Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I had to learn how to play “chess” twice: once from my grandfather, and once from my aunt.
And the reason I had to learn it twice is that I was learning two kinds of chess: Chinese chess and Western chess. The two share a common origin, and in considering them side by side, one can glean a hint of a history of the world.
(I’ve barely started writing and have already tied myself in linguistic knots. In Eurocentric English, “Western” chess is simply “chess,” while Chinese chess must be distinguished by that ethnic descriptor. In Chinese, “Chinese chess” is called xiang qi, which can be translated as either “elephant chess” or something like “symbolic chess.” The elephant connection will become important below. Chess of the European variety is instead called “xiyang qi,” meaning “Western chess,” or “guo ji xiang qi”: “international elephant/symbolic chess.”)
Some of you may have seen my jeremiad last week against the preferential treatment of so-called “legacies” in US university admissions. Legacy: one whose parent(s) or some other relative(s) attended the institution to which he or she is applying. As longstanding practice, most elite US colleges admit legacy students on a much more lenient basis than non-legacy ones. At Harvard, it is statistically nearly six times easier to get in as legacy than non-legacy.
I’ve been chewing over this idea of legacy. Of course the very idea offends many of us, offends our sense of fairness. Certainly it offends me.
On the other hand, the notion of heritage, of being who we are and accomplishing what we accomplish because of who our parents are, seems to me fundamental to human nature.
In July 1518 in the city of Strasbourg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire but now in France, one Frau Troffea started to dance.
The hours went by. Then the days. And Mrs. Troffea wouldn’t stop. Then others joined her. Hundreds of Strasbourgers were dancing within a few weeks. None of them cared to stop. They danced until they collapsed or — in many cases — died.
I’ve been reading about the “Dancing Plague” over the last few days, perhaps in part due to my interest in plague narratives from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to Camus’s La Peste to Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Those zombie movies and shows that are your guilty pleasure? Plague narratives.
“Did you see the new ‘Wolf Warrior’?” A middle-aged woman asked me last year when I was again in China, when the film was still showing in theaters. I said no, and she could hardly believe it. “Aiya!” she said. “When the flag came out at the end, I just felt so good, you know? Felt awesome. So proud.”
You don’t have to actually see “Wolf Warrior II,” or even the trailer, to know what to expect. The poster, or even the title alone, tells you that it’s going to be a bombastic action movie. By the time I had this conversation with this woman, though, I also knew a couple other things about the film: first that it presents a nationalistic (to the point of jingoistic) view of China and especially its military, and second that it was already the highest grossing Chinese film of all time.
I had little interest to see such a film. But then someone pointed out to me that perhaps I ought to, if only from a sociological point of view, the better to understand the contemporary Chinese psyche. Then the other day I discovered that it was on Netflix. And I thought, well, all right, but only for research purposes.
Ah, the American Halloween. Now that I’m outside of the U.S., I rather miss the adult costumes. When I was growing up in New Zealand, anyone above the age of twelve dressing up for Halloween was a curious sight.
This used to be true in the U.S. as well. As of the mid-20th century, trick-or-treating was an annual event for children, but adults seldom dressed up. But by the turn of the millennium, an estimated 65 percent of American adults celebrated Halloween, spending billions on costumes and party accessories. Halloween had become the second most important holiday for America's retailers, second only to Christmas.
Beyond the skimpy “sexy nurse,” “sexy cop,” “sexy cat” costumes or your annual fad like Deadpool, however, Halloween has actually served a very serious purpose in American history. And it was this purpose that made the holiday adult.
Halloween an occasion for transformation, for simultaneously wearing and mask and showing who you truly are. It’s okay because by the next morning you can always claim that it was only a costume. So marginalized groups began to dress up for the holiday in order to make a political point. The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade began in 1973 on Christopher Street because it was New York’s gay Mecca, and it was a way for LGBTs to announce themselves without provoking a full backlash.
It is sometimes pointed out that Steve Jobs, American titan, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. It is also often pointed out that the grudging European and American responses to Syrian refugees today parallel the American response to Jewish refugees from Europe on the eve of the Holocaust, down to ships full of desperate men, women, and children being turned away.
But few seem to be recalling that the greatest American (fictional) hero of all, Superman, was conceived as a Jewish refugee. Perhaps doing so would seem to trivialize the very serious public debate. But our imagination, in which we invest our deepest yearnings, is as good a moral compass as any.
Perhaps ironically, Superman’s Judaism is actually well-documented. Several books have been written spelling out the case for Clark Kent as an Ashkenazi Jew, with titles like “Up, Up and Oy Vey,” “From Krakow to Krypton,” and “Superman Is Jewish?” Here, then, are the basic facts:
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."