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!

Truths about the Developing World

Those who live in the West and in highly industrialized, developed countries often have many misconceptions about people living in less-industrialized, developing countries. People might assume that everyone lives in a jungle, that they have never heard of Facebook, or that they are all miserable and unhappy. Having studied anthropology and development studies as an undergraduate, and having been to the developing countries of India, Bhutan, and Mexico, I would like to share some thoughts on what the situation is really like.

-People have technology and electronic goods. Granted, this is not everyone, but to assume that nobody has a phone or a computer or a television is completely erroneous. Some might find that the technology in certain situations in developing countries is more advanced than what we would find in the West. For example, over a decade ago, there was a cell phone charging station with at least seven different types of chargers at Madras Anna International Airport–something I had never seen anywhere in America. However, one could generalize that there are issues with regular power supply, the grid, frequent blackouts, and getting electricity to rural and undeveloped areas. Many tech companies have been working on this issue. The infrastructure for power and electricity are what is often most problematic in developing countries, not the actual presence or not of technology.
-There is great wealth. A wealthy family might throw a quinceañera costing tens of thousands of dollars, send their children to boarding schools or American colleges, or fly to Milan or Paris to buy the latest clothes by Prada or Dior. However, a single digit percentage of the population may hold 90% of the country’s wealth while the rest of the people live in great poverty. A middle class may not exist at all, or be a minimal segment of the population. There are extremes in class stratification to a degree we might not see in Western Europe or in many parts of America. America, however, is becoming rather like a developing country, where the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer since the Reagan era, and the pandemic has highlighted this to a heart-wrenching degree.
-A history of colonialism. This point is so large and rich that I cannot even begin to address it here. However, there are still many countries that are suffering from centuries of being ruled by a European power, and the United States has created a new form of economic colonialism as well. The CIA has committed countless atrocities overseas.
-Infrastructure, especially with transportation, can be a problem. You might have to fly out of your country to a different airport in order to fly back to another city in your country. A distance of 200 miles may take two days to drive, because there are not suitable roads. This affects access to services and goods.
-Medical care. This varies greatly between developing countries. You may find world-class medical facilities in urban India or Bangkok that service Western medical tourists. However, in parts of (West) Africa, such as Liberia, you may have 10 doctors per million people. Even with medical facilities, there may not be adequate resources and equipment. Airlifting a gravely ill patient may not be a possibility due to large distances or the availability of air transport.
-Political instability. This is a big one. Many developing countries have incredible natural resources or services that could bring the country tremendous wealth and therefore development. However, corruption, mismanagement, fraud, political violence, unstable governments, embezzlement, and a lack of social structures that distribute these resources and services cheat billions of people worldwide from having basic needs fulfilled. However, America, being a hybrid of superpower and developing country, has no right to criticize developing countries, not when we have a revolving door of politicians under our current embarrassment of an administration.
-Epidemics are often a part of daily life. The Covid-19 pandemic is something shocking and unexpected to most Americans, but for many people all over the world, public health crises in the form of diseases is nothing new. Swine flu, HIV, etc. have inflicted so many millions of people globally prior to the pandemic, and developing countries are often better equipped or more knowledgeable as to how to deal with these crises.
-The tension between traditional and modern medicine. Again, this varies greatly between countries. But it is still a significant issue. Scientists may try to suggest that allowing animals to defecate in a river is contaminating their water supply, but people pay no heed. Someone suffering from an epileptic fit might be taken to a shaman to be exorcised from some sort of demon, rather than being given the proper medication to work with the neurotransmitters in the brain. Or, modern/Western medicine may be regarded with some skepticism, as the tool of the white man. Sometimes, local traditions may actually be more effective and inexpensive for treating certain conditions, and Western medicine has come to appreciate these ancient forms of wisdom.
-Climate change. Whether it’s fatal flooding in Bangladesh or drought in farming areas, our modern world is affecting the developing world disproportionately. We have a staggering refugee crisis, and while these may have a political or sociological basis, there is also an environmental component. We have a responsibility in the developed world to do our share to help this problem. However, there are serious issues with pollution in many developing countries, due to the type of vehicles people drive and the type of fuel these vehicles consume. Governments in developing countries could do a much better job of regulating emissions, banning certain types of vehicles and fuels, and working on more environmentally-sustainable alternatives.

There are so many more points to be discussed, but let me conclude by saying that another misconception is that everyone in the developing world is miserable, ailing, and decrepit. There is no question that poverty is one of the most serious afflictions we have in the world today. But we cannot dismiss the fact that human beings are human beings everywhere, that whether rich or poor, people share the same fears, joys, the needs to celebrate, jealousies, curiosities, life milestones like weddings or funerals, etc. What people in the West and developed world need to understand is how better to help the developing world so that people in those countries are not exploited or do not suffer certain (easily ameliorated) conditions–especially those created by wealthy countries like the United States.

Gathering

One of the hardest aspects of the continuing sheltering/social distancing rules for millions of us is the inability to gather. As restrictions are loosened, it is still not truly safe to meet in large groups as before. Even with small groups with masks and social distancing, it is a risk. Anthropologically, we humans need institutions and groups to “finish us,” as we are not born with many instincts and have to learn many skills, unlike most animals. Children who are not socialized with others become feral, and later cannot function in normal human society. There is such a thing as antisocial personality disorder, which is just what its name suggests: people who are not able to interact with others in healthy ways to a pathological degree and who cannot respect how others feel. Not having this human ritual of gathering now, not having a regular, non-risky part of our lives, leads us to reflect on how we congregate as human beings.

We meet for joy. We meet to celebrate special occasions: births, graduations, weddings, showers, birthdays, anniversaries, milestones such as retirement, etc. There is something about the energy of multiple people together, that one plus one is greater than two, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It might just be five people around the table for a birthday, but throw in funny stories swapped, advice for difficult situations, jokes, et cetera, and it becomes something more. We also meet for funerals, in order to pay respects to the dead and to commemorate their lives; sometimes, it becomes a reunion to see people we may not have seen for decades.

We eat together. One of my favorite things in the world to do is to go out to dinner with a sizable group of people, or to hold dinner parties. Passing dishes around the table–“Oh, I would love some more of that rice!” “Ooh thanks, but I’m not fond of X!” or “May I taste a little of your dessert?–and sharing food is something that feels so vital to the human experience. We all have a common need to eat, which is necessary to survive. Takeout is just not the same as sitting in a restaurant, a place that has its own unique ambience, the smells of the food, the service (or lack thereof if it is a casual eatery) the sounds, people watching, and so many other things that can’t be described. Though many restaurants are open for patio dining, the risks are too great right now, and most people do not wear a mask when they are not eating and are talking.

We need to move together. Be it individually and physically with a spouse or significant other in an intimate/sexual manner, or in an exercise class, tossing a ball with kids, dancing to a live band outside, or clapping our hands in a concert hall, there is something deeply nonverbal and communicative about motion.

Making music together. For those of us who are musicians, this is one of the most tragic things right now, even though the Internet has managed to force us to be creative and concoct new ways of performing and getting together on the basis of sound. Playing in an orchestra is one of the most spectacular thrills in the human experience, to be surrounded by so many instruments that each do their own thing, and yet come together under the coordination of the conductor’s baton. Playing or singing in any sort of musical ensemble is also something in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Public venues. Who doesn’t love perusing books in a library or bookstore? We see a cookbook cover that features some sort of dish we might like to try making, or a title that piques our curiosity and so we lift the book off the table and skim a few pages to see if we might like reading the whole thing. Looking at clothes in a store, seeing the plethora of fabrics, colors, and shapes, sparks our imagination and gives us joy in trying out a new shirt or dress, and getting feedback either from a friend or a willing follow customer. Any kind of house of worship, be it a Zen meditation center, Hindu temple, or Catholic church, unites us in our need for sacred spaces. Having a place that is set aside for quiet contemplation or religious rituals is significant; for those who are atheist, they may find that a particular place, such as in nature or a particular neighborhood, gives them deep solace.

Social groups of interest. We might like to gather together to speak French at a café, play a pickup game of basketball, or meet to plan a charity project. We bond through these common activities which are often things that others in our family or circle of friends might not enjoy doing. Often, we stick with our friends, but sometimes in groups, there is a friend of a friend who we might enjoy meeting or chatting with.

These are but some of the pleasures being denied to us now, or of risk to us now, due to the unfortunate circumstances of the pandemic. Our socializing is severely limited. This is tragically sad, because as humans, no matter how introverted we are, we are social animals. We are trying all means of creative technology to unite us, but nothing takes the place of in-person interaction. So much has been said about herd immunity; what we need so badly now is herd community.

Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly digitized. Even our communication is much less interactive and personal than it was, due to the unfortunate preference for social media. If you couple that with the American mentality of excessive independence and secularism, it makes for a very disconnected society. I am not advocating that America lose its secular governance – especially with this administration, we do not have enough separation of church and state, and unfortunately in America, religion becomes conflated with the Religious Right and Christianity. But secular liberals have a hard time understanding anything that isn’t 110%, fair and square to the last drop equality and freedom. The idea of subjugating one’s personal desires to anything greater is simply unthinkable to them. And perhaps this is due to their having been raised in organized religion, and its heavy-handed requirements for personal behavior as well as its endless rituals and consumption of one’s time.

Despite all this, I still maintain that we need spirituality in this world. We need a sense of something sacred.

Two definitions under the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry for the word sacred provide an adequate meaning for what I’m discussing here. One reads, “entitled to reverence and respect.” Another reads “highly valued and important.” In many cultures, certain daily rituals are considered sacred. For example, the tea ceremony, or even quotidian tasks such as how one slices tofu in the home, are considered sacred in Japan. The coffee ceremony in Ethiopia is equally revered. Ask any Italian worth his or her weight in semolina if there is a proper way to make pasta, and do not contradict him or her. But beyond food, there are other things that are considered sacred. Certain objects, such as heirlooms, need to be treated with respect, as they hold great significance to a deceased loved one. Color symbolism, such as red at Asian weddings, is important. Various poets or writers or artists of any genre are sacred to different cultures. Russians love Pushkin and Poles adore Chopin. Brazilians, a beautifully sentimental people, worship not only their gods, but also their musicians and their land of their country.

Part of our loss of the sense of something sacred in America stems from the fact that we have so few historical edifices or places and spaces that are important. Everything here is designed for efficiency and practicality, and in some parts of the country, like the Midwest, pragmatism is valued over anything else. We do not have many basilicas or mosques like the Istanbul “Blue Mosque” that take our breath away. We do not have ornate temples like in South India whose gopurams (towers) are sculpted impressively, if sometimes gaudily, by hand by artisans of astounding skill. We do not have, as a regular part of our culture, large plazas or public spaces that exist simply to allow people to congregate. There are no Macchu Picchus here, nor an Eiffel Tower. Other than the grand nature out west or in the mountains in the east, the looming skyscrapers of Manhattan and other big cities, and the over-the-topness of Las Vegas, most everything in America in public spaces is built to scale, for efficiency and not for aesthetics. If something is large, it is usually just to serve a function: a convention center, a corporate headquarters, a shopping mall.

We do have reverence in America, but it often becomes extremist, centered on a particular person, celebrity, or even religious leader or cult figure. It can be jingoistic, insular, and dangerous. What I am talking about is the quiet reverence and respect that comes from history, from a deep love, and from a sense of the aesthetic. A quiet hush. This sense of sacred is something that makes secular individuals lay down their guard that says everything has to be about them, and experience a sense of humility and surrender that all the great spiritual masters have taught us for millennia. Life in America should not just be all about us; to live this way is not only psychologically unhealthy, but it also robs us of a feeling of something beautiful that is beyond us. It disconnects us from our continuity with other beings that existed before us.

Take time to reflect on what is personally sacred to you, what is meaningful to you, something that you respect and revere.

Take Back the Right: Why Liberals Should Reclaim Common Social Institutions

My undergraduate was degree was officially in anthropology. I studied, among other things, the various institutions human beings have created for themselves, as well as various kinship ties, symbols, language, etc. These socio-cultural phenomena are as old as humankind, as old as Homo sapiens. So I must ask, why should these be the sole domains of the more conservative, Right-leaning factions of American society? Why has the right wing hijacked, so to speak, these institutions, and why don’t liberals speak up and reclaim them?

Take the institution of family, for example. Everyone comes from a family, and everyone belongs to a family, and a majority of people go on to have their own family, in whatever shape or form. Family is the oldest form of kinship ties since the advent of Homo sapiens. Throughout history, families were the basis of economic systems, and strove to maintain their continuity in order to pass on their wealth. Marriage was meant to support family ties, often uniting rivals or uniting wealth. Religious epics and tales were written about families: Cain and Abel as well as Abraham and Isaac in the Bible, or the Hindu Mahabharata (5 brothers’ fight to keep their kingdom), for example. Even larger than a family is the institution of a clan or a tribe; once again, these served a similar purpose as the family, and provided an identity to people in a given geographical area.

Somehow, however, in our extremely individualistic society, the Christian Right managed to claim the family as their rallying point. It became their domain, their political and religious motive. They managed to polarize those on the left, characterizing them as self-serving individuals outside of the institution. The liberals, in turn, began to identify family only with conservatism, with extremists, and with the oppression of women. With the advent of birth control in the 60s, many women fought for the right to enjoy their sexuality without procreation as a consequence. This was a necessary step; however, it gave more fuel to the fire for the conservatives to claim the family as their own. By linking sexual pleasure and freedom with individualism, rather than linking them with the natural human experience, sexuality was dichotomized at odds with family values—-unless, of course, one was extremely religious and expected to their numerous children.

But what of all of the family-oriented people who support a more tolerant society? The people who vote left of center, but would rather be at home with the kids instead of at the office over time? The people who are so committed to serving humanity both on a personal level through their family, and on a social level through politics, social work, activism, etc.? Just look at the Obama family: the President’s late, great mother Ann was a huge influence in his life, and she was committed to his well being, as were his grandparents who helped raise him. President Obama himself has often spoken of the importance of his own wife and children, and of the necessity of men serving their role as fathers, given his own father’s absence. Michelle Obama’s mother lives with her daughter’s family in the White House as the “First Granny” who attends to her granddaughters. The Kennedys are another such example—-a veritable clan rather than just the family, they are involved in all manner of political, social, and environmental activism. On a less grand scale, think of all the 60s activists who married and had children, and still continue today in towns like Ann Arbor or Berkeley or Cleveland to attend city council meetings, work with disabled children, teach, or fight for clean water. It is these individuals who go unrecognized by the media and our cultural zeitgeist. We only realize they are there when they have to leave the meeting early to pick up their child from tennis practice. Let’s not forget that America’s greatest activist/“rabble-rouser”, Noam Chomsky, married his childhood sweetheart when young and they were together for 60 years before she died.

Religion is often considered the domain of the Right. We have been conditioned to associate family values with religion. We know of the (Irish) Catholic families, Mormons, Zionist Orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Christians, traditional Muslims, etc., and their large families. Somehow, as a society, we have come to believe that having a larger family equates with more commitment to a family. There could be a grain of truth in this, as it is inevitably more difficult to have a career and to raise five children than to have a career and raise two. But what of the proverbial Indian doctor and Democrat who spends all of his or her free time helping the kids with homework? The Asian-American social worker whose parents come to visit for a month at a time? The gay African-American man who takes in his sister for a while when she is going through a transition? Think of all the working parents who would love to have a much longer maternity leave, and even a paternity leave if the office will grant it, in a society that touts “family values” but does very little to foster them. This is one of the great hypocrisies of American society: it is not a child- or family-friendly culture at all. The very Republicans who seem to speak loudly about family values are the ones who do the least to foster appropriate social policies.

And then there are also quintessentially American symbols that have become associated with the Right. As a friend pointed out once, the flag is one such example. If we see a flag waving in front of somebody’s house, in America we tend to associate it with extreme patriotism, conservatism, Republicanism. Again, we have to ask why? In the tiny nation of Denmark, I saw Danish flags flying everywhere, and I doubt that the entire country is rapidly jingoistic. Flags have been in existence before the Common Era and have been used for a wide variety of purposes: battle, royalty, to represent a particular group of people, and even for prayer—-in the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan, I recall visiting a mountain pass decorated with hundreds of prayer flags, and in the fog, it was a very mystical experience. Flags have been used at sea, for communication across great distances (think semaphores), as banners used as a rallying point for a particular social cause. They are used as a symbol, an emblem, a visual representation of an idea that does not require words. Flags alert us to something—-fire, perhaps, or in the modern world, a particular type of e-mail! But somehow, once again, the American conservatives have claimed this basic human institution, as though they are the sole purveyors of sentiment for our country.

It is understandable that, during the post-World War II period and the 1950s, America sought to avoid all the pitfalls seen in Europe and in other parts of the world such as totalitarianism, communism, fascism, the prohibition of free speech. America was reacting to severe European nationalism, but instead, it created a ridiculous sort of nationalism of its own. Our nationalism cannot be based on fear and exclusion; nor should it be based on a foolish lack of historicity and a usurping of institutions, symbols, and phenomena that have served humans since the beginning of our existence. So let this serve as a call to liberals and those who do not lean politically to the right. Wake up, liberals! Reclaim your basic human institutions, liberals! Let’s not make “family”, “religion”, “the flag”, and other words dirty words in our vocabulary. Let us not let the silly connotations of these words created by the Right affect our own true understanding of these words that have mattered for millennia. Let us use our intelligence to attack the ignorance of the Right.