I think the length and nature of this post ought to in some part account for the length of time between my last post and this one. But I feel that more explanation might be necessary. One, college applications (I hope that’s enough of an explanation). Two, my mind is a rather screwy thing (in case you haven’t figured that out yet) and I tend to think about several different topics at length and in depth over the same given period of time. Therefore, any ideas I have for blog posts manage to stay in the nebulous phase of thought for a long time whilst I switch between several unrelated topics rapidly. I sincerely hope the quality of following post makes up for the wait.

PART I: Culture Through a Schizoanalytic Lens

I have read many pieces that attempt to define culture. I find most of them to fall tremendously flat, relying on descriptions of specific phenomena rather than trying to account for “culture” as a whole. As such, I have spent a great deal of time here in Malaysia trying to reason out how culture can be described in a singular all-accounting manner. The framework that I have realized requires a bit of preliminary exposition.

This last summer I read Deleuze and Guattari’s work, Anti-Oedipus. Perhaps the single most difficult book I have attempted to read, it also happened to yield the best psychological and philosophical insights of almost any work I’ve yet read. The linchpin of Deleuze and Guttari’s re-examination of the Freudian conceptualization of desire is what they term “desiring-production”. In this model, man operates as a component and driving force in the flow of desire and production. That is, all psychology (human and otherwise) and its manifestations (behavior) derive from this simple binodal flow.

If desire is fundamentally the same between individuals both feet and thousands of miles away, then where lies the root of cultural variance? The difference is in two parts. First, the fulfillment of desire; and second, the repression of desire. The first manifests itself in many simple ways. For example, in Malaysia the compound desires of hunger and convenience are fulfilled through the Mamak stalls, whereas in the U.S. this same desire is satisfied with McDonalds. Obviously the first cause of culture is responsible for some of the more simple aspects, such as food. However, the second is entirely responsible for the more complex aspects of a given culture. This is because all values, ethics, and morals are at their core repressions of desire (i.e. I’d desire to hit someone, but I choose not to because of my ethics thereby repressing that desire). Since the desires we choose to repress are often arbitrarily chosen by tradition and environment, it then becomes apparent why there is such a wide variance of cultural practices across the globe.

In summation, “culture” can therefore be defined as the methods of fulfilling or repressing desire.

PART II: Orientalism and the second aspect of culture.

I don’t have time nor the will to make a rundown of Edward Said’s critique of “Orientalism” in western thought, but I will attempt to deliver a sketch of “othering”, a highlight reel if you will.

In order for a group of people to be able to commit gross acts of violence and/or exploitation against another, that group of people (often a society or state) must view those who are violated as “others”. That is, outside the norm, less equal, and above all less human. Only as long as this perception of the “others” continues (the process of creating an “other” is called “othering” by Said) can the exploitation continue. If a colonial power were to think of the colonized peoples as equals and fundamentally similar to themselves, colonialism would have stopped in its tracks. This continues today on two fronts. One is economic (and today more domestic, especially in the US), that is the perception that it is completely acceptable for a person to live in squalor because they are the lazy, welfare-cheating “other” or they are the international “other” for whom it is acceptable to be working in a shoe factory at the age of six. The second (and perhaps more common) front is the violent one.

Perhaps the most glaring operation of this mechanic at work in American culture is the perception of Muslims. Since September Eleventh, the global Muslim population has become the “other” to American society. The “othering” of the Ummah has been so great since that day that many see it as the ultimate antithesis to “America”. This is without a doubt the most dangerous and extreme “othering”, when one group becomes perceived as an existential threat, because it compels the perceiver to violently lash out at the “others”.

Admittedly, “othering” has occurred on both sides. While the perception of the U.S as “others” (expressed as “invaders” or “infidels” in the circles initially with this perception) began largely in the groups that represent the actual existential threat to the United States, our overblown generalizations of all Muslims as the threatening “others” has only lead to the spread of the generalization among the Muslim world that the US is the threatening “other”. In short, this has become a dangerous sequence of shifts in perception that seems to have only a destructive end on the current path.

PART III: One step back, a thousand forward.

Therefore, the question arises of how to both reverse the cycle and how to move forward towards understanding.

While I don’t have the expertise to craft a detailed policy recommendation (and in part, I feel that a great deal on the macro level is already in the works), I can speak to what I have experienced and hope deeply will work.

Perhaps the best place to begin is to drag to an intersection the previous two parts in order to provide some context for this one. In a general sense, what must be done to achieve both the aforementioned goals is thus. Both the Muslim world and the people of the United States must realize that we are in fact more alike than different. As explained by the first part, as humans we are fundamentally alike in our desires. Added to the fact that the first aspect of “culture” (fulfillment of desire) tends to yield only minor differences, one can then realize that between any two people, regardless of distance and place of birth, there are vastly more similarities than differences. Only by realizing this can “othering” be stopped. If another person, society, or state is recognized as being at the very least similar, they can not by definition be “others”. On both sides if this basic truth of human similarity was realized, we would make two shifts in perception; one step backwards from the escalation of “othering” and a thousand steps forwards towards understanding.

In its philosophical and operational basis, this is the essence of the Youth Exchange and Study program. By bringing students from countries with significant Muslim populations to the United States and in turn sending us to those same countries, understanding of the dynamic of human similarity is propagated through firsthand experience. By extension, through the combat of “othering” in this manner on both sides of the dynamic, the YES program is promoting a thousand steps forward towards peace and understanding.

Published in: on October 10, 2009 at 2:48 PM  Comments (1)  
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plus ça change, plus c’est la différents chose

     I’m going to go ahead and apologize for the last post (but don’t be surprised if this one is poorly written as well…), I’ve been getting a maximum of five hours of sleep a night for the last two weeks (and 3 and 1/2 or 4 hours hasn’t been uncommon). Therefore, after a day full of maths, chemistry, physics, and biology (in the same freaking day) I can’t think in any manner conducive to halfway decent writing. 

     At any rate, I promised that I would post about school, so here goes. I am currently attending SMK St. John, one of the oldest schools in Kuala Lumpur, a British catholic school founded with the intent to educate (read convert) the children of KL. Now the school is mostly government funded so the whole catholic thing has faded away like the flavor in a piece of gum (although the teachers are still entirely free to talk about religion).  

     As per the title, the differences between school in Malaysia and the US are manifold (for those of you ill versed in famous quotes, the title is a play on “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” meaning “the more that things change the more they stay the same”. The modified version in the title says “The more things change, the more they are different”). First of all, the teachers change classes instead of the students. While it is nice that one gets to be with the same people for all of one’s classes, this system tends to waste time and isn’t very well regimented. Secondly, teachers are given an almost undue amount of reverence. Upon a teacher’s arrival or departure from the class, all the students must stand up and say in unison “good morning teacher” or “thank you teacher” respectively. Furthermore, a specially designated student must at any given time go to the white board and clean it off while the teacher is standing not two feet from the eraser. Given that the teachers also cane students for misbehavior (on the bright side, no ISS) I can’t help but think of Deleuze and Guattari’s evisceration of family as “the first unit of fascism” because it “causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us”. Thirdly, there is a prefect system (yeah, I thought the same thing, “cool! Just like Harry Potter!”), but this has perhaps been the most intriguing aspect of school. Prefects are essentially trained tattletales who get to wear a special uniform and be the principal’s proxy in the classroom (I would however like to say that the prefects in my class are really laid back and tend to egregiously break the sillier rules themselves). Having students who swear their loyalty to the principal (there was a “swearing-in” a couple of days ago) watching you at every possible moment is a little unsettling. 

     The best difference is that the social dynamic is much more accepting and kind. In the States it has occurred to me that most often, the “popular kid” is the most arrogant jerk in the school. However, congruent with my experiences with Malaysians being some of the most hospitable and kind people I have ever met, students act in much the same way. As such, not only do the kinder souls tend to be more popular, most of the students seem to be operating on a similar social strata (although I have observed some slight indications of social classism when it comes to students behave in a rather strange or awkward manner). I have reveled in my discovery of an oasis of social inclusion in a society where extreme socio-economic stratification is the standard. 

     On a much lighter note, I have henceforth observed the duplication of a female psychological phenomenon which I had initially assumed was unique to the US (or at least Lydia Berns). This phenomenon can be summed up thusly, “OMG FOREIGN BOY, HAWT”. For those readers familiar with my physical appearance it should come as no shock that I’m not exactly a “hot item” back home. Therefore, I’m not entirely sure how to deal with my new found chick-magnetism. Putting myself in a Malaysian boy’s shoes, I think I would be quite jealous that a 16 year old American came into a class full of 18 and 19 year olds and instantly attracted the undivided attention of all the females. 

     On a different topic, I stopped fasting on September 2nd. The students in my class invited me for lunch (none of the students in my class are Muslims since the government sponsors the Malays, who make up 98% of the muslim population, to go to university a grade early so all the ethnic chinese and indians are stuck in Form 6) and I didn’t feel like refusing (and on top of it, I was hungry darnit!), so now eating lunch at school or out afterwords has become the norm.

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 9:01 AM  Comments (6)  
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Realizing Real Realism

     Let me begin by apologizing for the space between my blog posts recently. Last week after I posted “On the third day of Ramadan…” my family and I shipped off to a Kampong for three days. If I had to take an aimless guess at a direct translation of “Kampong” it would be “Kam” = without and “pong” = internet. I jest, of course; a Kampong is a rural Malay village. Only one day back from the Kampong (Tuesday) I finally went to school and the last two days I have been trying to settle in. Therefore, I have not given much thought to my blog. Anyways, I’m going to post about school separately in hopes that it will make it onto the AFS blog (apparently they want stories about the exchange itself and don’t have much taste for in-depth musings about International Relations, globalization, etc. Of course I don’t blame them, they are getting government funding and if a socialist (god forbid! Freedom of speech only applies in the conservative book if you’re a god loving capitalist!) is posting on their blog I’m sure they’d have hell to pay).


     Had you asked me a month ago what my foreign policy paradigm was I would have told you that I was a realist who believed in offensive realism as a descriptive framework but not a functional model. However, over the past few weeks I realized that I was more of an idealist than I would have admitted. Up until this point I had on naively assumed that on some level every man, woman, and child on earth yearned for political freedom of the democratic flavor. I think this stems from the psychological construction of the average American which is simply explained as independent to a fault. What I failed to understand in some situations is that based on one’s cultural background, one does not always balk at big-brother governmental policies (i.e. Internet censorship). In fact, it seems that some Malaysians feel that democracy is an indulgence best exercised in moderation. This was summed up y a quote that appeared on AlJazeera English; a Malaysian minister was talking about the government’s plan to filter the internet and he said, “We cannot have a full-fledged democracy like the United States”. 


     This previously-held assumption of mine led me to hold an idealistic view on global political institutions such that I believed in the United States’ role in securing more democratic institutions across the globe (although I have always soundly rejected the Neoconservative militaristic interpretation of Wilson’s statement “The world must be made safe for Democracy”). Now I realize that from an Offensive Realism standpoint that the accentuation of United States international hegemony can only be achieved by accepting that certain institutions are beyond our power to comprehensively change. While it is all fine-and-dandy to support democratization in countries where the populace clearly shows support for a greater degree of political freedom (i.e. Burma), I have now realized that the cause of democracy in Afghanistan, China, et. al is a fruitless endeavor that only endangers our prospects for continued hegemony. Malaysia has taught me that entire populations can be psychologically comfortable with restrictive political mechanisms.


     Therefore, I have realized what realism means in terms of democratization; Not good or bad, just different. 

Published in: on September 2, 2009 at 2:26 PM  Comments (3)  
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On the Third Day of Ramadan my True Love Gave to Me… An Acute Sociological Observation.

     If the State Department realized the wealth of cultural information available from a few days’ television viewing, they could have saved a couple thousand dollars by setting up a Malaysian Hulu instead of having to deal with all this unnecessary travel, orientation, and host family business. 

      If you read the title (which I hope you did because I go through Frederich Nietzsche-style title agony every time I post) you might be expecting me to wax eloquent about something sociological; and further given the above paragraph you might expect that this “acute sociological observation” came from viewing television. However, I now find the above paragraph a bit misleading; my sociological epiphany came not from a standard television program, but rather from a series of cosmetic advertisements.

     So I noticed my first or second day with my host family that there were a lot of women’s cosmetic product advertisements on the television. In a few more days, with greater understanding of malay and the occasional english commercial I noticed something curious about the majority of these advertisements. They all were for creams that touted their power to increase “fairness”, and a few ads for companies that I assume have no taste for or knowledge of marketing euphemisms boasted of the cream’s “whitening” abilities. Well, at first I assumed that perhaps Malaysians have retained what was once the western cultural norm of tanness (I think I just made up a word) being undesirable. However, I now believe that this is not the case and instead there is a much deeper and more troubling causality at play.

     About a week or so into my “experience” here I began noticing the amazing similarities between Malaysia and the United States. With a few exceptions, these major cultural similarities seemed to some extent forced or adopted, not natural components of the Malaysian culture. I did not connect at first the observation of adopted culture to the whitening creams, but then today (well it was 1am but that counts) it hit me.

     Politics of the matter aside, the United States of America is an empire. There is no denying this, especially given U.S. Foreign policy since WWII. The literally stated goal of US deterrence policy in the Cold War was often to “fight fire with fire”. The USSR was probably the best demonstration of a modern imperial nation-state, and in many cases the US government felt that it was combating Soviet Imperialism (see Domino Theory). So in order to stave off the threat of an expanding communist sphere, we happened to create our own empire. Like just about any other concept, object, or otherwise, when the US adopts something it is changed such that it becomes uniquely “American”. As such, what was understood to be imperialism was taken and changed. Instead of adopting the rigid framework of empire that proved utterly incompatible with the twentieth century nation-state, we rebuilt the framework entirely thus ensuring our success(?) in the international game and securing(?) our long-term hegemony. What we created was a cultural empire that allowed the United States to have a de facto empire without all the busy-work of direct governmental administration. In fact, this cultural empire was not created by the government (although the government for better of worse was and is certainly complicit in its creation and maintenance) but by individual American corporations seeking profits overseas. What we as Americans are presented with today is a network of KFCs, McDonalds, and Starbucks that wield more international influence than the Pentagon or CIA could dream of. As a result, the more affected regions of the globe have undergone dramatic cultural transformation. Asia is probably the best example of this.

      This all brings me back to the skin whitening crams. As the “west” has corporately coaxed the “rest” to warm up to their cultures, there has evolved an intriguing desire (that I have observed here) to be more like the “west” (keep in mind that with the marginalization of europe excepting Britain in the geopolitical game that the US is effectively the “west”). Not only do Malaysians want to eat our food, wear our clothes, and live like us but they also want to be physically like us as expressed through the desire to be white. I don’t know how to treat this nugget of cultural understanding. It is sad that so many parts of the world are losing their cultural identities (which I believe has led to the rise of “islamic extremism”), but at the same time virtually nothing can be done to reverse the tide.

     In closing (finally!), I find it humorous that the United States has accomplished almost by accident what great European empires who fought tooth-and-nail failed to do:

Turn the world white.



Published in: on August 24, 2009 at 4:21 PM  Comments (4)  
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The Temptress. Otherwise known as a glass of iced tea.

     So Ramadan is going swimmingly. I’ve decided to fast for two reasons. First, I feel that it will (and is) aiding in cultural immersion and understanding; and second I feel that I should fast out of courtesy for my host family. I think it would be very rude indeed to eat or drink in front of them while they are fasting. Besides, I have discovered that is pretty easy to fast and abstain from liquids. Well, easy save for a few excruciating hours today.

      For breaking-of-the-fast my family decided to eat at a restaurant in a mall. We went to the mall about two and a half hours before Maghrib which is the second-to-last call to prayer that occurs at dusk (During Ramadan the Maghrib Azan is permission to begin eating and drinking again), in order to shop and play around. While my host mom and sister were shopping for clothes my host brothers and I went to a small arcade in a department store (I know this is a very odd location for an arcade). Here we made the mistake of playing the physically intensive games; a downhill biking game where you had to pedal, DDR, etc. This turned out to be a very bad decision given that the three of us had not drank anything for 14 hours and could not drink for another 2. It was a horrible feeling and it was hard to maintain discipline especially since I have no real obligation to abstain from anything. Then we made another unintentional bad decision. We went to the restaurant about 30 minutes early. Unfortunately for me (and I assume my host brothers too, but I can’t speak to their inner thoughts) our drinks arrived at our table ten minutes before Maghrib. 

      Dear Readers, you may never experience the psychological pain of having an ice cold glass of teh tarik ais (cold tea mixed with sweetened condensed milk) sitting in front of you while you are in utterly painful thirst yet unable to drink the beverage. But let me tell you, it was probably the most testing, tempting, excruciating, painful, and long ten minutes of my life. However, I held fast for ten whole minutes until Maghrib and then I drank (or more appropriately attacked) the tea with such violent chugs that a frat boy would have been impressed with the time it took for me to down the drink.

     My motto for the (lunar) month: Serenity through Discipline.


Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 4:42 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Heil Hetero: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Phallocentric Heteronormativiy

I’m terribly sorry about the length of time between my blog posts. I have had scarce any measure of privacy for using the internet until yesterday when I got the internet to work on my laptop. Anyhow, a few days ago I definitely hit the very bottom of the culture shock curve. I got home from KLCC and my family was watching television, which is pretty standard. However, this particular television program was one of the most deeply offensive things I have seen in my life. Every fiber of my being was utterly repulsed by its content. It was an “investigative journalism” (think Dateline, 20/20, etc.) where homosexuals were tracked down with hidden cameras and then arrested for their “crime”. Not only did the program feature this, but it also included much cheerleading from “man on the street” interviews with people discussing how homosexuality is “damaging to society”, “immoral”, etc. To further compound my emotional and ethical situation, my host family was making off-the-cuff patently homophobic statements. 

That night I cried for the first time in a long time. I don’t know how to cope with this kind of culture; one where all of the media is a mouthpiece for the government (case in point, every TV station has several ads and dedicated programming for that “Satu Malaysia” BS), where the people are perfectly OK with the lack of freedom of speech and press (in fact, I could be arrested for sedition for posting this, but I don’t care!), and there is such ingrained hatred across the country towards certain groups of people. I think I am getting a little better now that I am a few days out from that experience. I keep trying to apply that AFS catchphrase “it’s not good or bad, just different” but I don’t see fascism as “different” I see this way of living as abjectly wrong. I guess that’s something I have to work on… 

So far, I feel like I am living in a more indirect capitalist version of 1984. No Joke.


-Tyler Smith

Published in: on August 21, 2009 at 8:34 AM  Comments (4)  

Orientation, Orientation, and more… ugh… Orientation.

Don’t misunderstand the above title, I am fully cognizant of the purpose and value of an orientation. But four days? And to be going over things we should already know. Stupid/incompetent people ruin everything… (please regard the previous statement as nothing but brilliant satire). Tomorrow should be better though, we are basically spending the entire day in D.C. proper at embassies and the State Department. And then is the big day, Tuesday.

But an interesting thing that happened today. Our fearless leaders called upon us to write down our thoughts when we considered the concept of “poverty”. I carefully inscribed the following on my notepad, “The human injustices inherent in the capitalist system” fully expecting equally profound and well-thought out answers from my… well I don’t know what to call them… colleagues? Anyhow, other answers ranged from the simple, “minimum wage” to the slightly ignorant; “drugs”, “dirtiness”, etc. As students studying abroad, I feel it is imperative that we be searching for causes and foundations for the events, systems, beliefs, and paradigms that we encounter. It is simply unacceptable as a scholar to only be able to describe the results or effects of a given concept. 

Anyways… that’s my two cents.


Published in: on August 10, 2009 at 2:59 AM  Comments (1)