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Travel Guides–Physical versus E-Book

On my recent trip to Cambodia, I took both physical and electronic travel guides.  Here is a short pro/con list I made up for each format.

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E-books

 

PRO

  • It doesn’t take up any additional weight in your luggage.  This wasn’t a concern for me on the way to Cambodia, but I could’ve lived without the kg’s on the return trip.
  • You can highlight parts/do a search making it easier to locate specific things within the book.  This made it quite easy when I was reading up on locations during breakfast.

CON

  • In the bright light of day (or a low battery) it becomes an issue to work with an e-book as you have to push your screen brightness to the max (especially somewhere like Cambodia–less a concern in other spots around the globe)

Paper Books

PRO

  • Not battery dependent, will not disappear the second your phone/tablet dies
  • You can mark it up and bend the pages to quickly find what you’re looking for (or my personal favorite–use post-its)

CON

  • It’s additional weight not just in your luggage but to carry around during the day.  If you’re spending the day hiking, it can be terrible.

 

In the end, I didn’t have much use for the physical books once I left the hotel, and I only tended to read my e-book at breakfast, during lunch, and sometimes during the drive from one place to another.  I think for my next trip I might prefer an e-book, but I’m likely to get a copy of both or two different books, one in each format as I feel like I’m still beta-testing the idea of not using a physical book

What about you guys?  Prefer one format over the other?  Think I’m really old fashioned for reading guidebooks at all when the internet is there?

Book Review: The Good Women of China by Xinrin

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 11.49.29 AMThe Good Women of China by Xinran

Rating 4/5 stars

I read a different book by Xinran earlier this year–Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother–that ripped my heart out and left me sobbing at various points.  I approached this book with caution because of that.

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother tells one woman’s story per chapter.  Eventually, so does The Good Women of China.  However, the start is much slower, and less engaging.  I picked up and put this one down a few times, easily distracted by other books.  However, once I got to roughly 1/3 of the way through the book, I was sucked in and found myself crying time and time again.

Xinran was, for a time, a presenter of a highly popular radio show in China in the 80’s and early 90’s called “Whispers on the Night Breeze” which focused on the stories of everyday women (or rather, that is what it evolved into).  This is the source material for this book and others.  The stories she shares are most often those of her generation and that of her mothers–the generation that were children during the cultural revolution, and that of the mothers of those children.

My bachelor’s degree is in History.  I have a deep attachment to learning about race, class and gender history.  The thing about studying women’s history, though, is that for every fascinating and empowering story about women, there is often a much larger number of truly depressing stories.

One of the most common experiences that occurs in women’s history, and in this book, is that of rape.  To the point where I would firmly caution that this book needs a trigger warning for rape.  Girls are raped by their fathers.  Girls are raped in the cause of “re-educating” them during the Cultural Revolution.  Girls are raped in the chaos after an earthquake.  Girls who wish for death after rape, who are institutionalized, whose mothers commit suicide after they are raped. 

It is also the story of how a moment of deep change–the Cultural Revolution–impacted not just the wealthy or the well born, but the every day woman as well.  These are stories we almost never hear.  The Japanese expatriate who was in China to teach at a university, and is jailed as a counter-revolutionary.  The daughter of wealthy capitalists who gets to her family’s home too late–they have fled to Taiwan–and has to pose as the illegitimate daughter of her aunt, hoping that the truth will never be revealed.  The women who began an orphanage after their own children were killed by an earthquake–an earthquake the government didn’t find out about for weeks because there was no modern means of communication in the impoverished mountain villages.  A woman who was separated from her love by duty to the party, only to find him again 40 years later—and that he’d married after being told that she was dead.  Weaved throughout the other stories is Xinran’s.  Her parents were accused of being counter-revolutionary, and she and her brother were brought up by the party.  Peasant children were taught to insult them, and treat them as subhuman.  Her deeply complicated relationship with her parents, and with her own past is shown as the book progresses.

We also see Xinran’s growing dissatisfaction with trying to toe the party line as a media representative.  Stories must be edited, others not told (no need to embarrass the party with a story about highly educated women being given to party elite as new wives, or the village wives they left behind).

As an American, I learned very little modern era Asian History in any of my classes.  I was vaguely aware of how Mao had gained power, but I had no context for what that looked like for a woman living in China.  Xinran lends us those voices, which when paired with other resources can help paint a more complete pictures of the experience.

If you have an interest in Asian History, in women’s history, or in women’s studies, this book is definitely one you should make time to read.  But allow yourself to read as fast (can’t put it down) or as slow (too emotional, need a break) as you need.  It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy read.

Book Review: Cast Member Confidential by Chris Mitchell

Screen Shot 2014-04-15 at 9.51.36 PMCast Member Confidential: A Disneyfied Memoir by Chris Mitchell

Rating 3/5 stars for the casual reader

1/5 for those Disney fans who don’t want to sully the brand

5/5 for those who enjoy the peek behind the mask

Last week when I reviewed Spinning Disney’s World, I promised that we’d get to the memoir with sex on property, hijinks and a very different view of life under The Mouse from Ridgeway’s rarefied PR office.  This is a memoir that will give you that peek. There are a few others, but this was the most enjoyable.

Just as the reader has to keep in mind that Ridgeway was intent on keeping both the man and the brand Snow White (sorry, I had to), it is worth noting that Mitchell defines himself as anti-establishment.  At times he tries a bit too hard to convince us of that fact.  To his credit, Mitchell seems far more aware of his bias than Ridgeway, and he does make fairly self aware statements throughout the book to that effect.

One of the things that made Spinning Disney’s World such a tough review was the lack of a narrative.  Mitchell does us the favor of both giving us a sequential narrative, and one with a central theme.  After his mother’s cancer diagnosis (and his parent’s attempt to hide it from him–he finds out from his older brother) he effectively decides to run away to Disney and hide in the magic, playing Peter Pan/Lost Boy in the Magic Kingdom.

Nobody has every died at Disney World (again, no page #’s, so I’ll cite percentages throughout the review–2%)

Mitchell uses this piece of Disney lore as a framing device at both the opening and close of the book.  At the start of the book, he’s told that bit of lore by Nick Elliot–Former X Games Champion turned skateboarding monkey on the Tarzan float in a WDW parade.  (I’ll address that bit of lore at the end of the review)

The narrative shifts to Mitchell’s personal life a short time later–within a very short period of time he is fired from his job, his girlfriend dumps him for a friend, and his brother tells him that their mother has cancer but that he can’t tell her that he knows.  Mitchell’s reaction to all of this is to run away to Disney World to put his professional sports photography skills to use….as one of those guys taking pictures of families with Disney Characters.

“Your job will be to work with the characters.  You’ll take pictures of Minnie and Mickey and Winne the Pooh and Tigger and anybody else our beloved guests wish to meet.  And you’ll try to capture a moment on their faces that doesn’t look like desperate misery, and then you’ll sell the photos back to them at a very reasonable price” (said to Mitchell by his Boss Orville 7%)

Mitchell begins his time at Disney trying to find “The Magic.”  He submits to a haircut approved by “The Disney Look” employee handbook.  He removes piercings.  He shaves.  He tucks in his uniform shirt, and leaves the chain wallet and sunglasses at home (or at least in his employee locker).  He learns to identify Cast Members by their uniforms (photographers like himself wear Khaki uniforms in the Animal Kingdom, for example).  He learns the “Seven Guest Service Guidelines,” such as “(4) If you sense that a guest is a having a less-than-Magical moment, provide immediate recovery any way you can.”

The Never Never Land that Mitchell was seeking when he ran away to Disney does seem to exist.  Or, at least, it is possible to exist in a Disney bubble.  Rather than debate the 2000 election, Cast Members were arguing  passionately over whether Maria in “The Sound of Music” or Mary in “Mary Poppins” was Julie Andrew’s greatest role. (22%)

However, he still doesn’t get off to the best start.  He likes to make snarky comments, only to realize too late that (at this point in the book) the people he’s making them to, and the context in which he’s making them get an icy reception.  You shouldn’t really crack jokes about Mickey getting “a call from his Hollywood agent who just cast him in a movie with Jessica Rabbit” to someone who uses phrases like “oh my ears and whiskers” as part of their everyday conversation.(10%)  Don’t tell a woman who took a job as Pocahontas after finding out she can’t have kids as a way to be a special part of kid’s lives  that “Children are idiots.” (11%)  Even when you just saw someone kick Mickey as hard as they can, you don’t ask that person if they’re okay by their “real” name (21%)

Eventually though, he begins to integrate, then gets a bit too comfortable.  Backsliding begins with snacking on property (38%).  Temptation comes knocking when he begins to do “out of character” photography–Goofy blowing a smoke ring (39%), Mickey picking Minnie’s Nose (39%), Chip and Dale in a 69 (42%) until Mickey Flashing Tit gets the girl in question fired–the tit in question has a very individual tattoo.(73%) .  He has sex on property with a girl who plays Chip on a bunch of boxes of Disney t-shirts backstage at Epcot (41%).

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.34.18 AMA sample of “out of character” photography (found via google/reddit)

Mitchell’s world is populated by characters as colorful as any dreamed up by Disney, although they are hardly what Walt had in mind.

  • Brady is a character actor–Mike Wazowski, Pooh and Roger Rabbit.  Offstage, he’s a bit of a sociopath.  Eventually Brady will rope Mitchell into kidnapping a dog (30%) and taking “medication” to Cuba (81%).  But first, Brady will give Mitchell his first peek into the dark side of working for Disney–an after hours party at an apartment complexes (referred to as ‘the Disney ghetto”) owned by Disney where cast members live.  The party as described by Mitchell is one party Alice in Wonderland esque drug fantasy and one part orgy drenched in alcohol.  (15%)  Brady also becomes Mitchell’s tour guide and translator in the backstage rules and workings of the parks.
  • Johnny works in PR.  A NASCAR and beer enthusiast, Mitchell answers an ad on a cast member bulletin board to become his roommate. (22%)  He’s also a chickenhawk–an older gay man who loves a different younger man every week. (38%)  By the end of the book, he’s trying to become the next Lou Pearlman by creating his own gay-themed Boy band called “Boy Banned” (86%).
  • When Mitchell first meets Calico (50%) she is playing Ariel.  Orville (his boss) tries to warn Mitchell off of her, but he doesn’t listen.  At first there’s no discernable reason why.  She seems like a sweet vegetarian who cries over her Wish kids and wants to be a wedding planner.  Then she starts speaking in a British accent, eating meat and missing dates when she’s cast as Cruella DeVille. (80%)  She lies to Mitchell, claiming she’s been diagnosed with cancer.  He overcompensates, doing for her what his mom won’t let him do as he’s not even supposed to know about his mother’s diagnosis. This all culminates in Mitchell catching her cheating on him with another cast member, telling her sexual partner “You’re a miserable, naughty little puppy!” in her fake British acent.  (93%)

Rather than evoke “true patriot” or “great man” Walt Disney narrative used by Ridgeway, Mitchell says that Walt was–

A product of Midwest values and Industrial Revolution savvy, he learned how to make money the old-fashioned way: from children. (24%)

If you are looking for behind the scenes dirt, there’s plenty dished

  • I used to think that characters were immune to the smells of the outisde world, but, in fact, it was exactly the opposite.  Any scent that drifted into the head stayed i the head: cigarette smoke, perfume, garlic breath.  Passing gas inside a costume was to be avoided at all costs.  The stench was trapped inside the body untilt he character bent down to hug a child, then blew out the only opening in the suit–the mouth.  Within a week, I’d lost count of the number of times I heard a child turn to his parents and say, ‘Eew, Pluto has doggie breath!'” (25%)
  • Cast Members sitting around coming up with Disney themed porn titles (34%)
  • Sex on Property (mentioned starting at 40% and then throughout the book from there)  I used to work at the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum in Boston in the late 90’s and it seemed that everyone hooked up somewhere on property at least once.  I never had sex on property–but I did know every inch of space that the cameras didn’t see.  Do I think a ton of 20 something Disney employees are going to hook up on property?  Abso-fucking-lutely–pun intended.

Just as Mitchell begins his memoir with the rumor that no one has ever died on property, at the 91% mark, he sees an older employee’s heart give out.  He’s reprimanded for ruining people’s “magical experience” on property because kids saw Mitchell administer CPR.  He gets into a massive fight with his manager and quits/is fired.  After attending the funeral of his fellow cast member, Mitchell is having brunch with  two fellow employees and the following conversation happens.

“….I found this amazing, magical place where nobody ever dies, like the Bermuda Triangle, only in a good way, and I actually started to believe that I could settle down here.  I honestly thought I had it in me to be a lifer.” (Mitchell)

Marco looked at me, puzzled.  “What are you talking about?  People die at Disney World all the time.”

I shook my head.  “There’s never been a death at Disney World.  Even Walter.  The paper reported he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”

Marco and Orville exchanged a look.  Orville took a deep breath before he spoke.  “Nobody’s ever been pronounced dead on Disney property because that’s Disney’s policy.  If somebody passes away at one of the parks, the body gets loaded into the alpha unit and pronounced dead in transit.”….”Hey, don’t look so sad.  I didn’t mean to upset you.”

In reality, I wasn’t at all that surprised.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I knew that was the case the whole time. What really threw me was my apparently innate talent to deceive myself into believing the most absurd fantasies: that I could escape reality in an amusement park, that I could continue to live a life unexamined. …. I ran away from my mom when she needed my support the most.  I was a shallow, self-centered bastard. (95%)

Mitchell drives back to California, shedding his Disney self as he goes–changing his ring tone, re-inserting his labret piercing, and so forth.  He finds out his mom is now in remission.  The book fades to black with the family watching, and him falling asleep to Disney’s Peter Pan. (100%)

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Makes for a cohesive, tight, and convenient narrative, doesn’t it?  Boy loses girl and job, finds out Mom is sick, and runs away to Disney World.  Boy loses job and girl friend,  runs back to CA, and mom is well.  The “no one dies on property” rumor is ash is just one more piece of Disney misdirection to bookend the narrative.  All very slick.  Too slick for me, as a critical reader, to take at face value.

Let’s start with that whole “no on ever dies on property” rumor.  According to snopes, it is false.  But does that mean that situations like the one described don’t happen?  Probably not–it wouldn’t shock me that in general the policy is to have the person declared DOA at the hospital, but it isn’t true that it never happens.

Like Ridgeway, Mitchell takes his artistic license too far at times in a way that calls everything into question.  Do I buy that the greeter died on property but got a DOA at the hospital–maybe.  Do I buy that Calico was a bit method?  Sure.  The extent to which Mitchell describes, though?  Especially given the perfection of the timing for everything to fall apart at the precisely correct moment?  Smacks of artistic license.  It’s all a bit too perfectly timed in an After School Special  “Very Important Lesson” kind of way.

Exactly how much exaggeration is going on?  How much of an axe does Mitchell have to grind?  Hard to know.

Both of the Disney books are skewed.  Mitchell is the E True Hollywood Story to Ridgeway’s Travel Channel documentary, so to speak.  When put head to head, which you’ll like better is up for grabs depending on what kind of mood you’re in.

Book Review: Spinning Disney’s World by Charles Ridgeway

This week I’m going to explore two very different books about the same subject–working for Disney.  Today we’ll discuss a memoir from a former PR executive who was with Disney from the early days of Disneyland through the preparations for Hong Kong Disney.  Later this week I’ll review a memoir by a former cast member who will paint a very different picture of what it’s like to work for The Mouse.

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Spinning Disney’s World: Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent by Charles Ridgeway

Rating 4/5 for Disney fans

When reading a memoir like this, it’s important to remember the author’s bias and adjust your expectations accordingly.  Ridgeway is a former press agent for Disney, thus it’s unrealistic to go into the book expecting dirt.  However, if you begin the book imagining that your uncle is going to sit down and spin you folksy stories about the past, then you’ll enjoy the next 23 chapters.

Ridgeway doesn’t tell his story sequentially–it often feels like he’s just writing his stream of consciousness.  One minute he’s talking about Nixon dedicating the monorail, then he talks about why he dislikes the term “amusement park,” he goes forward in time to talk about trash collection strategies, then we are given this tidbit–

Because at ground level the store fronts along Main Street U.S.A. took a daily beating from guests – little nicks and scratches – while the upper level stayed in good shape for a couple of years at least, the painters had a set of colors for the lower half that matched the upper half after it had faded for a year. (12%–sorry, my kindle edition doesn’t give me page numbers, so I’ll note the percentage point where I found the quote)

Then we’re back to trash collection followed by crowd control techniques.

It may sound like a jumbled mess, but it actually works quite well.  Ridgeway genuinely loves his subject material and it shows. Even when he talks about things like how changes in media (the invention of satellites, the internet, etc) have changed how PR works at Disney he’s as enthusiastic as a kid at Christmas, which makes what might otherwise be boring seem like an interesting tidbit of knowledge.

Ridgeway was part of the company when Timex, who made the Disney themed kid watches for Disneyland, turned the company down cold at the idea of making Disney watches for adults.  Timex didn’t think they would be able to sell any, and refused.  They allowed the company to approach other watchmakers.  When Hamilton agreed to make them, and to sell them for what was an absurdly high price of 60 USD….they were sold out before they got to Disneyland.  Ridgeway notes he couldn’t manage to purchase one until the fifth shipment! (21%)

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.19.53 AMcurrent watch on sale–not the one he mentions.

One of the pitfalls of life as a Disney press agent was managing expectations.  The opening of Disneyworld was one such example…

One paper predicted twenty-five thousand people for opening day.  We had figured about ten thousand, but were not making any predictions publicly.  We had scheduled it in what is traditonally the lightest vacation month of the year, on a Friday, the lightest day of the week.  But we were really only guessing.

Another paper said fifty thousand, another one hundred thousand.  Finally, Cocoa Today, being used to estimating crowds for the launches at Cape Canaveral, predicted two hundred thousand people.  To make it worse, a veteran Reuters correspondent at the Cape picked up the story and moved it on her wire.  Somehow a zero got added in transmission and all over Europe they read were were expecting two million people for the opening.

At the close of the day, Jack Lindquist and Disney President Donn Tatum were on hand on the balcony at the Polynesian atrium for a press conference to sum up the opening.  Attendance, they reported was about ten thousand.  (I think they counted a few of those cast members who were sailing around the lagoon in Sun Fish sailboats to make the place look alive.)

“That is what we expected,” they said.  But no one there believed them.  The New York Times among others reported, “Disappointing opening.” (44-45%)

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My favorite parts of the books were the back stories to iconic Disneyana like the famous “What’s next?” commercial.  Ridgeway recounts the genesis, crediting Michael Eisner’s wife, Jane.

(During dinner with pilots who had just gained fame for setting a record for navigating the world without stopping)

In casual conversation, Jane asked, “Now that you have been around the world, what are you going to do next.”

Jokingly the pilot replied, “We’re going to Disneyland.”  And there it was!

“What a great idea for a Disney commercial,” was Jane’s automatic reaction.

…. (this was 2 weeks before superbowl 21)…

The NFL agreed immediately to support the idea of having the hero of the game participate.  Appearance fees were arranged with likely candidates from the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos.  NFL films agreed to supply game footage within an hour of the end of the game in the Rose Bowl.

Some might have been content to tape a commercial to run a week or a month later-not Michael.  He wanted it on air the next day.

…..

With an ENG camera crew in tow, she (Maureen O’Donnell) stood posed on the sidelines, barely waiting until the final whistle to dash onto the field, elbowing her way through fans and interview-hungry tv newsmen to grab New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms by the jersey.

Edited in later, the booming voice of an announcer shouts over the screaming uproar of a just-finished championship game ‘Phil Simms, now that you have won the Super Bowl, waht are you going to do next?’  Phil had just two lines to record.

“I’m going to Disney World!” and “I’m going to Disneyland!”

One was for the East Coast and one was for the West Coast. (86%)

2009 Superbowl winner ad

Uncle Charlie has stories about what it was like to work for Walt Disney (all of which burnish Disney’s halo).

Never a backslapper, Walt didn’t run around praising people for good work.  He expected it.  But one nod of approval or a smile from Walt was enough to keep his creative people enthused for days. (20%)

Those press lunches were where I really got to know Walt’s personality.  He was always at his best with the press.  We posed the group for pictures.  Walt, as usual, stood on tiptoes so he would look a little taller in comparison to tall people like the Fort Lauderdale editor, Fred Pettijohn.  (30%)

When it opened, Disneyland still had several unfinished attraction.  Asked when it would be finished, Walt replied, “Disneyland will never be completed.  It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” (98%)

In truth, Walt Disney was a fairly complex individual.  It is inconvenient to think of such a beloved American icon as a racist, for example…

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In her article “Fact-Checking the Age-Old Rumors of Walt Disney’s Dark Side,” Angela Dobbins says (among others)

The charge: Walt Disney was racist.
The evidence: These charges stem primarily from the use of racial stereotypes in Disney movies from the 40s: Dumbo‘s black crows; Fantasia’s black servant centaurette; and Song of the South, a movie so offensive that the Disney company will no longer let it be seen in public. Then there is Walt Disney’s own behavior: Gabler cites a meeting in which Disney referred to the Snow White dwarves as a “nigger pile” and another in which he used the term “pickaninny.” The book notes that Disney anticipated the Song of the South controversy and attempted to make it less racist with a rewrite and meeting with the NAACP. The meeting never happened, and the movie was released anyway. There was also some controversy about the company’s unwillingness to hire minorities at Disneyland.
Believability: Those are certainly not flattering facts, but they are facts.  (source)

One might argue that those are all period pieces, to which I’d respond that the modern era record isn’t fantastic, either.  The first princess of color was Pocahontas (1995), followed by Mulan (1998) and Tiana (2009)–a total of three protagonists of color.  All of these token princesses remain problematic when viewed through the lens of a historical/gender/race scholar.

It is also undeniable that the image Disney strives to recreate is that of a largely Rockwellian America–Middle/Upper Middle Class, White, Straight, Christian and Nuclear families.  Disneyland is, i many ways, the embodiment of that–Cast Member regulations are incredibly strict, and require that you look as straight laced and clean cut as possible (we’ll get to things like drunken cast member parties and sex on property tomorrow).  It should be unsurprising to a modern reader, then, to learn that Disney was a Republican (25%).

Ridgeway avoids these topics directly, but he does admit that

At the gate, Marketing Director Jack Lindquist looked over the crowd waiting at the fourteen turnstiles and picked the one that would turn for “First Visitor.”  His family would receive a guided tour, a night in the hotel and other favors, although that was not announced in advance.  By “pure coincidence” Jack picked the one where a family of five handsome blonde guests awaited, man, wife, and three beautiful children.

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 10.32.27 AMWilliam Windsor Jr and family, the first visitors to Disneyland.  source

The man whose name is synonymous with wholesome family fare also “remained to the far right on the political spectrum, suspicious of foreigners, and unwilling to hire Jews or blacks in his company,” writes Stefan Kanfer in “Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story.” “More than once he announced his preference for animals over people, and called his time ‘the century of the Communist cutthroat, the fag and the whore.'”

Although in the 1930s Walt is said to have stood by an animator arrested on a charge of homosexuality, compassion vanished when the company’s public image was at stake. In 1963, Tommy Kirk — a child actor in such live-action Disney films as “Old Yeller,” “The Shaggy Dog” and “Swiss Family Robinson” — had his contract suspended “because of growing awareness of his homosexual orientation,” says Griffin, whose book relates the story based upon Kirk’s published comments. “Supposedly [Kirk] got too frisky with a boyfriend at a public pool in Los Angeles, and the other boy’s mother found out about it and went to Disney,” he says. “They called Tommy in and fired him.”

source

But who is the real Walt Disney?  The racist homophobe?  Or the “true patriot”(25%)  Ridgeway describes?  Before Ridgeway’s book, I hadn’t known that the Disney brothers almost went out of business during the WW2 era because they’d spent their time and effort making “training films” and “morale boosters” for the US military. (50%)  One of Walt’s biggest commitments was the Hall of Presidents, which still continues to add an animatronic figure with each new Commander in Chief.

Ridgeway’s best stories are the ones where he is telling his own story, rather than playing press agent for Walt Disney.  There’s enough unbiased detail in the book to convince me that Disney considered himself a patriot and that he genuinely wanted the company and the parks to do things in the service of America without the following anecdote about “America on Parade” in 1975

Among the invitees were Brady Black and his wife.  Brady, then editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, had been interested in Disney parks for a long time.  They brought their draft-age son along.  I knew they had been worried about the young man as had many of my friends with their sons.  He had been against the war and even threatened to burn his draft card.

The four of us watched the whole parade.  I wasn’t close enough to hear, but I saw her son lean over and speak into his mother’s ear.  A few minutes later she told me, with tears in her eyes, what he had said.

“Mom, this country isn’t so bad after all.

“I never thought he would say anything like that,” Mrs. Black said. (50%)

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These moments detract from Ridgeway’s story.  They take us out of his tales and remind us that he is a PR agent, and thus a master of the fine art of spin (it’s even in the title!).  These moments throw the rest of the content into question.  I would have preferred a more balanced perspective on Disney the man, or less mention of Disney the man and more of his stories about day to day life as a press agent.

Like I noted at the start–if you go into the novel with realistic expectations, it is an entertaining read for Disney fans.  Just read critically.

Book Review: Diary of an Expat in Singapore by Jennifer Gargiulo

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.07.43 PMDiary of an Expat in Singapore by Jennifer Gargiulo

Rating 1/5 stars

Since becoming an expat in 2010, I have enjoyed reading expat memoirs.  They’ve helped me feel less alone when I feel isolated.  Culture shock and confusion are a common experience, not something that makes me a “bad expat.”  Seeing them come to terms with and part of their new home culture is encouraging.  Considering that, “Diary of an Expat in Singapore,” by Jennifer Gargiulo should be a natural addition to my bookcase.  It isn’t.

We are both expat mothers of two children.  Neither of us expected to stay in Singapore long.  As I approach my 4th anniversary, Gargiulo is approaching her 7th.  We both write about our experiences in Singapore, but we do so in very different ways.

I was hoping for an exploration of the transition to expatriate, acclimation to Singapore, and the difficulties one can have reconciling your culture with that of Singapore’s.  I got oversimplified top ten lists and casual racism.

The racism was particularly problematic for me.  I learn that Swedes are most likely to be training for a triathelete (pg 21), Japanese stick together (pg 89), and that it’s surprising that there are so many skin whitening products on sale in Singapore since Singaporean kids are always inside studying (pg 91).  As the mother of half-Indian daughters and the wife of an Indian American, I was unamused to find out that she thinks

The Indian expat launches websites, compares ways to best store a sari in Singapore…[and] lengthy discussions on where to buy gold.” (pg 24)

and that everyone loves India except Indians because they want to get PR in Signapore(pg 157).  All of these are brushed off as “humor” and “political incorrectness.”  They’re not—they are white privilege at its worst—and blatantly racist.

It takes white privilege to be blissfully unaware that many apartment vacancies specifically say “no Indians.”  Gargiulo is blissfully unaware that my biracial family is carefully billed as “American” when we’ve apartment hunted because our agent would never have gotten to American if she had started with Indian.

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.41.53 PMScreen shot from Property Guru in a Wall Street Journal article about discrimination in the Singapore housing market

White privilege and class privilege combine to take potshots at a certain type of expatriate—the foreign domestic worker (FDW–aka maid/helper).

For example, revealing one’s maid’s nickname is Slow Mo (as in slow motion) because she washes salad so slowly she gets to know the leaves on a first-name basis” (pg 38).

Here, even the maids have maids. Seriously.” (pg 59)

How domestic workers manage to have not only better phones than the rest of the population but better phone plans as well. They must be working for SingTel. This is the only possible explanation for the amount of time cleaners spend talking on the phone.” (pg 179)

From the descriptions, you would think that FDW’s have it made here.  The truth is that they work for pennies (the average salary range is 400-600 sgd a month), that many are on call 24 hours a day, and that the government isn’t particularly interested in their rights.  An FDW must get a pregnancy and AIDS screening twice a year, and will be sent home if she tests positive for either (Gargiulo and myself have access to hormonal birth control and abortion by contrast).  An FDW may not marry a Singaporean.  An FDW may be fired and deported without cause.

None of these rules apply to an expat like Gargiulo or myself because we’re wealthy enough to be the employer as opposed to the employee.

The complex dance of cross-cultural expectations and understandings are missing, as is the awkwardness of having a stranger live inside your home.  The only thing she discusses about cultural issues is what nationality of maid you might hire

Filipina, Indonesian, or from Myanmar (in other words: speaks English, acts like she speaks English, or really has no idea what you are saying) (pg 38) 

Construction workers are another invisible expat.  In fact, she doesn’t mention them directly at all, rather she only discusses that construction noise inconveniences her (pg. 7) without any thought to the men who work at that site.  She’s thrilled to share that “unemployed immigrants are nonexistent” (pg 65) but doesn’t seem to know or care about the construction workers who get hurt on the job and are summarily fired and deported without compensation.  Although the book was published in late 2013, late enough to include jokes about the hazardous haze in June of that year, there is no mention that construction workers had to continue working outside when the PSI was over 400 (hazardous).

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.45.02 PMNo Haze (pic of myself and a friend)

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.45.07 PMHaze PSI of 300+ (hazardous) taken by my husband from his work window

There is also no mention of how over 150 bus drivers went on strike in 2012.  Four drivers were jailed and then deported, 29 were deported without jail time, and 150 others were given notices by the police—most of them expatriate foreign workers from the People’s Republic of China.

For Gargiulo, expats aren’t maids, construction workers, or bus drivers.  They’re Wealthy, White, and Western (except for the occasional reference to Japanese, Koreans and Indians—the presumption is that they are white).  They have non-black hair.  Expat children go to international schools.  Expat husbands work all the time, and travel even more.

There is nothing the expat spouse likes less than having the working spouse out of town on the weekend. During the week, it’s fine, almost routine. Early dinners with the kids, late-night snacks in front of the TV, no fighting over the remote… but Sunday, that’s another story. (pg 11)

Let’s not joke about solo control of the remote, Jennifer.  Instead, let’s have an honest discussion about how isolating it can be to be the trailing spouse and the effect that can have on a relationship.  Expats have a higher than average divorce rate, and according to my husband’s company the trailing spouse is the most frequent reason an expat employee will leave Singapore.  We spouses (most often wives) are the ones who interact with Singapore the most—we grocery shop, we need to figure out how to get the kids to school, where to send them for a doctor’s appointment, and so forth.  We argue with the building management, with our agent to get whatever’s broken fixed, and more.  Our spouses go to work and come home.  It creates an odd, potentially new, power balance in a marriage, and it is one of the hardest parts of moving to a new country.

Expat spouses are the ones who interact with Singapore, and thus Singaporeans more than our working spouses (who often are in an office full of other expats.)  To Garguiulo, this is like interacting with an alien species.

Singaporeans are obsessed with school; “If you do meet a mom, she is very likely carrying a heavy textbook to brush up on her math before tutoring her child. If it is the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Exam) time of year, you won’t see her for weeks.” (pg 25) 

Singaporean English—legitimate dialect of English, just like American English–is mocked; “Had I not moved to Singapore, I might never have known that the word off can be used as a verb: “Would you like me to off the air con?” (p. 63) 

The customs are weird; “It’s only 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade outside… who wouldn’t want a refreshing cup of hot water?” (p. 74) 

Singaporeans are such a puzzle to Garguiulo, who wonders “Why there are so many different types of skin-whitening products at shops in Singapore is a complete mystery to me.…They can thank their kids’ exams for their unblemished skin.”  (p. 91)

As someone who doesn’t live in the expat bubble I’m frustrated by these characterizations.  If Gargiulo made friends with Singaporean moms instead of mocking them, she’d learn about the Singaporean school system.  The PSLE exam determines the rest of the child’s life–what secondary school they can get into, the likelihood of their doing well on O level exams (british system), what Junior College they are eligible for and what A levels they’re likely to have access to, and then what universities the child is eligible to attend.  If you flub the PSLE, there’s no fixing it.  Further, she talks about how some Singaporeans moved into a condo because of schools–yes, they did move there because of the rules about who gets priority to apply into a primary school and those rules are incredibly complex (something I’m dealing with this year).

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.47.01 PMRhi’s birthday celebration last year at her school.  She is one of only a few non Singaporean Chinese children.

It’s not that you shouldn’t point out cultural differences or share that you’re baffled by something.  But there’s a difference between doing that and belittling–and too frequently it feels like the latter, not the former.

Living in Singapore, and interacting with Singaporeans (when you can find them, apparently) have an effect our your children.  Sure you wanted them to have an experience and learn Mandarin, but then they cross that line and become too Singaporean.

“When someone asks the kids where they’re from, they answer Singapore” (pg 48),

The kids’ preference for rice over pasta. (pg 50)

The answer to “What sign are you?” is not Sagittarius. It’s Snake (pg 56). 

Rather than discuss the very real ambivalence and concern over whether you’re giving a child “enough” access to their home culture, Garguiulo jokes that they’ve been in Singapore too long because “When asked how they are in Italian, they answer in Chinese” (pg 56).

Raising a third culture kid is hard, so let’s talk about what makes it hard.  I struggle with my children’s identity-my elder will tell you “I’m a little bit Indian, a little bit American, and a little bit Singaporean,” which is a step in the right direction–when she was three she insisted she was Singaporean.

IMG_1882E at the Natural History Museum in NYC, an hour before I flubbed her intro to US History

I’ve barely introduced the idea of the US and American history to Elanor (5).  We went to the Museum of Natural History in NYC, and when walking through the “Plains Indians” exhibit, I tried to explain early colonization–and as a historian I’m not willing to lie about the realities of European/Native interaction.  We have also read age appropriate books about Martin Luther King for Martin Luther King Day.  Elanor’s takeaway from these two pieces of history is that White People are mean–which shows how far over her head my explanations went.  Yes, but….  It’s really hard to introduce her to American History and culture when we’re so divorced from it (and given that I’m not a particularly flag waving type to begin with).

It’s a really touchy subject with me when I get crap from other Americans about sending my kids to local schools because they won’t be “American.”  While I do have the fury of a thousand suns over that, it’s also true that I have some ambivalence and worry over it too.

Sure, I laughed at some of her observations and jokes.  But that doesn’t mean I think that they balanced out the racism and cheap stereotypes.  Being an expat is hard, and I prefer a far more honest and contemplative narrative.  Without serious content to balance the jokes, and a removal of the racism, this just isn’t my kind of book.  I wasn’t familiar with her blog going in–if I were, I probably would’ve passed on the book.