What does a house mean? The residence we live in signifies our identity and values and sends signals about that to those who know us. I would like to ruminate on personal identity issues with regard to 3 homes I visited last weekend.
Dr. Porntip Kawinsupon of Christian University of Thailand and her daughter have built a house on an acre of farmland about 12 miles north of Nakhon Pathom. Their house dedication ceremony was a chance for friends and colleagues to respond to this significant life-event. From conversations and comments that day I believe this house represents a major life-goal for my friend, Porntip. She has had homes before, but never a house. Now she has an identifiable location of her own choice and design. It is modern, solid, and dependable and the land around it, inside its boundary wall, can be developed. No doubt the things to come will be in several senses practical: vegetables, shade trees and flowers. The house, its lot and location, and its style of construction say that the owner values substance without extravagance. The largest indoor creative area is the kitchen (rather than a family room, studio, or library, for example). Since ostentation is not the nature for Porntip and Nong Muk, the size of the house and grounds suggests that Dr. Porntip is planning for a future that accommodates more than these two women. There’s room for growth. The house is noticeable also for what it lacks. It is fairly isolated, down a narrow lane, not part of a village. We know Portip and Srp are not inclined to hermitage living, so this house in its independent location is a clue that these two women will continue their community life in other ways, as they have for years. The house could signal a radical break, but it does not. They intend to reside there while they live in a much wider world, continuing church involvement, associations and friendships without interruption.
The Rev. Surakit Kamonrat presided at Porntip’s house blessing and then welcomed us to visit his new residence in a subdivision on Phuttamonton Soi 4, halfway back to the city from Nakhon Pathom. Just 2 months ago he retired from about 2 decades as director of the Bangkok Student Christian Center where he lived on campus. Now he and his wife live in a narrow townhouse with their daughter, son-in-law (who both have jobs) and 1 year-old grandson, Miracle. Miracle is the reason they all live together in a house that can barely hold them. The house signifies how central Miracle is for Surakit and his wife, at least for the present. Miracle weighed about a kilogram at birth but he’s on a standard growth curve now. Small as he is, or because he was recently so much smaller, he is the force drawing this nuclear family into a house that reflects their dedication to one another. For them the future is probably imperfectly represented in this present housing. This house probably does not look much like the house of Surakit’s dreams. As an observer of implied values, I think the house they live in signifies how little importance this family places on such middle-class values as elbow-room, personal privacy, convenience, and display of prestige.
A third house visited last Saturday belongs to my host for the day who co-celebrated Dr. Porntip’s house warming. The Rev. Prasatpong Pansuay and his wife, Orapin, and their two children are co-owners and investors in a dream-come-true home in a subdivision in the Thonburi section of Bangkok. Prasatpong and Orapin are former seminary students, so I have known them since they were teens. Let me put it this way: the climb from their origins to this lovely home in an exclusive, gated community has been astounding. Nobody is more surprised than Prasatpong. He is senior pastor of one of Bangkok’s oldest and most “established” Protestant churches, a position that has propelled him into the top echelon of church clerical leadership in Thailand. However, being a pastor in Thailand is not a role that normally endows a person with economic capability to retire well. What the Thonburi house signifies is family solidarity. It is a joint venture. Their son is a successful and hard-working member of the Thai media giant Grammy Inc., in the radio and TV advertising department. Their daughter is a newly graduated nurse in Bangkok Christian Hospital. So, 2 other things this Thonburi townhouse represents are this family’s firm transplantation from the rural north to the heart of the largest city in mainland South East Asia, and their commitment to each other.
Chanon Showtime is the most successful and creative costume shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Every month the shop supplies hundreds of costumes, some of which are made to order and others rented or sold from the shop’s stock of about 1000 costumes. International orders have come from the Netherlands, China and Australia. But the bulk of the business is in the Northern region of Thailand.
The genius in Chanon Showtime is Chanon “Wi” Sanguan. Wi has two full-time protégés, Night and Nam-chio. They operate out of a storefront on the northwest corner of the old city of Chiang Mai. Wi designs the costumes and buys the raw materials. He then hires dressmakers to produce the finished costumes. He specializes in fantasy costumes with exotic crowns and headdresses which they make in the shop. Some orders keep as many as 20 seamstresses busy for a month. The shop also works with customers who have costume designs in mind for their extravagant productions at conventions, business launches, or school and university events. Sometimes Chanon Showtime produces its own spectacular shows, hiring up to 50 models to march, strut and dance. Chanon Showtime entries are expected for most transgender contests in this part of the country.
Wi says his most exciting times come from supplying outfits for models and media stars’ portfolios. But his greatest challenges come from supplying large orders at short notice. One school orders 500 unique costumes each year for an annual sports festival. They have a month to have the costumes ready for the parade.
Wi is a bit reticent to speculate about the financial aspects of his business, but guesses it has risen from zero in 2010, when the business had its third start-up after 2 failures, to a multi-million baht enterprise today.
There are 4 costume rental shops in Chiang Mai to supply the market for designer costumes. Most of them specialize in more traditional or historical Thai costumes and formal attire. Chanon Showtime is outside the box. Some of Wi’s designs look like they were made for Los Vegas shows or Mardi Gras parades. Other costumes show a flare for irony and cultural cross-over or fusion.
The unique thing about this niche business is that all 4 Chiang Mai stores are gay-owned and operated. “Who else but us would do this?” Wi asked, laughing. I agreed it takes flare and daring. It also takes sustained professionalism to keep up with the flood of imaginative designs that pour into Wi’s notebooks, through the showroom, and onto show-time cat-walks and stages.
[For more about Wi and his business, click on this previous blog: www.kendobson.asia/blog/costumes ]
Black Lives Matter
BLACK LIVES are the ones that MATTER in this campaign.
The principles are these:
1. A slogan or symbol belongs to the group that coined it.
2. If the slogan inspires a movement, the slogan and the movement belong to those who join.
3. The slogan of a movement cannot be changed by those outside the movement without opposing the movement.
As applied to the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement, the ALL LIVES MATTER slogan is a protest; otherwise there would not be a slogan insisting that “All Lives Matter!”
1. The effect of All Lives Matter is to deflect attention from Black lives in jeopardy.
2. All Lives Matter will not lead to a movement benefitting all lives or any particular lives.
3. The underlying purpose of the slogan is to decelerate the Black Lives Matter movement.
I hope I have made myself clear about that. I have concern about this gathered over the years. For several reasons, the on-line argument between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter reminds me of previous controversies. I’ll reflect on four: Gay Pride, Black Is Beautiful, Indians, and the Holocaust.
HOLOCAUST is a term coined in retrospect, referring specifically to the NAZI genocide to wipe out Jews in Europe. The term was borrowed from the name for a sacrifice burned up entirely, on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a term fraught with complex sacred significance to Jews. Its use to refer to the NAZI cremation of Jews is intentionally ironic. In a real sense nobody but Jews was killed in the Holocaust. The term does not apply to the liquidation of gays, Gypsies, Bolsheviks and others, although the same NAZI apparatus and facilities were used to exterminate them as well. Holocaust is a term for the Jewish part of the program to “purify Germany in behalf of the Aryan Race through extermination in death camps of impure racial stock.” After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, a “Remember the Holocaust” movement began that included plans to build Holocaust Memorials, beginning with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Opposition arose to this movement almost immediately by those eager to put the terrible era behind them, and others feeling left out of the remembrance movement and unmentioned in the memorials. The most strident opposition to the Holocaust memorial movement has been in Russia, where they insist that more Soviets died by NAZI hands than any other ethnic group.
BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL is a slogan popularized about 50 years ago to instill racial pride and identity. It coalesced into a movement that promoted a wide range of cosmetic and costume enterprises, as well as unique dialectic and sub-cultural trends. High points in the expanded movement were the establishment of the birthday Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national holiday in the USA, implementation of Black History Month, and several spectacular events such as the 1964 March on Washington, the “Roots” TV mini-series, and passage of US civil rights laws. Borrowing by non-Blacks of Black is Beautiful symbols such as Afro hair styles, rap music, and dialectic slang still causes backlash as “another cultural exploitation.” The effect, if not the intent, of this borrowing is to deprive Black people of unique cultural indicators for which they can be respected and admired.
INDIAN icons are another ongoing issue in the USA (as are ethnic cultural markers elsewhere). Countless athletic organizations adopted Native American icons as mascots, logos, and brands. Native American advocacy groups want to reclaim their ethnic symbols beginning with such icons as the traditional eagle-feather headdress worn by Sioux chiefs. “This belongs to us,” is the message, “and its use in inappropriate ways distorts its symbolic meaning and diminishes our heritage.” The headdress was a badge of singular honor with particular and almost sacred significance that is being disrespected and desecrated when it is used as a costume or logo. Furthermore, the standard portrayal of the “Indian Chief” is a racial stereotype that triggers a narrow range of ideas about Native Americans in eagle feathers as violent, aggressive, and primitive. Sports clubs insist they honor and admire Indians and want their players to emulate their fighting capabilities. This is a simple admission of racial-ethnic stereotyping and cultural exploitation which ignores everything else about Native American ethnic cultures.
GAY PRIDE parades are organized with the express purpose of communicating personal acceptance of participants’ gay identity and challenging spectators in the community to accept us as we are in our diversity of expression – and to join the parade. Gay Pride parades have spread around the world and the “Gay Pride” movement has engendered organizations such as PFLAG and hundreds of NGOs working on such gay-related issues as HIV-AIDS, homeless gay youths, sexual exploitation and trafficking, and lobbying for legal relief from oppressive laws and the advancement of equal rights. Gay Pride parades have, on the whole, been popular and successful, rivaling or surpassing other annual parades in many cities. So far, Gay Pride events and movements have not been appropriated for some expanded objective, thereby blurring their focus. Possibly that is because outright threats and naked terror are still being used to intimidate the movement and it takes a degree of courage to be associated with Gay Pride.
Application and alteration of these symbols and slogans have one thing in common. They intend to modify the movement so it will settle down and cease to intimidate those who do not belong to it. The fact that the movement by a minority is no threat to the majority is less relevant than the fact that people in the movement are moving and no longer passive. The changes being promoted are understood at some level by everyone to involve a reallocation of power and control.
PS-Thanks for Andrew Dobson for the photos of his neighbors.
Dan Mei: Ironic Gay-Straight Culture Mix
A month ago Dr. Charlie Yi Zhang, Asst. Prof. of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky, enchanted an audience at Chiang Mai University with his interpretation of a culture-quake going on in China we had barely heard about. We did know that women in North East Asia were fascinated with stories about gay guys, but we did not know this interest had spawned an on-line fan-fad. Charlie filled us in.
Dan Mei is a Chinese subculture centered on fictional homoromantic/homoerotic relationships. As I understand it, websites have been created based on certain stories of love, sex and romance between beautiful, slim, talented boys and young men. Fans of these stories are urban, young, heterosexual women with good jobs. They get on-line and talk to each other about fantasy scripts and developments, adding to the story and including characters from pop culture whom the fans fantasize might be gay, too. The women work their fantasies out within certain boundaries. The stories may begin with a stereotypical rich fellow becoming attached to a younger disadvantaged guy, but sooner or later the tables are turned and the younger lover has the stuff to rescue the older one, showing that there is a balance in their relationship all along. The characters are inevitably effeminate but capable. These websites, Charlie told us, are numerous and very active. Furthermore, they are making inroads into mainline media and influencing popular Chinese vocabulary that even the guardians of Chinese culture cannot avoid.
Then Charlie escorted us through a woodland of topics threatening to turn into a bewildering forest. Rather than try to re-map the zones of neo-liberalism, feminism, and state controls over discourse, I’ll just mention a few of the trees.
What’s going on in this Dan Mei sub-culture is deeply counter-cultural. Whereas, the cultural power structure of the Chinese state has definite roles for women to adhere to, Dan Mei fans are busily imagining alternatives. In the fantasy stories there is a strong male figure, liberated from a tight heterosexual script into a “beautiful and true form of romance.” The women imagine themselves being in the place of the younger fellow, who has a beautiful feminized body but compensating strong masculine disposition. The fans “subject these boys to their voyeuristic gaze [whereas in the West it is the men who inevitably are the voyeurs] and imagine themselves as the one being penetrated.” Charlie was careful to help us understand that this preserves the “domineering penetrating versus docile penetrated” paradigm with the women eagerly seeking the docile role. What is going on, however, is not affirmation of male-centered cultural legacy. They are actually embracing an older pre-colonial traditional culture that contained effeminate “floral men” as valued and significant characters in culture and society. In that way this Chinese form of feminism is the reverse of the feminist position that advocates, embraces and strives for equality. In fantasy and in real-life, the fans dream of finding a masculine, well-built hero but with themselves having equal social, economic, educational, and professional status, by no means walking three steps behind their husbands. Indirectly, therefore, they are undermining “the official social policy of modern neo-liberalism in which women merely complement men in supporting market-driven economic and social goals.”
What this Dan Mei sub-culture is tending to do, Charlie concluded, is to create space for voluntary associations and affiliations. Dan Mei fans are creating “a safe zone to sidestep state-backed gender essentialism.” The goal is to enable a space of flexibility, mutation and contingencies. They are creating a gray area in which both male and female bodies and performances are redefined.
Charlie avoided using the term “revolutionary” to describe the effect Dan Mei fans are having on the state-controlled culture, but he pointed toward the advantages gays and lesbians are deriving from the introduction of a category of life that is utopian, youthful, in between, and free from social penalties and punishments.
PS-Stay tuned for Dr. Zhang's forthcoming article on Dan Mei entitled When Feminist Falls in Love with Queer: Dan Mei Culture as a Transnational Apparatus of Love. For more on this subject see this NY Times' blog post: "Why Many Young Chinese Women Are Writing Gay Male Erotica"
Who gets to say whether “God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ” is the same as “Adonai Elohenu” of the Jews and “Allah” of Muslims? Who has the authority to mandate, permit or ban the use of any name for the god we are calling God? This is more than an esoteric theological question. It has pragmatic impact.
There is a sense of protective entitlement and ownership involved in this. People tend to get riled up when someone infringes on their right to say who their god is. It’s personal. But most of us become alarmed when our group’s god is described wrong. At that point it is a social issue. “You can’t call God Allah,” I was admonished not long ago. “Allah is not God!” At about the time I was being scolded in that way by a Christian who uses “Jesus” and “God” interchangeably, Muslims in Malaysia were going to court to prevent Christians from distributing Bibles that used the word “Allah” for God. Those Bibles were impounded. That’s pragmatic impact. Now we have the same debate in a distorted form being waged in public media by candidate(s) for President of the United States. Religion is playing a larger role in this year’s Presidential campaign than at any time since John Kennedy was running for office. Who speaks for God can be political.
You may have an image in your mind of a god sitting serenely on a lotus blossom, or peering severely down from celestial clouds. It’s entirely up to you. If you share your view with someone, it’s up to the two of you. If you join a group and want them to adopt your concept, it’s up to the group. That’s the principle.
Is God legitimately addressed as Allah? That involves a second principle, concerning discourse. It’s usually a matter of context. The trouble is that contextual boundaries are fuzzy. Just a couple of hours ago (as I wrote this essay) a controversy arose when someone at a Presbyterian gathering offered a prayer that mentioned God as synonymous with Allah. Protest came from those who refuse to countenance the idea that Muslims and Christians have anything essential in common. I will come back to this prayer later. First, consider contexts for discourse involving God-Allah.
Prayer is one context. Can a prayer offered by someone in a public gathering contain names for God that some might object to? This is a frequently recurring issue wherever religious representatives are invited to lead public groups in prayer. I believe Christians have forgotten the principles of public prayer as opposed to private prayer. In public prayer someone articulates a prayer, and then the assembly responds with “Amen” if they want to. “Amen” is a word derived from the Bible in Hebrew that means one accepts the prayer as one’s own heartfelt prayer, too. Amen doesn’t mean “the end”; it means, “Yes, me too.” Amen is how one person’s prayer becomes the prayer of others. But the person leading a public prayer has an implied duty to respect the persons being invited to include themselves in the prayer. The prayer leader needs to try to respond to what the assembly is thinking, concerned about, and attempting to become. This awareness automatically contextualizes the prayer. It’s how the prayer leader involves the listeners cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually. Otherwise the prayer will fail to be in behalf of the people. But it is unlikely and unnecessary that a prayer leader compose a prayer that in all respects everyone is completely comfortable with.
Speaking is also contextual. Talking and writing implies dialogue, even if the exchange is not explicit. A speaker before a group is in a “both-and” situation. The speaker is both a group representative and an independent individual – depending on context. Who the speaker represents may be as important as what is said. If the speaker represents a group, that needs to be made clear.
H.H. Pope Frances said not long ago that Muslims and Christians pray to the same god (God and Allah, by name). As the acknowledged leader of a billion Roman Catholics he might have been speaking “to” or “in behalf of”. Speaking to, means communicating with. Agreement with what is being said is merely a hope. Speaking in behalf of, means that agreement by those being represented is assumed. Was the Pope’s statement a personal-pastoral one, or ex cathedra: formal-official? I think in this case he was advocating an understanding about God that he hoped all Christians and Muslims might agree upon.
Language is also an aspect of context. When one is speaking in English in a Christian gathering, to refer to God as Allah makes a striking emphasis and probably an argumentative one. It is different if one uses the word Allah while speaking in an Arabic language. In that regard I wonder what the Muslims in Malaysia proposed the Christians call God, if not Allah. As I understand it the Christians said Allah is the word for God. The Muslims were trying to prevent the Christians from including themselves as Allah-worshipers, but they avoided proposing an alternative term. Conservative Islamic clerics might have been trying to head off such phrases as “Allah, the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Hearing Christians pray to Allah is one thing, but hearing them re-describe Allah as Father of a second divine figure named “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” would be too much for them to tolerate. Conservative Muslims object to Christians using the word Allah because they cannot abide the elevation of Jesus to divine rank. Conservative Christians object to liberal Christians using the word Allah because they think that by doing so Jesus must be demoted to the rank of prophet.
But were the Presbyterians right to invite a Muslim to pray to God identified as Allah? As I reflect on it, the prayer leader had the right as the one chosen to pray. The assembly had the right to say Amen or to refrain from doing so. The prayer leader also had the right to expect Presbyterian support for a prayer to Allah, God. In the official Presbyterian Church USA Book of Common Worship,prayer 726 says this: “Eternal God, You are the one God to be worshiped by all, the one called Allah by your Muslim children, descendants of Abraham as are we. Give us grace to hear your truth in the teachings of Mohammed, the prophet, and to show your love as disciples of Jesus Christ, that Christians and Muslims together may serve you in faith and fellowship.”
And to that I say, “Amen”.
Note: The picture accompanying this essay is of Wajidi Said offering the prayer referred to above at the opening plenary session of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA in Portland, Oregon, June 22, 2016.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.