Initiating Conversations with a Spoiled Identity: The dissonance of language use and race in Germany and Thailand

I taught Erving Goffman’s book Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity in Germany last month. One of the things that came up was how students are culturally and linguistically German (i.e. German is their first language) but racially “different” manage their identity as a non-white. In other words, they deal with the dissonance between a linguistic and cultural identity, in the context of racial beliefs about what it means to be German.  They do this in the many conversations initiated with strangers. In Goffman’s description, such a person who does not meet cultural expectations has a “spoiled” identity which is “discredited” because they cannot avoid presenting it. In this case, the expectation is that a German speaker has white skin—conditions my German students could not exercise in a Germany which has received waves of immigration since 1989..

As a management strategy, both students admitted to generally intiating conversations with a German accented “hallo” to signal that their preferred language is German. This signal helps push the dissonance away from fears of potential conversation partners that they will need to deal with a non-German speaker.

Now that I’m in Thailand, I find myself using the same trick—going up to a cashier, waiter, or other stranger who might be terrified because they think an embarrassing linguistic situation  (i.e. English) is approaching, To manage the situation, I assert a very confident “sawasdee krub” to signal that I speak Thai despite my discredited identity as a white, and that they do not need to speak English with me. In other words, I am also managing an identity that is “spoiled” relative to the vast majority of people who are Asian looking.  The identity I have with Thai strangers is assumed to be English speaking tourist. As with my students in Germany, this habit of initiating conversations is a sub-conscious pattern which I developed after 3-4 years in Thailand. But indeed, this is a way of stigma management when the dissonance of race and language preference do not match.

In contrast, when speaking German, I avoid initiating conversation, because there is a way to hide behind my race. As long as I keep quiet, and use signals in everyday transaction, I can get by quite well in a German environment, and never raise the anxiety levels of cashiers, wait staff, or others that I come in contact with. My stigma is only, in Goffman’s words, discreditable, not discredited, as it is for my students in Germany, and me in Thailand.


Goffman, Erving (1963/1986) Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. Touchstone Books.

Cooling Out the Adjunct Pool

Last week, I wrote about how “graduate students” are “cooled out” of PhD. programs in something of a pyramid scheme, i.e. how 60-70% of the students who are admitted eventually drop out of the program, while blaming their “failure” on themselves, and not the larger system.

August is the month in the United States where many adjunct faculty are being told “I’m sorry we don’t have any classes for you,” for reasons beyond the control of the Chair, Dean, or other administrator in charge of hiring. The system is blamed, not the the actual human beings who designed it.  But of course, these administrators encourage the rejected adjuncts to leave their applications in the pool for next semester so that, well, they will continue to be able to play adjuncts off against each other. They do this while hiding behind the anonymity of “confidentiality,” a process designed to protect the institution, as much as the privacy of the rejected applicants. Imagine how many lawsuits there would be if people could transparently compare their records to the people actually hired? There would be heat and fury, rather than “cooling out.”

What are some of the “cooling out” stories you’ve heard? What are some of the cooling out stories you have heard spun to rejected adjuncts? Here are a few that I’m aware of:

–It was an unusually competitive pool, even though you were great

–It is not my fault, the administrator higher than me just told me to cut the budget

And then the most common cooling out move which is to “ignore the applicant” and hope they will go away. This is probably the most common move—and it often works. If you just ignore them, they tend to assume that it was something inherent to their application—because after all, the system is infallible!

So have you ever been cooled out? Please tell your story below!

Why Do I speak German like a Hollander, and Thai so Clearly?

I have been in Thailand a week now, and have had plenty of chances to speak Thai, often because I have to explain about how my daughter broker her back last week. I speak Thai as a result of my Peace Corps and after experience in Thailand in 1980-1983, and some brush-up tutoring a couple of years ago. Anyway, I find that I speak Thai with a great deal of confidence after all these years—and why shouldn’t I? Almost every Thai I meet praises me for speaking such “clear” Thai. I’m not sure how clear my Thai really is, but it seems to work, and get this bit of praise for me, and implied contempt for all the other foreigner who try to speak Thai. This of course does wonders for my ego, and I float around town looking for chances to meet praise.

Up until last week though, I was in Germany. I married a German in 1987, and speak passable German. My comprehension of German and Thai is about the same—meaning I pretty much understand what is going on a round me in day-to-day conversations. But never ever have I been told I speak German clearly! Rather, as was kindly explained by my sister-in-law, I speak German not like a professor, but like someone who “works at McDonald’s,” meaning a Middle Eastern or Eastern European immigrant who struggles with German pronunciation, grammar, and sentence order, just like I do. On a good day, I am asked “Are you a Hollander” which is a step above McDonald’s but below the many regional dialects of Germany, including Bavarian. Specifically, I assign noun cases (masculine/feminine/neutuer/nominative/dative/accusative/genitive/plural/singular) in a fairly random fashion.

Broken Femurs and Cracked Backs: An Ethnography of Thai Motorcycle Safety


We arrived in Thailand last Thursday to visit our daughter Kirsten who teaches English in a Thai school. Within a half hour of arrival we were informed that she had just had an accident. She was driving her scooter near a Thai market in the small city of Phrae, when a “white car” backed out in front of her. She hit the brakes, skidded out, and fell into an on-coming truck whose wheels gave her back a big whack. At about the same time, the people picking us up at the airport sent her a text saying we had arrived successfully at an airport in the next province. She texted a “thumbs up” back to them from the back of the ambulance indicating that she was pleased we had arrived safely. She didn’t think that a brief text about a motorcycle accident was appropriate in such a circumstance—thus the thumbs up.

At this point she began her ethnographic participant investigation of the Thai insurance, medical, and legal system. More about the ethnography of this situation in a minute!

But first a word from our sponsor: Motorcycle Safety.

Motorcycle Safety I: Artificial Femurs in Tanzania

     Motorcycles are really dangerous. But they are also ubiquitous in the middle income countries like Thailand where people have enough money for a motorcycle, want to send their kids across to town for school, don’t like to walk, and car ownership is not affordable.

    Which brings up a trip to the operating theater I made last April when visiting Tanzania, a country poorer than Thailand, but which has also had a boom in motorcycle purchases as the economy has improved. The director of the Tanzanian hospital took us on a tour of the facility. It was a large facility in a rural area of Kilimanjaro Region on a dirt road. But they were able to do many things, including delivering lots of babies (we visited the new-born ward), treat topical diseases  and the other things a rural hospital on the sides of Mount Kilimanjaro needed to do.  They even had a college where nurses and medical aides are trained. At one point, our tour guide asked if we wanted to see the operating room. Sure why not? I’ve seen a couple of operating rooms before on t.v. and even occasionally in person—it is a table with lots of cool machines and lighting.

     So he took us to the operating room. But he didn’t take us in the actual room itself, because it was being used at the moment. So he invited us to have a look at the viewing window (this is a teaching hospital after all). And there we watched a surgeon operate on a broken leg. We could only see the leg—the rest of the patient, who was sedated with a spinal block, was covered All I could see was disembodied leg. But into this banged-up leg the doctor had inserted a manual “screwdriver” (actually a brace and bit), with which he was carefully screwing something into a bone via a hole in the leg. This wasn’t like the type of operation I’ve seen on t.v. where there are bright lights beeping machines, and fancy machines. Just a very focused surgeon with scalpels and screwdrivers. No whirring machines either. A bit more than what we had bargained for on our “tour!”

        Next stop was the storeroom, where we were shown the collection of metal femurs they kept there—i.e. a metal rod which includes a hip joint, and a  “For motorcycle accidents” it was explained. They had several sizes in the store, in anticipation of the motorcycle accidents that are increasing in number as the Tanzanian economy develops and people buy motorcycles. Indeed, in every Tanzanian town there is a new industry going back less than ten years—the motorcycle taxi service (buda buda in Swahili). Young men hiring out the back seat of their motorcycles to passengers. And such motorcycles were the raison d’être for the store of metal femurs kept there. The hospital was anticipating motorcycle accidents—and broken femurs.

Back to the Thai Hospital

Now back to Kirsten, who was hit by the truck here in Thailand. She had finished teaching her English evening class, and was riding to the market to meet her friend for dinner when the white car backed out of the parking place in front of her. She hit the brakes, and skidded out, tumbling into the on-coming traffic. The fall was not too bad as she was going slowly. But when she looked up, she saw a truck coming toward her head. As a reflex, she apparently went into a fetal position, so that the truck hit her on her back. Pow! Or ouch!  The next thing she knew she was thinking about whether her toes and fingers would still move.  Taking a gulp she wiggled them–the did!

The truck had Thai university students on the back who screamed. Other people started running toward the accident, and nervous laughter began—who would talk to the farang lying on the ground? Others took photos. Someone called the ambulance. Kirsten found an English-speaking Thai woman, and asked her to find her friend in the market a few hundred feet away. The Thai asked if she could borrow her motorcycle, and Kirsten, lying on the ground, told her it was ok The woman returned in a few minutes later with my daughter’s farang friend. An ambulance came too, and loaded my daughter onto the gurney. The friend was told to slowly and carefully follow the ambulance to the hospital. But of course the ambulance went quickly to the hospital, causing the friend to drive—quickly.

At the Emergency Room, Kirsten was x-rayed, and a quick diagnosis made that Kirsten was o.k.—she was sore from muscle bruises and cracks in in three lumbar vertebra (the pointy part of the vertebra, not the actual spinal column itself).  Fortunately there was not damage to the spinal column itself, which is why she could still wiggle her toes.. Because Kirsten has Thai accident insurance, she was quickly x-rayed and placed in a single room to spend the night—the hospital knew they were getting paid. The doctor finally arrived, and reported that the x-ray of the spine was normal, and that she could be discharged. Kirsten, explained though that she could not walk, much less climb the four floors to her apartment. Told this, the doctor changed his recommendation—she would need to spend the night in the hospital, and see the orthopedist.

The orthopedist came by the next day, and took another look at the x-rays. It seemed that that the truck tire had broken and/or cracked three of the spurs on Kirsten’s lumbar, which explained well why she was having so much pain while walking. However, no surgery would be necessary. New prescription? More pain meds, a week of taking it really slow, and a corset for a month. Oh, and she should have been wearing a motorcycle helmet, too.

Motorcycle Safety II: Motorcycle Culture in Phrae, Thailand

Up to 26,000 people are killed in road accidents every year in Thailand, which puts the country in the 6th spot in terms of road casualties. Of those killed, up to 70 or 80 per cent are motorcyclists or their passengers. Source

Kirsten is part of a large group of American and European young people teaching English in Thailand. Besides having a lot of motorcycles, Thailand also has a great thirst for English education, and is willing to hire twenty-something foreigners (farangs) like Kirsten to come teach in primary and secondary schools. Many of the people taking these jobs are thirsting for adventure. Adventures in Thailand naturally include motorcycles, which cost only about $40 per month to rent, and make mobility possibility possible, as they do for the streets full of Thai motorcyclists.. The rentals come with insurance for the bike to protect the owner, but not for the medical costs to protect the renter—accident insurance costs Kirsten another $30 per month, and covers medical expenses, and loss of income in the event of an accident. What they don’t come with is motorcycle training, experience driving on the left side of the road, or what appear to foreigners to be chaotic Thai driving culture. The result? Every one of Kirsten’s foreign English teacher-friends had fallen off their bikes, often during the first weeks on the road with a range of bruises and “road rash” the result.

     What is this Thai driving culture? Children start riding as passengers at birth, and start standing/sitting on them by age two. They begin driving motrocycles themselves as teenagers, and will drive their motorcycle to high school. Most college students have their own motorcycles, as do many high school students.  They usually drive on the left side of the road, but not always, especially if there is not a convenient place to turn right to a destination.

      Roads in northern Thailand are designed for an earlier age which involved foot traffic, slow ox-carts, cattle, water buffaloes, and elephants as recently as 30 year ago. Even city roads are often windy, narrow, and parking practices are irregular–line of sight is often block. Street vendors are an attraction of Thailand, but they also obstruct view since they are often literally in the street. Finally, there of course is a close relationship between drinking and accidents in Thailand, as elsewhere. Thailand has its own brands of whiskey and beer which are drunk in both moderation and excess. 

     Motorcycles helmets are required in Thailand at least since 1996, but the law is often ignored, despite police checkpoints. Kirsten has been stopped several times at the police checkpoints, and always had a helmet with her, though not necessarily on her head, so no ticket. But she always wears a helmet when going to her school as an example to her students, while complaining that to wear a helmet she has to take her hair down, which is hot in the tropical weather, so sometimes she carries it attached to the helmet carrier. Anyway she was not wearing her helmet at the time of her evening accident.

       Kirsten is not unusual in Thailand either,.  last year, just 43 per cent of motorcyclists and their passengers nationwide wore helmets, down from 46 per cent a year earlier. Source.  The informal rule in Phrae is that the helmets are worn during the day when the police are activity—and focused particularly on the time that the schools begin, and are dismissed. The motorcycle traffic of the high school students is heaviest at this time—and they do receive tickets if they do not have a helmet.

Conclusion: Kirsten’s Hospital Bills

So what has happened to Kirsten? She spent two nights in the hospital, and thankfully does not have to take advantage of the screwdrivers, nuts, bolts, artificial femurs, and so forth which I hope that the Phrae surgeons have to fix the many motorcycle accidents of Phrae. The corset holds in place the three lumbar vertabra that were cracked/damaged by the truck’s wheel against her back, and which makes walking painful. She does not require surgery—just a slow and awkward recovery period so that the bones can knit back together while being protected by the corset. Her biggest regret I think, is that she cannot get back to her first graders too soon, as they have the habit of affectionately jumping on her unexpectedly. She expects to return more quickly to her older students who do not do this.

For this she spent three nights in the hospital for which her insurance policy will pay compensation to her of about $30 per day. Because she was paying the accident insurance, her total out of pocket co-pays came to about $75. The biggest item was her corset, which was billed to her at $33. The bill I saw from the second hospital where she spent two knights, had visits from two doctors, an x-ray, and painkillers had a total bill of about $250, most of which was billed directly to the insurance company.

Kirsten was also interviewed by the police who had a finding of “no fault” for the three drivers involved in the accident, a conclusion that she has no quarrel with. As for the photos taken of her lying in the street, we have not seen them, and they have presumably been posted to Facebook, but  not by anybody who tagged her–so we have not seen them.

Overall Conclusion: The Value of Ethnography Itself?

So what is the overall conclusion of this blog? Well, motorcycles are dangerous! You should also come visit a place like Thailand, to visit, study, travel, or any other reason. The people do things differently than they do in Europe or North America, but there is also a richness and kindness evident in every day interactions.

But you probably already knew that motorcycles are dangerous, and Thailand is a great destination–so why read this far?  Of course motorcycles in Thailand are dangerous, but also necessary in every day life for the vast majority, including faring teachers, who cannot own cars. And if you are new to Thailand, remember you probably have not been standing on these beasts since you were two years old, driving since your were thirteen, nor have the experience of multiple accidents and fatalities among your friends and age mates. Which means, learn to ride motorcycles slowly, be aware of your environment, always wear a helmet, and always remember first Kirsten, and then surgeon with the screwdrivers I saw in Tanzania.

Not much of a conclusion, really, but does ethnography really have to always have conclusions? Or safety sermons? After all, ethnography is also about telling stories—which I think is the real point of this blog after all. Tell stories because they are interesting, engaging, and important. Or perhaps to just say “thank you” to a type of world which his different than your own.

Leaving Germany Again: Something about Bildung, Auschwitz, and Dresden

I’m leaving Germany after a two month long teaching gig at Leuphana University in Lueneburg, which is near Hamburg. Again I was impressed with the version of a university education that is being developed there—it values learning and investigation.

Here is a blog I wrote about German Bildung, the philosophy of education, two years ago:

As a going away blogs, I’m also leaving you with two of my favorite Germany blogs, both having to do with Germany during World War II. The first was written last month after I attended the war crimes trial of Oskar Gröning in June 2015. Gröning is the “The Bookkeeper of Auschwitz.” He is on trial as an accessory to 300,000 people in Auschwitz in 1942-44 I the summer of 2015 in Lueneburg where I was teaching.

The other was written in 2007, after I met a man on a German train who told me his childhood memories of the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden.  He watched the same bombing that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “documented in Slaughterhouse 5.  .

What would George Carlin Say? Might Translation be Reverse Plagiarism?

Still they ask you in court to “use your own words,” and more to the point of my profession, we tell our students to “use your own words,” and we even have fancy computer programs like “” that help us haul offenders off for plagiarism, which is the crime of using someone else’s own words which is, like I said above, is just about all I ever do.

The only people I can think of who made up any number of their own words are Charles Dickens, James Joyce, and Mark Twain. They made up their own words, and we call it literature. When I do it, I’m considered to be babbling incoherently. Or speaking German, since in German you can ram odd words together, capitalize it and call it a noun, and its o.k. See Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz

Speaking of German, I recently completed a translation of Max Weber which I hope all of you have read by now. (If you haven’t, please ask your library to get it!)

Our translation takes German words which Weber mostly borrowed from other people, throw in a couple of German nouns he made up, and then using English words we heard somewhere else (not from Weber) we then claiming that Weber said them. It is kind of like reverse plagiarism, I guess. Think about it. We took words Weber heard in German, and then turned them into words we heard somewhere in English, but Weber never heard. In other words, we take words from people Weber never knew, and then give him credit for uttering them. Lucky guy!

George Carlin of course had something to say about borrowing words. If you have time, continue listening after this brief clip to the following clip which is on euphemism—Carlin tells the story of how Shell Shock in World War I, became Battle Fatigue in World War II, Operational Exhaustion after the Korean War, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after the Vietnam War.

Suicide by Train in Germany

We returned from Hamburg to our temporary home in Lueneburg on July 4, 2015, after visiting friends in Hamburg. It was a normal trip on a German train until…it came to a stop at about 9:30 pm. There was a confused silence among the passengers, until the loud speaker finally announced an indefinite delay because something had been thrown on the tracks.

The mystery solved itself a few minutes later. There was a suicide in front of one of the trains, and the emergency equipment had arrived and closed the tracks going both ways. As a result, the tracks were closed, and our train would be returning to Hamburg, and not going forward to Lueneburg. What to do? A number of us (probably 100+) piled out of the train, and began calling friends and taxis to take us onwards. We were lucky enough to get a share in an eight person taxi about 45 minutes later, which took us home with six other people who shared our fate, and destination. Total cost was 15 Euro.

This is the second time in Germany I’ve been delayed by suicides in front of train. When I googled the phenomenon, I found out that Germany has the highest percentages of “suicides by train.” It is 7% of suicides, which works out to a few hundred per year. This is higher than other countries with extensive train systems, and it means that most people have experience being delayed by suicide. The train locomotive drivers are the ones most concerned—during a career as a driver, their engines can be expected to be used for suicide 2-3 times. The German magazine Spiegel published this story about train suicides in 2011.

Suicide rates of course has a long history as an interesting point of study in sociology and anthropology. Emile Durkheim published his classic book Suicide in 1897. There is also this article about suicide among the Mla Bri hunter gatherers of Thailand published by myself and my colleagues Gene and Mary Long in 2013.