Sunday, June 15, 2008

Capital Pride 2008

Yesterday was my first gay pride parade, Capital Pride 2008. The Grand Marshall was Bruce Vilanch. I haven't heard of him either. I thought they'd get someone more recognizable but then I remembered that there aren't that many gay famous people in the world.

Max said that the parade would be as much a perversion of his culture as orientalism was a perversion of mine. I saw a group in the parade that was a clever perversion of both our cultures: Men dressed in costume-y kimonos made up like geishas. They marched to commemorate an elderly Asian woman named Noi Chudnoff and carried a large photo of her. A little googling revealed a Washington Post article about her. She was the owner of Go Mama Go!, a home decor boutique with funky, cool things. She was a supporter of LGBT causes. Born in Thailand, Noi went to college in America and married an American husband.

It always makes me happy to see Asians supporting LGBT causes because I think non-heterosexual sexuality is still very taboo in Asian cultures. However, it seemed insensitive to me that geisha drag queens (is that what they're called?) should represent her in the parade. But perhaps at a pride parade, all we can expect are stereotypes.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Deposed Little Emperors?

I'm seeing something of a pattern develop in my blog posts. NYTimes articles, China

It's been a day and a month since the 5/12 earthquake and I wished I had said something about this earlier but I have finally gotten around to it now. Though there has been much coverage of the earthquake, this article in from The Guardian, "Sichuan earthquake: Tragedy brings new mood of unity", will suffice to highlight some of the things I noticed about the earthquake response.

The outpouring of volunteerism surprised everyone. As in America, volunteers are generally people who can set aside some time and money (in lost income). This requires a certain amount of privilege. In China, this is generally college students because only the very smartest students can enter elite colleges and only their parents can pay for them. Zhang Qiyu interviewed in the article is a student at what the article called "an elite university in Beijing" and there are many in the capital. These examples in the Guardian article and others I have read give me great optimism that volunteerism will continue.

In recent years much of China has become many times wealthier, which would suggest that there should be more people giving up their time and resource for others with no material benefit. But since the early 80s, urban dwellers have been prohibited from having more than one child per couple. I've heard a lot of criticsm of this population policy, that singletons are selfish and coddled by the attention of many grandparents and relatives, that it will strain the public social security system as all nations will low birthrates have a small workforce to support a large aging population. A journalist coined these singleton children "little emperors". So now the one-child generation ismaturing, going to college, and entering the world. By these examples of young people being involved in their community, I hope it will calm some of the concern about this competitive and self-centered generation.

I also hope that mental health will be given more weight in China as well. As part of the earthquake efforts, psychologists were available as well as physicians. There is in no way China has nearly enough psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists to serve all the people's needs. In addition, it will take much time and effort to dimish the stigma of mental illness and to make people view mental illness as a legitimate condition.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

From the Hill

Two days ago I went to a congressional hearing of the House Committee on Ways and Means health subcommittee. The topic of the hearing was "Addressing Disparities in Health and Healthcare: Issues for Reform." Four Congresspeople and a panel of physicians and public health experts testified on the various disparities. Three Congresswomen (yay for women in government!)were members of the TriCaucus, that is, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. When I think of health disparities, the most common groups that are affected are racial and ethnic minorities. But Congressman Jerry Moran of the 1st Kansas district brought to the committee a disparity I hadn't thought much about, the needs of the rural community. It was pretty cool just to be at a congressional hearing. It was in the Longworth building, which is the office building where some Reps have their offices. Saw lots of staffers, interns walking around.

So I want to make a connection from this hearing to two more articles I read yesterday. The first, "Doctors Miss Cultural Needs, Study Says" is an illustration of the disparity in health outcome. By this I mean that people of difference racial and ethnic groups have access to the same physician or same pool of physicians so the ability of the physician is the same for all people. This was a measure of outcome because it looked at three factors that measure how well diabetes is controlled: LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and hemoglobin A1C, a stabler, more long-term measure of blood glucose. Given the same physicians AND adjusting for socioeconomic factors AND clinical differences in patient conditions, the study showed that African-Americans had poorer control of their diabetes.

This isn't to say that doctors are necessarily racist but that they need to talk to patients in ways that are tailored to their habits and culture. For example, if a doctor recommends a certain diet that is wholly unfamiliar to people of that culture, then there will be poor compliance. (See previous entry regarding dietary habits.)

There are also disparities in quality of care, which includes barriers such as lack of language interpreters so that patients don't understand their diagnoses, prescription directions, and don't use preventative care. Furthermore, disparities in access of coverage also exist. That is, minorities are also more likely to be poor and therefore don't have private insurance. Even within an insurance plan, there are disparities.

One way to have more culturally competent care is to have more minority doctors! According to testimony by Dr. Mohammad Akhter of the National Medical Association, blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans made up only 6% of US medical school graduates. (I guess Asians are overrepresented?)

Of course doctors can be taught about minority communities, but really, physicians who aren't old white men don't feel as comfortable talking to old white male physicians either. People who grew up in rural areas are more likely to return there to practice because frankly, if you didn't grew up in NYC, you'd think agricultural Kansas is inhospitable. MSU's College of Human Medicine should be praised for its rural medicine program. It trains med school students to practice in rural communities.

From health and healthcare, we go to another issue faced by a particular minority: Asian Americans. "Report Takes Aim at ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype of Asian-American Students" describes how this stereotype is not true because Asian Pacific American is such a broad category that it encompasses a very diverse group of people, from native Hawaiians to Chinese to Sri Lankans. If we look at the APA group by nation, then stark differences appear, "while most of the nation’s Hmong and Cambodian adults have never finished high school, most Pakistanis and Indians have at least a bachelor’s degree."

I want to emphasis this point: The SAT scores of Asian-Americans, it said, like those of other Americans, tend to correlate with the income and educational level of their parents.

The expansiveness of the category APA is another issue discussed at the hearing. There are dozens of countries included in the category APA and hundreds of languages. Timely and disaggregated data is needed to identify their needs and try to create policies that help them. This is a particularly appalling example: The Social Security Agency does not ask the race of its applicants for SS cards. Why is this important? Because many Medicare stats use SSA data.
The sheer number of languages spoken by APA patients makes it difficult for doctors and hospitals to provide translators for them. Unlike Hispanics who mostly speak Spanish, no one language unifies APA.

Data is powerful but data is precisely what is lacking about APA. The statistics in this article really surprised me and they are a potent force dispelling the model minority myth. I was surprised by some of the stats. For example, a larger percent of Asian Americans earned degrees in the humanities and social sciences than all students! The numbers are the same for biological/life sciences. (But they do earn more engineering degrees.)

The implications of disaggregated data are huge: we will be able to help APA patients get medical care that is tailored to their culture, not just that half of the world. Hawaii to Central Asia is a large area! We'll also be able to help APA students who are struggling in school.

Committee on Ways and Means
Hearing: Addressing Disparities in Health and Healthcare: Issues for Reform (with links to individual testimony)
Congressional Black Caucus
Congressional Hispanic Caucus
Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus
Jerry Moran Kansas 1st District
Doctors Miss Cultural Needs, Study Says
Report Takes Aim at ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype of Asian-American Students

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Supposedly my people eat everything.

I take the NYTimes as my primary source of information. I like it most of the time. I just read about a health disparity study and the Asian American model minority myth, and these articles got me thinking and I'm trying to form something coherent about it to write down later.

But sometimes the Times disappoints me. Like the most recent article I've read tonight was "Scorpions for Breakfast and Snails for Dinner". Perhaps making the Times the target of my frustration is somewhat misplaced, or more accurately, too narrow, since I find this generalization rampant throughout American culture.

The author sums up Chinese food as such, "Both Roy and Alice were born and raised here in China, where people eat anything. I’ve seen animal markets in the southern city of Guangzhou where vendors sell live porcupines, pangolins, badgers, crocodiles, cobras and civet cats, all destined for the tips of chopsticks in the city’s costlier restaurants." You know, if all the Chinese eat snails, there would be no more snails in the world. And what is a pangolin??

Some people who read this article are going to say that the warm fuzzy moral of this article is an admiration for the tough, enduring character of the Chinese people despite hardship and famine, as reflected in their non-fussy palate, blah blah blah.

Well the author evidently didn't love the Chinese culture so much as to continue to send his kids to Chinese schools. They went to a French school. His characterization of the Chinese through their food might call for praise of the people, but it continues to distance salmon and granola Americans from those Chinese who "eat everything". Even if this was an ode to the Chinese, it's a very backhanded one.

Furthermore, the author seems try to establish his children as being just like the locals and embracing Chinese culture, including its gustatory one by describing them eating all kinds of things I've never even seen on a menu. Why have I not seen these things on a menu? I don't think I've ever been to that expensive of a restaurant. The anecdote about trout skin was appropriate to describe the poverty level of the people who ate gross non-food items THEN. Now civets or whatever aren't the grub of poor people. It's what you take people to eat on the expense account and want to impress them.

Dear friends, I challenge you to find an article about Chinese cuisine that doesn't gross out its American readers about all the gruesome non-food items that the Chinese eat with relish.

At least the Chinese don't sit down with their family to eat dinner brandishing knives and spears. The pale-skinned people are such barbarians.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


I realized after committing to this blog that blogger does not allow private AND public entries in the same blog. Instead of transferring my blog from the (secret) livejournal one to this one, now I'll have to maintain both so that the LJ entries can remain private. Arg. So much for trying to simplify.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Day 1 and Day 2

I finished my fourth day at AIDS Alliance today but I hadn't even had a chance to talk about my first few days on the job, which I enjoyed immensely, even though some moments were boring, confusing, and awkward. I have to admit, the first day was somewhat of a letdown, even though I suspect the "required reading" is necessary for the start of any internship. I read many documents prepared by AIDS Alliance and by similar groups, especially about Ryan White CARE Act. I felt ill-prepared when Max asked me several times if I knew what various parts of the Ryan White act were about and I had to laugh nervously and tell him no. It made me wish that I had gotten an internship with international HIV/AIDS policy instead of domestic policy. At least I knew something about PEPFAR from my MC 231 project. I also hadn't used Outlook before, which made me seem even stupider. But I tried to put that thought out of my head. And so I spent the day reading things on the computer. It was frustrating because even though I read the Ryan White policy and even read analysis of it, I still didn't have a grasp of what it actually meant in practice, how proposed changes in the reauthorization would affect the AIDS Alliance constituency. much of which I didn't understand.

But speaking of other internships, I immediately noticed some familiar non-profits. They were other internships I had applied to unsuccessfully: SIECUS and AIDS Action, and Center for Health and Gender Equity, whose internship position had already been filled by the time I expressed interest in it. On the one hand, this reminded me uncomfortably of being rejected by them, but I also realized that the difference between any of these organziations is also probably less than I thought it would be. At least, I hope that my internship here isn't any worse and just as much a learning process as interning at those other places.

The second day of my internship was unexpectedly better than the first. At first I expected to be in the office again and also without Max, which left me feeling a little panicky since I wasn't feeling comfortable with the AIDS Alliance projects yet. I had just begun to read my emails when Tyhese transferred a call to my phone (I have my own phone and extension number!) and told me to pick it up. Max was at meeting and wanted me to come. To do this, I had to get there by taking the Metro to Union Station and finding the address Max gave me. I was relieved to get out of the office and excited to navigate DC.

I was very glad to have gone to the FAPP meeting because it showed me the coalition that AIDS Alliance was a part of, as well as introduce me to some of the current issues HIV/AIDS advocacy groups are working on. FAPP stands for ?? Initially, I had my doubts of the effectiveness of the organization after I saw that there were so few staff but this meeting showed me that so much of advocacy work is done in coalitions, so that no organization works on its own. Committees made up of members of various organizations gave updates of their work, most of which I didn't understand, but it nonetheless showed me how these groups do work together to advance policy. Among the representatives at the meeting were NASTAD, SIECUS, and multicultural HIV/AIDS groups, which I was happy to see.

This meeting was a discussion of policies and lobbying strategies. It was the first time that I had though of lobbying strategies. There is a systematic and detailed way in which advocacy groups ... advocate. We discussed forming coalitions for some issue. There was mention of drafting a national HIV/AIDS plan to be presented to the next president. PEPFAR requires foreign beneficiary countries to have such a plan, though domestically we don't have one. This would lay out specific goals and plans for combating HIV/AIDS in the US.

As a special bonus, the meeting ended more than an hour earlier than it was schedule to. Max wasn't going back to the office because his partner was visiting DC, which meant that I didn't have to go back either. Max and I took the red line together, which was slightly awkward because we had to talk about non-work topics briefly. I was going to Dupont Circle to meet Nada and he was going to the Air and Space Museum because his partner wanted to go there.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Freer Gallery - American and Chinese collections

Freer Gallery

I thought I had spent a long time in the Freer Gallery but now that I think about it, I didn't get there until 2 so I only had three hours until closing. Charles Freer made his fortune in the late 19th century in, I think, the railroad industry. But that's not the focus of my visit today. His business success is only what enabled him to spend the time and resources for his legacy that is the Freer Gallery, both the building and collection inside it.

The American Collection

Because I had heard of the Freer as a collection of Asian art, I was initially disappointed when I learned that the tour I was going on explained the American art collection. (And I was very irritated that a little girl of about 6 or 7 was on the tour only because she and her family used the Freer as a shelter to wait out the thunderstorm.) But then our docent began to talk about the collection. It consists mostly of Whistler paintings (and a few Dewing and Sargent) because Freer was a major patron of Whistler.

The crown jewel of the American collection, and perhaps of the whole museum if American art is your forte, is the Peacock Room. Since Whistler believed his art as studies of form and color more so than depictions of actual things and following Whistler's naming convention, I think this room should be called Composition in Teal and Gold. Every inch of the room is richly painted teal or gilded in gold. When I first walked into the room, it looked almost too busy. At one end of the room is a large gold painting of a pair of peacocks and three large panels along the adjacent wall also of peacocks. The wall color is a rich teal covered with a peacock feather motif, as is the ceiling. Built into the walls are also wooden shelves now also gilt to cover up the brown wood where porcelain plates and vases are displayed.

Only one or two galleries held American art. Freer had commissioned John Dewing to decorate the parlor of his home and those paintings are on display here now. The main colors are misty greens and the chief subject ethereal women and Dewing was like Whistler in wanting to create atmosphere more than object. "The fact that there are women in the painting is beside the point", said the docent. The focus of the series of Dewings was a four-panel folding screen. On each panel was a woman seated among green grasses. I thought it seemed familiar when I first saw it. The docent said that it was inspired by a Whistler screen now on owned by the DIA so maybe I had seen it there, or perhaps just something similar in a photo. The problem with the Dewing was that the gauzy effect made me feel like I was straining to see through a fog or that I needed new glasses.

I was not surprised that Leyland, the English businessman who commissioned the room to be decorated, was appalled by the final product. Leyland wanted a room to show off two things: A Japanese inspired Whistler painting of a white woman in a kimono and Leyland's collection of blue and white Ming porcelain but the painting and the porcelain are overpowered by the peacock motif and peacocks. In fact, teal and gold aren't present in either of those things. So Leyland refused to pay Whistler for the room and so here Whistler left his only narrative painting, since he cared about color and form only. It was inconsequential that his paintings showed people or identifiable "things". The painting of two peacocks shows one peacock with a ruffled neck and a wing outstretched pointing at the other peacock: the angry patron is dissatisfied with Whistler's work.

Incredibly and fortunately for us, the decorations on the walls of the room were never done on the actual masonry of the building but on wood panels basically stuck on to the stone so that it could have been removed from Leyland's house in London, installed in an addition to Freer's Detroit home especially built for it, then after Freer died, it dismantled again and finally reassembled in the Freer Gallery.

Interesting note: The courtyard of the Freer Gallery at some point held live peacocks too for visitors to see, but as the docent said, "They bit people, so they [the museum] had to get rid of them."

The Chinese Ceramics Collection

What to me, and I think most people, is so typical of "Chinese porcelain" was originally not from China at all. Blue and white porcelain became prize in China because it was exotic. China did not yet make blue glaze because it had not yet discovered cobalt. But artisans in the Middle East had blue glaze and Chinese traders brought back their work. So at first cobalt was imported to make blue glaze and after China excavated its own cobalt and production of blue and white porcelain began in earnest in the Ming dynasty(14th - 17th century), peaking in early Qing.

This visit changed the way I thought about Chinese porcelain. I was very surprised that not all fine porcelain is the blue and white variety popular since the Ming dynasty. There are few blue and white porcelains on display at Freer and the ones in the Peacock Room and those pieces weren't the focus. Porcelain making had been perfected since the Song dynasty (10th - 13th c) and through the Jin and Yuan dynasties as well during which pieces were white, black, or black and white.

Northern China doesn't seem to get the glam and glitz of the South. Silk, tea, and trade are all concentrated in the South and because of trade, southern coastal cities have always been, and still are, richer than the inland North. I had thought that porcelain production followed these lines because most people who know of only one porcelain kiln knows the name Jingdezhen, the city in Jiangxi province where this blue and white ware kiln is located. But the white Ding-ware was made in Hebei province.What I love about these pieces, besides their pure white color, is that they have finely carved and molded detail. (These pieces were fitted with a metal rim because the pieces were fired upside down, resting on their rims, to prevent sagging and distortion.)

My two favorites from the whole collection of Chinese porcelain are a bowl with thin molded lines radiating from the center and a plate with a lively scene of mandarin ducks and lily pads. I've completely fallen for white porcelain now for its understated beauty. Blue and white seems too loud.

Dish with Molded Decoration of Mandarin Ducks
China, Hebei Province, Ding ware
Jin Dynasty, 12th - 13th century
Porcelain with transparent ivory-toned glaze; metal rim
(click to enlarge)

China, Hebei Province, Ding ware
Northern Song dynasty, 11th - early 12th century

Porcelain with transparent ivory-toned glaze
(click to enlarge)

Other than white clay with white glaze, southern China also made black porcelainware, though the dark glaze can actually range from dark brown to a shimmery iridescent black. The most prized Jian-ware, as they are called, has mottled or blossom-like patterns in the glaze.

Freer Gallery website:

Other things I saw but I didn't get a chance to talk about: Amazing Chinese calligraphy and brush paintings, Maxine Hong Kingston's inspiration for "Song of the Barbarian Reed Pipe", Japanese vs. Chinese tea bowls.

Rant -- Reason #239639821 why I hate children:

I saw a girl TOUCH, that is, trail her grubby little fingers across a Whistler canvas TWICE! This was after she tapped the canvas of a portrait of a woman and I could hear her fingernails click. And only after she had touched it did her grandparents (?) admonish her gently. I would have thrown her out of the museum before could do more damage. Next, she touched the heavy gilt frame of another Whistler. This seemed like a lesser offense until, right after she touched it, the docent said that Whistler was very particular about designing his own frames to complement the paintings. The frame is worth about as much as the canvas.

NYT Op-Ed Art, Music, Literature, and Science

I'm working on another update but I saw this New York Times Op-Ed "Put a Little Science in Your Life" and thought I would say a few quick things about it. Brian Greene is the author of this piece and of the books "The Elegant Universe" and "The Fabric of the Cosmos." He sums up the problem with science pedagogy as follows, "We continually fail to activate rich opportunities for revealing the breathtaking vistas opened up by science, and instead focus on the need to gain competency with science’s underlying technical details." I like his explanation of " the vertical nature of science", that students must learn the foundations of scientific theories before they can move on to the exciting new breakthroughs. I agree that this is part of the reason that many students find science so boring.

In contrast, the humanities is not bound by such linearity. We now don't teach little kids English literature chronologically, starting with Homer, then Vergil, and so forth until the poem gives way to the novel and to modern authors. But The Odyssey and the Aeneid are introduced once students have a grasp of reading.

It's an apt comparison, the necessity and beauty of art and science. As a musician, I know what Greene meant when he said that this way of teaching science is like making a music student practice scales without performing the great masterpieces.

Earlier this evening I took a walk by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, very close to where I live. Inscribed on the marble facade of the hall was a quote from John F. Kennedy in which he linked the greatness of a nation to the fluorishing of art:
"The is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo Da Vinci, the age of Elizabeth was also the age of Shakespeare."

After reading this op-ed, I re-read the quote and realized that Da Vinci was also a scientist and so achievement in science too should be connected to achievement in art and state. The Smithsonian Institute was reluctant to accept Charles Freer's art collection because the institute initially wanted to focus on scientific knowledge. But the in end Freer's bequest became the Smithsonian's first art collection.

Greene writes, "Like a life without music, art or literature, a life without science is bereft of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible dimension."