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.
Since I started traveling, I have come to feel as though I have two birthdays. There’s my actual birthday in August, and then there’s my traveler’s birthday, today, July 1, the anniversary of the beginning of my peregrinations. In travel years, today I turn four.
And every year around July 1, I feel as though I should have some profound new insight into the meaning of life. I’m not sure I can deliver on that promise this year. But, for a number of reasons, I have been pondering the role that luck plays in our lives.
First it’s because I recently read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. Taleb, the Wall Street trader and essayist who gained celebrity in the wake of the near-collapse of the global economy in 2008, has popularized a number of concepts. One is the “black swan”: an event considered rare and unlikely that nonetheless becomes inevitable given enough time and ultimately has outsized impact. In the same way, if enough monkeys randomly punch keys on typewriters for long enough, eventually one of them will type out Hamlet.
The odor of stale urine, warmed over by the heat of a hundred summers, greeted me like an old friend. The steel poles on the train had the familiar slimy feel to them, courtesy of the hundreds before who had held onto them earlier that day and wherever their hands might have been. An obese man with his pants unzipped and barely held up rudely by a belt ambled by — the first rule of the New York City subway: there is always a crazy person on your train. If you can’t figure out who it is, it’s probably you.
Somewhere in Koreatown, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, it was the night before garbage collection, and the sour smell emanating from the black trash bags gathered into little hills assaulted the nostrils.
It was my first New York City subway station in two years, and it felt like some sort of homecoming.
The past is a foreign country.
What is known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in English is known in Chinese by just two numbers: 6-4, i.e., June 4. On that day in 1989, after weeks of demonstrations by students across China but particularly in Beijing, the Chinese Communist government called in its army. Hundreds of thousands of troops descended on the capital and fired on the unarmed demonstrators centered on that famous square in the heart of the city, killing hundreds or maybe thousands — the precise number will never be known.
1989 — the year when the fates of two parts of the world diverged. In Germany, the Berlin Wall came down. Throughout Eastern Europe, Communist regimes crumbled in rapid succession. By Christmas 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved. But on the other end of Eurasia, the Chinese government not only successfully resisted the tide of democracy but tightened its grip on the levers of power.
Playa del Hombre lay a bit less than halfway between Gran Canaria’s airport and its main city, Las Palmas. So I decided to go there straight from the airport before continuing on to the city.
Doing so, however, meant carrying my luggage on my shoulders while marching under the blinding Canarian sun. From the nearest bus stop on the main road, it was a good 25 minutes on foot to Playa del Hombre. An elderly man with a cane tried to point me in the right direction. A desultory cafe in the corner stood empty and yawning. The roads here weren’t particularly built for pedestrians, and cars whizzed by me angrily. A trio of teenage girls tried to waylay me after I’d barely started. When I pretended that I didn’t understand them, they switched to broken English: “One money,” they cried, “one Euro.”
Playa del Hombre was not a noted destination on Gran Canaria, the most populated of the Canary Islands. It was but a small settlement by the sea of a few streets tracing semi-circles around its eponymous beach of volcanic black sand, populated by low houses painted in warm colors to correspond with the sun. But I was not the first one to come here. Instead I followed a trickle of others who looked much like me, Chinese or Taiwanese visitors who came to see the former home of the famous Chinese/Taiwanese writer Sanmao.
In the past couple of weeks, I saw two of the most popular films in the world released this year. The first one you have all heard of. The second you probably haven’t.
The first film I am referring to is obviously Avengers: Endgame, which has set all manners of records at the box office. Critics have been describing the not-so-secret secret of its success with phrases like “satisfying” and “full circle,” while fans talk about “callbacks” and “Easter eggs.” Both seem to me to be really referring to the French-Bulgarian literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov called “the grammar of narrative.” (Minor spoiler follows.)
Using examples from the Italian classic Decameron, Todorov famously proposed that for a story to be satisfying, it must conform to a certain structure. A sentence must conform to certain grammar to make sense. So it is that without the correct structure, a story feels incoherent, or indeed not much of a story at all but only a series of events.
For an atheist, I sure visit a lot of churches.
And mosques, and temples, and synagogues, and monasteries of all stripes, places of worship of all creeds.
In light of the disastrous fire at the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral this week, I have been pondering my love of houses of worship despite my negative attitude toward religion.
As an atheist, all religions are vaguely offensive to my sensibilities. As far as I’m concerned, the primary function that organized religion serves is to insist on obvious falsehoods and to make the populace more gullible to even further falsehoods. Witness the bizarre belief among a great many Americans that, like Cyrus the Great, the current president occupies the White House because God specifically put him there.
Somehow I never got around to reading Shen Congwen until just recently.
Unless you’re Chinese/Taiwanese, you have probably never heard of him. And yet in 1988 he almost won the Nobel Prize in literature. The Nobel Committee had essentially agreed to give him the prize when its members made an inquiry to the Chinese government: Where was Mr. Shen, they wanted to know. And more to the point, was he still alive? The Nobel Prize, you see, could only be award to living persons.
The Chinese government responded that they knew of no one by that name. And yet he was one of the most important Chinese writers of the 20th century. Further investigation revealed that Shen had died of a heart attack a short time earlier. Committee member and famed Swedish Sinologist Göran Malmqvist pleaded with his fellow members that an exception be made for an exceptional figure, but to no avail.
“You know the Japanese word for ‘thank you’?” Ricardo asked me.
He was missing a surprising number of teeth given that he was four years younger than I. And his hair was already verging on salt-and-pepper. But he spoke with youthful enthusiasm on behalf of all things Azorean. Azorean, not necessarily Portuguese — he favored independence for the islands. His own darker skin tone he attributed to Moroccan descent. The other side of his family was Dutch, he said, reflecting the complex ethnic mixture here.
“Yes?” I said. “Arigato.”
“You know it’s borrowed from Portuguese ‘obrigado’? Apparently the Japanese didn’t have a word for ‘thank you’ until they met the Portuguese.”
In the wake of the terrorist attack in New Zealand, much of the conversation in the US has dripped with envy.
That’s right, envy.
First, a great many voices have pointed to the outpouring of empathy by the Kiwi public after the attack as exemplars of just what a “nice” country New Zealand is. Television hosts intoned that New Zealand is full of the friendliest and kindest people that they have ever met. Videos of Haka performances in tribute to the slain were posted across the Internet as evidence of Kiwi high-mindedness.
All of this, even though anyone who grew up as a racial minority in New Zealand as I did can tell you that there’s as much racial tension to go round there as anywhere else. Kiwis have mostly been helping along this idealization of New Zealand, at least Kiwis who are Pakeha. I suppose we all want to think the best of ourselves. But Americans have been pushing it as well, because they have long idealized New Zealand.
Some of you may have seen my jeremiad last week against the preferential treatment of so-called “legacies” in US university admissions. Legacy: one whose parent(s) or some other relative(s) attended the institution to which he or she is applying. As longstanding practice, most elite US colleges admit legacy students on a much more lenient basis than non-legacy ones. At Harvard, it is statistically nearly six times easier to get in as legacy than non-legacy.
I’ve been chewing over this idea of legacy. Of course the very idea offends many of us, offends our sense of fairness. Certainly it offends me.
On the other hand, the notion of heritage, of being who we are and accomplishing what we accomplish because of who our parents are, seems to me fundamental to human nature.
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."