Greenspan: The Myth of Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth

The Myth of Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth

// April 2, 2013

On April 2, 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León and his crew became the first recorded Europeans to set eyes on Florida. Legend holds that they made this discovery while searching for the Fountain of Youth, a magical water source supposedly capable of reversing the aging process and curing sickness. A closer look, however, reveals that the fountain likely provided little to no motivation for their voyage. In fact, no surviving documents from the time, including letters from Ponce de León himself, ever mention such a fountain. Only later did Spanish and U.S. writers connect the two, thereby turning Ponce de León into a poster boy for gullibility.

Tales of sacred, restorative waters existed well before the birth of Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León around 1474. Alexander the Great, for example, was said to have come across a healing “river of paradise” in the fourth century B.C., and similar legends cropped up in such disparate locations as the Canary Islands, Japan, Polynesia and England. During the Middle Ages, some Europeans even believed in the mythical king Prester John, whose kingdom allegedly contained a fountain of youth and a river of gold. “You could trace that up until today,” said Ryan K. Smith, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “People are still touting miracle cures and miracle waters.”

Spanish sources asserted that the Taino Indians of the Caribbean also spoke of a magic fountain and rejuvenating river that existed somewhere north of Cuba. These rumors conceivably reached the ears of Ponce de León, who is thought to have accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. After helping to brutally crush a Taino rebellion on Hispaniola in 1504, Ponce de León was granted a provincial governorship and hundreds of acres of land, where he used forced Indian labor to raise crops and livestock. In 1508 he received royal permission to colonize San Juan Bautista (now Puerto Rico). He became the island’s first governor a year later, but was soon pushed out in a power struggle with Christopher Columbus’ son Diego.

Having remained in the good graces of King Ferdinand, Ponce de León received a contract in 1512 to explore and settle an island called Bimini. Nowhere in either this contract or a follow-up contract was the Fountain of Youth mentioned. By contrast, specific instructions were given for subjugating the Indians and divvying up any gold found. Although he may have claimed to know certain “secrets,” Ponce de León likewise never brought up the fountain in his known correspondence with Ferdinand. “What Ponce is really looking for is islands that will become part of what he hopes will be a profitable new governorship,” said J. Michael Francis, a history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. “From everything I can gather, he was not at all interested or believed that he would find some kind of miraculous spring or lake or body of water.” At least one historian suggests that perhaps Ferdinand, who had recently married a woman 35 years his junior, told Ponce de León to keep his eye out for it. But other experts dispute this.

Either way, Ponce de León set sail in March 1513 with three ships. According to early historians, he anchored off the eastern coast of Florida on April 2 and came ashore a day later, choosing the name “La Florida” in part because it was the Easter season (Pascua Florida in Spanish). Ponce de León then journeyed down through the Florida Keys and up the western coast, where he skirmished with Indians, before beginning a roundabout journey back to Puerto Rico. Along the way he purportedly discovered the Gulf Stream, which proved to be the fastest route for sailing back to Europe.

Eight years later, Ponce de León returned to Florida’s southwestern coast in an attempt to establish a colony, but he was mortally wounded by an Indian arrow. Just before leaving, he sent letters to his new king, Charles V, and to the future Pope Adrian VI. Once again, the explorer made no mention of the Fountain of Youth, focusing instead on his desire to settle the land, spread Christianity and discover whether Florida was an island or peninsula. No log of either voyage has survived, and no archaeological footprint has ever been uncovered.

Nonetheless, historians began linking Ponce de León with the Fountain of Youth not long after his death. In 1535 Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés accused Ponce de León of seeking the fountain in order to cure his sexual impotence. “He was being discredited [as] an idiot and weakling,” Smith explained. “This is machismo culture in Spain at the height of the Counter-Reformation.” The accusation is almost certainly untrue, Smith added, since Ponce de León fathered several children and was under 40 years old at the time of his first expedition.

Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, who lived with Indians in Florida for many years after surviving a shipwreck, also derided Ponce de León in his 1575 memoir, saying it was a cause for merriment that he sought out the Fountain of Youth. One of the next authors to weigh in was Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, the Spanish king’s chief historian of the Indies. In 1601 he penned a detailed and widely read account of Ponce de León’s first voyage. Although Herrera only referred to the Fountain of Youth in passing, writing that it turned “old men to boys,” he helped solidify it in the public’s imagination. “They are really more entertainment than attempts to write a true history,” Francis said of these works.

The Fountain of Youth legend was now alive and well. It did not gain much traction in the United States, however, until the Spanish ceded Florida in 1819. Famous writers of the time such as Washington Irving then began portraying Ponce de León as hapless and vain. Artists also got in on the act, including Thomas Moran, who painted an oversize canvas of Ponce de León meeting with Indians. By the early 20th century, a statue of the explorer had been placed in the central plaza of Florida’s oldest city, St. Augustine, and a nearby tourist attraction pretended to be the actual Fountain of Youth. To this day, tens of thousands of visitors come every year to sample the sulfur-smelling well water. “It does not taste good,” said Smith, who worked there for four days in college. “Imagine what you would think the Fountain of Youth would taste like. It doesn’t taste like that.” Meanwhile, some grade school textbooks continue to present Ponce de León’s search for the fountain as historical fact.

In 2013, Ponce de León was back in the spotlight. In celebration of the 500th anniversary of his landing, reenactments took place in St. Augustine and Melbourne Beach, Florida, both of which claim to be the site where he first dropped anchor. There was also a Catholic mass in St. Augustine featuring a replica of the 15th-century font used to baptize him in Spain and a mass in Melbourne Beach, along with the unveiling of more statues and a commemorative stamp.

What would Ponce de León make of all this attention, not all of it positive? “My take on that is that no publicity is bad publicity,” Smith said. “He’s a household name, and maybe in the end that’s what he was looking for.”


Zug: Fifteen Seconds: Baset Chaudhry Exit

Upon clinching a 11-6, 11-6, 11-4 win in his match against Yale, Baset Chaudhry stooped down and for three or four seconds yelled at Kenny Chan. He then left the court, without shaking Chan’s hand, and hugged some teammates and his parents. It was the clinching fifth match in the finals of the nationals. The senior co-captain had just secured Trinity’s twelfth straight national title and 224th consecutive win.

Seeing Chan exiting the court behind him, Chaudhry turned and bumped him back into the court. Immediately, his teammates and supporters, led by Simba Muhwati, a 2009 graduate, jumped in between him and Chan. The celebration moved away from the court’s door and Chan soon exited.

The whole incident lasted about fifteen seconds, including the elapsed time of hugging and celebrating.It ruined Chaudhry’s life.

Baset Ashfaq Chaudhry was the most celebrated recruit in the history of American intercollegiate squash.

Chaudhry grew up in Lahore. His father is a merchant: he has imported chemicals for the textile industry and now runs plastic factories. Chaudhry played squash at the Punjab Sports Complex. When he was eighteen, Chaudhry won the 2003 Asian junior championships and then played No. 4 on the Pakistani boys team that won the 2004 world junior team championship. In January 2005 he captured the British Junior Open to claim the Drysdale Cup, squash’s oldest junior title. He finished high school just before the British Junior Open triumph, and upon his return to Pakistan he started playing the pro tour. For a year and a half he had a go, traveling to India, Malaysia and Egypt for tournaments. He was taking university-level courses and living at home. In June 2006 he was ranked sixty-first in the world.

No Drysdale Cup winner had ever played American collegiate squash, except Anil Nayar at Harvard in the 1960s. (Marcus Cowie, the Trinity star of the 1990s, had been up 2-1 in the finals against Ahmed Faizy in 1996 before losing in five.) Chaudhry was considered beyond American collegiate squash—too talented, too old (he is now twenty-four) and, frankly, too Pakistani (not a single top Pakistani had ever played college squash in America, even before 9/11). But he was tiring of the tour. One incident stuck in his craw. He was in Cairo trying to get a taxi at rush hour with Amr Shabana. No one knew him in the streets. Here Shabana was, the greatest Egyptian squash player in three generations and yet he couldn’t catch a cab.

The team aspect of intercollegiate squash is almost always foreign to the overseas players when they arrive at college campuses. But Chaudhry had an instinctive appreciation of what was important at Trinity—the team. The first time he came to Paul Assaiante’s office, when he flew in from Pakistan, the telephone rang. It was his father. They talked for a couple of minutes in Urdu, a labyrinth of consonants and glottal stops. As Chaudhry stood at Assaiante’s desk, he saw a bowl in which lay the Trinity national championship rings. While he talked, he mindlessly fiddled with the shiny baubles: the gold, diamonds, the slogans (“Too Strong” “Never Fear, Never Retreat” emblazoned in diamonds), the finger-dropping weight.

Then he stopped, and put his hand on the phone’s mouthpiece.

“What are these, coach?” he asked.

“Those are the eight national championship rings,” Assaiante replied. “We make one after winning the national team title.”

“Order four more.”

He had a long transition to collegiate life. He was a practicing Muslim and had gone to Friday prayers and ate halal, so it took a while for him to find out how his beliefs meshed with living on an American college campus. On court, he was clearly a fantastic player, but his confidence slowly seeped away. He lost in a qualifying match at the 2006 U.S. Open in Boston to Tom Richards, a player he had always beaten before. After that he never played in another PSA tournament again.

He started losing challenge matches. After reaching No. 1 on the Trinity ladder, he lost in quick succession to Shaun Johnstone at No. 2 and Gustave Detter at No. 3. The best recruit in history and he’s playing No. 3? He managed beat the No. 4 player, Supreet Singh, and a month later had challenged back to the No. 1 spot.

It wasn’t until the finals of the 2007 nationals against Princeton that he showed his true form. He lost the first game to Maurico Sanchez 9-4. Sanchez had gone undefeated all year. All of a sudden Chaudhry rolled the next three games, 9-2, 9-2, 9-1. He was playing pro squash rather than college squash. He kept his drives super-air-lock tight, no matter how much duress Sanchez put him under and detonated the ball with unprecedented velocity. It was little noted in Trinity’s dual-match victory, but his match with Sanchez was a seminal moment in Chaudhry’s ascendance.

A week later, he fell in the semis of the intercollegiates. He played well in the morning, dispatching a pugnacious Kimlee Wong in the quarters. But that Saturday night in the semis against Siddharth Suchde of Harvard, he was out of sorts. In the middle of the first game, Sid coughed up a loose ball. Chaudhry stepped up and crushed it. Sid asked for a let. He got it. All of a sudden, Chaudhry was confused. It was not a let, at least in the way that international players would have expected. He did not take it in stride. He had to make an adjustment—it was like a pitcher learning to adapt to an umpire’s strike zone—and it rattled him. Sid took over, winning convincingly 9-7, 9-5, 9-6 and taking the title the next day over Sanchez.

His sophomore year, he was a different guy, more mature and settled. Moreover, he figured out college squash, that he would be pushed and battered and hacked, that although he cleared well, he would be accused—because of his size—of clogging the lanes. He became used to lesser skilled players getting physical with him.

He spent his summer back in Pakistan eating his mother’s food and training and came back to campus having lost twenty pounds. For a guy who was 6’5”, this was enormously encouraging, as he needed all the help he could get in accelerating around the court. He seemed stronger mentally too. His country was falling apart. He called home every day, even if he couldn’t afford it. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated a couple of blocks from his house. Yet, he seemed tougher with an inner maturity. He was always the gentle giant type, but now he was spreading beyond his roots. He started to see himself staying in the States after graduation. He began to eat non-halal meat and stopped going to Friday prayers. His studies were on track: he was majoring in economics. He trained ferociously.

He went undefeated. In the dual match against Princeton, Chaudhry faced Maurico again and destroyed him in three, 9-2, 9-2, 9-0. It was the most lopsided win I have ever seen at a No. 1 match between the two top-ranked teams in the country. Those guys had enormous egos to go with their talent and they simply never let a match deteriorate that completely. At the nationals, Chaudhry beat him 3-1. Down at Annapolis for the intercollegiates, he beat Gustav Detter in an anticlimactic final.

As a junior, Chaudhry steamrolled the rest of the country, except for Maurico, with whom he endured three titanic matches, battles a la Frazier v. Ali. In the dual match, he lost 9-7, 9-5, 6-9, 9-10, 9-2. It was a good match, but Maurico was just the better, more forceful player. Trinity won the dual match 5-4, but it was 5-3 going into the final game of the Chaudhry v. Sanchez match, so there was less tension in the fifth.

Eight days later Trinity and Princeton were in a terrific, six-hour showdown, perhaps the greatest collegiate squash match in history. In two matches, Princeton came within a couple of points of clinching a fifth win and the dual-match victory. It went to 4-4. Then Sanchez, down 2-1, went up 5-0 in the fourth. Chaudhry bounced back to 5-2 and then Sanchez stepped on the pedal and cruised to 9-2 in an eleven-minute game. In the fifth, he dashed to a 5-0 lead again. Chaudhry had lost nine points in a row and had just scored two in the face of Sanchez’s fourteen. It was a meltdown of epic proportions.

There is some disagreement over whether Chaudhry knew that the dual-match was at 4-4. Both Paul Assaiante, head coach, and his assistant James Montano recall telling him after the fourth game that they needed him to win. Chaudhry tells me that he misheard them and thought Trinity had already clinched at 5-3 and that only at the awards ceremony did he learn that it had been 4-4. When he won his match at the nationals his freshman year, everyone stormed the court (Trinity had won 9-0), so he thought the wild celebration was the same. “I honestly thought it was the same,” he says. “I thought, ‘It’s Maurico’s last game, his senior year and I don’t want to be beaten twice on his home court.’”

Either way, he made one of the most storied comebacks in college squash history. Down 0-5 in the fifth, he won three points in eighty seconds, then four more. The match got becalmed at 7-5, with errors, lets and more lets. Serving, Chaudhry smacked a rail that clung to the wall. At match point, he hit only crosscourts and passed Sanchez on a well-placed volley.

A week later he took his second straight intercollegiate title. Again, it was Maurico Sanchez in the finals. Again, it went to five games: 9-6, 9-10, 9-4, 5-9, 9-3.

This past season, he went undefeated, taking his career record to 55-2, which is pretty good for a #1 player. His toughest match was against Princeton’s freshman, Todd Harrity, in the dual match: 4-11, 11-9, 4-11, 11-7, 11-9. When he faced Harrity a week later, he put him away with a whoompingly brutal three games.

With the team winning the nationals at Yale, Chaudhry was headed towards a seventh national collegiate title, which only one other person has ever reached. In discussing the best collegiate player ever, you must ask how many titles did he or she win. Did he play #1 on the #1 team—a target on the target of everyone else? Did he lead? Did he come through in the clutch?

To many observers, Kenton Jernigan is the greatest of all time Yes, Jernigan went 42-0 in dual matches, which is the best percentage ever for a guy playing #1 all four years. But his Harvard teams were so much better than everyone else (the closest dual match they had was 7-2) that the pressure was not nearly as fierce as it was for Trinity: in Chaudhry’s career he led them through three 5-4 nailbiters, including the famous one he saved last February.

This made it all the more tragic when he came off the court at Payne Whitney.

Chaudhry is unfailingly polite. He has a luminescent smile. The first time he meets any adult, he called them “Mr.” or “Mrs.” When he was introduced to Preston Quick, who graduated from Trinity just ten years ago, he said, “Nice to meet you, Mr. Quick.” He is a heroic sleeper and can rack over a dozen hours at a clip. He loves ice cream. He’ll have it on pancakes for breakfast. He is forgetful. He loses his sweats. He loses his glasses (he wears contacts on the court).

He is definitely not the most talented player on the Trinity team. He was not gifted with great genetics. He’s just too tall and too big. He has had injuries: as a freshman he had shin splints and then a week before the team nationals sprained his right ankle and wore a boot all week. He hurt his wrist a year later. He also endured a socially difficult disease. It was an unusual skin condition called non-segmental vitiligo. A few years ago parts of his knees, hands and eyes started to lose their pigmentation. The pale pink patches spread so that both his kneecaps were almost complete pink and his eyesockets gave him a slightly raccoon-ish look. His father has it too.

He is the hardest worker on a squad bursting with training addicts. He practices for hours. He is a co-captain, along with Supreet Singh, and talks every morning on the telephone with Assaiante, plotting and discussing the team. He has a 3.5 average, majoring in economics. He has been dating a Trinity woman who grew up outside Philadelphia. He is probably the most well-known person on Trinity’s campus.

No one saw it coming. “In life the dots connect,” Assaiante said. “What happened, I just didn’t see coming. The dots didn’t connect. It was just an abhorrent moment of loss of composure. I just didn’t see any way that that would happen and when it was on top of us, we were just in the middle of damage control. I love this boy.”

The story went viral. Once the video of the match reached ESPN (don’t ask how), it went onto YouTube and reached millions instantly in a way that poor behavior in the past never did. People commented. People commented on the comments. It reached local news broadcasts, newspapers, radio. It snowballed. At one point Trinity was receiving a hundred emails an hour about it. In the first sixty hours after the incident, Assaiante got more than five hundred emails from people he didn’t know. Assaiante and Dave Talbott went onto ESPN. USA Today ran stories. It was national news.

For about five hours on the Friday night after the incident, there were just four items on the ESPN crawl at the bottom of the screen: one about Tiger Woods, another about Lindsay Vonn, a third about the USA hockey team and a fourth simply saying “Baset Chaudhry withdraws from singles championship.” That was it. He had become such a household name that ESPN assumed its viewers knew who he was.

Why did Chaudhry explode? We had a long conversation after the incident and he didn’t know for sure.

It was his last team match and he loved the team and was much more focused on winning a national team title than an individual one. If it had not been the clinching match, perhaps there would have been less emotion.

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 9.57.07 AMHe was playing in front of his father, mother and two younger sisters. They had flown over that week and for the first time in his collegiate career they were watching him. His father had been a strong influence on him. Perhaps this put him on edge.

Moreover, all the taunting and yelling that he heard that afternoon, he was slightly unhappy that his family was having to listen to it. Over the years, fans had chanting of “USA, USA,” and “Go back and bomb Osama Bin Laden” and  “Terrorist” and “Al Qaeda.” They had booed when he asked for a let. This was standard fare at collegiate matches these days (such harassing in Hanover at the Dartmouth v. Harvard match made headlines this winter). He had heard all that at matches before but he hadn’t heard anything like that with his mother and sisters and father present.

No doubt some of it came from the fact that he was exhausted by the expectations: being the #1 of the #1 fifty times is tough. He was aware of the history that awaited him. Another tight match won—it was cathartic and he wanted to yell.

He yelled also because he doesn’t like squash. He was kind of 

pushed into it—cricket was his first love—and unlike the majority of the elite collegiate players in the past decade, he is not planning to play professional squash on the PSA tour. He is going to New York to work at Barclays Bank. In fact, he tells me that he might not pick up a racquet at all again—“they are locked up now,” he says. He might eventually join a club in New York, but squash is something that he will leave behind once his college career is finished.

Chan also provoked him. I watched their match in the Trinity v. Yale dual match in January at Payne Whitney. It was nothing out of the ordinary. Chaudhry chopped him up 11-2, 12-10, 11-5. But when Chan got off court, he commented loudly, “That guy’s got the biggest ass I’ve ever seen.” Then three or four players overhead Chan claiming that if he had won the third game, the match would have been his. People came up after to Chaudhry, asking him, “were you tired in the third? Was it a struggle?” It was so absurd, Chaudhry dismissed it.

At the nationals, there was more silliness. In the second game at the nationals, with the score at 2-2, Chan taunted Chaudhry after winning a point, coming up to his face, yelling and fist-pumping. Throughout the match, when Chaudhry would tin, he would sometimes audibly moan, “No.” Chan would then reply, “Yes.” “It was disrespectful,” Chaudhry told me. “No one had ever disrespected me like that, ever. Maurico, Sid, Harrity—these were tough matches, but they always played with class.”

Yet, it was bad sportsmanship and he made the right decision in stepping down from the intercollegiates. “It was very disappointing,” he says. “I am not going to try to defend my actions. It was such a pity it ended that way and I am truly sorry. It was the heat of the moment.”

But the oversized reaction says a lot—about the people who verbally sprayed him with obscenities after the match, about the hundreds of people who condemned him in chat rooms and blogs and comment spaces. Would we have felt this way if this had been a couple of preppy St. Grottlesex boys? Was this insane reaction derived in part subconsciously, because he was non-white, from a country where the U.S. is fighting a war?

We have seen this kind of misbehavior for decades in collegiate squash. No need to name names, but you know who you are. And flagrantly bad sportsmanship occurred just this season: there was some serious pushing and shoving—perhaps a punch thrown—in one of the Yale v. Harvard matches at their dual match. Two Ivy coaches got into each other’s grills and yelled at a dual match.

Is this a surprise? Today all sorts of athletes and fans behave much worse than Chaudhry did and they do it on television and in front of audiences of thousands. That doesn’t make it acceptable, just more understandable.

Interestingly, it doesn’t have to be this way. The College Squash Association doesn’t have a usable discipline system like they do in intercollegiate tennis, where warnings, points, game and match penalties are assessed. Many observers, Yale’s coach Dave Talbott in particular, long lamented the fact that the sportsmanship was so awful in the mid-1990s that the CSA had to resort to having referees for matches. When the players had to police themselves, by and large they behaved well. Now they pour vitriol on the refs (their teammates and opponent’s teammates), fling racquets, moan and curse. Perhaps the CSA should adopt what they do in tennis and have a roving umpire at dual matches who can do what coaches and players are not comfortable doing and actually apply penalties to poorly behaved players (or fans)?

In the meantime, a man’s life has been changed forever. He lost his chance at squash history. His fifteen seconds of bad behavior is now imprinted in the minds of millions; with the Internet, a fifteen-minutes of infamy is now permanent in a way. Barclays, it was rumored, was contemplating rescinding its job offer. He has received hate email. For a while he was worried about getting suspended or expelled from school.

Afterwards, Chaudhry did the right thing. Minutes after the incident, he apologized to the Yale team, Chan and the crowd at the trophy ceremony. The next day he decided to email a letter to all sixty-three CSA men’s team coaches which was forwarded to every one of their players: “For the last four years I have worked so very hard to be a perfect representative of the college game. I have won 6 championships, been a scholar athlete and have always tried to keep my contribution to our game positive. Yesterday in the heat of the moment with some of the contributing factors I lost my composure, and sadly it is being played out in a multitude of venues. This is heartbreaking for me, as I have never seen myself in that light, and am saddened to have to see over and over. I am a college student just like you. I am human and I hope to learn from this experience so that I can be a better man in the future

When you think of me as I leave college please try to remember my body of work and not just the last 15 seconds.” And he voluntarily stepped down from the intercollegiates.

Now Baset Chaudhry is walking away, perhaps the greatest player in intercollegiate history, with his head hung low.

Placenta popularity on the rise

Placenta popularity on the rise

1 Feb, 2014 9:00am
New Zealanders may not be ready to try placenta injections and pig placenta smoothies but placentophagy is rapidly finding favour. Veronica Schmidt catches up on the trend.

After our daughter was born, my husband cried for three days. It wasn’t because he had just watched his wife spend 41 tortured hours trying to dislodge something the size of a Christmas turkey from her abdomen. It was, as he repeated endlessly, because he loved his new baby so much.

He dabbed at his eyes each time he peered into the bassinet. He sobbed when I hung her small socks on the clothes line. He finally snapped out of it when I asked him to help me recover the pieces of my memory obliterated by anaesthetic gas and sleep deprivation, and he was nudged into remembering the appearance of the placenta. The tender looks of the past three days vanished, his face contorted with disgust and he said, through gritted teeth: “It was repulsive. It looked like a really old man’s balls.”

Until recently, in Western cultures, his reaction would have been considered quite normal. Other than revulsion, what was there to feel for a lump of meat whose job was now done?

At best you might follow Maori tradition and bury the placenta, reinforcing your child’s connection to the land, but more likely you would order the thing hurled into a bin labelled “clinical waste” and never think of it again.

But now, with its range of nutrients, proteins and minerals, placenta is fast becoming the organ du jour. Animal or human, placentas are avoiding the incinerator and finding life after birth as health and beauty treatments.

Spice Girl-turned-fashion arbiter Victoria Beckham is reportedly a fan of sheep placenta facials.

Mad Men star January Jones saved her son’s afterbirth and swallowed it in capsule form to boost her post-natal health. In Switzerland you can pay for placenta injections, while in Japan you can drink pig placenta smoothies.
In New Zealand we are catching up fast.

Megan Exelby’s partner is an obliging man.

After the Hamilton woman gave birth to their second child, he carried out her wishes by chopping up the placenta and freezing it in bite-size pieces.

“He wasn’t keen on doing it,” Exelby says. “But he did it.”

The 26-year-old ate a few of the placenta portions each day, hiding them in spoonfuls of yoghurt to make it more palatable.

Exelby, a politics student, decided to eat her afterbirth after reading about the growing practice – placentophagy – online.

Proponents of placentophagy point out that almost all other mammals eat their placentas, that afterbirth has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine, and that anecdotal evidence – and some sketchy science – suggests that consuming placenta can prevent post-natal depression, reduce post-partum haemorrhage, help maintain energy levels, boost milk production and replace lost iron.

Conclusive research, however, is non-existent and medical experts say the practice is pointless.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ vice-president of women’s health, Stephen Robson, says positive responses are most likely attributable to the placebo effect.

“Animals may have nutritional deficiencies at the time of birth, and eating the placenta is similar to their normal diet and helps maintain nutrition. And there is absolutely no evidence that it has any benefit in humans.”

After weighing up the arguments Exelby felt that the relentlessly positive feedback from mothers who had taken the leap was enough to give it a try herself.

“The main claims for me were that it helped with production of breast milk and it helped prevent post-natal depression,” she says.

“I had some issues breastfeeding my first child and because I already had one young child at home I was worried about getting post-natal depression.”

Exelby suffered neither problem and if she ever has another child, placenta will be back on the menu.

Few fans of placentophagy are as brave. They might want the touted benefits of the practice but the thought of swallowing afterbirth makes them queasy. Professional placenta encapsulators are popping up to solve the problem.

At North Shore Midwives, Wendy Lee opens a black suitcase full of equipment. Latex gloves, bleach and baking paper lie on the top.

The willowy British expat midwife trained as an afterbirth encapsulator last year and has since transformed about 30 into inoffensive capsules for Auckland women.

She charges between $180 and $240 for the process, depending on whether the client wants the encapsulation carried out at her own home or at Lee’s clinic. Each placenta makes between 100 and 200 capsules.

“I clean it – empty and drain it of blood,” she says. “I wash it lots and lots. It can take 30 to 40 minutes.”

“Then I steam it, usually with ginger, depending on what the woman wants, for seven or eight hours.”

She pulls out a portable dehydrator. “I just pop a baking sheet on here,” she says sliding out one of the drawers, “and put the placenta, which I’ve sliced really thinly, in.”

A coffee and spice grinder is plonked on to a table. “After seven or eight hours I grind it.”
She hands me a bag of empty capsules, still divided into halves, waiting to be filled by the next ground afterbirth. “They’re vegetarian,” she says.

How big is placentophagy? There is no way of quantifying but there is also no doubt that the taboo surrounding it is receding and the practice growing.

In 1998, the British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall featured placenta on an instalment of his show TV Dinners. The episode saw the cook collaborate with new mother Rosie Clear. They threw a party to celebrate the birth of her daughter and served Clear’s placenta.

Fearnley-Whittingstall fried the afterbirth with shallots and garlic, flambeed it, pureed it and then served it to 20 relatives and friends as pate on focaccia bread.

Clear’s husband had 17 helpings. The other guests’ appetites were more subdued.
Shocked viewers complained and Britain’s Channel 4 was severely reprimanded by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, which found that the programme had “broken a taboo”. The commission upheld the complaints “on the grounds of taste”.

Fast-forward 15 years and the mainstream media is peppered with stories about, and references to, placentophagy. Reality star Kim Kardashian, who recently gave birth to her first child, was filmed for her high rating TV show telling an obstetrician that she wanted to eat her placenta.

“There are whole cookbooks for placentas,” the specialist told her.

“I really want to do it,” she said.

Kim Kardashian said she wanted to eat the placenta after giving birth to North West. Photo / AP

Kim Kardashian said she wanted to eat the placenta after giving birth to North West. Photo / AP

Mad Men

star January Jones has spoken about having her placenta encapsulated after the arrival of her son in 2011 and advised other women to do the same.

“It’s a very civilised thing that can help women with depression or fatigue. It’s not gross or witchcrafty. I was never depressed or sad or down after the baby was born, so I’d highly suggest it to any pregnant woman,” she said.

An American Playboy model and one-time girlfriend of Hugh Hefner, Holly Madison, followed suit this year, blogging and tweeting about her encapsulation plans.

Placentophagy is now so widely discussed that Birthcare, a major provider of maternity services in Auckland and Huntly, can no longer run an antenatal class without addressing the practice.

“It’s not that I’m up there recommending it,” says Barbara Taunton-Clark, Birthcare’s manager of childbirth education services. “It’s that every time we talk about the placenta it’s brought up by someone.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a mainstream thing but it’s definitely being talked about.”
When Dunedin mother Emily Sterk, 34, gave birth to her son at the beginning of 2011 she had never heard of the practice. She froze her placenta so she could bury it later but within a year she heard talk of placentophagy and removed the afterbirth from the freezer and had it encapsulated.

The change in her milk supply, she says, was instant. Naturopathy student Sian Hannagan, who processed Sterk’s placenta, learned how to encapsulate 18 months ago after realising demand for the service was growing but that Dunedin women were struggling to find local providers and were having to courier their placentas to encapsulators in other parts of the country.

“I don’t view it as a business and I don’t promote it,” says the mother of two, who offers the service on a koha basis. “I do it for women who want it because I feel they deserve it.

“It’s about people having the right to choose what they want to do with their own placenta.”

Why are Kiwi women so willing to experiment with an unproven practice? Jo Jackson of Timaru business Baby Tree Placenta Services, which offers everything from afterbirth prints to placenta chocolates, drops and capsules, says the growth in demand is largely down to word of mouth.

“I’ve noticed a big increase in people lately,” she says. “I can do up to three a week now and there’s a lot of good feedback. Someone will have it done and then tell someone else.”
Back in Auckland, Wendy Lee suspects there is more to the spike in interest. She wonders if New Zealand’s large Chinese population, accustomed to the use of placenta as medicine, has influenced demand but she also speculates that the growing trend towards natural health remedies is a factor.

“I think it’s the natural aspect. People are saying ‘I don’t want to take medication for mood swings or antidepressants for post-natal depression’. For them this is an option. They want natural solutions.”

Television’s Simon Cowell is not one to miss a trend. He might not be able to grow a placenta or discover one on a TV talent show but the music mogul has joined the ranks of afterbirth enthusiasts by indulging in sheep placenta facials.

A therapist from Cowell’s dermatologist’s clinic let the secret slip when she appeared on the British TV show, Lorraine. “He loves it,” she blurted.

Cowell is in good company. Victoria Beckham is widely reported to visit the same clinic – Lancer Dermatology in Beverly Hills – for the treatment, while former Bond Girl Denise Richards endorsed the facial on the TV network E!

The animal placenta facials, and a host of other animal afterbirth beauty products, have risen in popularity as rapidly as placentophagy.

Angela Payne, director of the Hawkes Bay company Agri-lab, thinks and talks animal afterbirth every day but she still seems slightly in awe of its rise in status. Her company, which supplies a range of unusual animal parts (who knew you could buy brain glands and nasal septum?) to the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and cosmetics industry, began selling sheep placenta 11 years ago before adding horse and pig varieties to the range.
“In 2002 we exported 11 tonnes of placenta [mostly in powdered form],” says Payne. “We’re now doing the equivalent of 200 tonnes.”

Afterbirth now accounts for 80 per cent of the company’s business with most ending up as dietary supplements and a small amount being turned into a serum for use in face creams.

Most of the company’s ovine placentas go to Japan, a country where pig placenta smoothies have hit the market and intravenous human placenta is available at the Tokyo IV spa Tenteki 10.

New Zealanders are not as daring but the animal placenta market is growing. Kiwi-produced sheep and deer placenta supplements, which promise youthful skin, are widely available and ovine placenta face and body creams are on the shelves and on Trade Me.

But if you want pampering with your placenta, head to Peak Appearance in Napier, where you can lie back, relax and have sheep afterbirth rubbed into your face.
If anyone is going to convince you that this is a good idea, it is the clinic’s owner, Lara Molloy. She is impossibly glamorous and and has been offering placenta facials, at $150 a pop, since August 2012.

“Placentas are rich in growth factors,” she says. “It definitely makes a difference. People are a little bit more radiant and the benefits last for a month.”
But being this on-trend can have its downsides.

“It’s a little bit whiffy, so I combine it with some other products. But you can still smell it a bit,” she says. “My ladies are quite rural though, so they’re not too bothered by it.”

Nature: China’s embrace of embryo selection raises thorny questions

Nature | News Feature

China’s embrace of embryo selection raises thorny questions

Fertility centres are making a massive push to increase preimplantation genetic diagnosis in a bid to eradicate certain diseases.

16 August 2017 Corrected:

Getting time with Qiao Jie is not easy. At 7:30 a.m., the line coming out of the fertility centre that she runs blocks the doorway and extends some 80 metres down the street. Inside, about 50 physicians on her team are discussing recent findings, but Qiao, a fertility specialist and president of Peking University Third Hospital in Beijing, is still in an early-morning consult.

When she finally emerges, she jumps to the topic at hand: spreading awareness of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a procedure that helps couples undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) to avoid passing on genetic mutations that could cause disease or disability in their children. Qiao typically refuses interview requests, but she’s concerned that people aren’t getting the message about PGD fast enough. “Now, more and more diseases can be stopped — if not immediately, in the generation after next,” she says.

Early experiments are beginning to show how genome-editing technologies such as CRISPR might one day fix disease-causing mutations before embryos are implanted. But refining the techniques and getting regulatory approval will take years. PGD has already helped thousands of couples. And whereas the expansion of PGD around the world has generally been slow, in China, it is starting to explode.

The conditions there are ripe: genetic diseases carry heavy stigma, people with disabilities get very little support and religious and ethical push-back against PGD is almost non-existent. China has also lifted some restrictions on family size and seen a subsequent rise in fertility treatments among older couples. Genetic screening during pregnancy for chromosomal abnormalities linked to maternal age has taken off throughout the country, and many see this as a precursor to wider adoption of PGD.

Although Chinese fertility doctors were late to the game in adopting the procedure, they have been pursuing a more aggressive, comprehensive and systematic path towards its use there than anywhere else. The country’s central government, known for its long-term thinking, has over the past decade stepped up efforts to bring high-quality health care to the people, and its current 5-year plan has made reproductive medicine, including PGD, a priority, an effort that Qiao is leading. Researchers are hunting down various mutations in the Chinese population that might be screened for in PGD. And well-equipped and powerful clinical-research groups, including Qiao’s, are stepping up efforts to improve the technology, increase awareness and bring down costs.


Why is preimplantation genetic diagnosis is taking off in China?


Comprehensive figures are difficult to come by, but estimates from leading PGD providers show that China’s use of the technique already outpaces that in the United States, and it is growing up to five times faster. Qiao’s clinic alone now performs more procedures with PGD each year than all of the United Kingdom.

“Looking over the development in China over the past 10 years, they might start to think it’s possible to get rid of these diseases,” says Kangpu Xu, a Chinese-born reproductive biologist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

Such systematic efforts raise thorny questions for bioethicists. Some worry that pushes to eliminate disabilities devalue the lives of those who already have them. The cost and accessibility of the procedure raises concerns about genetic traits further widening the divide between rich and poor people. Then there are concerns about the push to select for non-disease-related traits, such as intelligence or athletic ability. The ever-present spectre of eugenics lurks in the shadows. But in China, although these concerns are considered, most thoughts are focused on the benefits of the procedures. “There are ethical problems, but if you bring an end to the disease, I think it’s good for society,” says Qiao.

Heyday for PGD

Physicians in the United Kingdom pioneered PGD in humans about 30 years ago, initially to help genetic carriers of a disorder that affects mainly boys. Thanks to the procedure, the parents were able to select for girls. Generally, the process involves removing one or a few cells from an embryo created during IVF and then using various techniques to test the structure and number of chromosomes and even the sequence of individual genes. Physicians typically discard embryos that don’t pass the tests.

Uncertain about the procedure’s safety, and wary of its potential for abuse (selecting for males in China is illegal, for example), the Chinese government restricted the practice to hospitals with a licence. By the end of 2004, only four centres in the entire country had such a licence. By 2016, the number had risen to 40.

The clinics are huge and growing. Qiao’s centre carried out 18,000 IVF procedures in 2016. The biggest clinic, the Reproductive and Genetic Hospital CITIC-Xiangya in Changsha, recorded 41,000 IVF procedures in the same year. That’s roughly one-quarter of the annual number for the entire United States. One reason for the dramatic rise is China’s policy change last year that now allows families to have two children. This has led to a huge number of older women seeking fertility treatment. Another factor is the changing culture in China. Ten years ago, people who couldn’t conceive would take traditional Chinese medicine, or they might adopt a child. “Now they know assisted reproductive technologies can help,” says Qiao.

And the centres with licences to do PGD have created a buzz in their race to claim firsts with the technology. In 2015, CITIC-Xiangya boasted China’s first “cancer-free baby”. The boy’s parents had terminated a prior pregnancy after genetic testing showed the presence of retinoblastoma, a cancer that forms in the eyes during early development and often leads to blindness. In their next try, the couple used PGD to ensure that the gene variant that causes retinoblastoma wasn’t present. Other groups have helped couples to avoid passing on a slew of conditions: short-rib-polydactyly syndrome, Brittle-bone disease, Huntington’s disease, polycystic kidney disease and deafness, among others. Qiao, working with biochemist Sunney Xie at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has also introduced a method that can do both chromosomal analyses and next-generation genetic analyses on a single cell. China might have got a slow start, but it is now overtaking Western nations in its use of PGD.

Qiao’s clinic screened embryos for individual disease-causing genes about 100 times last year. It screened for abnormal chromosome counts, such as that associated with Down’s syndrome, in another 670 cases. For comparison, 578 such procedures were done in the entire United Kingdom in 2014, the latest year for which numbers are available. And China’s uptake is growing fast. At CITIC-Xiangya, the number of preimplantation testing procedures rose by 277% over just 2 years, from 876 in 2014 to 2,429 in 2016, and 700 of these were for single-gene disorders.

What’s more, many fertility centres in China have the capacity for high-quality research. Qiao is interested in safety and is studying whether extracting the cells for PGD causes subtle damage to the embryo. She is in the middle of compiling data from all IVF clinics in China for a 10-year study on such effects.

Qiao is also working with Xie and Sijia Lu, the chief technology officer of Shanghai-based Yikon Genomics, to develop a technique to do all the necessary sequencing without removing cells, by sampling free-floating DNA in the media the embryos are cultured in. Such an advance could make PGD safer and easier to do.

Joe Leigh Simpson, a medical geneticist at Florida International University in Miami, and former president of the Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis International Society, is impressed by the quality and size of the Chinese fertility clinics. They “are superb and have gigantic units. They came out of nowhere in just 2 or 3 years,” he says.

Chinese researchers are also looking for more disease-associated gene variants, specifically to expand the impact of PGD. The most concentrated efforts are being orchestrated by He Lin, a geneticist at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He has set out an ambitious project: to pin down all the mutations in all the genes that cause diseases and put them into a single database. “We just do them one by one until we get the whole set,” he says, referring to the roughly 6,000 known genetic diseases. As disease–gene links are verified, they could be added to the list of things that PGD can screen for.

The first target, He says, is deafness. Wang Qiuju, a hearing-loss specialist at the Chinese PLA General Hospital in Beijing and head of the project, says that she plans to get up to 200,000 samples from 150 hospitals throughout China to identify associated mutations.

The large numbers are needed because there are a handful of genes involved in hearing loss, and each of them have dozens, even hundreds, of mutations. “When we have big databases, we can see the contribution of each gene more clearly. Then it’s easy to do PGD,” says Wang.

Culture clash

Such efforts, for hearing loss in particular, can seem jarring because many people in the West do not consider it a problem to be avoided. In the United States, some deaf couples have used PGD to select for congenital deafness, in an effort to preserve Deaf culture. Such sentiments wouldn’t make sense to many parents in China, says Wang, because there is little support for them: “If they have a deaf child, they feel the need to have a normal child to help them take care of the deaf child.”

People in China seem more likely to feel an obligation to bear the healthiest child possible than to protect an embryo. The Chinese appetite for using genetic technology to ensure healthy births can be seen in the rapid rise of pregnancy testing for Down’s syndrome and other chromosomal abnormalities. Since Shenzhen-based BGI introduced a test for Down’s syndrome in 2013, it has sold more than 2 million kits; half of those sales were in the past year.

Although such testing has become routine in the United Kingdom and United States, many in the West won’t terminate a pregnancy just because of Down’s syndrome.

Jiani Chen, a genetic counsellor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City, says that this isn’t the case in China. “In China, if you want to abort a baby with Down’s syndrome, no one will scold you.” Since moving from her native Taiwan to Oklahoma, Chen herself says that she is no longer sure what she would do.

“There are ethical problems, but if you bring an end to the disease, I think it’s good for society.”

In the West, PGD still raises fears about the creation of an elite genetic class, and critics talk of a slippery slope towards eugenics, a word that elicits thoughts of Nazi Germany and racial cleansing. In China, however, PGD lacks such baggage. The Chinese word for eugenics, yousheng, is used explicitly as a positive in almost all conversations about PGD. Yousheng is about giving birth to children of better quality. Not smoking during pregnancy is also part of yousheng.

This is not to say that the Chinese haven’t thought about abuses of the technology. The Chinese government was worried, as were many Western governments, that PGD would be used to select physical characteristics, such as height or intelligence. The clinics licensed to do PGD can use it only to avoid serious disease or assist infertility treatments. And sex selection through PGD is off the table. Yikon’s Lu says that some families ask to weed out the mutation that renders many Asians unable to process alcohol, something that could affect the ability to take part in the often alcohol-fuelled Chinese business lunches. “They want their son to be able to drink,” says Lu. “We say no.” Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s He has made training genetic counsellors — people versed in the risks, benefits and ethical issues related to PGD — a priority. Currently, they are almost non-existent in China.

The UK Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority also tightly regulates PGD — limiting its use to 400 conditions. But in the United States, clinics have fairly free rein. Sex selection, for example, is acknowledged as controversial by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, but its ethics committee largely leaves it to individual clinics to decide what is permissible.

To many fertility specialists, what’s most striking about China’s adoption of PGD is the speed and organization of its uptake. China already seems to provide more procedures than the United States, and with growth estimated at 60–70% per year, is on target to catch up in per capita terms in the next few years.

This could be a boon for the country, given the economic arguments for PGD. For instance, one study has compared the average costs of the PGD procedure needed to avoid cystic fibrosis — US$57,500 — with the medical costs incurred in a lifetime by an average patient, which amounted to $2.3 million (I. Tur-Kaspa et al. Reprod. Biomed. Online 21, 186–195; 2010). The authors calculated net savings on health care of all patients born in a year over the average patient’s lifespan of 37 years to be $33.3 billion. That is just for one of hundreds of diseases that can be avoided with PGD.

But PGD has not been an easy sell in the West. The Catholic Church, for example, opposes embryo manipulation, including the removal of cells for testing, as well as the destruction of embryos. “The idea that scientists are playing god is always a theme,” says Natasha Bonhomme, chief strategy officer at Genetic Alliance, a lobbying group in Washington DC that focuses on genetic diseases.

There are also social and economic concerns. Some parents of affected children argue that reducing the number of children with those diseases would reduce government funding for research into treatments. Others object to the idea that they are being discouraged from conceiving children the usual way.

The debate has made physicians and scientists wary. “The scientific community is not interested in getting too forward out in front of public opinion,” says Simpson, even though he thinks that the evidence is on the side of employing more PGD. “With every reproductive-biology advance,” he says, “we get the same questions: ‘won’t there be a slippery slope that leads to abuse?’ But it never happens.”

The upshot is that there has never really been advocacy organized around PGD in the United States, says Bonhomme. And without government support, it remains for many a prohibitively expensive procedure. Insurance coverage is “pitiful”, says Svetlana Rechitsky, director of the genetic-testing firm Reproductive Genetic Innovations in Northbrook, Illinois. Sitting at her desk, sorting through letters from insurers — mostly refusals to offer coverage for PGD — she says, “It’s getting worse and worse.”

Already the procedure is much cheaper in China — about one-third of what it costs in the United States. Cheaper tests will make it more palatable for national insurance coverage, something Qiao has already started pushing for. “Before I retire, I want to get the government involved. I have 12 years,” she says.

(17 August 2017)

Epoch Times: The Untold Story of Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma, Violin Prodigy and Medical Doctor

This Is New York: The Untold Story of Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma, Violin Prodigy and Medical Doctor

Why Whites and Asians Have Different Views on Personal Success

Why Whites and Asians Have Different Views on Personal Success

A new study explores why the latter are far more likely to opt for an elite college where they’d struggle than a so-so one where they’d excel.

There’s a saying in China that it’s better to be the head of a chicken than the tail of a phoenix. The premise of the aphorism—it’s better to be over-qualified than under-qualified relative to one’s surroundings—is so widely accepted that similar versions of it exist across cultures. In Japan, they tend to say that it’s better to be the head of a sardine than the tail of a whale. Americans and Brits often declare that it’s better to be a big frog (or fish) in a small pond than a little frog in a big pond.

Extensive research supports these axioms, particularly in the realm of education. Longitudinal studies have consistently shown that high-performing students at less-selective schools feel more competent, have higher GPAs, and have more ambitious career aspirations than low-performing students at more-selective schools.

Despite the compelling evidence and age-old maxims, however, people abide by that advice to different degrees in different situations. While one study found that on average, roughly two-thirds of people would prefer to have a high IQ and live in a less-intelligent place than the reverse, for example, that percentage varied from 18 percent to 80 percent across different situations.

new paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Social Psychological and Personality Science sought to better understand what influences those decisions—what psychological factors explain why one person might prefer to be an under-qualified student at Harvard than an overqualified one at Northeastern and why another would prefer the opposite. The University of Michigan researchers compared East Asians and European Americans on the assumption that cultural contexts play a huge role, and their analyses confirmed that speculation: The former were far more likely to prefer being a small frog in a big pond than the latter.

This conclusion may not come as a surprise given common perceptions about what distinguishes East Asian cultures from white American ones. Asians are known to be much more collectivistic, to value humility, and to tend to make decisions based on the common good rather than personal gain. Their white counterparts, on the other hand, are known to be individualistic, to self-promote by competing with peers, and to make decisions based on personal ambition. Extrapolating from that, East Asians might be more likely to assess themselves based on the larger social group to which they belong, while European Americans could be expected to evaluate themselves based more on how they compare to others within their group.

To the researchers’ surprise, though, these cultural stereotypes played little role in explaining their findings. In fact, they found that the East Asians they surveyed were greatly influenced by self-promotional tendencies—it was just a different species of self-promotion: the pursuit of prestige.

East Asian cultures aren’t just collectivistic, said Kaidi Wu, the lead researcher and a graduate student in social psychology at Michigan. They’re also what she described as “face” cultures. In such cultures, “it’s not only important for you to know that you are doing well, it’s also really important for other people—a stranger on the street, a relative, an employer who takes five minutes to glance through your resume—to evaluate you and think of you as this person who’s coming from a really good place. … Your evaluation is predicated on what other people think of you.”

Wu and her coauthors conducted three studies as part of the analysis. The first simply asked a randomly generated list of University of Michigan students whether they’d prefer to be a big frog in a small pond or vice versa. Whereas roughly 75 percent of the East Asian respondents—most of whom were born in the U.S. or had immigrated to the country at a young age—said they’d prefer being a small frog in a big pond, the same was true for just 59 percent of the European American ones.

The second study was slightly different in that the survey didn’t cite the frog-pond analogy and consulted adults in mainland China rather than East Asian students in the U.S. The researchers asked respondents whether they’d prefer attending a top-10 college where they’d be below average or a top-100 college where they’d be above average; they then asked a similar question but replaced “college” with “company” to gauge workplace preferences. The findings mirrored those from the first study: The Asian participants were more likely to prefer being a small fish. Fifty-eight percent of Chinese respondents preferred the top-10 college, and 29 percent of them preferred the global top-10 company; that was the case for just 27 percent and 14 percent of European American respondents, respectively.

The results from the third study, which sought to understand the motivation underlying these cultural distinctions, were the most counterintuitive for Wu and her colleagues. The researchers looked at the degree to which survey respondents compare themselves with others—e.g., I often compare how many Twitter followers I have with how many Twitter followers my coworker has. This measure is often used to gauge people’s frog-pond preferences: The more likely a respondent is to compare herself to others, the more likely she is to prefer being a big frog in a small pond. Interestingly, Chinese adults were more likely than white American ones to report engaging in such intragroup comparison.

There are limitations to the research, of course. The analysis relied on small sample sizes of between roughly 200 and 300 participants for each of the studies, though that’s typical of psychological studies in recent years. Furthermore, it’s all but impossible to suss out the extent to which a person’s cultural background influences her decision-making, especially as a growing number of students identify with multiple cultures. And myriad factors influence an individual’s decision about where to go to college and work.

Still, Wu emphasized that the study is the first to explore how culture shapes frog-pond education decisions, and its findings challenge conceptions about why people make the decisions they do. In cultural research, “it’s very easy to come up with these reductionistic approaches”—i.e., that Americans are individualistic, East Asians are collectivistic—and to make assumptions based on those simplifications, Wu said.

“There’s this seeming contradiction between the collectivistic Asian and the Tiger Mom-ish, uber-competitive Asian student,” she said. East Asians’ tendency toward big-name institutions at the expense of being outshined by others “isn’t because they are more collectivistic, that they want to preserve harmony and fit into the groove and be part of the larger pond.” Wu’s study suggests it’s more likely because they’re seeking prestige—and defining their success based on where they go to school rather than on how their academic performance compares to that of others.

Wu  argued that there are merits to being a small fish in a big pond, particularly when it comes to academia. Indeed, some research shows that top-10 universities produce almost three times the number of tenure-track professors as do the top 20, in large part because having a social network with elite academic scholars is so crucial to getting hired in heavily hierarchical settings. Wu, who grew up in Shanghai and moved to the U.S. when she was 16, noted that she has “reaped the benefits of a big pond” in that her peers and professors at the University of Michigan have served as a great source of motivation. Some research also suggests that the big pond might be a more advantageous choice for low-income students of color because of the resources and connections they gain from selective schools.

But being in a big pond can be a double-edged sword. Wu’s mission is to better understand the cultural distinctions that help explain these decision-making patterns—insight that is particularly relevant in the age of globalization and might help the growing numbers of Asian students in the U.S. better navigate the country’s higher-education system. In the last decade, the international-student population in the U.S. has grown by 85 percent, with the majority hailing from Asia. In vying for big ponds, many become strained by the pressure to succeed, overexerting themselves to the point that they get swallowed by mental illness or resort to cheating. Meanwhile, the percent of senior Fortune 100 executives with Ivy League degrees has declined since 1980, while the percent with public-university degrees has increased. And a Gallup poll from 2014 of nearly 30,000 college graduates found that attending a prestigious college has no bearing on an individual’s happiness in life and work.

“At the end of the day,” Wu asked, “is it worth choosing the big pond in a cultural context where big frogs in small ponds can also succeed?”

After dividing California Democrats in 2014, affirmative action resurfaces in the race for governor

After dividing California Democrats in 2014, affirmative action resurfaces in the race for governor

A debate about affirmative action has emerged in the campaign for governor, threatening to inject a potentially volatile racial element into the 2018 contest after the issue divided California Democrats along ethnic lines three years ago.

The question of whether race should be considered in admissions to California’s colleges and universities was raised in recent weeks when the state’s Latino and black legislative caucuses sent a letter to the top six gubernatorial candidates.

Legislators polled the politicians about their views on affirmative action and track records on diversity efforts, and asked them to detail proposals to diversify colleges and state government that they would pursue if elected governor. The candidates were also asked about efforts they would undertake to help diversify leadership in the private sector, where they have no official control.

For California political observers, the questionnaire recalls a 2014 move by Latino and black lawmakers to repeal Proposition 209, which voters approved in 1996 to ban affirmative action in university admissions.

The effort met unexpected resistance. After the measure to lift the ban quietly won Senate approval, it caught the attention of Asian American activists who said their children would be harmed if affirmative action was reinstated. On social media networks, some argued that their children had to perform better than students of other races to be admitted at elite universities, a situation that would be aggravated if the ban was rescinded.

In response to the concerns, Asian American state senators who supported the measure expressed new reservations, and others in the state Assembly vowed to oppose it, leading then-Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez to shelve it.

But tensions lingered. Several Latino and black lawmakers withdrew their endorsements of then-state Sen. Ted Lieu to succeed retiring Rep. Henry Waxman when the Torrance Democrat backed off his support for the measure after initially voting for it.

“We really got caught off guard in the debate,” state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said of the bill’s failure and its aftermath. Lara, who is a member of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, said the issue is personal to him as a beneficiary of affirmative action. “We weren’t prepared for that.”

The discussion about affirmative action in the California governor’s race comes at a time when the issue is also reemerging at the federal, state and local levels. President Trump’s Justice Department just launched an investigation into “race-based discrimination” in college admissions. And some Asian American activists, concerned about the disclosure of ethnicity in the college admissions process, are protesting the collection of race-based data at statehouses and school districts across the nation, including in Irvine and Cerritos.

“We think California has become post-racial. This election will test that,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate dean at the UC Riverside School of Public Policy, said of the governor’s race. “Political ambition has a way of bringing out some of these dynamics … in ways that could end up causing racial tension in the state.”

Follow California politics by signing up for our email newsletter »

Three years after the effort to repeal Proposition 209, Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), chairman of the California Legislative Black Caucus, said legislators asked the gubernatorial candidates about affirmative action not to create a “gotcha” moment, but to find out their views on an issue that will be revisited in the future.

The Democrats in the race — former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin and state Treasurer John Chiang — all expressed strong support for affirmative action, while the top two Republicans in the race, Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach and businessman John Cox, did not respond to the letter.

“At some point, one of them will be the next governor. There will more than likely be a bill that will end up on their desk, and we want to have a sense of what they’ll do with that bill,” Holden said.

But he acknowledged that restarting the discussion was not without risks.

“Sometimes it’s very uncomfortable and not always convenient to have a conversation about race,” he said.

Not all ethnic groups were represented when affirmative action was raised last month to the 2018 candidates. The letter was signed by the chairs of the black and Latino caucuses. The California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, organizers acknowledged, was not asked to join.

Bill Wong, a Democratic strategist, said that for Asian American politicians, the affirmative action debate is like dealing with “an awkward family member.”

“When you talk to the individual [Democratic Asian Pacific Islander] caucus members, they all support affirmative action,” said Wong, who supports Chiang for governor. “They also understand there are parts of their communities and constituencies that don’t understand the entire history of affirmative action.”

Lara said legislators learned lessons from their failed effort in 2014. Their views, he said, have since been shaped by polling that found many Californians didn’t know what constitutes affirmative action.

Legislators including Lara as well as outside interest groups are trying to shift the debate over affirmative action in hopes of making it less politically toxic. Rather than discussions of quotas or competition over a limited number of admission slots, they argue the debate should be centered on access to higher education, such as tuition costs and K-12 preparedness.

“We wanted to shift the paradigm,” said Betty Hung, policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, a civil rights group. “Rather than looking at this as a zero-sum issue, we want to expand the pie of higher educational opportunity for everyone.”

Republicans have tried in the past to use the issue of affirmative action to cudgel Democrats in districts with high numbers of Asian Americans, the fastest growing voting bloc in the state. In 2014, the party’s efforts contributed to victories for Republican legislative candidates Janet Nguyen of Garden Grove, Ling-Ling Chang of Diamond Bar and Young Kim of Fullerton.

The issue could be a hurdle in the governor’s race. Newsom, who is the front-runner in polling and fundraising, has staked out the most liberal positions among the Democratic candidates. But if Villaraigosa or Chiang make it to the general election and there is no GOP candidate standing, their paths to victory run through more conservative regions such as the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, where voters might be less likely to support affirmative action.

Chiang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, may find himself in a predicament when it comes to discussing his stance on affirmative action. He has considerable support from Asian American donors and voters. And while he called for the repeal of the affirmative-action ban in response to the recent letter, he has not always been so vocal.

When Chiang was state controller, he was asked in 2014 about the effort to overturn the ban. He demurred, saying he only speaks out about financial issues.

“I comment on other issues selectively,” he told a National Public Radio affiliate in Southern California.

But it’s inevitable that the ongoing conversation about affirmative action will take on new relevance in the governor’s race, noted state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego).

“This is the first time in California history we have a legitimate shot of having a person of color as governor,” she said.

Twitter: @LATSeema@melmason