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Royal Ontario Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum

Visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto the other day. It’s an incredible museum, spanning not only history and art, but also natural history, and covering a considerable number of cultures. As with the British Museum, I really appreciated that the focus wasn’t exclusively on art as it is at so many US museums – on highlighting style, creativity, and beauty – but rather incorporated some treatment of the fuller cultures and histories of different peoples or different parts of the world. A special exhibit on ancestor worship and Chinese New Year absolutely featured beautiful objects, and some great videos and displays of how woodblock printing is done; indeed, I think I learned more about Chinese woodblock printing from this exhibit than I ever did in all my art history courses. It also included sketchbooks and other materials for how artists produced ancestor portraits – helping us to understand a bit more concretely or tangibly that artists produced portraits of clothed bodies in a relatively undifferentiated, non-personalized fashion, and then merely added in the more individualized depiction of the clients’ late loved one. But this exhibit was not strictly, or even primarily, about “art”; it was about ancestors and gods, about practices and customs, about traditions and beliefs, and I really learned something.

Going back downstairs to the regular permanent exhibition galleries, I found a China section that was particularly impressive. It begins with massive architectural elements and sculptures from a late Ming / early Qing dynasty tomb such as I have never seen at any other museum, and would not expect to see anywhere else outside of actually visiting China. This was wonderful – I am always on the lookout for the biases of what we think we know about a culture or a place, or how we envision it, based on the skewed body of materials available to us, as a result of the vagaries of what our museums have and have not collected and displayed (alongside myriad other aspects of media and popular culture, etc.). When all you know of China is paintings, pottery, lacquerwares, and not so much the architecture, because architecture is so big and so difficult to have brought over (or reproduced, replicated) here, you get a different perspective. So, in short, to see these tomb elements was just incredible. I understand that the question of who brought them over and when and how and why, and hoping it was done legally and ethically and so forth is a whole other matter…….. but, as a museum visitor, it was impactful.

A stone gate and altar table from the tomb of Zu Dashou (d. 1656), a Ming general who fought in the defense of the northern frontiers of the realm against Manchu invasions in the 1630s to early 1640s.

This focus on a broader approach to culture and history, and not only to “art” also meant that I got to see a few oracle bones, more so than I think I’ve ever seen before unless I’m misremembering, prominently displayed and with the inscriptions on them clearly visible. A small set of displays also featured “Chinese inventions,” providing visitors a very brief introduction to Chinese compasses and sundials, gunpowder weapons, and printing technology, things that an art museum like LACMA or the Metropolitan would likely generally skip over, except where it would fit into a fairly standard, mainstream, art historical narrative.

Two more things struck me about the ROM’s China galleries. One, they are filled primarily with tomb goods from the Han and Tang dynasties (among others), aweing in their sheer numbers and diversity. I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on it, but there was something about the way they were displayed that made them seem quite vibrant and interesting, not like the dry, old, feeling one can sometimes get about ancient archaeological finds. The richness and dynamism of these ancient periods came through, very much so.

Secondly, even if only in this and that corner of the exhibit, the ROM highlighted the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of premodern China in a way few other museums do. The many cases of Tang dynasty ceramics of course gave this sense, with their ceramic figurines of bearded Central Asian merchants and travelers on camelback and so forth, and accompanying labels discussing the Silk Road and the multi-ethnic character of the Tang period. Another case, situated amidst the Song dynasty section, also displayed a number of Liao (Khitan) objects, and took explicit time and space to introduce visitors to the Khitan people (Liao dynasty) who ruled over part of “China” for a time, and their culture.

Above: a 17th c. Torah case from the Kaifeng synagogue in lacquered wood.

Perhaps most striking and incredible to see was a section dedicated to (a small portion of) the history of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in China. I do wish they might have spent a bit more time on the Hui, Uyghurs, and/or other groups within China. The way it was presented here – including also the display of a number of Tang dynasty figures of “foreigners” – seemed to be like a narrative in which “Muslims” are a single type of outside foreign person, who came to China like immigrants or expats. And while that may have been true in certain senses, e.g. the Muslim Indian Ocean merchants and Silk Road merchants who set up mosques in places like Xian and Guangzhou, there are also these vast regions of what is now included within the western portions of PRC territory, where distinct peoples such as the Uyghurs have always lived and have always practiced their own particular culture… It’s a rather different thing from the case of the Kaifeng Jews. It’s one thing to say that historically there were some mosques and churches here and there, and even a synagogue, and it’s quite another to acknowledge that there are entire Muslim peoples, entire regions, that were absorbed by China, and that could (and should!) constitute an entire exhibition unto themselves.

But, even so, to see this many artifacts and images relating to the history of Jews in Kaifeng is something I have positively never seen at any other museum, especially not within the context of a regular permanent exhibit on China. I did see a beautiful Torah scroll from Kaifeng once, on silk, on display at the British Library, but this was part of a special exhibit on Bibles and Qurans from around the world, and not one on cultural diversity in China. The ROM’s exhibit includes not only a text page in Hebrew, but also a cylindrical wooden Torah case such as is typical among Mizrahi/Sephardic communities, a stone drain mouth from the Kaifeng synagogue (est. c. 1163, destroyed c. 1850), and a rubbing from a stele which used to stand at the synagogue, along with a number of objects relating to Islam in Xi’an and elsewhere, and to Nestorian Christianity.

Joseon dynasty helmets, one from the Imjin War of the 1590s, and two from the 19th century.

The Korea section of the galleries was likewise larger than I might have expected, and included a somewhat broader range of objects than I have seen elsewhere. While both the Korea and Japan sections included only a disappointingly small number of works of painting, they did include a set of images of Joseon dynasty royal processions (something I have only previously seen at the San Francisco Art Museum, and at museums in Seoul) and a small section on the history of Korean printing, something I have not seen emphasized or highlighted elsewhere at all.

Finally, while I have certainly seen many art history museums and art history textbooks & courses make mention of the Imjin Wars (Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea in the 1590s) for their significance for the history of Japanese ceramics, I don’t believe I have ever seen any museum outside of Korea feature helmets, weapons, or armor actually used in those battles. Actually, I’m trying to remember now if I’ve ever seen Korean arms or armor on display at the Met at all. So this, too, was really something enjoyable to see.

“A Mohawk Family Group” diorama, revised from old (orientalist) museum practices to better represent First Nations people as contemporary, modern, human beings – members of society – and not objects of anthropological study or curiosity.

Of course, I was not surprised at all that the First Nations galleries at the ROM would be rather well-done. They’ve brought in Native curators and consultants to help ensure that First Nations cultures and history are portrayed in a way which First Nations people would want them to be shown, and they incorporate not only aspects of traditional culture but also contemporary arts and culture. They show clearly and boldly that First Nations people and their culture do not only belong to the past, but that they are also fully modern, just as much a part of the modern world as anyone else.

I very much enjoyed seeing this, and wish I’d had the time to view the entirety of the First Nations gallery – we saw it only at the end, before we had to end up leaving to head out. But I also enjoyed, as we saw in the China and Korea galleries as well, that the ROM focused not only on Native American / First Nations arts, craft, and “culture,” but also on these peoples as fully enmeshed as actors in history. We saw extensive displays on the role of First Nations peoples in the War of 1812 and in treaties, alliances, and other relations with European settlers across the 17th-19th centuries, in addition to displays of canoes, clothing, weapons, and other items, and displays of contemporary artworks relating to issues of suffering, settler colonialism, forced assimilation, and so forth.

And all of these exhibits, from the East Asia galleries to the First Nations ones, all look (at least at first glance) quite contemporary, quite newly done or newly redone. While I can’t necessarily speak in a more intricate way as to precisely how they were or were not following the latest newest innovative or best practices of Museum Studies, they certainly did not feel old, outdated, in need of renovation, at all. One critique my father pointed out in the vein of exhibit design, however, was that the gallery labels in the First Nations gallery in particular very often had far too much text, often in too-small font, and occasionally the labels themselves were located far back in the displays, making them especially difficult to read. My father simply flat-out could not read many of these labels, even with his reading glasses, and I had some difficulty as well.

That one critique aside, what a wonderful museum. I hope I get to come back and see it again sometime.

Leaving Los Angeles

I meant to post this a week ago or so, but somehow I couldn’t seem to pull it together to write something more coherent and thoughtful… Still, I’d rather share this than nothing, so, here are some thoughts from my last days in LA.

I left LA a couple weeks ago, and am hanging out at home in New York for a few weeks until I make the move to Tokyo to start the next stage of my adventures. It still hasn’t sunk in, really, that this California chapter of my life really is over. After seven years in California, including one and a half in LA, it just still feels like I’ll be going back sometime soon, surely, after a break. Like it’s not really closed down and over. I think the fact that my gf was already away for the summer, and that I moved out just my stuff and otherwise left the apartment just as it’s always been, contributed to this feeling. No lengthy day(s) of saying goodbye, no experience of seeing the apartment all packed up and empty – just closing the door and walking away as I have nearly every day, leaving the apartment mostly just as it was, as if I were to be coming back. Weird to think I’ll never be back at that apartment again. One would think that breaking up with my gf would help me feel a starker break with that life – help make me feel more strongly that that chapter of my life is over – but actually it’s been a longer process of sort of coming to learn/realize that seeing her, talking to her, being under some obligation to think of her, is also over. …. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up going back to LA someday. You never know.

Meanwhile, I’m one of those weird people who never learned to drive until a bit later in life. As a result, I only first had my own car (or, any car) for the last year or so. I don’t know if this is how other people feel, but I found it astonishing how so long as I had my car parked outside I felt no need to drive it, no need to go anywhere, but as soon as I didn’t – those rare times when it was in the shop, or when my dad or my gf took it to go somewhere – suddenly I so wanted to go somewhere myself; suddenly, I felt so hobbled by not having the car immediately accessible to me.

On one of my last days in LA, with most (though not all) of my packing and other errands done, I drove out to West Hollywood to drop off some clothes at a thrift store for donation. Then I took the car in to get a proper wash outside & vacuum inside so that it would look nice for trying to get the best price out of it when I sell it. The cleaning took about an hour; I sat at Veggie Grill, nowhere special. I then drove to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which is really close to my apartment but which I never made it to earlier in the year. And then finally stopped by the West LA Obon Festival. The first half of the day at least was nothing special at all, really, but even so it was just so nice to get out of the house, and beyond that to get out of my local neighborhood. I imagine it’s quite common, wherever you move to, that you have a certain あこがれ, a certain aspirational interest in the great expanse and range of restaurants, shops, neighborhoods that you could potentially visit and experience. But then by the time you leave, to move elsewhere, you haven’t actually touched even a fraction of those. But at the same time it hardly matters. It’s not like I’m actually going to go to half of those restaurants; and if I did, it’s not like they’re something so amazing that I really would have missed out on the experience if I didn’t go. But still, there’s this nagging feeling every time I leave a city and move elsewhere that I’ve missed out, that if I had just one more week I wish I might have driven around a bit more, seen and experienced a bit more of the city. I’m starting to think of all the neat bookstores and other places that we went to only once, that I figured I’d likely end up going to again someday, and never did. All the places like Los Feliz Cafe that I thought I’d go to someday, if only for the geekiest of stupid reasons (stupid mainly because it’s so far out of the way from where I live), and never did. Or even just to drive. Just to experience the city a bit more. I sold the car, and while I knew that literally just a couple days later I would be on a plane to NY and that it wouldn’t matter anymore, there was a part of me that already really missed the car and was already dreading having to spend even just one day without it, wishing all the more places I could have gone, all the more things I might have done.

I’m glad and grateful for this year in LA. For all that I missed in Santa Barbara, and there have been times that I’ve felt that very strongly, thinking and wondering about the friendships and dinners and movie outings and game nights and hallway conversations I missed out on by not being there, in the grand scheme of things I would never have experienced almost any of life in LA at all if it were not for this turn in my life. And even putting aside the city as a whole, or life in the neighborhood (farmers markets, thrift stores, whatever), even just to get to experience life at UCLA to a certain extent was a privilege. I don’t know that UCLA feels like home, or how to quite articulate just how much I do or do not feel like I “belong” there; certainly, the UCSB campus always consistently remained more familiar, like coming home, though UCLA especially towards the end acquired a character of being just plainly familiar, in an everyday sort of way. Like, I know my way around, I know what I’m doing and where I’m going. I have a sense of which things will be open on a given day or hour, and I no longer feel awkward like a guest or an intruder who’s bound to be found out. All of that it just really nice. I don’t really know if there’s anything tangible to say that I’ve really gained, specifically, practically, from having grown accustomed to the UCLA campus; the library resources were certainly nice, and the food options are a bit more extensive than at UCSB, but whatever.

But I do think that on some bigger, broader, level, simply as a life experience, I’m that bit more worldly, more experienced, for knowing yet another place. For the first three years or so of my UCSB career, UCLA was a place I’d only been two or three times, for conferences – a place where I definitely felt an outsider, felt unfamiliar, emphasizing for myself my “provincial” for lack of a better word status as a UCSB student. The one oddball in the group who wasn’t from UCLA, who didn’t know his way around, who wasn’t in on the social circles or whatever. … But, now, even though I never really did make any new friends at UCLA these past two years, or get involved with the Center for Japanese Studies events or anything, still, I can go out into the world and run into people in New York or Tokyo or wherever I may end up in future, and be able to say, yes, I do know what you’re talking about when you say X, Y, Z about UCLA or about Westwood, or about certain other parts of LA….

And I really enjoyed getting to attend and be involved with events at USC so much more than in the past. Funny, even though I spent multiple days a week every week at UCLA, I never really made any friends there, rarely attended talks or events, just generally didn’t find or run into anything on campus to be involved in or connected with – other than the Ethnomusicology circles where I tagged along after my gf. And admittedly, sadly, this whole year I never did end up hanging out with USC people outside of school, which was a shame. But I did attend quite a few talks and events on their campus, and dinners at the professor’s house… and that was just really nice. Building networks, friends, community, a bit.

It was a pleasure to get to live in LA this past year. To really experience and engage with (if in a limited fashion – I spent a ton of time home in the apt, or at UCLA, working on job applications or the diss) that city, getting to know it a little bit, getting to be involved in different social circles a little bit… And I think in a couple of weeks I’ll crash a UCLA party in Tokyo.

Leaving Santa Barbara

UCSB’s Davidson Library

The dissertation is done, and it’s time to move on to the next adventure. I wish I might have documented more of the diss-writing process; instead, this past year or two of the blog has just been very sparse, empty, silent. As if I just went to conferences and had nothing worth sharing otherwise. That’s of course not the case – I was just too busy, and too stressed-out. Now that that’s over, I wish I had blogged more… Nothing to be done for it now.

This is, of course, not the first time I’ve done this sort of thing. I’ve been very fortunate in my life to live in many different cities, doing different study programs and the like, but it’s funny, I don’t know, I guess it gets easier each time but at the same time I feel like the fact that it’s easier also means I’m not feeling it emotionally perhaps the way I feel I should. I’ve been in Santa Barbara for the better part of seven years now. That’s a really long time. Longer than almost anywhere else I’ve ever lived, in fact. And while grad school kept me too busy to develop deeper, fuller, friendships in a certain extent, at the same time I do think I’ve made quite a few very meaningful friendships. People I very much hope to see and spend time with again. People I very much hope to not fall out of contact with entirely. I got a little bit emotional handing in my keys, walking out of the Humanities & Social Sciences Building (HSSB) for what turned out to be the second-to-last time, and taking some photos to put into this blog post, but to be honest, that feeling of genuine emotion over it only lasted a few minutes.

HSSB. I probably spent more hours in this building over the last seven years (the first 3-4 especially) than anywhere else…

The most emotionally impactful part, I think, about leaving a given work/life/study situation is that shift in how your day-to-day is, where it is, who you see. That I will no longer be spending time in that office the way I used to. That I will no longer be going to that library. That I will no longer go up and down the hall of TA offices to see who’s in, and to stop and have a chat. To no longer see those people again on anything approaching a regular basis (if at all). And that leaving a place means a whole litany of lasts. My last time walking these halls, and these pathways, and this tunnel. My last time getting a burrito at Wahoo’s. My last time using the book scanners in the library or the copiers in the department. My last time taking the library elevator to the 4th floor for books in English and the 5th floor for books in East Asian languages. My last time getting a breakfast bagel and yerba mate at Caje. My last time making the drive to campus from LA (and back).

And realizing, too, all the lasts which have already past – after spending a week and a half in Santa Barbara earlier in July, I went back one more time, for just one more day, to see some friends and profs who I hadn’t seen during that earlier visit. During that one more day, I only went to campus and then back home; so, this means that my last time at anything downtown, and my last time at almost anything in Isla Vista, was last week, or even earlier. My favorite crepes/cafe closed down sometime last year, so my last time eating there was at least a year and a half ago. My last time having hummus and drinks with friends at Aladdin’s was also at least a year ago. My last time going to Draughtsmen Aleworks for trivia night was a couple weeks ago. … I haven’t been to the Funk Zone, or the Wharf, or just walking up and down (the fuller length of) State Street in years. It’s been a long time since my last time staying late into the evening in the office, sitting in that wonderful la-z-boy chair that Ryan (or was it Chris?) had brought into the office. My last time practicing sanshin outside of HSSB. My last time doing anything at the grad dorms at San Clemente.

Storke Tower, at the center of campus. The only bell tower, I am told, at any UC campus to have an actual bell carillon and not just speakers for pre-recorded sound.

Living in LA, I’ve felt really disconnected from life at UCSB. It was a step-by-step process, as I was away in Japan 2016-2017, then came back and was here only part-time, with no office on the hall, living here for 3-4 days out of every week – so, I was here a significant amount of time, but all the back-and-forth made me feel too hectic, too unsettled, to ever actually make the time to socialize with anyone. I would be up in Santa Barbara for only one day or a few days at a time, and each time I felt like I really had to make use of that limited time, that maybe I would be able to meet up with friends a different day, when I was feeling less hectic; but that day didn’t come until after the dissertation was done.

Living in LA full-time, and coming up here only very infrequently, I felt disconnected from my friends, for sure, and from how much deeper or more extensive those friendships might have been, especially with people who I never really got to know at all before leaving for Japan, and who I just never got a chance to see with any frequency. But I also felt disconnected these past two years from the campus itself, and from IV, and downtown. Almost like I’d graduated and moved away (well, I did move away) early – even though I was still a student here, I was already, a year or two early, dealing with the feeling of that I might never visit this or that café again, that I won’t be spending time in the library again. … But it’s not really about the individual places so much as it’s about a lost potential of the life I might potentially have had. I missed having an office on campus, and the social and spatial experience of that. Though I also recognize that the time for that has passed – even when I did regain an office in my last Spring quarter, I was in a different place now in terms of who I do and don’t know in the department, the pressure of work I need to do, the lessened need for social interaction…. But, I still strongly missed a life I might have had of spending more time in this library, of spending more time in and out of the cafés in IV. I guess to a certain extent, I had already made my peace with it. But to a certain extent, I had not. One real benefit to TAing in the Spring, time consuming though it was, was that I got to live a little bit of that life again before it was all over.

My cohort and our advisors, just before commencement.

I don’t know how big a deal to feel this is, but I was just thinking (again) about how I guess I now get to call myself “Dr. Seifman.” Or, well, to be called that by others. When I booked my flight home, I put in “Dr.” for my title. Felt weird, and there’s absolutely no reason to not keep using “Mr.” But, still…

It’s funny. Within grad school, and also in having so many professors, so many Drs., who I would consider to be more my friends, peers, and colleagues than my superiors, the degree, the title, doesn’t feel like it means that much in a certain sense. I’m sure that once I’m actually in a professorial position I’ll feel differently but for the time being, being in grad school just doesn’t feel all that elite or special in many ways… and so being a “Dr.” doesn’t feel that special.

But I guess it is? Sometimes I think about how I’ll be the first one in my family to earn a doctorate. Not the first to go to college, not the first to get a Masters, not even the first to teach in a college classroom, as both of my parents got Masters degrees, and my father has been teaching as a Lecturer for quite a few years now. But, still, the first to get a doctorate. My grandparents on my father’s side came to this country as refugees, arriving I can only imagine with more or less nothing at all. My grandfather worked 12+ hr days six or seven days a week, my grandmother doing the brunt of the work of raising five sons, really just scraping by most of the time. And my great-grandparents on my mother’s side, a generation earlier, likely also came here with very little; I don’t know the details, but they too were escaping persecution and seeking a better life. And now here I am, not a super high-paid engineer or corporate whatsit or anything, not a medical doctor or a lawyer, but even so a “Dr.” nevertheless, a college professor.

An alleyway in downtown Santa Barbara. That beautiful Spanish style.

It was really nice to spend another week and a half in SB before leaving for my new adventures. Much thanks to a friend who asked me to catsit for her, which meant that I had a place to stay for a whole week and a half. I don’t know if I made the most efficient use of the time, in terms of really making sure to see as many friends as possible, or what else I might have missed out on, but overall I think I did a pretty good job. Saw quite a few friends, visited a good number of shops and restaurants that one more last time, finally visited the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, caught a small but good exhibit of representations of the Tokaido at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art … got some work done, hung out in the office and the library and several cafes in both IV and downtown, went to pub quiz several times. Helped a friend move apartments. All in all, I think, an excellent way to re-engage with a regular pattern of life in SB, a taste of the regular life I might have had here had I stayed and not moved to LA. Which I think was actually better than if it felt like only visiting, felt like actively saying my goodbyes, trying to desperately get some “this is my last time” emotional experience out of it.

It’s really weird, after seven long years, to think that this really is goodbye. That last Wednesday really was my last time (for now) seeing that campus, that town, at all. It still felt like just another day – albeit, more like a summer vacation day than a busy-busy still being in school sort of day – but, really, without any of those feelings of it being goodbye. I guess I’ll just have to see how it feels next week, after I move out and fly home, leaving California entirely. I think maybe once I’m home in NY it’ll really hit me all the more so that this chapter of my life is done. Certainly excited for the next one, though.

Down by the waterfront in Santa Barbara.

Jakarta

Well, I finished the PhD. Still a little hard to believe. Still not sure all the things and places I might need to change my bio, or do other things. Not to mention the fact that for the first time in years I don’t have a big ongoing project looming overhead. I still have plenty of different things I want to research and write next, but nothing I need to be working on right now.

Lots of thoughts, of course, forthcoming, on how I feel about leaving grad school. But before that, let me first see what I can say about one more place I was fortunate to visit this past year.

The Old City Hall of Batavia, now the Jakarta History Museum.

I was fortunate back in the summer of 2017 to participate in a Japan Foundation Summer Institute, in which they brought together graduate students and professors from the US, Japan, and various Southeast Asian countries, to have some professional/scholarly networking that we (i.e. especially those based in SE Asia) might not have access to otherwise. It was an incredible experience, which it would seem I didn’t blog about (then again, I don’t often blog about workshops, conferences, quite so much as I tend to blog about the travel surrounding them). In any case, while there I was encouraged to apply to present at the next Japanese Studies Association of ASEAN, which was to be held sometime in 2018 in Indonesia. Long story short, I did. The conference was held in Jakarta in early December 2018 (you can see how far behind this blog has gotten), and I got to go.

It was my first time in Southeast Asia, my first time in Indonesia. I had hoped (expected) to see a bit more wayang and gamelan – two of the chief traditional Indonesian art forms known worldwide – but as I have continued to learn since, Jakarta is just not the place for that. If I’d had more time (and money), Yogyakarta or Bali would I suppose have been better for that.

Perhaps the only gamelan I saw on the entire trip: on display at the Wayang Museum. Quiet.

The conference itself was pretty good. Got to see some old friends, met many new people. Heard some really interesting talks about Halal tourism in Japan, regional security issues, anime tourism, and other topics; very few talks on history or traditional arts/culture, which was a shame, but so it goes. Also finally got to see Regge Life’s film version of Ôshiro Tatsuhiro’s play “The Cocktail Party,” a play about sexual assault by US soldiers/Marines in Okinawa and the complicated relationships between Americans, Japanese, Okinawans, and Chinese living there.

And even though there was no gamelan, we did get to see Pepen U-Maku Eisa, an Okinawan eisa group from Jakarta, perform. Afterwards, I realized I had met some of them in Okinawa back in 2016!

Above: Statue of Jenderal Sudirman.

Before, during, and after the conference, I also got to explore Jakarta a little bit. Overall, I’m really not quite sure what to say of the city. Much of what I saw is quite run-down, either just in very poor condition or in the process of (re)construction, but then intermixed with brand-new, very shiny, construction. Just walking down the street from my hotel – a pretty nice hotel, certainly nice enough, not run-down at all – one walked past lots of construction, as they’re building new apartment buildings or hotels and a new subway line, but then also lots of just run-down whatever. The streets are packed with packs of scooters and motorcycles in amongst the cars, trucks, and buses – a far higher proportion of scooters/motorcycles than on the streets here; in fact, it seems the chief default mode for Uber/Lyft (or Grab, the native Indonesian version) is to ride on the back of someone’s bike, and that seems to have been one of the primary ways to get around – rather than by taxi – prior to the age of smartphones as well. But getting back to the walk, one walks past all this construction and run-down whatever, on the side of a very very busy road, an exceptionally urban space, eventually coming to a brand-new-looking, very shiny, very upscale, and massive shopping mall. Reminded me of the shopping malls in Istanbul.

The Istiqlal Mosque, largest mosque in all of Southeast Asia. A Brutalist, 1970s, eyesore.

This proved to be a pattern. Went out to check out the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in all of Southeast Asia, and found that it’s just a huge Brutalist concrete thing, lacking any of the elegance of, say, Hagia Sophia, or indeed of pretty much any of the other mosques I’ve visited. I suppose I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s beautiful on the inside – all the mosques I’ve visited in Turkey and elsewhere have been. But it was just way too crowded, so I didn’t feel comfortable trying to get inside. Just across the street is the Jakarta Cathedral, seat of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Jakarta. A gorgeous building, reflective of historical/traditional architectural styles.

Cafe Batavia, the second-oldest building on the square.

I also made my way on one of the days to Jakarta Old Town (Kota Tua), the center of the old Dutch city of Batavia. In terms of history, this was the highlight of the trip. Though the Batavia Museum and Wayang Museum were somewhat sparse, small, not too well-lit, not too well air-conditioned, and just overall a bit less modern, less upscale, however you want to say it, than museums I’ve seen elsewhere in the world, still it was a great opportunity to see some historical Dutch East India Company buildings in person, and to learn something about the local history. I took tons of photos of objects, displays, and explanatory plaques, as I always do.

While I would certainly be interested someday to learn more about Indonesia’s pre-colonial and post-colonial history – the histories of the various kingdoms and sultanates which played a role in the oh-so-vibrant maritime world of pre-colonial Southeast Asia, and the post-colonial modern history of this country – as an early modernist, and as a Japan specialist, it’s the Dutch East India Company which really attracts my attention. And Batavia was the center of that Company. I’m not sure how many of the buildings are original, but in this one spot, surely one of the chief tourist traps of the city, where one is bound to have one Indonesian student after another ask you to help them with their “interview a foreigner” English homework, the buildings are all organized around a central square.

A plaque inside the Wayang Museum summarizing the history of the Dutch Church which previously stood on the site.

The Wayang Museum (a small museum dedicated to Indonesian traditional puppet theatre) stands on the former site of the chief Dutch church, and the gravestones of a number of Dutch East India Company governor-generals are kept on display.

The Jakarta History Museum is housed in an 18th century Batavia City Hall, the oldest building in the square. And Café Batavia, a nice place with a combination of Indonesian and Western dishes, is housed in the second-oldest.

Above: a former lighthouse, now part of the Bahari Museum.
Below: inside the Bahari Museum.

I then took a walk a few blocks to the city’s maritime museum, Museum Bahari, housed in a set of old Dutch East India Company warehouses. This museum, like the last, is also not too well-maintained, well-lit, air-conditioned, whatever, by I guess big-city Western standards. But, hey, I don’t mean to expect too much. The content was pretty good – lots of models of ships, history of the port, etc. To be honest, it was a lot better than the first half of the Istanbul Naval Museum, which just displays the sultan’s fleet of pleasure craft, more a display of wealth or whatever than a real history museum.

But, the point being that the walk between these two spaces was, again, a taste of the “real” Jakarta. Tons of extremely run-down homes and shops, people selling live chickens on the roadside, crumbling sidewalks. Not to criticize, but just to give a sense. I suppose this probably isn’t too unusual throughout much of the developing world – brief spots of upscale, very new construction, surrounded by all the rest.

The view outside the Maritime Museum.

Now, this post is getting even more disjointed, but I’m going to share a story of my most adventurous day in Jakarta – an adventure which got me thinking about travel more broadly, and about how the more you travel, the more you come to realize just how familiar, understandable, navigatable, the world is. As wonderful and incredible as the diversity of our human world is, and even with it being my first time in SE Asia, and one of my first times in a developing country, as much as I definitely enjoy visiting new and different places, with their very different history and culture, still some things are shared in common all across the world.

One of numerous antiques shops along a small antiques-shops-street (I forget the name of the street :/).

Trying to get to Blok M Plaza shopping mall today in order to try to catch the eisa group’s rehearsal, I took a cab which, I don’t know if he was trying to scam me or something or if this was genuinely the best way there. But in any case, we ended up stuck in traffic amidst a massive crowd of soccer fans. Just huge. Continuing on for blocks and blocks. So I got out and walked, before the cab fare came to exceed the money I had. But I think my phone must have been dead. So I had little choice but to just walk…

I finally found a Circle K, and used the ATM, and then kept walking…

It’s funny, even halfway around the world, in a country so foreign so distant from what I have any familiarity at all with, some things are just inevitably just basic, I guess, to anywhere you go. This is a very poor country, and a relatively poor neighborhood compared to some I’d been in, and the process of crossing the street is different from what I’m used to. But still, a sidewalk is a sidewalk, and a train station is a train station. And so you walk. Just like I have done X number of times in Japan, or Okinawa, or Istanbul. Sometimes you even walk through neighborhoods that are especially rundown, and just so different in aesthetic and smells and sounds from what you’re used to – so different even from the more touristy parts two blocks over – but, no matter how unfamiliar, still, a street is a street. And so you walk. And so in this same way, I walked from the main square of Old Town Jakarta (ringed by museums, very touristy) to the Maritime Museum Bahari, in an old VOC warehouse a 15 min walk away, through neighborhoods of just shacks and ruins, giant piles of rusted chains for cars or something I guess, a bunch of guys sitting on the sidewalk managing birds and other animals in little bamboo cages, women behind counters selling bottles of soda, cigarettes, whatever else. And then a couple hours later, as I worked to make my way away from the football crowds, once again, I was passing by lengthy areas of “nothing.” But actually, as foreign as it may be, I don’t know the language, or the foods, or the customs, in a lot of ways it’s just no different from doing similarly in Naha or Fez or a half dozen other places. The next day, too, I walked down totally middle of nowhere feeling streets, with just totally local shops or no shops or just nothing I could really discern or interact with, and then what do you know, a Starbucks. Not that it has to be a recognizable brand name, but just…

The main square of old Batavia.

One thing I did notice in my exceptionally limited experience of Jakarta is that here and there throughout the neighborhoods I saw, there are plenty of very new-looking, nice-looking shops, cafes, restaurants, intermixed with the more run-down or just “nothing” sorts of areas. I feel like a lot of other places I’ve visited, there are the good neighborhoods and the bad neighborhoods, if I may – that’s not really exactly what I mean to say but I trust you take my point. There are the neighborhoods where you can go to find good cafes, brunch, a nice place to walk up and down and just shop or whatever, and then there are those neighborhoods where you won’t find anything like that. Here I could be totally wrong but from my very limited experience I feel like it’s much more interspersed, intermixed.

And eventually, you find tiny bits of things that are in fact familiar. Like Circle K, and Pocari Sweat. It is interesting – not too surprising I suppose maybe, but interesting, to see which brands exist here. Both in the main shopping mall and elsewhere I found many Japanese brands, not really Chinese or Korean ones I don’t think, and yes American brands or at least ones we’re familiar with in the States like H&M, but then also things like M&S, Topshop, British brands which I don’t think we tend to have so much of – if any at all – in the States. The Circle K (not sure if it’s a Japanese company or just also used to operate in Japan) carried a whole ton of drinks I didn’t recognize at all, plus Pocari Sweat. For example.

The view from inside my hotel room.

I don’t know if I just wasn’t noticing or recognizing the European or Chinese/Korean brands just because I’m not familiar with them and my eye catches on noticing those things that I am more familiar with. But, I dunno, I don’t think they were there as much. I don’t think they were. And they have Uniqlo and Coco Ichi and Marugame Udon, and H&M and Zara and… I dunno, whatever. Coffee Bean. Starbucks. In this age of globalization I’m not too surprised, but even so I am still surprised that it’s so much Japanese and British companies, and not so many I recognized as European or Asian. Watson’s – which I had never seen anywhere else outside of Turkey, and which turns out to be a Hong Kong company. (Yet, interesting that a Hong Kong-based company has no locations in Britain. Or maybe not so surprising?)

It’s a funny thing, coming to a place like Jakarta. Before coming, I had more or less no idea what to expect. It’s my first time in southeast Asia, my first time certainly in Indonesia. I had some sense of Indonesian music, Indonesian dress, and food, and a general idea that Jakarta is a huge big city, but probably pretty poor, … But I dunno, it’s hard to say, I guess I had some sense, but still felt really unknowing. Excited to experience a new place.

But now that I’m here, and I guess Morocco was kind of the same, I get a strong feeling of just, oh, okay, yeah, this makes sense.

I’m not sure what I think about that. It certainly does make world travel less exciting in a certain sense. When I went to Japan for the first time, *everything* was new and exciting. And now, I’m going to places like Morocco and Indonesia – I mean, wow, places so far beyond where I at 18 or 20 years old might have ever imagined I’d ever be traveling to, and I’m finding these places, well, certainly new and different, certainly worth visiting, certainly experiences I value, but at the same time, whether it’s because of my own experience in traveling or what, it’s just not that eye-openingly different I guess anymore. Of course, the flipside of that is that I *can* go halfway around the world, get lost, and be okay. Remain calm, know what to do, what to look for, how to manage myself. And that’s pretty awesome. Anyway, I dunno. This post has gone on long enough. I know it’s terribly disjointed, but it’s also six months late. I’m just going to leave it at that. Cheers. Construction along the street just outside of my hotel.

Oceania

I was very glad for the coincidental good timing that I got to be in London to see the Oceania exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts. I had read online about this being the largest Oceanic Art exhibit ever held in the UK, so I was quite excited. And it was, indeed, an excellent exhibit, though not quite as large in the end as I might have expected. If this was the largest ever held, that’s not really saying much for all the previous ones.

Still, I think it was really a privilege to get to see it. The show opened with a video by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a spoken word and performance artist from the Marshall Islands, whose performance put me on the verge of tears right from the very beginning. I wonder how most other visitors received this, how it made them feel. Because I now have so much more background in this, I know a little more deeply what she’s talking about, and sympathize and resonate with it, at least a little more. In the video, she speaks of buying gifts for friends, of earrings and baskets, and telling her friends, when other people ask you about those items, tell them you got them from the Marshall Islands.

Tell them about our culture and our history.
Tell them about how the oceans are rising and our islands are flooding.
Tell them how we don’t want to leave.
Tell them we are nothing without our islands.

This set the tone for me, as if it were an exhibit of a vanishing race, so to speak. Even as I know better, that Pacific Island peoples are (for now) very much alive, that their traditions and culture and contemporary identity are very much alive and current, not belonging only to the past, even so, this set a certain tone, making me think of as if, what if the oceans do keep rising and the islands do disappear, and what if someday not so long from now, these treasures become emblematic representative examples of a much diminished greatness that once was? Some of the only things to survive from a myriad of cultures spanning a vast ocean, which have disappeared into that ocean?

While contemporary artworks were mixed in throughout, the core of the exhibit to my mind was the great many artifacts borrowed from across the UK, Europe, and beyond, representing cultures all across the Pacific and including many objects I might never otherwise see unless I visited Berlin, Vienna, and a half dozen other cities. Many were famous objects I’d seen in books or catalogs before, or objects of some great historical significance otherwise – such as the oldest extant pictorial depiction of a Christian house of worship by a Pacific artist; or sketches drawn by Tupaia, one of the very first Pacific Islanders to ever travel to (be brought to) Europe.

To see the Kūkaʻilimoku statue belonging to the British Museum, one of only three such large-scale Hawaiian kiʻi (tikis) extant in the world, was breathtaking. I had seen it before, at the Bishop Museum, elevated high up on a pedestal alongside its two brothers, in a most historic and powerful reunion of the three, returning two of them to the islands (from Salem MA and London) for the first time since the 18th or very early 19th century. But to see it more close-up, closer to ground level, now, was a real privilege. And I imagine that if I knew the backstories behind more of these objects I would feel similarly about more of them as well.

The exhibit was organized in part by Nicholas Thomas, unquestionably one of the leading Pacific scholars in the world, and had the involvement of Noelle Kahanu and Ty Kawika Tengan (two of the most prominent Native Hawaiian scholars active today), as well as Maia Nuku (Pacific Art curator of the Metropolitan Museum), and some other Māori scholars as well. And it was obvious from the labels and from the audio guide that the emphasis was being placed on Native cultures and Native perspectives, not on the history of “discoverers” or “discoveries.” I am sorry to say that no matter how you dress it up, I could only muster so much interest for fishhooks and spears and the like. But, even so, the fact that they were there, representing so many different Pacific cultures – not just the Sepik Valley over and over again as in the Met’s permanent collection galleries – were being described as to their treasured value within their cultures, and included some of the greatest such treasures of European collections, made them appeal nevertheless.

One highlight of the exhibit was the installation of Lisa Reihana’s “In Pursuit of Venus [infected],” a video art piece installed all along one very long wall of an entire room. Emulating a particular famous painting of European explorers viewing the planet Venus from Tahiti, the video is brilliantly designed to resemble a painting, but animated, with the figures within acting out numerous individualized scenes of European and Islander activities and interactions. Some more friendly and peaceful than others. These scenes are isolated, but interconnected. Here, a small group of islanders perform a hula or other sort of dance. Nearby, some sailors sing a sea shanty. Explorers take off layers of clothing and fan themselves as they look around at the scenery. Islanders pray, or gather for food. An explorer suddenly gets scared, and grabs his gun, pointing it in this direction and that. A native prepares and fires a sling. The gun goes off. A Native is killed. The sailor is all the more wary now, scared of what he’s done, and scared there might be more Natives around, coming for him. The video continues to slowly scroll, continually, such that each of these scenes, as they repeat or develop, gradually moves to the left and eventually off-screen, replaced by others. The music and sounds change depending on what is visible on-screen, from happy and sunny Native songs, bird tweets, and the sounds of the ocean to ominous, deep dramatic music, as skirmishes break out and people are killed. I had read about or seen stills or segments of this in the past, but had never seen the whole thing before. A wonderful precious opportunity.

A section of “Kehe Tau Hauaga Foou (To all new arrivals)” by John Pule, an artist from Niue. Look closer and you can see specific episodes from past and present.

The show closes with a last room featuring a few more traditional and contemporary pieces. One in blue and black and white, resembling at first glance the sketches of Tupaia, caught my eye. On closer examination, one sees the events of 9/11, and the ensuing mobilization of warplanes and tanks, dropping bombs on cities. One sees missiles, nuclear or otherwise, being preppred for launch. One sees people carrying away moai and other Pacific treasures. A beautiful and powerful piece.

In total, I suppose the exhibit covered X rooms (galleries), and felt to me like maybe about the same size as a Metropolitan special exhibit. Sizable, but not so incredible. I wonder, if we were to actually compare the number of objects or the number of galleries to, for example, the Silla exhibit at the Met, the Hawaiian Featherwork exhibit I saw at LACMA, or the much larger(-feeling) Pre-Columbian exhibit I saw at the Getty, how this would compare.
I did buy the catalog, though. While entrance to the exhibit itself was definitely overpriced at £15, especially compared to the British Museum being free, the catalog was very reasonably priced at £13. So I took advantage of that opportunity to buy a nice, big, full-color book.

Back in London

Having finally finished with my posts on last summer’s stay in Turkey, I can move on to some of the other travels I was privileged to engage in this past year. In late November, I traveled to London to present at a conference, and jotted down the following notes/thoughts.

11/29/18

These last few days in London have been just wonderful. I guess maybe I don’t quite remember my last few trips to London too clearly (though I could just look them up in the blog), but somehow I think that maybe this time I’ve really felt that feeling of being able to come back, and wanting to come back.

Scones and tea at Gail’s Bakery in Exmouth Market. Sometimes the simplest things are the greatest highlights of a trip.

I think getting my SOAS Alumni card made a big difference. I don’t know why I never tried to look into that possibility earlier. Having a card and being able to go in and out of the campus as I wished, and to use the library, as well as meeting up with one of my SOAS professors from many years ago not in an intimidating student-teacher sort of way but in a laidback, friendly, collegial sort of way, really helped I think. It made me feel welcome and to feel like I have a place here (that is, on previous trips perhaps I felt like SOAS was no longer a place for me, no longer a place where I belonged). Meeting up with (just a very few) friends and professors, even though I didn’t really get out into the city all that much, and certainly didn’t really do any super extensive touristy exploring or anything, I dunno, somehow I just really felt like I was on top of things, knew what I was doing for a change. By which I mean to say, yes, I did have a ton of false starts, wasted a lot of time going to the British Library only to find I couldn’t get anything done there, walking around looking for a cafe or restaurant that suited what I was in the mood for at that time, only to end up at a Cafe Nero, but, still, overall, I feel like I settled in, however briefly, to a routine, to a life, as if I were to be staying here longer. I visited a few museums, went out to a few restaurants, but also spent some considerable time just walking around or sitting in UofL student spaces, having a drink or a sandwich and getting a little work done, not feeling too out of place.

The Junior Common Room (JCR) at SOAS.

SOAS is an interesting place. Many of the students – or, at least the ones who most make themselves heard – are super activist liberal, to an extent that often rubs me the wrong way. Crazy ideological, without the nuance and complexity that comes with further age and experience.

But at the same time, it is so inspiring and interesting to be in a place where everyone around you is a non-Western specialist. Where people are actively and passionately engaged in studying everything from Kurdish language to Senegalese music to Burmese politics to Tongan economics. Where the entire library and not just some corner of it, is organized into Africa, Asia, Pacific, etc. And where most of the signs and flyers on the walls, and the books in the bookstore, are non-western, decolonial, culturally oriented, with true serious diversity unlike you ever see in a US institution’s library. Incidentally, SOAS Library is currently being threatened by terrible budget cuts. See here for information on the latest developments, and on what you can do to help.

Opening slide for a wonderful presentation by Gaylen Vankan, on a 1526 series of depictions of Turkish (Ottoman) warriors on horseback.

The Perceiving Processions symposium I was in London to attend was wonderful. I suppose that in the end I am afraid I must admit that, as almost always is the case, I sadly did not actually come away with any new insights, new methodologies, that might truly inform my research/writing going forward. I had hoped for some new insights into how we talk about processions as performative acts, as acts that actually function in some fashion to make meaning through the unique qualities of processions as a particular form of display and action. But, nevertheless, it was a lot of fun, met a lot of great people, and got some surprisingly interested excited reactions. I half expected that as the only East Asianist on the docket, people would largely just ignore me, taking my work as a curiosity but as something outside of the much deeper, more involved and engaged conversations they would want to have with one another, with their fellow Europeanists. But during the first coffee break after my talk, and to a certain extent throughout the entire rest of the day, multiple people kept wanting to talk to me, which was really something. Many of the other presentations were also really interesting, working on really interesting topics, with beautiful or otherwise really engaging sources.

One on a series of tapestries depicting Congolese royalty as Brazilian kings, in a sort of pastiche of Dutch Brazilian tropical Empire – I had no idea that there was a Dutch Brazil, or that Congolese courts or polities sent any kind of formal embassies. Not to mention the fact that the only place where this set of tapestries is still displayed in full, in order, is at the Knights of Malta Council Chamber, on Malta. The incredible degree of internationality of these topics is stunning.

Matthew Gin presented on rituals in which a Spanish princess was sent over to France to marry a French prince – a tiny island in a river between Spain and France still remains today shared between the two countries. And at that time, temporary ceremonial buildings were erected, to receive the Spanish princess and to convey her into her new life in France in a manner which ceremonially treated both countries as equals. Neither the Spanish nor the French side of the building was larger than the other, or raised up higher, or anything like that – in order to help ensure ritual equality between the two sides. As an architectural historian, he found records of these temporary buildings and reconstructed some notion of the effects or implications of that design, as well as considering the ceremony itself, though he has no pictorial representations at all of those ceremonies or their associated processions. Interesting too, that he noted that even as these Spanish princesses went and took on roles/positions within the French court, they were always considered foreigners, “of Spain,” and thus took on an identity much like the island itself – ambiguous and in-between, not fully belonging to either country.

Visit of Albrecht Dürer in Antwerp in 1520, Jan August Hendrik Leys, 1855, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, 2198. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Another presenter, Gaylen Vankan of the University of Liege, spoke of Dutch depictions of Ottoman riders, specifically Suleiman the Magnificent and several other figures on horseback accompanying him. Though often grouped together as a procession, these can also be taken to be five separate images of separate classes of Ottoman riders. The key point he made, which I thought was interesting, is that even as one would expect in the late 15th and 16th centuries that Europeans would see the Ottomans as a horrible, barbaric, non-Christian horde, a serious threat to Christendom (and that’s putting it mildly, even, considering the fall of Constantinople and the fall of so much of the Balkans to the Ottomans, all the way to the gates of Vienna) – and they are indeed depicted in that fashion in a great many works. And yet, in these works as well as in many others, the Ottomans are depicted with some considerable nobility – the artist obviously admires or respects them or at the very least finds something appealing about the aesthetics and style of their clothing and accoutrements.

Nicholas Crummey (Central European University) talked about a wonderful diary he had found in the British Library, by a member of a late 17th century British embassy to Ottoman lands. Though re-published several times and oft-cited, it would seem the original copy of this diary – complete with wonderful illustrations – is very rarely consulted. He showed us some great maps and illustrations that this figure, John Covel, drew, relating various aspects of his journey.

Inside at Gail’s in Exmouth Market.

But what I think I’ve really enjoyed the most these last few days has just been the nice little shops I’ve visited, and just the free sort of lifestyle. Even if it was super chain sort of shops like Cafe Nero, or eating out of a supermarket, it has that extra cultural cachet for me because it’s “foreign,” because it’s British or European. For the first two nights, the symposium put me up at a nice hotel just a very short walk from Russell Square station, pretty close to SOAS and to the areas I was familiar with but just different enough that I could feel I was exploring/experiencing something new. I missed breakfast in the hotel both mornings, which was a shame, because I was so jetlagged and basically just overslept both times. Well, on the day of the conference I didn’t oversleep, I just took too long to prepare and didn’t have time for a proper breakfast. So I just grabbed something at the Simit Sarayi across the street. This is (one piece of) what I’m talking about. Here’s a Turkish chain store, selling Turkish pastries and stuff – I’m not sure we have any Simit Sarayi in New York or LA, and if we have anywhere at all selling this stuff you really have to sort of search it out, whereas here in London, because Britain and Turkey are both in or on the peripheries of Europe, you can see this sort of intermingling of the stores. Anyway, sadly the food was not nearly as good as at even the Simit Sarayi in Istanbul, let alone the proper local places. But even so, it existed. The second morning, after the conference was over and I was free to be on my own time, I did sleep in, until like 10:30 or so – never got over jet lag the entire trip, so I’ve been sleeping from like 11pm or 12am until 2 or 3, and then being up until 5 or 5:30, and then sleeping until 10:30 or so…. But, on my way to SOAS or the British Museum or wherever it was, I found a wonderful little bakery called Gail’s. Which I’ve now learned also has multiple locations, but it doesn’t feel like a chain at all, feels like a nice cozy cafe like I might also expect to find in the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo, or in all sorts of other places (except, this one is more authentically British). I had a wonderful little breakfast, a real highlight of trip, haha, as I could imagine going back there or places quite like it regularly, if I were to be living here. I got a scone with jam and clotted cream, and a pot of English Breakfast, and honestly I could have just relaxed and stayed there all day, enjoying tea and pastries, the bright, airy, and relaxed background-conversations sort of atmosphere, putting me in a good relaxed mood to be productive on my computer.

I’m sure these kinds of places must exist somewhere in LA, but I would have to really seek them out, and drive to them. Unless you live in Santa Monica or certain other neighborhoods, in my very limited experience, I feel like there’s really nothing properly walkable in LA. No sense of a local neighborhood. If I were to live in Islington/Bloomsbury area, I could definitely imagine myself having breakfast at Gail’s and just settling in to work there on many days. Or even at Café Nero. Or at one of the UofL cafes. Any/all of these feel different than just going to a local Starbucks or whatever here in LA…

The Rocket. A pub near the British Library. I don’t think I’ve ever been inside, but certainly a familiar sight.

I once again made a trip to London during which I barely got out of the Islington/Bloomsbury sort of area, but, this time I’m not feeling down about it at all. When I first relocated from the hotel to the AirBnB, I was feeling a little bummed out, kicking myself for booking a place here in this same neighborhood rather than getting out to explore the rest of the city at all. And, sure, who knows what kind of experience I might have had if I did stay in an entirely different, new, neighborhood. But, it really worked out just fine. I did not allow myself to get stuck going up and down the same streets or areas that I already know have been a bust in the past, and actually by walking just a little bit off my own personal well-beaten track, walking south to Exmouth Market and then west towards the British Museum rather than going straight back to King’s Cross and Euston and Gray’s Inn Road and whatever else I’m already too familiar with, I made it a new experience.

I just love these little market streets, lined with cute little shops. I loved Gail’s, and I can easily imagine if I were living here to either go back there regularly or to explore other shops up and down and in neighboring streets and so forth. I also happened upon Judd Books again, a small but really good little used book store right near SOAS and UCL; the SOAS on-campus bookstore also, though extremely small, has a good selection of things, obviously, since it’s all the books that SOAS professors are assigning for their classes. And some “random” stuff that I wouldn’t expect to be able to find anywhere else, like CDs of the London Uyghur Ensemble for one quid.

And though I pretty much only got out of this neighborhood to meet up with a friend for pizza near All Soul’s Church (near Oxford Circus), to go to the Royal Academy of Arts (near Picadilly Circus), and to have dinner and drinks with a professor out near Borough Station (near London Bridge), and didn’t really see or explore the city at all, somehow that just really felt like enough. I think having a SOAS alumni card and being able to get into the campus, not feeling like I had nowhere to be allowed to belong, made all the difference. I didn’t need the card at all to get into the Institute of Education pub, or for that matter the Brunei Building, or half the times I tried the Senate House, but, still, I dunno, for whatever reason, sitting around on or near campus and pretending like I was actually based at SOAS for the week, it just really worked. Go to the campus bar, sit and pull out your computer and get some work done. Go to the library. Use the old shortcuts you remember to go through Senate House to the side entrance of the British Museum rather than going all the way around. Visit Judd Books.

SOAS Main Building, with its statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar.

I think meeting up with one of my SOAS profs, and with another scholar who he had put in touch with me, really helped too. Maybe my experiences in Japan these last few years, and at UCLA too, have helped me too, to develop a much greater familiarity with the identity of being an outsider who’s come to use the library, or to have a meeting, or whatever. Even though most Japanese universities do have security gates for their libraries – turnstiles or gates that won’t even let you into the building at all without a library card or whatever – number one, if you just ask and explain that you’re a visitor and fill out a tiny bit of paperwork, they’ll typically let you in, and two, I think every other campus I’ve ever been to has let me walk in and walk around campus without anyone checking or asking. Okinawa University of the Arts in particular comes to mind – I’ve been there quite a few times now, either to use the library or to visit with a professor there. And no one asks me questions, no one looks at me funny. The first time I went, I asked at the desk before trying to get through the gate, explained that I’m a visitor, and they just said sure, go right ahead, without any need for any paperwork or guest visitor badge or anything. And so I used the library database on my own computer, found the books I wanted on the shelves, asked when I needed help, did my own photocopying… and left, and came back another day. Anyway, the point being that I’ve grown used to feeling like that person. I’m no longer the awkward alumnus or total outsider who is worried what am I even doing here, what am I trying to get out of this, what kind of nostalgia am I trying to claim; I no longer feel like an invader in other students’ space. Maybe that just comes with age as well. Because instead of feeling like some kind of intruder or impostor compared to these real (current) SOAS students, who have some kind of more real claim to the space than me, I feel like an alumnus, who has already been affiliated and associated with the place, however loosely, to be honest since most of the current students were still in primary or middle school, and I feel like a scholar – I wouldn’t call myself “experienced” or “established,” but still, a stage or two beyond these undergrads and study abroad and Master’s students. I don’t feel threatened by them.

At the SOAS Student Union Bar.

Much of campus is much how it always has been, I suppose. To be honest, I don’t remember it all that clearly, to know whether or not the hallways or the library has changed at all. Though I can imagine that at the very least the technology of the library probably has changed. And I know the pub was redone since I’ve left. Though, SOAS has also expanded into Senate House, so they have this whole new “Paul Webley Wing,” which I imagine has a lot of classrooms, offices, etc. Super high-tech-looking meeting rooms or study rooms which I suppose you can reserve, and the touch-screens outside each room show a clock in green or red which I guess means it’s either available or not, or that your time has come up or not? From what little I was able to access, I mostly just saw a big very new-looking, very clean and bright and nice-looking atrium. Beautiful gathering / studying spaces. And, of course, having a SOAS Alumni card now was a crazy breath of fresh air, as I said, since I was able to get into these spaces, and to not feel like I was unwelcome or denied or un-belonging. Though, frankly, I’m really not sure what I think about limiting these spaces to SOAS students. I mean, I suppose I understand that with so many other colleges in the area, if it were left totally free and open it would be too easy for the place to become overrun with students from UCL and elsewhere, and it would be much harder for any of the spaces to develop or maintain a distinctly SOAS character – and thus, for the School as a whole to build or maintain quite as much of a strong sense of community. So, that’s all important and valid; I can very much see the strengths of that. But, at the same time, I really appreciated when I was at SOAS getting to go to the Institute of Education cafeteria next door, the Senate House cafe, and the pub down the street (is that part of Birkbeck? I was never sure). Even if not to actually mix with students from other Schools, to have more additional different spaces to choose from, and perhaps most importantly just to not feel shut-out. I’m not saying that any of these schools have such great, amazing, fancy cafeterias or pubs or whatever, that we are (or would be) being denied access to the “nice” pub or whatever. But, just for the sake of variety. Of course I don’t want to see the SOAS pub overrun with anyone and everyone, but I also hate the idea that I wouldn’t be able to go and experience that, intermingle even a little bit, if I were a student at one of the neighboring colleges. I wonder, I don’t actually remember if it came up while I was there, if SOAS students wanted to bring their UCL or LSE friends in to have a drink together, if the guards would block them. Because that would really suck. Anyway, maybe it’s me personally, I don’t know, but I really do have a thing about access and about belonging. I hate being treated like I’m not allowed in somewhere. Even in visiting the SOAS library’s Special Collections earlier today, I tried to ask about how the process worked, whether I could just request items or whether there was a long and complicated approval process, and the librarian said “can you identify yourself? I mean, who are you, where are you coming from?” I sense that maybe English isn’t her first language, and more to the point maybe she just wasn’t choosing her words very carefully in that moment – I certainly don’t always say exactly what I mean, in exactly the best way, and so I give her the benefit of the doubt. But, still, I’m a SOAS alumnus, and even if I wasn’t, I’m a University of California graduate student, and even if I wasn’t, I’m someone coming in to try to use your Special Collections. I suppose I can understand that if I truly were just some person from off the street, some random person, then, *maybe* there’s some call to say who is this person. But I should like to think that many (if not most) librarians at many (if not most) other institutions would simply assume that the person asking is probably some kind of legit academic. I just really hate gatekeeping. Don’t ask me to “identify myself” as if I’m already an intruder until I prove otherwise. Don’t treat me like I’m not welcome, like I don’t belong. Give me the benefit of the doubt, assume that I am a legitimate researcher, assume that your own job is to help provide access for researchers rather than to block it. Rather than the first step being to challenge a person coming in, under the assumption that they can’t be granted access, assume they can, and make your very first step starting to help them with the right paperwork or whatever. “May I see your SOAS ID, or your ID from your institution?” “Oh, I see you’re a SOAS alum. Okay, you have X and Y privileges but I’m afraid if you want to do Z, that’s restricted (or, then you’ll have to fill out this additional form).” or “Oh, I see you’re from the States. Okay, well for visiting researchers from outside of the U of L, we have these forms that you have to fill out.” Something like that. And then you welcome them. Just like being granted a Reader Card at the British Library. Just like when UCLA granted me a library card so I could borrow books (but not have certain other privileges) even though I’m a UCSB student. Just like when prefectural and national and local archives and libraries as well as university libraries all across Japan let me in as a guest, and allowed me X but not Y level of access, or whatever it may be.

Anyway, sorry for that rant.

Hoa Hakananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’), one of the many iconic objects in the British Museum. A moai ancestor figure from Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

The British Museum

I’m not sure I have too much to say about the British Museum that I haven’t said before. I love how they use objects to tell a fuller story about culture and history, and not just artistic style or aesthetic form, and that they do include things that are historically significant (and often quite beautiful), and not only things that fall into a more mainstream “art” sort of category. I don’t even mean historical artifacts without much artistic value (whatever that even means); I mean genuinely beautiful, skillfully-made, art objects that happen to also allow one to speak of their content, of what they depict or how they were used… And, I love that the museum is so extensive!! I mean, I was a little surprised to learn that they don’t actually have a gallery for Musical Instruments, or for Arms & Armor, as the Met does. There are certainly categories for which they don’t have much on display, I suppose. (And, actually, Chinese painting in particular, is oddly sparse, given that they have a huge permanent exhibit of Chinese history from ancient through modern, featuring mostly ceramics, sculptures, I’m not sure exactly what else off the top of my head, but then only a very few paintings?) But, they do have a whole gallery of clocks, and a whole gallery of the history of coinage from around the world, not to mention the Enlightenment Gallery which is just really wonderful.

I was a little bit hoping I might happen upon a protest by Rapa Nui people demanding their ancestor moai back. One of the most iconic, famous objects in the Museum’s collection – its fame aided by the fact that it’s right there in front of you when you walk into the Wellcome Gallery right off the main atrium – the statue is a sacred object for the people of Rapa Nui, an embodiment of a specific individual ancestor, and as some articles I read put it, how would you like it if people busted into your home and took your grandfather and put him on display in a museum?

Well, in any case, I had heard that there were supposed to be some kind of in-person protests. Whether that would (or could) take place right there in the gallery, or when they would take place, the articles I read didn’t say. But if it did happen, it would have been good timing, a nice opportunity to catch the experience – and photos – of something I would otherwise only read about.
That didn’t happen. But, whatever.

I think one highlight of the BM during this visit was the new Islamic galleries. I really appreciated and enjoyed the way they incorporated all different parts of the Islamic world, with individual displays on the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia, Islamic North Africa, etc., covering the history of each different period and region. One thing I was a bit disappointed about, though, was the absence of discussion or representation of other peoples – yes, these are the “Islamic” galleries, but if you’re not going to include Sephardic, Mizrahi, Kurdish, Armenian, Coptic, etc cultures in these “Middle East” galleries, then where will you? Nowhere, it would seem. Maybe mixed in with Europe or Africa, but certainly not where you’d expect to find them, i.e. right here in the Middle East (“Islamic World”) galleries.

What’s really kind of funny also is that I even had moments this weekend when I thought I was kind of over London, or that London feels a bit too familiar already, now that I’ve lived in Istanbul. I certainly won’t say that I remember or ever really properly learned or adopted British ways of doing things. I’m still probably pretty blatantly visibly American in terms of the way I walk, the way I order at cafes and restaurants, all kinds of things. I’m still awkward at asking for “some tea” or “a tea,” not knowing whether I should be asking for “a pot of tea” or how people ask for it. Still fumbling with coins. Still sometimes not looking the correct direction or not knowing properly when I can and can’t cross. Nearly got hit by a car the other day, as he turned onto the small side street that I was crossing just not thinking not realizing that anyone might be turning into it. While it’s pretty cool that they have those yellow-lighted crosswalks where cars are supposed to stop for pedestrians even without any change of red/green, when it comes to crossing anywhere else, they really don’t stop for you. American drivers will get annoyed at you, often, or they just won’t even expect you or won’t see you, but generally speaking they know that once a pedestrian is in the road, whether they’re jaywalking or whatever, you have to stop for them. They have the right of way, actually, especially if they’re in a crosswalk. Doesn’t seem to be the same here.

But, all of that said, even so, even despite all the little cultural quirks that so frustrated and depressed me my first time in London, and even despite difficulties with language, the fact that my accent is noticeably decidedly different, and terminology is often different, and I don’t always actually know what others are saying (or they, me), even so, the fact that people speak English here as the truly primary language, as compared to negotiating with my minimal Turkish and other people’s varying range of English, or just regardless of other people, navigating myself with signs and posters in a foreign language, … I dunno, I just really enjoyed Istanbul. I don’t know how well I would have managed on my own; having Simone was extremely helpful. And I’m not saying I’m looking to just run off to anywhere, but, having now gained a certain degree of familiarity with Istanbul, having learned some very minimal level of Turkish, I dunno, London doesn’t feel adventurous enough anymore. Which is a terrible shame. Because I don’t want it to lose its appeal, or its magic. I don’t want to grow bored or uninspired by London. Even worse, I wouldn’t want to grow to dislike it, to have all the utterly mundane practical things start to ruin my feeling of the city.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, at the Royal Academy of the Arts.

For now, London still feels like an adventure. And I want it to still feel like that. Even the most basic things like Tesco sandwiches are for me cultural capital, they’re a feeling of knowing something, experiencing something, becoming familiar with something that I never had before. It’s being able to go back home and talk to people about … whatever it may be about London that reveals some (shared) familiarity, … Or, I don’t know, just to feel like I’m being or becoming my best self, like I’m living my best life. I’m not saying I necessarily want to live in the UK or Japan or anywhere else permanently, that’s too big a decision to make, just far too much too deep a matter in terms of both practical and other sort of considerations. But at the same time, there’s a part of me that just can’t help but feel like traveling less is somehow a failure, a failure to launch, as it were. When I did study abroad in Japan for the first time and felt like it might prove to be my one and only big trip in my life, and at that time I couldn’t have imagined that I’d end up living in Hawaii or California, or that I’d ever do half (or, any) of the traveling that I have since, … that feeling of coming back from Japan and not knowing if I ever would go back, and indeed I didn’t go back for a good four years, which felt like a pretty long time at the time … there’s a part of me that just really feels that even if I did settle in an exciting big world city like New York, that’s still going home, that’s still seeing an end – a failure – to all the traveling that I had done.

Anyway, London has its faults, to be sure, and I am sure that if I ever were to get a job in the UK and really spend a real amount of time here, I would come to feel all those flaws, and perhaps all the more so in a smaller city like Durham or Leeds or wherever. But, at least for now, it’s still an adventure. It’s market streets and Gail’s Bakery. It’s the Flat Iron Square / Food Arch area, with all these great little food stalls, some of them serving things like Turkish mantı which I’ve just never seen (or never known to look out for) in the States.

(4 May 2019)
I did, in fact, apply to quite a few jobs / fellowships in England this year. Didn’t get selected for any of them in the end, unfortunately. Strangely didn’t see a single job posting/advertisement for anywhere in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland, though I would have jumped at that chance just as much. I don’t know why, maybe it had something to do with this London trip, but even all these weeks later I’m still really feeling that I would have so loved to live in Britain for a time. Who knows what’s going to happen with Brexit, of course, but that aside, as much as I **love** Japan, and much as I would have been up for whatever adventure the job market may have brought me – staying in LA, moving back to the East Coast, getting a teaching job at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest – I would have been up for that. But somehow, for whatever reason, I just find myself in a place right now where I just so wished I might have gotten a chance to move to England. Maybe sometime in the future…

Seen in the neighborhood. Somewhere in Cihangir or Beyoğlu.

I feel like after six weeks in Istanbul I have so much more to say. I want to write separate posts about the Pera Museum and the Jewish Museum of Istanbul, but I seem to have lost my copies of notes that I took at the time, so it would have to be recreations just from memory and photos :/
Maybe I’ll still write something in future. But in the meantime, I’m kind of desperate to finally be done with Turkey for now and to write about my trips elsewhere, as I’m still way way behind. So, to finally wrap up, here’s some of the stuff from the notes that I do have – further thoughts and reactions written during my time still living in Istanbul with my girlfriend last summer.

I guess one place to start is to say a little bit about the language. I never took any classes or anything, never learned much beyond some very basic phrases. But, after six weeks of being immersed in it, just from signs and storefronts and menus and book covers, from overhearing conversations, and from the very few words and phrases that I did learn, I guess I feel like I have some sense. I can’t say much about sentence structure, verb conjugation, anything, because I don’t know them. Except to say that it’s nice that it’s basically similar to Japanese, in just a few very basic ways. The word order is similar – while I’m sure most learners of Turkish have trouble wrapping their minds around the Subject-Object-Verb word order, as I did when I was first taking Japanese, I’m now pretty comfortable with it. So whatever few phrases I did learn in Turkish, it felt pretty smooth to me to think about ordering my words in that way.

Right: Just a few examples of Turkish loanwords: Tost for “toast” (a grilled panini-style sandwich); Salata for salad, presumably from the French salade, Arabic sulta or the like. Not the greatest example, I know, but the best I could find, apparently, out of my photos from the summer.

The idea of using just small roots for your verbs and conjugating out of that is common in a lot of languages outside of English. In English we use the whole word “drink,” for example, when we say drink, drinks, drinking… Okay, drank and drunk are sort of exceptions but hopefully you take my point. In Turkish, like in Japanese, it’s just short stems. in Turkish becomes içmiyorum, içemiyorum, etc. Nomu in Japanese becomes nomimasu, nomimasen, nomemasen…

Anyway, I think one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Turkish just from the very basic exposure I’ve had visiting here, and helping my girlfriend study for her vocab quizzes, and not actually studying the language myself is the way they use so many loan words, and spell them phonetically in their own way. Of course Japanese and pretty much every other language do this too, but even so, Turkish being what it is, not a romance language, not a Semitic or Sinitic/Japonic language, but something else, and doing this in a different way , but still in Roman letters – everything looks so foreign and yet so familiar.

Kek for cake. Müsik for music, vagon for train cars, istasyon for station.

A display at the Alaçam Population Exchange Museum (Alaçam Mübadele Müzesi), a small house museum in Istanbul dedicated to the story of Greeks forced to return to Greece from Turkey, and Turks forced to return to Turkey from Greece, at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the difficulties of the journey and re-settlement, etc.

Another thing I just loved about being in Turkey (Istanbul in particular, I suppose) is that it’s right at the center of so many different cultures and ethnicities that you normally would never hear about, learn about. Here in the US, we might learn about French, Italian, and German history, or about Chinese, Japanese, and Korean culture. And walking around our neighborhood, we might meet Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Arab, Indian, East Asian, Irish, and Italian people. But in Istanbul, you’re encountering either people or cultural elements from Armenia, Georgia, the Black Sea region, the Prince’s Islands (Adalar), Turkic peoples from all the way across Asia… Just talking to people in Istanbul, we met Jews, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Azeri.. all kinds of people. And just a couple minutes walk from the very center of tourism in the city (i.e. Sultanahmet; the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque), there is a whole row of houses and a restaurant housing some kind of pro-Uyghur activist organization that isn’t trying very hard to keep their heads down, stay off the radar, at all.

“Pray for Muslim citizens of East Turkestan that have been oppressed and assimilated by Communist Chinese regime!”

Speaking of ethnic minorities, many parts of Turkey have in recent years become home to significant numbers of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. I don’t know the details, but I believe I remember hearing/reading that the Turkish government made some kind of agreement with the European Union, that so long as Turkey takes X amount of refugees and doesn’t allow them to enter EU territory, in exchange for, according to Wikipedia, a “re-energized” consideration of Turkey’s bid to become an EU member country, eased visa requirements for Turkish citizens, andsome 6 billion euros in aid. From talking to shopkeepers, musicians, barbers, fellow visitors, etc., we got the impression that a lot of people in Turkey are worried that the Syrian refugees, simply by their presence, their social/societal/cultural influence, are pushing the society & politics further to the Right (and towards Islamist fundamentalism). But others we spoke to said the Syrians they knows are very modern and tolerant people. And that most refugees are not so fundamentalist – they’re just poor people. They suggested that it’s the Erdoğan government or other institutions that pressure people to be more religious or more observant in order to receive benefits.

I don’t think I have any pictures of Syrian refugees, so I’m going to go with this photo of a café and alleyway in Izmir, with a large Turkish flag. I imagine this flag must carry very mixed and complex meanings for many people.

Trying to find something to say to wrap up my whole Turkey experience this past summer, I find I barely even know what to say. I suppose this is in part because it was my second time, so it’s not so unusual anymore, and because we were more in “living in Turkey” mode than tourist mode, really. Spent a lot more time in shopping streets and malls, and doing other simple sorts of things than we did visiting museums or historical sites, or actively trying to try / experience new things. So I guess that makes a big difference.

Mostly, I guess I would say my main impression coming away from it is that Istanbul is a pretty nice city to hang out in for a few months (or maybe even up to a year, or longer…?). I would definitely be interested in seeing more historical sites, more museums, more art galleries + shows, more music performances. I’d definitely be interested in seeing more of the country, too. But at the same time, it’s just a good city to live in. So long as the purchasing power parity remains as it is – and most especially how it was this summer, much more so than last – we Americans, even on a paltry grad student stipend / summer funding, can afford to live pretty damn well in Turkey. We had a beautiful apartment (for $1300 / month, not exactly pennies, but even so, a place that would easily cost twice that in any major US city) with a gorgeous view. We ate out nice breakfasts about half the days, and went out to nice (not super ultra fancy, but nice) restaurants for lunch or dinner quite frequently. I don’t think we were living some incredibly lavish lifestyle, either, but just the sort of standard big-city sort of life that we all wish we could afford in New York, LA, or San Francisco. A meal that would have cost let’s say $60 or so, or likely even more, for two people back home, including a salad or appetizer, two entrees, and basic drinks (e.g. lemonade), was 100 lira – at the current exchange rate, about US $16. It’s just such a wonderful privilege to be able to go out for dinner, and not worry about going out to dinner to begin with, as an expensive option to begin with, but also (2) to not have to feel like ordering a drink, or an appetizer, or a dessert, is too extravagant. That alone, regardless of the particular cultural feel of the city, or anything else, makes Istanbul just a fantastic place to be. I so wish that one could live like that in New York or LA, in Honolulu or Tokyo or Kyoto, in London or anywhere else in Europe.

Just some cats, chillin’, at the top of the stairs near our apartment in Cihangir.

It’s weird. I don’t know. Last year, when I went to Turkey for the first time, it was my first time going to a Muslim country. And I was nervous. Istanbul is not just like any (other) European city. The mosques and the several-times-a-day call to prayer, the dominance of certain foods and not certain others, not to mention the largely invisible but nevertheless ever-present looming danger of the authoritarian state, make it a very different place from what we typically picture when we talk about visiting Europe.

And I do definitely still feel much happier, more comfortable, more excited to be in, say, Tokyo or Kyoto or Naha than in Istanbul. It’s just not my first choice of cultural appeal. Ask me which cities (or cultures) of the world have the best food, or which country’s historical sites or music scene or art museums I most want to see more of, and Turkey is admittedly not at the top of my list. I still have never been to China or Taiwan, or most of Europe.

But, while I never would have expected it a year ago, I think I really have grown pretty comfortable with Istanbul. The people are nice, the language of course is difficult but thankfully it’s written in Roman letters and uses a ton of loanwords, and just, overall, even the things that are decidedly “foreign,” such as the mosque-dominated skyline and the sound of the muezzin every day, are things I’ve grown used to and just don’t see as so unusual anymore.

And there’s just a lot of basic everyday things to enjoy about Istanbul. So many nice cafes – if you want to call them hipstery, or if you just want to call them nice. A good public transportation system, with tapcards (New York is still behind on this one), and streetcars (trams), subway, and ferries that all run more smoothly and nicely, through nice clean stations. Not to mention, the deepest subway tunnels in the world, connecting Europe and Asia. I mean, few public transportation systems in the world compare to Tokyo, but Istanbul is certainly levels above New York or Los Angeles, and I would say compares well to most other cities I’ve been to. I love taking the ferries, and getting to see those wonderful water views of the city. And I love that you can get most places on public transportation. Strangely, it seemed super often that we had to take a bus, rather than the tram or subway, to get where we were going, but… oh well, I guess.

A historical streeetcar running down İstiklal Caddesi (Istiklal Street, or lit. “Independence Avenue”), one of the chief shopping/tourist streets in the city. Not really so indicative of the real everyday Metro experience, but, makes for a nice photo perhaps.

And the shopping malls and clothing stores and so forth are super modern, super sleek. Cleaner, nicer, brighter, more modern feeling than even in Japanese shopping malls probably. Of course, the exchange rate / PPP really helps with this. We could afford to go to the fanciest malls, the nicest shops. A shirt that might be $50 or $60 back home, or even $100 might be 50 or 60 lira – less than ten bucks. And a dress from a fancy high-end store or little boutique that might be hundreds of dollars back home, even if it was 300 lira, that’s still less than $50 at the moment.

I’m not sure Turkey is my number one top favorite place for food (sorry!). I’m much more excited by even the most basic everyday food scene in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Naha – or by Italian pasta and pizza – but, even so, I loved getting to know the distinctive Turkish specialties. Totally fresh juice, fresh squeezed directly from the fruit as you watch, for just 5-10 lira.

A fresh fruit juice vendor in Istanbul. Somehow out of my hundreds of photos, I never took one of one of these stands. So this is a photo from Turkish blog http://berfendber.blogspot.com/.

We got lucky, or I guess maybe we knew about it as part of the selection process, but we ended up just a couple of blocks away from a ton of different cafes + breakfast places, including some of the most widely best-rated, best-reviewed breakfast places in the city. But it was such a nice combination of these kinds of totally modern, clean, sleek, good cafes, and also right in the same neighborhood good mom+pop sort of stores. When we ate breakfast in, I would go up to the local bakery and get fresh bread every day. Simit – often badly translated as “bagels,” they’re rings of bread covered in sesame seeds. More like a circular pretzel than anything. So fresh, so good, and so cheap!

Let’s see… other foods. I loved the rice pudding (fırın sütlaç). And of course there’s döner kebab, falafel, köfte (meatballs). I found these all to be pretty meh compared to what I’ve had elsewhere. The shawarma joint in LA, for example, which pretends to be a shawarma joint in New York at the end of the first Avengers movie, is surprisingly excellent. Not just a funny fandom / movie history sort of take a photo and check it off the list sort of spot, but really genuinely tasty food. Much better than the meat I had in Turkey. Sorry. But, still, so many other foods! It was nice from time to time to have what they call “tost”: just basic panini-pressed sandwiches, with cheese + tomatoes, or cheese + pesto sauce, or whatever. And kumpir – baked potatoes loaded with whatever toppings you choose. Oh, and börek, of course, though I think maybe having that every day for the one week we were in Turkey last year maybe got me a little bored, a little “over” the borek. Oh, and manti was a good experience. I’ve been bad and have been slipping ever farther from any semblance of observing kashrut (oh well); though I still get nervous that my body isn’t used to certain foods and might get angry with me and make me sick, even so I did enjoy several times a dish called manti, which is tiny little meat raviolis served in a mix of tomato sauce + thin yogurt.

Rumelihisarı, the first Ottoman fortress built on the European side of the Bosphorous. Built in 1452, it played a key role in allowing for the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium/Constantinople the following year, as it was used along with the corresponding Anadoluhisarı on the opposite shore to block Byzantine reinforcements or re-supply via the waterway.

But the non-Turkish food was good too. It varied a lot, as it does for example in Japan. You’re not going to just step out your door and find good Italian or Chinese/Japanese or Indian food, let alone Mexican. But if you research around online a bit, or just get lucky, there’s some amazing food. Simone said that at most restaurants, the pasta is not served al dente, but rather overcooked, soft, by Western standards. But we ended up going several times to a chain restaurant called Midpoint, which I still find a little funny since it’s basically like an upscale mall restaurant, a corporate chain. But, still, damn it was good. I’m blanking on which restaurants to compare it to in the States, but it’s like when you find that that one place just has such amazing mushroom tortellini, or whichever one particular dish it may be… I want to go back and have that mushroom tortellini again.

Oh, and the çay – Turkish tea. How could I forget? I still haven’t tried Turkish coffee, haha. We kept putting it off with the plan of finding somewhere where they might read your fortune with the coffee remains at the bottom of the cup. We never did. But, oh, how I love their tea. I love all tea, really, if it’s made right. Somehow brewing my own tea never really did it, but just a basic 4 lira çay (black tea with or without sugar, no milk) at just about any shop, much like the free green tea they give you at most places in Japan, is just *the best*. I love it so much. I wish I could just drink tea endlessly. But enough about food, I guess.

A guy who lived right outside our apartment, usually to be found atop this car. He was rather anti-social, but my girlfriend was determined to befriend him, and so named him ‘My Best Friend.’

One thing I’m definitely going to miss is the kitties. The street cats. If you’re familiar with the documentary Kedi, then you’re already familiar with this, but there are street cats everywhere in Istanbul, and the people are really kind to them. They get food and water, they get petted and loved, and they get left alone. Sometimes people shoo them out of restaurants, to be sure, but for the most part, they’re just around, and they’re friendly, and good. I very much miss living with a cat, and I very much look forward to doing so again, but even that is just not the same as having a wide variety of cats at your disposal every day. Sure, the street cats won’t come and sit on your lap (or on your laptop) while you’re working at home, or curl up with you in bed, but you can go just about anywhere and meet new cats, or check in with the same cats day after day, and you can enjoy the variety. We definitely got to know some of the cats in our immediate neighborhood. Right outside our apartment was a fussy guy we called “My Best Friend.” He seemed to have no interest whatsoever in being anyone’s friend, and pushed Simone’s hand away whenever she went in to pet him. He had this look on his face like “ugh, I don’t want to have to deal with this woman. Leave me alone.” It was super cute. We also met cats who followed us for blocks.

I had always sort of felt bad for indoor pet cats, because they’re stuck in the same small space all the time. I always imagined that free street cats would wander and explore the whole city. But as I learned, to my surprise, they don’t. They just stay in one spot, one street corner or whatever it may be, of their own volition.

And at the top of the stairs (a set of stairs linking our street to the next parallel street up the hill from us), a kind man was just there constantly tending to this whole bunch of cats. He set up a whole little camp for them, with a tarp providing shelter over a whole little area of pillows and boxes and food dishes and so on. And these cats, some fifteen or so of them, just hung out there at the top of the stairs, all the time. There was a super friendly one Simone dubbed “Longcat.” A calico one we called “Anne,” the Turkish word for mother, since she constantly had tiny kittens (mostly or entirely not hers) suckling at her. A tiny one the man had named Kerchu, possibly because she was sick for a long time and was always sneezing. Kerchu loved to nuzzle and cuddle, and would just curl up on Simone’s lap for ages and ages. Another tiny one was called the Bumbler, since when we met her she just seemed so lost, and bumbled around, not really interacting with the other cats, looking quite disheveled with her fur all over the place. We then didn’t see her for a long time, and got worried, but we then saw her again, and she’s doing so well now! Not disheveled anymore, not looking lost, just living a nice happy kitty life.

Kerchu, a cute little kitten with a sneezing problem.

What else can I say about Turkey? I don’t even know. On my first visit, it was all so new to me, and so I was so struck by the overlapping layers of history, just trying to wrap my mind around how aspects or elements of Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern Republican histories overlapped and intersected and poked through, their influence still visible. And not just these periods of history, but also the many cultures that were once part of the Ottoman Empire and are still very much a part of Turkey today, even if ethno-nationalists and religious fundamentalists wish otherwise. We met tons of people – shopkeepers, booksellers, musicians – who had nothing negative at all to say about Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, Jews, and talked about how they wish their society was more multi-cultural, or more accepting or acknowledging of the multi-cultural, than it is. Of course, I mean, what are they going to say, to us, other than to be polite and positive in that kind of way? But, still.

And of course, that’s politically sensitive, and complicated. But on a related note, I guess, let me just conclude by saying something about how interesting it is to travel to different parts of the world and see which cultures have any kind of prominence there. In Japan, of course, there’s plenty of Chinese and Korean music, Taiwanese TV dramas, I dunno, whatever. And plenty of American and European stuff too, for sure. But I can imagine that if I went into a record store in Tokyo and was looking for Turkish, Armenian, Greek, or Jewish music, they likely would have next to nothing. Hell, they often have only the slimmest of an Okinawan section, and that’s for a region within their own country.

Of course, I would expect record stores in Turkey to have a ton more Black Sea music, Greek music, Armenian and Kurdish music, music from tiny ethnic groups I had never heard of such as the Laz and the Hakkari. But what I’m getting to, and what I found quite interesting, is that because of Turkey’s historical and cultural connections to the various Turkic peoples of the world, there’s actually (in certain ways, just here and there) a lot more presence / prominence of Uzbek, Uyghur, Azeri, and other Central Asian Turkic cultures than I would expect you’ll find most other places. Just looking around at the other people in the restaurant, or on the street, it’s of course quite difficult to tell sometimes who’s Turkish vs. European, who’s Turkish vs. Arab, and of course there are a lot of white/Western, Arab, and East Asian tourists. But, every now and then, somehow or another, you realize (or gather, or suspect) that someone who passes you on the street, or someone standing near you on the subway, is Uyghur, Kazakh, or Uzbek. And it makes sense – the languages have similarities, the cultures have some similarities; they probably visit Turkey for much the same reasons as Arabs do, seeing it as a country that’s not too foreign, a country they can visit and have some familiarity with the language, culture, food. It would be interesting to know some kind of tourist statistics, maybe. With most Uyghurs (and various kinds of Mongols and Tatars too) being Chinese citizens, that of course would complicate matters, but even so I’d be curious just how many of the tourists who might otherwise pass for East Asian (or white) are actually Central Asian.

It just goes to show how much your worldview and experiences can expand when traveling – to visit Turkey is not only to encounter Turkish culture, but to encounter so much else, of Balkan, Central Asian, and Sephardic culture as well. The world is so rich and complex and diverse. Get out there and explore, with an open mind, and broaden your horizons.