I’m not even sure what his user name is anymore.

 

About Fat Cats and Corporations

In the July 9 issue of The Economist magazine, I read this interesting article about why it is so difficult to stir up public sentiment in the United States against the wealthy.  For example, why do so many people get riled up about the idea of eliminating the tax cuts for the wealthiest people, when we’re talking about 2% of the population who are radically better off than the other 98% of the population?

One paragraph in particular caught my attention:

“The point here is only that Americans do not seem to mind about the widening inequality of income and wealth as much as you might expect them to in current circumstances. By and large, they have preferred opportunity to leveling; equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome.  The trouble with this is that America is a long way from providing equal opportunity.”

I continue to wonder why it is that when you talk to people individually, they are very much in favor of creating truly equal opportunity.  Somehow, though, en masse, they become reverse Robin Hoods who support the taking from the poor and giving to the rich.  Even more confusing when it is against their own best interest to do so.

Coffee Bars and the Quest for Third Places

An interesting article appeared in the New York Times this week about a trend of some coffee shops not offering seating – standing room only – and trying to make the space more about the coffee and the other customers than about hunkering down, plugged into your iPhone, iPad, and iPod.  This spurred some thoughts and I beg you to bear with me as I bring them up in the disjointed manner one might expect after having had a double espresso on an empty stomach.

First, a few excerpts from the article, to give you the general idea of it:

At times, the large back room at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, has so many customers typing and wearing noise-canceling headphones that it looks like an office without the cubicles.  A second Café Grumpy location, in Chelsea, prohibited laptops after too many customers ran extension cords across the room. …

When Café Grumpy’s owners … decided to open a third location … they built a solution to the laptop problem right into the design. The furniture consists of a counter in the back and a chest-high table in the front. …

“I don’t think I’d ever do a bigger space with tables and chairs again,” [one of the owners] said. “I appreciate the idea of when you go someplace and it feels like a home away from home, but I don’t think it should be a home office away from home.” [emphasis mine]

Stumptown Coffee
Photo courtesy the New York Times

Earlier this summer, the Bluebird Coffee Shop in the East Village replaced half its tables and most of the chairs with two counters and a few stools.  “A coffee shop should be a place to meet your friends and hold conversations and cultivate ideas instead of — I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, so I have to be careful — instead of sticking your head in a laptop,” said [Bluebird’s owner].

 

Third Places

Years ago, just as I was starting university, coffee shops were starting to come into fashion in the US.  Starbucks was around, although not as ubiquitous as it is these days.  I remember reading an in-depth article about the concept of Third Places, an article that contributed to my interest, and my brief majoring in, urban studies.

Third Places are informal public gathering spaces that offer a balance between the spheres of home and work, the first and second places, respectively, in our lives.  Just as a tripod offers more stability than a bipod, the third place can serve to keep us from falling into a mental trap of “home to work and back again”.

The article, and many like it, identify examples of third places such as the cafe in French culture, the corner pub in the British Isles, and the espresso bar in Italy.  Places that serve to anchor neighborhood life.  The underlying thesis of the article was that the overall quality of life in a society is better when there is such a third place and declines in the absence of such spaces.

sportsmans2005
The corner pub has served as a third place in Britain

 

Do We Actually Have Third Places?

I’ve observed is that we’ve built a great number of spaces that are designed to look like third places – indeed, Starbucks’ founder and CEO Howard Schultz (no relation) acknowledges that as one of the omnipresent chain’s motivations.  But these spaces don’t actually function as true third places. 

How many of you go to a business like Starbucks regularly enough that you know the employees who work there, but don’t know any of the other customers?  There are certainly many small businesses within walking distance of my house (including a Starbucks, I type a bit guiltily) where I recognize the staff but none of the patrons.

The element that is missing from our pseudo third places is our interaction with our neighbors, the other customers in the place.  Some of that may be because the third places we visit are largely outside of our neighborhood, often on the way to (or nearby) work.  That begs the question, are they really third places in the true definition of the word?  They cannot anchor a neighborhood if they are not in your neighborhood.

As an aside, I have to wonder whether the increasing political polarization in the US is due in some small part to this lack of third places in which we interact with our neighbors.  When we don’t know our neighbors, much less have the opportunity to interact and converse with them, what hope is there of having a civil dialogue about the issues of the day?

 

What About My Third Places?

About a five-minute walk away from my home, at the mouth of the soi (alley) where I live, there is a small corner spot that is a small, failing Japanese bar.  It is steps away from the entrance to the Skytrain station, near a busy intersection, and across the street from a private international school.  It strikes me that it would be the perfect location for a coffee bar that the NY Times article talks about.  Being at the gateway to my neighborhood and just next to a transit station, it would be the ideal crossing path for neighbors.  I don’t know if it would work financially – there are a lot of factors at play here – but in terms of being an effective third place, it would be well suited.

Another possibility is one of two small retail spots on the street level of my 8-story condo building.  It is currently empty but the juristic board says that a lease has been signed for someone to open a small cafe of some sort.  That would be an ideal third place, right?  Go down for a morning coffee, meet and chat with my building’s neighbors and other people in the neighborhood.  We’ll see if it works out like that.

Espresso Bar
Courtesy The Age newspaper, Melbourne

Somewhere in my mind, I imagine either patronizing (or owning) a place like the one pictured above.  An espresso bar that is crowded with people from the neighborhood, getting their coffee, chatting for a bit, and then going on their way.  Somewhere warm and convivial. 

What about you?  Do you have a third place?  Do you see an absence of third places in our societies?  And what do you think about coffee bars without a place to sit down and plug into your digital devices?

 

Our Children Left Behind

What do children really need to get a good start in life?  If what I’ve read from many sources is correct, there are three key factors that set a child on a path of future success, both in terms of being employable as well as in terms of having a generally healthy life:

♦ Prenatal and early childhood healthcare.

♦ Proper nutrition, eating and exercise habits starting from infancy.

♦ High-quality early education, including preschool and primary school.

All three of these should be the case regardless of the neighborhood, city, state or country in which you live.  That’s an awful lot to bite off and chew, I know. 

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the education aspect of how we raise our children.  (While broadly applicable to all nations, part of my following comments are based on my perspective as an American.  My apologies and I hope the rest of the entry will be thought-provoking for non-American readers, too.)

American children are well behind their international counterparts in reading, writing, maths and science.  They go to school for fewer hours a day and fewer days a year than their peers in the academically leading countries.  The quality of schools and the availability of texts, equipment and teachers varies widely even within a single metropolitan region or state.

alphabet This leads me to wonder whether we are doing enough to prepare our children for future success, considering that future employment success relies increasingly in knowledge economies, a market which America no longer has cornered.  There are many definitions of success, but surely one of them is being equipped to earn a meaningful living.

At the same time, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world and states with tough but senseless sentencing mandates like California’s “Three Strikes” law see ever-increasing prison populations (and an ever-increasing average age of prisoners), adding unbearable costs to a bankrupt budget. 

Could it be that there is any correlation between these two?  Could our lack of a quality education, especially in demographic areas that are traditionally challenged in an socioeconomic sense, be the cause (or, at least, cause) of the crime?

This is one of those issues that, when I think about it, the answers seem really obvious.  The connection between the ills that we do not want plaguing our society and the things we do (or fail to do) that would help, stare me in the face.  Maybe I’m the only one who sees this and what I’m seeing is incorrect?

Doesn’t it make sense that we as members of society would benefit greatly if the quality and quantity of education received by our children was increased?  Here are some things, in no particular order, that might contribute to a solution.  Let me know your thoughts.

Year-round school.  Right now, American students get a summer break of about three months.  This was useful in agricultural times when the students were needed at their parents’ farm to help with the crops, but in this day and age, it seems unnecessary.  The average student loses about one month’s worth of learning during the long summer break.  Let’s follow the lead of many other nations (and even some school districts within the US) and move to a more year-round schedule.

More days in the school year.  American students spend about 180 days in school each year, about 15 less than the average in other developed countries.  Some countries, notably those in East Asia, have students in school more than 200 days a year.  Over the course of 12 years, that is the equivalent of an entire year’s worth of lost education.  (Data from an article in the Economist.)

Longer school hours.  American children spend less time in school than their peers and have less homework.  More hours doesn’t necessarily equal a better education, but considering that after school most students are going home and turning on the television or playing video games, I suspect we could do something more beneficial with that time.  Maybe that’s where the following idea comes in:

Restore arts, music and the social sciences (including civics) to the curriculum.  In the past decades, we’ve seen an increasing emphasis on “teaching to the test”.  Largely, though, this hasn’t resulted in improved performance of American students.  Instead, their knowledge is more and more lopsided, focusing only on the silos of information in which they will be tested.  Other subjects such as the arts and music tie into success in maths, sciences, reading and writing.  Social sciences also work to produce educated, engaged citizens.  Ones who know how many states there are and how laws are enacted, for example.

Guaranteed equality in resources.  Schools within a given state should all meet a certain minimum standard of resources, including teaching materials and teachers.  It doesn’t make sense that because of accident of birth, a child growing up in a wealthy suburban neighborhood will get a better public education than a child born in a poverty-stricken urban or rural area.  If we are going to tackle larger societal issues such as public health and crime reduction, those children growing up amidst poverty are the most in need of educational resource minimums.

More parent and community involvement.  Parents seem less involved in their children’s education than they used to be.  Teachers report a lack of discipline and reinforcement in the homes, making their teaching jobs more about policing behavior than about educating.  On the flip side, though, security and liability fears make it so difficult for adults (parents, let alone other members of the community) to get involved in their local schools.  Once-a-year safety classes, registration and background check requirements, etc. make it extraordinarily difficult for people such as retirees, who might have the time and inclination to volunteer, to get involved.

More compensation for teachers but also an expectation of higher performance.  A lot of these proposals will mean more work for teachers, a professional group who Americans pay little respect and little salary.  From my time spent in Asia, I’ve observed that teachers here are respected second only to parents and clergy.  If we want our teachers to work harder, we need to start compensating them for the important role they play: shaping the future of our citizenry.  At the same time, there are teachers out there who don’t love what they do and aren’t very good at it.  Just as with any other profession, there need to be performance standards that are rewarded and those who don’t achieve the standards should not be in the profession.

These are just some ideas and aren’t going to change the world, I know.  But it seems that these types of ongoing, intractable problems have some pretty pragmatic solutions.  Why is it so hard to put them into place?

 

When “is” isn’t “is”

Moving from one culture to another is a big transition, especially if you want to make an effort to really understand the new culture.  One could argue that, try though you might, you’ll never fully understand it.  But over time, your understanding will at least increase.

We have a friend who moved here a few years ago.  He is making a lot of effort to understand Thai culture, reading books about Thai relationships (he has dated several Thais) and has taken some Thai language classes.

Along the way, he often has questions about specific situations, general practices, and other aspects of the culture.  Some questions are asked of me or other farang who have Thai partners.  Other times the questions are asked to Tawn or one of the other Thai partners.

I applaud his effort to learn about the culture.  It is an obligation, in my opinion, of someone who lives in another culture to make every effort to learn about, respect, and play by the rules of that culture.  The world is not our playground.

The challenge I face – and I want to point out that his intentions are wonderful because he’s asking because he wants to understand – is that he is a very analytical person, someone who sees things in a logical, rational, black-and-white way.  And the culture about which he is asking questions simply isn’t a logical, rational, black-and-white type of culture.

Tawn and I have discussed this a lot as we want to support his quest to learn about Thai culture.  And one of the things we’ve concluded is that any question you have about a culture rarely has a definitive answer.  There are no absolutes.  There may be generalities, but trying to conflate a generality with a certainty results in missing the finer nuances of a culture.  And it is within those nuances that the essence of the culture really lies.

It’s kind of like when you are learning a new language.  You are tempted to ask, “What does this word mean?”  But as Mme. Morel, the French-Vietnamese linguist who taught me several months of French at The French Class in San Francisco put it, “Words don’t mean anything.  The question is, how is the word used?”

Take the Thai word เป็น (“bpen”).  While it is often translated as “to be” or “is”, that really fails to capture how the word is fully used in Thai.  It is also used to indicate an ability to do something, the state of being afflicted with a malady, the state of becoming one thing from another, the state of being alive, and it is also used as a qualifying conjunction. 

P1130990

Helen James, author of Thai Reference Grammar, goes so far as to bold the text in her explanation of the word: “bpen is not a verb ‘to be’ … [instead, it] identifies a relationship between two noun phrases or between a noun/noun phrase and an adjective/adjective phrase.”

In short, เป็น isn’t “is”.  It is so much more.

In the same way, Thai culture isn’t this way or that way.  It identifies the relationship between people and between individuals and the institutions that make up Thai society. 

Given the unique relationship Thai society has with water – the heart of the country is essentially a flood plain, after all – the water motif is a suitable metaphor for the nature of Thai culture: a fluid thing that “is” one thing but is also so much more.

 

Trying to be a role model (or just look like one)

This weekend Tawn and I had brunch with an 18-year old exchange student from Canada.  He’s another of those “Xanga friends”, that class of interesting people you meet through this community whom you might otherwise never have the opportunity or occasion to know.

In January I received this message (name changed for privacy):

Hi There, My name is Ian, I’m a Canadian Exchange student currently living in Bangkok. I stumbled upon your blog a few days ago – and meant to send a message, however I thought you might find it odd to receive a comment from a boy 20 years younger than you. (I assure this is not some insane form of reverse pedophilia.) haha, this is simply one person, genuinely interested in the life of another.

The truth is that your entries have really brightened my last few days – Seeing a happy successful Gay Couple gives me a lot of hope for my own future. The truth is that although I accepted my sexuality a few years ago – I never managed to meet anyone with the same lifestyle. I’ve met a lot of confused teenagers – but never any adults like yourself. It’s great to know that people like you and Tawn exist!

Anyways, I hope your New Years was a happy one. This has been my first one outside of North America – it was amazing.

This is the first time I can recall that anyone looked at me and Tawn as role models.  What a responsibility!  What a bad choice on his part!  (Ha ha… just a little self-depracating humor there.)

I stayed in touch with Ian through his blog.  His time here has been interesting: he’s picked up Thai quickly, explored the city and many pats of the country, made many Thai friends as well as friends with other exchange students, and met a young Thai man his age who (it sounds) stole his heart.  Ian says that he’ll be back to study at university as soon as he finished high school.

With Ian’s time in Thailand running out soon, I suggested we should meet up.  He is now 18, so my fears of Rotary International exchange parents hunting me down for corrupting the young have subsided.

To provide a wider range of examples of other Thai-western couples, I invited Stuart and Piyawat and Ken and Suchai to join.  We had a pleasant brunch at Kuppa, a San Francisco-style restaurant situated in a former warehouse on Sukhumvit Soi 16 that roasts its own coffee.

Meeting Ian in person was a nice experience.  He’s young but he handles himself well around what must have been a rather boring bunch of chattering middle (or nearly middle) aged gay men.  But I hope he realizes that there are many other people who have already walked down the same paths he will travel. 

There are multiple paths we represent, from being gay, to being in successful same-sex intercultural relationships (heck, being in any type of successful relationship), to moving to another country and adjusting and thriving in it. 

Most importantly, I hope he realizes that there are many people here who will help and support him when he decides to move here; he’ll have the advantage of a network of resources.

All this got me thinking to the responsibilities we all have to give back, or more accurately, to give forward to the generations that follow us.  What contributions are we making to help younger generations?  Some of us are parents, many more are aunts and uncles either by blood or by choice.  But all of us have the capacity to share our experiences and to help others in their lives.

What other things can I be doing to make this contribution?

 

Pigeon-holing Farang

When I lived in the States, I felt that I was a more tolerant than average person.  I made a conscious effort – and largely a successful one, I think – to not prejudge people I saw or met.  Walking down the street, I would not categorize people on first look and I tried to radiate compassion towards everyone.

Somewhere along the process of moving to Khrungthep, my compassion burned out, my prejudices returned, and new ones were born.

As much as I’m ashamed to admit it, when I’m walking down the street here in the Big Mango, I make perfunctory judgements about many of the people I see.  For the most part, I’m making these judgements about farang as I don’t know as many of the cultural signifiers for Thais as I do for westerners.  There are some exceptions, of course.  I can spot the Money Boy and the Hi So pretty easily.

Among the farang I can recognize instantly the Clueless Tourist, the Angry American, the Drunk Aussie (easily confused with the Drunk Brit and somewhat less easily with the Drunk German), the Sexpat (homo and hetero versions), the Lonely Planet Backpacker and the Gone Native.

Let me be the first to admit that it is inherently unfair to others and unskillful to my own growth as a person to have relapsed into this prejudicial shorthand.  I know that and am actively trying to relearn the lessons I was much better at living while in the United States.  It just seems that there are so many people who so readily live up to these various categories of farang that it is easy to lazily slip into the habit of categorizing them instead of getting to know them first.

All of which must make me the archetypical Self-Righteous Expat, subgenus Holier Than Thou Anthropologist.

Hopefully that is not the case!