Artefacts of a culture

Those nine months somehow managed to pass by, and there are approximately one million things I didn’t have time to write on here. Mostly because I was working on this instead:

The Immediacy of Media Literacy: Cultures of Critical News Consumption in Asia

It’s my final research project, covering findings from Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and India. It’s an amalgamation of interviews, literature, and anything else I felt was necessary to say.

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Inextricable masses

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus | 04.03.2018 | 13:00

The crowds pulsed with the coming of every new train. Each individual on the platform could be found performing one of three actions: embarking, disembarking, or waiting for someone they know to do either. The population of these platforms increased by a few hundred every time a new train would arrive at CST, then decreased with a steady rhythm and pattern as the passengers trickled out of the ornate building once known as Victoria Terminus. While the station’s name has changed, its Italianate Gothic Revival architecture remains a colonial relic.

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Elephant pants, elephant camps & white dreads: navigating nuance in a globalized Southeast Asia

There’s something of a epidemic among tourists and travelers in glorifying “authentic” elements in cultures different than their own. It’s natural (and healthy, I think) to seek authenticity in life, but the discovery will always be more of a subjective impression than an actual qualifier. Each time we deem something “authentic,” it comes with hundreds of subconscious qualifications, entirely based on our own limited knowledge of the history and space.

What makes a monument authentic — if it’s preserved in its original state, or if it ages naturally, with time?

Is the “real” Thai culture lying somewhere in the countryside, surrounded by water buffalo and subsistence farming? What makes that more authentic than working at a fast food chain in Bangkok? In Thailand, and most other places, that which is untouched by the forces of globalization tends to gain this title of “authentic” more so than, say, a statue of Ronald McDonald greeting you with a wai (see below).

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Backpack down

Rainy Kuala Lumpur, January 5

TLDR; too blessed to be stressed.

A tragic combination of a misinformed travel agent, a Vietnamese visa fiasco, and the remarkable dysfunction of VietJet Airlines has led to the recent disappearance of all my belongings into the airport ether.

When the bag failed to arrive on the conveyer belt, it felt like nothing more than a natural conclusion to the most chaotic travel day. After a brief cry with an emotionally supportive baggage claim employee, I hastily bought some McNuggets (my first meal of the day) and sped away from the Singapore Airport, bagless. My cab driver whistled along to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” on the radio as we pulled up to the hostel just in time for the first lecture of second semester.

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Some of the most insightful words I’ve heard about greater China came from an eccentric, Little-Edie-esque Hongkonger named Michelle.

The conversation began over aliens.

In the Hong Kong Museum of History, there is a Silk Road exhibition which features artifacts from along the trade route. It all seems very propagandistic; a way for China to brainwash Hong Kong into embracing President Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road initiative.

In the midst of this skeptical contemplation, we came upon a display with two small statues, described to be “important in alien culture.” Michelle approached us as we were joking about History Channel’s Ancient Aliens.

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Vignette on Fuzhou

Two armed police at The Summer Palace in Beijing, Nov. 14.

Imagine a Jones Hall with eves strung with round red lanterns and bricks densely overgrown with ivy. Around the corner is an old building with “Trimble” engraved above the entrance. Walking through the old campus of Fujian Hwa Nan Women’s College (our sister school in Fuzhou, China) feels like walking through a slightly alternative reality of Puget Sound — a vivid parallel to my interactions with students here.

Fuzhou is our first stop in China, and my first experience in a communist country. On the bus ride from the airport to campus alone, I counted 10 large roadside banners inscribed with propaganda to cherish the “家國” (jia guo), or the “home country.” The next morning, we paired up with Hwa Nan students who signed up to show us around the city and practice English. The program is academic, but the friendships that developed are meaningful, and often insightful.

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Japanese dinners

A small Japanese-English electronic dictionary permanently resides on my host mother’s kitchen table in Kyoto; a creaky bridge over our gaping language barrier. In such close quarters, the crash-course conversational basics don’t really get you very far.

Honen-in temple on my last day in Kyoto, Oct. 27.

Dinner table topics often revolved around food — a universal language if there ever was one. Translations of “asparagus lettuce” and “persimmon,” varieties of tofu preparation, methods of de-boning fish with chopsticks (I still don’t understand how anyone has the dexterity for this skill). We learned the most about each other through this struggle to communicate seemingly simple concepts. My host mom (Okaasan) was surprised that my family has a persimmon (柿 kaki) tree, since many European and American students she has hosted in the past had never even seen one before coming to Japan. But some of these discoveries were more personal than others.

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Strangers of Seoul

Of all the lessons I expected to learn while traveling as a woman, “trusting strangers” was never one of them.

Twenty years’ worth of stranger danger training has left me with a deep-seated fear of ending up like Liam Neeson’s daughter from Taken. Yet, after ten days in South Korea, the best advice I have yet to receive is to give strangers the benefit of the doubt — and I really have no grounds on which to disagree.

This is not to say I’ve lowered my guard completely; I still tend to be the more cautious member of any group in potentially dangerous situations. This has been more of a reflective realization than anything else.

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Mongolian road trips

Traveling on long, bumpy bus rides across deeply rutted roads, eating kuushuur dumplings on the daily, singing Anyii Shuvuu with the daughters of the Abbot, and stargazing with the most vivid view of the Milky Way I have ever seen — there are some things I will never forget about Mongolia. Saying goodbye to this country was far more difficult than expected.

Roadside ovoo, Sept. 19.

After 10 days, the warmth and friendliness of the Lamrim Monastery community started to feel like home. Lamrim’s Abbot has worked with PacRim for 18 years and continues to be incredibly generous; in addition to providing housing and planning excursions, this year he gave each student a Mongolian leather passport holder as a farewell gift.

Ulaan Baatar was an excellent home base, but the countryside really holds the beauty of Mongolia. There aren’t many words in this post, mostly because Mongolia is more photogenic than I am eloquent:

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