This past week, I traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to renew my non-immigrant visa at the Royal Thai Embassy. While there, I had a chance to visit with some friends and also to stop at the Islamic Arts Museum, something that has been on my to-see list since I first went to KL a few years ago.
The Islamic Arts Museum is located in a large park not far from the central train station. It is surrounded by expressways, though, making it very difficult to reach on foot. The museum is just up the street from the National Mosque, a beautiful blue-roofed complex that is worth a visit.
The collection is not as well-curated as I had hoped, although it covers a diverse range of subjects from architecture to textiles, ceramics to metals. Also, the collection represents all the major cultures in the Islamic world from Africa to the Middle East to India to Southeast and East Asia. Here is a selection of some of the pieces I saw.
There was a large selection of beautiful Quran. This book is the central religious text for Muslims and there is a wonderful tradition of hand-painting copies of the text, complete with exquisite illustrations, calligraphy, and gold-leaf decorations.
The exhibit also explained the different fonts of calligraphy – Arabic and otherwise – used in the displayed Quran. The scripts are beautiful, written from right to left, some highly stylized and others with more distinct characters.
There were many examples of fine metal working, especially silver. My understanding is that Islamic art generally avoids representations of humans or animals and so there is a lot of emphasis on geometric patterns (which represent the perfection of creation) and floral patterns.
There were many ceramic pieces. Blue seems to be a popular color and this turquoise glazed three-legged pot was practically glowing, the color was so vibrant. If you look closely (sorry, hard to see clearly through the glass), there is stylized calligraphic script around the top band of the pot.
This example of cloisonné, metalwork decorated with enamel. Very fine detail and, again, very vibrant colors.
This piece, a painted glass bottle, is one of the few exceptions I found to the “no people, no animals” prohibition. A little bit of research while writing this entry and I discovered that this type of restriction is known as aniconism. New word for the day.
The final piece I want to share with you is this finely sculpted chess set. The detail was amazing and I can only imagine the pressure the craftsman must have felt to not make a mistake and waste all the hard work completed so far.
I hope you enjoyed the selection of pieces from the museum. Sorry for not posting more while on the road. I’ve found the Xanga site to be uncooperative in the past few weeks, often freezing while a page is loading.
Near the end of our Hawaii trip, Tawn and I flew to Honolulu for two days. Our original plan was to visit Michael, a (nowadays inactive) Xangan whom we first met during our Kauai trip last year. Unfortunately, Michael had some health issues and ended up hospitalized. (He is out of the woods now, thankfully.) That meant two days in Honolulu under our own steam. For guidance, we turned to the New York Times’ travel section and their article, 36 Hours in Honolulu.
Arriving in the late morning and unable to check into our hotel until mid-afternoon, we started our visit at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. A visit to the Academy is worthwhile even if you have no interest in art, as it is located in a beautiful complex of buildings that is a pleasure to stroll around.
In front of the Academy is an engaging installation by Patrick Dougherty that evokes a wooded glen. The sculpture, composed of twisted sticks and vines, invites passersby to interact with it, coming inside and peering through the various openings.
Our first stop was the Academy’s open-air restaurant. Located in a shaded patio with beautiful sculptures and a waterfall nearby, the Pavilion Cafe offers a restful setting in which to recharge your energy. The food, mostly Mediterranean and Asian influenced, is surprisingly good for the setting.
Grilled chicken sandwich with a mango-pineapple salsa
Mixed greens with lamb
Ice cream sundae
Tawn plays with his phone while waiting for our meal. Modern art?
Afterwards, we spent an hour and a half perusing the collections, which are very diverse. The emphasis is on Hawaiian and Asian art, but there is a respectable showing from other genres. There is also a partnership with the Shangri La, the Doris Duke estate’s Islamic arts museum. Located off-site, we didn’t get a chance to see that collection but watched a short video that shared some of the highlights. We will have to catch it next time we are in Honolulu.
Much of the art is incorporated into the Academy’s buildings, such as this whimsical steel screen that depicts all manner of animal life.
We worried less about trying to see all the collections and instead enjoyed the cool, serene courtyards of the Academy. Instead of rushing to see the madness of Waikiki or driving about with our suitcases in the trunk of the car, our first few hours in Honolulu were relaxing and refined.
Eventually, though, we had our fill of serenity and drove to the hotel to check in!
(From topless teens to poetry. Where is this blog going?)
As you may know, April is National Poetry Month in the United States. Several Xangans to whom I subscribe frequently write poetry. Generally speaking, I greatly enjoy their poems. But I must confess that at a certain level I am deeply intimidated by poetry. The same is true for opera and ballet, but I won’t address those anxieties in this entry.
Like opera and ballet, I realize that poetry is supposed to be a beautiful art form. And many, many times I can experience a poem and recognize that it is indeed something very beautiful. But then I get a bit frustrated that I don’t understand it. Or, at least, I don’t understand what I’m supposed to understand. Or, maybe, I have this understanding that I’m supposed to understand the poem’s meaning.
This isn’t to say that I’m completely unappreciative of poetry. Indeed, there are several poets whose work I greatly enjoy.
If you have to dry the dishes (Such an awful boring chore) If you have to dry the dishes (‘Stead of going to the store) If you have to dry the dishes And you drop one on the floor Maybe they won’t let you Dry the dishes anymore
(Did you know, by the way, that Shel Silverstein was one of the leading cartoonists in Playboy magazine in the late 50s? And he was able to publish successful children’s books, too. Would that ever happen these days?)
As a teenager, I discovered T.S. Eliot by way of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s musical Cats. Eliot was a Nobel prize winning poet but it was his book of light verse titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (which Lloyd Webber turned into the musical). I found these poems to be very accessible, if for no other reason than that I knew the music with which they went, so I could hear the lyrical nature of the poems when reading them.
There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39 When the Night Mail’s ready to depart, Saying `Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble? We must find him or the train can’t start.’ All the guards and all the porters and the stationmaster’s daughters They are searching high and low, Saying `Skimble where is Skimble for unless he’s very nimble Then the Night Mail just can’t go.’
Taken from “Skimbleshanks” from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
Of course, who was I to know that this opening verse was in fact a parody of a Rudyard Kipling poem? That level of comprehension would have been much beyond me.
In university, I discovered (and had the chance to meet) Dr. Maya Angelou. Her books first attracted me, as the theme of exploring identity which runs through them resonated with my own journey at that time in my life. I did not read her poetry extensively, but when I attended a talk she gave at my school and heard her give voice to her poems, they came to life for me. It was her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning“, which she read at the 1993 inauguration of President Clinton, that seemed to speak widely to Americans, myself included.
History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon This day breaking for you.
Give birth again To the dream.
From “On the Pulse of Morning”
So you see, it wasn’t as if I had no exposure to poetry. But somehow I still feel intimidated by it. Despite the best efforts of Bob Dickerson, my junior college English professor and the first person (by virtue of his Tennessee accent) whom I ever heard pronounce poem as “po-em” instead of “pome”, I look at a lot of poetry and just don’t know what I’m supposed to make of it.
So this week when I listed to a podcast of NPR’s Talk of the Nation from earlier this month, it was if I had heard from my messiah of poetry. Billy Collins, the US Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, values approachability over pretention. The article summarizing his 30-minute interview summed up his position nicely:
[Collins] thinks former students have “lingering anxieties” about poetry. Teaching of poetry, bound as it is to the teaching of critical analysis, is the culprit. In what he admits is a cynical interpretation, he believes that to some extent, teachers “teach difficult poetry because it ensures their usefulness as people standing between the reader and the poem” who help with interpretation.
In the classroom, “every time you hear a poem in a classroom, you know questions will follow,” he says. “This sequence — hear a poem, then get interrogated over it,” says Collins, can create an anxious relationship between readers and poetry.
There it was. Suddenly my anxiety about poetry had found a voice. Someone had put into words the reason that I felt inadequate when reading poems. Every time I read a poem, I feel like I have to understand it well enough to answer questions about it.
One of the projects that Collins has worked on in conjunction with the Library of Congress is called Poetry 180. It is designed to make poetry accessible to students by presenting a poem each day for the 180 schools days each year. (Only 180?! That’s why American students are so far behind their global peers.)
The selection of poems is geared specifically to high school students. In Collins’ words, “Hearing a poem every day, especially well-written, contemporary poems that students do not have to analyze, might convince students that poetry can be an understandable, painless and even eye-opening part of their everyday experience.”
Let me share the first poem in the collection of Poetry 180. It is titled “Introduction to Poetry” and is written by Billy Collins. It sums up pretty much how I feel:
I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.
from The Apple that Astonished Paris
Now that I’ve found a poet – a Poet Laureate, nonetheless! – who has put into words exactly the trepidation about poetry I feel, it is as if I have had a catharsis. The boil has been lanced, and I can face poetry with a fresh start and now expectations.
I am just at the very beginning of my journey to learn to appreciate poetry, but I realize now that poetry is something I can learn to enjoy without having to worry about understanding it.
Every time I have to make as mundane a choice as what type of toothpaste I should buy, I’m overwhelmed and momentarily freeze with panic. Even in Thailand, my local grocery store or Tesco Lotus has at least a few dozen different combinations of brands, flavors, and types of toothpaste. Citrus, citrus-herb, salt-herb, mint, cool mint, bright mint, gel, paste, fluoride, whitening, stain-removal, super-whitening, etc. The mind spins at such options.
You can imagine my fascination then to listen to a talk by Sheena Iyengar at a TED conference about the art of choosing and cultural bias in beliefs about choice. Ms. Iyengar is a professor at Columbia Business School whose research focuses on choice and how people choose.
In her speech, she examines a trio of American assumptions about choice and discusses studies she has done in various parts countries comparing different cultural reactions to these assumptions. The assumptions are:
Make your own choices.
More options lead to better choices.
Never say “no” to choice.
I’m embedding the speech here, which is worth the 22 minutes of your time it will take to watch. But for those of you who cannot watch the video or do not wish to take the time, I’ll summarize her observations. My own conclusions are all the way at the bottom.
Assumption 1: It is best to make your own choices
If a choice affects you, then you should be the one to make it. This is captured in the American concept of “being true to yourself.” Ms. Iyengar and a colleague performed studies to test this assumption.
In one study, she brought 7 to 9 year old Anglo-American and first generation Asian-Americans into the laboratory, dividing them into groups. The first group was given a choice of six sets of word puzzles to complete and also a choice in the color of pen with which to complete the puzzles. The second group was show the same six sets, but “Ms. Smith” told them which set they would perform and which pen color they would use. The third group was shown the same six sets, but Ms. Smith told them their mothers had chosen which puzzles and color of markers they would use. In reality, the second and third groups performed the same set of puzzles and used the same pen color the first group had chosen.
The results differed markedly depending on how the activity was administered. Anglo-American children in the first group completed two and a half times as many word puzzles as in the second and third groups. It didn’t matter who did the choosing – Ms. Smith or their mother – if their task was chosen by another person, their performance suffered. In contrast, Asian-American children performed best when they believed the task had been chosen by their mother, second best when they chose for themselves, and worst when Ms. Smith chose their task and pen color.
Ms. Iyengar’s conclusion is that the first-generation Asian-American children were strongly influenced by their immigrant parents’ approach to choice. Choice was not just a way of defining and asserting themselves, it was also a way to create community by deferring to the choices of those whom they trusted and respected. The assumption that we do best when the individual self chooses, only holds when that “self” is clearly divided from others. If the individuals see their choices as intimately connected, they may amplify one-another’s success by turning choosing into a collective act.
“People who have grown up in [the American paradigm of choice] might find it motivating.” notes Ms. Iyengar. “But it is a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone.”
Assumption 2: More options lead to better choices
Ms. Iyengar traveled to locations in Eastern Europe where people had had to adjust to the transition from a communist to capitalist society. She discovered that many of the perceptions Americans have of choice are often trivial (my choices of toothpaste, for example). She stumbled upon this when offering interview subjects a choice of beverages before the interview – seven different types of soda – only to discover that to the interview subjects, she wasn’t offering seven different options but only one: soda. If she offered juice, water, and the seven brands of soda and she asked how many choices they had, they uniformly identified three choices.
Americans have been conditioned to see each of these little choices as significant and as a representation of who we are. “Coke or Pepsi?” becomes a lifestyle and identification choice rather than a meaningful distinction between beverages. A Polish interview subject summed it up well when saying that he didn’t need the choice of twenty different types of chewing gum. “I don’t mean to say I want to have no choice,” he said, “but many of these choices are very artificial.”
“The value of choice,” notes Ms. Iyengar, “lies in our ability to see the differences between the options. Americans train their whole lives to play ‘spot the difference.’ … Though all humans share a basic need and desire for choice, we don’t all see choice in the same places or to the same extent.”
Ultimately, too much choice can lead to “suffocation by meaningless minutiae.” Ms. Iyengar has observed in her studies that when people are given more than ten choices, they generally make poorer choices. And yet many Americans believe they should make all their own choices and seek out more of them.
Which leads to the third assumption:
Assumption 3: Never say “no” to choice
Ms. Iyengar interviewed parents whose infants had developed cerebral anoxia (a loss of oxygen to the brain) and had to be placed on a ventilator. The decision had been made to remove the infant from the machine, letting it die within a few hours, instead of keeping the infant on the machine in a permanent vegetative state.
Ms. Iyengar interviewed parents in France and in the United States in the months following their infant’s removal from the life support machine and subsequent death. The difference was that in France, the decision to remove life support had been made by doctors whereas in the United States, the parents made the final decision.
Ms. Iyengar wondered whether this decision affected the way the parents coped with the loss of their infant. Ms. Iyengar and her researchers found that it did. Even up to a year after the loss, approximately 90% of American parents were expressing negative emotions about the event compared to only about 67%* of French parents. French parents’ comments were characterized by statements like, “He was here for so little time, yet he taught us so much.” American parents were characterized by statements like, “I feel like they tortured me; how did they expect me to make that choice?”
Yet, when American parents were asked if they would rather have had the doctor made the decision, they said no. Some 75% of them couldn’t imagine turning that choice over to someone else, despite the negative repercussions of having had to make that choice themselves. Among French parents, only about 33% of them indicated they would rather have made the choice instead of the doctor.
*I’m estimating percentages based on the graphs. In her speech, Ms. Iyengar doesn’t provide specific numbers.
Ms. Iyengar concludes:
“The story Americans tell, the story upon which the American dream depends, is the story of limitless choice. This narrative promises so much: freedom, happiness, success. It lays the world at your feet and says, ‘you can have anything, everything.’ It’s a great story and it’s understandable why they would be reluctant to revise it. But when you take a close look, you start to see the holes and you start to see that the story can be told in many other ways.
“Americans have so often tried to disseminate their ideas of choice, believing that they will be, or ought to be, welcomed with open hearts and open minds. But the history books and the daily news tell us, it doesn’t always work out that way. The … actual experience that we try to organize and understand through narrative, varies from place to place. No single narrative serves the needs of everyone, everywhere. Moreover, Americans themselves could benefit from incorporating new perspectives into their own narrative, which has been driving their choices for so long.”
For me, this speech was thought-provoking, a reminder of something I know experientially to be true but which slips to the back of my mind all too often: There is no single right way of looking at the world. Our values and frame of reference through which we see the world are tremendously dependent upon our culture, background, experiences, and upbringing.
The fact there is no single right way is the source of so much conflict and miscommunication in the world. If we really want to understand other people in this world, we have to check our assumptions and be prepared to see the world in radically different ways.
After about a week and a half of kind of drifting away from Xanga a bit, I decided this morning that I need to get back to it. I enjoy the relationships I’ve developed through Xanga and it is a very effective way to keep friends and family up to date with what’s going on in my life. That said, I’d just like to say, “I’m back.”
Villa Market is a local chain of western-style grocery stores, the first such chain in Krungthep. They produce a monthly magazine for customers which this month featured the incongruous headline “Thank God for Chicken! Celebrate with turkey”, leading to much head-scratching on my part.
Yesterday was my thirty-ninth birthday. An Australian friend, Jason, shares my birthday (although nine years younger) so he and his partner along with our mutual friends came over for dinner. I’ll have those pictures for you in a few days.
A lot of people get worked up about birthdays. For some reason, I don’t. I enjoy getting older and think life continues to get more interesting as each year goes by. Perhaps more pragmatically, I don’t see the point in fretting over something that is inevitable. That would be like ruing the tides.
I’ve also been away from Thai lessons for two weeks because the World Film Festival of Bangkok has occupied some of my free time. Which means I’ve been missing my latte art!
Left: the original pig latte that I received. Right: the same latte with some embellishments by me.
Bitter Brown cafe also does cocoa art. Here is a bear. A mouse? A rat? I’m not sure what it is meant to be, actually.
Adjacent to the Surasak Skytrain station, there is an abandoned, partially-finished building that is a casualty of the 1997 Asian economic crisis. At a prime location, for whatever reason nobody has stepped in to finish the building which was already being fitted out with duct work for ventilation – meaning all the structural work was complete.
The building is usually subjected to various graffiti. Recently, though, I noticed that an entire floor’s worth of graffiti had been painted over and there was a new bit of word art.
Depending on where you stand, the parts of the word come together. Perhaps the underlying message is that you have to have the right perspective in order to discern what is real.
The two-year old white elephant – I mean, international airport – here in Krungthep is filled with all sorts of artwork, most of which is kind of cheap, mass-market versions of traditional Thai temple murals. There are some contemporary pieces in the arrivals hall by local artists, but most of the baggage claim walls – many stories high and hundreds of feet long – are filled with these faux temple murals.
They are pretty enough, in and of themselves. What you see here is a trio of angels, gracefully flying through the firmament.
What you don’t see here is their nipples. I thought it odd at first, as in the traditional murals that you would actually see at the temple, the angels are anatomically correct. Not so, the baggage claim murals.
I walked the length of the artwork and discovered that all of the celestial beings depicted in it were nipple-less. Perhaps the tourism authority is worried about offending the sensibility of all the visiting European tourists who (with complete disregard for the local modesties) sunbathe topless at our beaches?
On the drive out to the airport two weeks ago, heading to Kuala Lumpur, there was this really frightening cloud cover. The entire city was under a heavy downpour but as we reached the airport, which is to the east of the city, we could see the edge of the weather system. Beyond it were bright, sunny skies. This picture is taken on the road connecting the expressway to the airport. The THAI Airways maintenance building and employee car park are visible to the left.