Happy Songkran!

Greetings from Portland, Oregon!

This week is Songkran, New Year’s Festival, for Thailand.  Two years ago, my sister and I attended a Songkran celebration in a park just a few blocks from here.  Not only the local Thai, but also our local Laotian, Cambodian, and Burmese people took part.

I  think such celebrations have been called off for the pandemic, but I expect they’ll return next year.  Meanwhile I have photos from two years ago.

I sometimes wonder how closely such celebrations in America match those in their Southeast Asian homeland.

Certainly, when I lived in China, I found out that the Chinese New Year’s fireworks there would have been unimaginable to anyone who only knew such explosions from American Chinatowns and their New Year’s parades.

In this case, the American celebrations do have some similarities to their Asian counterparts, as one can see on the Wikipedia pages for the festivals in  Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma.  But it’s likely that those in Asia don’t include specialty booths for selling Southeast Asian food, since everybody there already has it.

Nor would they have presentations from the local tree huggers giving away free saplings.

And I also wonder if they’d erect a big stage under a tent as the main venue for traditional dances and other arts expressions, as is so often  done in America.

So I’m of two minds about what I observed on that day. On the one mind, it could be that American McCulture is reducing those rich Asian traditions into a shallower diet that anybody can eat.

But on the other mind, it could be that these celebrations represent the Southeast Asian community taking the initiative and reaching out to the wider American population, using the “language” of McCulture, while at the same time reserving some of the more meaningful aspects of the festival to within that community itself. Perhaps the many festival roles of water and Buddhist monks, as well as many other aspects described at the above links, might be so reserved.

That’s the strength of America, where groups can maintain their deepest cultural expression amongst themselves, while also employing the shallower McCulture, as well as the rule of law, to coordinate between disparate groups and the wider population.  I mean, just about anybody can enjoy the occasional burger and fries, whether real or metaphorical. And jay-walking should be the same for everybody, except maybe for actual jays.

Growing up, I saw a bit of this duality within my own family group. This picture, taken over a hundred years ago (no, I didn’t take it myself), shows a group of Swedes in Portland, a group that my family is part of. They tended to stick together. A key element of this togetherness was traditional music and dancing. The man holding the accordion was key to this process. He knew all those old tunes which could bring the people together. He’s actually my own Swedish grandfather, who, at the time, was relatively recently arrived from the old country.

In more recent years, the Portland Swedish community continues to present Midsommar celebrations to the public every June.  Naturally they have booths selling Swedish food, as well as performances on a stage under a big  tent.

They sometimes squabble over how many craftspeople, either Scandinavian or non-Scandinavian,  should be allowed to sell their wares on the site.  This year they finally split on that question, so there will be two Midsommar celebrations — one limited to Scandinavian customs only and the other allowing various craftspeople and  vendors.

These are my grandfather’s old folding snapshot cameras.   I like to think that one of these was used to snap that picture of the group of Swedes above. The cameras sit on the rug in the living room of the Portland house that my grandparents built with their own four hands. It’s where I’m sitting now. The rug is still here.

When I was a kid, standing here in my grandparents’ dining room, I took a picture of that living room with  one of those cameras. Here it is:

The other camera is in the picture, if you can find it!

The room has some unusual features for its time. Originally there was an outdoor deck behind the fireplace, accessible through the two glass doors on either side. But there was no wall or door between the living room and the dining room – just a light frame, partly seen at left in the picture, to mark the boundary between the rooms.

So on weekend nights, my young grandparents would have invited the Swedish community to gather.  They rolled up the rugs to expose the hardwood floor. My grandfather struck up a dance tune on his accordion — a polka, a Schottishe, or another traditional tune.  And the double-room transformed into a single long dance hall, with a deck at the end to escape into the cool night air.

My mother, after growing up in that house, maintained that dancing  habit until her growing arthritis reigned it in. So when I composed the next tune  in my series for family and friends, I realized that only a new “traditional” dance tune, perhaps a Schottische, would do for her.  This tune I call “Mom’s Dance Party.”

My personal challenge was to include an entire section featuring a Lydian major scale (one of my favorites) while continuing to emphasize the third degree of the tonic scale which is so typical of Scandihoovian tunes. And in honor of John Coltrane, and because my mother also likes jazz, I inserted a Giant modulation down a major third and back.

The tune still needs some work (and practice), but one can sample its present condition by clicking on this photo of my grandfather posing with his accordion. And for those who want to try dancing to it, an instructional video has been posted here. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

So American society is like a patchwork quilt – a multicultural patchwork bound by the McCulture. This concept was not well understood by my students in China, which itself is very intentionally monocultural.  Well, multicultural is not easy.

America has always been multicultural, since even before its founding. In China, I sometimes explained it with this photo of the elementary school where I taught in California.

The students in the picture were celebrating their families’ respective countries of origin with flags, paper dolls, and dances. Some even brought family food (for the teachers).  I liked seeing the American flag in the heart of the arrangement, where it seems to draw in the others. I took this picture so long ago, that everyone in it is currently an adult, including the teachers. Hard to imagine that so much time has passed!

This picture surprised one of my Chinese students, who had to ask if this was really America, because “Where are the blondes?” Perhaps American movies haven’t projected an accurate picture of real America “on the ground.”  Actually, there had been some blondes at that school, just not in this picture, and not many.

His question reminded me of an American colleague, also teaching English in China. A young blonde woman, she had become engaged to a local Chinese man.  He had been accepted to the University of Chicago, so the following month they’d move to Illinois. “But first,” she said, “We’ll visit family in Iowa — to show him the real America.” (In contrast to Chicago, that is)

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You don’t think Iowa is the real America?”

I was stymied, unable to determine if she was kidding. “No,” I ventured.

“Oh,” she replied, confused. I guess she had actually been serious.

Now don’t get me wrong. The few people from Iowa that I have known have all been wonderful human beings. Anyone born in that state should feel proud of it. And by the way, I really liked the portrayal of Iowa from a hundred years ago in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.

And I should have answered “Yes, just as much as the rest of us.”

But it’s just that Iowans aren’t typical in a country where 85% of the population lives in big cities and suburbs, while the largest “city” in Iowa is a town of only a couple hundred thousand people. Most other Iowans dwell in the countryside, or in really small towns. And I imagine that even today  it’s not as multicultural as is typical for America.

So again, the urban Swedes and  Southeast Asians of Portland, as well as the denizens of Chicago, are just as “real American” as anybody else, and also more typical of America because of their living situations.

Well, the new president has ramped up vaccinations for Covid-19. About a third of the population has received at least one dose so far. Myself, my sister, my mother and my brother-in-law are all now vaccinated. What a relief!!

The last year’s Covid tragedies also inspired a lot of frustration. Our country, unlike some others, never really locked down to stamp out the virus. Over and again, cases were dropping because of mitigation efforts, and I’d find myself whispering under my breath, “Stay the course, stay the course, you’re almost there.” But they never did. Mitigations were lifted prematurely, and the virus persisted.

And so virus levels remained at relatively high levels all year, . Businesses and schools reopened only sporadically and undependably, whereas if we’d stayed the course longer in the first place, as was done, for example, in Australia, we could have basically been fully open almost the whole time, with less loss of life,  just as they’ve done down under.

So are Australians naturally more cooperative than Americans? It certainly looks that way. But  this case is not actually a difference in nature. One of our two major political parties, mainly representing a subset of ethnic groups called “white,” and egged on by their media allies, like Fox News, fashioned truth about the virus into a political issue, an opinion.  So in order to win the political argument, that the virus is “fake” or at least feeble, they don’t cooperate to solve the overall problem. It’s as if a set of patches from the ethnic quilt decided to rip themselves out and go their own way, weakening the warmth of the quilt.  So frustrating.

It reminds me of this Volkswagen “Beetle,” driven by one of my mother’s childhood friends, Beverly. (And yes, she’s Swedish). Her family lived in Orinda, about twenty miles from our home.  As a child, I once rode up there in that very same Beetle. Beverly’s husband drove. My father sat next to him, and assorted kids filled the back seat. He wanted  to show my dad how well the car cornered, so we took Redwood Road, which has curves aplenty, as seen in a video somebody posted.

Well, we kids had never felt such centrifugal force from inside a car before. It was like one of those county fair rides.  When the car curved right, we smashed left. When it curved left, we smashed right. It was great fun, and I remember laughing hysterically while preparing for the next smash — always more powerful than the last one.

But we hadn’t taken into consideration the effect of that smashing movement on the car’s stability. I mean, cars are big, right? They maintain their position on the road, right? After one particularly powerful smash sent the car tipping part way into the other lane, the adults in the front seats turned as one to scream, “Stop it.”

The lesson for us kids was to calm down, hold our positions to stabilize the vehicle and avoid fatal accidents.  However, I only learned that lesson much later when reflecting back on the experience.  At the time, my attention focused on playing, I only learned that some adults are big fuddy-duddies who don’t want kids to have fun.

So almost half of all Republicans, about a fifth of our population, presently refuses to get vaccinated. They’re also more likely to contract the disease.  I’m worried, then, that the time of pandemic disease will be lengthened in our country. But at least I’m not worried about myself and my family. We’re all vaccinated.  And perhaps there will be more unused vaccine to send overseas.  Here’s hoping that everyone reading this note will also be vaccinated.