I told myself last night that I should fill up the gas tank before setting out this morning. The drive up the mountain to the lake burns a bit of fuel and the tank was nearly empty when we got back from dinner. But I was too foggy headed in the morning and it completely slipped my mind … until we were on our way home and I happened to notice the fuel gauge. So we drove out on the highway and headed to the nearest gas station. Right as we got on the main road, the car suddenly seemed unable to accelerate. Clearly we had much less in the tank than I had suspected. There was a very slight down grade from where we were to the station, so slight you’d barely notice on a bicycle, but it was enough to glide down in neutral. When we got to the station there was just enough gas left to get us off the highway, and then it sputtered out. I pushed the car the last twenty feet to the pump.

Sometimes I worry that luck is rationed out like water during a draught and that a serendipitous event like this will use up all my fortune till the next round. I’m not superstitious, but its hard not to feel like you’ve used up more of your share of luck when something like this happens. Then again, yesterday we found that someone had bashed into our car in the parking lot without leaving a note, making it difficult to open the passenger side door. So maybe we’re even for now …


In India, on January 12th, around one thirty in the morning, back from a long day of filming which had involved over nine hours of driving, I fired up my iBook just before going to bed. Thats when I got the email that would turn our lives upside down: I had been appointed as assistant professor of indigenous studies (Chinese version) at National Dong Hwa University in Hualian Taiwan!

I couldn’t have been happier. This is a job I had only dreamed of. I had come to Taiwan last summer just to see whether or not it would be possible to find such a job. I had been especially lucky in that the department had posted a job search the very week I arrived in Taiwan! Even more lucky that a friend of mine happened to see the posting and forwarded it me. Because I was able to visit the campus and meet with people then and there, it was then possible to later conduct my job interview over the phone from India. I had interviewed at a lot of schools in the US, but none can compare with the offer of working at a Taiwanese university just forty kilometers from my field site! It isn’t a matter of choosing between teaching and research because I will be able to learn so much just from working in this department!

The only thing is, the job was for the Spring semester, which starts on February 21st in Taiwan. That means I had one month to wrap up the film shoot in India, return to New York City, pack up all my things, move to Taiwan, find a place to live, and prepare my courses for the semester. (I’ll skip over describing that experience. Suffice to say that I barely managed to get my books and papers packed up and had to leave the rest to Shashawati…)

It simply didn’t seem real to me. I still can’t believe I am here. I didn’t want to make any public announcement until I had the office keys in my hand. Well, yesterday I picked up my office keys, and I snapped this picture of the plaque outside my door. That’s my Chinese name on the top, followed by the word “professor,” with the word for “study” on the bottom (as in a room where one does research, or an office).


I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am about this wonderful opportunity. At the same time I have some trepidation. I am supposed to lecture in English, but most of my new colleagues are fairly dubious about the English abilities of the students, especially the undergraduates. And the student’s will be able to write papers in Chinese, which I can read, but I’m having difficulty imagining grading papers for a class of 40!!! Hopefully I’ll make it through this first semester in one piece, and I’ll have a better sense of how to handle things next year.

Shashwati is still in New York, and will be joining me in about six weeks. I have a lot to do to prepare for the semester, so blogging will remain light. However, I will try to write some more about the university and my new home. As you can imagine, future blogging on Keywords is likely to focus much more Taiwanese issues than it has in the past. And to help improve my Chinese writing I am considering starting a Chinese language blog as well… all in good time.

Till then, please enjoy some nice pictures of the relatively new (est. 1994) Dong Hwa campus I found on the web: here, and here. My office is in this building. And here is the university in Google Maps and Google Earth. (Via this cool service.)


Guest post by tf

Since December 21st, Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) has been distributing tents to homeless people in Paris.

Tents in Paris

Dr Françoise Jeanson, President of Médecins du Monde, writes, in her letter of December 22nd (my translation):

These tents are not a solution, they symbolize the absence of a solution.

By that date, ten homeless people had already died of the unusual cold this winter.

(Also reported, in French, by parisist.)

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When I took this picture I didn’t know the name of the girl. Now I do. It is Poonam, and she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. The thing is, she is now 14 and that is the time when most girls in Chharanagar get married. Her older brother was pressuring her to leave school and get engaged. It seems that she was saved by this picture!

I’ve never published a single one of my photographs, but when reporter Sonia Faleiro went to Chharangar to write her excellent article for the Indian journal Tehelka, there was something wrong with her digital camera and she couldn’t get the kind of large-format glossy pictures the magazine needs. So she asked me if she could use some of my Flickr photos for the story. I said yes, and the above picture was the one chosen to lead the story. They touched it up and it looks even better than it does here.

Poonam is the top student in her class, loves English class, and is a reporter herself – she edits the newsletter that the Chhara children publish by themselves. Her parents are uneducated, but her gradmother finished seventh grade and helps the children with their schoolwork. She reads everything her granddaughters do.

When her parents saw Poonam’s picture in the newspaper, the decided that her work with the theater and her education wasn’t such a waste of time after all, and they decided to allow her to put off the engagement for now and allow her to continue school.

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Acting Like a Thief

Announcing Acting Like a Thief! Now available as a free BitTorrent download or, for a $50 donation, as a DVD.

Acting Like a Thief

Acting Like a Thief is a short film about the Budhan Theatre of Chharanagar. Starting with playwright Dakxin Bajrange discussing his arrest , the film brings us inside the lives of a dedicated group of young actors and their families as they discuss what it means to be a “born criminal” and how theater changed their lives.

More to Come!

Although we are releasing it as a self-contained movie, Acting Like a Thief is a preview of a larger project: Hooch and Hamlet in Chharanagar. We are raising funds to go back to India and film more so that we can get this story out to a wider audience.

If you like Acting Like a Thief, please help support Hooch and Hamlet in Chharanagar.

Hooch and Hamlet


This December, Shashwati and I are going to India to shoot a documentary film about the residents of one city’s slum who are using theatre to fight back against decades of prejudice and police oppression.

Help us tell their story.

Even though we are paying our own way to India, we need to raise $15,000 to cover expenses for the shoot: transportation in India, accommodation, salaries for the people who will help us on the shoot, equipment rentals, etc. We’ve already raised $3,000, but we need to do much more.

I wrote about the people of Chharanager after our last trip. You can read more about the film, the people and organizations involved, and how to give money, or the film’s web site. And here is my Flickr photo gallery of Chharanager pics.

Thank you.

PS: If you can offer support in the way of help with web/graphic design, promotion, advertising, or just posting this information on your own blog, that will be much appreciated as well!

Peking Man

This post was occasioned by a news article, discovered on Howard French’s blog, about a recent Chinese study which “found that Chinese ancestors set off from northeast Africa about 50,000 years ago.” This story is momentous not so much for its contribution to science as it is with regard to the politics of race in China. In order to explain, I need to first provide a brief outline of a debate in physical anthropology between two competing theories regarding human evolution.

While it is generally excepted (by the scientific community, I’ll leave religion out of this) that the earliest ancestors of all modern humans came from Africa at some time in the distant past, there is considerable debate over the timing of that migration. The “out of Africa” hypothesis asserts that Homo sapiens evolved first in Africa

between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago and, some time afterwards, in a relatively recent exodus, began colonizing the rest of the world. According to the single-origin model, these more recent migrants did not interbreed with the scattered descendants of earlier exoduses.

In other words, there is only one “race” of humans, all others having either become extinct before the migration from Africa, or soon afterwards.

The competing theory is the multiregional hypothesis which

holds that some, or all, of the genetic variation between the contemporary human races is attributable to genetic inheritance from hominid species, or subspecies,specifically Homo erectus, that was geographically dispersed throughout Asia, and possibly Europe and Australasia, prior to the evolution of modern Homo sapiens (conventionally dated to at least 70,000, possibly 150,000, years ago).

It is worth noting that most of the evidence for the multiregional hypothesis derives from fossil data which is rather sparse and fragmentary at best, while the “out of Africa” hypothesis is strongly supported by genetic data which is much more prevalent. One piece of fossil evidence which has been particularly important for supporters of the multiregional model is that of Peking Man, discovered in the 1920s. This was immediately seized upon by Chinese nationalists eager to emphasize the exclusiveness of the Chinese people. One Republican Era textbook wrote (cited from The Discourse of Race in Modern China, Dikötter, Frank, Stanford University Press, 1992, p. 163):

Mankind is divid into five races. The yellow and white races are relatively strong and intelligent. Because the other races are feeble and stupid, they are being exterminated by the white race. Only the yellow race competes with the white race. This is so-called evolution […] Among the contemporary races that could be called superior, there are only the yellow and the white races. China is [i.e. belongs to] the yellow race.

This was a point of view that was no doubt partially influenced by contemporary sentiments amongst the colonial authorities. For instance, see this 1873 letter by Francis Galton who proposed encouraging the Chinese to emigrate to Africa in order to “supplant the inferior Negro race.”

Negative attitudes towards Africans continued into the modern era, with the Nanjing 南京 anti-African protests of 1988-89 marking a low point. It may also explain why China is so willing to turn a blind eye to the atrocities in Darfur as it seeks to maintain a profitable relationship with the Sudanese government. While Chinese attitudes towards African-Americans are more complex, racist sentiments recently surfaced during Condoleezza Rice’s visit to China.

Up until as recently as 2002 it was not uncommon to read articles in the Chinese press about evidence supposedly supporting the multiregional hypothesis. I’m sure the new genetic evidence won’t put an end to the debate, but it is significant that Chinese scientists are publishing results like these, although it is interesting to note the ways in which the new data is being spun in a nationalistic light:

They evolved into 56 ethnic groups throughout tens of thousands of years, among whom, Han and Tibetan people were the latest to branch out therefore were the closest in terms of blood tie. This provides strong evidence for the concept that “Han and Tibetan people had the same ancestors”.

(Some links found via this Gene Expression post.)

Elsewhere: China’s early African explorers.


I tried mailing a document to a friend in Arizona. It got returned. Why?

We regret that your mail is being returned to you because of heightened security measures. All domestic mail, weighing 16 ounces or over, that bears stamps …. MUST be presented to a retail clerk at a post office.

Like “Chemical Ripi” I was sending a manuscript, but I had used a standard priority flat-rate envelope with the proper postage – just like two other manuscripts I had sent out the same way. What caused this one to be returned? Why did I have to wait three-quarters of an hour on line at the post office to mail this one? And, most importantly, how does this make us safer?

The funny thing is that I’m sure I probably could have just mailed it out again from a different mailbox and it would have gone through. Security measures are generally applied randomly and inefficiently. Take, for instance, credit card signatures, or the woman who carried a butcher knife through airport security. Sometimes they don’t make any sense at all – like the fact that my bag is searched everytime I go to the New York Public Library. If I was trying to bring something illegal into the library, like a gun, why would I put it in my bag? (They don’t do body searches.)

We live with a certain amount of such absurdity. At some level we know that it is more about dicipline than about safety. There is no point at being upset at the underpaid low level functionaries who enforce and carry out these rules. But sometimes you wish you could just ask “Why?” So I was very happy to read the story of dot-com millionaire John Gilmore, who can’t fly on airplanes because he refuses to show ID:

John Gilmore’s splendid isolation began July 4, 2002, when, with defiance aforethought, he strolled to the Southwest Airlines counter at Oakland Airport and presented his ticket.

The gate agent asked for his ID.

Gilmore asked her why.

It is the law, she said.

Gilmore asked to see the law.

Nobody could produce a copy. To date, nobody has. The regulation that mandates ID at airports is “Sensitive Security Information.” The law, as it turns out, is unavailable for inspection.

What started out as a weekend trip to Washington became a crawl through the courts in search of an answer to Gilmore’s question: Why?

… At the heart of Gilmore’s stubbornness is the worry about the thin line between safety and tyranny.

“Are they just basically saying we just can’t travel without identity papers? If that’s true, then I’d rather see us go through a real debate that says we want to introduce required identity papers in our society rather than trying to legislate it through the back door through regulations that say there’s not any other way to get around,” Gilmore said. “Basically what they want is a show of obedience.”

Sometimes I think the only way to respond is with creative anarchy, such as that exhibited by “a couple of students from Cornwall [who] are intent on making American criminal history by spending their summer breaking as many US laws as possible.” They’ve chosen laws from the site and elsewhere, laws that are on the books, but rarely enforced because they make so little sense:

Starting in the liberal state of California, they hope to evade the attention of local police officers when they ride a bike in a swimming pool and curse on a crazy-golf course.

In the far more conservative – and landlocked – state of Utah, they will risk the penitentiary when they hire a boat and attempt to go whale-hunting.

If they manage to outwit state troopers in Utah, and perhaps federal agents on their trail, they will be able to take a deserved, but nevertheless illegal, rest when they have a nap in a cheese factory in South Dakota.

Such activity is likely to undermine the very fabric of society!

(Thanks to Boing Boing for links to these stories.)

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