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From an Internet Terminal (50 cents for 15 minutes) in Cheongnyangni Station in Seoul

I have been as busy and sick as a dog the last three days in preparation for the festival in Korea.  I finally finished cutting the trailer video for the project in Taiwan this fall after about 100 hours of work in the cutting room (See?  I can never be specific.  Just this last week as The Rocker and I were jetting around Japan on a quick promotional tour, we found out that there has been a major change in plans.  It is not a problem, but it has changed the concept of the show 180 degrees.  This is why I talk about projects as little as possible until opening day.  Special thanks to my good friend, The Clown, who instilled this idea in me early in my career.  Even the video concept changed at the last minute, but sometimes such destabilization can play to your advantage.).

To tell the truth, I am very happy with this video; I tried some new techniques, and it is about two times longer than the previous longest video I have ever cut.  The eclectic music presented special problems, but I think I was able to work around them all (Imagine trying to find a way to make Marilyn Manson, Pink Floyd, Nine Inch Nails, traditional Chinese drumming, an avant garde percussionist, Mongolian Buddhist chanting and Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’ in a way that will make sense!  I hope to post some links soon.

For this trip, I have been writing old school style in my notebook every chance I get.  I met up with the daughter of my former German teacher and her friends in downtown Seoul and had drinks early into the morning.  I will transcribe some thoughts as time allows.

Travelling like this is really the best part of my life right now.  Tonight, The Political Scientist will be arriving as well; the special Lithuanian envoy to the Korean arts scene.

Off to Chuncheon!

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Social Chameleon

As a person leaps around the world, one can’t help but encounter other world travelers.  Quickly, one notices that there are many genii and species in the international vagabond family.  For example, every traveler has their own particular skill at integrating themselves into a new culture; some people can blend in the moment they walk off the plane, whereas others (by choice or chance) stumble through their host country in an alien haze for the duration of their stay.

Since I was six, my father conditioned me to adapt to foreign cultures, and despite my personal shortcomings in this regard, I am eternally grateful for the training.  From Tokyo to Hong Kong to Korea, to New Zealand and even to Hawaii, my father would point out tourists behaving like “Ugly Americans” and whisper to me that I must never exhibit such tendencies.

To be fair, one does not have to be American to exhibit traits like speaking loudly in your mother tongue in hopes that it will help the desk clerk understand that you don’t consider fish and rice a “continental breakfast.”

I have seen rowdy Japanese tourists in Taiwan announcing to their tour group that certain Taiwanese cultural treasures could be improved “if only that lady’s tits were hanging out!”  The tour group roared with laughter.  The Taiwanese tour guide smiled wanly.  I left the room.

I have unwittingly been an “Ugly American” on many, many occasions.  I remember that on my first visited to the Netherlands, I was so concerned about making a good impression on The Clown’s family that I grilled him mercilessly about Dutch etiquette and manners.

“Should I take off my shoes at your house?”

“That would be a little strange.  To come to someones house and walk around in bare feet is not too normal in the Netherlands.”

And so on and so on.  But it is impossible to think of every situation, and even the most obvious ones sometimes escape me.  For example, I had never eaten a fancy meal in Continental Europe, and was unaware that American table manners (chew with your mouth closed, don’t burp, keep you elbows off the table, try a bit of everything, and offer to clear the table after the meal, don’t reach for food, pass the serving dishes, etc) weren’t going to be sufficient.

I went out with his sister and parents to a particularly important family reunion, and proceeded to embarrass them by eating like a pig: I did not keep both wrists on the table while chewing, I did not know the proper signals to tell the waiter that I was done with my course and ready for the next one, I did not keep my fork at the right angle, I brought my head down too far to the soup bowl, and all while remaining blissfully ignorant of my behavior.

Luckily, The Clown’s family is a particularly forgiving and worldly sort who were able to see the humor in the situation, but I became a fanatic about international table manners after that.

And it was a nice little exchange, too, because I was able to teach them the intricacies of table manners in Japan, some of which were as subtle and counter-intuitive to them as the Dutch customs were to me.

In Japan, chopsticks must be set on the table behind the main dish and parallel to the edge of the table, not pointing at anyone.  If you are not sitting in classic ‘legs folded position,’ you must verify that you are not pointing your feet at anyone.  Slurping of the soup is permissible, and in fact, expected, as is lifting bowls to your mouth to eat.  It is more acceptable to bow your head slightly while eating to hide the act of opening your mouth and revealing your teeth.  You must never pour your own drinks, and insure that no one else ins placed in the awkward position of having to ask someone else to pour their drink for them (especially if you are a woman; yes even in modern Japan).  Chopsticks must never be left sticking into food, especially bowls of rice.  When passing food, you must never pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks.  Contrary to the popular (and personally unverified) Western notion that burping in China is considered a compliment to the chef (is this true?) it is not so interpreted in Japan.  If you want service in a restaurant, you must call loudly over the din to your server who will otherwise ignore your table so as not to disturb your dining (it is funny to watch first-time diners at fancy Japanese restaurants sitting anxiously, tables empty and menus closed, wondering why they are not being served.  Angrier visitors might attribute this to xenophobic refusal of service to foreigners, but in this case, at least, they are just being paranoid.)

These experiences made me wonder if an antithesis to these “Ugly Americans” or “Baj Ganjos” (any Bulgarians in the house tonight?) might exist: An individual so skilled as to be able to blend in perfectly from culture to culture as he traveled.  What would such a person be like?

Personally, I think that even if I had such a mutant super power, I wouldn’t be willing to use it at all times.

When I first started travelling, I believed that a visitor to another country has the responsability to learn as much as possible about local customs and to act like a good visitor.  I still believe that this is true, but I no longer go so far as to believe that the perfect traveller assumes the identity of the country he visits.  An attempt to do so is a vast, presumptuous, oversimplification at best, and is actually another form of closed-mindedness at worst.  A visitor is an outsider, and must assume this role while remaining pathologically open-minded to his environment.

Open-mindedness speaks to our ability to accept, but does not imply that we must adapt.  Sure, for the most part it is a good idea to adapt to your host country, but I think it is unreasonable to force yourself to wear a costume 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I know that in Japan, absolute silence in residential areas is mandatory after 10 o’clock, and almost every day of the year, I try to comply with this (strangulating, oppressive, depressing, bleak, antisocial, boring) neighborly and considerate custom, but sometimes, when there is that certain smell in the summer air, and just the right music is playing, and the company is perfect, we can let ourselves live life like we are on an Arnhem terrace with our best friends for just one night, can’t we?

Is it really so ugly?

Is it really?

Is it?

It is.

But that’s the problem.  I can chameleon myself as much as I want in residential Japan, but I can’t permanently hide my identity inside myself.

Most grumbling locals have the benefit of having known only one cultural reality.

I think that in order to be a perfect cultural chameleon one must first master cultural amnesia.  As I would consider such a gift a curse, I remain a twisted, ugly little chameleon happily scarred by a  fortunate life amongst eternally foreign cultures.

Playboy, Humor, and Cultural Comparisons

All the Nudes Without Fear or Favor

I have a collection of Playboy magazines that consists of one issue bought in every country I have ever visited.  I collect them not for the articles, and only partly for the pictures.  The main reason I collect them is because I am interested in how editors in different countries market the commodity of sexy women to the consumer.

I could probably do such informal marketing research with something like bread or breakfast cereal, but starting an entry with “I have a collection of bread…” sucks.

My most prized artifact is (appropriately enough) a sextet of July, 2003 Playboys (Holland, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany) from my first European tour. All of these issues received the same photo essays from Playboy central, USA, but different offices’ photo editors had freedom to choose how to present that material.

Editors sometimes featured different photos; a photo that was a full-page spread in one issue is part of a montage in another.  In the French issue, an essay seemingly about girls that sit and lie on racecars was 75% text while in Italy not a single paragraph distracts from all the breasts.

Most editors chose the USA head office’s Spanish-American beauty as their Playmate of the Month, and ran a companion “Our Country’s Playmate of the Month” pictorial.  The notable exceptions were Germany, whose German Playmate elbowed America’s sweetheart out of the picture entirely, and Spain, who saved some trees by forgoing their National Playmate pictorial to run more photos of American-born Iberian thigh.

I think that it is a trap to draw conclusions from such informal study.  I don’t even try.  What interests me is the fact that differences exist, and then figuring out what those differences are.  I recognize that they arise as much from the tastes of a particular editor as from the tastes of a given nation’s audience, but I do content that the two are related.

I also used to save a daily newspaper from each country, but that newsprint doesn’t conserve nearly as well as the glossy pages of “Entertainment for Men.”

Is it unreasonable to imagine that the same unintentional international editing in Playboy exists in the pages of an “objective” daily journal?  The commodity of information is as vital (though arguably less popular) than the commodity of sex, but the pressure and desire to take editorial license are surely greater in the former than the latter.

In his essay “Imaginary Homelands,” Salman Rushdie uses a metaphor of a movie theater to describe the uselessness of defining the human experience in terms of the present.  To do so is like trying to watch a movie with your nose pressed up against the screen.  I think that the same is true when we are speaking of cultural differences.

What can be simpler to understand than a Playboy?  And yet, if you never read anything but Playboys from your own country, you might be surprised to find that different editions from other countries are anything more than word-for-word translations (as if such things could exist; read Umberto Eco’s Mouse or Rat for a great treatment of the subject) of captions and articles.  Looking over my international collection of Playboys (not nearly as often as I’d like, I’m afraid) I get a very different picture of the subtlety of multinational culture.  For me, it is an abstract picture that is always in motion.  Usually, I see no identifiable patterns or forms, and even if one does emerge, I force myself to look see it as just a transient, meaningless island of logic that caught my eye.  But like any abstract object, it makes a distinct impression on the viewer.

Imagine the complications that would arise if we had the time to explore less intuitive cultural institutions country by country; legislation, foreign policy, environmental issues, etc.  How far would we need to step back to see this picture?  We are forced by circumstance to make sense of these patterns, forming policy based on blind hopes.  Is it any wonder we have had the level of success that we have?  Can future generations afford to be as rooted in one country as their great-grandparents, grandparents, and even parents have been?

Yo momma’s so Japanese she has a Louis Vitton carrying case for her Hello Kitty purse!”

Another unit-less but omnipresent social metric is humor.  When I was growing up between Japan and the USA, the notion that two types of humor (at the time, I took these to be “British” and “the rest of the world’s”) seemed bizarre.  Something was either funny or it was not.

I guess that that is true, actually, something is either funny or it is not, but it is the audience that defines what is funny, not the performer.

In Barcelona, I made thousands of Euros performing on the Ramblas with my best friends.  After about a month of perfecting the show, we took it on tour.  To our surprise, the show that we had been working on and fine-tuning over hundreds of performances was a total flop just across the border in Italy – it just wasn’t funny anymore.  Sure, an audience in an Italian beach town is different from the cosmopolitan Barcelona public, but we felt that we had to tweak our show a little in order to meet local tastes.

Our research methodology: watch a lot of TV in our hostel when we were not performing.  Comedy shows and MTV (as internationally syndicated and altered as Playboy) were indispensable.  What is funny in Italy?  What is sexy in Italy?  What is taboo in Italy?  Unsurprisingly, once we had adapted our show to fit the style we saw on the TV screen, our show was a success again.

As a side note, does this bother anyone else?  The optimist in me maintains that it is culture itself that creates TV programs and not the TV programs that create the culture, but I have my doubts.

As a performer, I have seen this time and time again.  Japanese audiences clap less than Western audiences at acrobatic shows because they feel like they would be disturbing the performers.  For the Ukrainian trapeze artist, though, it feels like the audience is not enjoying the show.

With humor it is even more complicated.

What strikes me about Japanese humor is that it is devoid of irony.  Turn on the TV or watch Japanese people out drinking together, and you will quickly get a sense of how physical, simplistic, and childish Japanese humor is by Western standards.

Conversely, American humor, more than any other country I have visited, depends almost exclusively on sarcastic irony and, to a far lesser extent, on absurdity.  Think of an American sitcom, and now remove any joke that involves a sarcastic statement or action.  What’s left?  Now think of funny Americans: Jon Stewart and the Daily Show cast, Jim Carrey, stand-up comics, Jerry Seinfeld, Mad TV, Saturday Night Live.  Sarcasm is an intellectual tool, and humor in America often comes down to a duel of wits with the winner getting the laugh.  “Yo momma” jokes exhibit this most clearly, but our friends from “Friends” are in the same tradition.  My ninth grade English teacher taught that irony is the basis of all humor, which I still think is true, but sarcastic irony is only one flavor.

Sarcasm does not work in Japan or Taiwan.  If a twenty-year old says sarcastically that she is 35, her friends’ jaws will drop, and they will nod their heads saying that she really doesn’t look it.  Say something absurd, that you are 100, for example, and people will accuse you of lying before finding any humor in the absurdity.  Walk out of the Bolshoi Ballet saying “I could do better than that” and your date would likely respond with, “You are a dancer?”

It is no wonder to me, then, that Japanese people do not get American humor.  Often, my Japanese friends will sheepishly ask me why Americans laugh at a certain movie.  After my explanation is lost on them, they nod their head. “They say the opposite of what they mean.  I see now.”

After seeing how the humor of “Friends” dies in translation (the Japanese language is largely flat-toned with little rhythmic variation, so “Really, I love you so much” and “REEEEEALY, I love you SOOOOOOO much” sound roughly equivalent to the Japanese ear), it made perfect sense to me that it is watched more as a drama than a sitcom in Japan.

The absence of irony is present in other aspects of life as well.  I think that it is part of what accounts for middle-aged women dressing in pink and carrying Hello Kitty accessories.  I think it also contributes to Japanese women consider Louis Vitton bags as exclusive status symbols despite the fact that everyone has them.  It is also no wonder that Americans, born and bred on cynical sarcasm, are quick to rip into this soft underbelly of Japanese popular culture.

Here is the point: all I can say about humor in Japan versus humor in America is that they are different.  The Western half of me is tempted to write off Japanese humor and irony-free pop culture as naïve and childish. Conversely, there is a large part of me that sees the American dependence on sarcasm and absurdity in its humor as symptomatic of the wall of defenses that they seem to build up over the course of their lifetime.  I know that such interpretations ossify negative stereotypes and reflect my own personal frustrations more than reality.

For example, we could just as easily view Americans as being childish and naïve for being such one-trick-ponies in their battles for supremacy of wit.  We could also see the Japanese sense of humor, toothless and immature, as being symptomatic of the wall of defenses that the Japanese are expected to build up over the course of their lifetimes.

It is clear that the difference exists, but any interpretation can be countered with an infinite series of on-the-other-hand’s.  My personal conclusion from all of this is that it is the duty of someone from Culture A to be aware of how their culture is perceived by Culture B, Culture C, and Culture D, and also to be conscious of their personal perceptions of those other cultures.  One both sides road are two equally dangerous traps: the trap of Cultural Bigotry and the trap of Cultural Fetishism.

Despite my best intentions, I am sad to say that I have fallen victim to both traps in the recent past; it is easier to see when two other cultures are misunderstanding each other than when you are the one misunderstanding and being misunderstood in return.

Hangul In Just Twenty Minutes a D… Well, in just twenty minutes, actually.

Different languages have different personalities as you learn them: Japanese is a frustrating enigma, French is an redundant, ornate, beauty, German is ditactic and practical, and I am finding that Korean is one of the warmest and friendliest languages I have ever learned.  Korean invites you in and makes you a cup of tea.

I went from illiteracy to proficiency in hangul, the Korean alphabet, in the twenty-minute train-ride home from the gym.  I wish that this had something to do with an innate linguistic ability on my part, but the fact is that it is simply the most user-friendly and intuitive alphabet system I have ever encountered.  I memorized 17 basic forms and a few rules, and I am now able to figure out all 24 letters and the multitudes of syllables that one can form from them with ease.  This page was amazingly helpful.

I have heard that Korean grammar is similar to Japanese grammar, so I hope that in a few days I will learn enough sentence structure to speak broken Korean.  That will leave me about two weeks to build up vocabulary for my trip!

Brand New Suit

Countries start to feel like different suits of clothes when you have been travelling long enough.  I mean really travelling, not like the international commuting of businessmen who have their families and homes waiting for them back in their home country.  Moving forward in lines from city to city, country to country; not looping back and forth between exotic detinations and the geographic pedal point of home sweet home.

Best Friends

Since preschool, I have rarely stayed in one place longer than three years before moving.  As a result, I have learned to make friends quickly, not to waste time on superficial relationships, and not to expect too much once I have moved away.  Some might find that third lesson a little callous, but for me, it is the most important ones.  Friendships that maintain a degree of relevance do so organically and on their own.

Only one of my closest friends has really seen me through the lowest times in my life for no other reason than because I was there for him through the lowest times in his life.  We are so dissimilar as to be simultaneously in awe of and awed by the other, generous enough to be either a teacher or a student and sensitive enough to know what moment calls for which role.

Despite big plans to go into show business together, circumstance and financial concerns necessitated a slight detour for an indeterminate amount of time.  So, just after New Year’s Day, 2005 in Arnhem, Holland, five hours before my morning flight to Boston, we snapped this picture together.  We haven’t seen each other since, but correspondence every couple of months and a few drunken phone calls fills in the holes.

Despite our egos, our perfectionism, our bluntness, and our ambition, we managed to make it through four years of circus school and the Montreal circus scene – the most cutthroat and competitive environment I have ever encountered in my life – with our friendship intact.  We did it by being able to view each other’s successes as though they were our own.  And the most recent success of my best friend in the world is one that makes me step back in wonder at how far we have really come from those first insecure steps together back in Montreal.  He is on the verge of circus mega-stardom, insomuch as ‘stardom’ is something that exists in the circus world, as the main character in Cirque du Soleil’s new permanent show “Love” (aka ‘The Beatles Show’ in circus circles) at the Mirage in Las Vegas.  All of you in North America better go see it soon, though, because I have a feeling that a talent like his will not stay in one place for very long…

Congratulations, and merde to The Clown!  I’ll meet you in Holland soon, my friend!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goos is finally in “Love!”