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Dolls, Mascots, and Human Touch January 9, 2016

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Reflections.
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pink_bookThe woman in the physical therapy center came in with a life-sized baby doll that she carried everywhere. She was not the only woman in the continuing care center to have a baby doll. The center apparently provided baby dolls for the residents who wanted to hold them, or perhaps they were shared. While she worked with her therapist, the doll, “George” sat on a chair to the side. Another woman wheeled herself into the room. She seemed to move up and down the corridors constantly, never speaking to anyone as far as I could tell. But now she made a beeline for “George” picked him up and said “Hi. How’re ya doing?”

I thought of this episode when I read an article this morning’s New York Times on the ubiquitous use of mascots in Japan and the industry that makes them. One of the theories for the popularity of mascots in Japan was that they provided an outlet for affection: A way to hug a human-like thing that is culturally acceptable in a low touch society.

I wonder if the same is true for the dolls given to the residents in the care center. Last month AARP The Magazine featured an article on “The Power of Touch” that suggested a therapeutic value of touch, particularly for older people who may be “touch-deprived” in the US. Are the dolls a substitute for real human touch?

hands touching

One of the first things one learns in studying other cultures is that the social rules for touching another person vary widely from one place to another. We sometimes talk about a personal space bubble that may have different dimensions depending on your cultural history and experience. Sometimes there are very strict prohibitions against touching another person or a person of the opposite sex. This can create some awkwardness in ordinary social greetings in other countries. An Indonesian exchange student I met here in New York immediately explained: “I can’t shake hands because I’m not allowed to touch women.” This is not an unusual situation. When making friends across cultures, it can help to speak directly when you recognize that the rules for touching are different. But what of those from high-touch cultures who are missing their hugs and kisses in a low-touch society? The good news is that people can be flexible and adapt to each other’s needs and concerns when they start to understand each other.


101. Not Alone on the Journey September 8, 2012

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication, Reflections.
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I am a woman who seldom asks for directions. Mostly I use maps, some of which are stored fairly well in my head. To a large extent I think of where I’m headed in terms of my general sense of its direction from wherever I am at the moment. Part of the great fun of traveling to new places is to test my ability to find them. But sometimes traveling is more than a destination, a map, and a plan. Sometimes it’s a process of sharing the journey.

Recently my husband and I in Brazil. Our trip included a balance of time for ourselves at the beach and time for visiting dear friends whom we hadn’t seen in ages. We arranged our own itinerary including several days with our friends and we reserved a rental car from there to head down to a beach place we’d rented. We’d even downloaded the Google Directions with step by step maps. We felt fully ready to head off alone on this portion of our vacation, and test our ability to find our way there.

We probably would have found our route based on our own prepared plan, but for our friends, it wasn’t good enough to just send us off on our own devices. Rather, the extended family was drafted to research our trip, including our hosts sister who works for a government tourism board and a nephew who regularly takes the route we were to take — a new highway that hadn’t yet made it to Google Maps, but was found on Google Earth. Armed with new maps, new directions including a listing of every small town along the way, and warnings about traffic laws we might not know about and potential labor strikes that could block traffic, we thought we were finally ready to say thank you and good bye to our friends, but other plans were already in place. Our hosts would drive ahead of us and lead us to the new bridge that led to the highway we should take.

We followed them closely for about a half hour, and then they pulled their car over and parked, so we pulled over behind them and got out of the car to thank them again and say good-bye. Then we learned that the nephew was arriving in a few minutes to escort us for the next leg of our trip, leading us down the new highway to a point where we’d only need to go straight south, to a point that completely coincided with our original instructions and where everyone was confident that there was almost no chance to get lost or to run into highways blocked by strikes, or other yet unspoken dangers.

In that final third of the trip, my husband and I talked about how normal it feels for us to make our plans alone and how strange to have an entire committee dropping everything to make our plans with us. Since we both grew up with the strong sense of individualism and independence that marks much of the culture of life in the USA, it is even a bit uncomfortable for us to have so much involvement from friends and their relatives in our journey. And yet it was that very sense of feeling welcomed and taken care of that made me want to visit Brazil again, and visit these friends.

I thought of this experience again when I heard the excerpt from former US President Bill Clinton’s speech at the recent Democratic convention:

You see, we believe that “We’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than “You’re on your own.”

This exactly seems to be the crux of the matter and at the same time the dilemma. Many of us, myself included, are much more attracted to the ideal that we share rather than compete; that the crowd is wiser than the individual; that the more people included, the merrier. We may be generous to others, but we also still may feel more comfortable not asking for help, not depending on others, and taking our own decisions regardless of what others think.

I’m not sure we have to make this stark choice, or rather, we may truly need to be both self-reliant individuals and a people who come together to ensure a better life for all of us.

96. Nixon in China January 31, 2011

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Reflections.
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It was in February in 1972 when Nixon went to China. I was a university student then, with not much use for Nixon, but with a naive interest in China. In high school I had checked out a translation of Mao’s “little red book” from the library, and read it cover to cover in the course of three weeks or so. I thought I needed some balance to the information I was getting filtered through my mother’s ultra-conservative journals and the television news. I deliberately did much of my reading in public places, believing that just reading Mao would make me seem rebellious.

I remember almost nothing of what I read, but seeing the last dress rehearsal today of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’ opera, Nixon in China, I remember how it felt to read that book. Being quite young, I felt certain that I was living on the cusp of great changes. And no doubt I was. Nixon in China reminded me how much my life has been shaped not just by the one week the Nixons spent in China, but by the culture of 1972 and the years on either side of it.

An iconic song written just seven years earlier simply took the fear of China for granted as something to compare to our own social ills in the USA.

Think of all the hate there is in Red China
Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama
You may leave here for 4 days in space
But when you return, it’s the same old place
The poundin’ of the drums, the pride and disgrace
You can bury your dead, but don’t leave a trace
Hate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace
And… tell me over and over and over and over again, my friend
You don’t believe
We’re on the eve
Of destruction

This is the context that I bring with me to the opera; the intensity of my own youth and a particular worldview of that time from the center of the United States. I don’t have a decent feel even now for the Chinese context for this meeting. All of my news — such as it was — came from US sources. While I recognized the references to the Long March and the Cultural Revolution, I don’t know enough about the Chinese view of the Nixon visit. I did not watch any of it on television in spite of its broadcast on “the three networks” the Nixon character mentions in the opera. I didn’t have a television in my dorm room and I was too wrapped up in my studies and in my social life to think about watching this news.

Since this performance was a dress rehearsal, the concert hall was filled with school groups. I wonder what context these students are bringing with them. Have they been told some of the background by their teachers or parents or, especially for the youngest there, their grandparents? History classes have seldom been able to provide me the rich awareness of a prevailing social reality that I brought to this opera, so I expect they bring their own more modern contexts. Perhaps the opera rests on the emotions and thoughts expressed in the lyrics and music sung by the characters, both American and Chinese. In spite of extensive research, much of this still stems from the imagination of the opera’s creative team, especially the lyricist, Alice Goodman who brings a touching and odd poetry to the conversations and inner thoughts of this cast of characters. I was left wondering about the emotional life of human beings in positions of power: what it means for them, how they see themselves, and what they worry about.

*  *  *

As I read the news today across another ocean, Egypt faces a massive protest movement that seems poised to change the shape of that country dramatically, though perhaps not entirely in the way the young protesters may hope. I can’t help but find myself pulled to read the news stories and even the tweets that provide too little and too often. If not an opera, then certainly there is epic poetry waiting to be written.