Corner store

Waiting for a breakfast sandwich at the bodega.

“I can’t get a bag?” asks a woman angrily, as she pays for her can of soda. Thin, probably in her forties, but looking unkempt and sickly enough that it’s hard to tell. The weird kind of too-skinny, where her lips seem shrunken, making her teeth look over large.

“Just get out of here,” says the cashier, in the tone of annoyance at a scene that has been so repeated it’s almost ritual.

“Fuck you!”

“Get the fuck out of here.”

“You won’t give her a bag?” asks one of the pair of slightly younger women still doing their shopping, incredulously.

“Nah. She’ll just drop it right outside. Nut.”

The two woman are skeptical and defensive, as if they know her.

“He’s right. She’s crazy,” says the pale, obese man behind them, short-legged and wheelchair-bound. “Her husband died and she didn’t tell no-one for three days.”

One of the two woman squints and cocks her neck slightly in his direction. “What did you say?” she asks.

Her confusion is understandable. His speech is slurred and hard to understand. Probably a mixture of accent and something else, but it’s hard to tell.

“He was dead, and she was sleeping right there with him for three days,” he repeats and clarifies.

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, I was friends with him. Nice guy, Colombian. Anyway, I was looking for the guy and couldn’t find him. Three days he was dead and she just kept him there in bed. She crazy.”

The two women are now wide-eyed. Formerly aggrieved at the treatment the other woman had been given by one of the ubiquitous Muslim bodega staff, they seems to have switched sides.

“Well. Damn.”

They pay quietly, and leave.

My sandwich is ready. As I am waiting to pay, a young man is trying to negotiate the purchase of a single garbage bag.

“50 cents? I just want one,” he complains.

Always-on Internet during a temporary visit home to the US from Japan

As it happens, I am visiting my hometown in Connecticut at the same time Roy is taking his trip to Japan. Before I went, I had the same problem – what to do about Internet/cell phone connectivity while I’m home? My solution to keep my Softbank iPhone 4S connected was to use WiFi at home and at friends’ houses, plus a no-contract MiFi for when I’m on the go. Overall, it worked out really well with a few unexpected bumps in the road.

Life before MiFi

I have lived abroad since 2006, but until now I have been pretty disappointed with my solutions for connectivity during visits home. Until this trip, I had opted to reactivate an old flip phone that I owned before I left. Each time I seemed to need to pay a reactivation fee plus minutes and texting fees. The whole package usually cost around $50-60 each time. It worked as well as an old cell phone usually does.

Mrs. Adamu and I joined the smartphone crowd in late 2011 by getting the iPhone 4S. We visited home a couple months later and used the old cell phone as usual. It felt kind of weird to use an outdated phone for voice calls when we had such a powerful tool at our disposal, but we went with it anyway.

The Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is your friend – if you can set it up right

For my next trip home for Thanksgiving 2012 I came by myself. During the preparations I started to look for some alternative connectivity options and came across what seemed like an amazing deal – a 3G MiFi selling on Amazon for just $30 or so! The Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200 is a small device that connects to Sprint’s network using Virgin’s no-contract MVNO service. I decided to order it for delivery at my destination and purchase 2.5GB of data for another $35 (top-up card pictured under the mug).

The setup went very smoothly in line with the included instructions – except that the last screen in the process said there was an error that I needed to call customer service to resolve. Weirdly, the representative said there was no problem at all, and sure enough the MiFi was already working. So if you go this route, check if the Internet is working properly before waiting on hold for 10 minutes.

All was right with the world and I had a working MiFi for my first day.This was especially useful since I took a trip down to NYC so Roy could show me the best of hipster-fied Brooklyn (see fancy pizza pic below).

The product description advertises just 3 hours of battery life, but in my experience I got around 5. I have a pretty beefy spare battery (white object in picture) that holds around 1.5 iPhone charges and extends the MiFi’s usability by quite a bit (I would estimate an extra 6 hours or so). But since the max battery life is only around 12 hours-ish, you will want to know where your next recharge station is. I ran out of juice halfway through the night and had to rely on Roy’s sweet tethering feature until we got to his place where there was WiFi and free plugs to charge all my devices.

A puzzling error

Unfortunately, the next day the MiFi inexplicably stopped working. I spent another night in NYC and did not have time to call tech support and figure things out. It would turn on and connect, but websites would redirect to the MiFi settings page, which said the device was “Not Activated.” This is apparently a common issue, and I tried many times to redo the “activation process” to no avail. So I spent my remaining two days in NYC surviving on scraps of WiFi from apartments, Apple Stores and Starbuckses.

I returned to CT and finally called to find out the cause of the problem—they deactivated me for the weirdest reason… One of my activation codes began with 00, but apparently I was not supposed to enter the 00 during the activation process. Would have been nice for them to tell me!

After clearing that up with a friendly call to customer service (the Indian-sounding lady was very helpful), the MiFi has worked very well. It is not as reliable as having the Softbank 3G connection, but close enough. I can send/receive messages, load Facebook and Twitter, and see websites with no problem. Low-res YouTube videos even load without complaints.

People forget their WiFi passwords

One thing that has surprised me on this trip is that people often do not know the passwords to their WiFi. In cases like that I have to keep using the MiFi to maintain the coveted always-on connection. Most households have spare mini-USB chargers available (especially if they have Android phones) that can recharge the MiFi, but in one case the battery ran out during a long night that ended with a viewing of Tangled on gorgeously realized Bluray. I had foolishly left behind the spare battery and did not bring my mom’s car charger, leaving me unacceptably disconnected for almost six hours. I did not make such careless mistakes again.

Concluding thoughts

All in all, the MiFi has worked out pretty well at a reasonable price, and I intend to keep using it until something better comes along.

Despite the initial difficulties and disadvantages, I liked the MiFi solution for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it costs no more than activating the old cell phone but allows me to use all my iPhone functions. Also, now that I own the device, future trips to the US will only require me to top up my data, which should be a pretty good savings after a few trips. And by using a MiFi, both me and Mrs. Adamu can connect at the same time. And if we top up before arriving, we can have an Internet connection as soon as we touch down.

Some things would have been easier if I had decided to pay Skype to get a phone number that people could have called. It probably would have made texting possible as well (I am not totally sure about this; Skype texting didn’t work for me, but I don’t know if having a number would change that). But I did not have that many people trying to contact me, so it didn’t make that much sense. And the few people in my social circle that did not have smartphones were reachable in other ways in a pinch, so texting was not exactly essential.

And this may only be worthwhile until I get my next phone. I like the iPhone, but because of my international situation it is tempting to switch to an unlocked Android device. The Nexus 4 starts at just $299 unlocked (compared to $649 for the iPhone 5), so if I get that I could probably do something similar to Roy’s solution when he came to Japan. At any rate, the convenience of always-on Internet has made my trip back home much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise, so I would recommend anyone heading home to try and work something out like this.

Passport blues

I have procrastinated for months in getting a new passport, even after my old one expired at the end of June, because the cover came off and it therefore counts as too damaged for a postal renewal. So, I finally found my birth certificate and biked over from my nice new (as of just over a week ago) residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn down to the very lovely main Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park, where the most convenient all-day-long passport application center is located.

Upon arrival, I realize I forgot my printout of the application form at home, but no matter; I can easily fill it out again. After all, it would be silly to go all the way back home for my neatly printed printout of the filled-out-online PDF version of the form. And so I fill out all the forms again, whereupon the agent checks my documentation, She is at first suspicious that my birth certificate is merely a photocopy, and therefore invalid, but I show her—no ma’am, you can see that there is a faint, but genuine raised seal upon the surface—and she acquiesces.

But then a curveball. I am told that because my state ID ((Non-driver’s license state ID. Yes, that is something I never did at all.)) is less than 6 months old, the State Department does not have the updated records and it is therefore not a complete and valid form of identification, necessitating an alternate and more comprehensive approach to the application process. My options are laid out: I need to either go home and find the expired ID card or make an affidavit application.

What is an affidavit passport application you ask? I have heard of affidavit voting, you may think. All you have to do is fill out one extra form attesting that you are not a lying scoundrel, and they will put your vote in the pile that they will look at if they get bored. Surely an affidavit passport application is no more of a burden? In fact, it is.For you see, it is not the applicant who completes the affidavit, but the witness attesting to the applicant’s identity. That is, I would need to bring a relative or long-standing acquaintance with me to the application office, this person would need to present his or her identification, and sign an affidavit swearing to be a relative or long-standing acquaintance of mine, whereupon my application would be accepted.

Having no desire to subject another individual to such a dreary procedure, I cycle back home, stopping only shop at the Duane Reade for sundries I have been delinquent in purchasing, and being a frantic search for the expired card. Having just moved over a week ago I expected the search to be fruitless, but luckily I discovered the card in a matter of minutes, on a table, unexpectedly laying underneath a hat.

And so, the story ends with far more annoyance than drama, yet another example of the seemingly endless procedures to which all we citizens are subjected by the splendiferously tentacled bureaucratic state, and an anecdote which I hope will prove to be of some small amount of education to the reader.

The Commandant’s House in Brooklyn

Last Saturday I was biking around some back streets in Brooklyn down which I had not wandered before and stumbled across what was clearly a very old fashioned mansion of landmark status, but surprisingly labeled as private property rather than a museum or public building, with no descriptive signage whatsoever.


View Larger Map

Poking around on the Google Maps satellite view I was able to locate the mansion (seen above) in the tiny and quaint neighborhood of Vinegar Hill, and a bit of keyword searching led me to discover that, not only is it in fact a registered historical landmark, but was the official residence of Commodore Matthew C. Perry for two years from 1841-1843, when he was first promoted to the rank of Commodore! As I am sure you all know, it was Perry who, a decade later, sailed into Uraga Harbor and began the process of forcing the opening of Japan, ending the Edo Period and leading to the Meiji Restoration.

I found a 2006 New York Times article about the Commondant’s House, formally known as Quarters A of the now defunct Brooklyn Navy Yard, where my grandfather worked during World War II.((The Yard was closed in 1964, but after being vacant for some time is now a city owned industrial park for incubating small and medium businesses.)) The article describes the history of the property as follows.

 The land for what was at first called the New York Navy Yard was bought in 1801. It is not clear whether the first officer in charge of the yard, Jonathan Thorne, was there when the house was built, a time frame traditionally given as 1805 to 1806. The archivist of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Daniella Romano, says that Thorne was later scalped and killed by Indians in 1811 while on a campaign in the Pacific near Vancouver.

The building that Thorne (or a successor) occupied is shown in 19th-century photographs as a clapboard house

four bays wide in front and five bays dee

The facade rose to a peaked roof and a rooftop observation deck.

The main doorway, on the right, was in an intricate Federal style with a fanlight. The cornice and roof trim also carried delicate detailing.

Charles Bulfinch, the architect for part of the United States Capitol, is often mentioned as the designer, but Ms. Romano believes that was the wishful invention of a 20th-century writer.

[...]

In fact, the terms of office in the 19th century seemed to run rather short: Perry’s successor, Joshua Sands, was commandant for only a year. The next commandant, Silas Stringham — who fought the slave trade off the African coast and pirates in the West Indies — served from 1844 to 1846.

It was halfway through his occupancy that The Brooklyn Eagle visited Quarters A and wrote that the house, “with its lawns, terraces and teeming gardens, is a conspicuous object.”

An Eagle reporter returned in August 1872 and wrote that, along with its orchard and vegetable garden, Quarters A had “a look that makes one feel that it must be a pleasant thing to be the commandant.” That was during the four-year term of Stephen C. Rowan, a Civil War veteran.


There is a more detailed architectural history of the house in its National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form (Quarters A was eventually granted landmark status on May 30, 1974), which cites Perry’s residency as one key reason for its registration, although I think anyone would agree that it would still qualify without the commander of the infamous Black Ships.

 It is unclear who lives there today. The Times says that the house has been “In private ownership since the Navy Yard closed in 1964”, but the aforementioned Nomination Form, dated July 1969, says that “Quarters A is owned by the Navy, privately occupied, and not open to the public.” It also lists the owner as “Adm. Harry L. Horty, Jr., Vice-chairman, U.S. Delegation U.N. Military Staff Committee”, which I suppose may mean that the house is still owned by the Navy and occupied by an admiral, but sadly the only thing I know for sure is that it remains closed to the public.

Expatriating acts

With all the kerfuffle over how Eduardo Saverin, one of the wealthy founders of Facebook, has abandoned his US citizenship on the eve of the IPO in an apparent bid to avoid taxes, on the heels of Michelle Bachman abandoning her Swiss citizenship, we have seen more discussion of dual citizenship in the past week than I can recall ever appearing in the American media.

I have no particular thoughts on the subject now, but I did learn one thing of significance from this “Room for Debate” feature in the NYT:

Active dual citizenship, on the other hand, means acknowledging or applying such a status by, for instance, voting in a foreign election or registering with the foreign government as a citizen. Such actions used to be called “expatriating acts” — engaging in them meant you renounced your U.S. citizenship. The Supreme Court in the 1960s ruled that such acts can no longer automatically lead to the loss of citizenship. But they can still be prohibited by law, as Chief Justice Earl Warren himself wrote.

I had not realized that the Supreme Court has ruled that there are no longer any automatic expatriating acts. That is, that to lose your US citizenship, you must now either formally renounce it, and have that renunciation accepted, or have a court rule that your citizenship was never valid in the first place, for example due to a fraudulent application.

For the curious, here is the actual form that one actually fills out when voluntarily renouncing US citizenship. While I am not qualified to give legal advice in any capacity, as a practical matter I strongly advise against completing this form in a flight of idle whimsy and leaving it around where a prankster might find it.

Incidentally, Saverin was born in Brazil, so presumably retains his Brazilian citizenship. My understanding is that if he was only a citizen of the US, they would reject his application to renounce his citizenship, as it is widely considered illegal for an individual to voluntarily become stateless.

Recalling Fang Lizhi as we watch Chen Guangcheng

I’m sure everybody reading this had been following the dramatic and confusing Chen Guangcheng1 story as it develops, and I also trust that all but the most enlightened remain as puzzled as I do regarding exactly what Chen, the United States, and Chinese authorities have negotiated, promised, lied about, achieved, failed, and intend to do regarding the still unfolding situation((Although, as I finalize this post, it does appear that Chen will be allowed to come to the US on a student visa.)).

I had certainly found the story interesting since it began, but had no particular thoughts regarding it until I read this New York Review of Books article comparing the Chen story with that of Fang Lizhi, a prominent Chinese dissident who similarly sought refuge in the US embassy following the Tiananmen Square Massacre and eventually settled in the US following similarly tense diplomacy, written by Perry Link, an American academic who was in Beijing at the time and helped Fang in his escape.

Fang, who died just under a month ago at the age of 76, after spending the latter part of his career as a professor of physics at the University of Arizona in Tucson, was a prominent dissident at the time of the 1989 protests, who sought—and received—protection at the US embassy in Beijing when the subsequent crackdown started. Before the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, he was already well enough known to be profiled in this May, 1988 Atlantic Magazine article.

I strongly recommend reading the entire piece, as well as Fang Lizhi’s “Confession” to Deng Xiaoping, and Fang’s own commentary on writing it, which was published in June of last year, also by the New York Review of Books.

I also found Perry Link’s concluding comparison between the Fang incident and the current situation to be quite interesting.

Today, for Chen Guangcheng, the two governments might agree that exile is the least awkward solution from their points of view, but Chen may not accept it. Chinese dissidents have learned over the past two decades that exile leads to a sharp decline in a person’s ability to make a difference inside China. Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who is now in his third year of an eleven-year prison sentence for “subversion,” made it clear after his arrest that he would not accept exile as an alternative to prison. From what friends of Chen in Beijing have been saying in recent days, it seems that Chen is taking a similar position.

Another important difference between the Chen and Fang cases is that Chen has a broader following among average Chinese people than Fang had. Fang was a hero to university students and some intellectuals. But most Chinese did not know him, and what they did hear of him were highly distorted accounts in the government-controlled press. Even before the 1989 crackdown, government television was broadcasting images of government-orchestrated “protests” in which farmers were burning Fang Lizhi in effigy. Many people, having no other sources on Fang, accepted such accounts. Today, though, with the Internet, far greater numbers of Chinese—millions of people including many outside of the big cities—know the true story of Chen than ever knew the story of Fang. And to judge from the many accounts circulating on microblogs and elsewhere, hardly anyone seems to view Chen with anything but sympathy.


But while it does seem likely that Chen has widespread support, I wonder what good that will do for him in America, other than provide a comfortable life for him and his family.

For example, look at how much support the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei received after his own unjust arrest, almost entirely enabled by the Internet. And in his case, not only did he receive the ephemeral support of Tweets and Facebook “likes”, but enough small donations (which the artist categorized as loans to be repaid in the future) from tens of thousands of donors to cover the Chinese government’s punitive taxes and fines (which Ai and his legal team continues to challenge).

But how contingent is that support on the fact that he is staying to fight? While there is no question that Ai Weiei, by all accounts charming and brilliant, would be a darling of intellectual and artistic as a political exile, he would also lose the ability to use his own ongoing on-and-off imprisonment as fodder for political artwork such as his recent and short-lifed self-surveillance “Weiweicam” project.

While much about the Chen Guangcheng case remains murky and mysterious, he does at least seem to wrestling with such a choice. Will he stay in China, despite the risk to himself and—apparently more importantly—his family, or will he seek exile2, where he would undoubtedly be safer and more comfortable((He certainly has plenty of supporters in the US, since if there is one things that the “Pro-life” and “Pro-choice” camps can agree on wholeheartedly, it’s that forced abortions are a bad thing.)), but also risk damaging his own credibility as an activist and his ability to help others.

The NYT had an article on Friday discussing this very possibility, saying “Based on past experience, China is often all too pleased to see its most nettlesome dissidents go into exile, where they almost invariably lose their ability to grab headlines in the West and to command widespread sympathy both in China and abroad.” The article goes on to mention how “If Mr. Chen receives a green light to depart for the United States, he will arrive to find a fractured tribe of Chinese dissidents and pro-democracy advocates shouting over one another.”

This line in particular made me think of a particular book I read several years ago, which had already been on my mind as I was catching up on the past week of Chen Guangcheng related coverage earlier today, In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture, By Geremie R. Barmé. Despite the bland and vague title, a significant portion, or even a majority of the book is devoted to Chinese counterculture and dissident protest, including quite a bit of discussion of the criticism and failure that prominent Chinese dissidents have faced in exile, including from one another.

Among exiled intellectuals for a time there was also a considerable amount of critical reflection on the events of 1989. Yuan Zhiming was another of the writers of River Elegy, the television series that was branded by the government as part of a wave of “cultural nihilism” that contributed to the protests. In an article published in January 1990, Yuan questioned what would have happened in 1989 if the most famous Chinese public intellectuals — Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan, Yan Jiaqi, Chen Yizi, and Su Xiaokang, had “courageously stood forward and led the movement.” He continues his speculation in the tone of a guilty survivor:

If we had formulated some mature, rational and feasible plan of action and organized a democratic front incorporating the students and civilians, if we had worked harmoniously together to struggle for dialogue with the authorities, how would it have turned out? Of course, we may still have been vanquished, but at least we could say we had done everything in our power to prevent defeat. 3



Barmé is also unimpressed with the post-exile efforts of dissident intellectuals, writing:
Prominent intellectuals and students had, bu the very fact of their exile, suffered a serious blow to their credibility. This was particularly so, since it was widely perceived on the mainland that many of the key agitators of 1989 had sought refuge with former imperialist powers (that is, France, England, and the United States((And we could add Japan to this list, which not only sheltered some refugees from China, but also applied pressure on the PRC government during the Fang Lizhi incident, using the carrot of development loans.))) and the KMT government in Taiwan. The mainland authorities were well aware of the jealous reaction of its people to reports of dissidents living off the fat of the land overseas, and the official media took delight in portraying them all as traitors to the nation.4

The remainder of the third chapter deals with this issue in greater depth, and I recommend it to anyone wondering how successful an activist Chen might be in exile.

Even though modern communications has greatly improved the ability of activists and supporters to coordinate better and more secretively across borders, it is hard to imagine how Chen Guangcheng, whose activism so far has largely taken the form of legal action that would be impossible to file from abroad, would be able to continue his activism in any substantial way after reaching NYU. Above, I cited speculation by a sympathetic Chinese intellectual over what would have been different had Fang Lizhi and his compatriots ”courageously stood forward and led the movement” rather than accepting exile. In America, Fang was very successful in continuing his career as a physicist, but his post-exile activism was a mere footnote to the exile itself. How might Chen’s career develop if he comes to the US, and how might it develop if he does not?

  1. This 2006 NYT story is a good description of his career and legal troubles up to that point. []
  2. Or asylum, or “rest”, or “study abroad”. []
  3. Pages 51-52 []
  4. Page 44 []

震災 SHINSAI-Theaters for Japan March 11, 2012

Two Japanese actress friends of mine here in NYC (note: this is all of the Japanese actresses I know in NYC) are involved in this theatrical production in honor of the one year anniversary of last year’s massive disaster in Tohoku. I’ll be going.









Join us on Sunday March 11, 2012, the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region, as we join theaters nationwide to present works by major American and Japanese theater artists. The Japan Playwrights Association will disperse the proceeds from this one-day-only event to the Japanese theater community affected by the disaster.

Exclusive reading performance of original Japanese scripts of Yoji Sakate, Oriza Hirata, Toshiki Okada and more! SAVE THE DATE and share this one-day only event with us!

Many thanks to the La MaMa Theatre for donating their space for rehearsal and performance of this event.

Sunday, March 11th at 2:30PM
Suggested donation: $10
R.S.V.P Seats are limited. Please make your reservation at
japan311remember@gmail.com

あの未曾有の東日本大震災から1年目を迎える2012年3月11日、多くのシアター関係者によって開催される 「震災:SHINSAI Theaters for Japan」に参加致します。シアターコミュニティーの仲間による、 日本の被災地の仲間たちへのシアターパフォーマンスを通しての支援です。この特別な日のために寄与された日米の劇作家からの プレイを通し、集い、語り、繋がります。

くろたま企画では英語訳プレイの他に坂手洋二氏、岡田利規氏、鈴江俊郎氏などの作品を、特別に日本語の原文による リーディングの会を催します。どうぞふるってご参加下さい。

お席に限りがありますので、メールでご予約ください。
japan311remember@gmail.com

MORE INFOhttp://www.kurotamakikaku.com/shinsai.html

Learning Japanese in Florida in three years, and why it could be even faster

I just came back from a Golden Week vacation in South Florida, which is the closest thing to a “hometown” that I have. I spent my teenage years in Broward County, just north of Miami, and skipped town after high school to go to an upstate university. My parents moved out of town not too long after that, so now my time in school there is my only connection to the area.

On the long flight to Atlanta I finished watching Season 4 of The Wire (a show which comes up often in comment threads here). Season 4 focuses on a Baltimore middle school and examines the dysfunctional aspects of public education which leave many kids clueless and drive many other kids into a life of crime or destitution. One of the threads in its plot involves an ex-cop and a group of Johns Hopkins researchers who move a group of “troubled” kids out of regular classes and into a special classroom where they get more attention, which has its most noticeable effect on the regular classes—which suddenly become pretty orderly and conducive to learning, rather than total madhouses.

This was timely because I had just made arrangements to visit Hallandale High School, where I spent my sophomore and senior years of high school (before and after my year in Osaka). Hallandale is a bog-standard public high school, in the middle of what counts as “the ghetto” in Florida, and which is mainly notable for having a well-equipped TV studio and a large foreign language program. It is one of only a handful of Florida high schools which offer Japanese classes—and four full years’ worth of Japanese at that.

In my day, over a decade ago, Japanese was taught by a Chiba-native art teacher who was much more interested in art than in language teaching. Although there were four separate levels, all four levels were taught at the same time in the same classroom, which was primarily an art classroom. There was not enough demand to actually have separate class blocks for separate levels. When I returned from Osaka, I enrolled in Japanese IV, where my only classmate was an exchange student from Tokyo, and our main duty was to tutor the lower-level kids in basic vocabulary and writing kana. Japanese was often described as the most difficult class in the entire school: part of this obviously had to do with the difficulty of the language itself, but the relative lack of teacher guidance (since she was dealing with four levels at once) and the cruddy textbooks and materials didn’t help either.

Given this history, I was a bit surprised to discover that there are now three completely separate Japanese classes at Hallandale, that Japanese IV is now an Advanced Placement class (meaning that students can take an exam at the end to claim university credits), and that while our teacher is still teaching art, all of her language teaching responsibilities have been taken over by a newly-hired language teacher who is half-Japanese and splits her time between teaching Japanese and English.

My wife and I spoke to the first two classes, comprised of first and second-year students. At the start of each class, we introduced ourselves in Japanese, and I then asked the kids to tell me what we had just said. They got tiny bits and pieces, like our names, but that was about it. Then they took turns struggling to introduce themselves in Japanese using simple fill-in-the-blank sentences (“namae wa ____ desu. shumi wa ____ desu.“) and then did some exercises in writing hiragana where they were struggling to recall the characters. Nobody knew how to assemble a basic sentence on their own. Keep in mind that this was during Golden Week, so the American school year was almost over.

The kids in these classes were quite varied in their backgrounds and motivations. There were more than a few self-proclaimed otaku who wanted to learn Japanese because of their interest in anime and video games. There were a few kids who chose Japanese because they were interested in street racing and liked the movie Tokyo Drift (no accounting for taste, I guess). One was pursuing a career as a graphic artist and wanted to live in Japan “because they are the leaders in graphic arts.” Another had grown up as an Air Force brat in Okinawa and wanted to learn more about the side of Japan he had missed as a child.

Both classes were full of energy but highly disorganized. As each kid got up to introduce themselves in Japanese, their peers wasted no time in heckling their mistakes, putting words in their mouth and generally vying for the class’s attention. The teacher could only maintain the flow of the class by shouting over the shouts of the kids. My wife, whose only familiarity with American high schools came from watching 90210, was both fascinated and horrified by the scene.

We then went down the hallway to the third-year section, which also contained a handful of fourth-year students studying for the AP exam. The students were silent as soon as the teacher called for order, and again my wife and I did our introductions. This time, the kids understood everything. They introduced themselves relatively flawlessly, and were then asked to write down a list of questions to ask us in Japanese. Their questions were grammatically well-constructed even though they were working “on the fly” in the middle of class, and when we answered them with descriptions of our working environments, our lifestyle in Tokyo and our traveling experiences, the students still understood nearly everything.

We were both amazed. Here was a room of kids who had never been to Japan, who were only a year or two ahead of the kids who were absolutely hopeless in Japanese, and yet they spoke Japanese nearly as well as I spoke it after a year in a Japanese high school.

What happened?

When we mentioned this to the teacher, she explained that two years of a foreign language are now required in order to graduate from Hallandale High. The result of this requirement is that first and second-year foreign language classes are filled with kids who have no particular want or need for a foreign language. Many don’t pay attention, and this distracts the other kids so much that they can’t effectively learn—even the otaku among those kids weren’t even minimally proficient. The third and fourth-year classes don’t have this problem; the only kids in them are the kids who really want to learn Japanese, and they study and practice it with each other like crazy.

Thinking back, this was also the case in my high school in Osaka. Everyone had to take lots of English classes in order to graduate, but almost none of them were really interested, and the few kids who actually were interested had no outlet for their energy. I have always rolled my eyes at the idea that Japanese people will speak better English if they just start earlier—not a chance. Japanese people speak better English when they want to, and when they are surrounded by people who want to. As long as English is simply treated as a universal requirement, everyone will study it and nobody will really learn it.

How Matt Taibbi reads (or rather, doesn’t read) the news

Someone wrote to gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi about how he stays sane in a sea of crazy news. Here is how he responded:

See, what I’ve done, and you all can try this yourselves, is to simply avoid reading the news as much as possible. I read old books and the only periodicals I even look at lately are NFL draft guides. I’ve read Nolan Nawrocki’s draft booklet like 400 times already. To me he’s the greatest novelist since Waugh. That does wonders for my general sanity, but then I’ll have something happen like last Friday, when I went into 30 Rock to do a hit on Cenk Uygur’s show and saw him talking about a poll that had Donald Trump leading the field of prospective Republican candidates. Donald Trump has 26% of the Republican vote right now? What the fuck?

If it weren’t for the fact that my job requires me to be on top of world events, I’d be very tempted to follow his lead.

“Disunion” in the New York Times: “Noli Me Tangere”

Anyone who follows me on Twitter may know that I have been a huge fan of the New York Times online series “Disunion”, in which a number of historians take turns writing essays about the American Civil War in largely chronological order – laid out on a great interactive timeline that offers links to contemporary articles on one screen, and links to new essays by historians on a parallel screen.

On top of the generally high quality of the writing and the presentation of lesser known but fascinating anecdotes and characters, the real time nature of the project makes it particularly interesting. When reading history it is all too easy to skim over the happenings of months or years with no appreciation that people at the time experienced them with just as much ambiguity and complexity as we experience current events today.

I don’t know how many people are actually reading the whole thing, but I have just been taking a few hours to read through the entire archive and I must say that this would form the basis for an excellent Civil War curriculum in say, a high school AP or undergraduate US History course and I am sure that more than a few teachers will be using it.

While I don’t feel like just listing my favorite posts from the series, I must point out the proposal of New York City mayor Fernando Wood to secede along with the Southern States, but instead form an independent city-state with the peculiar name of “the Free City of Tri-Insula.”

Entries such as this profile of William Webb, a slave man and underground political activist, or this one on the slaves’ view of Abraham Lincoln are also a necessarily supplement to the admittedly excellent posts on the all-white statesmen and mostly-white soldiers.

As a photography enthusiast I also very much enjoyed this post on photography in the Civil War, in particular its very first photographer – George S. Cook – who took portraits of Major Robert Anderson and his men at Fort Sumter shortly before they were attacked. Cook’s two photos below, of Union ironclads firing on Fort Moultrie in South Carolina on September 8, 1863 are believed to be the world’s first photographs of combat. Perhaps most astonishingly of all, the pair of images seem to have been intended for viewing in 3D, with a stereopticon!   (There is also a slideshow of his work.)

But the single detail that jumped out at me the most is, oddly, the obverse of the banner for the “Wilcox True Blues,” a company in the Confederate military from Alabama.

Above you can see the front of the banner, which looks like it depicted some sort of giant, similar to the not-yet existent Statue of Liberty.

And here on the back you can see a snake curled amidst a flowering bush, and the slogan “Noli Mi Tangere.”

This appears to have been a variant on, and reference to, a proposed design for a Republic of Alabama flag during the brief period between the decision to secede and the formal creation of the Confederacy.

Students of European art history may be familiar with this phrase as the title of a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Correggio. Those same art historians, or well-studied Catholics, may be familiar with the original source of the phrase, below as explained in Wikipedia.

Noli me tangere, meaning “don’t touch me” / “touch me not”, is the Latin version of words spoken, according to John 20:17, by Jesus to Mary Magdalene when she recognizes him after his resurrection.

The original phrase, Μή μου ἅπτου (mê mou haptou), in the Gospel of John, which was written in Greek, is better represented in translation as “cease holding on to me” or “stop clinging to me”.


Doing a quick search through books published before the Civil War shows that Noli me tangere was also the name of both a kind of skin disease sometimes associated with either lupus or cancer and a type of flowering plant. In 1719 it probably seemed common sense to name a skin disease “touch me not” and according to our 1802 botanical guide: “The elastic valves of the capsule, when ripe, curl up, and fly asunder on the slightest touch, whence the common name Touch me not.”

Before considering exactly why the slogan noli mi tangere was used on the battle standard of an Alabama military unit, a glance at the books cited above and the many dozens of other search results shows that the phrase was commonly known at the time as a phrase of Biblical origin, with the literal meaning of “touch me not” as well  as a number of metaphorical secondary meanings, such as for the names of diseases or plants.

Although the phrase was apparently common at the time, I would hazard a guess that it is very little known except among people familiar with the reference that made it so noteworthy to me. That is, as the title of the first of two novels by Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, whose publishing activities  – especially his two novels of social protest – helped inspire the 1890s revolution against Spanish colonial rule. Originally written in the Spanish language and published in Europe with the  Latin phrase Noli Me Tangere as its title, the 1887 novel came some time after the US Civil War and has no direct connection to it, but part of the symbolism of the title – “touch me not” – as an expression of defiance rings similar to its use on the Alabama flag.

Since “noli me tangere” or the English translation of “touch me not” refers to a number of plants that do grow wild in the American South I had wondered if the plant featured on the banner’s obverse might be one of them, but it is easy to verify that it is in fact a cotton plant. This is hardly a surprise, as slavery – and therefore the cotton economy – was the central reason for secession, a pillar of the state’s economy, and a cotton plant is still featured on the Standard of the Governor of Alabama (not the state flag).

The heritage of the snake, specifically a coiled rattlesnake,  is probably also obvious to most Americans. This is of course a reference to the Gadsen Flag, not well known by name (I must admit I was not familiar with this name) , but well known as a symbol of the 1776 American Revolution.

“The Gadsden Flag, 1776 – The uniquely American rattlesnake became a popular symbol in the American colonies and later for the young republic. When the American Revolution began, the rattlesnake appeared on money, uniforms and various military and naval flags. To provide a striking standard for the flagship of the first commodore of the American Navy, Christopher Gadsden, an American general and statesman from South Carolina, chose the rattlesnake for
his design.”

Perhaps even better known than the coiled rattlesnake image on the Gadsen Flag  is the segmented snake of Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 “Join or Die” cartoon, which the Gadsen was itself referencing. But it is the coiled rattlesnake motif that the Alabama secession flag employs, and “Noli me Tangere” or “touch me not” – is obviously a reference to “Don’t Tread On Me.”

The use of the phrase Noli Me Tangere by both Jose Rizal and the State of Alabama were in the service of protest, and a move towards revolution and self governance (although Rizal was not exactly a revolutionary he did help to inspire them.) But Rizal, whose anti-colonial novel was inspired by the anti-slavery propaganda novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and preached universal freedom. Alabamans, by contrast, used the phrase to propagandize for their own freedom, but in favor of slavery – an irony that would certainly have disgusted Rizal. One imagines that had he seen this flag, rather than interpreting the snake among the cotton as a symbol of the free agrarian Confederacy, but as the Satan of slavery lurking below King Cotton’s promise. And he might have even chosen a different title for his novel.

I conclude this post with the following two minute animation, an artistic illustration of the “right” for which the Confederacy fought.

[Update: I originally neglected to point out that the banner reads “noli mi tangere” rather than “noli me tangere,” which is simply a spelling error and of no significance that I can determine.]