Archive for the ‘culture’ Category
Some 35 years ago a new science was born. Now called cognitive science, it combines tools from psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neurobiology to explain the workings of human intelligence. The science of language, in particular, has seen spectacular advances in the years since.
Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct 1994.
The above words, from over 20 years ago, now seem a little overblown. My experience as a general absorber of sciency stuff suggests that it’s still a bit premature to speak of a science of language, but of course we know more about it than ever before. My hope is to bring whatever knowledge I can glean from some of the fields mentioned above to my understanding of language in general, and second language acquisition in particular, with a view to helping others to acquire the English language, which is my job.
My method is to start in medias res, as an innocent little fish dropped into the vast ocean of knowledge about the subject that I hope and expect to find online and elsewhere.
My first encounter as I bob about in this ocean, is this video, which introduces me to what the speaker calls ‘the zone of proximal development’, and the ‘five stages of second language acquisition’. On a slide, the zone of proximal development (ZPD, in case I need to refer to it again) is defined as ‘the difference between what a student can do without help and what a student can do with help’. The speaker, Jane Hill, a Managing Consultant for English Language Learner Effectiveness, starts by telling SLA educators that they would benefit their students by teaching not only content but ‘the academic language of the content’, and presumably this ZPD is part of that academic language, as will be the five stages, not yet enunciated.
I have to say that in my fifteen years or so of teaching ESOL I’ve never mentioned the ZPD, nor any 5 stages, to learners. I do have a vague memory of coming across this ZPD concept years ago, but it obviously didn’t stick particularly well. Not surprisingly, if the definition given above is a generally accepted one, for it makes little sense to me – but I won’t dwell on that for now, except to say that I might look up this ZPG notion elsewhere to see if a better definition or elaboration of it can be found. Hill herself does elaborate further, by saying that we should know ‘where students are, and where they’re capable of working to with the help of a knowledgeable other’, and I find this more comprehensible but still problematic. We try to find out where learners are by listening to and reading (and assessing) their productions, and testing their reception of our productions and the productions of others (e.g. English texts). This isn’t always an easy process as their production and reception can vary from day to day and between tasks. And surely it’s even harder to find out ‘where they’re capable of working to’. This is partly because learners are in our class for only a matter of weeks and it’s hard to measure or even to discern progress. The better students seem uniformly and constantly to be at a higher level than the strugglers who seem constantly and uniformly struggling. Test scores aren’t a straightforward indication of progress as each test is different and some, such as essay tests, have a strong element of subjectivity in assessment. SLA, for most adult learners, is a long, slow and partial process, it seems to me.
So, with these doubts and uncertainties in mind I’ll continue with Hill’s slightly annoying presentation of the five stages of SLA. Annoying because of the condescending infant-teacherly tone and because she’s clearly presenting them as facts to be poured into us rather than as someone’s theory. Anyway, she begins with what she describes as a modelling of good teaching. She introduces the five stages of SLA (concepts which we as learners aren’t aware of) by connecting them to the five stages of first language acquisition, concepts which we are apparently familiar with (though I for one have never heard of this breakdown of my language acquisition into five stages – but I’m keen to learn!).
Hill starts by gushingly asking us to remember how our kids acquire their first language. I’ve never had kids, but I’ve certainly observed them, and with great interest, so I can cheerfully concur with her slide-supported enumeration:
- preproduction – about 9 months (no verbalisation, minimal comprehension, some yes & no head movements, some pointing and gesturing)
- early production – about 12-14 months (limited comprehension, one- or two-word responses, use of keywords & familiar phrases, present tense only)
- speech emergence – age?? (good comprehension, simple sentence production, grammar and pronunciation errors, misunderstands jokes)
- intermediate fluency – age? (excellent comprehension, few grammatical errors)
- advanced fluency – (near-native usage)
However, no linguistic prizes for guessing this is just a handful of post stages picked out in the continuous process from no language to full language production, with 5 being a more or less arbitrary number. The ZPG seems too vague a concept to be of much practical use, and in all my years of teaching I’ve never heard a colleague fretting over how to get a learner over the early production stage into speech emergence, say. Another problem is that this admittedly bare-bones presentation says nothing about the difference between SLA and learning the L1, except to say that the stages are similar, but not exactly the same. But it seems to me the differences are very significant.
The difficulty I’m becoming aware of here is a very scary one. I don’t think I’ll be able to make much headway in understanding SLA without understanding language itself and how we acquire it. And I suspect that nobody fully understands that.
Pinker has argued that language is an instinct, something innate, which we don’t learn, or not in any straightforward way, from our parents, or by mimesis. Yet it’s surely clear that without an environment of language speakers we’d get nowhere. A child brought up by wolves, if there ever was one, would not be able to speak a language, because she hasn’t had the opportunity to learn one, and I’ve heard that children deprived of that opportunity during a certain crucial period in childhood are unlikely to become effective language users thereafter. The near-miraculous thing is that children become sophisticated language users very quickly, and I’m interested in the neurological processes involved, as well as whether our understanding of those neurological processes can help with developing effective SLA.
So language is certainly something learned, but there’s something about us that makes us primed, so to speak, to pick up one of the 7000 or so fully grammarised (if there’s such a word) languages. We also learn to walk, but I wonder how we’d go if we weren’t surrounded from earliest childhood by fully adept walkers whose ambulatory achievements and successes we’re naturally keen to emulate. And in a way, I’m answering my own query – we learn language because we hear it all around us, and we want to share in that human experience, to be like them, because we see clearly, though in a sense unconsciously, the obvious advantages of that communication system. It gets us somewhere in the human world.
I’m also interested in this whole concept of grammar. I’ve read, though without quite grasping it, that children can create grammar out of non-grammatical (or perhaps partially grammatical) pidgin, a collection of keywords cobbled together in the intersection of two languages for the purpose of needful communication. ‘Research’ has found that the children of pidgin users are able to create from these fragments a full-blown grammatical creole, as if by magic. This has been cited by Pinker and others as evidence for an innate faculty. I need, obviously, to learn more about such research and the various interpretations of it.
I don’t want to forget embodiment either. I’ve been very encouraged in my practice lately, teaching EGP, the lowest level of academic English (actually pre-pre-academic English), by responses to certain simple tasks. I’ve asked learners to come out the front and act out simple sentences, with gestures and facial expressions. These are students who generally have difficulty in forming complete grammatical sentences. So they come out and try saying, for example, ‘Hello class, I want to tell you about a really funny movie I saw on the weekend’, accompanied by laughter, hand-on-chest gestures and what-not. Humour, sadness, fear, anger and so on can all be acted out to the accompaniment of a simple sentence, and what I’ve found is that, after a few practice runs, they become more articulate and confident when they express themselves this way. The words come out with less effort, it seems, when they’re concentrating on the emotion, and I get the impression that they’ve taken some sort of ownership of some English speech acts. I’d be interested to find if there is any work being done to confirm these impressions I have of embodied SLA. It’s not much, perhaps, in the mountainous task of facilitating SLA, but it’s something positive.
Jacinta: So it’s been a while, but let’s return to that fascinating movie about identity, ambition, entrapment and dislocation, Limi Girl.
Canto: After this poignant moment when Xiumei and Heigo recognise the difficulty of living independently, of controlling the forces around them, Heigo announces his arranged marriage to Shugio – ‘but it’s you I want to marry.’ When Xiumei rather cruelly ticks him off about this, he apologises, says he was joking.
Jacinta: And he clearly wasn’t, poor fellow. He’s fighting a losing battle.
Canto: Men chase, women choose. Desperately, he warns her that going to college is no guarantee of a good future. But she’s resolute in her irresolute way – it’s the closest thing to her dream. She walks off, leaving him to wonder if the chase is off.
Jacinta: In the next scene we see Shugio at home, apparently mixing farm work with school work – first writing on a blackboard (there appears to be a calculator on the table), then sifting some kind of foodstuff, then reading some paper. It looks she might be learning some basic literacy and numeracy. She looks happy, no doubt dreaming of her marriage, till she sees Xiumei go by at the bottom of the hill, followed by Heigo. It’s more like a funeral procession than a chase, though. Angrily, she throws a basin of water down towards him.
Canto: Poor Heigo’s not too popular with the womenfolk. The next scene is quite obscure for non-Mandarin speakers. Heigo’s home with young Gaidi, having cooked her dinner. He finds her absorbed in watching a Chinese TV program with a lot of people staring at the Chinese flag, with a soothing voice-over. Looks like propaganda. He turns away, looking slightly perturbed.
Jacinta: Yes, don’t know what to make of it. But in the next scene Gaidi is in bed with her aunt, and has woken up in the middle of the night. She says she wants to go to school. To college in Szichuan, like Xiumei. To find her mother and father. So presumably the program she was watching has influenced her. Her aunt isn’t sympathetic. Shugio didn’t go to school and is having a good life. Xiumei, on the other hand… besides, she doesn’t have the money to waste on such things.
Canto: So Xiumei is being denigrated, but the more aspirational, such as Gaidi, see her as an inspiration. In the next scene, Xiumei is out with her fellow-villagers, all female, working in the ‘fields ‘(actually tough, wooded mountainsides) digging up fleece-flower roots (used in TCM – traditional Chinese medicine – and therefore of very doubtful efficacy). One of the girls steals a root that she has dug up, leading to a confrontation. Another girl joins in and they mock the ‘college student’, who finally storms off, vowing to go back to college. Clearly there’s jealousy here, and a fear/dislike of ‘difference’, typical of a traditional culture.
Jacinta: I’m interested in these fleece-flower roots. Apparently they’re used for hair growth by ‘increasing blood circulation’, but that was on a beauty site. A google search turns up numerous sites, none of them particularly trustworthy in my estimation. A Chinese site states this, in quite scientific-sounding, if garbled, language:
Modern researches showed that fleeceflower root has effects in lowering blood lipids and sugar, preventing atherosclerosis, immune enhancement [?], expanding blood vessels, promoting adrenal gland secretion and blood cell productions, smooth heart and brain circulations [?], protecting liver functioning, enhancing neural and bowel transmissions [wow?!], promoting hair growth, anti-septic and anti-aging [?].
All of which sounds absurdly impressive, but the reference it provides takes us nowhere. Still, I hope it really is the good oil, for the Limi people’s sake…
Canto: Yes, there are no reliable scientific treatments of this ‘superflower’ on the search list, and Wikipedia merely tells us that ‘fleeceflower’ is a common name for several different plants, so it’ll be a tough job getting to the truth of it all. And the fact that this somewhat marginalised culture is relying, at least in part, on these doubtful TCM products for survival is another worrisome sign.
Jacinta: I like the way Xiumei stands up for herself when she’s mocked. She’s always feisty. So she heads back home with her donkey, but when she stops to drink at a stream, her donkey jogs off, after shrugging off its load – baskets full of plants. Xiumei has to carry the load herself. Meanwhile Gaidi, who recovers her donkeys, sets out with Haigo to find and help her. They find her struggling uphill with her baskets. Heigo chides her for ‘being like this’ – presumably referring to her stubborn independence. Xiumei, exhausted, complains tearfully that everybody, even the animals, are bullying her. Nevertheless she lets herself be ‘rescued’ by her ‘sister’ and her suitor. They ride off on what appears to be the village motorbike.
Canto: Yes, a most versatile machine, now carrying three people and a couple of hefty baskets. Next we see Shugio, again doing physical work – she appears to have a herbal medicine-type business operating from home – together with some kind of study, as she examines papers. She sees Heigo arrive from her window, with baskets, and looks pissed off. Heigo announces that he has come to sell herbs. Shugio’s angry because she knows the herbs have been harvested by her arch-rival Xiumei. She agrees to buy the stuff but – never again! Heigo then returns with the empty baskets to Xiumei and Gaidi, who are hiding round the corner. He hands Xiumei the money from Shugio, then tries to talk her out of trying to earn money for her education in such a piecemeal, grinding way. This time young Gaidi speaks up, defending her ‘sister’ and announcing that she too will earn money by her hard work, so that she can go to college in Sichuan and find her parents. Still Heigo insists on giving Xiumei some money, which she reluctantly accepts via Gaidi.
Jacinta: And these scenes highlight the interconnectedness of village life, where enemies must still have commercial connections, where one person’s actions influence another’s – everyone is in each other’s way, and co-operation is necessary for survival.
Canto: So the trio ride off again on the motorbike, taking Xiumei home, apparently with Shugio’s blessing, though Heigo claims, probably rightly, that she’s only faking civility.
Jacinta: Next we see that Xiumei and Gaidi have been dropped off, and then the two females separate, at a kind of outdoor entrance constructed of wood. I’m fascinated by the depictions of rural life here – everything is indoor-outdoor, a far cry from our constructed indoor worlds. Anyway, it seems the pair live side by side, but not together. Or maybe Gaidi is just seeing her elder ‘sister’ to the door.
Canto: In the next scene we have book-burning, always a bad sign, and a heavy symbol. Xiumei’s father is angrily tearing up her college books and throwing them into the fire. Her mother rescues some of them, then Xiumei arrives and protests passionately. Her father, half-brought to his senses, half-relents and stomps off. Her mother consoles her, defends her tormented husband, and brings news of the village gossip. She shouldn’t be hanging out with the engaged Heigo, and she should reconsider all this college malarky. Xiumei, devastated and tearful at all these forces arrayed against her, sobs out that she ‘will not submit to fate’.
Jacinta: It’s another powerful yet low-key moment. I want to shout for her and I want to cry. How well this captures the struggles of the poor. No, not the poor, but those trapped in a web of culture, a culture that understandably wants to maintain itself as it has been for centuries, huddled in a sense with its back to the changing, widening and deepening world around it. We often see these cultures, off-handedly, as lacking, smothering – their shared knowledge of soil, seasons and locality irrelevant to the modern world. Xiumei is half-keen to strip off that knowledge and take on modern clothing, but she’ll inevitably be caught between two worlds and may not succeed or be happy in either.
Canto: Well meanwhile life and the movie goes on. In the next scene, Xiumei’s tormented father visits her as she sleeps in her bedroom, tries to make sense of the schoolbooks there, the posters on her wall, and tucks her in gently. Next morning, Heigo is waiting on his motorbike to take Xiumei to the fields, but she ignores him, saddling up her donkey. As she passes him, she says that his fiancée should ‘watch her mouth’ – presumably it’s Shugio who’s spreading the gossip – and her father later shouts to him a reminder that he’s due to be married (the poor sod), and he also reminds him who the motorbike belongs to.
Jacinta: Yes, but without telling the viewers. Who does that bloody bike belong to? Maybe it’s a community bike. Maybe he’s reminding Heigo of the community values he’s apparently trashing as he chases Xiumei while being engaged more or less against his will to Shugio. The cultural web is doing its ensnaring job.
A conversation between ‘apocalypse man’ Sam Harris and Gad Saad (evolutionary psychologist and producer of a Youtube channel critiquing inter alia various shibboleths of the left), together with some overheard comments at my workplace, as well as other promptings, has led me to consider writing about some major issues confronting our increasingly secular society and it maintenance…
As everyone knows, in Australia as in other western countries, the influx of refugees from such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, relatively small though it has been, has ignited a response of what has been called ‘Islamophobia’ amongst a certain sector of the public. This is of course connected to a more generalised xenophobia and nationalism. My own response to all this has been a fairly unconcerned dismissiveness, though coloured by a definite distaste for such items as the niqab, and such customs as the strict segregation of males and females, which I’ve long been exposed to as a teacher of English to Arabic-speaking families. Insofar as I gave it thought, I tended to believe that the children of these immigrants would become more drawn to western secularism and everything would be more or less hunky dory. But the more I read, listen and observe, the less sanguine I’ve become about all that. We may need to defend secularism more robustly in the future.
I think it’s true, though dangerous, to say that the greatest threat to secularism today is Islam. Previously, I’m not sure that I’ve been able to admit this, even to myself – even though it’s been articulated clearly enough by concerned thinkers I admire, such as Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So now it’s time to face the issue more resolutely and to think about solutions.
Here’s an example that illustrates the problem. In my workplace as a TESOL educator, dealing with mostly Chinese students, together with a substantial proportion of Vietnamese and Arabic speakers, I have a colleague who is an Israeli-born Muslim. She doesn’t wear any kind of head-dress or make any outward display to show that she believes in Islam, she is very professional and hard-working, and she’s very well-liked by and supportive of her colleagues. In fact, in the first few months of working there, having heard that she was born in Israel, I assumed naturally enough that she was Jewish. Only later did I learn that her native language was Arabic, and even then I wasn’t sure whether she was a practising Muslim. In fact apostate Muslims are rare, but as a sometime member of atheist and humanist groups I do encounter them, and this has probably skewed my views on the possibility of abandoning Islam for those born into it. In any case, three experiences in recent months have brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with even the most apparently liberal Muslims on issues which, for virtually all secular liberals, are no-brainers. First, during a brief staff-room discussion of the marriage equality plebiscite being mooted here in Australia, she quietly stated that ‘we think homosexuality is wrong’. Second, on a video I watched in which she was assessing a seminar on political violence given by a student, she quietly, and very briefly, stated her doubts about the truth of the holocaust (it’s unlikely that her students had the language skills to comprehend her comment). Third, in another staff room discussion, she stated that ‘we don’t believe in evolution’. So herein lies the problem. It is, and I think plenty of research bears this out, a standard view of even the most liberal Muslims, that homosexuality should not be allowed, that natural selection is false and shouldn’t be taught, and that Jews are liars, or worse, and can’t be trusted.
These views are a part of identity politics, hence the regular use of ‘we’ in their delivery. Intelligent though my colleague is, I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t be able to explain the mechanism of natural selection from random variation that’s the basis of our understanding of life on earth, nor would she be able to give a detailed explanation of how the holocaust ‘myth’ became widespread, or of why homosexuality is so wrong. My guess is that her very being, as part of a rigid collective consciousness, would be threatened if she disavowed these beliefs, and it’s the collective consciousness of Islam that’s my main concern here. Of course this consciousness isn’t absolute, because if it were there would be no apostates and no possibility of apostasy. However, it’s also very powerful and compelling, because if it wasn’t the opprobrium and the violence meted out to apostates wouldn’t be so extreme. So the situation in the Muslim world bears similarities to that of the Christian world in Europe before sceptical individuals such as Cristovao Ferreira, Jean Meslier and Julien de La Mettrie began to proliferate in the eighteenth century – a situation that prevailed for over a thousand years. However, there are important differences between contemporary Muslim collective consciousness and the Christian variety that’s now fast disappearing in Europe. The most important difference, of course, is that European Christendom wasn’t faced with the external pressure of sophisticated societies on its borders, demanding trade deals and seeking to impose universal, largely secular values more or less in exchange. So today there is very much a clash of cultures, though probably not as described in various books on the subject (none of which I’ve read). It’s quite possible, though by no means certain, that this clash, and the greater fluidity of human movement in the 21st century, will speed up the process of change, of a Muslim enlightenment, in coming decades, but there seems little sign of that at present.
So what with Muslim identity politics and no Muslim enlightenment on the horizon, issues arise with respect to immigration, multiculturalism and the like. And I have to say I’m very much torn on this issue. On the one hand I’m disgusted by our former PM Tony Abbott’s portrayal of Syrian refugees as largely economic migrants who need to be turned back if their lives are not in immediate danger, despite the worse than horrendous conditions they suffer under. On the other hand I recognise the difficulty and the danger of accepting people who have been living on a diet of violence and hatred for decades into a peaceful country. The evidence is clear that though the majority of these refugees want nothing more than to find a peaceful place to restart their lives, there will be a certain percentage that bring their grievances with them, and most disturbingly their long-held grievances against western values.
So this is one of the biggest problems facing western society currently. As I’ve said, I’ve tended to minimise the problem in my own mind up till now. After all, Muslims make up only about 2.5% of the Australian population and haven’t caused too many problems as yet (with apologies to the families of Tory Johnson, Katrina Dawson and Curtis Cheng), and my own experience of Muslim residents and students here, which has been quite considerable of late, has been almost entirely positive. However, events in Europe and the USA in recent years give cause for grave concern, as have statistics relating to the growth of Islam worldwide. While projections about the growth of Islam in the the future are never going to be entirely reliable, being based on a host of assumptions, it’s pretty clear that it’s growing faster than Christianity or any other major religion. This has more to do with fertility rates than any other factor, but the fact that it’s generally dangerous to abandon the Muslim faith doesn’t help much.
At the moment, this is not an Australian problem, even though we have a rise in thuggish xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, but it’s clear that if the Muslim population continues to rise, and screening of extremists isn’t adequate, there will be incidents (to use a euphemism), and reactions to incidents, which will adversely affect our civil society. But of course things have changed already in this ‘distant’ western society. When I was growing up (and at 60 I’m no spring chicken) there were no Muslims whatever in our very Anglo working class community – Italian market gardeners were our version of exoticism. Now, in my workplace, we have to provide ‘multi-faith’ (but actually Muslim) prayer rooms and deal with the guardians of (rare in comparison to male) female Arabic students who refuse to shake hands with our course co-ordinator who happens to be female. This is a far more challenging and personally offensive situation than anything I’ve experienced before, as someone brought up on and profoundly influenced by seventies feminism, and part of the challenge is having to counter absurd arguments by members of what has been termed the ‘regressive left’ who have actually suggested, in discussion with me, that western women are coerced into wearing bikinis and short dresses in much the same way as Muslim women are coerced into burqas and niqabs.
Anyway, now that I’ve ‘come out’ on this major issue, I plan to deal with it further in future posts. I want to look at the European situation as an object lesson for Australia, because what I’ve been learning about it is quite alarming. I’m also keen to connect what I’ve been learning about all this – the Saudi guardianship system and the macho jihadist culture – to patriarchy and its obvious deficits. I still think this is the area in which Islam can be most constructively critiqued, with a view to reform.
Canto: I’ves decided to declare myself as a female supremacist.
Jacinta: Really? I thought you had nothing to declare but your genius. So you’ve come out at last?
Canto: Well it’s not as if I’ve been stifled in the closet for years. I’ve rarely thought about it before. I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but recently we’ve been looking at female-male differences, and it’s been making me feel we need more than just equality between the sexes.
Jacinta: You’ve got a hankering for that bonobo world, haven’t you? Females ganging up on you and soothing your aggressive macho emotions with a bit of sexual fourplay.
Canto: Well, yes and no. I first learned about bonobo society almost twenty years ago, and of course it excited me as a model, but then the complexity of human societies with all their cultural overlays made me feel I was naive to imagine a non-human society, without even its own language, could teach us how to improve our own. And the sex stuff in particular – well, that really got me in, but then it seemed too good to hope for. Too much self-serving wishful thinking, to model our society on a bunch of oversexed, indolent banana-eaters.
Jacinta: Do they have bananas in the Congo?
Canto: Absolutely. They have a town there on the Congo River, called Banana.
Jacinta: Oh wow, sounds like heaven. I love bananas. Let’s go there.
Canto: Anyway, now I’m thinking that a female-supremacist society is what we need today, though not necessarily based on bonobos….
Jacinta: That’s disappointing. I think it should be based on bonobos. Bonobos with language and technology and sophisticated theories about life, the universe and everything. Why not?
Canto: Well then they wouldn’t be bonobos. But do you want to hear my reasons for promoting female supremacy?
Jacinta: I probably know them already. Look at the male supremacist societies and cultures in the world – in Africa, in India, in the Middle East. They’re the most violent and brutish societies. We can’t compare them to female supremacist societies because there aren’t any, but we can look at societies where discrimination against women is least rampant, and those are today’s most advanced societies. It might follow that they’ll become even more enlightened and advanced if the percentage of female leaders, in business, politics and science, rises from whatever it is today – say 10% – to, say 90%.
Canto: Yes, well you’re pretty much on the money. It’s not just broader societies, it’s workplaces, it’s schools, it’s corporations. The more women are involved, especially in leadership roles, the more collaborative these places become. Of course I don’t deny female violence, in schools and at home, against children and partners and in many other situations, but on average in every society and every situation women are less violent and aggressive than men. In fact, all the evidence points to a female-supremacist society being an obvious solution for a future that needs to be more co-operative and nurturing.
Jacinta: So how are you going to bring about the female-supremacist revolution?
Canto: Not revolution, that’s just macho wankery. I’m talking about social evolution, and it’s already happening, though of course I’d like to see it speeded up. We’ll look at how things are changing and what we can hope for in some later posts. But the signs are good. The feminisation of our societies must continue, on a global level!
Bonobos separated from chimps maybe less than a million years ago, according to some pundits. We haven’t yet been able to determine a more precise date for the split. So which species has changed more? Have chimps become more aggressive or have bonobos become more caring? Is there any way of finding out?
It’s not just about genes its about their expression. It will take some time to work all that out. Brain studies too will help, as we move towards scanning and exploring brains more effectively and less invasively.
But surely we seek not just to understand the bonobo world but to change our own. Who wouldn’t want a world that was less violent, less exclusionary in terms of sex, more caring and sharing, without any loss of the dynamism and questing that has taken us to to the very brink of iphone7?
That last remark will date very quickly… Nah, I’ll leave it in.
So we can learn lessons, and of course we’re already on that path. Advanced societies, if that’s not too presumptuous a term, are less patriarchal than they’ve ever been, without losing any of their dynamism. On the contrary, it can easily be seen that the most male-supremacist societies in the world are also the most violent, the most repressive and the most backward. Some of those societies, as we know, have their backwardness masked by the fact that they have a commodity, oil, that the world is still addicted to, which has made the society so rich that their citizens don’t even have to pay tax. The rest of the world is supporting tyrannical regimes, which won’t change as long as they feel well-fed and secure. Not that I’d wish starvation and insecurity on anyone, but as Roland Barthes once said at one of his packed lectures, the people standing at the back who can’t hear properly and have sore feet must be wondering why they’re here.
Maybe a bit of discomfort, in the form of completely shifting away from fossil fuels for our energy needs haha, might bring certain Middle Eastern countries to a more serious questioning of their patriarchal delusions? Without their currently-valuable resource, they might wake to the fact that they need to become smarter. The women in those countries, so effective on occasion in forming coalitions to defend their inferior place in society, might be encouraged to use their collective power in more diverse ways. That could be how things socially evolve there.
Meanwhile in the west, the lesson of the bonobos would seem to be coalitions and sex. We’ve certainly arrived at an era where sexual dimorphism is irrelevant, except where women are isolated, for example in domestic situations. The same isolation also poses a threat to children. The bonobo example of coalitions and togetherness and sharing of responsibilities, and sexual favours (something we’re a long way from emulating, with our jealousies and petty rivalries) should be the way forward for us. Hopefully the future will see a further erosion of the nuclear family and a greater diversity of child-rearing environments, where single-parent families are far less isolated than they are today, and males want to help and support and teach children because they are children, not because they are their children…
Jacinta: So, Heigo takes up the washerwomen’s sad song on the lakeside, and we see the hard, basic work of the villagers, and the beauty of the mountainous countryside. A reality view juxtaposed with a touristy view.
Canto: Right, we’re back with Limi Girl – a long review, or more like one of those chats through the movie that you get on DVD extras.
Jacinta: Or used to get. And it’s by outsiders rather than insiders, so not so interesting…
Canto: But more critical, in a good way. So in the next scene the camera slowly drifts across Xiumei’s bedroom-study, where she’s writing and contemplating and looking melancholy. Above her head is a portrait of a dancer, which she stares at…
Jacinta: My guess is she’s confused, and not at all confident about becoming a dancer, or returning successfully to college.
Canto: So she goes to her father to talk. She explains to him that when she dropped out she decided that she would study hard and re-enrol in a ‘normal college’…
Jacinta: That’s an interesting piece of exposition. What kind of college was she enrolled in before?
Canto: Yes it’s confusing – either she went to the city to enrol in a dance college or she dropped out because she wants to go to dancing school…
Jacinta: It must be the first option. So now she feels like a failure and a disappointment about the dance thing.
Canto: She tells her father it will be cheaper and she might get a ‘national student loan’, but he says this is impossible.
Jacinta: In other words he forbids it.
Canto: She doesn’t respond for a moment, then finally says she has decided….
Jacinta: It’s a lovely scene, in the silence her breathing becomes heavy as if his words have winded her. But then there’s defiance.
Canto: So now there’s an argument, she’s in no position to decide, he told her the dancing would never amount to anything and now they’re in debt. She vows to pay it all back, tearfully saying she wants more than a good village life.
Jacinta: She’s distraught more than angry. Note that after the first day back she’s reverted to traditional garb. She’s caught between two worlds.
Canto: So Xiumei walks off into the night, and a woman comes in and says ‘Xiumei’s father, you shouldn’t treat her that way’. He looks gloomy.
Jacinta: Who is she? Doesn’t sound like Xiumei’s mum. A neighbour?
Canto: Not sure. Next Xiumei is out on the mountainous slopes collecting roots and herbs, working hard. She reaches a high point and looks out over the beautiful wooded mountains and valleys of her homeland. She’s in turmoil. She trudges back home with her donkey and her load of herbs.
Jacinta: Here it might be apposite to speak of the music, which I found very effective in its understated way. Evocative, wistful.
Canto: Heigo walks through the countryside with his mother.
Jacinta: The one who’s supposed to be in hospital.
Canto: He’s complaining about how she set him up with Shugio, while she says that it’s his duty as an adult to marry – he’ll be laughed at otherwise. He mocks the suggestion, and starts to sing another song, but his mother insists he go to see Shugio’s family to make up for his poor behaviour.
Jacinta: So next we have Heigo sitting beside his mother, or maybe Shugio’s mother, discussing the wedding with Shugio’s family over cups of tea. They’ve been engaged for 20 years, she says, and should’ve been married long ago.
Canto: And the others agree, talking over Heigo’s head, as people do in court.
Jacinta: Heigo himself looks barely 20 years old, poor thing. Finally he gets up and asks Shugio to step outside so they can ‘nurture their feelings.’
Canto: He’s not happy, and Shugio follows him out, trying to keep up with him. He rounds on her, accusing her of luring him back from Guangdong for this ‘trivial matter’ of marriage. And of course Shugio is shocked and annoyed at this reaction. Heigo, it seems, wants to give the impression that all this ‘arranged marriage’ stuff is beneath him, and that Shugio, too, is beneath him. ‘You don’t understand me at all’, he says.
Jacinta: This is one of many moments in the film where so much is revealed in a few words. Here we’re both slightly repelled by Heigo’s arrogant dismissiveness and sympathetic to his unfocussed but intense aspirations.
Canto: Shugio responds well, after consideration. She may not know him entirely, but she has tended and nurtured him, and dreamed of their future life together. But yes, she says, ‘you’ve broadened your horizon and now you are bored’. Heigo seems sympathetic, but insists – this was a match created by their parents, now they’re grown up and free to choose for themselves…
Jacinta: He ignores the fact that she has already chosen him.
Canto: He declares his choice – he doesn’t know how to live with someone who doesn’t know him.
Jacinta: But who ever knows another, or himself?
Canto: Upon saying this he flounces off, and she responds, most heart-rendingly, ‘I don’t know how to live with someone else either’.
Jacinta: They’re both exaggerating their inabilities.
Canto: Next, Gaidi meets up with ‘sister’ Xiumei, still collecting herbs on the mountainside. She has a pair of shoes for her, from cousin Heigo. Xiumei wants them sent back, but softens when she sees Gaidi’s disappointment. So they trudge together along mountain paths, with the gift, and a trailing donkey.
Jacinta: The camera again lingers here on the lush beauty of this landscape. In the previous scene we heard a cock crowing as the betrothed couple disputed under the trees. This play between the physical beauty of place and the nurturing atmosphere of domesticity – where everyone’s a sister or a cousin – and the sense of constraint and even suffocation for these young aspirants, this is so beautifully handled I think.
Canto: In a clearing, Xiumei dons the new red dancing shoes from her cousin, and dances, while Gaidi watches entranced. For a while they dance together, a slow swaying dance, arms akimbo. Then Gaidi takes her turn for a solo, as the sun begins to set.
Jacinta: Note that Xiumei turns contemplative, watching Gaidi. Thinking about dance, the fantasy, the reality…
Canto: And looks a little melancholic, I’d say. In the next scene Gaidi sheepishly approaches ‘sister Xiumei’, who’s emptying her basket, perhaps as food for some farm animals. Gaidi’s cattle, or the family’s cattle she’s been tending, have run off, and damaged a neighbouring wheat crop. So now she’s afraid to return to her aunt, where she’ll likely get a beating. Xiumei offers to return with her, to protect her, so they head off together. Her aunt is already angry, and tries to get at Gaidi with a broom. She’s angry about the loss of money, as they’ll have to compensate the neighbour. Xiumei steps between them, saying ‘don’t hit her any more’, so this is perhaps a common occurrence, ‘she’s just a kid’. So the argument continues, with Gaidi’s aunt, who’s also Heigo’s mother, asserting her right to beat her whenever she likes, since she feeds and clothes her..
Jacinta: A useful device for bringing Heigo and Xiumei together again, and here’s where we get some more useful exposition.
Canto: Yes, because Heigo appears, tries to calm his mother and tells Xiumei not to interfere, but the headstrong Xiumei won’t have any of that. ‘You wouldn’t let her go to school, and yet you beat her like this’. Not surprisingly, the older woman responds by mocking Xiumei’s school failure – ‘you must’ve done something shameful while you were away.’ Xiumei is stung, can’t think of a retort, and flounces off.
Jacinta: And naturally Heigo seizes his chance to get her alone.
Canto: Yes but before that, we focus briefly on Gaidi and her aunt. With Xiumei gone, and Heigo off after her, Gaidi is ordered inside. Her aunt follows her, picking up the broom, but then she tosses it aside before entering the house.
Jacinta: So Xiumei is having her positive influence. It’s neatly observed.
Canto: So Heigo begins by apologising for his mother, but Xiumei shrugs it off, ‘I’m used to it.’ Then she tells him she will return the shoes tomorrow.
Jacinta: They sure know how to hurt each other.
Canto: Of course Heigo objects. He bought them for her off his first pay in Guangzhou, has been keeping them for her ever since.
Jacinta: They sure know how to make each other feel guilty.
Canto: So Xiumei gives him a speech with obvious similarities to the one he gave Shugio. Things have changed, they’re not kids anymore, it’s water under the bridge, she doesn’t want this kind of life.. But Heigo wonders, understandably, about the change. It’s only been a year – he’s been working, she’s been to college. She can only say, much as Heigo said to Shugio, ‘you don’t understand me’.
Jacinta: It’s the old story of unequal feelings. Shugio loves Heigo, but Heigo can’t return the love, partly because she represents the past to him. Heigo loves Xiumei and she in return wants to transcend the past that he represents to her. There’s a fearful symmetry here. But there’s also in this dialogue, especially from Xiumei, another fearfulness, or a great uncertainty, about how to live, the difficulties of going Outside, to the City, the Great World.