Why We Love British Style

There is an incredibly large fan base of all things English and British here in the US; in fact, the British film industry is very aware of the American market when making and distributing films, knowing that they can recoup their expenses if the film does well here. Americans swoon over the Royals, British period pieces, accents, history, literature, architecture, etc. But why? Why, other than our shared heritage, do we have such a fancy for the UK?

-There is an element of reserve and restraint. So much in America is about spill-your-guts, Kardashian-style self-promotion, that we actually appreciate a sense of mystery. Not revealing everything, be it skin or our private lives, has an appeal. This is something that is part of the culture across all ethnic groups: compare a British Indian to an Indian-American, and you will notice a difference.

-Elegance and grace. Perhaps this is due to the UK having an active monarchy and a noble class, but this one is probably one of the most appealing aspects of British culture. This cannot help but filter down into daily life. Maintaining a sense of decorum, a proper afternoon tea on delicate china, stationers that have been around for centuries, an Anglican chorus–all of these elements make for a sense of things being out of the ordinary.

-The clothing. There is a long-running tradition of well-tailored garments, bespoke items, haberdashers, floral prints, beautiful yet sturdy woolens knit up north that are more about true style rather than trendiness. Cuts are clean, but fabrics are attractive and appealing. Tacky is not a word that one would generally apply to stylish British clothes, be it from the supermarket, Marks and Sparks, the High Street, or Stella McCartney. There is a long history of textiles (sadly, sometimes the result of colonial exploitation in India and elsewhere), and it may be safe to say that clothes are built from the fabric up, rather than just from a design and fabric chosen to suit it. We love historical dramas because we love to admire the lavish costumes and clothes: the sumptuous velvets, rustling silks, ruffled necks.

-A sense of whimsy and eccentricity. American culture is obsessed with looking perfect and fitting a particular image; Italian fashion must always be ultra-feminine and one must “fare la bella figura.” But the British have a sense of humor about things. You might choose a funny fascinator wear to a wedding, favor quirky shoes or Doc Martens, or have worn asymmetrical haircuts in the 80s. you might opt for a brightly-colored palette à la Zandra Rhodes or Ms. Pink and Mr. Black. Though his designs and not necessarily have been called elegant and beautiful all the time, the late Alexander McQueen’s work was truly unique and theatrical. They can be best dubbed as works of art rather than clothing, and his genius was uniquely British. Eccentricity is also something that cuts across all ethnicities and classes in the UK, which is a multicultural society.

-The architecture. Palladian windows, pillars, green lawns, and even modern wonders that you can see in the form of museums, university buildings, dwellings, and more. There are still so many historic buildings dating even from medieval times, but if modern architecture’s your thing, there is no shortage of that–have a look at the Tate Modern, which is built in a former power station, very industrial chic. But it is not so often that we find a 20th/21st century British building that is completely cold and devoid of feeling the way we do elsewhere in northern Europe. There is always a sense of emotion in British style, though not over-the-top.

-There is an embracing of the feminine element. It is not inconceivable for a man to wear understated florals, discreet prints, a pale pink shirt, etc. Think of the Scottish kilt–the original skirt for men! Not everything in the UK has to be straight lines or rational angles. There is still a contingent of pagans and women who embrace flowing hair, hippie style, flowing gowns. And let us not forget the numerous immigrants from all over the world, who bring their own fabrics and styles with them, be it robes and turbans from all over the African continent or Indian saris.

Naturally, this is only an observation of one angle of British culture. There are plenty of drunken, grubby men and women spilling from pubs, scantily clad girls who go off for hen parties (bachelorette parties in American English) in Spain, and people who are as apathetic to aesthetics as they are here in the US. But there is still something enduring and appealing about the artistic and stylistic output of the United Kingdom that we don’t quite find here in the United States.

A Case Against Minimalism?

In perusing the recent after-Christmas sales, I noticed that there is quite a prevalent ethos in current aesthetics: a sleek, (anorexically-)thin model with her hair pulled back into a neat ponytail, her features angular no matter what her ethnicity, wearing simple-cut, unadorned clothing in a chic environment that is usually white or gray. It looks gorgeously stylish, and some of the cuts are so classic that we can see they have been in existence since the heyday of fashion icons Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, the Givenchy designs that we still love today. But this isn’t only in the world of clothing and fashion: we can see this in the popularity of mid-century modern furniture design, industrial-chic restaurants and cafés and boutiques, and even in the trendy ethos of “clean eating.” I have always been a huge fan of Scandinavian design, have hated Midwestern furniture and its heavy, brown, complicated look, loathe over- detailed and studded handbags, and am a frugal sort who prefers to have less in terms of possessions. And dare I say, sometimes I find the gopurams (towers) of Hindu temples in my ancestral land of South India can be a bit gaudy?

But all of this has made me wonder, why is there such a dislike of the opulent, the rococo, the detailed, the maximalist? Why is there a fear of design ethic that is “too much”? Is this aesthetic doing a disservice to many people and cultures? Here are some thoughts.

-There is often a lack of emotion in minimalism. Why smile when you can pout or have a neutral expression? This seems to be the opinion of art directors everywhere. Why not have a few stray curls cascading over a shoulder that show an element of playfulness instead of every (unnaturally-straightened) hair pulled back? Why does the table have to be set with such sterile perfection in a photograph instead of people laughing and talking, a drop of wine spilled, a penne that has escaped from the pot?
I have often remarked, when in Germany and Austria, at the way that the corners of the rooms are at such perfect, sharp 90° angles that it’s almost ridiculous. In the United States, even 90° angle walls have a slight curve to them. I always read this as a fear of emotion, anything that is not perfectly straight and rigid.

-It seems to favor a “masculine” energy. Some might argue this is an essentialist argument that masculine aesthetics and energy are straight lines, hard, plain things and feminine aesthetics and energy are curves, details, anything flowing. But I think there is some truth to this argument, that anything that is feminine, rounded, and sensual does not often feature in high-fashion and high art.

-Minimalism favors a particular body type and look. 90% of the population does not look like the models in magazines and in high-fashion print. This majority, in other words, does not fit a “skinny white person” aesthetic, regardless of ethnicity. A majority of the world’s cultures outside of America, Anglophone countries, and Northwestern Europe appreciates curves, voluptuousness, and femininity.

-Minimalism dismisses folk art and traditional handicrafts and handiwork. Think of the beautiful embroidery of Eastern Europe or India, the swirling batik prints of Southeast Asia, or the multicolored stripes of Guatemalan fabric (see my last post my appreciation of textiles). Or consider Russian culture’s adoration of “bling” – if it’s opulent and gilded, Russians love it. There is something pleasing to the eye about details and ornaments.

-There is something to be said about opulence. Traditionally, more has always signified more – more money, higher status, et cetera. Only in our narrow, 21st-century secular Western societies does less equal more. In America, we can trace that back to Puritanism. There is a dislike of the lavish, the rococo is frowned upon, and being unadorned as a woman is perfectly fine. We don’t come from a culture that has magnificent palaces, jewels, historical houses of worship, or grand costumes. This is unfortunate, because I think it dims our appreciation of that which is special. Oscar Wilde adored luxury and anything opulent, and the Oscar Wilde Bar in New York City pays tribute to the famed aesthete with highly decorated settings and an aptly named “Temptation Room.” There is also an Oscar Wilde Lounge in the Hotel Café Royal in London that Wilde himself used to frequent. Decked out in red and gold, it seems perfectly suited to the writer, and one can imagine him sitting with a pot of Earl Grey, cranking out bons mots in a hand-sewn, leather-bound notebook.

What would Oscar think about the current rage for minimalism in art? Very likely, he would be quite critical of it. After all, he did say, “Let me be surrounded by luxury, I can do without the necessities!”

Textiles: The Fabrics of Our Lives

Different cultures specialize in different types of artistic media. We think of the French and we think so much of photography, film, light, and painting, for example. We think of the ancient Romans and their beautiful marble and stonework. In many countries and communities, textiles have been and still are a part of the artistic culture.

In India, textiles are such a vital part of life even today. There are different regions that are known for different types of fabrics, and certain cities that are known for certain prints, weaves, etc. My ancestral town of Kanchipuram is known for silks, there are certain prints that one would recognize are from Rajasthan, and of course there is the globally popular Pashmina scarves. Given that millions of Indian women wear saris on a daily basis, with the sari typically being a 6 yard piece of fabric, it is only natural that India would be a very heavily textile-oriented culture. Walk into any fabric or sari shop, and ask, say, to look at red saris with a paisley print–the salesperson would immediately pull out 10 bolts of fabric that fit the description!

Many indigenous Central and Latin Americans wear the unmistakable woven cotton fabrics in all variations of colorful stripes, and we can see their goods sold all over the world (such as Guatemalan purses). Interestingly, very similar fabrics and patterns can be found in Bhutan. The Nordic countries are known for their intricate knit patterns in their woolen sweaters, very necessary to ward off the chills in extreme northern climates. There are many centers of wool and silk in northern Italy, though probably less than centuries ago, and women delight in wrapping themselves with shawls and richly textured sweaters. Many Native American tribes in the Americas made good use of animals that were hunted for food and used their durable skins, decorating them with feathers, shells, and other natural materials.

West African royalty swathed themselves in kente cloth, the different colors symbolizing different attributes. This is just one example of how royalty denoted themselves from commoners. We think of the classic European royal purple, or the bejeweled Russians, magnificent robes and garments for the aristocrats in all cultures. This might seem like something antiquated, but if we reflect on royalty today, they still distinguish themselves by their outfits, often wearing luxury brands that are no longer their exclusive domain, though unaffordable for most people. Think of the countless blogs dedicated to the Duchess of Cambridge and her wardrobe, some of which include suggestions on how to duplicate her look.

Books from the 18th and 19th centuries focus heavily on the details of what the characters are wearing. Tolstoy’s Kitty is wearing a dress that shows off her shapely ankles, and then at her ball, is in a cloudlike dress. Every girl who grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder lived with vicarious delight as Ma took the girls into town to get fabrics for their new dresses, calicos or muslins or poplin. Jane Austen’s characters also take notice of what the others are wearing, and judge them accordingly.

We cannot ignore the significance of textiles in religious contexts. Hindu priests wear simple white cotton dhotis with a simple colored woven border, whereas Episcopalian priests and Catholic clergy are decked out in opulent robes and colors. We recognize the stripes on a Jewish tallit, or prayer shawl. Many African-American communities take pride in dressing up for church, wearing elegant suits and magnificent hats.

Fashionista or not, one cannot help but be impacted by the significance of textiles in our daily lives. It is something that we are often too much in a hurry to pay attention to in America, a culture that is so based on practicality. But if we just take a moment, we might appreciate the swish of a dress, the shine of a silk tie, or the tantalizing texture of a hand-knit sweater.

Who Got It Right as a Woman: Patti Smith

It might be hard to believe at first glance, given that famous long, stringy hair, androgynous appearance, and her origins as a proto-punk poetess and singer dubbed “The Godmother of Punk.” But Patti Smith is not who she necessarily seems on the surface. She is an incredibly well-read woman, writer, photographer, and a true romantic with a tremendous aesthetic eye and love of beauty. While I cannot confess to being a great fan of her music, I have watched and read many interviews with her, saw in her speak in public, and so an exhibit of her photographs at the Detroit Institute of Arts. There is so much to admire about her!

-She is highly cultured. This is the artist who considered Balzac to be her first love! Smith has made pilgrimages to the homes of various artists and writers around the world. She admires how Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist Flea warms up with Bach runs. And one of her childhood heroes was Maria Callas. She loves going to bookstores and always talks about the book she is reading in interviews. Patti Smith has spoken of how she really considers herself to be a writer first, and that music happened to get put to her words.

-She is romantic and she loves men. People have often mistaken her youthful snarling and androgyny for militant feminism or even lesbianism, but Smith has mentioned she likes it when men hold the doors open for her, loved her husband deeply and was still devoted to her one time lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, even after he came out gay. Smith has always seemed to adore the men she has been with. How one presents oneself to the world does not always equate with one’s sexual orientation.

-She is a true artist who values great craftsmanship, whatever the mode. Despite her usual uniform of black blazers and jeans, she admires the construction of couture ball gowns! She feels deeply about the objects she photographs, and in the exhibit I saw, what was most striking was not the photographs themselves, but the canon she had put together through photography. She has a sensitive aesthetic eye and is moved by great art of any kind.

-She was a committed mother and wife. She followed her husband, the late Fred Smith, to Detroit since his band was based there. During this period, she spent little time on her music, focusing on her family life and also her writing. In interviews, Patti Smith seems to have no regrets for having left New York for going to Detroit for a time, gracefully embracing what each stage in life has held for her. She loves her children and even performs with them.

-She doesn’t follow any-isms. So often she is considered a feminist icon and asked as such; Smith seems to shrug it off and not care to identify with any big labels or movements. Instead, she chooses to be herself, the artist that she is.

-Her tastes are wide. As a child, she poured over European art books, listened to opera, read French literature. She also is a fan of Japanese writers and Roberto Bolaño, Tibetan Buddhism, traveling in Morocco, Little Women, beat poetry, and so much more. She is listed as a poet on the prestigious Poetry Foundation’s website, an honor that is not for dilettantes. Even her albums reference sometimes-obscure cultural phenomena, such as the dog Banga in The Master and Margarita. This is a woman who is clearly well read and a woman of letters who is influenced by other great artists!

-She doesn’t care to dress in a “feminine” mode. The trademark hair is long and unkempt, her face is free of makeup, and even at the Nobel ceremony (where she accepted the award for Bob Dylan) she did not choose to done a dress. Smith was always comfortable dressing as she does (which is still quite an iconic, unique style), though she does love ball gowns and there is a photo shoot one can see online where she is in Dior gowns!

-While she might seem rebellious and certainly was as a young woman, she is actually quite respectful and accepting of religions, general proprieties, etc.

Ultimately, Patti Smith is true to herself. She considers herself an artist above all the categories of gender, ethnicity, etc. She has shown us that it doesn’t matter what kind of background you come from, that even if you are from a working-class background, you can still have an aesthetic soul and live for your artistic dreams. When I saw her give a talk in Ann Arbor in 2010 or so, I had the great fortune to ask her a question: what do you do when you are feeling a lack of inspiration? Her answer was that she is never in this state, because she will constantly draw her inspiration from other great artists and writers, so she will turn to their work, and that she is also inspired by walking by the ocean. I found this to be a satisfying answer, and I am inspired by this true artist.

Faces of Africa

Back in May, prior to the Black Lives Matter marches, I felt that I needed to know more about politics in Africa, a part of the world I have not yet been to. Ironically, May is “Africa month,” a time to commemorate the continent. I came across a series on YouTube by CGTN (a Chinese network) called “Faces of Africa” where they profile the major leaders of Africa, most of whom helped liberate their countries from colonial powers. Each episode was unique and each leader a distinct personality. There were some whose names I knew very well, like Robert Mugabe, but others with whom I was less familiar. Some are still revered, whereas others are reviled.

Europeans might already be aware of the deep roots of colonialism in the African continent. For many of them, the presence of people from Africa and current-date immigrants is a reminder of their history. Indians have also had a presence in Africa for centuries, and Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer in South Africa. More recently, there are East and Southeast Asians, and an Indonesian South African recently told me that the recent Asian immigrants have a better social status than earlier ones, as they had come from business and often brought great wealth. There are indeed a number of whites who are African whites, as their families have lived there for centuries. This is not just in the country of South Africa, but elsewhere, especially in former colonial strongholds.

It is important to know that there is extreme class stratification throughout the African continent. Africa is full of natural resources and so there are very wealthy people who have profited from these commodities. There are also booming metropolises, such as Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg (“Joburg” to the locals), and more that are centers of trade, finance, manufacturing. There is also extreme political instability throughout the continent, extreme corruption, and a lack of infrastructure. This is understandable, for the landmass is enormous, and encompasses all types of geography, from deserts to plains to snow-capped mountains to jungles. There is tremendous diversity in the religions and languages, with the North and Maghreb being predominantly Muslim, and over 1500 languages spoken in six different language families.

Yet despite this diversity, the continent has suffered through so many similar situations. The legacies and tragedies of colonial powers were affecting Africa through the mid 20th century. Exploitation–both financial and human–was rampant all over. The profiles of the leaders shown in “Faces of Africa” often reflect a very similar pattern: a colonial power had long had a hold over the country, and then a courageous idealist rose up to rebel against the colonials, garnering popular support along the way, and then became the leader of the country. However, over time, this leader either ended up facing opposition and was somehow ousted, or this leader ended up becoming a dictator just as bad as the colonial rulers. Many of them were educated in the West, and just like Gandhi, ended up using this knowledge of history and politics and the law to turn out the Western powers. The degree to which each of these leaders chose to remain connected to the west, or to be pro-Africa, has varied. Their styles of governing also differed greatly. Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie was an internationalist and Emperor, grand in his portraits and lifestyle. Joseph Sankara, “Africa’s Che Guevara” from Burkina Faso was a left-wing revolutionary who opposed the IMF and lived very frugally to the end. Robert Mugabe, the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe who identified first with Marx and Lenin and then as a socialist, was a schoolteacher who rose to power to become one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, complete with a second wife who was known for her profligate spending.

These liberators are complex people who share many similarities but also have many differences. They raise greater questions: can one truly remain an idealist once they are in power? Will political coalitions and unity fragment once the common enemy of the colonizer is gone? Can a country that is part of the developing world subsist without aid from the developed world/IMF/World Bank? Can isolationism really help develop a country or will it hinder it? These are questions that have no easy answers and that have not yet been answered, issues that political scientists, historians, politicians, and those working in government confront even as we speak. One of the most pressing issues right now is debt forgiveness for Africa, and the Chinese have been involved as of late.

The African continent is rich in history and politics. While it is impossible to know everything about such a large area of the world, it’s important to inform oneself as best as when can. Even simply learning the geography and basic facts about the various countries is a good start.

Likeness: What Makes for Successful Impressions

One trait I have inherited from my mother’s side is mimicry and impersonation. I’m grateful for this ability, and it is an almost-visceral need or habit when I hear someone with a particularly salient speech pattern, or see a celebrity or well-known individual with distinct mannerisms, to do an impression of that person. But I am not alone in this, as there are many voice actors, dramatic actors, comedians, and individuals who share this trait. TV shows such as “MadTV,” “Saturday Night Live,” “In Living Color,” endless viral videos, and comedy clubs all attest to the popularity of mimicry and people’s love for seeing their celebrities re-created. Sometimes, this is not comedic, as we can see a film like “My Week with Marilyn” or the series “The Crown.” What makes for a good impression? Contrary to popular belief, it is not simply “sounding just like” a person and replicating them exactly, but something much more. Let us explore.

The voice is, certainly, the most important part of an impression. But the voice is made up of components and is not one singular thing. The timbre of someone’s voice is often what lends itself most to a successful impersonation. Does their voice sit in the same place and have the same tone color as the person they are trying to imitate? For example, Alec Baldwin’s voice sits in the same low, raspy register as Donald Trump’s when he plays him on “Saturday Night Live.” The late Carol Channing had an unmistakable sound that’s funny to imitate. The physiology lends itself to creating the same sound. Another big part of the voice is the speech pattern. How slow or fast does someone talk? How do they pace their speech? Are there particular cadences, rhythms, ways they emphasize their words? Are there particular things someone says? A pilot on a British Airways flight I once took was a vocal dead-ringer for Hugh Grant, not only for the class of British accent, but also the timbre and the particular cadences. Naturally, it entails that an impression may involve an accent. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s sound was unmistakably Brooklyn Jewish and Bill Clinton still hasn’t lost his Arkansas drawl over the decades. Tracy Ullman is a genius with her impersonations, for she is able to catch the speech of endless celebrities and accents with her flexible voice.

Beyond voice, there has to be an understanding of the type of utterances by the person one is trying to imitate. Trump’s bombastic, self-congratulatory language, and Queen Elizabeth’s small talk that is friendly but not personal, or a particular culture’s way of speaking insults are all examples of how one must use the meaning behind the speech to create a successful impression. In other words, this is creating character and not simply repeating sound. Unsuccessful impressions don’t understand the personality of the person speaking or the culture of the accent being done. One can speak in a British accent as an American, but if you don’t understand the nuances and subtleties of the way a Brit uses language, you won’t be successful. Conversely, Brits imitating the American accent overexaggerate the “Americanness” of our language and our enthusiasm, and it sounds forced. Granted, exaggeration can be an element of an impression. Think Jim Carrey as Joe Biden. Joe Biden will never go over the top as he is a leading political figure. However, Carrey always pushes boundaries and he knows where to go too far in order to create a humorous effect. 

We have to look next at gesture and the physicalization of the person we are trying to imitate. James Brown had his famous dance moves, sliding back and forth on the floor–something captured so well by actor Wayne Brady. Physical comedians have a gift of being able to imitate another person’s body language. How do they sit, move, gesture? George W. Bush’s frequent smirks, Barbra Streisand’s stroking of her hair with her long, manicured fingers, a Japanese woman’s bow, and the infamous Indian head nod are all things we would immediately recognize are central to conveying someone physically. There is the danger with this of gestures being reduced to tics. This is all too frequent on “Saturday Night Live,” which is not necessarily a bastion of good comedy.

Physical appearance is probably something most viewers would say is important to creating an impression when the impression is in acting. You might do a spot on impression of Chris Rock, but if you are a heavyset redhaired man, you might not be too convincing (not to mention potentially offensive to some black people). In “The Crown,” the characters do not closely resemble the royal family. The wonderful Helena Bonham Carter does not have Princess Margaret’s facial shape or piercing blue eyes, nor did Claire Foy recreate the Queen’s relaxed, polite expression, wearing an impenetrable cold, wide-blue-eyed stare instead. However, most of the cast does a strong job in portraying the royals as complex people and capturing their personalities. So one need not necessarily closely resemble the person being mimicked in order to capture them well. Cate Blanchett did a wonderful job as Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” despite the lack of the angular face and famous cheekbones, and no one would have said Michelle Williams resembled Marilyn Monroe before the film “My Week with Marilyn” though she did a wonderful job in the film. Certainly, an excellent hair, makeup, and wardrobe team can help, as can lighting and understanding how a person moves. Of course, we love best the people who actually resemble the people they are impersonating: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin was beyond belief and the Australian musician who is a double for Kim Jong-Un. There is something so primal and human about having a good laugh at someone who strongly resembles a celebrity.

Impressions can also be nonverbal. The Prince William and Kate Middleton wedding video parody was fantastic, not only because the cast closely resembled the members of British royal family, but also because the choreography was so apt for each character. Of course Prince Harry would gyrate his pelvis, Princess Anne would do a dance move like she was riding a horse, and the queen would smile and clap in a dignified way. So there is also the physical aspect of movement that helps to create an impersonation of someone in addition to the looks.

Finally, the impersonator needs to capture that elusive quality known as essence. This is why, even when someone does not exactly resemble the person in question, they are able to give you an impression so convincingly. It’s a question of understanding what makes someone tick me: what do they say, do, how do they react? If Woody Allen was being interviewed, an impersonator might have him start off by trying to clear his name from the MeToo blame and go off on a tangent about all the women who told him he was a nebbish. The late genius Phil Hartman’s SNL skit as Bill Clinton jogging into a McDonald’s and sampling the other diners’ meals was perfect, because it juxtaposed Clinton’s keen intellect and knowledge of global affairs with his appetite for fast food. Naturally, this is not something the president would have done, but it was just so fitting and in character with Clinton!

Of course there are unsuccessful impersonations. Usually these are because someone does not resemble the original person, is trying too hard, or makes a caricature out of the original person when not in a highly comedic setting. Personally, I found Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy quite bad, for her accent was forced, she had no resemblance to Jackie, and she captured none of Mrs. Kennedy’s strength and iron will that was masked by her graciousness and seemingly delicate manners. Though graceful, Jackie Kennedy was no shrinking violet. Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek was something I never found funny, because Alex Trebek is not stiff and mannered in the way Ferrell portrayed him.

All of this falls under the umbrella of acting, an art form that is not easy to do. It takes a lot of skill, a lot of understanding of all the choices that one has to make. Doing impressions is certainly a lot of fun, and something that is universally funny, part of the human experience. After all, who hasn’t been accused of being a “copycat” at some point in their childhood?!

They Come to America: The Enduring Attraction of American Higher Education

They Come to America: The Enduring Attraction of Higher Education in the U.S.

What is it about an American university education that makes millions of students want to compete, struggle, sacrifice, fight, and beg for admission? For example, the idea of a Harvard Bachelor’s or an engineering degree at MIT is something tantamount to attaining godhood in many countries. It is the finishing touch that will supposedly make one’s life complete, along with acquiring a Mercedes, oceanfront property, and dividends from high-yield stocks. All of this is ironic when one considers the sad fact that America lags far behind its industrialized world counterparts in primary and secondary education, embarrassingly so. It is also ironic when one considers the variety of social problems that are present on a number of campuses, such as binge drinking, drugs, cheating, date rape, or lack of basic classroom respect in an age of texting and social media. America’s universities are much younger than its international counterparts; Princeton’s architecture is laughable when one considers the thousand-plus year old architecture of Oxford. And many of these universities, like Oxford, Bologna, or the Sorbonne hold much older traditions of higher education that go back centuries, if not millennia. Needless to say, the cost of higher education in the United States is staggering; while people in France might protest a €200 tuition increase per year, people here are paying $200,000 for their entire university education.

But there is something very special about studying in the United States, despite all these problems and the relative youth of our institutions. Why is an American education so sought-after?

-American universities are well-funded. Granted, not every university has a Harvard-sized endowment. But American schools generally all have decent libraries and laboratories. There is computer access and technology. There are great resources for both inside and outside the classroom, extracurricular activities, and campus housing and dormitories that make for a complete experience. There might be strong sports facilities, concert halls, art studios, media labs, and more. Even in an age-old prestigious university overseas, there might not be suitable facilities to further one’s development.

-The style of liberal arts education. In a majority of countries around the world, students are tracked into a single discipline upon entry. There are very few electives and classes taken in fields that are not pertinent to one’s major. In America, there is almost always some form of a core curriculum and requirements that serve to broaden one’s mind, requiring humanities majors to take a math class and engineering majors to take a social science class. In the classroom, the style of education is not rote, but seeks to challenge and knock down students’ beliefs in order for them to be rebuilt. There is much discussion, original thought is valued, and critical inquiry is key to learning and growing. There are sacred texts and new thinkers; the canon lays the groundwork in many schools and in others, students get to choose classes that feel relevant to their style of education. America is particularly strong and cutting edge in the STEM fields, and so it is a popular choice for many students from overseas. 

-The diversity of institutions. If you want a research school where you attend classes that are lectures given by global experts in their field, America has that. If you want a state university where you get to mix with the locals and have an authentic American experience with lower tuition, that is available. Perhaps you learn best in a small setting, and so a small liberal arts college fits the bill. Maybe you come from a conservative country where there is gender segregation in education, so a women’s college is the only choice your parents will approve of. If you are a genius in a STEM field, you opt for one of the top universities in the country that focuses on science and technology. Or you might be a future leader in your country that has deep political trouble, and so you choose an institution that supports refugees and political thinkers. Whatever your pedagogical goals or style, there is a school to meet your needs.

-The best universities are truly global. Students will make friends with people from every corner of the earth and the United States, make friendships for life, and even connections that will help with their careers. Embracing diversity at a young age reduces prejudice, and it creates a global culture that is so necessary in an age of a terrifying rise of the right wing. 

-There is an openness and positivity to American education when it is working well. The higher education systems in many other countries serve to weed out students, allowing only the elite to continue, or discouraging otherwise good students who have not been at the top of their class. French people often complain about the pessimism and negativity of their education system, and people in many countries have lamented the fact that they were not able to study medicine because they did not make the cut in the entrance exams, though they otherwise would have been excellent doctors. Students here are allowed to change their mind as to what they are studying, and there is a tremendous support system for students in American universities with academic advising, counseling, and career centers. The attitude is yes rather than no, and there is a pervading sense of equality that allows for anyone, no matter what their background, to succeed if they are willing to work hard. Professors are willing to talk to students in office hours, and students are allowed to criticize the professors in end-of-the-term evaluations. This, in turn, encourages immigrants who choose to stay to contribute to American society, and these immigrants are a huge factor in America’s success.

-Finally, American undergraduate culture is fun. Granted, in too many schools there are not healthy boundaries with what is considered “fun,” and it becomes a very toxic, partying culture that wastes education. But at the bottom of it, college is seen as a time when students grow, bond with each other, enjoy their experiences and learning and outside the classroom, forming friendships for a lifetime. There are fun activities for holidays, traditions that are unique and specific to each culture, even great rituals specific to each institution (MIT hacks, anyone?) Undergraduate learning is not only about learning, but about enjoying one’s youth.

These are just some of the reasons why American universities are a popular choice; certainly, many more exist. And in turn, many Americans love going overseas for a study abroad or an internship, wanting to broaden their own horizons and see the world.

Further Reflections from the Polyglot Conference

Much to everyone’s delight, the polyglot conference was extended by another week, and we have been able to continue listening to the hundred or so lectures by various speakers on an incredible variety of topics, and avail ourselves of the various language chat rooms and general meeting room on Zoom. This has been one of the most wonderful experiences in recent years, and one that has truly made me feel like I have found my tribe! I have learned so much about the world, people, and languages, but also so much about myself. Here are some of the things I have been reflecting on.

-Monolingual cultures are really insular and lacking. I always felt like an oddball growing up bilingual, but I have grown to really appreciate it and have come to see that there are so many others in America who are natively bilingual or trilingual or more. Many other polyglots I have spoken with have commented on the negatives about monolingual cultures (especially in the context of our Anglophone countries) and it is something I see more clearly now. English-speaking countries, as a whole, really do seem to take an attitude of “the rest of the world speaks English, so why should I learn a language?” Frequently, someone in an Anglophone country says that they had X number of years of Y language in school, but they can’t remember a word. Why not? Granted, there are always individuals who do not learn languages well, but this type of statement should not be considered a proud confession and instead a reflection on the flaws in our education system. There is no impetus to use foreign languages on a regular basis in America, unless one makes a certain effort or is able to speak with people in ethnic community. This really needs to change.

-It is perfectly normal and wonderful to have a deep passion for words and languages. I have met people who have been studying Ancient Hittite, Eastern Armenian, and the languages of indigenous Californians. I have met people who love learning different scripts as much as I do, even someone who knew how to spell my name in Tamil! There is nothing wrong with being curious about the various dialects of any given language, and knowing the differences between them and discussing them with others. These kinds of things often make one a freak in mainstream American society. But one does not need to be a scholar or trained in linguistics in order to be highly knowledgeable about any language or languages–I’ve met people from various walks of life, from warehouse worker to professor to computer programmer.

-It is perfectly normal and wonderful to have a deep passion for geography. One group activity involved people filling out the different regions of different countries, and it was really amazing to see how knowledgeable people were in knowing the different areas of so many different countries like India, Germany, and more. This is so necessary in a world that has become extremely globalized.

-Knowing multiple languages really changes your brain structure. If you grow up bilingual or multilingual, this has really shaped your brain and cognition, and even if you have learned languages later, this is very important as the brain has so much neuroplasticity. I enjoyed watching talks by neuroscientists and scholars who showed data and images from fMRI studies. There are even some studies that show that learning languages can keep Alzheimer’s at bay!

-Language is inseparable from culture and meaning. How we use gestures, express certain thoughts, ideas, and shades of meaning all relate to language and our need to communicate. Certain concepts exist in some languages, but not in others. Grammar reflects the subtleties of expression; the more cases in a language, the more precise it is about relation.

-Language is connected to history. It is endlessly fascinating to learn about how various languages developed and branched off within any given language family. Sometimes this process has been over millennia, and at other times, in a matter of centuries. The history of English is incredibly fascinating and complex, and the more we know about its linguistic roots, the more we can understand how we think and what influences shaped our language.

And finally,
-Humor is humor, regardless of the language, and is truly global. People from all over the globe will keep giggling when trying to pronounce the Georgian word, gvprtskvni, that is all consonants except for the final letter. Everyone will find it funny that someone is still awake at 5 AM to be on a Zoom chat, like a vampire. Several people will ask, in a Hindi lesson, for expressions on how to bargain, knowing that that is an ingrained part of Indian culture. And my favorite, a question posted in the chat on what country you will end up in if you dig a hole through the earth from your country? Whether people were from Uruguay, America, or Sweden, the answer was China!

Language can often divide us and is what makes us so distinct and unique from culture to culture. But, as this polyglot conference has shown, it can really unite us in the most amazing ways. Many thanks to everyone I’ve learned from and connected with!

The Poetic Nature of Led Zeppelin

We often think of Led Zeppelin as hard rock and roll, the Gods of Rock, Robert Plant with his golden bravado and Jimmy Page with his cocky virtuosity, and the understatedly brilliant John Paul Jones and his effortless basslines. Their antics were as famous as their music, though John Paul Jones remarkably managed to stay free of trouble. The death of powerful drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham cemented their place as legends, legends who, like in any Greek tragedy, live a heroic life but face tragic mortality, paying a price for their hubris. But there was more to Zeppelin than outrageousness; their music speaks volumes even today, and is truly legendary. These late 60s-early 80s bards could be incredibly tender when they wanted to be and elegant, poets in their flowered shirts and flowing hair. Even under their thundering rhythms and powerful guitars, there is a lot of beauty in their music that we can still appreciate today.

It would almost be too cliché to talk about Stairway to Heaven, but it does beg a brief mention in that the beginning opens like an old English ballad, arpeggiated with a guitar and then a flute. Plant’s plea, “There’s a lady who’s sure…” at the beginning could be from a roaming minstrel during Shakespeare’s time. The equally-well-known “Immigrant Song” with its delightfully discordant, violent opening recounts history, the Viking invasions of Iceland, and there is memorable rhyme in the forceful opening lyrics: “We come from the land of the ice and snow/ from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow…” Plant then croons the next lines softly, in that line from which she derives his nickname, “The hammer of the gods/Will drive our ships to new lands.”

One of the most tender and beautiful songs by the band is “Ramble On,” inspired by Tolkien. The strumming guitar at the beginning, muted bass guitar, and rhythm that is beat on some still-unknown object (possibly but not certainly the drum) lead the way for Plant’s introduction in a tender, slightly scratchy voice, “Leaves are falling all around/Time I was on my way…” Perhaps he is Bilbo Baggins or another character about to embark on a hero’s journey through the English countryside. “Mine’s a tale that can’t be told,” Plant continues. “My freedom I hold dear.” This wandering narrator is the man by the roadside, the itinerant Traveller, the poetic vagabond.

But it is not just their lyrics that are poetic; their music is also particularly lyrical and complex. Think of the guitar lines in “Over the Hills and Far Away”: Robert Plant’s invitation to his lady intertwines with Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar, and when the song breaks into full out rock, there are two guitar lines and the bass doubles one of them. The piece diminishes into the air in an ethereal fashion, a graceful diminuendo of sound and emotion. On the tragic “All of My Love” (written for the death of Plant’s son Karac), bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones’s gets to showcase his prodigious talents with a fugal, almost Bach-like solo that is beyond the usual scope of a rock song. Even the animalistic Bonzo knew when to hold back and keep the beat in a quiet fashion, and when to let his drums speak as a whole symphony unto themselves as in “Bonzo’s Montreux.” (Bonham, some may be surprised to know, grew up listening to the great jazz drummers.)

A discussion of Led Zeppelin’s music is endless, and so we must conclude with the poetic nature of the musicians themselves. Long-haired and sometimes flower-shirted, the men of Led Zeppelin were in touch with their feminine and poetic sides, not afraid to be soft and emotional while still being brash, aggressive, and wild. They were at the tail end of the hippie era, yet they could also be blues musicians, proto-punk rockers, heavy-metal men, folk singers, and so much more. They loved the black culture of the American South’s Delta, the folk traditions of their own land, musics of the non-Western world (“Kashmir” was actually inspired by a trip to Morocco). Robert and Jimmy were the most poetic of them all, in terms of appearance: the former with his long flowing golden hair, like a flower child, and the latter with his dark, silent, Byronic personality and interest in the occult.

With rings on their fingers and bells on their toes, they screamed and riffed and captured the attention of audiences everywhere. Like the heroes of the Greek myth, they flew high and close to the sun, indulged in wine, women and song, these traveling troubadours who are immortalized in music history. However, the band ended up crashing and burning like Icarus when John Bonham was found dead, due to his drunken excesses. The other three musicians could not imagine continuing without him, and thus concluded Led Zeppelin. An unnecessarily heartbreaking, dreadful ending–but perhaps a grimly poetic one, as would happen in any great tragedy.

Rarer than Platinum: The Minority Artist

America is a very business- and professional-minded society. It is also the land of tremendous opportunities for immigrants, the place to pursue the proverbial “American Dream.” The country is not one to rest on its laurels in terms of history, arts, culture, or anything else that is not pragmatic and geared towards professional success, STEM advances, or money. Even our language is very efficient and to the point: compare American English with the more flowery nature of British English. These are not bad things in and of themselves.

But what about those who are more right-brained, more creative-minded outside of STEM fields, those who like to create works of art that are political or art for art’s sake or crafts? It is not easy to be an artist in American society, period. And what of those who are artists, but come from a minority group, some sector of society that is socioeconomically disadvantaged or from an immigrant background whose primary motivation is to stay alive and establish themselves in American society, or whose members prefer other professions and values?

Being a minority who is an artist is probably one of the most difficult pursuits anyone in this society can undertake. Understandably, many minority groups, especially immigrants, place a high value on professional careers that are stable, solid, provide benefits, and socially recognized. Art is already seen as a luxury in American society: add to it the stresses of immigration, and it becomes almost frivolous. Many minority artists are not understood by their own communities, for if they are not seen as frivolous, they are perhaps simply not appreciated. “Art” for many immigrant groups can often be formulaic, such as blockbuster movies, soap operas, or community/cultural/folk traditions. There may not be any desire for individual creative output, for it can challenge the norms of what is understood to be art. Those who strike out on their own are often not emotionally or financially supported. At the worst, they might be ostracized in their own communities for making obscure films, odd paintings, or music that is unfamiliar.

This is all the more reason that minority artists need to be supported. What is an artist after all? Someone who has a unique vision that they want to bring out to the world. Whatever medium they work in, there is something that is so intrinsically and personally beautiful to this artist, it is the best language they how to express themselves in. Part of the difficulty that arises with supporting minority artists is that minorities often get lumped into certain groups and there are certain expectations. If one is a non-white writer, they must write “trauma fiction.” If one is a minority pop singer, she might have to fit into a “cute” mold that is like an ethnic Barbie doll instead of an ethnic Patti Smith. If one is an ethnic painter, they may be discouraged from bringing influences from their own culture into their work.

Ultimately, any artist, minority or not, must be allowed to create what is uniquely their vision, in a way that nobody else can see it or do it. And society must allow for that to happen. Here’s to all the minority artists that dare to do what they love.