Tag Archives: sociology

Social change in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

[Spoilers the size of the First Pulse ahead]

Earlier this year, over spring break, I traveled to San Francisco for a work conference. (What a lovely place!)  I needed a book for the return flight across the country and remembered that I had been looking forward to the new Kim Stanley Robinson novel about future New York. (In a previous post, I discussed why I loved reading his last book, Aurora, as well as Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.) I hiked all over the city to local bookstores, trying to find a copy, which I eventually found at Alexander Book Company.  I had high hopes for New York 2140.

This book was precisely what I needed after the political events of 2016.  One of my concerns about much of popular culture (in movies, tv shows, books, etc.) in recent years has been the focus on dystopia, cruelty, anti-heroes, self-loathing, etc. I’ve been slowly cooling out on many parts of popular culture that I used to enjoy.  As an example. I stopped watching Game of Thrones seasons ago (and am torn as to whether I want to finish the novels.)

In my own writing, and in the stories that I want to read right now, I want stories that focus on real people who are working to make their communities better. We need stories that tell us that we can be good, that we can be better. We need stories about communication and collaboration. We need stories that show that outcomes change through daily actions and diligence. New York 2140 delivers this through its magnificent cast of characters—characters who have ordinary but essential jobs. Characters who actually grow as people over time due to their situations and interactions with other people in their communities.

However, it’d be too easy for a novel to swing too far in the other direction away from dystopia and total despair. It could focus too much on utopia, on “perfect” heroes without flaws, on rosy ideas that could never actually happen because we humans are complex and messy. Apparently, at least in this novel, Kim Stanley Robinson feels similarly.

The future New Yorkers are dealing with uncertainly and adversity relating to the environment and capitalism and have been for more than a century.  Yet, despite the destruction, people are still living their lives. There are people who are swooping in to take advantage of disaster and those who are the “helpers” that Mr. Rogers referenced.

This book made me wish that I had read more American literature. There were many classic American stories embedded in the larger story which is why such a large cast was needed: it included a treasure hunt, a police/detective story, a rags to riches orphan tale, Moby Dick references, “Mutt and Jeff,” a gritty lawyer, the immigrant experience, an internet star, love affairs, and so much more.  I’m sure that I missed some references. There’s also “a citizen” that waxes poetical about the city of New York, that gives historical and educational information about New York through the centuries. In fact, New York City felt like a character in this book.

Many stories play out simultaneously in a city, and Kim Stanley Robinson points this out.  In fact, we often focus on the “few” people, but in reality, there are many people responsible for the events around us, including social change. It reminds me of the differences between micro-level and macro-level approaches in sociology.  Reality construction requires the day-to-day interactions and meaning construction between individuals.  You don’t get large institutions like banking or politics without individuals. Yet the institutions and large scale-conflicts around us shape those individual actions. The characters actions in New York 2140 impacted the society that they live in; however, other people in the city/nation/world who were not a part of the narrative played a role, too. Kim Stanley Robinson puts it like this in a chapter by “a citizen”:

Note that this flurry of social and legal change did not happen because of Representative Charlotte Armstrong of the Twelfth District of the State of New York. . . Nor was it due to any other single individual. Remember: ease of representation.  It’s always more than what you see, bigger than what you know.

That said, people in this era did do it.  Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual actions.  So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand (603).

I loved this idea.  We’re riding a wave that we’re creating together. In some ways, it indicates a lack of control while also recognizing that we are in control of our individual actions. We can work to improve our communities and enact social change.  But there is a limit in scope of what one person can do alone.

A remaining questions that I have: is “a citizen” actually Franklin Garr, the only first person narrative in the novel? He’s smart and knows a ton about New York due to his work in the beginning of the novel as the creator of the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, and extremely complicated formula “used by millions to orient investments that totaled in the trillions“ (19).  It’d be easy to mistake him for “just a stock broker”, but he has to understand finance, as well as the physics of what’s happening.  He obviously had a great education; however, he is young, wealthy, privileged, selfish and immature. Over time, through his exposure to diversity within his building, though his interactions with the other characters, he grows and becomes more empathetic and thoughtful.  This is a great message because people can change. I’d have to go back and do a longer analysis, but small things make me wonder if he’s also “a citizen” like their love of boating, enthusiastic narrative style and way of “speaking.” ( Of course, this could be a coincidence  since the whole book is about New York being submerged.)

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it gets nominated for awards next year. Although I haven’t mentioned it, New York 2140 would be educational for readers who might not have taken a sociology class.

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Reading Progress: 2014 Nebula Nominees

[Spoilers–Enter at your own risk]

This is one of my favorite times of the year because the semester is winding down, allowing me more free time to read the Nebula nominees, too. If I have time, I usually pick up some of the Hugo nominees.  This year, however, I suspect I’ll be focusing mainly on the Nebulas due to the Sad Puppies takeover of the Hugo ballot.

The list of nominees for 2014 is here. Due to several friends’ recommendations, I started with Annihilation. It’s the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. Here is a review at i09 covers more of the details. I tore through it faster than any novel I’d read in years and felt a need to hide under my bed with a blankie when I finished.  It left me with a sense of delicious disquiet. Although I usually write more about sociology, this book explored concepts of psychology in fascinating ways.

The protagonist and narrator, a biologist, is sent with three other women to explore Area X: an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist, the leader of the team. All the previous expeditions had failed, ending in the deaths of all of the team members.  Fascinating group dynamics were presented like trust and distrust, in-groups and out-groups, as well as leadership style. The plot is gripping and the unreliable narrator fascinating. It seems that she may have been psychologically unusual before going to area X, which may be an advantage for her. The mystery, as well as the disconcerting, slow building horror, have me ready to read the second and third book.  The book left me with many questions.

However, I’m currently reading The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, a Chinese author. The book was translated into English by Ken Liu. I’m about a quarter into it and can’t wait to read more.  Yesterday, I spent about thirty minutes reading about black-body radiation online to better understand the book. I love how science fiction forces me to stretch my knowledge. My focus in school was on the social sciences so I love a good opportunity to learn more about science. For example, I’ve been listening to an introductory, astronomy podcast from the Ohio State by Professor Richard Pogge since last fall. I’m on the 28th lecture, and I’ve found the podcasts both informative and entertaining at points. The only challenge I’ve faced is that while I’m driving, I wish that I could see the examples that he’s showing his class.  I search for examples online later. Listening to these podcasts this year has led me to a deeper appreciation of The Three-Body Problem and will hopefully help me with writing my own fiction.

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Naming, Race, and Gender in the “Stuff You Missed in History Class” Podcast: A Focus on Ballerina Maria Tallchief

I often listen to podcasts during my commute, and today, I listened to a podcast from “Stuff You Missed in History Class” that I’m planning to use as material for my social diversity class.  Before getting into the specifics, I want to note that many of these podcasts supplement undergraduate sociology classes fabulously because they are relatively short, as well as covering fascinating historical figures. Often, these figures face, and sometimes overcome, adversity relating to inequality in their societies.  Many of the podcasts also work well for illustrating how norms and values change depending on both location and time period. The podcasts allow for students to connect the individual experiences of these figures to the societal context that influenced their lives. They’re great for illustrating C. Wright Mill’s concept of sociological imagination.  (I also listen to these podcasts to get story ideas for my creative writing, although that is less relevant to this post.  I recommend that writers listen to these for character and setting ideas.)

A recent episode covered Maria Tallchief, the first prima ballerina in the United States, who happened to be Native American, a part of the Osage Nation.  She traveled the world and won many awards.  I find that it helps when teaching concepts to my students to bring in people’s narratives.  One of the concepts that I cover is that of naming.  We discuss naming at an individual, personal level, as well as at a societal level. For example, my students discuss times when they’ve had difficulties with their first or last names due to ethnicity (e.g. teachers refusing to learn to pronounce their names).  Others will discuss family tensions over whether or not to change a her last name when she marries.  Then, we discuss how categories of people choose to change their names over time, often to avoid stigma.  For example, today, we often use persons with disabilities instead of a term like handicapped. This will likely change in the future.

Although named Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief, according to the podcast, children (and others) had a difficult time with her last name. They constantly wanted to know which one was really her last name.  Although she was not an immigrant, her experience reflected one that many immigrants to the U.S. face. Many immigrants would shorten or change their last names to fit into the racial hierarchy in the U.S. Her choice likely related to her performing career. This podcast would also work in terms of showing the story of a relatively recent minority woman’s success in her career field. Her family was wealthy so it’d also be interesting to discuss how that may have impacted their ability to have her in dance schools from such an early age. (This blogpost will tell you more so you can decide if you want to listen to the podcast.)

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Craving and Alienation in Neil Gaiman’s “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”

[There are major spoilers in this cave. Beware.]

One of the impressive aspects of Neil Gaiman’s works is how he weaves magical stories that are relevant, cautionary tales for our own time.  Recently, I read The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains: A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds and noticed similar themes to The Ocean at the End of the Lane about the dangers of money and craving.  I discussed this theme briefly in my post from last year.

The plot of Gaiman’s story begins with the unnamed protagonist finding a guide, Calum MacInnes, to take him to a cave on Misty Isle.  People seek the cave because it contains gold, although gold is ultimately not what the protagonist wants.   Calum used the money from his previous trip in the cave as a bride-price and for his farm. The locals can find the cave, too, but they know better than to enter it. Calum states, “[b]ut they are too wise to come here, to take its gold.  They say that the cave makes you evil: that each time you visit it, each time you enter to take gold, it eats the good in your soul, so they do not enter (46). However, Calum doesn’t believe that the cave feeds on good and evil.  Rather, he feels that his experience afterwards was that “things are flat.  There is less beauty in a rainbow, less meaning in a sermon, less joy in a kiss…”(47). Calum notes that eventually nothing means anything, not even killing a man.

Gaiman drives the point home by revealing that Calum is the one whose lack of care and negligent actions lead to the death of the protagonist’s daughter.  He chose to leave her tied to a tree by her long, red hair, unable to reach her knife. She died there.  This was over the fact the Calum was stealing the cattle that the protagonist himself had stolen, and the young woman stood up to Calum.  When Calum returned in a year, he realized what he had done.  He says to the protagonist, “It was an evil thing I did, perhaps.” The protagonist, the dead girl’s father, says, “There is evil.” Calum’s love of wealth led to the death of a human being.

It is revealed later that money in the cave is not exactly money. The protagonist’s father was not a mortal, and his heritage allows him the ability to see the creature living the cave.  It explains to him: “I taste their pleasure and their joy.  I feed, a little, feed on what they do not need and do not value.  A taste of heart, a lick and a nibble of their fine consciences, a sliver of soul” (56). The creature provides the protagonist with a weapon and informs him of when Calum sleeps since Calum intends to ambush the protagonist when he emerges with the gold.

Calum and the protagonist fight, and they fall over a cliff onto a tree. The protagonist makes a promise to come back to help—in a year.  This parallels the year that Calum left the girl to tie through his negligence and thievery. In his narration, the protagonist states, “I take no joy in killing; no man should, and no woman.  Sometimes, death is necessary , but it is always an evil thing.  That is something I am in no doubt of, even after the events I speak of here” (38).

This tale reflected a great deal on money, property, alienation, and evil. In many societies, people are taught the ideology that money is both Real and Important, when it is really just a social construct.  It causes problems including alienation, or estrangement, from our lives, labor, and communities, similar to Calum’s experience after leaving the cave. In turn, this alienation from his community, in addition to his desire for riches led to the death of an innocent through negligence.  Money doesn’t have to be real for us to suffer from it.  In theory, our lust for money (or in the case of cows, property) destroys us, it makes us more likely to harm others.

A few other scenes illustrate these points about greed and property further.  In one scene during the men’s travels, they stay with a man and woman.  The woman is treated by her man as if she is property.  He beats her for making choices he disagrees with,  and then “he had his way with her” which agitates the protagonist, although he doesn’t interfere (20).  In another scene, the protagonist does not cheat the ferryman, though the ferryman would have charged him as a boy due to his small stature. This interaction illustrates the use of money for a transaction, rather than someone trying to maximize the money that he keeps.  If the protagonist had wanted to be wealthy, he would have allowed the ferryman’s misapprehension to continue. The issue with greed is that there is never enough to be satisfied.

At one point, Calum states: “‘Your King will want more gold, because Kings want more.  It is what they do.  Each time you come back, it will mean less. The rainbow means nothing. Killing a man means nothing’” (48).  While certainly this can be true of Kings as individual people, it can also be true of governments and corporations.  Organizations require more money.  Businesspersons desire more money.  Individual people in the United States (and other places) crave more money because they want to achieve the American Dream, or upwards social mobility.  Yet, the wealthier people become, their behaviors, on average, have been shown to become less generous.  This short PBS video documents studies by psychologists looking into the negative effects of being wealthy on behavior, as well as the effects of pretending that a person is wealthy.  (My favorite from this video is that drivers of luxury cars were less likely to follow the law and stop for pedestrians crossing.)

The more we strive for extrinsic, external rewards, the less we can experience the beauty of the world, the beauty of other people, or the fruits of rewarding labor.  Many work to gain wealth, rather than working for passion.  There are many cases of corporations choosing to maximize their profits over the wellbeing of people in their communities like the avoidable West Virginia water crisis earlier this year. In this blog post, Robert Reich discusses how corporations are blamed as entities, but individuals are still the one’s making decisions.  GM did nothing about a faulty ignition switch that led to 13 fatalities, and both executives and engineers knew about it, as discussed in this article.  Individuals and organizations can lose sight of the community as they attempt to gain wealth.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is a meditation in the nature of good and evil as it relates to money and property.  While I don’t necessarily think that Gaiman was stating that all money or property is inherently evil, I do think that he repeatedly warns of the dangers inherent of craving property instead of focusing on the well-being of others.  The final scene in his book is the protagonist turning his back on the cave and walking a path home to his wife, to his family.

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Art, Inequality, and “Dirty Work” in “Wasteland”

“The really magical things are the ones that happen right in front of you. A lot of the time you keep looking for beauty, but it is already there. And if you look with a bit more intention, you see it.”

Vic Muniz

Due to an illness, I decided to show the documentary, “Wasteland,” to my intro sociology class last week. “Wasteland” won many awards during 2010 and 2011. It’s perfect for a sociology class or for anyone looking to understand a different culture, interested in inequality and social justice, or who loves artistic endeavors.  The video is also a great look at recycling and environmental activism.

Vik Muniz, the artist in the video, is an internationally known artist who left Brazil to go to the United States due to receiving a payment from a person who shot him. In this TED Talk from 2003, Muniz humorously chats about his view of art and his own art specifically. After his success as an artist, he wanted to help others. He decides to return to Brazil, specifically to Jardim Gramacho, a landfill outside of Sao Pablo. He lives among the catadores, or the workers who scavenged the materials for recyclables. The documentary explores why the catadores perform the work they do, as opposed to other jobs. For many, tragedies struck their lives giving them few options. It also notes the activism of the workers to create the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho (ARPJG) prior to the arrival of Muniz.

As one would expect, the catadores’ views on their situations varied.  Some viewed their work with pride, focusing on their important contributions to their community and helping the environment.  They were responsible for recycling waste and saving space in the landfill.  These workers derived meaning and purpose from their work.

On the other hand, some seemed ashamed.  More than once, women pointed out that at least they weren’t working as prostitutes.  This reminded me of the concept of “dirty work” in sociology.  The concept was created by Everett C. Hughes.  Dirty work is socially constructed, meaning that society decides what work is dirty.  This concept is about more than just physical dirt.  It can also refer to work that a society perceives to be morally suspect.  Finally, people that even work to help groups of people seen as stigmatized may be considered to be doing dirty work.  Often, to feel respectable, workers completing dirty work will try to avoid their stigmatizing label and legitimize their work to themselves and others.  (If you want to read more about this, you can refer this PDF of an analysis of Ashforth and Kreiner’s look at dirty work by Stacy J. Chidaushe.)

While I follow the attempts of some sex workers in the US to define their own lives and refuse to be rescued by other people, I do not know what the experiences of sex workers in the areas of Brazil were like or how they perceived themselves. However, it is interesting to me that these workers that likely had common social class interests. By trying to avoid the stigmatizing label and to appear respectable, the catadores participated in the stigmatization of another group.

For the most part, I feel that the documentary did a good job of showing the daily live of the catadores, in addition to the horrors that they sometimes faced. One woman discussed finding the body of a baby in the refuse. Often, people would dump murder victims in Jardim Garamacho.  Yet, there were beautiful moments of love, care, humor, and creativity.  One of the catadores was a leader in ARPJG, and he discussed the excitement of finding and reading books.

In the end, Muniz gets the catadores to pose for portraits, some of which were their own ideas.  Then, he gets them to help him make huge murals of the portraits using recyclable goods from the landfill.  The results were absolutely amazing, and the process seemed to be an empowering one.  They take one of portraits to an auction and make $50,000 for the catadores.  Of course, this is heartwarming, but I really respect the fact that they address the potential for harm for the catadores by participating in the video.  Eventually, Muniz would leave and how would the people’s lives be changed for the better or the worse by the interactions? Often documentaries or journalism provide moments for an audience to enjoy, and then leave the people without any further assistance or even without a follow up.

I found an article from PBS that did address what happened after the video.  In 2012, the landfill was closed.  The city planned to pay some of the pickers about $7,500 a piece due to the efforts of the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho.  For the 2014 World Cup, the pickers received contracts to work on recycling.  However, to really know what happened to the catadores, a follow up would be needed to see if their conditions are better under these new contracts and payments. “Wasteland” is a great documentary, and although the landfill is no longer there, the concepts relating to dirty work, stigmatization, inequality, and art make it worth watching.

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“Caliban’s War”: Part 1: Women as Point of View Characters

[Spoiler’s ahoy!!]

One of my first blog posts last year covered “Leviathan Wakes,” the first book in “The Expanse” series by James S.A. Corey.  The book grew on me over time, and I gave it as a gift to several friends this year.  While I enjoyed the book, I had some reservations about the portrayal of gender.  One of the two authors of the series, Daniel Abraham commented on my review and said that I should try the second book, “Caliban’s War” to see how women are treated as point of view characters.  Often in literature and films, women are either treated exactly like men (with women’s names) or as stereotypes of women. The women in “Caliban’s War” were treated as whole persons with a mixture of masculine and feminine traits.

For example, I adored both Bobbie Draper, who begins as a sergeant in the Martian Marine Corps, and Chrisjen Avasarala, the assistant to the undersecretary of executive administration.   Bobbie’s story arc is an amazing one.  Her team is destroyed at the beginning of the book by nonhuman creature described as being “covered in chitinous plates” with its head “being a massive horror.”  It rips her counterparts apart, and Bonnie lives merely because the creature exploded.  Bonnie’s character development includes her having to work through this nightmare experience, as well as her breaking her ties with her former life because she realizes that the threat of this “monster” is greater than any Earth-Mars tensions.  Her position as a marine was extremely important to her. Although I won’t give away the ending, Bonnie regains her strength, and her actions amaze.  She is a resourceful, powerful, strong, and large woman who is attractive despite not matching traditional gender roles.  I thought that it was interesting that, due to her size, men often wanted to either have a sexual relationship with her or were intimidated by her.  Bobbie embraces her sexuality in a healthy way; furthermore, she is not viewed negatively for her sexuality.  I never felt when reading this novel that Bobbie was just a woman character who acts exactly like a man. She felt like a fully developed human being with her own talents and goals.

I’ve discussed dramaturgical analysis before, and I believe that Bobbie’s presentation of self roughly matched who she was.  On the other hand, Avasarala, an older woman and diplomat, had to find ways to play her role as the assistant to the undersecretary of administration  successfully in the male dominated field she worked in.  Before addressing the specifics of “Caliban’s War,” I want to discuss some of the findings related to women working in fields dominated by men.

In work sociology, an important topic to address is the tokenizing experience of minorities like women in workplaces. Rosabeth Kanter, faculty in the Harvard business school, for example, found that minorities in a workplace are highly scrutinized by their peers until about 15% of the workplace is comprised of that particular minority.  Therefore, a lone woman working in a field dominated by men would be monitored closely, as well as having her behaviors explained in terms of traditionally feminine stereotypes.  Women in this type of situation would have to learn to negotiate this tokenism. Kanter’s research has also been critiqued as oversimplifying the complexities of gender discrimination in the workplace, as it relates to gender.  If you’re interested in this topic, Kanter’s book from 1977 is called “Men and Women of the Corporation.”  Incidentally, Dr. Kanter (@RosaBethKanter) often tweets helpfully about leadership and innovation.

Returning to “Caliban’s War,” Avasarala’s spouse asks her, “‘The mask is heavy today?’”

Avasarala reflects on this idea. “The mask, he called it.  As if the person she was when she faced the world was a false one, and the one who spoke to him or played painting games with her granddaughters was authentic.  She thought that he was wrong, but the fiction was so comforting she had always played along.”

It seems that Avasarala either sees both versions of herself as authentic or only the version of herself at work as authentic.  This fits in with the dramaturgical analysis: she performs different roles in the different settings that she’s in.  It doesn’t mean that one is necessarily more “real” or “true” than another. Avasarala worked for the United Nations and was a tough character on the surface who learned to appear certain ways to work with the men in her field.  Avasarala finds certain masculine behavior distasteful, while embracing other aspects to fit in, perhaps like cursing. She is the, or one of the, most intelligent characters in the book and is one of the first characters to realize the dangerous potential of the entity on Venus from the previous book. Her behavior throughout the book is impacted by the realization that infighting between Earth and Mars might be harmful in a fight against a new enemy.  One of my favorite aspects of Avasarala is her willingness to get her hands dirty while still holding onto certain norms like protecting children.  Her arc allows for her to fall, briefly, in power, and then to rise higher than she started.

Both Bobbie and Avasarala felt like full human beings with their own histories, hopes, and goals.  I was pleased with their portrayal in this book, and I hope to write another post soon that looks more generally at the politics happening in the book, and I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.

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Culture Shock: Hopscotch Meets Debutante Ball

I attended Raleigh’s music festival, Hopscotch, earlier this month, and I highly recommend checking it out next year. This post is about my experience of culture shock while at Hopscotch. Due to my love of Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis, I usually enjoy watching crowds, in addition to observing the actual performance. The people in the crowd perform at events, too. I saw twenty-eight different performances over three days, and I noticed great diversity among the festival attenders. This makes sense, as there was a great deal of variety in both the performers and the venues.

The first performer I saw was Nathan Bowles in the Fletcher Opera Theater in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. As you can tell from the picture in the link, it’s a formal venue.  He played the banjo. On the other hand, I also saw a couple of rock bands play in Deep South The Bar, a music venue next to the Amphitheater. The ambiance in Deep South was perfect for the bands, but, as you’d expect, vastly different from the Opera Theater. When crowd watching outside, viewers wore a variety of outfits from casual to night-on-the-town clothes. I personally chose to wear jeans, a t-shirt, and purple Converse. As I attempted to find a theater on the back side of the Center for Performing Arts, I got trapped as an enormous group of people flowed out of the building. I felt like I was trapped in a movie with hundreds of brides and their parties. In reality, I was in the middle of Raleigh’s Debutante Ball. Trapped in the middle of this enormous crowd and feeling extremely out of place, a few hysterical giggles escaped my lips. I realized later that I had just experienced an example of culture shock in my own city. After I escaped the mass of people, I talked to a couple of Hopscotch attenders at the fringe of the crowd, who laughed about it with me.

I’ve been teaching my sociology students about culture shock this week. Although most people have experienced culture shock before, it’s worth noting that culture shock occurs when an individual experiences personal disorientation when exposed to unfamiliar cultural values or norms. Applying dramaturgical analysis, my performance was that of a concert attender. In my attire that *should* have been appropriate, I suddenly found myself on the wrong stage, and I didn’t know my role or my lines. Additionally, I felt deviant and confused. All in all, it really was one of the most amusing moments in my life and a great example of an experience of culture shock in your own country and city.

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