A Reading of “On the Back of the Greyhound Dog: The Golden Sunshine” By ‘Rong Wongsawan

Translated by Tony Waters, Jiranan Sirikunpahisan (Taew), Airin Horatschek (Airin), Kwanjira Wiwattana (Palm), Mayweya Koryaklang (Fang), Kuansiree Suanek (Meaw), Supon Phonchatchawankun (Su), Thirawit Pung-nagm (Thor), Krittaporn Ruankaew (Yo), Hande Yilmaz (Hande), Sasithorn Katika (Cake), Nattaporn Chantajitpreecha (Nati)

Note:  This is a translation by a Thai author, ‘Rong Wongsawan about his trip in California in 1976.  It was read at a recent meeting of the Informal Northern Thai Discussion Group in Chiangmai, Thailand.  For more information, click here.  This is the first time portions of this book have appeared in English.

The last day in the last week of June, 1976

It was 102 ° F in Los Angeles. Your humble writer told Mali it was time to quickly escape from the hot weather. Not the kind of hot which came from lying soaked with sweat next to a Thai canal, but the kind of hot that challenged anyone to walk naked into the concrete jungle. So after two minutes of thinking, I chose to travel by the Greyhound bus. It was a charming and speedy iron horse that gave a smooth ride for so many years of roving around California. I did not love or hate it—like other vehicles.

“Just leave the driving to us” as the television jingle went.

“Let us accept the duty of piloting the vehicle!” they meant.

This advertisement worked quite well.

Driving your own car can cost the state more than one million dollars per mile to build the road. This state of California was so proud of its expensive roads and taxes!

Americans have a car culture. If it is possible, they will trade in their car every year—it is worth the money to them! And that 6 percent sales tax was immediately charged whether drinking coffee or buying shoes,

In the earlier paragraph it seems like I had not yet quite revived from my wine. After all, airplanes are the transportation that saves time and money; it takes only 50 or 55 minutes from Los Angeles to San Francisco by air. Most Americans usually use the plane due to the hurried nature of their lives, but there is really no scenery; we see nothing except clouds and the underwear of the stewardesses. Airline companies in this country compete with each other aggressively, and they try to attract customers in order to make more profit. Some companies intentionally or not, design seductive uniforms for their stewardesses in this competition.

Americans in fact are accustomed to being naked, and even talk or discuss “sex” openly at dinnertime, or on the bed. But, for some strange reason, that little peek at the stewardess is still a provocative sensuality.

The next reason your humble writer wanted to travel by bus is that I wanted Mali to see the western states of America through a pane of glass that has movement, not just clouds. So, I chose to ride the Greyhound.

I hope that the audience will not hate Mali when she takes some action in this story. However, I will not let her appear on paper more than necessary. I guarantee that Mali will not interfere with the story in a fashion that the audience can blame her for ruining it. After all she’s just the wife of the writer, and not that of someone like the Prime Minister.

Another Confusion for Me: The “Finding-Myself Society”

4.00 pm Paso Robles

Towns in this area have Spanish names. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my dictionary with me, so I can’t figure out their meaning.

Some passengers in this area were youthful travelers, male and female. They pack some stuff, guitar, marijuana, and some uncooked poetry in their backpack or bag. Their eyes seem to be hiding something slightly naughty. This is another feature of American society.

It is a confused society trying to create a confusion of another kind.

There is no concise explanation, but it can’t give itself the clear meaning it wants. Teenagers, they are too lazy to study in the university, and want to pay more attention to looking for themselves, or as they say in English “Finding Myself.”

And of course, this is a big worry for parents, which makes them really tired.

When talking about the situation in the family, it sounds like this, people who do not understand each other, but are inextricably entwined in their mutual love and incomprehension;

Ronnie                   “I made a decision already that I will travel the country!”

Dad                           “But Ronnie, the university has admitted you!”

Ronnie                   “It doesn’t matter!”

Dad                           “Why?”

Ronnie                                    “I must find myself first.”

Dad                           “You will find it?”

Ronnie                   “No one knows the answer, but if there is no action, nothing will ever get started”

Dad                       “I think you should start at the university”

Ronnie                    “Insane! The university is filled with fools and stupidity.”

Dad                           “If you weren’t so stubborn you would trust me, Ronnie”

Ronnie                    “However, I won’t change my mind. The university has nothing to teach me. America every day deteriorates because of the university, doesn’t it?”

Dad                          “What do you want, my son?…”

Ronnie                      “All that ever happens is so far away” (Ronnie shrugs his shoulders) “Tell me, what lessons does the university really have to teach?”

Dad                           “I really don’t know! But it is certain to be something important, and this is the reason you should go out and seek it.” Your friend Fred ran away. He is on the road now for 3 years, just because he wants to find himself. His parents only find out where he is when he calls home long distance and asks for money.”

Ronnie                    “Some people take longer to find themselves than other people.”

Dad                           “Where are you going, Ronnie?”

Ronnie                    “I will first take a bus to Nevada, John is there with many friends. Everyone is lovely there, they are real serious seekers. Perhaps after that I will go to Arizona where I know some people from the Navajo Indian tribe who weave blankets.”

Dad                           “Why? You really think that weaving blankets with the Navajo will help you find yourself?”

Ronnie                    “If I work with my hands it really might amount to something.”

Dad                           “What?”

Ronnie                    “It goes back to the inherent cruelty of the mechanistic modern society.”

Dad                           “You are annoyed with society that much?”

Ronnie                    “Of course.”

Dad                           “So what’s next?”

Ronnie                   “I will have time to think about goodness and the disappearance of capitalism.”

Dad                           “Ronny! Let us talk man to man. I always love your ideas a lot. You are not stupid, but you are not yet clever enough. Um, nothing is more important than the fact that I have saved enough money for your college. You know that the fees are increasing every day. If you hurry off to find yourself first, the money won’t be enough to pay for your college. I want to advise you: Go to college first! Then wouldn’t it be a good idea to go find yourself? “

Ronnie                   “No!”

Dad                           “Don’t you feel sorry for me?”

Ronnie                    “Our times are very different.”

Dad                           “But Ronny, I really worry about you, don’t, you understand?”

Ronnie                    “But I need to use modern reasoning. I don’t want to miss the chance to travel the country. I also want to go to South America with Susan.”

Dad                           “Susan? Does Susan also want to find herself just like you do?”

Ronnie                                      “No doubt…”

Dad                           “Lord help me!”

Ronnie                    “We are good friends and always together, but the most important thing is that Susan has a Volkswagen. And we can go wherever we want easily.”

Dad                           “So what do Susan’s parents think about this?”

Ronnie                    “Maybe I’m saying something crazy. But Susan feels she has no choic here. If she doesn’t leave home now, her life will stop at high school, she will then get married, and then she will have children. Susan said that when she looks forward from that perspective, she can’t see a future.”

Dad                “Future, The future of what?”

Ronnie            “Staying here means she will always be in this small orbit. A life which is always behind the times.”

Dad                 “Maybe it’s really true for you, having a wife and children is really too old fashioned for today’s world.”

Ronnie            “Dad, don’t you see how necessary it is that our generation should protest?”

Dad                “I don’t know! It’s up to you.”

Ronnie            “That is a cute sentence.”

Dad                 “My son, you don’t have to love me or maybe you want to hate me sometimes. I won’t be angry with you. Call me when you need money.”

Ronnie            “Thanks…”

Dad                “Can you allow me to ask you a final question? If Susan gets pregnant in South America, what would the two of you do?”

Ronnie           “Crazy! My generation doesn’t bed down like that. Don’t forget that we travel for finding ourselves! We are all familiar with such traps.

Art Buchwald: Explaining the Conflicting Thoughts which Make for Laughter

   Dear reader, your humble writer would like to invite you to take a tour of the American’s mind by borrowing a special feature. I want you to meet a part of the American’s mind by describing situations that are different from our sense of what is familiar in Thailand. In the United States, there is a very strong conflict between the generations. And it’s impossible avoid.

Do you, dear reader, ever have a question about the bad smell of the bad American boys and girls? One of those reasons is the role model of hippies (Bupachon), which can be either concrete or abstract, but includes in these times long-haired people smoking marijuana. They may lose their own philosophy, or unsuccessfully attempt to identify a new way of understanding the human condition and its times. But it destroys with loneliness the very basis of its struggle. But still the hippie civilization refuses to die during this process!

Something that young men and young women use as weapons to protest against American society is a bit dirty. They try to explain why mocking clothing fashion makes their opposition to society so logical. Conveniently they ignore the role of older people, and assert that everything comes from the traditions of the younger generation.

Art Buchwald, an American newspaper columnist, has a prudent view of these contradictions. He tried to explain about this by addressing the irony embedded in such a generational conflict. He does this in a fashion which helps the older people conceal their anxieties.

Your humble writer has adapted Art Buchwald’s script for how this inter-generational conflict occurs in the following lines.

The drama begins in the evening time where a father proudly reviews the high school exam scores of his beloved teenage son. And so the father wants to invite him to go for dinner in celebration. This is a traditional way of congratulating someone for a job well done, and the father offers to do this by using polite and congratulatory words.

Son                  “Cool! Can we go together?“ (His son readily accepts the invitation and stands up).

Father            “I think…you should wearing a proper dress shirt, it’s better” “

Son                 “I have T-shirt already, why? It doesn’t look right, does it?”

Father            “It should be a shirt and a necktie.” (The Father smiles softly)

Son                 “Are we going to have dinner, or are we going to a wedding ceremony?”

‘Rong              The son expressed his doubt through his face.

Father                     (Father smiled softly). “It surely is a shirt, but it is far from a minimum standard.”

Son                            “Are we going to dinner together, or are we going to get married?”

‘Rong                       The beloved son left little doubt that he had bettered his father in the argument.

Father                     “Stupid! Untidy! Unfashionable!”

(Father begins to scold) “But you have to act like other people. Go-go, go put on a proper shirt and a tie, no more arguments!”

‘Rong                       Mother comes out quickly from the next room and asks

Mother:                 ”Eh, Uh, why are you so loud, what you two arguing about…? ”

Father                     “I want to take him to have a dinner to congratulate him for his achievement, but he refuses to wear a tie.”

‘Rong                      The son sits and sways along with the rhythms of folk-rock;

Son                            “I won’t go! If you force me to have a tie, I won’t go, don’t go-won’t go!”

Mother                   “Is it really too hard to have a tie?” (his mother asked consolingly). “My dear son, please…”

Father                     “I am not proud of you anymore!!!! And I don’t want to be ashamed when other people know that I’m your father, and have such a dumb son like you.”

‘Rong                      The son made a snarky smile, and then walked awkwardly toward his room.

After that two minutes, he came out and standing snootily in front of his room with a frumpy shirt and a tie which was worn and old.

                                    Father was trying hard not show his feelings towards his son’s challenge. He just nodded instead of saying that it was time to go. However, he accidently saw a surprising thing before he left the room.

Father            “Hey there! You didn’t put on your shoes.”

Son                  “Oops! I guess I didn’t hear you talk about the shoes? And why do we have to wear shoes? What happens if we don’t wear it, are we gonna go to hell?”

Father              “Don’t be silly!! Put on your shoes right now!!!

Son                  “My feet aren’t that good looking! Who the hell wants to see them? I will place them under the table, so I’m sure no one will see.”

Father              “When you are entering, people will definitely see your dirty feet and you must know that civilized people consider wearing shoes an important part of their culture. Do you want to risk having those cultured people in that high class restaurant puke because of the smell of your feet?”

Son                 “Why? My nose doesn’t smell anything of my feet? Anyway, that is not so important. But, this is summer, so no one wears shoes. I swear ‒ I will not do such an out-of-date thing as wear shoes, since none of my friends wear them either.”

‘Rong              Now it was a time for mother to hurriedly return to the conversation before her son will be kicked. It is not sure whether they will fight or not.

Mother            “My dear please, put on your shoes. If you don’t like leather shoes you can wear your sneakers. Please do it for the sake of your father’s social status.” (Her son scowled.)

‘Rong                       The father tried not to show his feelings, and reminded them that they should not forget that he had never thought about having dinner in high-class restaurant.

However, to stop being annoyed by his parents, he put on a tie, and climbed into the fine car. Such a car is indeed a source of such pride for so many Americans.

Not long after leaving home, the father’s mood softened, and he began to speak gently to his son.

Father                     “I don’t want to annoy you anymore, but I’ve thought that uh… if you take off your headscarf before we arrive at the restaurant it might be better?“

Son                            “How good is that damn restaurant? Why won’t they welcome people with headscarves?”

Father                     “it’s the highest quality restaurant that we have in this town. The way they season food is well known. I just think…. You are grown enough, and you should know how to live the right way and respect the lifestyle of our society. Eating is both an art and culture, which has been passed on by many generations for many centuries. It is not difficult at all. Just try to and get used to it. Our life needs more than milkshake and french-fries.”

Son                            “What? What did you say? You said it has no milkshake and French-fries? You said it’s a high-class restaurant?”

‘Rong                       Now it was the son’s turn to choke.

The father sighed deeply and thought.

He pulled the car over to the side of the road.

Father                     “Keep it to $2! I’m giving up on you, It’s obvious now we have been born to different times. There is a hamburger stand–get out and buy it by yourself. I don’t care anymore!”

‘Rong                       The father smiled sadly.

The beloved son whistled.

Lower the curtain.

This is a model of a normal American life.

Joe Chung’s Cocktail Lounge, 891 Market Street, San Francisco

‘Rong              Your humble writer sat at Joe Chung’s Cocktail Lounge frequently during Happy Hours 5.00 pm. – 7.00 pm. The whisky and cocktail were sold for less than the normal price, i.e. for 60 cents rather than 70 cents. Even just 10 cents is not much, but it gives meaning to the relationship. So, drinkers are more likely to come and relax than at other times, and it makes it easier for friends and acquaintances to meet, because they know about this hour.

The bartender was Chinese, with small elliptical eyes shaped like a sesame seed featured prominently on his face. Among the American faces he was different. He wore a dark blue Chinese pants and a dinner jacket. He also wore an outer red jacket trimmed in gold, maybe just to show off his wealth as a Chinese, more than for any other reason.

But being Chinese also means that the costs of doing business are to be avoided, and kept down in a way that keeps profits up. No other group can copy this Chinese method of doing business.

The black man sat down on the left side of the counter. He is a young man not older than twenty-three years old.

Man                “Scotch whiskey!”

‘Rong              His manner indicated that he had little experience with the protocols of drinking.

He does not select the type of whiskey, but trusts the judgment of fhe bartender.   And in such a case he absolutely will get the cheapest whisky in the bar. This bar near the road doesn’t care more about its customer than it does profit.

Your humble writer peeps at him again. He drinks a lot, and he doesn’t wait for the whiskey to be cold enough. But he swills it down his throat before the ice can melt, and he continues with a second shot, not even a minute later.

No, he doesn’t get angry! His face is so happy, and there is a smile. He has just never learned how to love whisky. So, he hurries to drink it. He drinks it as if it were an enemy to be endured. I tell myself that he still needs to learn about whisky, and how to be a friend with it.

Then whisky will be his very good friend.

Vexed, this is one more action your humble writer observes.

He is black, with a blue suit and cream colored necktie. He looks like he has just come from the office. He has lots of money and he is a young man who seems so like an innocent calf, soon to be a vicim of the atomoshper in Joe Chung’s Cocktail Lounge..

Mali                “He looks like Sammy Davis” (whispering)

‘Rong              Sammy Davis’ dark skin was like that of every American black, and your humble writer shrugs his shoulder.

He looks with excitement for a chance to flirt with a white girl who sits next to him.

Man                “It’s mighty windy tonight!”

Linda              “It’s strong like it is every day in San Francisco, you must come from another place?”

Man               “New York”

Linda               “Well look. People from here don’t speak like that. They begin the conversation much more coyly.”

Man                “I didn’t know what I should say.”

Linda              “But you can say lots of things.”

Man                “I feel lonely. ..”

‘Rong              The young black man put his glass down on the bar, and told the                                         bartender to fill it again.

Linda              “You wanna have someone to drink with?”

Man                “What are you drinking…?. ..” (he asks rather than answers.)

Linda              “Vodka Martini ” (she looked away) “To be honest, I don’t drink vodka that someone else buys for me”

Man                           “I don’t think you should refuse ”

Linda              “Actually-you may think I am annoying and look down on you. But I have never thought about the nature of skin color.”

Man                “Vodka martini for her,”

Linda               “On the rocks.”

‘Rong             That lady is over 35 years old, your humble writer guesses, but probably not 40 years. She has a bright face that said she loved alcohol more than water or milk. She looks so seductive, like the girls I saw in the bars in the brothel districts of Patpong in Bangkok or around the bars of Bang-Lamphu Square, she would be called ‘cougar’ or whatever.

But now that I meet her in Joe Chung’s Cocktail Lounge, she’s in this story at first sight.

Linda               “How long have you been here?” she asked

Man                “2 months.”

Linda               “Do you like San Francisco?”

Man                “I’m not really sure…”

Linda               “I bet that you won’t go anywhere. People who come to San Francisco usually want to spend their whole life here.”

Man                “Are you from here?”

Linda               “I was born in Oakland but I really love it here in San Francisco, so I moved across the bridge.” (She said this with a smooth and moderate tone.)

Man                “Have you ever visited New York?”

Linda               “Nope, I’ve never been further than Reno, just three hours to the east, in Nevada.”

Man                “Did you go to play cards there?”

Linda               “If not to gamble, why would I have gone to Reno?”

Man                “Some go to get married there?”

Linda               “You’re right…” (she said while sipping Vodka Martini) “but I never got married in Reno.

Man                “Just playing cards in Reno?”

Linda             “I played every gambling game there-blackjack , keno, roulette-except I didn’t play the slot machine. I hate the slot machine–it is a bastard thief with one arm.”

Man`           “I think I don’t like it either.”

Linda          “It sucks your money, doesn’t it?”

Man                        “Yes…”

Linda          “Is it that much?”

Man                        “Not just a little,”

Linda           “I think you have not checked, have you?”

Man           “Perhaps, next Friday I will ride that iron horse, the Greyhoud Bus, to go to Reno.”

Linda          “Why don’t you invite me to go with you?”

Man                        “Would you mind….?”

Linda         “No ! I don’t mind help from a pretty boy like you”

Man           “I’ll tell you once a woman shouted at me ‘Piece of shit! Just become I am black’”

Linda          “I’m sorry for you, but that was not me.”

Man                     “You are a good girl”

Linda          “No, I’m just a combination of good and bad.

“People in the church say that I am bad, but the homeless living on the street say I am good.”

Man             “I see what you mean. ”

Linda           “But as we are going to Reno together, I beg you-please don’t be jealous.”

Man             “Why?

Linda           “I have been there-getting a divorce from two of my husbands.”

‘Rong             The man just shrugged his shoulders and whistled.

            She went to the restroom which was located behind bar.

The bartender poked his face over a counter, and spoke to that inexperienced young black man.

Charlie            “I don’t want to intrude on your business, but you must know some facts about life. Some women are o.k. to take out for dinner, watching a movie together, and making love, but they are not suitable to ask for marriage. Some are even more terrible. They are not suitable for anything. Listen to me, that woman is a blood sucking leech; you should hurry to go back home, because it is better than dating her.”

‘Rong              At that moment, San Francisco heard a young black man cuss.

Man                Shit!

But the curtain of drama didn’t closed yet, the various duty of black and white!

Man                            “Leeches! I have heard that Chinese people like to eat them, is it true?

Charlie           “Sorry, I just thought that we are friends…..”

Man                “Thanks, Charlie! But I feel lonely.”

‘Rong              Americans, black or white, they prefer to call Chinese people Charlie, which is a reference to the old Charlie Chan movies, [or perhaps their experience in Vietnam where the Viet Cong were called ‘Charlie]. It seems like it has a contemptuous meaning, just like the word “Chink.”

As for blacks, your humble writer does not have any reason to hate black people. The many black people I knew they are wonderful friends. Some of them are doctors of high esteem. Some of them are musicians who create the world of jazz. Some are very charming bisexuals that your humble writer spent time with in the gay bars without knowing whether it was day or night. Some of the black people are poets who like to explain about the trash and flowers at the same time, as well as much else. They are friends who help each other when in need.

Some novels refer to goodness of the black people, and their yearning for freedom. It is the special condition that Americans admire equality for all before the law, and it is part of the constitution of the nation. And this is the historical cause the people in the past pursued, in order to make it for people today.

It is the conflict underpinning American society.

That white girl is back from the toilet.

The cheap perfume she wears is sweetly scented.

Linda              “Shall we go together, honey?”

‘Rong              She said it as if she had slept on the same pillow with him last night..

Man                “Do you not drink more ? ….

Linda              “Yes…..”

Man                “One for the road?”

‘Rong              He used this as an excuse for one last drink.

It is the last shot at Joe Chung’s Cocktail Lounge.

Linda              “I never refuse alcohol “

Man                “I believe that…”

‘Rong             But the Drama is not over yet.

Black and white look deeply at each others eyes, through his glass of water and blended Scotch whisky, and her vodka martini, without even knowing each others names. But that’s not necessary.

The bartender shrugs his shoulder.

A lonely horny guy and an alcoholic woman. She is hungry. What misfortune hit her? Or perhaps she doesn’t have money for the cheap room rent in the slum? Is her kid sick and staying in a poor hospital? Is her husband disabled by the war? Anyway, the pension is not enough to blow away the coldness and loneliness in her life?

She can fill any one of these roles.

She is Linda, but a Dirty Bitch Linda!

‘Rong              The bartender is shaking his head because he’s bored. As with the psychiatrist and the police, a lot of people are at his bar at his counter. If he were a writer he would have a lot stories to tell.

Charlie             “Linda is dangerous woman.”

‘Rong              “Linda!”

Charlie             “She named herself after Linda Lovelace the movie star. This woman calls herself Linda in her honor.”

‘Rong              He is referring to the movie called “Deep Throat.” This movie was so scandalous that it shook the church, the court, the monks and the censors. After fighting in court to be allowed to meet the letter of the decency laws, the film was finally allowed to be publically shown. Still, the Americans were worried. They were concerned about the problems of morality, and what that meant for the country. But the nation’s erotic mood was edgy, and people were frustrated to the point that in some cases they became mentally ill. And so the film was just obscene for anyone who was pessimistic about the state of society’s morality. And the more optimistic viewed that film as reflecting the capacity of a more liberal society to throw aside old ethics. But to find that optimistic answer you must be indifferent to the relationship between sin and merit; but for the second group of people, you could almost hear them exhale. So. your humble writer promised to take Malee to go see the film on a night we were both free in San Francisco.

‘Rong             “Do you think that she is a blood-sucking leech?”

Charlie             “I don’t want to gossip about anyone. But in the garden in which she plays with men, that is the thing that is true.”

‘Rong              “Is Linda a liar?”

Charlie             “Worse than that…”

‘Rong                       “Perhaps an incorrigible bullshitter? Tricky?”

Charlie                    “It’s just a matter of how and how much trouble she will cause. I’m just saying that the bitch’s gonna take whatever she wants. She wants money, and will get money if she can. If she doesn’t get any money she will get a ring. Got no ring, take a watch. If she could take off the man’s shoes, she would, I think. Anyway, I feel like my mouth is always butting into others’ business where it does not belong. I’m feeling pity on that poor black calf.”

‘Rong                       “Blacks don’t want any pity, do they?” Your humble writer offered this thought.

Charlie                    “Everybody all over the country is the same, all throughout the country. It’s an American thing. But as for me, I am different. I do not have the feeling that I am a person unto himself. I am an Asian, so I empathize with others. ”

‘Rong                       “I understand your feeling, Charlie.”

Charlie                    “But think again. Tonight, that dirty slut Linda will surely have money for tomorrow.”

‘Rong                       “Have you known her for a long time?”

Charlie                    “Since her name was Marilyn, Marilyn on the sidewalk. Marilyn who never was the playful lover of a person like President Kennedy. But her ass is unbeatably beautiful.”

‘Rong                       “Leech?”

Charlie                    “Yes- she is.”

‘Rong“                     I am also thinking about the superstar agencies in Hollywood. They’re also leeches.”

Charlie                    “It’s similar but not the same. These leeches have different kinds.”

‘Rong                       “She’s a beautiful woman. Hmm, I mean, she was.”

Charlie                    “Many people have said the same that you do. Let’s face it, her life is sad and horrible. If it had been someone else’s life, that person would kill themself. But Linda never gave up. You know what? On some nights when she isn’t able to get a man, she sells her blood down on Mission Street. Some weeks she is thin like a zombie,

‘This was her destruction… After donating blood, the money she received could be used to buy just a few glasses of whiskey. Then she walked out and fell down in the street.

She was told that by the place where the blood was purchased is for the hospital. But it was really a private business.”

‘Rong                       Along Mission Street is found the transcript for poverty. Pawn shop, cheap grocery stores, and a rented room where big rats with wet fur run from the pipe hole to the ceiling. Thieves and starving people walk by in opposite directions. Pickpockets wait for the victim in the building corner and so forth. The blood-purchasing clinic is situated in this dejected atmosphere–in order to suck blood from the poor to help the rich.

So, the poor had no choice, and they sold their blood for food

So blood was turned into sausage, vegetables, and bread in this fashion. Some portion turns to shit, some turned into energy and that which is left is turned back into blood. It is the infinite cycle, one that does not end until the last drop of blood evaporates from the corpse.

Charlie                    “May Satan himself protect this woman.”

‘Rong                       I heard myself praying

Linda dirty bitch! Your humble writer will not forget the spark that is still inside her eye.

Her sad smile reflects crying. But she still has a lust for life, while becoming accustomed to the punishment of being human.

Her price is cheap! But somehow she is still worth more than the Buddhist nun who does not observe the strict precepts, who uses religion as a mask to cover her face, but who wanders along the street begging for money, seeking friends in this world who will share her suffering.

Tomorrow, your humble writer hopes to meet Linda again.



Graduation Season, and Graduation Songs, from “Free Bird” to “Onward Christian Soldiers”

Here is a test on graduation songs. I have actually been to many graduations, and each of them has special songs performed. Most of them I have long-since forgotten. But four of them I remember. Here are some of the places I have been to graduations. See if you can match the song with the locale.


“Onward Christian Soldiers”

“Pomp and Circumstance”

“Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Alleluia Chorus” by Handel

“Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music


–California State University, Chico, where I have taught for 20 years

–Zeppelin University in Germany, where I was an exchange professor

–Bear River High School in Grass Valley, California, where my kids went to high school

–Payap University International College in Thailand

–Karen Kawthoolei Baptist Bible College in a Karen refugee camp in Thailand.

O.k., now here are the answers.

“Pomp and Circumstance” is at Bear River High School, Chico State, and Payap University. It may have been at the other ceremonies too—I don’t remember. It is such a traditional song, that it doesn’t stick in my memory. I will make a point of noting whether it is there next time!

“Free Bird” was played by a graduating senior on an electric guitar at Bear River High School about ten years ago. Sadly they did not do it at later graduations I attended—perhaps they had second thoughts about telling 18 year old that they should not be caged anymore.

I can’t remember what songs were played at Zeppelin U. , though I remember they had an excellent music program. (Hah! Bet you thought that was where Handel’s Messiah was produced!

The most impressive choirs were at the Karen Refugee Camps, where there were probably about 300 voices singing the multiple parts of Alleluia Chorus under a tin roof. The choirs in the refugee camp practice a great deal (there is not much else to do in a refugee camp) and the performance was outstanding both years that I attended the graduation there. They also did “Onward Christian Soldiers,” but sang it in Karen under that same tin roof at both graduations.

“Climb Every Mountain” was done by the Payap University Choir at a graduation I attended last week, and they too did a wonderful job. There were perhaps thirty well-trained members of the choir from the “Thai Side” of the campus (as opposed to the English-speaking “International Side.”


There must be a message about why each group chose the various songs. “Onward Christian Soldiers” (in Karen) is perhaps the most notable. Refugees have by definition been expelled violently from their country and there is an interest in re-conquest, whether spiritually, or through military action. The camp I heard the song is known for its political support of the Karen National Union, and supplying soldiers to the Karen National Army.


“Free Bird” and “Climb Every Mountain” both appeal to the idea that graduations is a beginning of a new adventure—that the old is left behind, and there are new adventures to choose. All that I find odd here is that two very different institutions, Bear River High School, and Payap University had such similar themes, both drawn from popular western music. Sometimes I guess East and West do meet!

Vanity as an Occupational Disease–Of Politicians (and everyone else)!

My wife and I recently completed re-translating Max Weber’s classic essay “Politics as Vocation” which is part of a book Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society. The essay is about how the nature of politics, which is about the exercise of power, creates the type of human-being who is accustomed to telling other people what to do. Bill Clinton also lists it on his Presidential library site as one of his favorite books of all-time.

Tony-Cover of Weber book

Weber writes that one of the by-products of politics for a politician personality which is particularly vain because the politician becomes accustomed to hearing how wonderful they are.  Vanity is not something limited to politicians of course–but Weber says that for politicians, it is almost an occupational disease.  This disease emerges because politics requires the politician to always push themselves forward, asserting that the politician’s self is the possessor of the unique quality of leadership and judgment, which no one else possesses. Elections campaigns, in which a coterie of “table companions” and supporters sing the praises of the politicians feed into this self-conception.

Now, vanity is not a monopoly of the political profession–but as Weber notes, it is particularly dangerous in a politician because they wield power over others via the police, army, and other tools of coercive force. And wielding power over others is fun–actually he says it is “intoxicating.”  Weber writes that politicians come to see such issues of power as being addressable only through their own special personal qualities–and not those of anyone else. And there are of course those crowds of people, as well as a sycophantic retinue that they themselves create to remind themselves that they are indeed as wonderful as their press releases indicate.

   Vanity is a very widely spread trait and probably nobody is entirely free of it. Certainly, among scholars and academic circles it is kind of an occupational disease.


Nevertheless, especially for a scholar, vanity is distasteful when it expresses itself, but it is relatively harmless because it does not disrupt the functioning of academic organizations.


This is completely different in a politician for whom the pursuit of power is a means unto itself.


“The Pursuit of Power” is in fact one of the normal typical qualities of a politician.


“The sin against the Holy Spirit,” which is a deadly sin, in the context of the politician’s professional calling [Beruf ], begins when the thirst for power becomes irrational and a matter for pure personal self intoxication instead of being used exclusively in the service of a cause.


Ultimately, there are just two kinds of “deadly sins” in the field of politics: a lack of objectivity and irresponsibility—often, but not always, identical qualities. It is the vanity, and the need to be seen and to push oneself to the front, that is the primary temptation that leads politicians to committing one or both of these deadly sins. (Weber’s Rationalism, pp. 192-183).


Weber’s Rationalism will be available on-line in a hardback and electronic edition in April 2015. It is priced for libraries—please urge your library to buy a cop

First posted at Ethnography.com February 2016.

Max Weber was a funny guy!

That’s right, Max Weber, the dour looking social theorist on the cover of your social theory text made jokes. How do I know this? Well, my wife and I just published a new book Weber’s Rationalism: New Translations on Politics, Bureaucracy, and Social Stratification, and this post is an essay about why you should read it!

      In particular, Weber’s classic essay “Politics as Vocation” has real zingers in it.

Tony-Cover of Weber book

Some examples of the wit and sarcasm of Max:

      Vanity is a very widely spread trait and probably nobody is entirely free of it.


Certainly, among scholars and academic circles it is kind of an occupational disease.

Nevertheless, especially for a scholar, vanity is distasteful when it expresses itself, but it is relatively harmless because it does not disrupt the functioning of academic organizations. This is completely different in a politician for whom the pursuit of power is a means unto itself. (pp 181-182).

But Weber was not going to only take potshots at academics, he also had some fine words for politicians as well, writing as he was during the German Revolution of 1918-1919. Specifically he said:

 But there is one remark I would like to make: At this time and day of pure excitement and passion—even though not all excitement is caused by true convictions—politicians on an outrageous scale run wild with slogans like:


‘It is the world, it is dumb, stupid and mean! It is not me! I am not responsible for the consequences. The consequences are the responsibility of others for whom I work. But I will eradicate their stupidity, arrogance, and nastiness!’


To put it bluntly, I ask myself firstly, are such people truly serious about any ethical and moral convictions? I am convinced that in nine out of ten cases, they are windbags puffed up with hot air about themselves. They are not in touch with reality, and they do not feel the burden they need to shoulder—they just intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations. (p. 196)

And then he really lets politicians have it when he writes the following about the characters who turn to that profession:

Politics is made with the head, not with the other parts of body, nor the soul. (p. 181)

I know, you are probably wondering what is so funny about that last one?  What does he mean when he advises politicians to not make politics with either the soul or “other” parts of the body?  What exactly is the “other” part of the body used to “make politics?”  Anyway,  I don’t think Weber was thinking of hands and feet! Politicians in those days too had fleshly temptations, and giving into them could only lead to poor political decisions, as generation after generation of politicians continually re-discover!

Admittedly, the humor in our new translations is nestled among Weber’s more serious gems of insight which are couched in in more lofty prose.   But wit and wisdom go together, and in our translations and the pages of accompanying editorial material, which we wrote, there are plenty of both.

How prescient? President Bill Clinton said that “Politics as Vocation” was one of the 21 best books he had ever read—it is in the same list with his wife Hillary’s auto-biography!

And there is more humor in “Politics as Vocation,” including endearing comments by Weber about men who blame their wives for their own affairs, and random potshots at political nemeses among the revolutionary politicians of 1919 Germany like Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebkencht, and Kurt Eisner,  and even snarky remarks about politicians in the United States and Russia.  But you need to get the book to read about these!

Besides the rip-roaring oratory of Weber’s “Politics as Vocation, first delivered in the lecture hall of the University of Munich in 1919, in our book there are also new fresh translations of Weber’s classic essays “Class, Status, Party;” “Discipline and Charisma;” and “Bureaucracy.” All four translations are new, fresh, and littered with footnotes to help you understand both Weber’s wisdom and humor!

Now for those of you convinced this is worth $90+ , you can have your copy of our new book delivered by Amazon.com either by the post office, or wirelessly to your Kindle. If you don’t have an extra $90+, you can tell your library that they cannot do without this book. Here is a convenient link from our publisher to recommend the book.  Please click on this link and tell your library that they should indeed buy a copy so you can quickly check out the wit and wisdom of St. Max.

A pre-publication version of Chapter 1 is here.

Happy reading!

Originally posted April 28, 2015

Something Happened At My Son’s School: Guns in a Backpack!


By Chunyan Song

March 30th Thursday was a regular teaching day for me at Chico State. After I finished the last class of the day, I went back to my office and checked my emails. My son Lucas’ 4th grade teacher Mr. Pembroke had just sent a really odd email minutes before. “Folks, I want to assure you that your children were always safe today and that, in fact, we had a good day of learning.  Your children’s safety is always first and foremost for all of us that work at school.  Today was handled very well and we carried on, business as usual.” The email attached a note from the school’s principal, Ms. McLaughlin, with similar message to the parents. In the principal’s note, it also said that Chico Police Department was working on “this case”.

I immediately checked my cell phone to make sure that I hadn’t missed any important calls from the school or anyone else. No missed calls. I opened Facebook. On the top of Facebook feeds, it was a news story from Action News Now. The first line of the story made me almost scream, CHICO, CALIF. – Around 11 a.m., Chico Police received a call from authorities at Parkview Elementary, to report a small handgun had been safely removed from a student.”

This happened at my son’s school while I was teaching! According to the news report, an “unidentified” 7-year old second grade student had brought a loaded .380 caliber Ruger handgun to class. Fortunately, the teacher found the gun in the student’s desk and called the police. The news also said the kid obtained the gun from “an unlocked and unsecured location inside his mother’s bedroom.” He was a good student with no behavior problems. And his mother was a “law-biding citizen.” It seemed that he brought the gun to school as a “show & tell” to impress his friends.

I was mad that I had to learn all of these through Facebook. Later at home, I found that the school had left two computer generated messages at my home phone, with the first saying “weapon was found” at the school and kids were safe. In the second message, it emphasized no need to pick up kids from school and the school was not in lockdown. The words “gun” or “loaded gun” were never mentioned in either of the messages.

Besides the initial shock, I am deeply grateful that nobody got hurt or killed. However, above all, I feel furious that something like this could even happen in an elementary school. As an immigrant from a country where guns are strictly prohibited, I find the gun culture in America sick and incomprehensible. I am appalled at the government’s inability to implement necessary gun controls even after so many gun related catastrophes. It is high time for Americans to face the reality and do some serious self-reflection on gun violence. Let’s look at some statistics and studies together.

The population of America currently stands at 311 million, accounting for less than 5 percent of the world’s population. Approximately 300 million weapons or 35 to 50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns are kept by Americans.   It is close to one gun per person in America!  This firearms per capita ratio is the highest in the world! 

With such an alarmingly high gun ownership, and plenty of negligent parents, Americans have witnessed one tragedy after another with either children as the victims, or the perpetrators of gun violence. A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 5.4 percent of students nationwide had carried a weapon (e.g. a gun, knife, or club) on school property. In another study by the National Association of School Psychologists, 7.5 percent of students in the Washington, D.C., reported having brought a gun to school.  A third of Americans with children under 18 at home keep a gun on the premises. And what I find especially disturbing is that nearly a third of households with children younger than 12 fail to lock up their guns. Parents of adolescents in particular appear to be more likely to keep guns unsecured in the home.

The United States also has the highest homicide-by-firearm rate among the world’s developed nations. More broadly, America ranks 4th for the highest number of deaths from guns, only superseded by Columbia, Mexico, and Venezuela. Based on the CNN report from June 2016, from 1966 to 2012, nearly a third of the world’s mass shootings took place in the U.S.  In the first 164 days of 2016, we’ve seen a total of 136 mass shootings in the United States. The three deadliest shootings in the U.S. have occurred in the past 10 years. The Orlando attack on June 12th, 2016 was by far the deadliest shooting in the U.S. history with 49 killed. The 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting killed 32 lives. The third deadliest shooting, the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, claimed 27 lives among which 20 six- and seven-year-olds and 7 teachers.

My own two kids were recently about the same age as the kids killed in Sandy Hook. I was so sickened by the news that I could not bear to read, watch, or talk about it for a long time. I cried for the lost little lives and for their mothers. I was mad then and still mad today. How could it have happened? After it happened, how could any human beings with warm blood still be able to find excuses after excuses not doing anything to change? Yes, guns don’t kill and people do. Yes, the criminal was mentally ill. We need to fix that. Yes, we couldn’t have prevented a mentally ill person from killing. However, my stubborn gun loving American neighbors, don’t you agree that it is much harder to kill forty nine or twenty seven people with a knife, a sword, or a baseball bat? Don’t you agree that a strict gun control or even ban will discourage criminal-minded sick people from going through all the trouble to acquire a gun before killing at impulse? Study after study shows this is the case, as do comparisons with so many other developed countries where gun controls are stricter, and death rates lower.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, President Obama stated,

“We can’t tolerate this anymore.”

“These tragedies must end and to end them we must change.”

Five years have passed. No changes have been made. The Sandy Hook kids have died in vain. What a national shame!

The gun culture in America is firmly entrenched in an outdated Second Amendment of the American constitution from 1791. More than two hundred years have passed. The society has changed. Guns have changed. Isn’t time for Americans to change the law like they did when slavery became out of date, presidential term limits were needed, the income was needed, and 18 year olds were allowed to vote? But it turns out that it is almost impossible to change that pesky out-of-date 2nd amendment. A number of gun advocates consider ownership a birthright and an essential part of the nation’s heritage.  Many Americans live in the paranoia that everyone wants to attack them, even though that is clearly not the case. In addition, they do not trust the police to protect them in the extremely rare case of such an attack.

In all, fewer than 20 states have enacted laws to hold adults criminally liable if they fail to store guns safely, enabling children to access them. In opposing safe-storage laws, some gun rights advocates have argued that a majority of accidental shootings of children are committed by adults with criminal backgrounds. The Times’s review found that was not true — children under the age of 18 were most often the shooters — and that the families involved came from all different backgrounds.

The day after the gun incident at Parkview Elementary School, Lucas was invited to a classmate’s birthday party for some archery fun at the Down Range Indoor Training Center. I drive by Down Range daily on my way to work. I have zero interest in supporting any business, including this one, promoting guns. Every single holiday, Down Range puts up an oversize poster next to the freeway. For Christmas, the poster had Santa Claus holding a rifle with an obnoxious message saying, “Pew! Pew! Pew! Merry Xmas!” Right now in the last week of March, the poster has already taken on the Easter theme. It features a pink-eared bunny with a provocative solicitation message, “Need an AR? Hop On In!”

The party was scheduled right after school. I decided to take my son to the birthday party for the sake of a quick peek towards the journalism writing paper I had in mind. Right at the entrance to the left side of the facility, a dozen heavy duty gun safes were for sale. Hunting clothing and gears on display shelves occupied most of the middle section of the large open space. To the right, the rifles and handguns were for sale behind the counters. My son’s friend took us directly to the party room next to the archery facility. Most of the kids at the party were from his class. Over soft drinks and pizza, the topic of the incident at school from the previous day naturally came up. One girl said that her brother was in the 2nd grade class where the gun was found, and that her brother actually saw the gun before it was taken away by the teacher. Another kid mentioned how his mom freaked out after she heard about the gun. A few kids knew the name of the 7-year old who brought the gun to school. There were already rumors about him getting expelled from school, as if a seven year old was personally responsible for the negligence of his parents and for the larger gun culture.

After snacks, an employee looking barely a kid herself brought the kids out for masks to get ready for the archery shooting. The kids were divided into two groups and were then led into the archery room. A ceiling-to-floor net separated the entrance area from the archery obstacle course. In the middle of the large room were a dozen obstacles. The employee gave them a brief instruction and gave the kids a trial run. The goal of the game was for the two teams to shoot “arrows” at each other. The team with more “survivors” at the end of the game would be the winner. At the order of “go,” the kids scrambled to the middle of the room to grab as many “arrows” as they could. Some kids got a hang of the game right away. They successfully shot a few kids from the other team while seeking protection from behind the obstacles. Some unlucky ones got shot at the very beginning of the first round and were taken out of the game right away. Amid the innocent giggling and laughter from the little kids, in the background, loud gunshots echoed from the shooting range facility next door, “Bang! Bang! Bang!” I wondered whether any of the kids paid attention, or if they did, whether they knew what they were[1].

Later that night during bedtime, I lay down with Lucas and asked whether he was scared about what happened at his school. He said not really. They had gone through drills before and he knew what to do if someone tried to kill them. I told him I was glad to hear that. He lost interest in this serious topic quickly.

In the dim night light next to the bed, Lucas reached his left arm above his head and showed me his bare armpit, “Mama, when will I start to grow armpit hair?”

“Why do you ask? You don’t have to worry about armpit hairs for a few more years.”

“I can’t wait to wear the deodorant,” my 9-year old son said with a sense of eagerness.

I promised him that I would let him try some deodorant tomorrow morning if he goes to sleep now. With that, Lucas stopped talking and closed his eyes.

A wave of overwhelming joy and gratitude filled my heart. I could feel the warmth of his rhythmic breathing right next to my face. His little hand rested on my arm, feeling warm and heavy. But my heart simultaneously was filled with a vast emptiness and sorrow for the Sandy Hook mothers. For them, the opportunity to talk with their little ones about armpit hairs was violently taken away from them. This was the worst pain no mothers should ever experience[2].


[1] A few days later, my daughter participated in a self-defense training class with a group of 12- to 13- year-old girls. When the coach asked the group whether anyone had fired a gun before, one third of the girls raised their hands.

[2] April 10, 2017, the day when I finished this essay, a murder-suicide shooting in a special needs classroom in San Bernardino, California claimed three lives including an 8-year-old boy.

“That was a Real Nice Truck” Vigilante Justice in Skidmore, Missouri, USA

(Last week I posted about vigilante justice in Tanzania.  It happens in the United States, too, which is what this story is about. As with the previous post, this is an extract from my book  When Killing is a Crime, 2007 Lynne Rienner Publishers).

Ken McElroy was shot and killed while sitting next to his wife Trena in a Chevy Silverado in downtown Skidmore, Missouri, USA, in August 1981. At least thirty-five people were present at the time of the killing, including law officers, the mayor, and other prominent people in the small community. At least two guns were used to shoot as many as 15 rounds.

The shooting occurred in the afternoon outside the American Legion Hall following a meeting which had been called to discuss how Skidmore could protect itself against Ken McElroy. McElroy and his wife Trena showed-up uninvited at the meeting. Leaving after exchanging words with the men there, he and Trena returned to his truck. As he was sitting in the truck, he was shot by two different rifles. Despite the large number of potential witnesses, and repeated investigations by local, state, and federal authorities all reached the same conclusion. Ken McElroy had been killed by “persons unknown.” All thirty-five people present claimed not to have seen anyone fire. Despite the coercive power of the courts to compel testimony, none present admitting to having seen who killed Ken McElroy. Town Marshall David Dunbar, who had earlier resigned out of fear of McElroy would attack would only comment twenty years later: “It’s really a shame about the Silverado,” he said. “That was a really nice truck.”

Ken McElroy was born in 1934, the 15th of 16 children born to itinerant sharecroppers. He never really learned to read well, and never had a job. McElroy lived outside of Skidmore, a town of about 500 people, with a succession of women. A harem, writers called it, because frequently there were more than one teenage wife or girlfriend living there. Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, he regularly cased junior high schools, looking for new girls to replace those of whom he had tired. As a result, by the time of his murder in 1981, he had had at least ten children by four different women. He had been arrested twenty-two times, been tried only once (he was acquitted) but never served time in jail. Indeed, the event that precipitated his murder, a shotgun assault on a 70 year-old grocer, resulted in only his first conviction and sentencing. He was free on bail when he was killed.

Ken McElroy married for the first time at age 18, and moved briefly to Denver, Colorado. He could not hold a job, so he and his wife soon moved back to Skidmore. There, he began hanging out with his “coon huntin’ buddies,” men who shared his passion for hunting raccoons at night when the animals were active. His nighttime activities were to become his income—he became a cattle rustler in a remote corner of Missouri where cattle markets were poorly policed, and there was no obligation to brand cattle. Nighttime stealth, a refined capability to harass any witnesses, and an attorney who could be retained at a cost of $5,000 per felony kept him out of the courthouse, and driving a succession of new trucks. McElroy also developed a skill for brandishing weapons, and intimidation.

McElroy’s first arrest came in connection with his wife-to-be Trena, an eighth grader who he first seduced in 1971 when she was 12 years old. McElroy already had two women, Marcia and Alice living with him at the time. Nevertheless, Trena moved in replacing Marcia. She dropped out of school in the 9th grade, and was pregnant by the time she was 14. But then 16 days after the birth of her son, she and Alice fled to Trena’s parents. This lasted only a few hours. McElroy brandishing a gun forced the girls to return home with him, where as punishment, he beat them and forced them to perform sex acts. After that, he returned with Trena to the home of her parents. McElroy shot the family dog, poured gas around the house, and burned it down.

Two days later, Trena took her new-born son to a doctor, who coaxed the story of the arson out of her. The doctor contacted the county social welfare agency, who put Trena and her baby into foster care. The case was taken to the district attorney. On the basis of Trena’s testimony, McElroy was indicted for arson, assault, and rape. Even at $5,000 per felony, his attorney told him, it would be difficult for him to be acquitted. But McElroy did not relent. He found the foster home where Trena was living, and began making threatening calls. The District Attorney slapped on eight more felony molestation charges as a result of the trysts he had with Trena beginning when she was 13 years old.

But McElroy was still charming. He arranged to divorce his second wife Sharon from whom he had been separated for several years, and marry Trena. More threats persuaded Trena’s mother to give consent to the marriage, which in turn solved McElroy’s legal problems. As his wife, Trena could not be compelled to testify against him, in a case which was highly dependent on her cooperation for a conviction. McElroy had beat the charges.

There were more cases during the subsequent years. Many involved intimidation, whether it was over women, slights to his honor, or accusations of criminal activity. His last fight was in many respects just as trivial as the others. One of McElroy’s children was chastised by shopkeepers Bo and Lois Bowenkamp for not having paid for a ten cent piece of candy. Ken McElroy came back to the store, and found Bo Bowenkamp cutting open boxes with a butcher knife. A verbal altercation ensued, and Bowenkamp was shot with McElroy’s shotgun. This time, despite the claims of McElroy and one of his coon huntin’ buddies that Bowencamp had threatened McElroy with the knife, Ken McElroy was sentenced to two years in prison. But, under Missouri law, he remained free on appeal; still the only question in August 1981 was when he would begin his sentence. Stays were granted, during which McElroy returned to Skidmore to threaten witnesses, including the Bowenkamps. It was at this time the town called a meeting in the American Legion Hall. The conclusion of the meeting resulted in the still unsolved death of Ken McElroy, by persons unknown.

Ultimately of course, this is a story about the legitimacy of the law as it emerges from the people. Not even the power of the FBI could break the code of silence in Skidmore. Skidmore, in short, to address the problem of Ken McElroy briefly became a virtually stateless area. The death and subsequent code of silence was as powerful as that in an inner city gang, or any stateless areas which are so difficult to police.

Further Reading

Film: “Without Mercy” (2004)

Krajicek, David (n.d.) Court TV Crime Library, online at http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/classics/ken_mcelroy/index.html

MacLean, Harry N. (1988). In Broad Daylight: A Murder in Skidmore, Missouri. New York: Dell

Originally posted at Ethnography.com, April 2015


More about Erving Goffman and my German Language Problems

As I wrote before I am living in Germany and learning German.  On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I spend 2.5 hours with ten strangers from all over the world. We have little in common except that we are foreigners living in Germany struggling to integrate. Our conversations with each other are in German, and inevitably about such topics as why it is so difficult to remember how to get the right ending on a comparative adjective (is it –e, -en, -er, -em, -es, etc.?). Not really the stuff that great friendships are made of; particularly when you do not share fluency in a common language. But nevertheless, Cordula our teacher assures us that this is all necessary for our life in Germany. So grumpy or not we all push along, collectively sharing an unspoken dream of proving Germans wrong about the idea that multiple adjectival endings are important to anyone’s life.

All of us have tried to explain to Cordula at some point why German does not make sense. She just smiles nicely, and notes that “it’s irregular,” which is the language teacher’s way of saying “it is logicval only when I say it is logical, otherwise it is illogical.” And so we are stumped since after all, how can you ever say that my language is “more logical” than German unless you get the proper ending onto the adjective (something along the lines of “my language is more logikalerere than German because the der-die-das komparativ so much easier is”). You don’t have to believe me on this issue, of course. Mark Twain wrote “The Awful German Language”
after killing two or three German teachers—they died of heart failure—in the 1880s during his attempts to master German grammar. Fortunately, Cordula, has both a better sense of humor and stronger heart than Twain’s teachers, is still alive, but more about her below.

But this blog is not about the nature of German language, but about my classmates who are what sociologist Erving Goffman called my “own” because we share the stigma of being linguistically impaired in Friedrichshafen. There are ten of us, and except with the young English-speaking Kenyan woman who works at a local nursing home, my conversations with the others are in German. We all speak enough to know something about each other. There are two music teachers (one from Russia and one Kazakhstan) both married to German men. There are two from Belarus in the class, one a computer engineer at a local company, and the other a language student. Two Italians work at local restaurants, and Daniel from France who recently retired here. The most fluent German speaker is a Hungarian-speaker from Romania who we all secretly admire greatly. In short, we have little in common, except that we ended up in Friedrichshafen somehow, we are all foreigners, we share a classroom twice a week, and believe in Cordula’s capacity to transform our German verb forms.

And yet we also share that unspoken and special bond described by Goffman in his book Stigma. We are each others’ “own” with respect to the vast numbers of Germans around us who are the “normals.” Some of the best classroom conversations have been about how the normal Germans do things to us which are odd to us. Among the things we notice are that Germans are insurance-crazy, carry little reflective triangles in their cars (in case their car breaks down, and their warning blinkers don’t work), and do not like hugging as much as Italians, Russians, and French. We have all compared notes about German immigration law as a result of time spent securing permits in the local immigration office.

We have also endured at some level an attitude that foreigners should just get with it and learn German—integration is the key (gee thanks for the advice Mr. Normal German—when was the last time you tried to memorize and use 48 Kazakh articles?). As with normals everywhere, they do not easily understand what it is like to be on the outside looking in. Believe me, we all want to “integrate” and achieve linguistic anonymity–were it only so easy! So integration from a normal is the last thing any of us wants to hear after hours spent wrestling with the weird German vowels like Ö Ä Ü, unpronounceable even to Mötley Krüe, or worse yet distinguishing between the sound of a sharp s (ß) and a double ss.

And so we help each other out in class with whispered answers when we are stuck, awkwardly trade news about planned vacations and family, and have a special bond when we encounter each other in the city. Daniel especially, has become helpful in slipping us all study guides, and one of the Italians picked up the tab for me and my family when we were at his restaurant. Cordula of course is our shared hero—she is what Goffman called one of the “wise.” She is a “normal” German, but as a result of years teaching German, she instinctively understands and sympathizes with our tribulations. She points out my “typical English mistakes,” and I can even laugh when she does this. She also knows more about the rapidly changing German immigration laws than do most Germans—a wisdom she gained through years of interacting with foreign German learners.

Among Cordula’s more appreciated tales are about the strong local dialect known as Swabian German. Somehow it takes the edge off of things, realizing that all those “normal” Swabians also use the “wrong” article with the word for “butter” routinely, and butcher any word having a st consonant combination. Those of us imagining ourselves at the bottom of Friedrichshafen’s linguistic heap enjoy the chance to snicker at the problems of our presumed tormentors!


Originally posted December 18, 2007 at Ethnography.com

Language Learning, Stigma, and Protecting a Potentially Spoiled Identity

This blog is about why ethnographer Erving Goffman’s observation of stigma are important not just to ex-cons, but also to professors like me on foreign exchange programs. Goffman, as many sociologists and anthropologists know, observed the maneuvers of the marginalized and stigmatized in society, and then wrote about how they thought about their disability. He saw that the marginalized were constantly managed their spoiled social identities because they feared public exposure of their disability. To make his point he wrote about ex-cons, ex-mental patients, prostitutes and others. Such stigmatized people, he wrote, are acutely conscious that at any moment any pretense they maintain of being a “normal person” can be unceremoniously disclosed. Mental patients, ex-cons, and prostitutes always wonder if a passing person knows them from their “other” life, simply recognizes the habits and tics they carry with them from that life. What this creates is a “hyper-vigilance” on the part of the stigmatized as they move through their daily routines. They watch everything, and are always wary. To control the stress, the stigmatized avoid situations where they are easily exposed—they fear being the fool, humiliated, or even attacked. Their greatest desire is to be socially invisible, even as they move through the necessary routines of daily life.

In fact, I was mulling over Goffman’s wisdom when walking to the bus stop on my way home two weeks ago. My mind though switched off when I realized that once again, as it is with many new American residents of Germany, I needed to manage my identity with respect to my highly imperfect, ungrammatical, and accented German. I can of course manage this by remaining mute in many social situations. This is surprisingly easy in places like supermarket checkout lines where the numbers on the cash register, hand gestures, and smiles help me pass without disclosing my stigmatized status. But finding the right bus home creates higher risks of disclosure than the supermarket checkout line.

Because I have yet to master bus schedules, I arrived thirty minutes early at my stop that day. Not wanting to stay on my feet, I spied an almost empty bench—only one fellow there to ask “permission” to share. I did this with hand motions, eye contact, a nod, the universal “ok,” and then scrunched into the furthest corner possible from my fellow bench warmer. Terrified at the thought that my bench mate would initiate a conversation, I took the only English language book in my backpack out (Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, no less) and buried my nose into it. This was effective, and the man sharing my bench ignored me. But five minutes later we were approached by an older man who politely asked if the spot between us was “free.” I nodded, smiled, motioned, and grunted, protected once again from having to say anything. But the situation was now more hazardous. There were now three of us on the bench sitting uncomfortably close, and the potential for being unmasked as a linguistic incompetent had uncomfortably increased.

Anyway, I soon decided I wasn’t that tired anyway, and got up and wandered back to the bus stop, even though I was still 15 minutes early. There I leaned against a post, and again tried to bury my nose back in my book. Soon though, I was distracted by what happened next at the bus bench. A woman with dogs on leashes came up. One of the dogs started to sniff at the older man’s bag. There was a brief exchange, and then the woman with the dogs went on. The older man then stood up, picked up his bag, and walked over to where I was standing and then, horror of horrors, he began talking to me. I more or less understood what he said, but could only muster the barest of responses:

Man: Did you see those dogs? They sniffed through my bags!
Me: Grunt.
Man: People should control their dogs, shouldn’t they!
Me: Grunt.
Man: Don’t you think it is an invasion of privacy that dogs will sniff through my bags?
Me: Certainly.

Thankfully, the bus then arrived, resulting in a change of subject. We got on the bus, and then further horrors, he sat near me! What would I do? Too nervous for Max Weber, my hyper-vigilance sensors went up, and I studiously avoided his occasionally friendly gaze, fearing that my incompetence could be further revealed. In this context, I bolted for the door when five minutes later we arrived at the place where I needed to transfer buses. I rushed off the bus, eager to re-embrace the anonymity that would be available on the next bus. But then things became worse. The man was following me onto the bus—he was going in the same direction I was!

With relief, I saw him settled with his bag into a seat far from mine. But still my anxiety did not dissipate until I reached my final stop ten minutes later. Off I stepped, and finally regained my anonymity as just another normal person, anonymous and obscure on a busy German street.

Such hyper-vigilance is exhausting, but also routine when you are a discreditable minority of any kind. Goffman’s mental patients, ex cons, prostitutes, and others were always aware that someone from their former life will strip away the sense of normalcy they desired . But the same principles applies to foreigners in all places, linguistic minorities, ethnic minorities, racial minorities and others who fear a part of their identity will unceremoniously at any time subject them to ridicule, or a loss of honor.

Like the ex-con and mental patients, I seek the comfort of blending and belonging while here in Germany, something I take for granted at Chico State. The sad thing for me was that as a result, I passed up language learning opportunities on my bus ride. In retrospect, I know that I should have bravely plowed ahead, and attempted a conversation with both my fellow bench warmers. After all, intellectually I know that Germans are almost always unfailingly kind to foreigners attempting to learn their language. I know too that it is educationally correct to have a conversation with the two men at the bench, rather than avoiding them. It would also have been enriching to engage the man the one who “followed” me on my two bus rides in small talk about the weather, dogs, his bag, or anything else. I didn’t of course because I value the anonymity of being normal more. As a result, I hid my stigma behind props like Max Weber’s book, and avoid the random encounters of social life which in English, I often delight in.

Both sociologists and anthropologists glamorize the intellectual stimulation such cross-cultural experience I am having. I still believe it is glamorous, and I will continue to encourage students to go abroad and study languages. But there is another value to study abroad experiences, particularly for students who are from the default normative category of their own country. At Chico State, this includes me, as well as the many middle class suburban white students in my undergraduate classes. But studying abroad is also about becoming an outsider who will evaluate every potential social encounter for its capacity to strip away the comfortable anonymity we gain when we hang with people like us. My chance to be an exchange scholar in Germany is of course partly glamorous. But my story is also the one that Goffman wrote about. I am sure that in one year, I will speak better German, and the memories of my constant hyper-vigilance dissipate. But in the meantime, I look forward to the mental exhaustion of both language learning, and stigma management.

For what it is worth, I sleep more here in Germany despite the pleasant Fall weather. Hyper-vigilance is mentally exhausting!


Goffman, Erving. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

Conclusion: The American Diet by Chunyan Song (Part VI)

by Chunyan Song

It took a long journey and a health crisis to turn my diet and health around. I am married to a vegetarian. Together we try to raise two health-conscious kids. I haven’t eaten a Whopper Jr. Sandwich for years. Nowadays, I have a dozen fruit trees and a vegetable garden in the backyard, along with fourteen free-range chickens. I love my hens. They are hardworking and lay all the eggs for my family and a few friends. But I have not figured out what to do with the two roosters. They are constantly at bloody wars with each other. Amid the mass of claws, beaks, and feathers in the air, I find the rooster fighting rather disturbing to watch. I swear more than once, one day when I gather enough courage, I will cook one of them for orange chicken. However, I cannot make up my mind which one I should pick, the loser or the winner.

When I need food I do not grow, I go shopping at Trader Joe’s or at the farmers market on Saturday mornings. I make sure always read labels. I now know that America’s food is as diverse as its people. Mexican burritos are just as American as Burger King Whopper Jr. Sandwiches—and perhaps equally tied to America identity. At home, my kitchen represents the great melting pot that America has always been. We cook vegetarian burgers, Thai curries, Mexican rice and beans, Korean kimchi, along with Chinese stir fries. Our favorite “ethnic” food, according to my nine-year-old, is kale salad with edamame and a home-made olive oil and liquid amino dressing.

On Halloweens, we give out chips instead of candies. After coming home from trick-or-treating, my kids have to trade their candies for healthy alternatives. It is not easy, nor is it fun. My kids often accuse us being the meanest parents in the world. Neighborhood kids refer to our house as the chip house. It is both physically and mentally exhausting to fight the food cultural norm.

However, I know it is all worth it. The statistics paint a very gloomy picture of the dire toll on our health due to bad eating. United States is ranked the fattest nation in the world. Two thirds of the American adults and one third of the American children are obese or overweight. It is predicted that today’s American children under the age of 18 will be the first generation of Americans with a shorter life expectancy than their parents’ generation[1]. Faced by obesity and mortality due to macro social and political factors outside individuals’ immediate controls, Americans are struggling to find the next right diet to keep healthy. Being overweight and diabetic is not entirely the fault of any individual; becoming a gluten free health nut is a choice forced upon me. Until fundamental changes happen at the macro-economic, social, and political level, I will have to continue to treat eating as work which requires extensive research, deliberation, planning, extreme mental power, and self-discipline.

Fortunately due to the outcry and demand from the increasing number of informed consumers, organic food and healthy alternatives are becoming more and more accessible. To initiate more positive changes in my own family’s meal culture, I will order the Skymall peppershaker soon. This weekend, I have a friend’s family of five coming over for dinner. Like my family, theirs is a multi-diet household too. Two are vegetarians eating organic chicken, and two are pesco-vegetarians. The last one eats everything, but happens to be in the middle of a one-year sugar-free challenge. For the main courses, I plan to serve brown rice, baked honey chicken thighs, vegetarian soy protein tacos, a spring-mix salad with 3-ingriendent-only home-made dressing. For drinks, I will serve fresh filtered water with ice. Water is raw, natural, local, vegan, sugar free, and gluten free. I hope everyone will be pleased.

[1] Ogden, Carroll, Fryar, & Flegal, (2015). Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2011-2014. National Center for Health Statistics (US) Data Brief.  Nov;(219):1-8.


Editor’s Note

I. Introduction: We Are What We Eat

II. Edibles and Non-edibles

III. Mass Food Production and its Ills

IV.  The Sad SAD Diet

V.  Identity–You Are What You Eat

VI.  Conclusion–The American Diet

Identity–You Are What You Eat (Part V)

by Chunyan Song

What we eat and how we eat is part of the self-identity construction process that expresses and defines who we are. When we eat, we not only eat with our mouths for nutrition, but also to replenish our beliefs, mindsets, and social beings[1]. Look at the TV if you do not believe me. Advertisements on TV often portray masculine men, instead of women, eating big burgers and red meat. French cuisine is associated with “class and status”. Mexican tacos from a roadside food truck are associated with affordability and lower aesthetic tastes. Your diet defines you. You are what you eat, not only in terms of nutrition, but status as well.

Eager to assimilate to the great American Melting Pot, new immigrants deliberately changed their diets to include more American food such as hot dogs, burgers, and French fries. So when I was in graduate school, I religiously ate one Burger King Whopper Jr. Sandwich or a piece of pepperoni pizza at the campus cafeteria every day. They were inexpensive. They were American. When in America, eat as the Americans do. Once, an American lady acquaintance made a bland remark, in front of me, criticizing another immigrant I knew, “If she doesn’t like our food here, she should go back to where she belongs!” This remark gave me an immediate chill. I didn’t want to be looked at as another picky foreigner who only ate weird foreign food.

The American phenomenon of non-religious vegetarianism is complicated by the many different reasons why people voluntarily avoid meat. Overall, vegetarianism is inevitably tied up with questions of individual identity building. Animal rights vegetarians are concerned about “what is my place in relation to nature including animals on the planet?” Environmental vegetarians ask “what is my responsibility to the environment and to the future generation?”[2] Vegetarians who avoid meat for health reasons are concerned about meat contaminations due to the overall use of drugs on animals in large corporation farms. Their concerns are all legitimate. Reports on animal cruelty and antibiotic resistance in industrialized countries are well publicized by the media.

In western societies like the United States, the social desirability of a slender body also has huge implications to our eating patterns, especially among females[3]. Losing weight remains the No.1 item on the New Year’s resolution lists for so many Americans. Being overweight for the most part is a byproduct of food abundance. In countries where food is in shortage, people do not want to be thin. They want to be fat. My parents’ generation in China experienced famine and starvation in the 1950s and 1960s. The memories of having nothing to eat are still vivid and real. Even after so many years, and even when food is plentiful in China, they still greet each other with the same old-fashioned question “have you eaten yet?” For them, telling a friend “you have gained weight” is a sincere compliment rather than an insult. When I sent home photos of a ten-pound heavier myself during my first year in America, my parents were relieved and pleased. My mom told me over the phone that with my chubby cheeks and plump figure, I had never looked more beautiful. America had treated their daughter well.

The western ideology of capitalist economy and food production are spreading to the rest of the world quickly. GM rice is already sold in the Chinese market. A college friend’s father has been working on breeding a square-shaped watermelon for the sole purpose of easier transportation. MacDonald’s and Pizza Hut now make more money in Asia than in the United States. Everywhere you go, chain supermarkets are replacing local farmers’ markets. People in China and in most parts of the world elsewhere are becoming more distanced from their land and food, just like we do in America.


[1] Germov, J., & Williams, L. (Eds.). (2008). A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: the Social Appetite. 3rd Edition. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

[2] Germov, J., & Williams, L. (Eds.). (2008). A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: the Social Appetite. 3rd Edition. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

[3] Germov, J., & Williams, L. (Eds.). (2008). A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: the Social Appetite. 3rd Edition. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.



Editor’s Note

I. Introduction: We Are What We Eat

II. Edibles and Non-edibles

III. Mass Food Production and its Ills

IV.  The Sad SAD Diet

V.  Identity–You Are What You Eat

VI.  Conclusion–The American Diet