Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
A recent “Dear Abby” column recommended that parents who may have non-Western backgrounds give their children “traditional ‘Western’ names.”
A non-Western name, Abby wrote, can “cause a child to be teased unmercifully” in school. She went on: “Why saddle a kid with a name he or she will have to explain or correct with friends, teachers, and fellow employees from childhood into adulthood?”
Unsurprisingly, there has been a substantial amount of backlash, not least on that fount of genteel and good-natured discussions called Twitter, against this bit of racist-lite parenting advice. But the controversy makes me consider the significance of my own name, or rather names.
For no particular reason, certainly not because of the politics of our day and the new UN environment report saying that we have twenty good years left, #sarcasm, I have had the end times on my mind.
It was in this frame of mind that I visited ancient Mycenae the other day. I first saw pictures of the Lion Gate and Cyclopean Walls when I was in high school and read the mythology surrounding this place. Many of you know the story. The three major “tholos” or beehive-shaped tombs here are ascribed to three major characters from that tale: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus.
Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, was the wife of Menelaus, whose brother Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae. When Helen ran off with Paris, the prince of Troy, Menelaus and his big brother demanded satisfaction. So Agamemnon rallied the Greek states for a join assault on Troy. But the goddess Artemis commanded unfavorable winds so that the Greeks could not set sail; for the winds to change Agamemnon was required to sacrifice his own daughter. He did so, killing his daughter Iphigenia. The Greeks attacked Troy and finally destroyed it after ten long years. During Agamemnon’s absence, his wife Clytemnestra took Aegisthus as a lover. And upon his return, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered him. His son Orestes then killed his own mother and Aegisthus to avenge his father.
There’s a story from my days at Yale that I don’t remember ever telling anyone. But then I watched Mr. Kavanaugh make “but I got into Yale” into a moral defense against accusations of criminal wrongdoing. Well, so did I, buddy, so did I. And in my case, I actually had no connections to the university, whereas his grandfather was an alumnus.
In the summer of 2001, the summer after my freshman year, I rented a house just off campus on Lynwood Place with several classmates. Each of us had intended to major in one science or another — physics in my case — and each of us was working that summer in one lab or another.
Summers are when American colleges hold reunions. One Friday night, when I happened to be the only one in our house, the doorbell began to ring incessantly. I went over to the window from which I could see who was at the door. It was a white man in his mid- to late-twenties. And he was visibly drunk. He saw me through the window as I saw him.
By the time the sun set, again, over the dusty western horizon, I was beginning to question my decision to try to come here in the first place.
Tsingy de Bemaraha is one of Madagascar’s most famous national parks. In the northwestern part of the country, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its remarkable karst formations. The word “tsingy” in the local language Malagasy means “where one cannot walk barefoot.” Lonely Planet describes it as the thing to see in western Madagascar if you see only one thing.
Unfortunately, Madagascar’s roads are also some of the worst I have ever traveled on anywhere in the world. To reach the gateway to Tsingy, the seaside town of Morondava, I rode a bus from the capital Antananarivo for fifteen hours. And by now that the sun was setting, I had been riding in a four-wheel-drive truck with five other foreign travelers for another eleven spine-scattering hours. I was pleased now that I didn’t decide to head to Tsingy right away after getting to Morondava but went first to the nearby Kirindy forest to see the fossa, the big cat species that is Madagascar’s apex predator.
Divana, my guide, picked up a branch with a generous grove of green leaves on it and began waving it. Halfway up the tree, the indri lemur in his furry black and white suit like a climbing panda looked down skeptically, weighing the human’s proposition.
A minute later, he appeared to make up his mind and began climbing down. In short order he was only a meter in front of me, still on the tree but only at eye-level, and staring at us with those round yellow gemstone eyes of perpetual surprise. Divana handed him some of the leaves; he took them with neither apology nor urgency and began to chew them.
I had worked my way to Madagascar from Mauritius and the French island of La Reunion. After a brief stay in the capital city, Antananarivo, I had come east to Andasibe, the site of perhaps the country’s most accessible national park. Or rather, parks. Right off the road east to the port city of Toamasina, Andasibe has on its right the national forest reserve of Analamazaotra, and on its left the state park that is in fact the same eco-system, arbitrarily divided from it by a road. Another 15 kilometers north by four-wheel-drive and you would find the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park with its alluring primary forest but difficult trails.
“We gather here to mourning the passing of American greatness,” said Meghan McCain at her father’s funeral. Not the passing of a great American, but of American greatness. More than anything else, more than any not-so-veiled dig at Trump, that was the line from all of the speeches that I heard that struck me the most.
There is a special agony in watching a once-great civilization writhing in its death throes. You kind of wish someone would put it out of its misery. Having to watch it die, paradoxically at once all too swiftly and in excruciating slow motion, cannot be anything but the most dispiriting spectacle. But that is what we’re being treated to nowadays watching the United States destroy itself.
Was I planning to come to Mauritius? I was not. I thought I’d go to Mauritania. And no, I didn’t simply confuse the two countries and buy the wrong ticket. But I had seen lovely photos that my friend Haley posted on Facebook a few weeks earlier. And then I realized that it’s “winter” in Mauritius right now, which means that it’s not high season and yet each day is perfect with a high of 25 degrees celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), dry, and sunny day. Coming from a muggy summer in Southeast Asia, that sounded to me like heaven.
Except I didn’t realize that each perfect day often starts with an early morning downpour. And so the other morning when I went outside at 6am to meet the driver, the heavy rain surprised me and convinced me that the tour was surely canceled. He looked at me funny when I asked: of course it wasn’t. He had a dozen French people in the van all going to the same place. He knew, I didn’t, that in an hour’s time there would not be a cloud in the sky.
Captain Francis Austen, Royal Navy, commanding the HMS St. Albans, sailed to Canton at one point in the years leading up to the Opium War. The Chinese government obliquely sought his assistance against the pirate queen of the Pacific, but in the end the British sailed away again without helping. Francis, who would eventually rise to the rank of fleet admiral, had a little sister by the name of Jane. That’s right, Jane Austen. Her novel Persuasion, about a naval captain coming home after years at sea, comes to mind.
Jane Austen’s big brother is just one on a long roster of fascinating figures that populate the portrait that the historian Stephen Platt paints of the Opium War. His new book, Imperial Twilight, is terrific reading for anyone interested in this episode in history.
Platt’s central thesis is that the Opium War was a highly contingent event that didn’t need to happen at all and certainly didn’t need to happen in the way that it did. Had the former prostitute Shi Yang, known to history as Zheng Yi Sao or Cheng I Sau (“wife of elder brother Zheng”), not rise to become a pirate queen commanding 70,000 men, the British might not have been impressed with how weak Chinese naval defenses were. Had Captain Austen understood that it was official policy in Beijing not to seek foreign help in dealing with the pirates, so that the governor in Canton could not openly meet with him, he might not have returned home to report on what he thought was insolent treatment by the Chinese.
I have been very slowly catching up on Homeland. Slowly mostly because of the inconsistency of Netflix: in one country, one set of shows would be available, and in another it would be a different offering. So I would follow Carrie Mathison’s adventures for a third of a season and not be able to find out what happened next for weeks or months.
So I was five years late to the remarkably thinly veiled reference to the British bank HSBC in season 3 episode 2 of the series. “HLBC,” the fictional bank on the show caught laundering money for terrorists (as HSBC was charged with doing in real life), one character says, “has been trafficking in human misery since the Opium Wars.”
The Opium Wars! That’s a turn of phrase enough to prick up any pair of Chinese ears. The history of modern China, as told in textbooks both foreign and domestic, typically begins with the First Opium War or simply “the Opium War,” which ended in 1842 with the first of many “unequal treaties” that would plague China for over a hundred years to come — the so-called “Century of Humiliation.” (The Second Opium War or the Arrow War of 1856-60, though also significant, did not mark the beginning of a new era.)
As a would-be writer, I am often filled with self-loathing. It’s okay; it’s an occupational hazard. But today, a very specific failure weighs on me, the failure so far to keep a promise.
Three years ago, I traveled through Xinjiang, China’s massive northwestern “autonomous region” (of course it’s not actually autonomous) that is the historical homeland of the Uyghur minority, a Muslim Turkic population that prefers to call the area “East Turkestan.”
I traveled there to research the book I was trying to write. While there, in the old center of traditional Uyghur life, Kashgar, a kindly man whom I call “Yusup” in the manuscript asked me to make him a promise. “Tell our story,” he said. “Write about us. Let the outside world know what is happening in Xinjiang.”
And so far, as I have failed as yet to publish the book, I have failed to keep my promise.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."