Dee Thao’s Movie about Hmong Identity in Laos, Thailand, and the United States

At this time of getting ready for Fall classes, just a reminder that Dee Thao’s movie about Hmong identity is an excellent introduction to issues involving the Hmong in the United States and Laos, as well as more generally issues of identity, migration, refugees, family, and generations. It’s 24 minutes, which fits well with a discussion. I know that I’m planning on using it this Fall for my International Engagement class. THe link is here.

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Encounters with Benjamin Bloom: Part One

For the last few semesters, I have taught a course on “ethnographic methods” to designers in an MFA program. The class itself is my own design but the title was gifted to me. I can’t say that I approve of the term “ethnographic methods,” but one has to go along at times. In the main, it is every bit as fun as it sounds. I demand students delineate and pursue their own projects, rather than safely shepherding them through a series of artificial exercises. Though they have their ups and downs as the semester goes along, they have responded with some wonderful work.

The problem they encounter in class is the same they will face on a regular basis as designers, and I think the nature of this problem marks an important point of confluence between design and anthropology. The shared joint is most apparent at the beginning of a project when the parameters are fully in flux. At this point, stating concretely what is to be done two or three steps out is difficult. Donald Schön (1984) recognized this issue long ago and wrote of the main problem in design as one of “problem setting.” That is, design is not about applying the most efficient means to a fixed and understood end, but rather about grappling with the relation of the end to the means. It is not possible to specify in advance what should be done if the contours of the problem cannot yet be fully grasped. The end is not given; it must be discovered. This is the difficulty. And here, there are no right or wrong solutions, only better or worse. I often tell my students exactly what they hear in their design classes: “keep going” and “try again.”

Schön’s pedagogical outlook is derived directly from John Dewey, an influence seen most clearly in Schon’s emphasis on experience rather than cognition. Experience educates. It has pedagogical value. And again, there is a parallel with anthropology, in which your body must be placed somewhere in the world in order to experience something. In both anthropology and design, the experience of ambiguity and serendipity followed by deliberation and judgement is the most powerful educator. Yet this creates a problem with curriculum design, especially when “learning objectives” in the Bloomian sense are in play. And with “methods” as well, but that is for another time.

Learning Objectives

The curriculum theory popular at all levels of education today, as those of us caught in its web well know, is heavily invested in the concept of learning objectives. Learning objectives, as they are widely invoked, are a product of the University of Chicago, where following the Second World War, Ralph Tyler and his mentee Benjamin Bloom synthesized a line of curricular philosophy stretching back to W.W. Charters. In doing so, they popularized the concept of learning objectives matched to a curriculum designed to impart these selfsame objectives to students. A correlate of their curricular philosophy is that the learning environment, and the experiences within this environment, should be tightly controlled so as to remain in service to the learning objectives.

The process of developing learning objectives is a form of back engineering. Given a known job, say railroad engineer, you first ask what cognitive traits are required to perform the job of a railroad engineer. Then you create a list of these traits. Finally, you design a curriculum (deriving from the Latin for the course of a race), which imparts these cognitive traits to students. The assumption here is that the category of railroad engineer is a stable and well-characterized configuration of traits. We know, and we assume, what a railroad engineer does. The advantage of the “learning objective” approach is that it makes the assessment of cognitive knowledge about these traits simple. If a railroad engineer is the sum of discrete cognitive traits, then a standardized test will do.  And here the correlate becomes important. As in the laboratory, a tightly controlled learning environment makes measurement both easier and more accurate.

The problem is that human action, to paraphrase Michael Polanyi, knows more than it can tell. What Polanyi termed tacit knowledge lies beyond the measure of learning objectives. That is, even the simplest human action is more than the sum of its cognitive demands. Experience, deliberation, improvisation, and judgement play their inevitable role. Anthropology, specifically in its reliance on ethnography as the main pedagogical tool (don’t be fooled into thinking ethnography is a method), and design are two fields where tacit knowledge is unavoidably pushed to the fore.

I am going to pause for the moment. Next time, I will trace the development of learning objectives and point to an alternative pedagogical approach that has largely been pushed aside in the Bloomian rush.

Michael Polanyi. 2009. *The Tacit Dimension*. Reissue edition. Chicago ; London: University Of Chicago Press.

Donald Schön. 1984. *The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action*. 1 edition. New York: Basic Books.

What Does Social Science Miss When China is Left Out?

I just came back from China—my fourth trip. This time it was to Jishou University in Hunan Province for a few days. Jishou is the capital city for the Xiangxi Tujia and Miao and Autonomous Prefecture and is in a remote mountainous corner in China. Still it has the hallmarks of every other Chinese city I’ve visited, including thirty story high apartment blocks, and a very social public square where during the evenings hundreds of people come out to do rhythmic dancing, and generally socialize in the evening. The square is a very pleasant place, despite the crowding, and competing music.

Then there is also China’s newness in Jishou—many high rises were under construction, and the airports and roads we drove on were new. The roads were particularly impressive with their long-span bridges, and long tunnels. And as I’ve heard in other Chinese cities, the “old town” was built in the 1980s. And then we were taken to the museums where the really old things dominating the 5,000 years of Chinese history were displayed.

There was also the overwhelming power of our differentness in China, which I do not feel in other countries. In Jishou, we did not even see another white westerner the four days we were there. My rudimentary Chinese helped—but only a little bit—I still got noodles (mian) when I thought I ordered rice (mi fan). And the written system is of course in Chinese characters, which take me time and effort to decode assuming I have a modern dictionary ap on my iPad available (there are some really cool ones you can use to copy characters). Then there is of course the different music in the square (no western tunes—though I did hear a bit of western pop at the airport), and the struggles with food and menus.

I was also impressed with how polite and friendly people in Jishou were—there were many smiles and much laughter when I made mistakes in Mandarin, and they made mistakes in English. Still I was befuddled by the hot water taps (the handles work in some strange direction), the web sites I was seemingly blocked from accessing (Facebook, New York Times, Google, Dropbox, my Wells Fargo bank account), and the strange foods for sale (the pickled stuff—I’m not sure what it was—was particularly tasty). My wife was befuddled by the difficulty in finding her most loved food: coffee and German bread.  Tea and steamed buns were just not the same!

I have read a lot about China, and spent four semesters trying to master some semblance of Chinese language skills. Despite this I am hesitant to write much about China beyond what I saw and thought. Social scientific conclusions are difficult for me when it comes to China—China is too different from my 25 or 30 years of engagement with the anthropology and sociology of many other places. The ultimate sin of premature generalization is tempting—but only so much. (A previous example of premature conclusions was posted here in 2012.

But I will stick my neck out regarding one conclusion I have reached, which is that that unless an article or book addresses the role of China in the world, they are probably missing something—just like 50 years ago the books and articles that left out gender or race missed something.* How can you write about politics, economy, urbanization, psychology, ecology, agriculture, or society anywhere without referring to the example of China? Or for that matter, how can you discuss gender and ethnicity without acknowledging data from China? Or philosophy and the nature of human rights?

Then there is engineering: How can you think about engineering without understanding that political commands from Beijing that have created tens of thousands (or more?) cookie cutter thirty plus story apartment complexes across one fifth of humanity? In my own state of California there was a bit of a scandal when it was discovered that Chinese steel beams had been used to build the new Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Oakland. The United States has not built such structures for thirty or forty years, so naturally looked to the place where major bridge projects continue to be built routinely—China.

China’s emergence will overwhelm the world, and not the other way around. Sure there are elements of Western-style capitalism and culture in China. But I can’t help but wonder how things are working the other way around. The Chinese way of building not only cities, but politics, society, culture, and economy are already swirling around the world. Chinese culture is deeply embedded in Southeast Asia, and has moved strongly into western North America, and parts of Africa. The 1.3 billion Chinese, and the largest economy in the world are effecting the rest of the world. The only question is how is it happening?


*Ok, one risk I am already taking is that someone, perhaps Kerim Friedman, will say something like “O.K. what about India? Won’t India potentially play a similar role in the 21st century—and indeed it may. Note already how Indian ways of doing things are spreading around the Indian Ocean littoral, and into the United States as well.

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.