Mexico – Wealthier Than You Think

MexicoAs an American, it’s easy to think of Mexico as our poor and violent neighbor. And while there may be significant poverty and violence south of the border, it pays to take a step back and think of Mexico in a global context rather than a local one.

Mexico is always in the shadow of its wealthier and more powerful neighbor, in a way that hides how wealthy and powerful it really is. If Mexico were located anywhere else in the world, it would be perceived as a major international power. Adjusted for purchasing power, Mexico has the 11th largest economy in the world. Fareed Zakaria’s blog recently pointed out that although Mexico has a higher adjusted per capita income ($15,300) than Brazil ($11,700), China ($8,500) and India ($3,700), these other countries are always in the international economic limelight. Apparently the bad press has affected domestic sentiments as well – Mexicans see themselves as worse off than residents in these other countries even though Mexicans are significantly wealthier. Also, the Mexican economy continues to grow even as most of the advanced economies of the world has slowed to a standstill.

Mexico is the Scottie Pippen of international geopolitics – not a superpower but definitely a power to be reckoned with, and constantly in the shadow of the superstar teammate. There are of course those who say Pippen was as good as he was because he played with Jordan. The same can be said of Mexico’s wealth and power being aided by a close economic relationship with the US – but that’s a whole other blog post.


What’s in a country’s name?

Will Mexicans rename their country Mexico? What do Chinese people call China? Just how Bolivarian is Venezuela?

You may not have known it but Mexico’s official name is the United Mexican States (Estados Unidos Mexicanos). Following independence from Spain in 1810, according to outgoing President Felipe Calderòn, Mexicans were emulating their neighbors to the north who were seen as a beacon of democracy and liberty breaking away from European colonialism.

In the last days of his Presidency, Calderòn has sent a piece of legislation to the Congress to officially change the country’s name to “Mexico”. The country’s official name is seldom used – only for official documents and diplomatic protocol. The President feels it’s time to make official what everyone already calls the country and stop emulating the USA.

Whether that happens or not is yet to be seen, but it got me to wondering, what other countries are commonly known by something other than their formal name. Plenty of countries have a longer formal form:

  • UK: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
  • Venezuela: Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
  • Bolivia: Plurinational State of Bolivia
  • Macedonia: former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

Virtually every country in the world has the common name preceded by “Kingdom of” or “Republic of” or god forbid, “Democratic Republic of”, or anything with the word “People” in it – those last two usually means you’re in a bad place.

What interested me more were those instances in which the English version of a country/territory’s name was totally different than the one used in indigenous language(s). Here are some that came to mind.

  • Bhutan: Bruk Yul
  • China: Zhunggua
  • Egypt: Miṣr
  • Finland: Suomi
  • Germany: Deutschland
  • Greenland: Kalaallit Nunaat
  • India: Bharat (or something similar) and sometimes Hindustan
  • Japan: Nippon
  • Korea: Han Guk
  • Scotland: Alba
  • Switzerland: translated into English as the Helvetic Confederation
  • Tibet: Bod

If you know of others, leave them in the comments section below.

Also, a special shout out goes to Barbuda. Everybody always forgets about it. It’s not just Antiga people – it’s Antiga and Barbuda. Poor Barbuda, always in the shadow.

What’s an Asian (American)?

The only thing that binds Asian Americans is the common fear of disappointing our parents.

Yesterday we took a look at the demographic rise of the Asian American community. And since I took the effort to examine what a Hispanic is a few weeks ago, I thought I’d just touch upon what it means to be Asian American.

I never liked the word Asian. I suppose all racial/ethnic categories are arbitrary and invented, but Asian takes the cake for the silliest. It always seemed absurd to lump together 60% of the world’s population into one group. And as far as geography goes, Europe and Asia are obviously part of the same landmass, so why this arbitrary boundary of the Ural mountains? What do folks from Saudi Arabia and Japan have in common? Malaysia and Mongolia?

While growing up, it was easy to see solidarity and understanding within the Black, White and Hispanic communities (the “big three” as I like to call it) in my neighborhood. There were aspects of language, phenotype, and culture that kept certain kids with “their kind” and not with others. As pretty much the only Indian kid for miles, I took turns emulating and resenting each one of those groups. One day this Vietnamese kid joined our school and I decided right then that this word Asian was bullshit. The boy, I think his name was Phan, served me no purpose – the only thing we had in common was that neither of us were from the big three. Continue reading “What’s an Asian (American)?”

Sex and Politics around the World

Owing to positive feedback from the previous article review post, I decided to do it again. This week’s article, The Bedroom State, was published in Foreign Policy in the May/June 2012 issue. The article provides examples of governments all over the world that are actively trying to promote, prevent and influence various types of sexual activity. The examples are far from exhaustive and has an air of Western condescension, but is interesting nonetheless. If you have any other examples of your own, feel free to share them in the comments section below.

Selective-sex abortions

Across Asia, a combination of social policy, modern technology, prejudice and economic incentives are compelling parents to abort millions of unwanted female fetuses. The problem is most notable in India, where the use of ultrasound to determine sex is technically illegal, and China, where decades of the one-child policy have encouraged families to keep aborting until they get a son. Hundreds of millions of bachelors unable to find a suitable partner spells disaster.

Sex-change operations

I never would have guessed that Iran is home to the second highest number of sex-change operations in the world. More than two decades ago, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa authorizing the practice for “diagnosed transsexuals”. Since then, many young gay men have resorted to such surgeries in order to legally have relations with men – keep in mind that homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran. According to Hojatol Islam Muhammad Mehdi Kariminia, the cleric responsible for sex reassignment, a sex change is no more sinful than “changing wheat to flour to bread.” This would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Paying people to stop AIDS

In Malawi, where more than one in ten people are HIV positive, people were paid to get tested.  The cash incentives increased the number of people getting tested. “This makes a significant difference because sexually active, HIV-positive people who know their status are three times more likely to purchase condoms and thus prevent the further spread of the disease.” Another study posits that young women, who were randomly selected to receive between $1 and $5 per month, were more likely to attend school and avoid sex with older men. Throwing money at a problem may help after all.

How driving destroys virginity

The Saudi government famously bans women from driving, arguing that permitting such mobility would constitute an “end of virginity”. Women drivers would apparently “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce” and lead to a serious shortage of virgins in the kingdom – Allah forbid.

Cash (and refrigerators) for babies

Russia, which is experiencing one of the most dramatic population declines in the world, has opted to pay people to have kids. For a while, the government was paying women almost $10,000 to have a second child and President/Prime Minister/President again Putin has pledged over $53 billion to boost birthrates. In one province, the government encouraged all employers to give a “family communication” holiday to facilitate the baby making, 9 months before Russia Day. Those lucky women who were able to deliver on Russia Day were awarded various prizes including fridges, washing machines and…a new car!!!

Boobs? No thanks

The only country experiencing a more dramatic population implosion than Russia is Japan where a new term, herbivore, has come to denote the sexually indifferent young men who are more concerned with fashion and hobbies than women and career. And given that the Japanese hate immigration more than the Tea Party, the population decline is more pronounced there than probably anywhere else.

Catholicism, machismo and marriage equality

In 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American Country to recognize and perform same-sex marriages. Since then there has been a competition among the region’s tourist hubs to attract LGBT clientele. Mexico City has also legalized same-sex marriages but Rio de Janeiro can boast that a quarter of all its tourists are gay.

State sponsored matchmaking

If you would have guessed that the uptight government of Singapore would be a bad facilitator of institutional romance, you would be correct. The government’s efforts to promote marriage and families through dances, wine tastings, cooking courses, cruises, and romantic movie screenings have failed. According to the CIA World Fact Book, Singapore has the lowest fertility rate in the world.

The great firewall

We already know that the Chinese government is active in blocking Facebook, Youtube, Google Maps and so many other sites on the internet, but they are also active in preventing online pornography. So much so that the state offers cash rewards to informants who rat out agents of online pornographic material. Interestingly, on the anniversary of the Tienanmen protests of 1989, tens of thousands of porn sites were unblocked. I suppose a lot of frustrated young men stayed indoors that day.

Mike Daisey Lied About Apple’s Factory in China

Journalism is part storytelling, but where do we draw the line? Well before what Mike Daisey did to This American Life and Apple. 

If you are a fan of the spoken word, you probably know that This American Life (TAL) is one of the most popular radio programs in the country and has consistently been the most downloaded podcast on iTunes for years. In early January, TAL broadcast its most popular episode ever (more than 800,000 downloads), entitled “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”. The episode was based on Mike Daisey’s one-man theater play, entitled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” a critique of Apple’s pivotal role in the exploitative global manufacturing sector. The story made a big splash, particularly because it came out only a couple of months after the death of Steve Jobs, but also because we are all becoming resigned to the fact that Apple is slowly but eventually taking over our lives.

Daisey’s play is moving and sad. If only it were true though. It turns out that much of the play’s content is fiction or at the very least exaggerated. This would be fine for a theatrical production – anything less would be boring on stage. For a journalistic radio program, it is highly inappropriate, especially considering the precision with which the material targeted one particular company (Apple) and one particular factory (Foxconn in Shenzhen).

Following the broadcast, many journalists began questioning some of Daisey’s accounts. It seemed unlikely to Rob Schmitz (China-based reporter for NPR’s  Marketplace) that factory workers would hang out at Starbucks to discuss their illegal labor union. Starbucks is even more expensive in China than in the US and is not the sort of place factory workers frequent. Daisey also describes the scowling security guards with guns standing in front of the factory gates. The problem with this is that in China, only the police and military are permitted to carry firearms.

Schmitz was able to track down Daisey’s translator, a person whom Daisey repeatedly lied to TAL about in order to prevent any verification or corroboration. Daisey also lied about meeting several underage factory workers, some as young as 12, and others who had suffered hexane poisoning. Earlier this week, TAL put out its first ever retraction episode (inspiration for my previous post), devoted entirely to saying sorry and setting the record straight.

TAL has taken a lot of flack for the mistakes and is currently the unfortunate victim of false equivalence – pretending that TAL and Daisey’s points of view are equally valid in the name of impartiality. (see here, here, here, here, here and here).

Yes, TAL should have been more careful. Yes, conditions in Chinese factories are probably difficult. Yes, Mike Daisey is a theatrical performer and is entitled to a great deal of artistic licence when performing.


Mike Daisey lied (we’ve got the tapes) and intentionally deceived journalists. He remains almost unapologetic and is playing the victim card now. TAL has gone out of its way to correct for errors – a remarkable action in this day and age.

The radio program made mistakes, but what the actor did was near criminal and deserves the bulk of the opprobrium. Meanwhile, Apple barely blinked.