Mexican Gothic

Photo by Antonio Alcántara on Unsplash

Silvia Moreno-Garcia lives in Vancouver, Canada, but often writes novels set in Mexico, such as Gods of Jade and Shadow. In Mexican Gothic she tells the story of a socialite, Noemí, who is both frivolous and strong. When she is not eluding a besotted suitor or attending an elite social event, Noemí’s main ambition in life is to go college, which defies the roles allotted to a 1950’s Mexican woman. But in the opening chapter the family faces a crisis. Her cousin Catalina had married into a family that lived in a remote mountain village. After the wedding she began to make disturbing accusations about her husband. Noemí’s dad didn’t know the truth, and decided to dispatch his daughter to find out. If she would take on this task, he would fund her tuition. 

All Gothic novels are about the past intruding into the future. In this case, this is not only a Gothic novel, but also a post-colonial one. When Noemí arrives in the remote mountains, she soon begins to learn the family legacy that stains every aspect of the strange house. She hears about the mines, and the workers’s suffering. And she learns about the eugenics and racism of the family patriarch, an Anglo-Saxon grafted into Mexico’s mountains. The fact that Catalina’s husband is named Virgil is no accident. It’s no coincidence, as well, that Noemí finds help in an elderly woman and herbal doctor, who draws on the region’s botanical resources and Indigenous knowledge.

Despite its Mexican ambiance, while reading the work I soon wondered if the novel didn’t deliberately refer to a story by the 1930’s author of the fantastic and horror, H.P. Lovecraft. Without giving away too much away, part of the plot seemed to draw on a short story set in one particular house in Providence, which you can still walk by. A little digging let me know that not only had Moreno-Garcia written her thesis on Lovecraft’s work, but also that she named the character Howard in this novel after him. 

Besides evoking Lovecraft, Moreno-Garcia brilliantly describes the claustrophobia and menace that surrounded the house. The key element that defined this space was that it was unwelcoming, from the frigid dame who defined its rules, to the molding rooms within the house itself. The house itself became a character, with a sense of history that appealed to some characters, and menaced others. With its rich writing, odd characters, and tense climax, this book will please everyone who likes horror or Gothic novels. 

I now nominate the author to now write a series of novels drawing on Latin American folklore, which should include El Sombrerón, El Cuco, la Sayona, Amazonian dolphin spirits, as well as the sacred trail, Peabiru. And if Guillermo del Toro should read this blog, will you please option a movie based on this wonderful novel as quickly as possible?

My favorite fun fact about the novel: there is a paper doll kit for the main character on the Random House website. 

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Where things went right: Bhutan and COVID-19

Photo by Kinshuk Bose on Unsplash

After so much bad news about COVID-19 globally, it helps to hear about a place that managed to vaccinate its entire population. Bhutan not only did so, but this remarkable job was done in weeks. Fortunately, this task was completed before the Delta variant of COVID-19 washed over both India and Nepal. But the story of this vaccination campaign -which was timed based on the advice of astrologers and guidance from monks- is a remarkable one, as is Bhutan’s health care system. I want to thank Paula Heimberg, a doctor who volunteered in Bhutan, for this interview in my podcast, Dispatch 7.

Shawn Smallman

Dispatch 7 podcast: a new episode on Post-revolutionary Iran

Robert Asaadi is my colleague at Portland State University, and an amazing teacher, who has won teaching awards in both the Political Science and International and Global Studies department. He recently talked with me about Post-revolutionary Iran, and the future of US-Iranian relations. He also touched on many other topics, including the key question: what are some key Iranian dishes that we should try? You can listen to the episode here. I am trying to move to a more consistent episode schedule, in which I post episodes every second Friday. In upcoming episodes I’ll be talking with doctors. One doctor will discuss COVID-19 in Bhutan (it’s nice to hear good news), while a Brazilian doctor will discuss COVID-19 in their country, including Amazonia. Many thanks to my producer, Paige, not only for all the sound-editing, but also for helping me to get on a schedule.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Photo by Omid Armin on Unsplash

The strange trip from Chronic Fatigue to long COVID

Every pandemic leaves in its wake people who survived, but were changed by their infection. The most famous example of this is likely encephalitis lethargica, which famously reduced some people to living in a near coma after they survived the 1918 influenza pandemic. For decades some people have been arguing that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (and perhaps chronic Lyme disease) are also caused by viruses and bacteria, which cause immense but hidden damage in the body. These sequelae endure after the initial infection subsides. Over the last several months many people who were infected by COVID-19 have developed long COVID, a syndrome that remains a medical mystery. One of my favorite new podcasts is Unexplainable, which looks at scientific mysteries. Their recent episode, “The Viral Ghosts of Long COVID” paints an unsettling picture of this disorder. The podcast begins with someone describing the long term effects of their Ebola infection, which closely resemble the symptoms reported by COVID survivors. Many people now wonder whether more research on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome earlier might not have made us better prepared to face this new challenge now.

Shawn Smallman

The odd reasons for Taiwan’s COVID-19 outbreak

I am fortunate to be a Taiwan Fellow this fall. I plan to study Taiwan’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak at National Taiwan University starting this September, where I am being hosted by the global health program. I just received my visa to travel to Taiwan last week. Unfortunately, there is currently a growing outbreak in Taipei. I first heard of it last week, when I was talking with my conversational partner in Taiwan. At that time, she said that the outbreak was still relatively small, as it involved perhaps thirty individuals. But this morning I had an email and a text -the latter of which was sent to everyone who recently received a visa- to say that Taiwan is halting all travel to the island, except for residents. I am hopeful that Taiwan will soon have the situation back under control. But what happened?

Taiwan received human intelligence about the outbreak in China in December 2019. Taiwan acted quickly, in part because it’s political leaders remembered the SARS outbreak in 2003. Since that time, it has used digital apps for contact tracing, mandatory quarantine hotels for travelers, and an effective public health system to contain COVID. Then some odd things happened. Angelica Oung has written a fascinating story (How Taiwan Finally Fell) recounting how a Taiwanese hotel decided to offer a tourism package so that Taiwanese could stay in a hotel near the airport and watch the flights land and depart from their rooms. The local tourism board even advertised this. Although the people were housed on different floors from airplane crews, somehow infected pilots and crews spread the virus to the domestic tourists. After nine pilots tested positive the domestic tourists apparently found out that they had been staying at a quarantine hotel by watching the TV news. But by this point some infected people attended a Lion’s Club meeting, went to karaoke, and then attended “Grandpa shops/tea parlors” in which older women sexually catered to a senior clientele. Genomic testing revealed that everyone with COVID-19 had been infected by the same English variant. …

Singapore’s strange ad to vaccinate

Photo by Pang Yuhao on Unsplash

All around the developed world nations and local governments are trying to persuade people to go have a COVID-19 vaccination. Where I live, I am flooded with ads, which are mostly politicians and public health authorities. These ads mostly have a talking head format, so they don’t have a lot of visual interest. And no catchy songs. Then there is Singapore’s approach.

Singapore’s most recent ad highlights a comic duo, a musical number, uni-color background shots, Singlish and dance. I’m not sure where I first read about this two minute ad, but it shows another approach to public health communication. Here in the United States, I hope that we’ll see ads with football quarterbacks, basketball players, religious leaders, movie stars, musicians and others. People need to see spokespeople supporting the vaccine who aren’t epidemiologists. And maybe somebody else could do a musical about vaccinating. “Steady pom pi pi” everyone.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Photo by Pang Yuhao on Unsplash

The best source for COVID-19 information?

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

Who would have guessed that one of the best sources for regular and reliable COVID-19 information would be a retired nurse teacher in northern England? By this point in the pandemic, one would expect that the last thing that anyone would want to hear would be more news about COVID-19. Yet people turn in daily for Dr. John Campbell’s YouTube update, which usually feature Winston -a stuffed dog- wearing a mask in the background. One of the reasons that the show is so popular is Campbell’s English humor, his guests from different parts of the world, and his concise description of major trends in the pandemic. I don’t know that I always agree with all that Dr. Campbell suggests, such as the strength of the evidence for vitamin D being advantageous. But I enjoyed watching him debate the issue with a vitamin D skeptic, who was also a leading researcher in this field. Such reasoned and respectful academic debate is too rare now.

As I write these words, the situation in India is truly dire. I’ve just been texting with a friend in the country, who said that so many bodies are being burned that their city is covered in smog. The Daily, a news podcast of the Times, has a remarkable episode about what is happening in India now. As an article in Canada’s National Post suggests, India’s experience is a warning to the rest of the world about what can happen if a nation becomes overconfident that they have managed the pandemic. But India is not alone, as COVID-19 cases are also surging in Chile, despite a high level of vaccination with a Chinese vaccine. In the United States numbers are in a steady decline, despite an uptick in both Colorado and Oregon. But we still have a long way to go in this pandemic. In many parts of the world, such as Thailand and Cambodia, the situation is worsening. And Japan is still holding the Olympics, even though most of the country’s citizens do not want to host it. I recommend John Campbell’s YouTube channel for anyone who wants to stay current with COVID-19 news.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Why I love online language learning platforms

Photo by Joel Naren on Unsplash

What is the best way to study a language? I’ve been studying Mandarin since January of 2016. I recently won a Taiwan Fellowship, which means that I’ll be working at the National University in Taipei this fall. Since my Chinese is still just lower intermediate, I have two Chinese lessons a week to try to prepare. I also have one Portuguese lesson a week, so that I can maintain my speaking skills. Once COVID-19 permits, I’ll be traveling to Lisbon and Macao to do archival research on the 1918 influenza pandemic. For this reason, I spend a lot of time each week on language study. And I’ve fallen in love with online learning platforms, particularly italki, although I know there are other excellent ones such as Verbling. To be clear- I have no financial stake in any of these platforms, and I don’t get any funding whatsoever from them.

You certainly don’t need to use these platforms to find excellent instructors. I had two kind and patient Chinese teachers before I moved to italki. I think that the friendship that I developed with them partly explains why I have stuck with learning Chinese over the years. But when my last teacher left the United States, I needed to find someone else. And it was in the midst of the pandemic, so the sessions couldn’t be face to face. I tried italki, and fell in love with the platform for a number of reasons:

  1. On italki you can search for a teacher from a specific region, using a pull-down menu in the upper left of your screen. Since I knew that I would be traveling to Taipei, I wanted to find someone from Taiwan. That way I could begin to learn traditional characters, and become familiar with the Taiwanese accent. The freedom to decide that you want to find a Chinese teacher in Malaysia -if for some reason that location is important to you- is really helpful. You can also find someone to teach almost any language that you can imagine, and from any world region.
  2. Every teacher has a brief video talking about their teaching style, as well as a bit about themselves. It is intimidating to find a teacher. You want someone who you feel that you will be comfortable with, and who matches your best approach to learning. It’s interesting how much you can get a sense of someone based on a short video.
  3. You can have different teachers for different needs. Currently, I have lessons with someone completing a master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language. Her classes focus on grammar. She’s an outstanding teacher, and I really enjoy the structure of her classes. She sends me a worksheet with vocab and grammar points in Google Docs each week, so I have material to study between tutoring sessions. At the same time, I also wanted someone who could be a conversational partner. So I have a second teacher with whom I meet once a week just to talk. Since speaking and listening are the two skills that I most want to develop, this session is not only fun but also a good way to test my progress. I also find that during a pandemic it’s a welcome time for social interaction.
  4. The prices are reasonable. You can see what each tutor charges per hour when you decide to schedule class. Most will let you have a first class at a reduced rate so that you can decide first if you’re comfortable studying with them. You can also choose the length of your classes. My grammar class is 45 minutes, but my conversation class is just a half hour. Personally, I prefer shorter classes because I start to lose focus after a half hour. With these platforms you can find classes at an inexpensive price, and set the length of your classes based on your needs and budget. Of courses classes with conversational partners are cheaper than classes with someone with graduate level training to teach a language.
  5. Freedom. I really like the flexibility of scheduling as many classes as I want, and at times that I want. When you want to book a time with a tutor you just go to their calendar, and find a time that they have available on their schedule. If it’s a quieter week, I can book two grammar classes. I’ve loved learning with both my online tutors. But it’s not awkward if you want to switch tutors; you just stop scheduling classes, since you sign up for them individually.

All that said, I also feel that I have a deeper relationship with my first Chinese teachers, whom I didn’t meet on italki. That may just be because I’ve known them for much longer, or perhaps I was just lucky to meet people with whom I formed a bond. Still, for all the practical reasons above, if you are a language learner, I’d really recommend trying an online learning platform.

As an aside for any Chinese language learners out there, I’ve learned that many common words from the HSK vocabulary list (HSK refers to the Chinese language levels recognized by the Chinese government) aren’t in regular usage in Taiwan, which I didn’t expect. My Taiwanese tutors usually kind of know what they mean, but wouldn’t typically use them in day to day conversation. So a restaurant is “can1ting1 餐廳” not fan4guan3. I keep coming across words like that when I try to use a HSK 2 vocab word, and one of my italki tutors gives me a confused look back. There really are advantages to having language teachers from more than one location.

However you choose to study another language, just don’t stop. There are no shortcuts. It’s all about the time.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

Chocolate in an age of COVID

Photo by Nathana Rebouças on Unsplash

I want to thank Prof. Kim Brown for this guest post:

Can a person be too interested in chocolate?  I think not.  We can see all dimensions of issues in international and global studies through the omniscient chocolate bar.  This time of the pandemic once again reveals the fragile nature of the lives of cocoa producers, their product, and consumers. This post explores what has happened to cocoa and chocolate during the past 14 months. 

While major multinational companies such as Cargill, Mars, Wrigley, Kraft, and Callebaut continue to publicly endorse responsible sourcing and long term planning for sustainability, they are not always able to achieve their goals.  The pandemic has made these goals particularly unattainable. Even as members of the confectionery industry remain committed to key goals –vanquishing child labor and land deforestation, providing better attention to the needs of women farmers and guaranteeing a living wage to farmers– the past 13  months have seen few achievements in these areas. Nevertheless smaller projects have seen success. For example, Barry Callebaut has provided support to African Startup Seekewa. Divine Chocolate has underwritten literacy programs in Ghana.

Product prices have fallen and the two countries producing 60% of the world’s chocolate –Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire– face not only falling prices but a surplus of cocoa brought on by COVID in the past 14 months. Initiatives to ensure farmers receive a living wage remain in place.  Plans are good but implementation is not always successful. A key example in this area is the Living Income Differential levied in the amount of $400 per ton proposed in both countries. It is designed to offset current low global prices. In central American producing areas such as Guatemala and Honduras, small farmers have struggled to get their products to market. 

For those interested in more information about chocolate, I would encourage you to consider subscribing to Confectionary News. While this is an official newsletter of the industry, it curates a wide range of information on everything chocolate from industry reports to NGO reports.  One of particular interest at this moment might be the Easter Scorecard from Be Slavery Free. This annual report in infographic form profiles how well roughly 20 chocolate producers are doing in areas from Fair Trade to child labor, to deforestation and providing a living income to farmers. It is also possible to work through global websites that detail statistics, trends, and follow the cost of COVID..  They include The International Cocoa Organization (ICCO), Confectionery News profiled above, and The Cocoa Initiative.

If you prefer podcasts and Twitter, Oliver Nieberg who has a number of rich podcasts about the industry has now moved to Lumina Intelligence and directs the Sustainable Food and Drink podcast. There are also powerful films including the 2012 film Shady Chocolate Business

On the supply chain end of things, niche marketing and futures predictions have given small chocolatiers a run for their money over the past 13 months. In spite of this, we see trends such as less plastic packaging, more biodegradable packaging especially on the part of the larger companies, and an increase in various types of vegan chocolate.  Companies such as Nestle have introduced a chocolate bar with no added sugar, only cocoa fruit and pulp. It is the Incoa chocolate bar, currently only available in France and the Netherlands. Other companies are infusing new ingredients from ancient sources such as baobab powder.  

Those of us working from home seem to have discovered more and more chocolate to buy but as we return to the workforce outside our homes it remains to be seen what we will do. In any case, keeping track of the chocolate bars around us is a very appropriate activity for consumers, researchers, and activists. 

Kim Brown, Portland State University

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash

New podcast episode: Fieldwork with Syrian refugees in Izmir, Turkey

I want to thank Mija Sanders, who talks about her experiences interviewing Syrian refugees in Izmir, Turkey in the latest episode of my podcast, Dispatch 7. This city is a major transit point in the movement of Syrians to Europe. Many people have an interesting story about the challenges that they faced starting their doctoral fieldwork. But I think that few people can have had such a dramatic start to their fieldwork as Mija.

Shawn Smallman

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