Archive for July, 2007

Fixing History

Israel’s Education Ministry announced yesterday that it will release a third-grade textbook that acknowledges the suffering Palestinians endured with the formation of the Jewish state – via the SF Chronicle:

Previous editions gave only the Jewish narrative of the war, pointing out the Jews’ connection to the Holy Land and their need for a state because of persecution in Europe. That version focused on heroism of the Israeli forces and referred to the Palestinian flight as a voluntary escape.

The new edition adds the Arab perspective, noting for the first time that many Palestinians were forced from their homes and became refugees after the winners of the war confiscated their land and barred their return. [Full]

The catch? The new text will only be taught to Arab children, not Jewish students.

I can’t pretend to be informed enough on the Palestine/Israel issue to pass judgment, but the fact that the Education Ministry is even willing to concede the Palestinian viewpoint is evidence enough that it is legitimate on some level. If that’s the case, then why shelter Jewish students from having an open dialogue? Why try to cook the history books in a time when we need desperately to understand each other?

In a related event, Taipei announced plans to “drop references that describe mainland Chinese historical figures, places and artifacts as ‘national,'” the Education Ministry has announced.” (International Herald Tribune)

While I can understand Taiwan’s hesitancy to declare full-out independence (China has threatened military retaliation if it does so), this seems passive-aggressive. If you’re gonna say it, President Chen, then say it.

Meanwhile, Japan still won’t cave on its hardline of ignoring the realities of the past, despite the outrage it has caused. High-schoolers there continue to glaze over the Rape of Nanking (reduced to a footnote) and the oppressive occupation of Korea.

Amid all of this, we must question whether children around the globe are being educated about the social realities of our world. If regimes continue to sacrifice legitimate dialogue for the sake of legitimizing their politicized view, the rifts between us will only continue to fester – we must look back on our pasts honestly, or we will never move forward.

(Revised 07/24/2007)

This Week’s Wandering News

  • After years of opposition and protests, the Starbucks in the Forbidden City has finally closed its doors, says World Hum – good riddance.
  • Despite their grittier feel and heavy history, the formerly soviet Baltic states and their capitals are thriving, says the SF Chronicle.
  • The International Herald Tribune’s Tyler Brûlé reports on the hassle of getting through airport security the world over – “In the Catalan version of the airport security check you have to take off as many articles of clothing as possible, fill up as many plastic bins as you can balance in one arm while towing a wheely suitcase in the other and then deposit all of them on a conveyor belt.” – yikes.
  • It’s a travesty in our own back yard, and Salon’s Bill Sasser takes us there, to the rebuilding of culture and life in New Orleans.
  • The Metropolitician offers up an eerie portrait of a street-market mannequin in Seoul: check out his surreal photo.

This Week’s Wandering News is a collection of travel-related links from the past week TDT finds interesting. It is posted every Sunday.

Modernity Worldwide

hejaab. photo by Please! Don’t Smile.

Many Westerners commonly, if unconsciously, believe that the paradigms enveloped by the term modernity – progressivism, universal suffrage, feminism, etc. – were essentially birthed in the West, only to leak out and infiltrate other societies in recent eras.

While my education and experiences abroad have certainly taught me better, I could have at least in part counted myself among the masses who subconsciously subscribe to that belief – until yesterday.

Yesterday afternoon I sat down with a professor of feminist literature who lives here in Madison, and by chance dove into a brief discussion about feminist thought in the Middle East. As we talked, she drew upon personal experiences with Middle Eastern women and on books from Middle Eastern authors to make a point about how the West never held the market on progressivism.

One of the authors she mentioned that intrigued me most is Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian woman who wrote and illustrated a graphic memoir titled Persepolis. Satrapi was raised in a progressive household in Tehran, but was sent by her parents to Vienna at age 14 to escape an oppressive regime – she lived a migratory life, hopping between Iran and Europe a couple times before settling in Paris.

Though I’ve yet to read the books, what I gather from this professor’s commentary on them is that despite Satrapi’s exposure to the West, the roots of her progressivism stemmed from her homeland. I could perhaps relate this to a feminist novel I have read written by Egyptian author Nadal al Saadawi, who’s disdain for patriarchal society was homegrown.

My interaction with this professor encouraged me to think a bit more deeply about the dangers of viewing the world as split geographically into backwards and forwards. In this time of fear and war, the images most Americans see of Middle Eastern society are those representing backwards tradition – radical Islamic clerics, women wearing face veils, and bombed-out dust bowl cities. If we are ever confronted with opposing representations, perhaps of Middle Eastern academics or educated people fighting for equality, media often frame them as being “Westernized.”

And there is another danger in this view – making similar assumptions, many fundamentalists in the East have written off and dismissed progressive ideologies as simply being an invasion of Western thought, rather than being homegrown movements. The truth is that Eastern societies have a rich cultural history of academic thought, and wherever there is a pursuit for knowledge, dissidence for the status quo will surely sprout.

The fight for equality and wisdom is first and foremost a human endeavor, and no one region or society holds the keys. Movements for freedom often take on different features and cultural traits, as evident in Turkey’s current struggle for balance between secularism and Islamic faith, but the heart is essentially the same.

When Westerners view other nations or societies as typically backwards, needing to be fixed by Western value systems, we are unwittingly reverting to the archaic perspective of “the white man’s burden.” This is an odious reality we need desperately to face, because in truth, we do not have the corner on modernity – everyone has legs to stand.

At Home in Shanghai

photo by Poagao

The ‘Home & Garden’ section of The New York Times is an area I rarely explore – today was different. A huge top-of-the-fold photo of a traditional row of Shanghai lane houses caught my eye, and with the subhead “At Home Abroad,” I was drawn in.

The article, written in first person by Emily Prager, narrates the author’s existence in her new home. Prager, a lifelong NYC resident with a 12 year-old adopted Chinese daughter, uprooted to Shanghai from Manhattan a year ago, exhausted by the soaring cost of living and the boutique-ification of her favorite streets. In her article, she details the way her life has changed and how she has adapted, touching on issues as deep as culture shock and as mundane as figuring out how to do her banking. Here’s an excerpt:

THE first week I lived in Shanghai, I was walking down Nanjing Street, in front of Cartier, and a man tried to sell me tiger paws. I was near one of the main high-end shopping plazas, a glittering mass of high-rise office buildings and luxury stores, when the man — rustic looking, darkly tanned and wild-eyed — approached me. Nearby, on a cardboard box, I saw his wares: the dried-out skins of indeterminate animals. He walked up to me and thrust out the two giant paws, clearly those of a long-gone big cat. He peered at me expectantly and waited for his money. I looked down at the moth-eaten paws and up at the diamonds in Cartier’s window, and I felt as one often does here, like part of a Surrealist painting. [Read Full]

It’s a really great and honest piece on expat life – If you’ve lived abroad, want to, or are still just daydreaming, I’d recommend a thorough read.

‘Someday I’ll Be Sitting In a Dingy Bar’

Last month I wrote about the tragic and unexpected passing of my former professor and kindred spirit, Scott Swaner. His sister came across the post, and has dropped me a couple notes since.

Most recently she let me know that a book of Korean poetry that Prof. Swaner had been working on before his death was published; the work is titled Someday I’ll be Sitting in A Dingy Bar, written by Hwang Jiwoo. Here’s an excerpt from the publisher’s website:

from “Please Take Off Your Shoes Before You Enter”:

A spinster jumped from her 15th floor apartment;
if you go take a look on the balcony, sure enough,
her shoes will be neatly placed there.
I hear people who jump into the Han River do the same thing.
Why would a person first neatly arrange the shoes
they’ve been wearing before they jump,
whether it’s onto the pavement or into pitch-dark waters?

It’s exciting to see more contemporary stuff translated and put out there for the masses, making Korean literature more accessible to those who might only have vague ideas about the nation and its culture.

Prof. Swaner was serious and passionate about his work, and was a dedicated scholar – I expect this to be a really great read. If you’re into Korean culture, poetry, or just have a good sense of curiosity, I would encourage you to pick this up.

The poetry collection can be purchased from Tin Fish Press.

(Edited July 19, 2007)

Wringing Out the Night

seatac airport at dawn. photo by y-a-n.

Sunset Bowl was exactly the kind of place you’d want to kick off an all-nighter. It stank of foot-spray and cigarettes, and nobody cared because they were too busy draining beers or hurling projectiles in an effort to topple pins – it was reckless, dirty perfection.

The smells of the alley caused me to momentarily reminisce about my sixth birthday party, which was similarly spent bowling. Back then it was batman cake, legos, awkwardly fitting button-shirts, simplicity and safety.

I had just finished up the winter quarter of my sophomore year in college and in two days would be departing for Seoul, once again making a leap across the Pacific for more language courses, and for the girl with whom I had fallen in love.

Pulled from my reverie, I realized that unlike my childhood birthday, here there were no devices to keep my ball from rolling into the gutter. After it had been pitched, it would roll where it willed, and the night would stretch on.

My plane ticket was solid proof of my commitment, to both a woman and a place. It was something I could keep and hold, unlike the hundreds of emails frozen in digital space and the phone card minutes that trickled away in sweet, anxious conversation.

But before pulling up my roots and packing my things, I had wanted to seize the Seattle night in its entirety, to wring out what I could of this last spring at home.

My two companions in the endeavor were friends I had known since the days of t-ball and cub scouts. My proposal the idea to stay up all night sans alcohol went over without a thought. It was like a question of wanting Chinese food for lunch or a beer from the fridge.

“Hey guys, want to stay up all night on Wednesday?”


Many high-fives later into the night, I had rolled the best game of my life with a final score of 167. The ball had swayed on the wood like it was listening to Lionel Richie’s “Easy Like Sunday Morning,” and each crashing of the pins had left me with a grin.

The next several hours of the night played out in conversation at a diner where hash-brown grease clung to spoons and the walls were stained with nicotine. We chatted like we had mainlined our coffee instead of sipped it, jumping between topics of religion, girls, and the directions of our lives. The hours flowed like spilled ink.

We pushed towards dawn in a bleary haze, floating from one street to the next. As the clock neared five a.m., we piled into a car and shook ourselves awake with music that raged like Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire. We unloaded at a park at the top of Lake Union and tossed a frisbee between ourselves until we reached the crest of a hill and gazed upon downtown.

We watched the city wake up. I watched the light change on the water.


This short non-fiction story was part of a recent class assignment, where each student was given the last line of “I watched the light change on the water.” I wrote this about an all-nighter I pulled with a couple friends back in 2005, before departing to Korea for the second time in a year.

This Week’s Wandering News

  • Italy’s business people are heading to the office more casually for the sake of the environment, shedding layers and turning down the AC – NYT via Denver Post.
  • Simon Winchester, a favorite author of mine, writes a really great piece about China’s geologic skyline.
  • Monocle Magazine reports on how Seoul’s culture is developing within a space created by broadband infrastructure and popular media.
  • In other Korea news, the Metropolitician had a few sound bites in an NPR piece about racial bias in hiring English teachers.
  • Global Voices Online analyzes the Iraqi blogosphere to find out how locals feel about the direction their homeland is headed.

This Week’s Wandering News is a collection of travel-related links from the past week TDT finds interesting. It is normally posted every Sunday.

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