Category Archives: entertainment

so, what are you then?

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“The Argentine singer-songwriter Facundo Cabral famously sang No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá—“I’m neither from here, nor there.” For the immigrant and second-generation traveler, “where are you from?” is a question loaded with complexity in ways the people who ask it don’t always understand.”

With complete acknowledgement of the privilege and navel-gazing contained in this piece, I think it does speak to a certain group of people who do see their identity as something more complicated than just simply naming a broad category of ethnicity, residence, or nationality, particularly those of us who do get questions or pushback on our responses (“no, where are you *really* from? I mean, where are your parents from?” – a question that raises an even bigger identity crisis when one of your parents has already had his own immigrant birth story).

And even more so, those of who never felt comfortable with any one possible answer – what do you say when you are of an ethnic origin but don’t speak the language (and need a visa to get into that country), when your birth cert/passport comes from a country in which you’ve never lived, when you hesitate at the passport line in your country of residence because the “US passports/All other passports” split doesn’t really encapsulate your current situation (foreign passport, resident alien card)?

When you opened your mouth as a young child and your accent bore the imprint of yet another country (thankfully, that accent got dropped quickly, if painfully, though still every so often certain turns of phrase and pronunciations reveal hints)?

When your skin color marks you as other (even as your accent screams Midwesterner) and gives strangers leave to ask personal questions for which you have no answer (and of course, the inevitable situation of someone trying to speak to you in any one of a 1000 languages from S Asia that you do not speak)?

When college/job/scholarship/fellowship applications requested a copy of your passport to fulfill their citizenship/permission to work requirements, and then requested a copy of your naturalization certificate?

When your classmates conflated all the countries that start with the letter “M” into “Mexico (a cute artefact of childishness that somehow managed to become a long-standing “joke” even when we knew better), so now suddenly you’re from… Mexico?

When I lived and traveled in Asia, my ethnicity was of more interest than my nationality. In Taiwan, I wasn’t just American, I was Indian. In Malaysia, I was one of those emigrés – the ones who always obtained their passports from the embassy, who never actually lived there but claimed to be from there, but who suddenly caused much consternation when it came to light that I lacked a national identity card (a process that requires returning to the city of birth to apply). In India, I’m an overseas citizen/person of Indian origin, who nonetheless pays the foreigner rate at museums, national parks, and heritage sites, and who of course doesn’t speak Hindi because we’re so Americanized. In SE Asian, I was Malaysian, and visa fees were waived.

Here in Ireland, I’m American (except that time a Spaniard was convinced I am Spanish). My ethnic origin doesn’t matter so much as my accent, and even when mentioning my Indian heritage, I’m reminded “but you’re from America, right?” I don’t know if it’s because so many Americans claim to be Irish (despite never having been to Ireland, and not being able to claim an Irish ancestor from less than 3 generations ago), and the Irish in Ireland find that a little frustrating; or possibly because to much of Europe, the US is a vortex that sucks in all nationality and ethnicity and spits out a culture that seems far-removed (and yet misguidedly nostalgic) of the countries of origin of most of its immigrants.

Reflecting on identity naturally requires some navel-gazing, and everyone has their own unique issues of identity (though I certainly don’t claim to be special, and instead think that are parts of my own reflection that would resonate with many others). While anyone from America is American here, I daresay most Irish people would still claim that the Irish-born (and accented) children of Polish immigrants are Polish (because “Irish” is of course, not just natural origin but culture and genetics too, though that last opens a whole other can of worms when raised). American culture is native to America, but it is not independent of all of the immigrant pieces that make it up (as well as others – native Americans, descendants of slaves, etc), even if it is more than the sum of its parts. And yet, even while most Americans would acknowledge this, there is still a misguided dominant narrative that classes “American” as someone of European heritage, reminiscent of a culture that is not even extant in Europe today, and ignoring not only immigration from other parts of the world, but maybe more importantly, 400 years of slavery that essentially built America.

This narrative plays out in the media, entertainment, institutions, and even in the day-to-day interactions between people. And while it is easy enough for some to dismiss these crises of identity by suggesting that the response to the question of “where are you from?” should be simply “America”, I think these people fail to recognize that “American” is not so simple a term, and that many of us would love to answer that, if it weren’t for the fact that that answer is indeed questioned. When I was growing up, people who looked like me weren’t the main characters in movies and TV, we didn’t read much literature from outside the US and Western Europe (and the one piece we did read about a person of similar ethnic origin to myself was actually written by a European), we didn’t (as Machado points out her piece) talk about immigrant communities as part of history (in fact, other than some reflection on slavery and Japanese internment, the difficulty of immigrants in integrating was rarely discussed in classes). Over and over, “American” was described in a very specific way, to the point where it is not that we don’t feel like we’re American, but that we are made to feel as though we are not American. In response to the shooting at the gurdwara in WI a couple of years ago, even the President of the US referred to the Sikh community as part of the “broader American family“, a point which in fairness was probably intended to indicate that America is very mixed, but instead just reinforces this sense of “other”.

Even now, living in Ireland, I’m stumped with answering the “where am I from?” question when I travel. My accent marks me as American, my look as Indian (though in parts of Latin America, that is not always the case), but I live in Ireland and that was my airport of departure. This question is usually asked by tour guides and other travelers and not usually locals (unless you are in parts of Asia, where all manner of personal questions are asked without hesitation). bBut sometimes it’s asked (in some form) at immigration and airline counters, despite their having my passport in front of them, suggesting that a passport is really not enough to answer that question at all.

When I flew back from India recently, the person at the airline counter in Delhi perused my passport and asked me if I didn’t need a visa to enter Ireland. I said no, because I had long-term resident status, and also because US passport holders get 90-day entry visa-free. “Huh,” she said, thoughtfully as she flipped through a few more pages. And then she laughed. “So only for India, is it?”

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who are we, if we’re not our stories?

The Irish playwright Brendan Behan once noted that while everyone else has a nationality, the Irish have a psychosis. Of course, if you delve deeply enough into any culture, the level of dysfunction reveals itself quite readily, but Irish writers tend to take a no-holds-barred approach to laying open the particular madness to which Irish culture can lay claim. In some ways, it’s refreshing to see a people so matter-of-fact about societal ills and cultural trappings, while so many other people pretend theirs don’t exist.

Last week I had the opportunity to catch a play called The Walworth Farce, by writer Enda Walsh. It’s been performed a few times in the past few years, both in Ireland and the US (and elsewhere), and has always been well-received. The story revolves around a father and his two sons, originally from Cork, who live in a dingy apartment in London (on Walworth Road). As it opens, there’s a bit of confusion as to what is happening, but quickly you realize that the characters are themselves acting out stories, taking on other characters, and possibly re-enacting past events. There’s a bit of hysterical absurdity, a lot of physical slapdashery, and a sense of deeper currents; within this story of a story, there’s possibly yet another story occurring.

So some things are laid out straight – the father is Dinny and he’s nostalgic for the auld country. The elder son, Blake, seems suited to taking on the female roles in the stories they are creating/re-enacting. The younger son, Sean, seems to be the only one to leave the apartment ever, every morning as he goes to Tesco to pick up groceries (which are apparently used as props in the story-within-the-story). As the play opens, this morning, Sean seems to have picked up the wrong bag of groceries, and the next two hours follow the slow devolution of the family as cracks appear in the facade. When Hayley, the checkout clerk at the Tesco, stops by, the rollercoaster continues its freefall into both chaos and tragic and painful truth-telling.

Now take all of this raw potential and channel into one of the finest acting families in Ireland – the Gleesons. Brendan Gleeson plays the father, and his own sons play Blake and Sean. It’s not only so very meta, it’s also a casting coup, and a brilliant decision all around. They are first of all excellent actors,  but it’s discomfiting to watch a character who is violent towards his own children knowing that all of the actors are related. The whole thing is at times more real, and at times more absurd.

As an American, I’m fairly certain I missed a significant amount of the jokes, and the accents were sometimes difficult to follow as well. I’ll take the word of other viewers and critics that the play shines a critical lens on a number of issues current to Irish society – the nostalgia of the Irish abroad, dysfunctional families, money and all the troubles it brings, and many others. But one thing that really stood out for me was the fluidity of both the actors and the script in switching between the comedic and serious/tragic elements (something, I think, is well done in Irish literature). At times, the transition was so smooth that the audience was still laughing before realizing that an act of violence or a harsh comment was not part of the story being acted out, but actually occurring in “real life” for the family. Realizing this makes the production both more engaging and more disturbing.

As an aside, we saw the play on its last night. Proceeds for the show went to St Francis Hospice. We paid more for the tickets, but hospice is one of those causes where I just don’t think you can give enough. So it was an amazing opportunity to both be able to see this play and support an amazing cause.

(note: post title is a line from the play)

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The Walworth Farce

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Brendan Gleeson and his sons Domhnall and Brian performed The Walworth Farce (a play by Enda Walsh) at the Olympia Theatre recently. Beautiful theatre, intense and gripping story, brilliant and engaging acting. Picture is post-show, during announcement of raffle winner. Proceeds from the raffle and tickets that night went to St Francis Hospice.

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heart and seoul

Seoul is my city.  I could live here.  I think people do nothing but shop, eat, and hike mountains.  And work, of course. Maybe a lot more than I’d like.  But that’s just to earn money for the shopping and the eating, and the shopping required to go hiking. 

The city is plugged in and wired up, and everything is easy and comfortable and convenient.  Of everything, I think my biggest culture shock will come from trying to navigate the DC metro, after the pampering on the  Seoul subway (and I was only here for 6 days!).

The food is phenomenal.   Traditional Korean food is probably one of the world’s best cuisines, a culture that has poured its heart into the kitchen and produced some amazing culinary delights.   But modern Korean fusion is fantastic too, and the same care and vision that goes into Korean fashion and design finds its way into food too.  After a year in Mongolia, where it sometimes feels like taste is an afterthought, it’s welcoming to spend a week in a country that pampers the taste buds, along with your soul.

So of course, I ate. A lot.  And I shopped.  Not a lot, though enough.  You could spend hours exploring the cute little neighborhoods, each with their own personality, finding little stores in hideaway alleys where handmade jewelry, tea sets, and other knickknacks made by someone’s sister abound. 

I didn’t hike any mountains, though I did visit the DMZ, which deserves its own post (if only for the space required for my ramblings on foreign policy and history).   I think, as I end my travels, that I’ve hit a bit of travel fatigue.  I could continue traveling, of course, but probably can’t muster the energy to do more than eat and shop and maybe relax in the spa.  Which, really, is the perfect type of activity for Seoul.

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cute movie

This is a trailer for a cute movie coming out in April.  It’s making the rounds here, mostly because there is a Mongolian baby in it, but also because it does look like it’ll be quite interesting.

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