Why Americans Stay Fat

Family lore has it that the first word out of my mouth as a toddler was “Pepsi.”  I loved the dark-colored cola over milk, juice or water, and as soon as my mom would go out I grabbed hold of the apron of our lovely family helper with my plea, “Annie Mae, Pepsi, Pepsi.”

As a consequence of this parental defiance, I have always had to watch my weight.  Drinking a sweetened soda at a young age set my taste buds primed for other things that just weren’t good for my growing body, including candy, hot dogs and chips.

By the time I knew better about what to choose and what to leave out it was almost too late.  Early eating habits stick with you and are hard to break.

Now it’s 2012 and America’s longest running conflict continues.  Of course I’m not referring to Afghanistan but the battle with the bulge.  New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to ban super-size 64-ounce sodas that are sold in convenience stores like 7-Eleven and limit sugary drinks in restaurants and street carts to 16 ounces.  Many citizens who want to drink what they want in whatever size container have ridiculed his Nanny state approach.  The major soda drink suppliers, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, have also met the proposal with silence.

Until now.

Katie Bayne, with the dazzling title of president of sparkling beverages in North America, is now fighting the good fight for Coca-Cola.

Katie Bayne, Sugar Evangelist

In an exclusive interview with a marketing reporter for USA Today, Bayne said, “There is no scientific evidence that connects sugary beverages to obesity.”  She does not like her company being singled out for expanding waistlines.  In fact, sugary drinks are just fine for the American diet as long as the calories taken in balance with the calories burned.  She goes many steps beyond the call of duty, arguing that sugary drinks offer the key to a vibrant life, sort of like yoga in a can:

A calorie is a calorie.  What our drinks offer is hydration.  That’s essential to the human body.  We offer great taste and benefits whether it’s an uplift or carbohydrates or energy.  We don’t believe in empty calories.  We believe in hydration.

I feel a little guilty that my first word wasn’t Coke but Pepsi.  Little did I know that as a toddler I was receiving nutrition, hydration and an energy source from the caramel-colored sugar water.  Hooray for my precocious mind for knowing that my choice of Pepsi-Cola over water, juice or milk was the right one.

Of course I speak in jest.  Katie Bayne is the modern equivalent of a P.T. Barnum.  Barnum, like Bayne, was the quintessential American huckster.  The huckster believes that most Americans fit into one of two categories: (1) fool or (2) damn fool.  So when it comes to our weight battles, Americans love to believe the hype: that over-expensive sugar water is a suitable replacement for zero calorie H2O, or that a sugary pick-me-up in the afternoon is as good as a short walk or quick nap to reenergize.  Katie Bayne can make her ridiculous claims because it’s what most Americans want to hear.  We want to believe that we don’t overdue it, that our portions aren’t so big, that American freedom is really just freedom of consumer choice as measured by the refrain, “I want my 64 ounce soda and I want it now!”

There is an election going on this year in America.  It’s not the one between Romney and Obama.  It’s between the truth and the hype, the facts and the propaganda.  As long as American media continue to give serious reporting space to paid propagandists like Bayne, I’ll know who’s winning and the rest of us will wobble merrily along sipping our Big Gulps.


Check out this review of Burger King’s new bacon sundae.  It’s just the thing to eat with that Coca-Cola.  Note this patriotic tone, as if grease and sugar together equal good citizenship:

There is something about the fusion of fatty meats and sugar-enriched ice cream that makes me feel so … American. Halfway through the sundae I was expecting a bald eagle to swoop in, carrying sparklers.

While Burger King claims that they are only offering this dessert for a limited time, part of me believes that the insatiable appetite of our country will have this item become a menu staple faster than you can say “God Bless America.”

Nicola Furlong Family Speaks Out

Nicola Furlong (right) with her sister Andrea

The brave, courageous family of murdered Irish exchange student Nicola Furlong is speaking out just three weeks after their daughter was killed.  Richard Hinds, a 19-year-old Memphis Tennessee man who grew up playing piano at his church, has been charged with Nicola’s murder after he confessed to Tokyo police that he strangled Nicola for rebuffing his sexual advances.

The family states that nothing will bring back their daughter even if justice is served.  Her younger sister, with whom Nicola was best friends, said that she hasn’t even come to terms with her sister being gone.  Nicola’s father expresses confidence in the Tokyo criminal justice system where 98% of charges lead to convictions.

Read the article and in particular watch both interviews with the parents and sister.  The Furlong family comes across as incredibly loving and my heart breaks as I listen to them express such emotional pain.  It is so true that nothing will bring back their daughter and sister, but I hope the Furlong family finds some peace over time.  May the vibrant spirit of their daughter live with them forever and may their memories of Nicola be of how she lived her life with a sense of joy and great adventure.

Barackaganda: Where Hollywood Meets Washington

Just weeks ago President Obama was hard at work delivering his Washington Correspondents’ Dinner stand-up routine and now we find him on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for what is being dubbed his “Checks and the City” tour, a play on words for actress Sarah Jessica Parker’s $40,000 a plate soiree featuring Michelle and Barack Obama.  Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine and screaming diva in the documentary film, The September Issue, will also be at the Thursday gathering.  For $40,000, that plate should come with a new Prius c.

The AP author of the article says that Obama has no choice but to hook his falling star status onto the ready cash of multimillionaire Hollywood actors and actresses like George Clooney, Cher, Matthew Broderick, Ellen Degeneres, among many others.  There is great potential for this money-raising tete-a-tete to backfire.  Americans have an ongoing love/hate relationship with Hollywood.  While we may like the product that comes out of the industry, we don’t think much of the lifestyles of many of the rich and famous.  These are not the Go Go 1980s anymore nor are these the “Yes, we can!” feelings of just a few years ago.  Granted, anyone who hates Hollywood isn’t going to vote for Barack Obama anyway, but he needs the Independents to beat Mitt Romney.

Is President Obama looking too closely aligned with Hollywood?  Do you think this close alliance between Hollywood and Washington will make any difference in the presidential election?  Or do you just want to know what they are serving for $40,000 a plate? 

Friendless in America

Friendless in America

A new study, “Intercultural Friendship: Effects of Home and Host Region,” published in the June 2012 online issue of the International Journal of Intercultural and International Communication, reveals that many foreign students in the United States do not make closer, personal friendships with American students.

450 foreign students in the South and Northeast were surveyed and 40 percent revealed that they had no close American friend.  The least satisfied in their friendship pursuits were from East Asia, which represents the highest proportion of foreign students in the United States.  Newswise.com reported some highlights from the study:

  • Friendship numbers and satisfaction levels were highest in the South, with the nonmetropolitan Northeast ranking second, and the New York City metropolitan area ranking lowest.
  • Participants from English-speaking countries were most likely to report having three or more close American friends, whereas students from East Asia often had no close American friends.
  • Among all races and ethnicities, 46 percent thought that the reason for their friendship problems was an internal factor, such as low language proficiency or shyness. However, among East Asian students, that percentage was much higher, at 78 percent.
  • The most common reasons why students attributed their friendship difficulties to Americans or to U.S. culture were superficiality (32 percent) and not being open-minded or interested in other cultures (25 percent).

The author of the study, Elizabeth Gareis of Baruch College/CUNY, said: “A central predictor of overall sojourn satisfaction is international students’ contact with the hosting country’s nationals, in particular, the meaningful contact found in friendships.  Through friendships, international students have stronger language skills, better academic performance, lower levels of stress and better overall adjustment to a new culture.”

I find the attention this study is receiving a bit mind-blowing, though I suppose that the high number of self-reports of no intercultural friendships is what drew media attention.  I’m happy to read that foreign students in the South seemed the most satisfied with their cross-cultural friendships.  We’re known to be quite friendly in the South.  The author’s predictive measures that link close personal friendships to academic success and lower levels of anxiety are quite standard in the sojourn literature.  When I defended my doctoral dissertation in 1992, “Fulbright Scholars as Cultural Mediators,” I found that foreign Fulbright scholars who formed meaningful multicultural social networks was the single best behavioral predictor for having academic success and personal satisfaction than those without such networks.

What do you think of the foreign student study findings?  Do they surprise you?  The students who reported no close personal friendship tended to ascribe blame to their American counterparts.  Would you?

Obama, the Rock Star? No More

Many American reports are out today, including this article in the Christian Science Monitor, citing the just released Pew Global Attitudes Survey that President Obama’s rock star status in the world has severely declined.  I could have told you this, as it comes as no surprise to this American, but some of the data in the report is quite revealing.  Obama’s support for deadly drone strikes has all but evaporated any goodwill he had in Muslim majority countries.  (Anyone remember his famous Cairo speech in 2009?)  The world’s majority does not support the Obama drone campaign, with the American people (62%) still mostly in support of such actions to take out extremists and Al Qaeda supporters.

Not only has Obama’s popularity waned, but also the perception that the United States is the leading economy in the world.

The Obama era has coincided with major changes in international perceptions of American power – especially U.S. economic power. The global financial crisis and the steady rise of China have led many to declare China the world’s economic leader, and this trend is especially strong among some of America’s major European allies.

Four years ago, a plurality of 45 percent in the 14 countries also surveyed in this year’s poll named the US as the king of the global economic hill, as opposed to 22 percent who picked China. Today 42 percent place China in the throne, while the percentage naming the US has slipped to 36.

In European countries especially, China is viewed as the leading economic power: About two-thirds of Germans hold this opinion, while nearly 60 percent of Britons, French, and Spaniards do as well.

Thanks a lot, Europe, especially you, Germany, where nearly four years ago in August 2008 several hundred thousand of your own citizens cheered on the American presidential candidate Obama as he spoke in Berlin.  Check out this Associated Press photo of Obama’s fans in Berlin.

“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end,”goes the old song made popular by Welsh singer, Mary Hopkin.  Seriously, this China economic power number one ranking is a somewhat shocking perception, but I recall telling many a listener when I lived in Beijing in 2007 that this century would not be called “The American Century,” but rather “The China Century,” thanks to not only China’s growing economy but also its super culture power status (Confucius Institutes, for example).  Little did I know then that a mere five years later many parts of the world would view China the greater economic power over the United States.  Interestingly, 48% of the Chinese people surveyed by Pew still consider the United States the world’s economic leader versus just 29% citing China.  For the record, the United States is still the world’s strongest economy.  Most of the US slippage is due to the perception that the dollar is not the leading economic indicator it once was.

The US president, much less the United States, may not hold rock star status in Europe these days, but we can cast our eyes across the Pacific to our Northeast Asian treasured ally.  Here is what the Pew Global Attitudes Survey had to say, and I thank you in advance:

In Japan, 72% currently express a favorable opinion of the U.S., up from 50% four years ago. America’s image in Japan improved dramatically in 2011, due in part to American relief efforts following the devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Fully 85% of Japanese respondents expressed a positive view of the U.S. in last year’s poll.

Is there anything about this drop in Obama’s popularity that surprises you?  How about the United States?  Do you think we obsess over our position in the world more than other countries?  I think we do.  After all, we are the nation of celebrity, and just like actress Sally Field once said after winning her second Oscar® for Best Actress, “you like me right now,  you like me,” America really wants to be liked, not just in the Facebook sense.

Sushi Diplomacy: Japan in the World

The following is a prepared text of my May 30th speech to the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.  I was asked to discuss Japanese Public Diplomacy as part of a panel on Public Diplomacy in Northeast Asia.


In 1923, the Japanese Diet created a Special Account from Japan’s share of the Boxer indemnities to fund cultural activities to China.  That same year a China Cultural Affairs Bureau was established within MOFA.  This cultural bridge between China and Japan was severed with Japan’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the Marco Polo Bridge incident that led to the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).  Japan’s defeat in World War II led to almost thirty years of focus on economic reconstruction and recovery.  By the 1970s when Japan had become an economic superpower, it began to channel more of its resources into cultural diplomacy.  The Japan Foundation was established in 1972 for this sole purpose.

In the last 40 years, Tokyo’s cultural diplomacy has been focused mostly on the United States and its ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) neighbors.  The US –Japan Alliance is Japan’s foreign policy cornerstone and ASEAN involves expanding markets and energy security issues.  The Fukuda Doctrine pledged “heart to heart relations” between Japan and Southeast Asia after anti-Japanese protests occurred in Bangkok and Jakarta.  Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda’s 1977 speech in Manila, Philippines reasserted that Japan was a peaceful nation that would never become a military power and would show mutual respect, fairness and equality to its ASEAN members.  Japan asserts a peaceful approach because it cannot exercise hard power according to the no-war clause of Article 9 in its constitution.  Hence, Japan’s soft approach in the post-Meiji and post-WWII era is two-fold: cultural diplomacy (CD) and developmental assistance, official and nongovernmental through Japanese NGOs.  Institutions involved include the Japan Foundation, Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteer (JOCV) Program, founded in 1965 and modeled on the US Peace Corps, Global 30, and the Office of Global Communications, Prime Minister’s Office.

Cool Culture

Japan is playing catch-up with other nations in the region in making public diplomacy an integral part of its foreign relations.  It has always had a “soft power” agenda in the aftermath of WWII when Japan’s new constitution (Article 9) forbade any military aims.  Japan’s core strength is in cultural diplomacy, Cool Japan (manga, anime, J-Pop, J-Fashion) as well as traditional Japanese culture (rock garden, Zen architecture, tea ceremony, Kimono culture).   The global appeal of manga and anime has everything to do with globalization and global consumer tastes and nothing to do with the Japanese state.  So the challenge remains: how does the state expand and exploit its new “hip and cool” soft power image and reconcile that positive image with Japan’s East Asian mixed reputation.

Before 3.11, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) was working with the Japan Foundation to expand cultural exchange programs.  In April 2006, Foreign Minister Aso Taro linked manga and anime with a hearts and minds campaign to China’s youth in a speech to the University of Digital Content located in the Akihabara district (electronics Mecca) of Tokyo.  He wondered what pictures emerge in the heads of foreigners when they hear the name, Japan.  The more positive, the easier it is for Japan to get across its long-term views.  That same year, the head of Toyota Motor Corporation, Cho Fujio, who was also head of the MOFA-advisory Council on the Movement of People Across Borders, recommended a “Japan Manga Grand Prize.”  Its purpose was two-fold: (1) target foreign artists of manga and anime; and (2) appoint Japanese artists as cultural ambassadors to help promote J-Pop overseas.

In January 2007, Aso Taro gave a policy speech to the Diet that officially called for J-pop to be used as a public diplomacy tool.  “What is important is to be able to induce other countries to listen to Japan.  If the use of pop culture or various subcultures can be useful in this process, we certainly should make the most of them.”  A natural offspring of this vision is the AKB48 girl group (Akihabara 48), not only in Japan but also through spin-off versions throughout the region.  The popular song and dance act is now being enlisted in the sale of “reconstruction bonds.”  Japan has held cultural appeal for quite some time.  Before Hello Kitty, Doraemon (the earless robot cat), or Pokemon, there was Astro Boy and Godzilla.  The difference between then and now is that the J-state is finally taking notice that J-pop has J-policy links.

Cool Japan has its problems.  What it means to be cool is ephemeral.  Today’s Cool Japan is tomorrow’s (or today’s) Cool Korea or Cool India.  The Japanese government and institutions like the Japan Foundation recognize that being a cultural superpower isn’t enough, especially against the backdrop of the lost decades.  Nevertheless, the emphasis on culture continues in a region where China, Korea and Taiwan assert their own cultural features, China with its global Confucian Institutes in particular.  The question remains: Is culture power in the East Asian region just politics by other means?

Whither JPD after 3.11

Everything has changed with 3.11.  It is no longer exclusively Cool Japan but rather Gratitude Relations (Yamato spirit) that is driving Japan’s soft power.  Disaster pictures spoke 1,000 words, with long lines of people politely lined up and waiting for hours for water and food.  What started out as neighbors helping neighbors in Japan after the quake and tsunami was quickly appreciated globally and donations poured in.  Pray for Japan, the Lady Gaga effect in 2011, became Japan thanks you in 2012.

Japan’s image today is on the rise with its recovery.  But there is another side to this coin that is a major concern.  JPD holds opportunity for person-to-person diplomacy but public suspicion persists related to the Fukushima nuclear fallout and the Japanese government’s lack of transparency.  There is a huge loss of trust in government and corporate institutions.  Will this be a nuclear Japan, a post-nuclear Japan or something in between?  Mass anti-nuclear sentiments challenge the government’s efforts to link nuclear power with the Japan nation branding campaign of the Future City.  Former PM Naoto Kan told the Diet on Monday, May 28 that Japan should give up nuclear power, while Noda will decide soon whether or not to start the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture.  (Coincidentally I’m meeting the mayor of Fukui city June 7th as part of a sister-city goodwill exchange.  Fukui is the sister city to my university employer home city, Fullerton.)

Another concern involves the persistent lack of internationalization in Japanese higher education.  Internationalization has always been linked more with economic and business issues.  To address this concern, the Japanese government formed the Global 30 project, which was originally slated to involve 30 universities but stands at 13.  These 13 Japanese institutions of higher learning are using government funds to internationalize their curriculum, increase foreign student percentages and offer more English-language instruction.  The program’s goal is to attract 300,000 international students by 2020. (The 13 member institutions had 21,429 international students in 2011.) Most coursework is offered in English so that the Japanese language requirement is not an impediment, but the hurdles are high for other universities to participate because of strict Ministry of Education standards.

Foreign student numbers in Japan were just over 138,000 in 2011, with nearly 90,000 coming from China and the rest from Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia.  USA student numbers were 1,400.  Global interest in the Japanese language is on a significant rise, in part because of great love and affection for manga and anime more than for economic reasons, but Japan has no equivalent to the Confucian Institutes outside the Japan Foundation.  Less than 4 percent of Japan’s university students are from overseas (133,000) compared to China’s 223,000 and the US with over 672,000.  Five percent of faculty is foreign and most are hired to teach in English or as ESL instructors.  Today fewer Japanese students are going abroad to the US and Europe.  South Korea, half the size of Japan, sends twice the number of its students to America.  All of this is causing angst about Japan’s ability to compete globally, but with the worse public debt among industrialized nations, change will be slow.

It is also plainly obvious that Japan’s public diplomacy suffers from the lack of a CNN International or BBC-like global media presence.  The Prime Minister’s Office recently opened an Office of Global Communications to strengthen its presence with international media and to reestablish the credibility of the Japan brand. But a closed society image persists.  Japan’s government policies favor ethnic homogeneity to maintain social order over a more open immigrant policy.  If you add in the fact that Japanese is not a global language either in business or diplomacy, then you have a recipe for a more sluggish soft power nation.

Japan’s future public diplomacy agenda will likely expand its Gratitude Relations through ODA and ORC (Open Reconstruction Collaboration).  A recent boost is that Japan has 18 months to convince the IOC that it would be a better host for the summer Olympics in 2020 than either Istanbul or Madrid.  The publicity surrounding this Olympic bid is driven by the rhetoric of thanks and acknowledgment to the world for helping Japan after 3/11.   The Japan Foundation is celebrating its 40th anniversary.  Some, but not all of its staff, prefer a more human touch and less statist touch approach to cultural diplomacy, what might be called “The Personal (Kizuna) is Public Diplomacy.”  JF’s Hideki Hara cites the Israeli Association for Japanese Studies (http://www.japan-studies.org) launched at Hebrew, Haifa and Tel Aviv universities this year to commemorate the 60th anniversary of ties between the two countries or the sponsorship of Japanese-Brazilian artist Hamilton Yokota (Titi Freak) colorful fish murals on temporary houses in Ishinomaki.  Hara says,

The worst thing that can happen to scholars or people like me is to have set prejudices about my country versus other country’s uniqueness.  The cultural diplomacy based on uniqueness, superiority or inferiority for that matter is over.  Now it’s all about compassion.  It’s all about getting nods from other countries.

The US-Japan Tomodachi Initiative to support more interpersonal artist and student ties into the Japan recovery.  (The Lady Gaga Teacup from which she drank during a news conference in June 2011 was auctioned off in early May for $75,000 to support Tomodachi efforts.)  In the Kizuna and Tomodachi spirit, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attended the 60th anniversary of the Japan-US Educational Commission (Fulbright) at the Imperial Palace Hotel on May 25, 2012.  What was striking was to see so few young people at the reception.  Attendees were mostly the Japanese Fulbright students from the 1950s and 1960s.  Who will replace them?

2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the gift of 3,000 cherry blossom tree saplings by then mayor Ozaki of Tokyo City to Washington, DC.  A recent Gallup rating showed a slight majority of Americans considers Japan “the most important partner of the US in Asia.” The challenge for Japan is this: Does clicking “like” on the Sushi page of Facebook translate into state and foreign policy goals?        

Barack “George W.” Obama & Counterterrorism

The New York Times interviewed three dozen of President Barack Obama’s advisers about the president’s record on counterterrorism for its article, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will.”  Many of Obama’s strongest supporters are greatly disappointed and puzzled by his George W. Bush-like continuation of unpopular policies like a secret kill list of terror suspects (some as young as 17) and the drone strike program against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Yemen.

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

Nothing else in Mr. Obama’s first term has baffled liberal supporters and confounded conservative critics alike as his aggressive counterterrorism record.  His actions have often remained inscrutable, obscured by awkward secrecy rules, polarized political commentary and the president’s own deep reserve.

Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.

Critics say that when drones strike, they don’t distinguish first between children and adults.  They are aimed at the guilty but many hit the innocent.  Drones have now replaced Guantanamo, Cuba as the rallying cry for recruiting militant terrorists.  This is the same president who signed executive orders his second day in office pledging the closure of Guantanamo (it is still open) and the ending of the worst counterterrorism interrogation techniques (they are banned.)

Does this profile in The New York Times prove that Barack Obama is a realist more than an idealist in foreign policy?