Category Archives: travel

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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County Kerry

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dark magic

ImageCoffee is one of my favorite things in the world. When I was in college, and young and stupid, I used coffee for its caffeine, which gave me the fortitude to pull all-nighters and write ridiculous papers in Spanish. As I got older, I fell in love with the sweet and creamy beverages at Starbucks, adulterating my coffee with sugar, cream, syrup, “flavor”, and whatever else they had on offer. To be fair, if you’ve ever had an actual cup of Starbucks coffee, you’ll understand the need to hide in amongst all the fluff. But Starbucks, not unlike the tobacco industry, has managed to create a brew that nearly doubles the traditional dosage of caffeine in a cup of coffee and in the process created a new generation of supposed “coffee-lovers”. Continue reading

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biodiversidad

SONY DSCWhile in Cali, Colombia, I had the opportunity to spend the day at the zoo. Normally, that’s not my idea of how to spend the day while vacationing in another country, but much has been said about the zoo in Cali. While it’s not on par with San Diego and the like, I found it very interesting. One of the main draws is the focus on Colombian wildlife – sort of a catalog of the local flora and fauna. Colombia has an incredible biodiversity, and its recent history of violence and conflict has, for better or worse, provided an opportunity to preserve some of that. And more recently a number of foundations have cropped up to address social and environmental issues (though, one must be wonder where some of those foundations have come from…). Continue reading

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realismo magico

Santiago de Cali

Santiago de Cali

Despite an incredible backlog of posts here for my life in Ireland, I’m interrupting the daily grind to bring news from Colombia, la tierra de realismo magico. I’ve been in Colombia almost a week, initially for a meeting and now just for fun. I’ve been in Cali, where I’ve had some incredible experiences and met great people, and in another day I’ll head to Bogota and then places beyond.

Colombia gets a bad rep. Everyone thinks it’s funny (or maybe they are being serious) to say “don’t get kidnapped” upon hearing I was traveling here. Years ago, that might have been some good advice (we’ve all seen “Romancing the Stone”). These days, though, unless you head into some really remote areas (generally to the south), you’ll be fairly safe, at least from terrorism. Regular crime (muggings, mostly) are a completely different matter. Continue reading

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a lot can happen in a year

I have to get the hang of this posting frequently business.  I thought that I would be lazy on blogging because I had nothing to say.  It turns out, the busier you are and the more you do things, the less often you blog.  I’m not sure if it is because of the time commitment, the attention span, or something else.

A lot has happened since the last post, and since before then too.  In fact, a lot has happened in the past year, which lends credence to the whole “a lot can happen in a year” cliche.  Because, you know, it’s so true.   Let me serve as an example.

This time last year, I was sitting on a beach in Kerala thinking about which book I wanted to read next and whether I’d wake up early enough for morning yoga.  I had a “routine” of sorts: wake up, maybe take yoga, grab a late breakfast (kerala coffee, whole wheat toast with pb, maybe fruit and yogurt, or even an omelette), sit on a terrace, watch the ocean, check some email, window shop, dip my toes in the water, take another yoga class, rinse, repeat.  On March 2nd, I left India for Malaysia, where I spent 3 weeks in Borneo pretty much doing the same thing (minus the yoga, plus more alcohol).

That was my life, basically until late May.  I did return to the US in early April, but, with no job as yet, I headed back to Asia for a couple more weeks – a last hurrah maybe – before finally returning and settling into the 9-5.  And so, right around Memorial Day weekend, I started a job, which, for the second half of 2010, basically consumed my life.

But it wasn’t the only thing – the end of the year was also marked with the entry into a yoga teacher training program, which proceeded to eat up any leftover free time I had (after work sucked most of it).  What a change from counting coconuts in palm trees from the second floor terrace of a beachside hotel.

The beginning of 2011 saw the end of teacher training, which I suppose means I am now a yoga teacher.  It also saw more long work hours, and in a few days, will see the move back into a permanent home of sorts.

And I’m leaving out a couple of trips to Ireland, two other moves, and a gym membership that I definitely do not make the most of…

So, in a year I went from wandering aimlessly for several months around Asia, to taking on an important and intensive work committment, to moving and moving again, to starting and completing yoga teacher training, to the beginning of a nest.

A lot certainly can happen in a year.

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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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decadence

And, in direct opposition to the previous post, here’s a little shout-out to decadence.   Brunei isn’t tops on most people’s travel lists.   It’s a small country, there’s no alcohol, and it’s a bit expensive to get to and be in.  Unless, of course, you are already in Borneo and the border lies only an hour or so away.

So to Brunei, I went.  And stayed at what is probably the nicest place I’ve ever been in.  It wasn’t phenomenol by today’s standards – I imagine most swanky hotels in Dubai would blow it away.  But for a 25-year-old hotel, it still manages to awe, and holds a charm that modern hotels have yet still to earn. 

The hotel is the Empire, and it hearkens back to a nonexistent colonial era.  It’s thoroughly European (as this American would picture it), but with a distinct Asian flare.   The service is impeccable, the decor is gold-plated and ivory, and the rooms are furnished in an outdated whimsy that somehow manages to charm, despite being distinctly unstylish.  It helps of course, that the bathroom is the size of a small apartment, the balconies face the ocean, and the pool is a lagoon, complete with white sand covering all 11000 sq m of the floor.  Stunning is an understatement.

But the sultan’s brother didn’t stop there;  the hotel also boasts several shops, 5-6 restaurants, water sports rental (for kayaking in the aforementioned lagoon), 2 private beaches, 2 lookout points, a full golf course, spa, and probably a bit more.  It’s a miniature city, and is it any wonder I never actually got to see the rest of Brunei?

Not entirely true – I did see some oil rigs, and Shell Oil-owned homes.  But the highlight, of course, is the Empire.

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the ripple effect

I think until you travel, you never really know how the little things you do can have such an effect on others.   In Borneo, I got a stark reminder of that.   Do you know what palm oil is?  Most people don’t.  But it’s an ingredient found in a lot of processed food, in its refined form.  It has little nutritional value, and might even promote high levels of unhealthy of bad cholesterol.

Pure palm oil isn’t bad, of course.   It’s high in beta-carotene, and many other vitamins.  It has a high smoking point, and when sustainably harvested can be a significant source of income for small shareholder farmers. 

But since when do we (by that I tend to mean, Americans) like to leave a good thing alone?  Instead, we’ve mass-produced palm oil and turned it into a lucrative commodity, refining it down to the point where it adds a requisite texture to processed foods…. and not much in the way of nutritional value.   Not to mention, the social and environmental impact – farmers selling their valuable (to themselves and to the global community) tropical forest land for palm oil companies to grow sterile unpretty tracts of palm trees. 

The reminder is glaring in Borneo.   As you drive deeper into the rainforest, you see rows and rows of palm trees, neatly lined up and clearly artificial, devoid of life and a major disappointment for those of us who are keen to see a bit of mother nature at her most turbulently beautiful.   You see palm fruit lying on the ground.  Perfectly manicured palm fronds swaying in the breeze.  But no undergrowth.  No birds. No monkeys.  No elephants.  In sum, no jungle at all, but a massive commercial farm like you’d see in Iowa or Ohio, but with a slightly more exotic plant. 

When you do see jungle, it’s astonishing in its savage finery.  Riots of green, ropey vines, mixed vegetation, a dozen or so birdcalls, and occaisonal flashes of hands? feet? tails? trunks?  Something is visible amidst the dense growth of flora that has grown unchecked and unchanged for eons.   But sadly, this true forest is dwindling swiftly, and more and more of the jungle of Borneo (particuarly along the large rivers) is losing ground to commercial greed, for which we all share a little bit of blame.

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