Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I speak Chinese, and that's not amazing

Dear fellow non-Asian Americans,

No, it’s not amazing.  It’s one day after another of awkward introductions and overly-enthusiastic requests that acquaintances please help me practice.  It’s tabbing over to Google Translate again and again and again in order to decode characters and navigate a website, then discovering “This video can only be streamed in Mainland China.”  It’s that uncertainty of how to switch from English to Mandarin in the middle of a conversation.  It’s hours of listening to Jay Chou, not sure if I understand the words or I’ve just gotten used to what the music sounds like.  It’s flashcards and textbooks and pages and pages I’ve completely covered with Chinese characters.  It’s a list of grammar questions I keep in my head, ready to ask when I meet one of my Chinese friends.  It’s the excitement of being able to email someone in Chinese, then massive confusion when I can’t figure out what they meant in their reply.  It’s a fight and a hobby and a lifestyle, and it’s irreversibly changing who I am and it’s wonderful.

Because when you say “that’s amazing,” I hear “I believe you, but I’m astounded and baffled- I can’t comprehend how a person like you can speak Chinese.”  Because, you know, people who can speak more than one language… wow, they are on another plane of existence- a normal person can’t do that.  Americans don’t learn languages.  The rest of the world is expected to speak English.

And everyone knows Chinese is like, the hardest language to learn!

No, I think at my university, Chinese is the easiest language to learn.  Because every day I can walk down the hall near my lab and hear people speaking Chinese.

And how can anyone ever remember all those characters!

It’s really not that hard.  It’s not like every English word is a different Chinese character- you actually need way fewer than that.  And the different parts mean things- there is logic behind it, though it’s not rigid rules or anything.  This is something you can learn, not something you marvel at because there’s obviously no chance you’ll ever be able to understand it.  (Everyone thinks Chinese characters are pretty, “我是学生”, so pretty, right?  Until I tell them, “yeah this says ‘I am a student’” and then hopefully it loses that mystical feel and looks appropriately boring.)

But at the beginning, I believed that.  I believed the characters were too hard for white people.  So thankful that at Chinese class we were expected to write things- like that was an obvious part of learning a vocabulary word.

And the sounds!  In English we don’t have those sounds!  And everyone knows that if, as a baby, you didn’t hear anyone speaking Mandarin then there’s no chance that your brain will ever be able to distinguish certain sounds, for the rest of your life.

Okay, I can disprove this.  I did not know ANY Chinese before.  I learned “ni hao” in April 2010, when I was 20 years old.  Yes, at the beginning I genuinely could not tell the difference between the pronunciation of “shang” and “xiang” but GUESS WHAT, after hearing it a bunch of times, I figured it out.

I’m writing this because I take offense to this American attitude that “Americans don’t learn languages” and Chinese is so bizarre and incomprehensible that it’s clearly impossible to learn.  From now on, I’m challenging it.  Every time I hear someone say “I could never do that,” I’m going to challenge it.  “Actually, I believe you could do that.  I believe the average American can learn Chinese or whatever language they want.  It’s just that you have to work at it a lot, put in a lot of time, but you totally could if you wanted.”

(This is just what I have to say to people from my own culture.  I also have a lot of feelings about the Chinese response, “好厉害” but I don’t understand what that means enough to write about it publicly.)

So no, I’m not amazing.  When I mention I’m going to China, and that yes, I can speak Chinese, don’t tell me I’m amazing.  Ask me how it’s different from English.  Ask me to tell you about how to write some character and what the different radicals within the character mean.  Ask me how I learned it- what is the most effective method?  Ask me what it’s done to my brain, ask me how it feels to be able to watch tv in Chinese and understand it.  Ask me if I think in English or Chinese.  Ask me to tell you some interesting fact about the grammar.  Ask me which parts were easy and which parts were hard.  Ask me if studying French in high school has any relation/similarities to studying Chinese.  Ask me about the 4 tones and if that was hard to learn.  Ask me about how now I totally understand the common grammar/ word choice mistakes Chinese people make when speaking English.  (If you really want to give a compliment, tell me “oh, you must have worked really hard” or “wow, it’s because you were really really motivated and had a passion to learn the language.”)

Because every day I speak Chinese and I love it, and I am discovering things about how my mind works and it’s so interesting.  I just don’t know if you want to hear how I ACTUALLY feel about it, or if you’re content to classify me as having some unknowable superhuman ability that you can’t relate to.

Monday, May 28, 2012

When "the bible is clear" might be the wrong answer

"All right, then, I'll go to hell" posted on Rachel Held Evans's blog, May 23, 2012.  By the way, that's my favorite blog.


Remember the scene in "Huck Finn" where Huck's friend Jim, a runaway slave (this is set in like the 1800s) is captured, and Huck has to decide what he's going to do?  He knows the right thing to do is let them take Jim, because he learned in church that slaves should obey their masters.  But he remembers what he and Jim have been through, and how Jim has been so kind to him, and he says "All right, then, I'll go to hell" and vows to help Jim escape from slavery.

So Rachel talks about the idea of following one's feelings instead of what the bible "clearly" says.  She says:

I want to be faithful to the inspired words of the Bible, not bend them to fit my own desires and whims. Being a person of faith means trusting God’s revelation, even when the path it reveals is not comfortable.

But another part of me worries that a religious culture that asks its followers to silence their conscience is just the kind of religious culture that produces $200 rewards for runaway slaves. The Bible has been “clear” before, after all—in support of a flat and stationary earth, in support of wiping out infidels, in support of  manifest destiny, in support of Indian removal, in support of anti-Semitism, in support of slavery, in support of “separate but equal,” in support of constitutional amendments banning interracial marriage.

And then she tells about attending a church service with gay and lesbian people and serving communion to them, and how she was sure that her Sunday school teachers from the past would have condemned what she was doing- but she knew it was the right thing.


First of all, this scares me.  What if I'm misunderstanding the bible, and I'm doing the wrong thing, treating people badly... What if we think the bible says certain things are right or wrong, but that conclusion just doesn't feel right- do we follow our feelings or not? 

Oh man, everyone believes some things that are wrong, no one's perfect, oh man what to do?

But let's think about when this would come up in a practical sense.  It seems like Rachel is applying it to how the church has treated gay/lesbian people- how apparently the bible "clearly" says it's wrong, and therefore... well therefore, what?  Don't interact with them or talk about LGBT issues, or other Christians will disapprove?  O_o  Well... actually yeah, I feel like that's what I'm "supposed to" do.  But that's wrong.

Wow yeah, when you say it that way it's obvious.  That's so wrong.

So, back to the general case: How DO we know whether to trust the bible or our feelings?  Well gosh that's a loaded question; that's worded very misleadingly.  Here's what we really have:
  • What the bible says
  • Christian culture's interpretation of what that means for us 
  • Our own personal understanding of who God is/ what he wants
  • Our feelings about what seems right or wrong (Is it conscience- the Holy Spirit speaking to us?  Or is it deceitful sinful nature?)
And somehow we have to come up with what God actually wants us to do.

And one might ask, "Okay, if different controversial issues keep coming up, and people claim 'the bible is clear', but then eventually everyone agrees that actually, we do need to change this unjust issue in our society, and the previous interpretation of the bible doesn't make sense- then what's the point of reading the bible and placing so much importance on it?  See, no one gets their morality from the bible."

Hmm.  Good question.  I'm glad you asked. 

Maybe reading the bible isn't about analyzing the commands "do this" or "don't do this" and trying to figure out what God meant by that and in what situations it would apply.

Maybe the point of reading the bible is to learn who God is. And if we know who our God is, it makes sense to do one thing or another in the different situations we face.  Knowing God- that's incredibly vague and impossible to quantify- in that sense it's harder than a list of "do this" and "don't do this". 

So my conclusion is: In cases of "commonly held beliefs about what the bible says vs my feelings"- you better check to be sure your "feelings" are also consistent with what the bible says about God.  For example: "Christian culture tells me to do this, but I feel like that's not right because I've read the bible and I know about how Jesus was compassionate to everyone, over and over (with the exception of the religious people who thought they knew everything)."

And I don't mean "but God just wants us to be happy" or something that sounds nice like that.  I mean something consistent with the God you see in the bible.

Heh.  Ironically, my answer to "but what good is the bible if we keep deciding its commands don't make sense as time goes on?" is we need to study the bible more.  Not just the commands, not just the nice-sounding parts, but all of it, all the weird parts.  We need to know who our God is.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Golden retriever family

No blog post today, just a picture of some cute dogs.

source: the internet (someone on reddit got it off facebook or something)

Aha!  I can partially make out some of the characters in that watermark, and I guess the image is originally from 可爱宠物中心.  How bout that.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"Transgender at five" article

Washington Post article, published May 19, 2012

Summary: Jean and Stephen's little girl, Kathryn, told them over and over, from the time she was 2, that she was a boy.  It's more than just being a tomboy- she might be transgender.  They finally made the decision to let him (okay I'm switching the pronouns to male at this point in the story) live as a boy, sign up for kindergarten as male, etc.

But seriously, read the whole article.  My summary doesn't get the whole feel of the article.

So this is definitely an unusual situation and I don't know what to make of it.  It's real though, and it's good to learn about other people's experiences so we can understand each other more and have compassion etc.

Questions/musings I have (with the disclaimer that maybe we don't have answers, and they really don't need parenting advice from people on the internet):

What does a 5-year-old kid know about what it means to be a boy or girl?  The article uses a lot of caricatures like "the parents who ban baby dolls or toy guns see their little girl swaddle and cradle a stuffed animal or watch in awe as their boy makes guttural, spitting Mack truck sounds while four-wheeling his toast over his eggs, then uses his string cheese as a sword."  And references to Barbie dolls.  Too many mentions of Barbies.  Geez.  As if that's what it means to be a girl.

Dude, when I was little, my sisters and I had tons of Barbies (oh btw I am a girl) and we played that some of them had been kidnapped and enslaved by the bad guys and the rest of the Barbies had to come up with a secret-agent-style scheme to break in and get their friends out- because they were totally not going to get tricked into paying a ransom.  My Barbies had a strict policy of never negotiating with terrorists.  Sorry if I'm not feminine enough. O_o

No but seriously, what does it even mean to a 5-year-old kid to be "a boy" or "a girl"?

At that age, boys and girls are more or less physically/psychologically the same, right?  Oh, except that boys have cooties.  Lol.  But seriously, I'm having trouble understanding the idea that a little kid can be transgender.  Like really, what is the difference between boys and girls at that age?  (All the times the article mentions pink and glitter and dresses and playing with dolls... dude, shut up.)

Does it matter if their daughter wants to say she's a boy?  Kids say silly things all the time.  Maybe she/he really is transgender, or maybe it's just a weird idea she got from somewhere and "it's just a phase".  Who knows.

It's not the same thing as being a "tomboy" though- the article says it's much more extreme than that.  When discussing how his (pronouns?  I'm trying my best here, people) body is anatomically female, he asks his mom "why did you change me?"  For some reason, the kid thinks he is supposed to be a boy.  Is it just because little kids get weird ideas, or is he right?  No one can answer that except him.

But if the kid is transgender, and lives his whole life as a male- well that's hard.  People aren't going to understand, people are going to mock him, there's discrimination, etc etc.  A little kid doesn't know about how hard life is as a transgender person.

So yep. Tell me in the comments if you have any musings/ questions/ awesome insights.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Minority births outnumber white births in the US

This Washington Post article, published May 17, 2012, says that 50.4% of the American babies born in 2011 were "Hispanic, black, Asian American or in other minority groups" and that's the first time white babies haven't been the majority.

Cool.  I guess it means culture is changing (very slowly though- white people are totally the majority for all the other age groups).

But I suspect this scares some people and I'd like to speculate about why.  Because years ago it probably would have scared me too.

Where I grew up it was all white people.  In school there would be an occasional 1 or 2 black people in my classes.  Basically I could live life without ever interacting with any non-white people, and that was fine with me because what if other people are DIFFERENT and I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say/do?  Fear of the unknown.  And ya know what, you can learn about the civil rights movement and Black History Month all you want, but kids are still going to have this racism/fear if they're not actually interacting with REAL PEOPLE from other races.

So if it scares people that white babies are not a majority, I think it's because "oh no, the culture's changing, and we might have to learn to interact with people who are different from us.  That's not how America's supposed to be."  So I understand that "fear of the unknown" but if you think about it for a second it's obvious that it's totally racist.  It comes from ignorance, not trying to be evil on purpose, but it's still racism.

As for the "that's not how America's supposed to be"- dude, culture changes.  That's a totally normal thing.  You can't allow the way that Americans lived in the past to limit the lives of Americans in the present and future.

So... what do you think?  Am I right about people being afraid, and the reasons why?  Is it okay for me to say "yeah in the past I totally didn't want to interact with people who were different from me, and I was wrong"- I feel like I'm not allowed to say things like that.  People are really weird about talking about racism.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Video-game metaphor to explain privilege

I totally recommend this article.  It's about "privilege", a term I've only ever heard in the context of feminism.  Basically the post gives a metaphor to explain privilege: Imagine your life is a video game.  "Straight white male" is the lowest difficulty setting.

(Let me add the caveat that this assumes you're in the US.)

I can understand why people don't like to hear the word privilege.  I had never heard anything like that until one day in college one of my friends said something about white people having an "invisible backpack of privilege"- for example, when you go into a store, it's more likely someone will come over and help a white person but ignore a black person.

And I thought, "no, that's not true" and I wondered if they were trying to say that white people are bad.  Because I had never heard of anything like that before.

So, that's all I'll say about that- I'll let you ponder whether "privilege" is real now.

Edit: The author of this posted a follow-up to address the reactions he was getting.  Check that out too.  ^_^

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Great article about how not to read the bible

Link to the article: Why Bible Study Doesn't Transform Us 

Summary: It describes several ineffective methods of reading the bible- opening up to a "random" page, only looking for verses that address your particular problem of the day (worry, how to be a godly woman, etc), avoiding certain sections, etc.  Instead, we should be "learners"- make it a goal to study and understand the entire bible.


Christians should aim to read the entire bible and be familiar with the general theme of the entire bible.  Maybe people avoid certain parts because they’re really weird and confusing (the bible, not the people, haha) and it’s not obvious why those parts even matter.  

This is something I’ve realized lately- a lot of the bible is incredibly weird, and it’s okay for me to say that.  It doesn’t mean I don’t trust God.  (So, if you were worried about what I said on Monday about God being unreasonable...)  I totally trust God, and the reason I trust him and believe in him has nothing to do with how he ordered Joshua and the army to kill entire cities, because that seems really wrong to me.  (That seems wrong to everyone, right?)  No, I believe in God for other reasons, and I trust him, so I can question and ask why he told them to do that awful stuff.

And even if I don’t have an answer, that’s okay.  God is so big and complicated that no one can understand him- why do I expect that I’m going to read the bible and understand everything?

Maybe the point of reading the bible isn’t to get advice/answers on what to do about this or that problem in my life.  Yes, it does give advice and commands, but that’s not the purpose of the bible.  It’s to know God, and to know I don’t understand him.  So maybe I read a genealogy and I don’t see why it’s so important to have a list of names I can’t pronounce- but that’s okay.  It doesn’t have to have an obvious meaning for me personally.

Don’t be afraid of the weird stuff.  Don’t be afraid of what you don’t understand.  If God is really so big and amazing, there has to be stuff we don’t understand.

And knowing God is more important than always having an answer.

Monday, May 14, 2012

God kills Uzzah (2 Samuel 6)

Sometimes I read the bible and go "...wat?"

Actually, pretty much every day.

In 2 Samuel 6, King David has a big parade and celebration to bring the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem.  The ark is on a cart, pulled by oxen, with 2 guys, Uzzah and Ahio, keeping an eye on it.  At one point, one of the oxen trips and Uzzah grabs the ark to stabilize it and God strikes him down right there and he dies.  And then it was really awkward and pretty much ruined the whole parade.

What?  Why?  What did you want Uzzah to do, just let it fall off the cart?

I love God and I trust God and I'm gonna call it like I see it: God is being really unreasonable here.

I know no one is supposed to ever touch the ark, but come on, this is the most legitimate exception there could ever be.  Uzzah wasn't trying to be "disrespectful" or whatever.  Seems like a split-second decision too. 

So they were never supposed to put the ark on a cart in the first place.  (According to commentaries I've read, that was how the Philistines transported their idols- see also 1 Samuel 6.)  They were supposed to have the priests carry it, using the handy poles built into the sides.  But none of this is Uzzah's fault.  Who planned the parade?  David?

People always say "God loves everybody" but I don't know if it's true.  Did God love Uzzah?

Whoever planned the whole "let's put the ark on a cart with some oxen" thing is way more at fault than Uzzah.  Is this a case of a lot of people doing something wrong, but in God's mercy (???) he only punishes Uzzah?  God's sitting there like "well this is bad ... they're supposed to get the priests to carry it ... well they're all in trouble but I won't do anything about it right now, it's such a lovely parade and they all seem so happy and-- DID HE JUST TOUCH THE FREAKING ARK OF THE COVENANT???!!!!  Nope, I draw the line here, he is going DOWN!!!!"

If they had been doing it the right way, there never would have been a situation where the ark was falling and someone needed to grab it.  But that's still totally not Uzzah's fault.

Is it like when everyone is speeding and then you're the one who gets pulled over?  And one could argue that it's perfectly valid to punish you for breaking the law, regardless of whether anyone else got punished.

So what should Uzzah have done?  At the beginning, should he have refused to be part of this parade because they were "doing it wrong"?  Really?  Because I know that's not what I would have done.  I would have been like "that law about carrying the ark is so old and nowadays we're not meant to take it absolutely literally."  I would have gone along with it, like Uzzah did, and I would have grabbed the ark when it fell, because that's how reflexes work.

Is Uzzah the one who gets zapped because he's the one with a big obvious moment of breaking the law- so, zap him as a public statement to everyone- because that sends a very obvious message: "He died because he touched the ark.  You gotta take God seriously."  Whereas, if God killed someone from the planning committee who said "you know what this religion needs more of?  Oxen pulling stuff around", then ... well ... not as public, not as obvious what God was getting at.

If God's going to make an example of someone, Uzzah is the obvious choice.  But it's totally not fair.

Okay so that is the sum of my rambling thoughts on this.  In conclusion, I don't like it and it's not fair.  But God can do whatever he wants so... whatever.  I guess.  I'm still not okay with this.  Anyone have any insights to add?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

"Language Gene Delusion." This. So much this.

A recent post on the blog "Fluent in 3 Months": Language Gene Delusion.  I love this post and I agree with everything he says.  And I love the whole blog.  Etc.

Summary: Some people talk about a "language gene" as if certain people are able to learn foreign languages and certain people just aren't.  Genetically.  But that's totally not true.  In many societies in the world today, the average person speaks multiple languages.  Like in Quebec where people speak French and English.  Europe where people speak English and maybe 1 or 2 other languages.  China where everyone speaks Mandarin and most also have a "local dialect" which is essentially a different language.  Etc.  So, everyone (except maybe in the case of a mental disability) can totally learn a second language.

I'm serious.  I completely believe that.

For those of us whose first language was English- well, you figured out how to speak English, right?  Aha, you have a natural talent for languages!

(So for anyone who feels offended because I called you "stupid" in Wednesday's post, you should feel good about the fact that I completely believe you absolutely can go learn any language in the world.  Have at it.)

The idea that "Americans don't learn languages" makes me so angry... where do I even start...

For now, I will ask this: To those who argue against this whole "anyone can learn a language" thing, to those who say that genetically a significant percentage of the world JUST CAN'T, to those who say "I tried to study x language, but my brain just isn't made for that"- why?  Why do you argue that?

Is it because you actually believe it?  Like, you're just interested in science and truth and you just want to spread facts, no personal feelings attached?

Or is it because you're jealous of people who speak 2 languages, and you have to have an excuse for why you can't be as good as them?  Dude, no worries.  You totally can learn another language, but it requires a lot of work, and you're not obligated to do it just because you have the potential.  That's fine; I respect that; you don't see me trying to study every language in the world.  But stop discouraging everyone else.

Is it because you put work into studying a language but didn't seem to get anywhere?  Maybe in high school you studied French and didn't do very well- that's an issue with the method you're using, not your actual ability.  Cheer up.  I believe in you, man.

Yep.  Well, what do you think, random citizens of the internet?  Agree/disagree that the average person totally has the ability to learn more than one language?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Feminine role models in math/science: It's not very effective

Found an interesting article: My fair physicist? Feminine math, science role models do not motivate girls (posted April 24, 2012)

Summary: Presenting women engineers/scientists as feminine results in girls having less interest in math/science/etc.  This was determined in a study involving middle school girls who identified themselves as liking math and science.  The girls then read articles about female college students, some of which were described in feminine ways (for example, wearing makeup) and some described in neutral ways, and some were described as successful in a science-related field, while the others were described as successful in their classes in general.  The "feminine" "STEM role models" resulted in the study participants being less interested in pursuing science-related fields.

It seems to me like the stereotype "you can't be feminine and good at math/science/engineering" is working from several different angles here.

Oh, and by the way, I'm a female engineering student.

Is it that girls themselves subconsciously believe that feminine women won't be good at engineering?  So when they see the example "role model" who likes to wear pink, she appears less like a real engineer and more like a cute gimmick?  So instead of "look, you can be feminine AND an engineer" it comes across as "girls have to be feminine like this, even if they're engineers, so they can't be real engineers"?

I'm speculating here, but I know that I subconsciously have that stereotype too- I tend to think that if some female professor or engineering student seems more feminine, she's not as smart.  WHICH IS WRONG OF COURSE- dude, I'm a freaking female engineering student, and I want to be beautiful and feminine and awesome, and write code forever.  And I still subconsciously believe that stereotype.  That's so DUMB.

No seriously, how do I get rid of that?  That's the dumbest thing ever.  Of all people...

I've always said the "we need to get more girls in math/science/etc" thing seemed dumb- as if there's some God-ordained magical quota.  If girls want to do science, great, if not, great- people should pursue what they're interested in, and who knows how the ratios will work out.

But the problem is when girls who are interested in science and would be really good at it decide not to, through some combination of cultural influences, sexism, assumptions, and personal choice. 

My question for you: How do you interpret the results of the study in the article?  What is your experience with the stereotype that femininity and engineering skill are opposed?  What is the effect of this stereotype on society?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

So I guess you can be racist and blame it on “the audience”

I read this article, posted on CNN on April 27. 'Think Like A Man' and the legacy of 'Love Jones'  
It talks about a movie that came out recently, “Think Like A Man”, a love story in which the main characters are African-American.  (Maybe I’ve been living in a hole, because I haven’t heard of it.  Or any recent movies, now that I think about it.  Oh well.  At least it’s a hole with internet access.)  And the article talks about some other movies which centered around a love story with black characters, and how there’s uncertainty over whether that type of movie would be successful.

I’ve heard it asked before, “Is the American public ready for a movie where the majority of the cast, including the lead characters, is black?”  Seems like a dumb question.  If you’re going to be racist and not give black actors a chance, how can you blame that on “the audience”?

Haha, we would love to give all the actors a chance, judge them on their skills and not their race, but it’s the public, you know how racist people are, they won’t watch a movie with black actors.  There’s nothing we can do about it.  

Also, Americans can’t elect a woman to be president because you know how sexist other nations are- no one would take the US seriously.

Also, interracial marriage is bad because then their children would be biracial and get bullied- you know how mean middle-school children are.

And Scar would totally give the kingdom over to Simba, but the problem is the hyenas.  You see, they think I’m king.

Something just seems very wrong about this line of reasoning- go ahead and be racist and blame it on some other group.  So, it brings up these questions:

What if it’s true that movies where the lead actors are black would be less successful than ones with white actors?  Is that because the American public is racist, or is it because we don’t have a large enough sample size yet to really make a good comparison?  What if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: movie companies don’t want to put money into a movie with black characters, because they think it won’t be successful, so the budget is very low and a low-quality movie is made, so it’s not very successful?

If movie producers just want to make money, is that bad?  Everyone wants to make money.   But do they also have a responsibility to include minorities, for the sake of giving opportunities to the actors, and because of how movies influence culture?  If so, who has that responsibility?  You can say “the media” or “Hollywood” is sending these messages, but it’s not like “the media” or “Hollywood” is one united entity.  Maybe it’s more of a problem with the culture that those things exist in, not something you can blame specific people for.

Those are my questions; my goal is to give you (and me) a lot to think about.   Tell me what you think in the comments.