The Summer Cottage

"Decor tends to out-of-date calendars, mismatched crockery, paintings of bears in the forest, and lace curtains hanging in doorways to defend against mosquitoes."

 

I read this description several times, in a perfectly-timed National Geographic article about the Russian dacha, which is a fully Russian cultural element, and is basically the little plot of land where a family escapes the drudgery of their urban dwelling during the brief Russian summer. It is a place where gardens are kept, which the article points out was crucial during the days of food shortages, when people relied on these part-time homesteads as sources for food.

 

The dacha has a fascinating history, within Russian culture, as the land that was parceled out to courtiers during the reign of Peter the Great, as the gifts presented to political and cultural elites during Stalin's rule as one mechanism tool to assist in  "keeping writers under control" by keeping an eye on them in one particular neighborhood of dachas outside a city. In the modern age, the McMansion versions owned by nouveau riche Russians, called kottedzhy (cottages), are their own cultural entity, with different meaning and use entirely. And the article points to the changing larger meaning and use of these tiny summer homes, as places of refuge from stark, urban apartment buildings and the bustle of weekday life and work, rather than as pieces essential to survival, and certainly lacking finer amenities like indoor plumbing and electricity. Some full-time dacha dwellers resent the fancier interpretations of their neighbors who come in from the city.

 

I can see the resentment that might lie underneath these tiny cottages and their crop-growing plots of land, and the voices from these dachas make for perfect summer reading. Because, all cultural arguments aside, it made me fully nostalgic and absolutely homesick for the dacha of my own family and childhood.

 

"Everyone in Russia has a dacha story. It may be a trace of childhood memory like playing ball late into evening by grace of a sun that won't set, gathering pine-cones to perfume the samovar fire, or swimming in an icy pond rimmed by green spires of spruce," the article waxes.

 

My aunt and uncle have owned their tiny cottage on Moon Lake in Iron Mountain, Michigan at least as long as my lifetime. It is our automatic location for family picnics and events during the few months of summer weather they get in the Upper Peninsula of the state. A short season means that crescent-shaped Moon Lake, like those Russian bodies of water, never really gets "warm," but it is the most refreshing kind of clean, clear, deep-water northern lake, and I adore it. Various boats haven pulled me and cousins and the occasional friend behind behind it, in inter-tubes, our bodies bouncing and our hands gripped for dear life on the handles, until we give in and disappear behind the wake of our vessels. We played 'King of the Raft" on the old wooden raft my uncle constructed and anchored just offshore, sometimes with so many of us on it that it disappeared below the surface of the water, leaving us standing on the glittering blue-black top of the lake.

 

All the odds and ends of our lake days are stored inside the tiny cottage on the property, which for as long as I've known it has not had any room devoted to actual habitation. There is one bedroom, and it is filled to the ceiling with wetsuits, inter-tubes, water skiis, beach towels, extra clothing, blankets, and floating devices. Each room is filled with the kind of old furniture that has retired from full-time use in primary dwellings, and now resides in the cottage, so each is a relic of the  eras past. The whole place feels like the 1970s, underlined by the dark orange shag carpet with decades of dirt, grass, and beachy foot debris sunken in--but somehow it is still soft and comforting after the chilly outside air and water. Their are several 100-piece puzzles in tiny square boxes, the same ones have been there my entire life, and I always choose the one that is a big bowl of strawberries. This is the only one I even remember, and I loved to sit inside and let my swimsuit dry while I worked on that puzzle.

 

The best thing about these nostalgic bits of their cottage is that my aunt has changednothingsince. That carpet, the strawberry puzzle, the room full of lake supplies, the kitchen and dining room areas strewn with clutter, sale items, assorted kitchenware, piles of cases of pop (not soda, this is the U.P.), the old blow-up doll we used to dress in real clothes, even the apple cinnamon air freshener for the singular little bathroom: the same.

 

This is the place I envisioned in my mind as I read about the Russian dacha; it is the place of a thousand summer memories, of enjoying the short months of warm sunshine, a break from the winter cold. As I got older, obviously, I moved to Georgia, with its own excess of heat. But I remember one summer, when we were back visiting for a few weeks, one aunt remarked that my skin had grown considerably darker there than it was when I had arrived. The Michigan sun was just the right strength, where you can survive outside all day, laying along the dock on your old, faded towel, sitting in the swing beneath the pine trees. This time of year in Georgia, all I really want to do is sit inside, in the air conditioning. Pools are okay, as a source of cooling off, but I never was much of an ocean, saltwater girl. Give me those glorious Michigan lakes any day. And a scoop of Blue Moon ice cream, which only those from the Midwest/Wisconsin/Michigan zone will ever have tried (unless you know someone from the area, who has let you in on the secret).

 

I haven't lived in Michigan since 1998, but every year around this time, I long for the lake, a day or two or three at that cottage, k-bars and sub sandwiches and pop at the picnic table and a visit to that strawberry puzzle. To me, a little cottage on a tiny lake in Upper Michigan is the most ideal summer hideaway I can imagine. I only hope I will continue to have access to a place like that, and the means to get there every now and then. There are plenty of jet-setting locales and beautiful, cultural, otherworldly places I also want to visit, too. But there is something engrained in my being that will always hold clear, Michigan lakes and tiny, cozy cottages as special. It's a lot like the daughter who arrived at her father's dacha in the article:

 

"She travels everywhere," Boris says. "Egypt, Italy, Turkey." This time, Vladislava, who works in advertising in St. Petersburg, had gone to comfortable, orderly Switzerland. But Vladislava had had her fill of Swiss perfection. Now she longed for the familiar warmth of cobbled-together, unruly Nertsy [the dacha community where her father lives]. She sat on the deck of the family dacha and gazed at the calm, green oval of Lake Nertsy. Sunbathers stretched out on half-sunken docks splintered by winter ice. Water lilies floated like tiny yellow coronets. "Lake Geneva," she said airily. "It's just a pond."

 

This is the perfect sentiment to describe the feeling of comfort in a place like this; it goes beyond aesthetic or appearance--in fact, it is a place often filled with kitsch. But it is also a place of memory, of freedom, and of little carefree moments, added up over time.

 

What language can tell us: reflections on dying words and meaning

Two things I love to talk about have collided: National Geographic has published in their July 2012 issue a stunning 33-page spread on the crisis small languages face in a world run by business, the Internet, and a demand for global citizens to all be able to communicate across political and cultural boundaries. On my favorite podcast, we've been discussing the many crises and endangered languages for years, and all the many facets of culture and identity that are threatened by the loss of these smaller languages. Let me first say, that is a truly large amount of printed space to dedicate to this topic. Add to this, the challenge photographer Lynn Johnson faced in trying to capture the story of three dying languages in the frame of her camera, in frozen, singular images. The whole thing is brilliant. Her photos absolutely succeed in telling a complicated story of words, meaning, and meaning lost as fewer people learn these fascinating, enigmatic words and phrases.

Russ Rymer, the author of the article, has perfectly introduced this complex piece of globalization to the regular public, and then highlights three specific languages under threat: Tuvan, spoken in the Russian Federation territory Republic of Tuva; Aka, spoken in the Arunachal Pradesh state of northeastern India; and Seri, spoken in Mexico by two remaining settlements along the Gulf of California.

SERI: [ Miixöni quih zó hant ano tiij? ]: Where is your placenta buried? Caption: This is how the Seris ask, Where are you from? Those who were born before hospital births know the exact spot where their afterbirth was placed in the ground, covered in sand and ash, and topped with rocks.What we can take away from this story are some of the larger questions involved in the phenomenon, because the answers are neither obvious nor easy. Yes, it is actually quite inconvenient to have over 7,000 languages spoken on this planet, but so much is lost culturally, deep-rooted perspectives and beliefs from tiny corners of the world are slipping away, as one language dies every 14 days (as its last speaker passes away). What it comes down to is reckoning with what will remain, and what will be folded in to the larger culture. For example, people who speak Aka might also speak Hindi or Bengali, which both have millions of speakers and are holding strong in the international boxing ring, but what elements of Aka culture will never be properly translated into Hindi? Rymer writes:

Increasingly, as linguists recognize the magnitude of the modern language die-off and rush to catalog and decipher the most vulnerable tongues, they are confronting underlying questions about languages' worth and utility. Does each language have boxed up within it some irreplaceable beneficial knowledge? Are there aspects of cultures that won't survive if they are translated into a dominant language? What unexpected insights are being lost to the world with the collapse of its linguistic variety?

These are excellent, complicated questions that are brilliantly captured with actual words littered below each of Johnson's photographs. The perfection of this combination, word and definition alongside image, still astonishes me, days after first exploring this article. I keep coming back to the words. I'm having an experience with these words and images. Here is an example of the way the story plays out on the pages of the magazine:

The word accompanying this image is [tradzy]: a necklace of yellow stone beads. The Aka have more than 26 words to describe beads. Beyond being objects of adornment, beads are status symbols and currency. This toddler will get this necklace at her wedding.Not only is this a topic I already find important and fascinating, but here my favorite magazine has most exceptionally presented the real and complicated lives, stories, and meanings within threatened languages in a way that appeals to those outside the field of armchair linguistics. (Maybe, it will convert a few more to that pastime.)

One of the most important components of culture that language variation clues us into is the vast difference in worldview across linguistic borders, which widens across continents and geographic distances as well. It is something that first blew my mind as I was learning about other religions, and which continued to surprise me as I studied language as well (and is a reason I love both subjects so much).

Western civilizations, for example, have developed their cultural and mental timeline and calendars on the concept of time as linear, heading in one direction, ever forward. Hindu culture places time in a circle, curving round itself; this is why reincarnation makes much more sense within their concept of time than that of western culture and order. You're circling back on yourself, rather than moving ever onward into future time.

The Tuvan language featured in the article has its own notions of past and present that also highlight these basic, structural differences in world view:

Different languages highlight the varieties of human experience, revealing as mutable aspects of life we tend to think of as settled and universal, such as our experience of time, number, or color. In Tuva, for example, the past is always spoken of as ahead of one, and the future is behind one's back. "We could never say, I'm looking forward to doing something," a Tuvan told me. Indeed, he might say, "I'm looking forward to the day before yesterday." It makes total sense if you think about of it in a Tuvan sort of way: If the future were ahead of you, wouldn't it be in plain view?

These are the kinds of concepts and cultural traits that risk being forgotten. As anyone who spends time with words-- whether in their native tongue or another they have learned--readily knows, language is part and parcel to one's identity. Expressing emotions, dreaming, bonding with other humans all revolve around language. This is the kind of comfort and familiarity entire tribes have to lose as their language languishes against the bigger, tougher giants.

If Aka, or any language, is supplanted by a new one that's bigger and more universally useful, its death shakes the foundations of the tribe. "Aka is our identity," a villager told me one day. "Without it, we are the general public." But should the rest of the world mourn too? The question would not be an easy one to frame in Aka, which seems to lack a single term for 'world.'

Aka might suggest an answer, though, one embodied in the concept of mucrow--a regard for tradition, for long-standing knowledge, for what has come before, a conviction that the venerable and frail have something to teach the callow and strong that they would be lost without.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-conceived articles and photographic essays I've ever read in this magazine, whose journalism and photographs set the standard in the field.

These are a few of my favorite photo/word pairings from the story.

From the Tuvan langauge:

From the Aka language:

From the Seri language:

This doesn't even scratch the surface. Explore the online gallery and the print edition for more of these stunning pairs. Like this one. 

A collection [On National Geographic love, and deciding what to keep]

Since I began subscribing to National Geographic in 2004, as a  sophomore in high school, I have only paid for the issues that I get via my membership to the Society. But I acquired an enormous collection, every additional one having been gifted to me. That meant that a good friend would find a singular old copy in a thrift store and pick it up for seventy-five cents, or my Mom would buy me a few if were somewhere together where they were a decent price.

Twice it meant that a retired person was looking for a place to pass off their collection--decades of being a Society member and magazine recipient--once it had grown so massive.

I know exactly what they felt like.

Through these two sizable donations of magazines, I had a spotty collection of 1958 through about 1982 (with some years almost complete, others almost incomplete) as well as an impeccable, full-run of 1990 through 1999, packaged neatly in brown leather containers, two per year. My Mom and I trekked to Macon for that collection, answering an ad in the newspaper that anyone was welcome to the collection, no charge, if they came to get them. We drove. Add to that the years I have, uninterrupted, from 2004 to 2012.

Basically, this was a huge number, a massive group of famously dense and beautiful magazines. I had them stored for years in my parents' barn in Rubbermaid containers filled so high I could not even lift them. If I moved them, I had to solicite help from my brothers. No one tells you how unwieldy a collection can be, how cumbersome it can be to store, keep, and move giant colletions. I can see how old packrats would just never, ever move.

Well, my parents are mobile people, and we move a lot--my independent self included. In 2011, they sold their 4-bedroom home--finally empty-nesters--and downsized to a one-bedroom converted loft in an old brick building on Main Street in Dublin, Georgia, as part of their larger plan to move into the mission field in Europe.

This meant I was faced with the task that most adult children handle in the wake of their parents' deaths, weeding through everything they own to determine what you want to keep, what goes where, who gets what, and all those other, kind of difficult questions. Because we do have issues, as humans, with the stuff we have, the things we keep, the things we carry.

Do you keep the dolls you played with, so that in a decade or more your own daughter can play with them? That's a long time to keep dolls for an eventual purpose. Will your daughter even care to play with them? They take up a lot of space. (They are American Girl dolls, and yes, I kept them. They occupy a stuffed Rubbermaid in my coat closet now.)

What about sweaters hand-knitted by your grandmother? Dishes, quilts, paintings, the Christmas ornaments we made as kids, which are basically old faded construction paper and popsicle sticks, glue peeling off ... you can only say its sentimental so many times, before you are inundated with too much stuff. We had some difficult sessions. And my Mom kept those old Christmas ornaments, just some of the best ones that were still in mostly one piece, in a separate container with the Christmas stuff.

Anyway, I got rid of a huge amount of my National Geographic collection. There were just too many. I kept a few dozen of my favorites from the 1958 to 1982 collection, and then all of the 1990 - 1999 and 2004 to present collections. This is still, probably, far too many for me to have. But I'll see to that when I need to.

They went to a good home, a center that helps children in Dublin. They were certainly not fit for the trash, with so much knowledge, culture, history, science, perspective on the world, and beautiful, classic photography. I get nostalgic, but then I remember how many I can still see in my house right now. I guess that's why my tattoo is an homage to that yellow-bordered magazine, that opened up my high-school, teenage perspective to the world, deciding what my goals would be in life.

 

A new Chernobyl

Photographer David Guttenfelder recently won a World Press Photo Award for his work, for National Geographic, on the deserted town of Namie, Japan--which lies within a 12-mile radius of the site of last year's nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. His photographs were some of the most stark and significant images I had seen all year in the magazine--a publication whose lifeblood is excellent photography. Certainly his work, risking his health amid the radiation-affected areas he traversed to collect these images to share with us, deserves such accolades. It also reminds me, yet again, why I love the magazine and the organization, and why I only hurt myself when I let my subscription relapse. (Yes, I'm experiencing withdrawal symptoms today. I haven't had a new issue in almost three months.)

My favorite image of his entire series (there are many more images) is the one of the makeshift rooms in refugee sites like the Big Palette convention center, taken from above. Every time I look at it, I consider each item, the composition of each tiny space, and marvel at how little we need, and what things we keep, replace, buy, borrow, use, throw away. What things would be in my space if I was a refugee? How much of this would be things I was even able to take with me? I am humbled once again by how much those affected by the March 11 earthquake and subsequent trauma have endured and how gracefully they have handled immense tragedy and loss. We do grow so attached to places, to spaces. 

I have provided the original captions for these photos as they appear in the print issue.

 

[Update}: I just watched this extraordinary documentary from the BBC, on the 3/11 events told from the perspective of children who were/are the victims.

BBC report

Cities. And earth. And living rooms in Seoul.

"It starts with looking at growing cities in a positive way--not as diseases, but as concentrations of human energy to be organized and tapped."

 

This series of photos accompanies the article I mention here, on urban living and the future of the planet. They are photographs of families in Seoul, South Korea, in their identical 150-square-foot living room spaces in the Evergreen Tower highrise. Of Seoul's 24 million people, more than half live in highrises. Many consider them safer and a better investment for families than single-family dwellings. They are also vastly more energy efficient. Photos by Yeondoo Jung for National Geographic

 Last weekend I watched Contagion, a recent Hollywood rendition of what would happen to the planet and its people if there was a massive, contagious disease that wreaked devastation and death, spreading so quickly and aggressively that its MO was "figuring us out faster than we can figure it out." Characters race against time in the film, doctors at the CDC (including Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard), and other health institutes around the world, traveling and researching to find out what caused this outbreak and how to solve it, immunize against it.

And what do we learn about humanity? We are not nearly as orderly and respective to each other during crisis as the model Japanese refugees were during last year's triple-crisis earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. In fact, we panic, we flee, we become violent and kill each other to find food, to secure our own families. The scenes that play out as the epidemic spreads (and as fear spreads even more quickly) are terrifying and thought-provoking. What if this actually happened? Would many of us fall not by the hand of the disease that threatens, but by the hands of our own neighbors, in the spirit of the outrageous moment in which we find ourselves?

It's not Oscar-worthy, per se, but I found the theoretical situation enthralling--precisely because it was also horrifying. I would not want to live through this kind of awful moment for humanity. Us at our very worst.

It also made me think about the structure of our world, and a recent article in National Geographic about the future of our planet, and how cities can save us. I agree wholeheartedly, that, rather than the festering dirty urban spaces they have often been perceived as (and actualized as) in history, cities offer us a sustainable option for the survival of seven billion people (and an estimated nine billion by 2050), as people living in cities tread lightly on the earth: "Their roads, sewers, and power lines are shorter. Their apartments take less energy to heat and cool. Most important: they drive less." Denser populations in cities have the added effect of lessening our use of remaining green space, forests, and natural areas and reservations. Humans and the earth alike need these green spaces an essential survival components--for our human psyche, and for the earth, literal survival.

As cities become more and more the agent of our sustainable survival, they should not all expand as Atlanta did. Sprawl and the massive expansion of suburbs have not helped or lowered our dependency on large amounts of energy. James Howard Kunstler, a critic of suburbia, called Atlanta "a pulsating slime mold," a quotation that did manage to be included in the Nat Geo article, luckily for us Atlantans. But Atlanta is a perfect example of terrible teamwork among metropolitan counties, who could not agree on a transit system that stretched throughout the area, and so we are heavily, begrudgingly, seemingly irreversibly dependent on our clogged highways.

Theorists have had ideas and arguments for and against how we should design our cities for hundreds of years. Greenbelts surrounding cities were one proposed plan for stopping city growth, when it was perceived that urban centers that were too big would eat up all remaining space outside their centers. But as this set definitive borders to what would be considered the city, "greenbelts had the effect of pushing people farther out, sometimes absurdly far," says Peter Hall in the article, a planner and historian at University College London.

Brisilia, the planned capital of Brazil, was designed for 500,000 people; two million more now live beyond the lake and park that were supposed to block the city's expansion. When you  try to stop urban growth, it seems, you just amplify sprawl.

...Other government policies, such as subsidies for highways and home ownership, have [also] coaxed the suburbs outward.

The argument then, and the solution as well, is that you don't try to stop city growth. You try to stop the suburban sprawl, and have your citizens living closer to where they work and play. What has been happening with more and more use and dependency on oil to fuel our cars and big, suburban houses in the United States is happening on an ever-greater level as China and India develop, and their citizens want the same ideas of the affluent, consumer life. As this trend quickens its pace, a solution becomes more important than ever. History has not always favored the teeming urban center. It has been seen as corrupting of the mind, dirty, disease-ridden, and a slew of other things. Which are valid claims, especially, rightfully, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But there's a valid twenty-first century reevaluation and outlook:

Developing cities will inevitably expand, says [Shlomo Angel, an urban planning professor at New York University and Princeton]. Somewhere between the anarchy that prevails in many today and the utopianism that has often characterized urban planning lies a modest kind of planning that could make a big difference. It requires looking ahead decades, Angel says, and reserving land, before the city grows over it, for parks and a dense grid of public transit corridors. It starts with looking at growing cities in a positive way--not as diseases, but as concentrations of human energy to be organized and tapped. 

So we need to begin thinking about our cities as our saviors, and thinking about it seriously, even if, as I began this cheery post, we also risk the same things that have always been risky about cities: we're all really close together, sharing buses, subways, hallways, all manner of public spaces. An event like the one in Contagion isn't impossible, and cities are not the best places to stay if that did occur, as I was brutally reminded during the film. But Hollywood has not convinced me that the argument for cities isn't worth our investment of time, thought, money, and lifestyle.

I hope you enjoy peeking into these Seoul living rooms as much as I did. It was one of my favorite series of photographs to ever appear in the magazine. There's something so universal about our living spaces. 

Among reindeer

This week I have finally been able to open my October and November issues of National Geographic and I was awestruck by the November story on the Sami people of northern Sweden. Their wardrobe and striking faces radiate against the harsh landscape of the region where they live--blanketed all in white snow. Even the reindeer they keep lend themselves to the grey and white backdrop.

They are a fascinating group, and the photographer who has been living among them for the last few years captured them spectacularly. I had just been pondering not renewing my subscription, as a glanced over an archeological dig and ancient treasure story, and then flipped to this story, just after it. That always happens. The stunning cultural pieces remind me why I always find something worthwhile in the pages. I just skip the ancient treasure stories. See the photo gallery here.

"Come see Tribes of Genuine Ubangi Savages: From Africa's Darkest Depths!" and how National Geographic is like the circus

The boobies in National Geographic have always bothered me. The magazine's founding creed is based on "the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge," and has certainly aimed to share the world with its readers since the National Geographic Society was founded in 1888. (Its more recognized creed is to share "the world and all that is in it.") The magazine is a cultural icon whose logo is widely recognized, and the organization has expanded to include the television channel, magazines specifically for travelers and children, and a film production company, in addition to the society-funded projects by scientists and explorers that it has supported for decades.

But in many popular culture references, what people associate with the magazine are tribal women, scantily clad in natural clothing, with sagging breasts fully exposed. It is nudity, meaning people tend to look closely out of a combination of fascination with the human body and intrigue over this person so unlike ourselves. What has bothered me for years, ever since I began to read the magazine regularly and every time I have a conversation about the organization's work, is that most people don't even know the immense diversity in the reporting that is published in NGM. I remember a conversation with one of my classmates several years ago: when I told her I thought it would be an awesome job to write for the magazine, she advised me to learn "some African languages, like South African [Afrikaans]," so that I would be prepared for the kinds of assignments they fund. Beyond the obvious ignorance in thinking that this is the most important region or language in Africa, it infuriated me that this is still the perception of the publication.

The documentary film that accompanies the book Guns, Germs, and Steel is another educational victim of this exposure. I've had to watch it in two different classes (one a sociology and the other a historiography class), and both times I have been driven nearly mad by the amount of time in which Papua New Guinean women are chopping trees, breasts flopping all about. It distracts the viewer from the narration in the film, since it is such a cultural difference that it is still foreign and somewhat strange to watch these women do their daily work, enough so that it comes across as a distasteful amount of female nudity-- even if they are foreign to us, and in their natural environment.

And this week I had a significant revelation about these boobies, these irksome stays of cultural difference. For one of my classes, we read The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, and it is worth buying for the historical images of circus advertisements and performers alone; however, it is also an amazing exploration of the societal underpinnings that were both reinforced and challenged by the rise (and then decline) of the Circus Age--including gender norms for men and women, human-animal relationships, industrialization and the railroads, and--most critically--imperialism and the creation of an American (read: white) identity.

You cannot talk about the circus in history without facing the sideshow tendency of finding "weird," "Oriental" and "savage" men and women to put on display, for the very fact that they had distinct physical or ethnic differences. The author, Janet Davis, actually has a background in South Asian studies, and is familiar (to my delight!) with Edward Said's theory of Orientalism (click that link, please--it's a video), which argues the simple point that they way we acquire knowledge about other people and cultures is not objective and is the result of larger realms of influence--like political or national interests, for example. We assume things about people in a certain country or region without ever having been there, or indeed, perhaps never having met anyone from there. Whole cultural identities can be created from several bits of information or by the skin color or appearance of a foreign person, and this built up notion of the "Other" has its foundations in an unconscious formation of "Us" as well. (I spent time with these theories while studying South Asia and India in particular-- see this post.)

This is the most important part of Davis's work on the circus to me, as the danger of putting "Oriental girls" on display, or making a showcase of the African women who practice the custom of stretching their necks, is that we "essentialize" entire cultures and civilizations into the one or two strange or mystifying things we know about them--and rarely are these representative of the larger culture. "Chinese people eat dogs": essentializing. "Hindu women are sexually overt": essentializing. "Muslims are religious fundamentalists": essentializing. Even the clothing worn by other people is enough to create an essentialized version of India, or of Vietnam, or Sudan. It blocks our ability to see beyond any of these sometimes obscure, usually misinformed "traits."

Never had I put the two things together: "native" breasts and Orientalism. Never, and it seems so obvious now, had I thought about the fact that the National Geographic Society began its study of the world in 1888, during the very era when Americans were embracing the notion of the "white man's burden," that the world was full of savages who, through a "proper" education could be "civilized" and made (willingly, of course) into modern men and women, like those in the United States. But the Society was very much a product of this larger interest in all that is foreign and curious outside our borders.

Just like the circus shows, National Geographic used the appearance of foreign--often tribal--women as spectacles for the expanding American consumer society. From Davis's book:

World's fair organizers, the publishers of National Geographic, and circus impresarios alike used nonwhite women's bodies to make educational claims. Racial "color" defined the degree of nudity that was deemed appropriate for display. National Geographic, for one, in 1896 first published photographs of bare-breasted black women. Euroamericans easily accepted such photographs of women of color as edifying, while topless white women were found only at seedy carnival cooch shows and nascent strip joints ... National Geographic first photographed topless white women in the 1980s--and then only from behind! (92-93)

I turned to my own copy of the tiny book of NG Society history that I purchased at their store back in '07 during a visit to Washington, D.C., and low and behold, there was the picture, from November 1896, of a Zulu bride and groom on their wedding day, the bride with fully-exposed breasts. The caption reads: "Flouting prudish conventions of the day, National Geographic dared to publish photos of cultures 'as they are.'"

I am not condemning the National Geographic Society and its efforts towards the "diffusion of geographic knowledge." While not perfect, it has also allowed millions of readers to experience a world beyond their armchair that they never would have seen otherwise; curiosity continues to draw readers, like myself, and has been a vital part of its success. So I am not denouncing its merit, nor will I cancel my subscription. I am simply finding an answer, in the social norms of the era of its inception--as well as the normative values that have continued through the twentieth century--to the question of the tribal boobies that have haunted my relationship with this piece of American popular media over the last seven-or-so years. The editors' decision to publish Zulu nudity was as much influenced by their desire to break social norms and push the envelope as it was by the desire to spread knowledge and educate their readers. But their decision was also fueled by the up-and-coming position of Americans in a world that was suddenly shrinking, where elephants might pass by your home as the circus came to town, and everyday families were faced with "Tribes of Genuine Ubangi Savages: From Africa's Darkest Depths" and "Oriental India: Living Groups of Strange and Curious People" and "The Most Startling Discovery of the Century: Princess Mu Kaun, Royal Padaung Giraffe-Neck Woman from Burma."

In a very significant way, topless tribal women in the magazine are still part educational, part human of "Other" who we gawk at. The way our world has continued to shrink, such groups are no longer as strange to our eyes, nor as numerous in disbursement, as the modernized world has crept into these civilizations, for better or worse. The point we've reached now, the publication's leaders will have to make a decision soon about whether it is the color of the skin that permits them to publish breasts; that is, if tribal people can be published topless because it is educational, at what point is the line drawn? Many women who look very like those in the pages of the magazine live in the modern world, yet at what point do they become modern enough to be removed from the "educational" list? It is not that I am a prude; rather, it bothers me that outdated essentialized views of permissible nudity have continued to be the standard long after racist ideologies of nationality have been condemned for their ignorance--at least on the surface. Those Papua New Guinean women are still considered foreign enough, and in their natural atmosphere, to fare on the side of education. But both times I've watched the documentary, I didn't agree.

On travelogues, and the winding road to ending up where you intended

There was a time, several years ago, when I rarely left the travel essay section of a bookstore. I suspect it began around the time I starting subscribing to National Geographic, and I discovered the art of writing about travel. Reporting on what you ate every day or which monuments you visited is not of value to anyone but yourself really, but telling a story--perhaps the story of a place, or person, or group of people, added depth to your own experience and created a product you could present to others. This is what the journalists who report on culture and history do in that magazine, combining things we inherently find exciting with stories and movements in the modern day that we would not otherwise know about; indeed, this is what makes all great journalism. But somehow this magazine does it best. (Oh and, they occasionally have pretty pictures alongside the stories. Only the most enigmatic produced by any news outlet in the world. That helps too.) I was hooked.

I felt a rush knowing that there are people whose job this is. There are people who get sent off to report on what's happening in some country or another. Sometimes these people wrote other things, and they usually wound up in the "travel essays" section of any bookstore; so that's where I wound up as well, for about two years. I read maybe a dozen or two of the books on those shelves, not picky about where they took me: France, Vietnam, the Inca Road, India, China, Indonesia, Russia, Cuba. After that though, I began to notice that there were hardly any new books added; the section hardly changed at all, month after month. Not only did I have it memorized, I think I still recognize many of the authors and titles just the same today. The shelf was sufficiently exhausted--it's not a very large section, after all. And beyond the titles I'd already read, the rest kind of bored me: not enough adventure or history, too much "we went here, then here" kind of writing. Or, in fact, too much history or adventure; the trick with good travel writing lies in the perfect balance between all three parts.

This is exactly around the time I was beginning to realize I hated being a Spanish major in college, and that I did not love learning Spanish. (I want to learn it, and intend to pick it up again, but to devote thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours and earn my degree in it overwhelmingly seemed like a bad choice for me.) And my reading interests were forced beyond the travel section. Towards history, and the same wondrous exploration of the world, but through a different outlet and with a few more analytical, argumentative, and research skills.

Travelogues are plagued with weak writing and sometimes less than accurate historical information and context; however, some of the very best travelogues I've read were written by people who also happen to be historians. (One is Rory Stewart.) It's funny how I saw that elusive job--vaguely that of a person who knows a few things and took a trip and wrote about what they saw there, and then turn that into either an article, a book, or both--and then took several direction changes in my interests, studies, and career path, and wound up arguably in a better position to someday write that article or travelogue than I ever would have achieved trying to "make it as a writer." Looking at it from this end, the things that intrigued me most about cultural diversity, interaction across cultures, linguistics, history, fashion and textiles, political issues, and geography are all still there, and are far more useful to me now than I could have conceived when I first sat on the floor in the corner of a bookstore and read a Karin Muller book.

Steve McCurry's Kodachrome career, and legacy

You may not recognize the name Steve McCurry, but I bet you have a vivid memory of this photo, and maybe a vague notion of the story behind it. McCurry has made a career out of photographing the world's faces, many of which have appeared on the pages of National Geographic over the years. The Afghan girl's eyes are what struck McCurry, and subsequently, the people who picked up the June 1985 issue.

In 2002, the saga of this young woman and the mystery and enchantment she beset upon McCurry continued, when he finally found her again--seventeen difficult years later. I remember reading that story, and the fact that the first picture he took of her was the first time she'd ever seen a camera; when he found her again, it was the second time her photo had been taken. In rural Afghanistan, traditional customs still rule, and McCurry was allowed unusual access to this woman--now married with several children.

What I didn't realize until now is that McCurry's photographs are known for their very saturated color, an effect which he gets by using Kodachrome. I have sen hundreds of his portraits, of people across cultures, and never knew what was behind this rich and fascinating quality.

Kodachrome was discontinued last year, and the company gave the very last roll to McCurry. He's currently working on taking the last 36 shots with this film, and taking his time to ensure each one will live up to the responsibility he has been given. (There's only one place in the country that even develops them, in Parsons, Kansas.) Based on the book of his portraits, and his lifetime of vision, creativity, and global exposure, he's got a proven set of eyes.

A hybrid port city on the coast of China: Shanghai, good and bad

Rev. Young John Allen, the man I spent last semester studying, was a foreigner living in Shanghai in the second half of the nineteenth century. In his day, the city was the only port open to the outside, although more would open as time went on. It was through Shanghai, then, that the world's collection of people came to see and trade with China, creating the "hybrid that confounds the very idea of East and West," as Brook Larmer writes in "Shanghai Dreams," in this month's National Geographic.

I felt that hybridity when I stayed there. I had been in other far more Chinese cities for nearly two months, and by the time I arrived in Shanghai at the end of my journey, it almost felt like I had already landed back in the West: Raisin Bran was for sale in the grocer's, stores accepted credit cards, and there was an H&M. My hotel charged inordinate daily prices on wifi, which I found insulting given the amount I had been paying in other dormitories and hotels across the country.

As the meeting place between East and West though, Shanghai is not the sell-out I considered it when I arrived three years ago coming off a wave of what I then saw as "real China"--the interior cities and Beijing. For the other places were certainly modern, and had their western influences, and contained millions of people, years of history, and Chinese culture in each of them. But they seemed to me to contain something less obstructed by the outside than Shanghai. But that is not the right way to approach it.

In this city, when immigrants were coming, like Young J. Allen, from abroad, they were bringing to the city their own background, creating something altogether unlike the rest of China, and which would forever alter its make-up. It is an oft-seen geographical trend, a city growing into something quite unlike its surroundings, as New York City is entirely separate in culture from its New York state, and is a place quite its own compared to the United States. The "exotic stew of British bankers and Russian dancing girls, American missionaries and French socialites, Jewish refugees and turbaned Sikh security guards" that Larmer describes all contributed quite disparate pieces of a larger patchwork that would become its own Babylon. But atop these imports was the huge amount of Chinese migrants joining the mixture in the city; everyone contributed to what has since been dubbed haipai (Shanghai style).

Initially I dismissed Shanghai for some of those very reasons, that intermingling of a century of foreign visitors with Shanghai natives and migrant workers, combined with the struggle the city faced during the crack-down on culture and foreign influences during the communist era-- I found it translated into pseudo-Chinese buildings that had obviously been constructed within the last ten years and street markets that catered almost entirely to tourists and visitors seeking Chinese intrigue. But looking at this in a positive light, the city really does stand alone against the country in which it lies, even given its tourist facade and foreign cereals.

Young J. Allen spent his entire adult life working towards educating Chinese citizens in and around Shanghai about western ideas and religion. He used the schools he built, the sermons he preached, and the journals he published as outlets for this goal, and earned respect and criticisms throughout his life for these methods. He was a missionary, after all, and most Chinese were not receptive to his Christian message at the time. Today, however, Jinlin Church in Shanghai stands in his honor. When rethinking the city, Allen's mission contributed to the Shanghai of today. There is valuable culture in each layer that has been added to the port city's personality.

Shanghai resident Shen Hongfei, interviewed in Larmer's story, may have hit the nail on the head: "We're always accused of worshiping foreigners. But taking foreign ideas and making them our own has made us the most advanced place in China." Allen may have felt frustrated trying to spread his message in his Shanghai, but the citizens living there were equally frustrated by the pushy foreigners. And coming from that exchange is a city culture all its own, blending some of those imported ideas with Confucian ones, every side compromising a little to create the place we know today.