Beijing, 21 May 2015

I’ve just come back to Beijing from Europe. I’ve been living long enough in China now that whenever I’m back in Europe I acutely notice differences, especially physical differences. For instance … noses. We white folk have really big schnozzles, you know! This was one of the first things which the Japanese noticed when the Portuguese showed up on their shores in the late 1500’s. The Japanese paintings of the time stress differences in nose sizes.

Jesuit in Japan

And now, after just four years in Asia, I feel that everyone in Europe is Cyrano de Bergerac

cyrano de bergerac

or San Carlo Borromeo, the cardinal saint from Milan whose conk sticks out mightily from every painting of him in every church of Milan


As I see these large noses all around me back home, the lines from Cyrano come to mind, where he mocks his own gigantic hooter in front of an appreciative audience, on stage and off:

Ah ! Non ! C’est un peu court, jeune homme !
On pouvait dire… oh ! Dieu ! … bien des choses en somme…
En variant le ton, —par exemple, tenez :
Agressif : « moi, monsieur, si j’avais un tel nez,
Il faudrait sur le champ que je me l’amputasse ! »
Amical : « mais il doit tremper dans votre tasse :
Pour boire, faites-vous fabriquer un hanap ! »
Descriptif : « c’est un roc ! … c’est un pic… c’est un cap !
Que dis-je, c’est un cap ? … c’est une péninsule ! »

 Or, in English:

Ah no! young blade! That was a trifle short!
You might have said at least a hundred things
By varying the tone. . .like this, suppose,. . .
Aggressive: “Sir, if I had such a nose
I’d amputate it!’ Friendly: ‘When you sup
It must annoy you, dipping in your cup;
You need a drinking-bowl of special shape!’
Descriptive: ”Tis a rock!. . .a peak!. . .a cape!
–A cape, forsooth! ‘Tis a peninsular!’
Curious: ‘How serves that oblong capsular?
For scissor-sheath? Or pot to hold your ink?’
Gracious: ‘You love the little birds, I think?
I see you’ve managed with a fond research
To find their tiny claws a roomy perch!’
Truculent: ‘When you smoke your pipe. . .suppose
That the tobacco-smoke spouts from your nose–
Do not the neighbors, as the fumes rise higher,
Cry terror-struck: “The chimney is afire”?’
Considerate: ‘Take care,. . .your head bowed low
By such a weight. . .lest head o’er heels you go!’
Tender: ‘Pray get a small umbrella made,
Lest its bright color in the sun should fade!’
Pedantic: ‘That beast Aristophanes
Names Hippocamelelephantoles
Must have possessed just such a solid lump
Of flesh and bone, beneath his forehead’s bump!’
Cavalier: ‘The last fashion, friend, that hook?
To hang your hat on? ‘Tis a useful crook!’
Emphatic: ‘No wind, O majestic nose,
Can give THEE cold!–save when the mistral blows!’
Dramatic: ‘When it bleeds, what a Red Sea!’
Admiring: ‘Sign for a perfumery!’
Lyric: ‘Is this a conch?. . .a Triton you?’
Simple: ‘When is the monument on view?’
Rustic: ‘That thing a nose? Marry-come-up!
‘Tis a dwarf pumpkin, or a prize turnip!’
Military: ‘Point against cavalry!’
Practical: ‘Put it in a lottery!
Assuredly ‘twould be the biggest prize!’
Or. . .parodying Pyramus’ sighs. . .
‘Behold the nose that mars the harmony
Of its master’s phiz! blushing its treachery!’


Jesuit priest in Japan: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3a/Jesuit_with_Japanese_nobleman_circa_1600.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_Christians_of_Japan%5D
Cyrano de Bergerac: http://www.lecture-academy.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/logo_13453.jpg [in http://www.lecture-academy.com/livre/poche-cyrano-de-bergerac-texte-integral/%5D
San Carlo Borromeo: http://biografieonline.it/img/bio/s/San_Carlo_Borromeo.jpg [in http://biografieonline.it/biografia.htm?BioID=3135&biografia=San+Carlo+Borromeo%5D


Beijing, 17 November 2013

When I was young, sticking-out ears were considered ugly and the sign of probable dumbness. This is no doubt why, for instance, Mad Magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Neumann, has ears which stick out


and why two of the the Pieds Nickelés, the grubby lumpenproletariat heroes of a French cartoon series which was still quite popular when I was young, also had had ears which stuck out.

Pieds Nickeles

Add to this the general connection between boxers (“thick between the ears”) and prominent cauliflower ears, for instance this boxer from 1914

boxer Fred Welsh 1914

or this one from Ancient Greece some time in the first centuries BC

boxer ancient greek

and the reader can appreciate that prominent ears were not associated with the finer things of life.

This bad press for protruding ears was bad news for me. As a youngster, my ears had an unfortunate tendency to jut out, which led my mother from time to time to take my chin in her hand, pass an eye over my ears, and talk meditatively about having them pinned back. As you can appreciate, this early threat of ending up under the surgical knife has made me remember these episodes quite keenly and to be generally sensitive to the positioning of people’s ears on their heads. Prominent ears were bad enough for boys. They were even more problematic for girls. There was in my youth a certain tolerance for clumsy, oafish boys – that was par for the course – but girls were meant to be dainty and refined. So sticking-out ears on a girl was a disaster. Luckily my wife’s ears were perfectly aligned to her head, but she remembers there being general talk in her youth about using plasters to “train” protruding ears back against the head (rather as one trains flowers in the garden to grow in a certain direction by tying them to sticks).

All this being said, I never actually met a girl – or boy, for that matter – who had their ears pinned back (or who admitted to it). Nevertheless, it is a fact that as I grew up (and mercifully my ears repositioned themselves correctly against my head) I remember no-one of my generation with protruding ears. Somehow, sticking-out ears disappeared, or at least diminished.

So readers will understand that it was with some astonishment that I and my wife discovered that protruding – sometimes very protruding – ears are quite common in China, especially, so it seems to me, among women. Here is a typical example of what I mean: a young woman photographed at an automobile show, where women are meant to sell cars by being pretty, with obviously protruding ears.

chinese ears-1

I cannot imagine any automobile house in Europe hiring a woman with such prominent ears to sell its cars.

And here is a picture of an air hostess, a job which in China still connotes prettiness and femininity. I surreptitiously took this photo on a recent flight while the young lady wasn’t looking.

ears on plane 001

I cannot imagine an air hostess 10-15 years ago in Europe (when good looks were still considered a must for air hostesses) ever having ears sticking out like that.

But perhaps I’m showing a cultural arrogance here, thinking it’s our way or no way. Perhaps the Chinese don’t attribute the same negative connotations to protruding ears that we do in Europe. In a completely unscientific survey, I studied photos of some of the more glamorous Chinese women – actresses, singers and suchlike – to test the following theory: if the Chinese do not think protruding ears are a big deal, then at least some of these women will have ears that stick out. I believe that the following photos prove my theory correct:

The actress Zhang Ziyi

actress Zhang Ziyi

The actress Yang Mi

actress Yang Mi

The actress Lin Chiling

actress Lin Chiling

Their ears don’t stick out as much as some women’s ears we’ve seen here, but in my non-professional opinion they stick out more than they would on equivalent European (and American) glamorous women.

PS: After I published this post, a reader kindly sent me a series of links to videos and a photo, which show Asian girls with very prominent ears.  The links are in the comment below. From these, I feel that protruding ears are an issue not just with Chinese girls but with East/South-East Asian girls in general.  Is there a genetic component to all this, I wonder?


Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neumann: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/21/Alfred_E._Neumann.jpg/460px-Alfred_E._Neumann.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_E._Neuman%5D
Pieds Nickelés: http://www.bdoubliees.com/trio/sfig1/pn3.jpg [in http://www.bdoubliees.com/trio/series5/piedsnickeles.htm%5D
Boxer Fred Welsh 1914: http://www.shorpy.com/files/images/17114u.preview.jpg [in http://www.shorpy.com/node/2585%5D
Ancient Greek boxer: http://cultureweekend.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/DSC_0331-540×358.jpg [in http://cultureweekend.com/ciao-bella-italy-nyc/%5D 350 BC-50 BC
Chinese ears: http://images.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/2012-Beijing-Auto-Show-Ears.jpg [in http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/girls-of-the-2012-beijing-auto-show-im-all-ears/%5D
Air hostess: my photo
Actress Zhang Ziyi: http://images6.alphacoders.com/315/315260.jpg [in http://wall.alphacoders.com/big.php?i=315260%5D
Actress Yang Mi: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-o0WNzbJ9JWA/T7W-6rzqm5I/AAAAAAAAHkE/9MmBmWdgZck/s1600/1%2BYang%2BMi%2BRust%2Band%2BBone%2BCannes%2B001.jpg [in http://hong-kong-actresses.blogspot.com/2012/05/yang-mi-and-hao-lei-cannes-red-carpet.html%5D
Actress Lin Chiling: http://chinesemov.com/images/actors2/Lin-Chi-Ling-2.jpg [in http://chinesemov.com/actors/Lin%20Chi-Ling.html%5D


Beijing, 15 November 2013

It often happens to me in China that when I’m writing something I feel a sudden hush around me, perhaps with a whispered comment or two. They have just noticed that I am writing with my left hand.


This habit of mine fascinates Chinese. As far as I can understand, left-handed writing is firmly and vigorously stamped out at school. The Chinese universally write with their right hand.


I guess it has to do with the fact that ink is still extensively used to write, and as all left-handers know writing with ink is a horror because of the constant risk of smudging as your hand travels across the paper.

left hand with smudged ink

But actually, I suspect any left-handedness is proscribed. For instance, all Chinese use their right hand to hold their chopsticks.

Chinese eating

Well, nearly all. I once sat next to a Chinese person who was eating with his left hand; I was very excited when I saw it.

And all Chinese golfers or tennis players seem to play with their right hand.

chinese golfer-boy

chinese tennis player-girl

I wonder if there is some sort of feng shui thing at work here – using your left hand brings bad luck or something. Typical anti-leftism …

As far as writing is concerned, it used to be the same in Europe. My paternal grandmother was born left-handed but was made to write with her right hand. So was my father. So was my brother, who is six years older than me. I went to the same school as him, but I suppose in the intervening six years there was a change in educational philosophies in the UK. I don’t know why, although my theory is that it was the spread of the ball-point pen that did it. This wonderful product eliminated the problem of smudging with fountain pens, so now it was possible for teachers to show more compassion for us left-handers. I take this opportunity to salute the Argentinian-Hungarian László Bíró, who invented the ballpoint in the 1930s.

Laszlo Biro

I hope he was given a special place in Heaven for letting me and millions of other left-handers write with serenity – at least until word processing came along and eliminated the need for either left handers or right handers to write by hand any more.

Often, when Chinese see me writing with my left hand, they tell me that left-handers are more intelligent. They’re just flattering me, but I accept the flattery gracefully. Anyway, it’s true. We left-handers know that we are more intelligent.


Left-hander: http://practicallycreative.net/wp-content/uploads/2007/06/left-handed.jpg [in http://marc3ll.squidoo.com/lefthandedperson%5D
Chinese child writing: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/x/child-writing-chinese-calligraphy-9088290.jpg [in http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/x/child-writing-chinese-calligraphy-9088290.jpg%5D
Left hand with smudged ink: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m9s458Vjrl1roqiq1o1_500.png [in http://southpawscopic.tumblr.com/post/31716402201/image-persons-left-hand-smudged-all-over-with%5D
Chinese eating: http://factsanddetails.com/media/2/20080225-wedding%20beifan%2016tbegin-ea222.jpg [in http://factsanddetails.com/china/cat11/sub73/item149.html%5D
Chinese golfer: http://blogs.r.ftdata.co.uk/beyond-brics/files/2013/04/mas_guan-tianlang.jpg [in http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2013/04/17/driving-golf-in-china-citics-sponsorship-of-guan-just-the-start/?Authorised=false%5D
Chinese tennis player: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-08/13/xinsrc_30208051309386711607013.jpg [in http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-08/13/content_9243455_1.htm%5D
László Bíró http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/Ladislao_Biro_Argentina_Circa_1978.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A1szl%C3%B3_B%C3%ADr%C3%B3%5D


Beijing, 2 November 2013

revised 14 December 2014

So Europe has been abuzz with the story of a little girl – Maria is her name – with the blondest of blonde hair and the bluest of blue eyes, who was found living with a Roma family in Greece. Her sweet little face flashed across all our television screens.

Little-girl-found-in-a-Roma camp

Greek police suspected, based on the lack of physical similarities between her and her supposed parents, that she was not their child.

marias greek so-called parents

Of course, there was a racist element in the whole discussion: how on earth could Romani have blonde children? Everybody knows that Romani are dark and swarthy (and shifty and unreliable and of thievish disposition and, and, and …). The obvious corollary was that the Romani had stolen Maria from a “normal” family. There was a certain level of triumphalism when science came along with DNA tests which proved without a shadow of doubt that the Romani who claimed to be her parents were in fact not her parents. So I had to laugh when DNA tests went on to show that actually Maria is a Roma – but from another Roma family in Bulgaria. And her Bulgarian parents look just as dark and swarthy as the Greek “parents”!

marias bulgarian real parents-2

And to top it all, as the picture shows, they have other equally blonde children!

It seems that the solution of the mystery is simple enough. All this testing has shown that Maria’s father carries the gene for albinism. So Maria and her other white-skinned, blonde-haired children are albinos.

Actually, when we get away from all the fuss and bother of these last few days along with the borderline racism of it all, there is the deeper, fascinating tale of the Roma people themselves. For some 200 years already, scholars have inferred from the Romani’s language that their original home must have been the Indian subcontinent and more specifically somewhere in its northwestern part (I won’t bore you – or myself – with the details, but it has to do with the fact that the Romani language is clearly a New Indo-Aryan language rather than a Middle Indo-Aryan language, with the closest affinities to the Saraiki linguistic group, which is native to southern Punjab, northern Sindh, Southern Khyber Pakhtunkha and northeastern Balochistan provinces of Pakistan). So how come little Maria ended up in Bulgaria?

To answer that question, it would be nice if the Romani had written histories and other documents which would tell us what happened to them after they had left their original home and, after much wandering, ended up in Europe. But like most marginalized peoples, the Romani have little if any written documents. And so we are left with mentions of their passage – mostly disapproving if not downright hostile – in the documents of the countries they crossed, along with the Romani’s own myths and folklore about their past.

And now we also have genetics.

Modern genetics is amazing. Truly, we carry our history in our cells. Scientists can carefully tease out from those millions of chemicals spiraling in our DNAs our story as peoples. As the biotechnology tools and equipment have grown more powerful – and cheaper – more and more historical information about us is being squeezed from our cells. The Romani are no exception. I have just finished reading a scientific article about a large genetic study recently undertaken on the Romani – the latest of a series. It was pretty hard going, I have to tell you. Here is a sample: “we applied the ADMIXTURE clustering method to estimate the membership of each individual to a range of k hypothetical ancestral populations (k = 2 to k = 15, see Figures 2C, S1D, and S1E). At k = 2, a longitudinal gradient on the amount of ancestry of each component is observed from India to Europe (Spearman’s rho = 0.935, p < 10216, after exclusion of European Romani; Figure S1F)”. Aie-aie-aie! But I ploughed through the article, and this is what I got from it (with some help from a review of the article in Scientific American, I will admit).

We can start with this prettily coloured map.

india map

It shows the strength of affinity between the Romani’s genetic makeup and that of the modern populations of the Indian subcontinent (red, the strongest affinity; blue, the weakest). It tells us that most probably the Romani’s homeland was somewhere in the valley of the Indus River. This fits nicely with the linguistic evidence I mentioned earlier.

I throw in a picture here of one of the modern inhabitants of this part of India, a Punjabi farmer

punjabi farmer

Many of them are now Sikhs, but take away the turban and other Sikh attributes I don’t suppose the first Romani looked very different from this distinguished gentleman.

Genetics also tell us that it was very probably one group of people who left (rather than a number of groups leaving at different times and mingling over the centuries of their wanderings), and that they left in about 500 AD. Genetics can’t tell us why they left, alas, but a look at India’s history books shows that this was the time when the White Huns conquered the northwestern part of India from the Gupta Empire. Perhaps the Romani’s ancestors wanted to get out of the way of the fighting, or they were on the losing side of the fight and had had their lands taken from them.

Quite soon after leaving, genetics goes on to tell us, this so-called “founder group” went through what geneticists euphemistically call a bottleneck, which is another way of saying that the group’s numbers dropped sharply, in this case by half. Perhaps the White Huns caught up with them, perhaps a local population objected to their presence on their territories, perhaps they were decimated by some infectious disease. We’ll probably never know. In any case, genetics tells us that thereafter they moved quite fast through the Caucasus and the Middle East, mixing only moderately with the local populations along the way.

In about 800 AD, they ended up in Bulgaria; genetics tells us that this was their trampoline into Europe. And there they stayed for some three hundred years, according to the genetics, until about 1100 AD, when they started dispersing throughout the rest of Europe. The genetics can tease out two main dispersal streams, one to Western Europe and the other to Eastern Europe. Something bad happened to the Western European group in about 1200-1300 AD; their genes went through another strong “bottleneck”, equivalent to their losing some 30% of their population. Could it have been the Black Death? But why didn’t the Eastern European Group suffer similarly? The plague struck there too (except in the area of what is now mostly Poland). Again, we’ll probably never know.

Be that as it may, the genes also give us an indication of how much the Romani people have mixed their genes with other people’s as they spread through Europe. Overall, the Romani haven’t mixed much; their genes show more evidence of marriage among blood relatives than is the case with the other European populations (an interesting exception are the Welsh Romani, who seem to have mixed quite a bit). But they haven’t kept completely to themselves. And here there is an interesting difference between various groups of Romani. For instance, Romani from Spain and Portugal, but also from Lithuania, seem to have mixed more readily with the local populations in the past than they have recently. The opposite pattern is seen in the genes of the Romani populations from Slovakia and Hungary in Central Europe, and Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria, in the Balkans. Here, the Romani kept to themselves for a long time but then more recently have mixed with other populations.

Given our generalized suspicion of Romani and our desire to keep away from them (I remember as a child being told that gypsies would carry you off if you weren’t careful, that you had to keep away from gypsy encampments, etc. etc.), how did any mixing between Roma and non-Roma take place at all? Well, it could have been kidnapping, as was the initial suspicion in the case of Maria. But it could just as well have been a case of Romani women being raped. But more likely it was people who, out of desperation, running away from dire poverty or abuse or some other misery, or out of a love for the open road, joined groups of Romani. And so mixed their genes with those of the Romani.

The urge, or need, to take to the open road is not a monopoly of the Romani. Many local European populations have done so over the ages. In my country, we have the English Travellers, the Highland Travellers, the Welsh Travellers. The Irish have their Travellers.


The Norwegians have theirs. The Dutch have their Woonwagenbewoners (“caravan residents”). The Germans have their Landfahrer (“country drivers”). Germany and Switzerland (but also parts of France and Austria) have had the Jenische.


The Spaniards have their mercheros. And of course there are Show Travellers, all those people who travel around working in circuses, fairgrounds and the like.


And then we have those who don’t belong to any particular community, who are out on the roads alone, the tramps, who were turned into philosophers by Samuel Beckett in his immortal play Waiting for Godot


Many of these groups formed through poverty and desperation. But fascinatingly enough, the urge to make for the highway hasn’t died down, even in our rich, modern societies. We now have New Age Travellers, who travel between musical festivals and similar happenings.


This last photo, with the policeman standing guard, says everything about the relationship us settled people have with the travellers. We view them with suspicion, bordering on fear. These people are shifting, rootless, not only physically but morally. They are dangerous. It was ever so, the relationship between the settled farming communities and the travelling herders of the plains, the grasslands, of the wide-open spaces. Why, even the Bible has its story of this difficult, often violent, relationship between the two peoples, in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was the settled farmer, Abel was the wandering shepherd. Cain was jealous of Abel, who seemed to enjoy God’s favour more, and he killed him.

cain and abel

Yes, we fear them and have pushed them further and further to the fringes of our societies. But they despise us. I rather like the term Show Travellers use to describe us settled folk: Flatties. Yes, I suppose our lives are flatter for not being out on the road.

NOTE: I thank Andrew for correcting a fundamental mistake I made in the original post. I had not picked up on the fact that our little Maria is in all probability an albino.


Little blonde girl found in Roma camp: http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1499215.1382989726!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/185472147.jpg [in http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/roma-mom-maria-back-article-1.1499222%5D
Maria’s Greek “parents”: http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1499217.1382989729!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/greece-girl.jpg [in http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/roma-mom-maria-back-article-1.1499222%5D
Maria’s Bulgarian parents: http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1499220.1382989732!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/roma29n-2-web.jpg [in http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/roma-mom-maria-back-article-1.1499222%5D
Map of India: from the quoted article  (hyperlinked)
Punjabi farmer: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4005/4432639845_00be7b0578_z.jpg?zz=1 [in http://www.flickr.com/photos/gurbirsinghbrar/4432639845/%5D
Irish travelers: http://static1.demotix.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/a_scale_large/700-6/photos/1306505237-irish-travellers-in-the-uk_705916.jpg [in http://www.demotix.com/news/705942/irish-travellers-uk#media-705926%5D
Jenische: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/10/Jenische_um1890_Muotathal_CHe.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeniche_people%5D
Fairground: http://www.callington-tc.gov.uk/images/Honey_Fair_stalls.jpg [in http://www.callington-tc.gov.uk/civic_community/honey_fair.html%5D
Waiting for Godot: http://rosariomariocapalbo.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/waiting-for-godot11.jpg [in http://rosariomariocapalbo.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/samuel-beckettwaiting-for-godot/%5D
New Age travelers: http://www.assetstorage.co.uk/AssetStorageService.svc/GetImageFriendly/721206537/700/700/0/0/1/80/ResizeBestFit/0/PressAssociation/F2E18D5B4CC53FE75B4C42D68612D0FF/new-age-travellers-in-winchester.jpg [in http://www.friendsreunited.co.uk/new-age-travellers-in-winchester/Memory/b7746d77-162d-4041-8b82-a00a012a3288%5D
Cain and Abel: http://www.artbible.info/images/kain_abel_grt.jpg [in http://www.artbible.info/art/large/81.html%5D


Beijing, 10 August 2013

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t really get this new fashion of tattooing – or inking, as the new lingo has it. When I was young, it was only the “Working Class” who sported tatts, and even then it was the more rootless among them who indulged: the sailors, the soldiers, the truck drivers, the criminals.

tattooed sailors

But more and more now, especially when summer rolls around and people disrobe, allowing views of parts of their anatomy which they cover the rest of the year, I am struck by how many, primarily young, people are tattooed. This happened to me again in Italy just a few weeks ago when my wife and I were on holiday there. Walking around the streets and on the beach, I was struck by the number of tattoos that flashed casually into view, worn by people who were manifestly not from one of the professional categories I’ve just listed.

tatuaggio in strada-2

tatuaggio spiaggia

Consider the stats. According to a survey quoted in an article in the Guardian, in the UK’s over-60s (the age group of which, alas!, I am nearly part) a little less than 10% have a tattoo, whereas in the 16-44 year-old group it’s nearly 30% – men and women combined. In the US, the figure climbs to 40% in this last age group. Tattooing is, as they say, going mainstream.

Of course, tattooing does have an honourable history. Our poor friend Ötzi, the Neolithic man found frozen to death in a glacier high in the Alps

otzi iceman

carried 57 tattoos, no less. They were mostly simple lines and dots, like these ones along his spine

otzi tattoo

and he probably had them done for some therapeutic value.

That was 5,000 years ago. 2,500 years ago, a Scythian chief who was buried in the permafrost was sporting considerably more elaborate designs on his arm.


while British children who didn’t stare out of the window while the history teacher droned on and on will know that when Julius Caesar made his military foray into the British Isles in 54 BC, he found people who liked to paint, perhaps to tattoo, themselves blue: “All the Britons dye themselves with woad, which occasions a bluish color, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in the fight” JC tells us in his book Gallic Wars. So this is what my ancestors looked like …


For a history nerd like myself, it’s also fascinating to know that Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab who travelled up the River Volga and met the Vikings in their kingdom of Rus, described them as tattooed from “fingernails to neck”

The usual spoilsports, the Christians, came along and banned the practice of tattooing in Europe, seeing it as a pagan practice (to be fair, the Jews had prohibited it even earlier). So in Europe at least, tattooing died out until the late 1700’s, when James Cook – and his sailors – discovered New Zealand and the tattooed Maoris, and reintroduced the practice (more history nerdism: the English word “tattoo” was actually introduced by James Cook, who was anglicising the Polynesian word “tatau”). Here is a picture of a Maori chief from Cook’s period:

Maori Chief 1784

and a later one of another Maori chief, when the practice was dying out among them:

Tukukino maori-2

Not surprisingly, given the source of the reintroduction, sailors were at the vanguard of tattooing among the working class – by the late 1800s, 90% of the British navy was tattooed – but I have been astonished to discover that European royalty also had a penchant for getting inked. The very staid King George V

George V

sported tattoos of the cross of Jerusalem and a dragon, while two of his sons and a bunch of wannabe European royals followed suit. Even the British aristocracy was into the game. It seems that they liked to congregate in the drawing room after dinner and, over the port and cigars, show off their tattoos to each other.

So actually it was only us prim and proper Middle Classes who didn’t have tattoos …

OK, let’s step back now from the social class stuff which so permeates discussions of tattooing, and let’s ask ourselves these questions: Are tattoos pleasant to the eye? Does tattooing enhance a person’s beauty?

Let’s immediately forget about the little dolphins below the ankle (David Cameron’s wife) or the little sharks on the foot (Martha Swire, the Cathay Pacific heiress), or the little kittens on the bum (Emma Parker Bowles, niece of the other Parker Bowles), or the little stars spangled down the back (Rihanna)


These are just cute pictures. I don’t see how having them tattooed permanently on you enhances the look of your skin or of you in general, especially if the onlooker cannot, or can hardly, see them. I mean, I can’t ask the PM’s wife to lift her leg, or Emma Parker Bowles to drop her pants, so that I can take a better gander at their dolphins and kittens, now, can I? And if I can’t do that, why bother having them? I am looking at this from the perspective of beauty … titillating your lover is another issue.

Actually, I have a problem with the idea of tattooing any kind of picture on one’s skin. Look at this photo of Angelina Jolie:


Does it enhance Ms Jolie to have those pictures on her? Do those pictures look better on her skin than on a wall? Personally I think not, in both cases. Her arms just look dirty to me and the pictures do not get better by being on the curved surface of her arm.

So let’s focus on abstract designs, which is what the Maoris had on their faces, and the Samoans had on their nether regions:


Here’s a couple of photos of abstract designs, all on men I have to say, although I can’t see why they wouldn’t work on women:

Tattoo Designs-1

Tattoo Designs-2

Tattoo Designs-3

tattoo designs-4

tattoo designs-5

I really don’t like those heavy sleeves in the first picture (as you can see, I am picking up the language of the tattoo parlour), they just make the arms look dirty. As for the others, I guess they aren’t too bad, even allowing for the fine pecs, or whatever those muscles are called, which the models have in abundance. But do they really make the men (in this case) look more handsome? I’m not convinced; those are really strong, in-your-face colours and thick lines. Maybe thinner lines in more discrete colours, a fainter blue or red? Perhaps the Ancient Britons’ woad will make a come-back …

But at the end of the day (and this post), I really have to ask myself, if you don’t live in Samoa or some other nice South Sea island where you can go around all day more or less without any clothes on, so that your next-door neighbours can admire your designs as you walk by; if you live instead in coldish Europe where you’re covered in clothes all day, and where if you take them off in public they bundle you off to the nearest psychiatric hospital, what’s the point?

And why don’t we do it the way the Indians and others do it at weddings? Use henna, draw beautiful designs on yourself which are ephemeral

henna hands

and try out other designs at the next beach party: beach party, because you can take – most of – your clothes off and parade your new fancy designs which can be in more places than just your hands.

Just a thought.

And finally, with all due respect to the Maoris, please don’t touch your face. In 330 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great banned the practice of tattooing the faces of convicts, gladiators, and soldiers because, he said, the human face reflected “the image of divine beauty, and should not be defiled.” I couldn’t agree more.


Tatooed sailors yesteryear: http://www.akirabodyart.com/images/content/1/c20_0040-sailors-tattoo-web.jpg
Tattoo on a street: http://www.rosesfanees.it/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/IMG_3571.jpg
Tattoo on a beach: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_0GG_6fSKfBI/TITqWrghiOI/AAAAAAAAAYQ/m2JEHxwIVzo/s400/tatuaggio_2.jpg
Ötzi iceman: http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/archaeology/otzi_iceman_2.jpg
Ötzi tattoo: http://www.freetattoodesigns.org/images/tattoo-history.jpg
Scythian tattoo: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/a6/Scythian_tatoo.jpg
Maori Chief 1784: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d4/MaoriChief1784.jpg
Maori Tutukino: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/45/Tukukino%2C_by_Lindauer.jpg
George V: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ee/George_V_of_the_united_Kingdom.jpg
Rihanna’s back tattoo: http://cdn04.cdnwp.thefrisky.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/10/rihanna_tattoo10.jpg
Angelina Jolie’s tattoos: http://www.tattoodesignsidea.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Anglina-Jolie-Tattoo-Designs.jpg
Traditional Samoan tattoos: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/99/Traditional_Samoan_Tattoo_-_back.jpg
Tattoo design-1: http://photovide.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Tattoo-Designs-07.jpg
Tattoo design-2: http://cooltattooidea.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/pics-of-tattoo-designs-sz6ztmti.jpg
Tattoo design-3: http://www.lotonuu.com/images/samoan-tattoos/samoan-body-Tattoo10.jpg
Tattoo design-4: http://samoantshirts.com/images/tattoo/samoan%20tattoos.jpg
Tattoo design-5: http://tattoodesignsmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Best-Tribal-Tattoo-Designs.jpg
Hennaed hands: http://www.inkuphoto.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/nj-wedding-photographer-nyc-wedding-photographer-boston-wedding-photographer-indian-hindu-sikh-inku.jpg


Beijing, 25 May 2013

Many, many (many…) years ago, as a fresh-faced engineering undergraduate, I was introduced to the concept of the Random Walk. My memory is hazy now, but as I recall it had something to do with a way of modelling the behaviour of molecules in a gas. The idea was that molecules could be considered as little ping pong balls taking random paths as they whizzed around colliding with each other chaotically.

If I bring this up, it is because during the visit which my wife and I made two weeks ago to the Metropolitan Museum in New York I rather felt that we had unwittingly gone on a random walk of our own. I should explain that whenever we are in New York we always try to slip in a visit to the Met. It is really the most wonderful museum, with an amazingly extensive collection. We normally just go along and wander around in a rather purposeless way, but this time I decided to be slightly more ordered about it. I checked on the museum’s web site to see what exhibitions were on and drew up a list of those which sounded interesting. My list included, in no particular order, “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity”, “The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi”, “PUNK: Chaos to Couture”, “Photography and the American Civil War”, “African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde”, “Street”, “Cambodian Rattan: The Sculptures of Sopheap Pich”, “Objects from the Kharga Oasis”, “Plain or Fancy? Restraint and Exuberance in the Decorative Arts”. A rich diversity, I think you will agree. Once arrived, we decided to visit these various exhibitions as the fancy took us, interspersed by two visits to the cafeteria. The result was that we criss-crossed the museum quite randomly, finding ourselves walking unwittingly through many different parts of the permanent collections and bumping into admirable pieces along the way.

So it was that at one moment early on in our random walk we found ourselves in the Cypriot Antiquities section – not a section I would normally have ever thought of visiting. And there, I suddenly found myself nose to nose with this statue.

faces at the met 001

He was someone from the 4th Century BC, I learned from the label, but my immediate thought was “Good Lord, it could be one of my children’s friends”, and suddenly the 24 centuries which separated us disappeared. This was no longer a piece of art to be studied respectfully but someone I could have known and passed the time of day with. In some muddled way, I decided there and then that as we walked the various corridors of the museum, I would take photos of some of the more interesting faces we came across, as a testimony to all that humanity lying just below the surface of paint and wood and stone and paper that surrounded us. Here is my resulting photo album, shown in the random order that I came across them:

A ruler from the area of Iran, 40 centuries ago. This one gave me goose-bumps because I have a copy of it buried in my warehoused stuff in Vienna.

faces at the met 004

A governor, by the name of Gudea, of the city of Lagash in Mesopotamia (I like the way he holds his hands):

faces at the met 010

Our random walk is bringing us into East Asia.

A bodhisattva from Shanxi province. A mere 15 centuries separate us. Is it unfair to say that he looks rather self-satisfied?

faces at the met 012

We jump forward 15 centuries, give or take, with this timid Korean scholar from the early 20th century:

faces at the met 016

A female horse rider, from the western reaches of the Tang Empire I would guess from her clothes, and very tired after a long journey I would think from the expression on her face.  13 centuries separate us.

faces at the met 020

A buddha from the area of Afghanistan when it was still buddhist, 15 centuries ago. Are we seeing the Greek influence which came from this area being conquered by Alexander the Great?

faces at the met 025

Those cupid lips! A bodhisattva from Shanxi province, 14 centuries back.

faces at the met 027

Our random walk is making us transition brutally to Medieval Europe.

A brooding Virgin Mary from 10 centuries ago.

faces at the met 078

A stern-looking saint (Saint Yrieix … who is that?), a face from 10 centuries ago.

faces at the met 030

A mourning Virgin Mary at the crucifixion from 6 centuries ago

faces at the met 032

Her mourning is German, sober and contained. This Virgin’s mourning, from the same period, is more Mediterranean. She is Spanish.

faces at the met 038

A rather foolish-looking bishop from 6 centuries ago.

faces at the met 034

The random walk is now taking us through the print and photo section.

A woman from the 1890s.

faces at the met 040

A woman from the 1930s. It’s a Pollock, which is intriguing.

faces at the met 042

Another woman from the 1930s, on the Paris boulevards.

faces at the met 047

We are suddenly back in the Cypriot section, although in a different room.

A man with a wonderful beard, from 27 centuries ago.

faces at the met 056

A woman staring death in the face, from a little later.

faces at the met 062

And now our random walk is bringing us to meso-America.

A pensive face from Mexico, 14 centuries ago.

faces at the met 066

An anguished face from 30 centuries ago, from Mexico again.

faces at the met 074

Suddenly, we lurch into Africa.

A West African woman, from a century ago.

faces at the met 070

A South African woman from just a few decades ago.

faces at the met 068

And finally as we are making for the exit, a small face on a German jug of the 16th Century catches my eye and camera.

faces at the met 076


Pictures: all mine


Beijing, 27 January 2013

In earlier postings I have already mentioned my natural inclination to notice the physical characteristics of people, as opposed to my wife’s inclination to notice people’s characters. Teeth fall into the category of things that I notice about people.  And boy, do I notice Chinese people’s teeth! In the politespeak of today, they do have some “challenges” here …

This fact was brought home to me forcefully by my recent trip to the US, which I suppose could be considered the Nirvana of Pearly Whites. It seems that everywhere one looks there are only straight, white, gleaming teeth. I throw in here some random photos I found on the internet as examples of the American Look.

American beautiful teeth-2

FNC-FAN2028543 - © - Oliver Rossi

American beautiful teeth-1

In what I suppose could be considered the optimal natural condition – that is to say, no smoking, no eating of sugared foods or of heavily processed foods, youth not yet subject to too many of life’s sorrows – teeth in China can be pearly white but often will not approach the currently accepted ideal of straightness. Again, here are some random photos from the internet.

crooked teeth china

crooked teeth china-3

crooked teeth china-6

Given the way middle-class Chinese parents dote on their single children, if I had Chinese children today I would be encouraging them to become orthodontists, not doctors or lawyers. I’m sure it is a sector that will be seeing explosive growth in the future, with huge amounts of clients willing to pay top money.

chinese dentist

If that were the only problem plaguing Chinese teeth! But alas, it is not. Smoking is taking a terrible toll, as I see all too often in the various officials whom I meet and who readily whip out a fag to puff at all hours of the day – and probably night. So many, so, so many, have badly stained and discoloured teeth and diseased gums. As they blatter on about all the great things they are doing, I sit there trying not to stare too obviously at their teeth. Smoking is a terrible problem for men in this country. 60% – 6 out of every 10! – Chinese men over the age of 15 smoke.

chinese man smoking-5

chinese man smoking-4

China Tobacco

Blind old man smoking a cigarette in a street of Shanghai, China

Apart from the lung cancer, the emphysema, the heart attacks, apart from all of that, smoking is destroying Chinese men’s mouths.

Luckily, only a small proportion of women smoke – for the moment …No doubt it will grow, as it has in other countries.

chinese woman smoking-2

And then a very large number of Chinese have grey teeth. I was told by a doctor that a lot of this has to do with the burning of coal indoors. Chinese coal has quite high levels of fluoride in it. When people burn it in their houses, the leaky stoves emit smoke – and fluorides – into the homes. High intake of fluoride when you are children leads to permanent discolouration of teeth.

This photo is an extreme example of the problem of smoky stoves:

stoves china-4

In houses, this is more the norm.

stoves china-1

Note the round things in the bottom right-hand corner of this photo. This is the way coal is sold to households in China, coal dust pressed together with a clay matrix into cylinder slices with a set of holes drilled through them. There are thousands of itinerant sellers in all cities selling them.

stoves china-3-coal

Of course, poverty is also a major cause of bad teeth. Bad diets, little if any access to dentists, lack of money to pay for dental care anyway, ignorance about how to look after their teeth – all these take a terrible toll on Chinese teeth. Foreigners are often dazzled by the glitter of big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but they are really just facades. In the countryside, there is still a huge amount of dire poverty, of a type that I have never seen in Europe. When I was a child, there were poor people in Europe, but not as poor as the poorest in China.

And so I see lots of older people who have terrible, terrible teeth.

old Chinese man with missing teeth-3

if they have teeth at all

Old man with crooked and missing teeth in the 11th century village of Xidi, Anhui Province China

old Chinese man with missing teeth-2

But I am optimistic. It will eventually change, and everyone in this country – more or less – will have beautiful, beautiful teeth, like these.

chinese beautiful teeth

chinese beautiful teeth-2

Which reminds me, I need to go and brush my not-so Pearly Whites.


American beautiful teeth-girls: http://www.xtcian.com/4GirlsPickupsApr03e%28bg%29.jpg
American beautiful teeth-boys: http://previews.agefotostock.com/previewimage/bajaage/c526f975894aefa5e91ae07607b0529f/FNC-FAN2028543.jpg
American beautiful teeth-boy and girl: https://studentnet.kp.org/snet/static/common/images/pplLaughing.jpg
Crooked teeth China-woman 1: http://www.whatsonxiamen.com/ent_images/87ee2cfde9b7689ecf4efdf9_yaeba1.jpg
Crooked teeth China-woman 2: http://www.tofugu.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/yaeba-header.jpg
Crooked teeth China-man: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/thumblarge_400/1242791240jCjI3E.jpg
Chinese dentist: http://www.gzdentist.com/images/ys.jpg
Chinese boys smoking: http://golivechina.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/smokingchina2.jpg
Chinese young men smoking: http://i.i.com.com/cnwk.1d/i/tim/2011/04/30/en_hatton0430_480x360.jpg
Chinese middle-aged man smoking: http://diepresse.com/images/uploads/8/e/9/420073/china20081005202611.jpg
Chinese old man smoking: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get/I00009J1awSe4ZOI/s/900/900/Shanghai-China-2011-blind-old-man-smoking.jpg
Chinese woman smoking: http://cdn.ph.upi.com/ol/upi/059db3fe9ab24ab031764d837a371ffe/CHINESE-WOMAN-SMOKES.jpg
Smoking stove-interior: http://funtier.net/kamleung/0111hs/img_2179.jpg
Smoking stoves-exterior: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110718/images/news423-i1.0.jpg
coal sellers: http://www.china-mike.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/china-heating-coal-vendors-cart.jpg
Old Chinese man with missing teeth-1: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_hJREGwPF6vQ/SIiAn9oiQrI/AAAAAAAACHM/df8mUsQ5-dE/s400/oldchina.jpg
Old Chinese man with missing teeth-2: http://www.alamy.com/thumbs/6/%7BA835226E-4F95-4DB1-9C53-1FB840FB1C06%7D/AEHE89.jpg
Old Chinese man with no teeth-2: http://trackme7.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/old-chinese-man.jpg
Chinese woman with beautiful teeth-1: http://thewomanlife.info/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/white-Teeth.jpg
Chinese woman with beautiful teeth-2: http://www.divaasia.com/action/PageImage/5666.jpg


Beijing, 30 November 2012

edited in Bangkok, 29 February 2015

I said in my previous post that I currently lived in a country where everyone had black hair. That is not strictly true. Like everywhere else, Chinese women, young and old, as well as young men, have a fondness for dyeing their hair. The great majority of them have wisely settled for adding reddish tints. This gives them hair-dos with varying shades of red-brown, which goes well with the natural colour of their skin. An unfortunate few have dyed their hair blonde which, with the yellow hues of their skin, simply makes them look ill.

In their colour preferences, Chinese hair-dyers are following what seems to me a broader trend worldwide to add more red to one’s hair. My memory tells me that when I was young, the dyeing colour of choice – at least in Europe – was blonde, but some fifteen years ago the shades definitely shifted into the redder part of the spectrum.

And why not? Naturally red hair is a magnificent sight, and the rarest natural colour in us humans. On average, no more than one or two people in every 100 have red hair. Scotland has the highest proportion, with a little more than one every ten Scotsmen or women having red hair. I remember well being struck by the amount of red-heads around me when I first moved to Edinburgh for University.  Ireland follows close behind. And then there is a scattering of red-heads throughout the rest of Europe.

Let me insert here a little photo gallery of some European read heads (probably Scottish or Irish, at least of descent), a young woman

ginger girla young man with a magnificent red beard

red header with bearda baby, readying himself or herself for a life on the red side

red headed baby

a slightly older man, looking back at a life spent on the red side.

ginger haired old man

I feel I have to complete this photo gallery with a picture of the Fair Prince Harry, who has given redness of hair a good name.

The observant reader will have noticed that most of these wonderful red-heads have blue eyes. The gene mutation which leads to red hair is closely linked to the one which gives rise to blue eyes. Fair, non-tanning skin almost always accompanies red hair, to the distress of red-heads when visiting countries with fierce sunlight:

Freckles are also often their lot:

Europe is not the only place to harbour red-heads. Here, in no particular order, are some red-heads from other parts of the world:



The Berbers of North Africa, represented here by Morocco’s queen (who is a Berber):

and a small child:

Udmurtia, a small provincial backwater in the Ural mountains of Russia famous for its red-heads:



and even Polynesia – this girl is from Tahiti:

Ashkenazi Jews are also well known for their redheads. My representative of this group is Woody Allen; this is a clip from one of his best films, Sleeper:

Nearer to me but also much further back in time are the Tochtarian people who inhabited the Tarim basin of Xingjian Autonomous Region some 4,000 years ago. The bodies of their dead were dessicated and mummified in the desert conditions of the Tarim basin, so many mummies have been unearthed. At least one these, the so-called Beauty of Xiaohe, had what looks like red hair.

Dessicating deserts in Peru have also given the world a share of mummies, some of these being red-heads. These red-headed mummies have had certain archaeologists (notably Thor Heyerdahl) afroth with fancy (and relatively racist) theories of Nordic whites somehow arriving in South America to take the natives in hand. This particular mummy also seems to have been subjected to skull lengthening.

peruvian mummy

Going back even further, from studies of fossil DNA it seems that some of our Neanderthal cousins were also red-heads:

So come join Edinburgh’s annual Ginger Pride Parade! Immerse yourself in a sea of red hair!

ginger pride parade

Ginger girl: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02510/ginger-girl-13_2510537k.jpg (in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/9932654/I-Collect-Gingers-artist-Anthea-Pokroy-photographs-500-red-haired-people.html?frame=2510537)
Red header with beard: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/96/d0/17/96d017f4374dbd877396ca77e2baf638.jpg (in https://www.pinterest.com/bridgeemelling/bearded-boss/)
Red headed baby: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-rQ0mt43F_48/UXqtfoVyvGI/AAAAAAAAPow/zK3OEOiHiFI/s1600/150421_343259622462322_454686503_n.jpg (in http://klubkotajasna8.blogspot.com/2013_06_01_archive.html)
Ginger haired old man: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/02/36/0b/02360b9c030976e4bc871f810ac4aba7.jpg (in https://br.pinterest.com/pin/499899627364000820/)
Prince Harry: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_tR4bYTcAqeQ/SvI-Hwpk8NI/AAAAAAAABsM/OBj6T465Dlc/s400/princeh.bmp
sunburned boy: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ld4t18EDYN1qfs58no1_500.png
freckled boy: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbjiv5TNfp1qer9yuo1_1280.jpg
Syrian baby: http://i45.tinypic.com/260x2xu.jpg
Turkish young man: http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSBd3GBpDXFhzwdCW99RLJk_znIncX8Uaory6HOjMPNSpP6n1Kvag
Moroccan Queen: http://badrhariboxer.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/moroccan-queen.jpg
Berber girl: http://looklex.com/e.o/slides/berbers02.jpg
Udmurt girls: http://russianpickle.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/udmurt_people_red.jpg
Afghan boy: http://fc04.deviantart.net/fs16/f/2007/122/1/a/Afghan_Redhead_and_boy_by_xerquina.jpg
Indian boy: http://mathildasanthropologyblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/light-indian.jpg
Polynesian girl: http://t0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS9dYzPU1dcELZO1dZOJTMta43zg-fJO2tGxOcwAqHJ7XKp0iIpTAJGjDAAnA
Woody Allen: http://www.nerve.com/files/uploads/scanner/sleeper_0.jpg
Tochtarian mummy: http://images.mirror.co.uk/upl/dailyrecord3/feb2011/0/7/mummy-image-2-601127141.jpg
Peruvian mummy: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/2d/43/e4/2d43e4c46a67385e964b409fe38e229a.jpg (in https://www.pinterest.com/aprildherbert/creepy-cool/)
Neanderthal: http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/601/cache/neanderthal-genome_60159_600x450.jpg
Ginger pride parade: http://scrapetv.com/News/News%20Pages/Health/images-3/ginger-rally-uk-support.jpg (in http://scrapetv.com/News/News%20Pages/Health/pages-3/World-misses-prime-opportunity-to-eliminate-gingers-during-pride-parade-Scrape-TV-The-World-on-your-side-2013-08-12.html#.VtRaZEAppEN)


Beijing, 18 November 2012

In my last posting, I did not reveal if I am or not one of the millions who carry that little mutation in my DNA which codes for blue eyes. Well, … I think I do. My mother certainly carried the mutation because she had beautiful baby blue eyes, as did her brother. She once told me that her father also had blue eyes, although I have no direct confirmation of this. He died in the 1930s of tuberculosis. The only indirect confirmation I could have would be from photos. But photos with him in them are black and white and taken from a distance, and all I can see is his illness in his hollowed face. In any event, he must have carried the blue-eye gene, because otherwise my mother could not have had blue eyes. The gene for blue eyes is recessive and must be inherited from both parents to be expressed. So my maternal grandmother must have carried it too, although she definitely did not have blue eyes. As I dig into my memory for her face, I think I see hazel eyes.

My father’s eyes were brown, as were those of his brother and sisters. He inherited the gene for that from his father, although here too I have to depend on indirect evidence: a painting of him that hung in my paternal grandmother’s living room, in which his eyes were definitely brown. He also died in the 1930s, from leptospirosis, which he caught on the Norfolk Broads. From my grandmother my father inherited a blue-eye gene because she had beautiful blue eyes. By the time I knew her they had faded a little and her hair had turned completely white. But as a younger woman, she had dark hair: blue eyes and dark hair, she must have been a striking woman.

So my father had one brown-eye gene and one blue-eye gene, while my mother had two blue-eye genes. One of my sisters inherited my father’s brown-eye gene because her eyes are brown. My two brothers inherited the blue-eye genes from both sides pure and unadulterated, because they both have blue, blue eyes. The rest of my sisters have eyes with varying shades of green: I guess part of their DNA is pushing for some level of melanine in their irises.

As for me, my mother used to say that the colour of my eyes was caca d’oie, or goose poop. Anyone who has looked closely at defecations from geese will immediately recognize the allusion: green with brown streaks.

my eyes


Beijing, 15 November 2012

My wife and I have one fundamental difference: I notice people’s looks and she notices people’s characters. One result of this is that after living in a part of the world where everyone has black hair and dark eyes, I have become intensely aware of differences in hair and eye colouring, whereas my wife is quite indifferent to it. So it was that yesterday, when my wife and I were sitting at our favourite café and we found ourselves sitting across from a European expat, I was transfixed by his blue eyes while she didn’t notice. After spending a suitable moment marvelling at the sight, I began to ask myself some questions. Questions which my wife’s iPad, which I commandeered, and the café’s wifi allowed me to find answers to.

Perhaps the most amazing fact is this. Every person in the world with blue eyes (and the closely linked grey and green eyes) has one single, common ancestor! A mutation occurred in some corner of this person’s DNA and that little mutation has been passed on down the generations ever since. Up to that point, the colour of all humans’ eyes had been dark. And then, some ten thousand years ago somewhere in the north-western part of the Black Sea region (geneticists have managed to pinpoint the source that accurately), someone was born with blue eyes.  Can you imagine what that must have been like? Was the person treated as a wonder or as a dangerous freak, I ask myself? I have to think the former, since this person was able to sire children who passed on the mutation.

I suppose blue eyes are most associated with Europe: blondes or the red-heads with blue eyes.

But actually, according to very recent research, the original Ol’ Blue Eyes was probably dark skinned and dark haired. And in fact blue eyes are found everywhere:

Algeria …

Palestine …

Lebanon …

Syria …

Jordan …

Iran …

Afghanistan …

India …

Central Asia …

Even China! (although more green than blue) …

Even Africa!! …

But most basic of all, why are eyes blue? Because the irises lack melanin. It’s melanin which makes the human eye – and skin, and hair – dark. But why aren’t blue eyes colourless then? Because of the same effect that makes the sky blue: “longer wavelengths of light tend to be absorbed by the dark underlying epithelium, while shorter wavelengths are reflected and undergo Rayleigh scattering in the turbid medium of the stroma. This is the same frequency-dependence of scattering that accounts for the blue appearance of the sky” (1). So eyes are blue because the sky is blue. Now how cool is that …

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_color#Blue

Links for the pix:
Little European blonde girl: http://ts3.mm.bing.net/th?id=I.4963638661679662&pid=1.7&w=237&h=155&c=7&rs=1
Little European red-headed girl: http://ts3.mm.bing.net/th?id=I.4615243792843710&pid=1.7
Algerian old woman: http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/algeria-aures-mountains-facial-tattoos-culture-portrait-series
Palestinian man: http://i56.tinypic.com/2vao8av.jpg
Syrian man: http://www.hobotraveler.com/123_07baghdadistanbul/0077.JPG
Jordanian man: http://www.lurvely.com/photo/4259694961/A_face_from_Jordan/
Little Iranian girl: http://www.worldisround.com/articles/73022/photo653.html
Afghan woman: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuristani_people
Afghan man: http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4041/4696088197_24f3ecf0c4.jpg
Little Indian girl: http://i2.asntown.net/h3/fun/12/beautiful-eyes/asian-people-with-blue-eyes05.jpg
Indian woman in Sari and Indian boy: http://www.asiafinest.com/forum/lofiversion/index.php/t8178-100.html
Indian man with green eyes: http://i.images.cdn.fotopedia.com/flickr-4833454489-hd/Countries_of_the_World/Asia/Portrait-Asia-Demographics_of_Asia-Demographics_of_India-Human-India-Portrait_photography-Rajasthan-Rajasthani_people-hd.jpg
Central Asian man: http://anthrocivitas.net/forum/showthread.php?t=7853
Chinese woman: http://ts1.mm.bing.net/th?id=I.4981686084830908&pid=1.7
African girl: http://korraisnottan.tumblr.com/post/21640006035/anonymous-asked-korra-is-not-tan-korra-is-not