Daily Archives: May 20, 2008

Updating the China items

Do visit that Four Corners program. The transcript is now up, but there is so much more besides. From the transcript:

…LIZ JACKSON: Before we leave China we travel to the industrial city of Jia Musi in the far north east of the country. It’s nearly 2,000 kilometres from Beijing, up near the Russian border.

It’s the home town of Yang Chunlin. Yang Chunlin is a former factory worker who gathered over 7,000 signatures from this far flung region for an online petition that was headed, “We want human rights, not the Olympics”. Read the rest of this entry »


What’s in a name?

It is of course very rude to make fun of people’s names. Yet I will admit to falling off my chair again and again when I first read Peter Bowler’s The Annotated Onomasticon some twenty years ago, partly because one of my favourite SBHS Old Boys, whom I actually saw in the 1950s, Rear Admiral Sir Leighton Bracegirdle, is in it, along with classics such as the Reverend Canaan Banana, one-time President of Zimbabwe, the Philippines’s excellent Cardinal Sin, and a woman called Desiree Tits, not to mention the family Treblecock, pronounced Trebilko. It is that kind of book…

I did teach an unfortunate and singularly unbright lad named Peter Abbott once. Say the name quickly… And then there was Helen Burn, an open invitation to punning. And, unfortunate in Sydney in the 1960s, Callan Parkin.

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Posted by on May 20, 2008 in Chinese and China, diversions


How are you?

Roger Sandall, an anthropologist the Right loves to love, has a bit of a spray on ABC Unleashed about one of our own cultural practices.

Don didn’t look good. His stick was shaky and there was fear in his eyes – fear and frustration combined. After the op he was taking months to recover. And he’d begun to think he never would.

This morning he was like a man bracing to receive a blow – “How are you today?” from a careless acquaintance…

And it’s all so insincere. The greeter doesn’t really care. For the greeter it’s just a formula requiring a formulaic response. But for the suffering receiver who knows painfully well how he’s feeling, and who half wants to unburden himself – or maybe who’s desperate to unburden himself but who feels inhibited when talking to strangers – the flippant formula unbearably pricks and probes.

Other cultures handle things better. The most civilized people in our neighborhood are Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean. They don’t probe, they don’t pester, they’re not pushy or impertinent.

One could meet them ten times in a single day and it would always be a friendly smile and a murmured but respectful acknowledgement of one’s presence, an understanding that we all have our troubles and that they should only be shared with close intimates if they’re shared at all. Everything is kept at a safe and manageable distance.

No “How are you today?”. No kicking-in one’s mental defences…

While I see the dark irony of the question in the case Sandall begins with, and even sympathise, it isn’t long before the prejudices that underlie Sandall’s objections become crystal clear:

I wonder how such an aggressive greeting originates. Is it part of western egalitarianism – “Your mind is my mind”? Is it part of that insatiable western curiosity that must know everything – and wants to know it now? Perhaps it is a spillover effect from the talkshow world where private life staged as public emoting makes for better drama and bigger audiences.

Probably all three. In the past, aristocratic codes often tended to reticence regarding feelings, and discretion regarding what is told to whom and when. Such were the codes of traditional aristocracies in England and Japan. The code of reticence and restraint insulated one from unwanted inquiry or familiarity.

With the breakdown of such codes, there is a kind of enforced familiarity in which the greeting becomes also a challenge to acknowledge equality of status. This connects with the western determination that nothing should go unexamined, no corner of the mind should be left unexplored: not yours, not mine.

And doubtless the compulsive voyeurism of the talkshows also plays an important modern part too…

What transparent crap that bit of blatant snobbery masquerading as cultural analysis really is! Long before the objects of Sandall’s pseudo-aristocratic sensititivity “How are you?” has been a standard greeting in our culture, along with “Comment allez-vous?” among the French. Obviously the silent grovel or forelock tug is more Sandall’s go.

Granted the question is somewhat meaningless. Very few utterers of “How are you?” expect a medical report in response. Over forty years ago, before talk-back or Oprah, a classmate at Sydney University did an interesting experiment on phatic communication — that is on the formulaic phrases and gestures we use to register another person or to open a conversation — by standing in the middle of the quad and muttering “Mashed potatoes” to passers-by. Almost invariably he was answered with responses such as, “Fine thanks” or “Not bad. How are you?”

In China when people meet they tend to ask, “Have you had dinner?” or “Have you eaten?” Now while that may reflect a culture which has known famine, or the significance of food in Chinese culture, it isn’t a serious question. “Mind your own bloody business you impertinent twirp” wouldn’t be an appropriate response either.

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