Monday, July 15, 2013

The Places That Matter

UNESCO World Heritage Sites
One of my favourite things ever is when I discover a shared article on Facebook that I likely would not have ever found on my own. It happened to me a few days ago when someone I knew from college shared this:

Everyone should go read that article and the amazing letter that it contains, but for those of you who really don't have the time or attention span, I'll just quickly summarize it. It's a letter written by a young Singaporean woman to her 18-year old self, an age when she was just getting ready to depart for Cambridge University. Without being condescending or preachy, she coolly informs her younger self of the inevitable sense of cultural inferiority she will feel, a feeling that's so pervasive and consuming that it's practically indetectable. Almost as natural and reflexive as breathing air.

Oh my god, they live in electric trees in Singapore! Take me there now.
There are those who may appreciate the letter from an intellectual point of view. Even the overarching branch of study sounds so deliciously dense: "Decolonial Aesthesis". Others will connect with the letter on a much more personal level upon seeing their own experiences reflected in the writings of this Michelle K.

Count me among the latter, though I certainly am impressed by the level of self-awareness and reflection in the letter. From my own experience, I remember what it was like to be young and wanting to learn about all the Places That Matter, and the People Who Mattered. When I was a high school student, I read Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy, Forster, and Waugh. I even tried to wade through writers like Fielding before giving up, getting frustrated at the fact that they apparently didn't speak English in 18th century England.

Books like this obviously made me the
coolest kid in high school
This was all done out of my own free will and not dictated to me by some English class syllabus. Why? Why exactly was I reading Dombey and Son instead of hanging out in parking lots or drinking wine coolers at 10th grade "parties"?

Because these were writers who mattered, who wrote stories that mattered about people who mattered because they lived in cultures and countries that mattered. I wanted to matter too.

And how might I NOT matter? Well, I could probably become too much like my parents, who appeared to be from a country that didn't seem to factor in on anything at all. At least to my knowledge at the time, there were no great Korean writers or literature. There wasn't much Korean culture except for what came over from China, which, based on what I learned in my 8th grade "World Civilizations" social studies unit, was mostly just foot-binding and wacky Confucianism anyway. There wasn't much to see in Korea, either modern or historical.

So why be Korean when you could be English instead?

Oh yeah, because you can't be. Not with the way you look. You will eventually, and inevitably, learn this. They won't ever let you play Peter Pan or Winston Churchill, whether it's for Masterpiece Theatre or low-rent dinner theatre. Not unless the whole thing is an ironic joke. The only part even remotely available for you in Harry Potter is as Cho Chang, and once again, you get the oft-repeated message that the only way people from your group will get to be included is if you happen to be a cute girl who's willing to be the love interest of the white hero.

A couple of weeks ago, my friends and I went to Busan and we ended up visiting this picturesque Buddhist temple called Haedong Yong-Gung-Sa, which stands on these rocks that are right by the ocean. It was first built sometime in the 1300s, though most of what stands today has been carefully rebuilt. But hey, so is Dresden, and that place is still gorgeous as fuck and nobody's complaining.

Haedong Yong-Gung-Sa in Busan
The thing is that I hardly knew of this place before we actually went there. I even asked some native Koreans about it, and some people didn't know that much about it. Why doesn't this place matter?

It reminds me of the time when I went backpacking in Europe and I got to see the Alps. I was so happy that I was finally seeing these famous mountains that the likes of Hannibal and Heidi walked over. But then, I realized that I grew up right by the Rockies. And I was then living in Korea, a very mountainous country. I had been around gigantic pointy rocks my entire life, but only now I found them breathtaking?

Oh right, but these are mountains that matter though.

This mound of rocks and dirt are way more special than all those other mounds of rocks and dirt
So where am I going with this? Not terribly sure, but I think it's important for all of us to be aware of the one-sided narratives we're bombarded with from the very first nursery rhymes and fairy tales we're told. These narratives attach lopsided values of significance to certain places and peoples. At the least, they lead people like Michelle K. and me to aspire to be something we're not, leaving us confused and deflated when we find out that we just weren't born into the right caste.

At worst, they lead to despicable shit like the stuff you see on the internet in the wake of the Asiana plane crash or the acquittal of George Zimmerman, in which people joke about or justify the deaths of certain people because they are judged to be of lesser value (aka Asian, or a young Black kid whose mere appearance gets on the nerves of those folks who yearn for the Good Old Days®).

We saw this same kind of garbage after the Fukushima crisis

It's also why I think stories and narratives are so important. Without them, a house is just a house, or a field is just a field. Salzburg's just another cute little European town, but add in Mozart and The Sound of Music, and it becomes something of a must-see destination. Stories are everywhere around us, but which ones we choose to care about and memorialize are based on our agendas, values, and prejudices. The people whose narratives we prioritize are the same people we hold in the highest regard.

So which stories will imbue our future with meaning? Who will create them, and whom will they be about?

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