10 October 2011


An unintended shortcoming of my overseas semesters, vacations and internships, which throws life at home into relief, is the continued centrism: for  as I pass from one adventure to the next, I punctuate each with time in the United States. I studied in Sweden returned to the US. I studied in Canada returned to the US. I've traveled in Central America, returned to the US; traveled in Europe, returned to the US. I've interned in Taiwan, returned to the US. Throughout my varied explorations, I've always returned home for months before embarking on then next one. While I've noticed the differences between these places and America, such as Sweden's rectangular "squares" of toilet paper and welfare state more generous than America's, the same cultural snippets can be observed about every other European nation. While I see the stark differences between Nicaragua and the US and Taiwan and the US, what can be said about Nicaragua vs Taiwan? When I contrast American life, the baseline, the nuanced differences between other nations is easily lost. Translating Spanish to English to Mandarin or translating Swedish to English to French causes a loss of vibrancy that would be preserved if the English middleman was removed.

Although I didn't intend, the world I've seen these last 4 months, has been colored less than usual by my Americanism. Passing from southwest Europe directly to Afghanistan and then the United Arab Emirates and Oman and lastly on to Catalonia, I've inevitably had a different collective observation than had I done separate trips to these places.

In Afghanistan, as a staunch supporter of liberal democracy, I did what every Westerner does: I questioned how democracy could be best implemented. Though after spending time in the Emirates and Oman, I had to ask otherwise. Observably peaceful and organized, and largely untouched by the Arab Spring, these autocratic nations have navigated a history of tribalism while modernizing. Preserving their legacy of hereditary power--respectively ruled by a Sheikh and a Sultan--these leaders have respected human rights, responsibly managed oil wealth (notably absent in 3 of 7 of the Emirates and only moderate in Oman) and turned fishing villages into well-trimmed metropolises. Undoubtedly resource wealth has played a role in these countries development, but that is not the final story. Afghanistan too with tribal history, similar resource largess (both Western aid money and mineral wealth), could benefit from another viewpoint than Western democracy promoters.

And then on to Catalonia, where things are nicely European. (Still rectangular squares of TP and a welfare state where healthcare is free.) But in contrast to the Emirates, Barcelona's charm is more an anachronism: The metro isn't tiled or air conditioned, the sidewalks are brown in places and the people rarely speak English. Though so too the annoyances I spotted last time fade into nothingness. Where I previously felt that Barcelona found the car more important than the pedestrian, in contrast to Dubai, Barcelona did not have a 14-lane highway flanked by 4-lane access roads on either side, running through the city center. And Barcelona's annoying intersections that are tedious to cross? At least I could walk the city without being stymied by odd dead ends and weird 20-foot drops, spandrels of a city where skyscrapers, parking garages and highway on-ramps, creates a super-human jungle gym.

And now in the Catalon countryside, I can't help but notice the parallel between these medieval villages, with streets so narrow only the compactest of European vehicles can squeeze down one-way streets, and the slums of Afghanistan where life perches on mountainside besides donkey tracks that I suppose in 20 years could be paved--with similar compact cars squeezing between homes.

Anyway, occasionally inspired to write, I'd rather spend the the greater part of my time enjoying. Though understand, I am looking at writing for money or magazine.

And while I send these messages out unsolicited, I would like to solicit some feedback based on what you've been seeing the last 4 months. Does my writing at time seem over worked? Too literary? Too boring? I feel I'm improving but some direct feedback other than my own or Spring's is needed.

Thanks in advance for your comments,


Anonymous said...

I would say that your writing might be a little too broad. I get that you would like to speak to a general audience but your best writing is when you write about what you know and your individual perspective. The dating in Afghanistan entry was probably the most real entry as of late and it's because it seemed to be more most honest and grounded. There were no lofty ideas or generalized opinions on foreign policy [at least not apparent].

Try to envision writing to 'yourself' but maybe without the traveling or your education. If your clone is out there with the same curiosity but without the same exposure or access to opportunity, what would he like to read? Just address him and he will read along with many others.

Also don't be afraid to piss people off. Not to be salacious. But to be honest. Personally, I think lots of people are over the incessantly politically correct blog. If you have a thought that might not be popular, don't edit it.

Anda said...

Insightful encouragement. Exactly what I'm looking for. Thanks.

Rereading this entry weeks after I wrote it, I found these words a bit divorced from what I was thinking at the time. Clarity was lost as I wrote not for me, but for "people out there". Or maybe I tackled something overly broad. I didn't feel this way at the time, but this entry needs a re-writing. (I also noticed a subjunctive tense error.)

And I do feel same tension between expository writing for a general audience (how I started in 2008) and the direction which is, as you describe, what I know best. Though I'm still wedded to the idea of Anda the strategic thinker and politician. I want to have something to say for the pages of Foreign Affairs magazine.

After getting hammered on dating in Afghanistan, I backed off. But I enjoyed writing that the most and in my gut, I think it better.

And after reading stuff like this: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/07/the-only-america-theyve-ever-known/ it's the personal aspect that is most exciting.

I'll keep at it, great feedback.

Anonymous said...

That was an excellent article and a perfect example of where you could go with this blog.

When you [anyone] writes about the dirt under their shoes, the key is to not be overly sentimental or nostalgic. Scranton achieves that beautifully in that article. To get anywhere near the status of a good or accomplished [that's relative of course] writer, you will need people to tell you how much your writing stinks and why. If you are in Europe, try to find some cafes or small bookstores where they might have a writer's circle every so often. And politely bow out as soon as you can if what you find consists of a circle of people praising each other. That is more prevalent in the US but I am sure you could come across it over there too.