Tuesday, April 26, 2016

We Are What We Eat

From childhood on, we are often given the exhortation “you are what you eat,” usually as a caution against bad eating habits. There is another way of using this phrase, one that is not a caution but rather an observation about the informal cultural shifts and customs that are reflected in our food.

The documentary film The Search for GeneralTso provides insights into this alternate view of being what we eat. Ostensibly, the film seeks to answer an old culinary question – what are the origins of the ubiquitous dish “General Tso’s chicken.” The basic questions are rather obvious – who was General Tso? And did he really like chicken? The film demonstrates that this is not necessarily an easy question to answer and that the search for the answer is intimately intertwined with the emergence of Chinese ex-patriot culture and identity.

The beginning of the film travels to China where a variety of people are shown photos of the dish. Those shown the photos are alternately intrigued, perplexed or rather disgusted but regardless their initial response, the consensus is that the dish before them is not Chinese. Indeed, they typically have not seen or heard of the dish before. The next stop is in Hunan province, where the film chronicles the existence of General Tso as a powerful warrior. His familial line still exists and a descendant interviewed is both proud that his ancestor has been recognized so broadly and dismayed at the form of recognition taken – as a food rather than a great warrior. The conclusion of this portion of the film is that there was a General Tso, who could indeed have favoured chicken, but that the dish known across the US was not created by or for him.

From there the quest returns to the US and begins a trek that parallels the steps taken by Chinese immigrants to the US from the 1800s onwards. Here the film presents not only the quest for the origins of General Tso’s chicken but also how the dish – and Chinese immigrant culture and food – was framed by the surroundings in which immigrants found themselves. Discrimination was always rampant against Chinese immigrants and was made worse upon the promulgation of the Chinese Exclusion laws in the US. Discrimination – legal and societal – restricted the career options for Chinese in the US, although one option available was to run and/or work in restaurants. These restaurants cooked what they knew, Chinese cuisine, although with time and the migration of immigrant communities from the West Coast through middle America and to the East Coast this cuisine changed.

Through poignant interviews with those who opened restaurants in different communities or who are second or third generation restaurateurs, the film documents the overall adaptation of foods prepared and offered at Chinese restaurants in the US from authentic Chinese fare to foods that were (and still are) more recognizable and appealing to local palates. This was (and is) done to increase revenue and also to bypass local prejudices regarding culture and food across the spectrum of communities in which Chinese restaurants emerged. In this way, the film chronicles how the food on the menu at Chinese restaurants is a reflection of the cultures in which the restaurateurs find themselves and the struggle to preserve their identities while being accepted by – and acceptable to – their new home.

The film also documents the impact that things beyond the control of these communities had on sought after forms of Chinese cuisine, and on the identity of Chinese-American communities. Through the lens of restaurant culture, the film presents the mechanisms through which Chinese-American communities and food became separate from China itself and were not fully Americanized, leading to the creation of a cuisine that represented the new identity of the community. What emerges in this part of the film is a discussion of other dishes – chop suey for example – as part of the American culinary and cultural lexicon and the adoption of the belief that these dishes form an essential embodiment of Chinese culture.

Returning to the quest for the name, the film’s cross-country journey ends in New York City, where a story of international intrigue over General Tso’s chicken unfolds. Decades ago, a chef at a well-known Chinese restaurant brings back a recipe from Taiwan, incorporates it into his menu and the American General Tso’s chicken is born. He appears on a major television show’s cooking segment and it becomes a sensation in the US. In the international portion of the story, a famous chef who fled to Taiwan creates a chicken dish and is asked the name. In response, he says “General Tso’s chicken” because he is aware of General Tso’s reputation and his own style of cooking from Hunan. Although both the Taiwanese and Americanized version of General Tso’s chicken existed in New York at the same time, ultimately the American version prevailed with consumers.

At the end of the film, the audience has the answer to the question of where General Tso’s chicken originated and how this reflects the reality of societal evolution. It shows the audience the evolution of a culture and set of societal practices from their homeland to their new home and how both places are impacted. By telling the story from China to the US and across the US in a parallel journey to that experienced by Chinese immigrants, the film sheds light on how the norms and mores of a culture are unbound from geography, transplanted and then rewritten to fit the needs of the community in a certain time and place.

Using food as a lens through which this occurs allows the audience a tangible (and edible) visualization of the process and also allows the audience to relate its own experiences along the process spectrum – be they as immigrants, as restaurateurs, or as patrons. These lessons are in varying ways the story of all immigrants and much of the food that comes across anyone’s table. In this way, perhaps the old saying is true and we really are what we eat.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Joining Law

It is generally assumed that we are all subject to law regardless where we live and the system under which we live. As the recent film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny demonstrates, these laws do not necessarily have to be codified to be extremely powerful influences culturally or personally. Indeed, when individuals elect to join these types of informal legal systems their impacts can be profound.

Sword of Destiny is a sequel to the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film and follows the lives of several integral characters 16 years on, particularly Yu Shu Lien. The film is set in Qianlong China, at a time when there is an emperor but also a system of powerful clans. At the beginning of the film, Shu Lien journeys from her secluded home to the house of Sir Te’s clan. This is not a journey she undertakes happily – Shu Lien travels to revisit her old clan and surrogate family for the funeral of Sir Te, the leader of the clan and her father figure. Sir Te’s death is well-known and there is a sense of outrage when the carriage conveying Shu Lien to the house is attacked by the West Lotus clan, a rival family, while she is traveling to the funeral. This attack is unlawful according the generally accepted laws of conduct and is particularly egregious since she is traveling to pay her respects to the dead.

It quickly becomes clear to Shu Lien and Sir Te’s son that Hades Dai, the notorious head of the West Lotus clan, has begun a campaign against the house in order to steal the fabled Green Destiny sword and use it for the destruction of his enemies. As a response, Sir Te’s son sends out a kingdom-wide call for those who follow the Iron Way to come to his aid in defense of the house and the sword.

The Iron Way is a core of values and martial arts training that sets followers and practitioners apart from others and binds them together in an unwritten law of solidarity. The Iron Way requires discipline, hard work, dedication to fellow adherents, and is an overall value system. The Iron Way represents an unwritten code that binds complete strangers from disparate geographical areas and philosophies. This is evident in the results of the call, which attracts men and women followers from across the kingdom. It is clear that there are differences in personality and beliefs between the followers of the Iron Way and yet these are secondary to their shared adherence and dedication to the Iron Way itself.

At the same time, a sub-plot emerges between Snow Vase and Wei Fang, two teenagers. Snow Vase is a new recruit to the clan, who seeks to follow the Iron Way and has received extensive martial training in it in the past, although she needs to better understand the mental aspects of it to become a master. Wei Fang was a member of the West Lotus clan until he was captured while trying to steal the Green Destiny sword. In captivity, he befriends Snow Vase, who tells him the story of his true identity as the son of a renegade former member of the Iron Way who was killed by Hades Dai. The same woman raised Snow Vase as her own, training her in the Iron Way and making her understand the need for adherence to it even though she had abandoned it.

Sensing an opportunity to take the Green Destiny sword and assert power, Hades Dai launches a raid on Sir Te’s house. During this raid, the tensions between members of the house are put aside in favour of adhering to the Iron Way and following its law in terms of ideology and martial skill. Indeed, after he saves her life, Snow Vase frees Wei Fang, who has agreed to fight for the Iron Way that had formed his mother and against the man who killed his mother.

Ultimately, the forces of the Iron Way are victorious, although at an extremely heavy price. Many of the warriors who answered the call for defenders lay dead, as do many who were training in the Iron Way. Absorbing the costs of protecting the Green Destiny sword and knowing that the potential for future violence imperils the sword and those protecting it, Shu Lien and her companion take Snow Vase, Wei Fang and the Green Destiny sword on a journey to a remote location where the sword can be kept safe.

There are many plots and subplots within the Sword of Destiny film. The overarching theme, however, is the adherence of multiple characters in many diverse situations to the Iron Way and the potential that the Iron Way has to change the lives and identities of those who follow it. Throughout the film, the Iron Way is portrayed as an unwritten yet extremely powerful set of laws and rules that controls and shapes adherents in a way that even the laws of the state cannot.

As the audience observes, the Iron Way governs the actions of Shu Lien even years after she has retired from active participation in its enforcement. Similarly, the Iron Way causes adherents from across the empire to come together to protect the clan of Sir Te although they share different philosophies and methodologies. The laws of the Iron Way bring these groups together and also require that they create a functioning group that operates according to the abilities of each member of society. In this society, there is a hierarchy of knowledge, training and technique that is bonded together by fidelity to the tenets of the Iron Way.

Additionally, the Iron Way serves as a guide for the two somewhat wayward teenagers. For Snow Vase, it was something that she was trained in and taught to respect although her teacher had fallen from the graces of the Iron Way herself. For Wei Fang, the Iron Way was something in which he had been trained as a young boy but then was taken from when he was claimed by Hades Dai. It was only when he was imprisoned at Sir Te’s house that he began to appreciate the justness of the laws exercised under the color of the Iron Way. His adherence to the Iron Way was solidified when he learned of its link to his identity.

Overall, Sword of Destiny highlights the place of informal, unwritten law as a means of crafting identity, structure, a code of conduct and respect, and allowing those who are involved with it to join law in a way that is very different than being subject to hard laws.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Visualizing Violence

It is often said that the world is becoming more violent and that media is an instigating factor in this. Critics point to a purported increase in violence in movies, television and video games as a means of glorifying violent conduct, frequently with little regard to the aftermath that such violence begets. The virtues of these arguments are another matter, however it is true that many forms of media portray violence – notably assault – without regard to the impacts it leaves on its victims. The Netflix series Daredevil, based on the Marvel comic series, and particularly the recently released series 2, demonstrate the power of portraying the aftereffects of violence through physical manifestation.

To begin with, throughout prior seasons the show has demonstrated the aftermath of the punishing combat Daredevil engages in by allowing his alter ego, attorney Matthew Murdock, to sport bruises and scars that last several days or longer. Murdock is able to pass these visible signs of assault and violence off as the result of his blindness – walking into objects, falling, and other sources of injury that would be odd to those around him if he were not blind. Those who know his secret identity are more concerned, however in general the character is able to conceal his wounds in a way that society used to deem appropriate for abuse victims – claims of nearly impossible continuous mishaps. Few are willing to seem indelicate enough to question whether his wounds are the result of something more. And when his legal assistant, Karen, asks Foggy, his dedicated friend and law partner who knows Murdock’s true identity, questions about the increasing severity of Murdick’s injuries, Foggy believes it more appropriate to claim that Murdock has a drinking problem. Again, this is a socially sensitive topic behind which few are willing to seek more information.

Season 2 goes further into the manifestations of violence through the storyline of military hero Frank Castle, who takes on the identity of the Punisher after his family was gunned down before his eyes during a picnic in New York City’s Central Park. The Punisher then goes on a rampage, killing members of the multiple organized crime rings that were responsible for the gunplay that killed the Castle family. A complex relationship develops between the Punisher and Daredevil, who share different outlooks on the value of criminal life, however it is ultimately Daredevil who helps to save the Punisher from being tortured to death by members of an organized crime family he had decimated. Knowing that the Punisher needs trained medical intervention to save his life, Daredevil calls a friend on the police force, who arrests the highly sought after Punisher and brings him to a hospital.

From this point on, a complex storyline develops as the Punisher is targeted for vengeance-fueled prosecution by a corrupt and fearful District Attorney who is able to bring a highly suspect justice system under her sway. Unbeknownst to the Punisher, his law firm is that of Murdock and Nelson, allowing Murdock to help defend the man who knows him best as Daredevil. When his new attorneys arrive to see the Punisher there is no attempt to hide the impact of the blows and torture that he received at the hands of the gang that wanted to kill him or the officers under the control of the District Attorney. His face is discoloured, disfigured and both eyes are clearly blackened by punches. These manifestations of the violence inflicted on him do not disappear stylishly over a matter of hours or days but remain as a vivid testimony to the physical impacts of violence.

At trial a week later, the Punisher’s physical wounds have progressed along a natural healing timeline, some turning yellowish in color, some fading to different shades of purple, but all visible for the public and the jury to see. Indeed, as he is giving testimony, his nose still appears slightly out of place – the result, it is presumed, of a break. During the trial, there are many references to the mental impact that seeing his family killed had on Frank Castle to turn him into a vigilante, however there is no discussion of the wounds he has more recently sustained – perhaps there is little need to since they so obviously speak for themselves.

While in prison, the Punisher is presented with the opportunity to kill several men associated with the death of his family and who are also in the way of another inmate’s rise to kingpin of the prison world. He takes this opportunity and finds that it was a set-up that was meant to result in his own death as well. To save himself and continue his quest for the truth, the Punisher successfully defeats a wing of prisoners who were set upon him. He emerges from this encounter alive but severely bruised and battered. The result is an escape at the behest of the new kingpin, who had not anticipated the Punisher’s survival. When he emerges from prison he is in disguise in terms of attire but not in terms of abuse – indeed, his face looks worse than it did during his hospitalization.

During his subsequent interactions with people, the Punisher hides his wounds and his face from those he seeks to protect – the innocents in society who are represented as good, hard working, honest people. This is not only to avoid detection and re-arrest but also, it seems, to shield them from the violence that his wounds manifest. However, when he encounters those who are criminal, the Punisher does not attempt to hide his identity or his wounds, seemingly using them as a psychological weapon. The exception to this is when he helps Daredevil from the shadows and then reveals himself quickly, but this is perhaps not a surprise given the complexity of their relationship.

This season’s installation of Daredevil provides contrasting windows on the ways in which violence is visualized through media and demonstrates that there are instances in which the true gravity of violence – assault – is directly represented rather than glorified as something that disappears the next morning.

On one hand, the ways in which violence against Daredevil manifest themselves are covered under the shield of disability and, when that fails, under the shield of addiction. In this scenario, the wounds and scars are the result of something deeper within the person bearing them and tend to be regarded as private matters. When they are discussed it is in a delicate and almost timid fashion that seems more of a last resort of concern. The ease with which the wounds and scars are explained by Murdock provides such a natural cover for his activities that he does not seem bothered by them.

On the other hand, the ways in which violence against the Punisher manifest themselves are overt and do not enjoy the same societally constructed shield. While perhaps there is a willingness to recognize the private violence that he suffered due to the death of his family, the Punisher’s wounds and scars are visible for the world to see and manifest the violence done to him. These wounds and scars do not go away simply or with makeup, but instead mark him as having been assaulted with great violence. Those who see them cannot hide them behind the veil of disability, but rather are confronted face to face with the reality of assault and the dangers of it. The same can be said for audiences, who see these impacts front and center and who also come to see how blows delivered in an assault have a lasting impact on the victim even when the victim is a powerful person. In this way, the series manifests the reality of violence for audiences to see and allows audiences a view into the ways in which violence is visualized and regarded by society.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Pirate Pluralism

Old-fashioned pirates and video games might make for a good sales pitch but are less often thought of as connected to legal pluralism. And yet, the popular video game Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag provides an example of the ways in which plural communities can be constructed and the boundaries needed for their functioning.

The story used in the game follows the evolution of Welshman Edward Kenway from a lowly pirate roaming around the Caribbean to an illustrious pirate captain. Kenway begins life as a poor yet law-abiding member of society in Wales, who believes that he is constrained by the existing legal and social system. His wife is content to live the way that her family did but Kenway wants more and leaves to become a privateer, promising that this will only be for a few years. A few years turn into many and the more socially acceptable privateer status gives way to piracy as Kenway seeks to maximize profit above all else.

At the opening of the story, Kenway steals a ship and changes his identity from a freelance pirate to a pirate captain in charge of a ship and her crew and seeking out goods and fortune. On this ship, the Jackdaw, Kenway’s word is law – as was standard for ship captains. In the process of outfitting the Jackdaw with a crew, Kenway meets Adewale, an escaped slave from a Caribbean plantation, and makes him the quartermaster, thus establishing a rule that capability, not race, is the benchmark for service on the Jackdaw. This is reinforced later in the story when Adewale goes on a separate path and Kenway brings on a woman as the new quartermaster. Kenway also establishes rules for the ship’s pirating activities and emphasizes that innocent civilians will not be targeted for attack or killed.

Kenway’s motives may have been monetary however the story explains that others within the loose community of pirates throughout the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico had other motives. Key among these motives was freedom from their home laws and legal systems, which are viewed as repressive, unfair and prejudiced. With this in mind, many of the pirates come together and agree to turn the city of Nassau into a city run under pirate control. Kenway is sceptical of this idea, arguing that the idealistic goals will not work as a governing system, nevertheless the city falls under their control and the British authorities retain only nominal jurisdiction.

 The city operates under loose sets of laws and mores that are imposed through society rather than through an official constabulary force. This is done with good intentions and in order to counter the rigid legal regimes that many of the characters sought to leave behind when they initially took to the sea. Despite these intentions, as the story progresses and Kenway makes frequent returns to Nassau, it becomes apparent that the city descends into physical and societal decay under such a lax system. This is particularly evident when a disease outbreak threatens to become an epidemic and the necessary supplies to save the inhabitants are not  readily available.

Ultimately, the story ends with a British force arriving to retake Nassau. The newly appointed authorities publicly make an offer of amnesty for any pirates who are willing to accept it and agree to give up pirating in the future. The offer is made on behalf of the British Crown, however it is soon clear that the new authorities do not intend to live up to the letter of this law and instead target any pirates – including those who are willing to comply – for death or imprisonment.

In the Black Flag storyline, there is of course action and adventure – it is a game after all. More than that though, the plot provides a complex backstory to Kenway as the main character and to the pirate system in which he operated. The plot provides the framework for a pluralistic system in Nassau that runs the gamut from revolutionary to decayed to repressed.  

At the beginning, the idea of freeing Nassau from what is viewed as an overbearing legal and societal system is revolutionary and motivated not only by profit but also by a desire to create an idealistic system free from the strictures of unjust laws. Those who undertake the responsibility of overseeing Nassau do so in a somewhat cavalier way, demonstrating good intentions and free spirits but little understanding of how to implement laws other than those on ships. It is possible that this is where the cracks in the system begin to emerge – the system is so plural that it lacks significant boundaries and methods of enforcement.

As the system progresses these cracks manifest themselves in a visible lack of public order. This is illustrated by increasingly dilapidated buildings and the inability of city residents to provide for themselves during a disease outbreak that appears to have occurred in no small part as a result of the lack of order endemic in the community. Indeed, this outbreak is only controlled when pirates undertake a dangerous mission that puts their own lives at risk and encourages unlawful conduct.

The system is finally suppressed and residents of Nassau are subject to repression that reinforces the problems from which the pirates initially fled their home countries. Efforts by the British governor to reassert imperial control are ruthless and methodical and include chicanery as well as outright murder. Indeed, the governor requires his men to disobey direct orders of amnesty from the Crown and instead engage in attacks that result in murder and imprisonment. These measures and the efforts at population repression which follow place the residents of Nassau, those who seek to put into port in the city, and the remnants of the pirate population in a worse position than they were in before.

In direct contrast to this, Kenway’s ship presents a system of controlled pluralism that functions well and allows those onboard to profit. Kenway is open to sailors of all races and genders as part of his crew provided they meet the needs of the ship and work with the other crewmembers. He establishes the rules of conduct on the ship and in terms of those who are targets of his ship’s activities. These rules apply equally and it is apparent that the prejudices and limitations that he sought to flee at home do not apply on the Jackdaw. While he sees continuing downturns in Nassau and frets at the seeming futility of the undertakings there, Kenway is the leader of an increasingly prosperous ship and functioning plural society that stands in direct contrast. 

In these ways, the game tells the story of differing forms of pluralistic societies and demonstrates the relationships between pluralism and boundaries in terms of societal success and functioning.