Storytelling: The Bosphorus Bridge between Cultures


At one end of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge, says Elif Shafak, is a sign that says “Welcome to Europe.” At the other end, another sign reads, “Welcome to Asia.” Shafak, the most widely read female author in Turkey, knows well this city that spans the Bosphorus Strait and connects two continents. She also knows well the push and pull of Eastern and Western cultures in Istanbul. She writes in Time Asia:

East and West are not water and oil. They do mix. And in a city like Istanbul they mix intensely, incessantly, surprisingly. That can leave the city confused about its identity. We Turks like to brag about straddling past and present, East and West, but we are not quite sure what we mean by that. We think of these two civilizations as boroughs we can go in and out of randomly. . . . But things are not so simple.”

Expanded Circles: Elif Shafak

Shafak has lived out her own cross-cultural experience. Born in France to Turkish parents, she was later raised by her mother in Turkey. Then, after her mother became a diplomat, they moved to Spain, Jordan, Germany, and back to Turkey.

Everywhere I went,” she says in a TED Talk, “The Politics of Fiction,” “I felt like my imagination was the only suitcase I could take with me. Stories gave me a sense of center, continuity, and coherence, the three big Cs that I otherwise lacked.”

While living in Madrid, Shafak attended an international school where she was the only Turk. While she describes the school as “a miniature United Nations,” it was not “a cosmopolitan, egalitarian classroom democracy.” Rather, she first encountered cultural stereotypes there. In her later moves with her mother, she saw more and more the general human penchant for retreating into “cultural ghettos”:

Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do. We’re born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink; our hearts might dwindle, and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family—if all the people in our inner circle resemble us, it means we are surrounded with our mirror image.

Shafak’s tool for helping break us all out of our cocoons is her fiction. She is the author of a number of novels, including The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi, which bridges 13th-century Persia and present-day Boston, and Honor, which tells the stories of Kurdish twins, one who grows up to live in London, the other staying in a small village in Turkey.

I’m not saying that fiction has the magnitude of an earthquake,” says Shafak, “but when we are reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone and start getting to know people we had never met before and perhaps had even been biased against.”

Intersecting Journeys: O. Z. Livaneli

I have not read any of Shafak’s novels, but I did recently finish Bliss: A Novel, written by O. Z. Livaneli in 2006. (It was made into a film in 2007.) Livaneli, like Shafak, is one of Turkey’s most prominent and most-read authors. And, like Shafak, his works often investigate the meeting of cultures.

In Bliss, the cultures are embodied by three characters: Meryem is a fifteen-year-old from a small Turkish village. After being raped by her outwardly pious uncle, she is shunned by her community. Then she is taken to Istanbul by her cousin to be killed. Cemal, a soldier, newly returned from fighting rebels in the mountains, is the cousin chosen to carry out the “honor killing.” And Irfan is a Western-educated professor who abruptly leaves his wife—and his wealthy lifestyle—to sail the Aegean Sea. It is on his journey that he meets Meryem and Cemal.

At first the novel tells three seemingly unrelated stories, each from a distinct viewpoint. Then, as the characters come together, their stories, and their perspectives, intertwine. The settings are varied as well: the shack where Meryem is imprisoned, given only meager food and a rope for hanging herself; the dangerous mountains where Cemal kills ruthlessly so that he won’t be killed; and the university offices populated by the colleagues whom Irfan despises. And then there are the locations that bring them together and expose them to people of still other backgrounds: the train compartment on the way to Istanbul, the chaotic city center and its decrepit surroundings, the home of an eccentric retired ambassador, and the close quarters of Irfan’s rented sailboat.

Through it all, the three have their worlds expanded, in dramatic and often very painful ways.

The Gift of Bridges

Thankfully there are storytellers around the globe such as Shafak and Livaneli, authors whose works juxtapose cultural differences and uncover similarities. These writers allow us to pick up their books and step outside the mirrored walls of our houses and onto bridges that traverse oceans and connect cultures.

By walking these bridges, we reach distant shores, and when our feet touch foreign ground, we find signs that read, “Welcome,” even when it’s not so simple.

(Elif Shafak, “Pulled by Two Tides,” Hurriyet Daily News, August 13, 2006, first published in Time Asia, August 7-14, 2006)
[photo: “Bosphorus Bridge,” by Simon Q, used under a Creative Commons license]


Chinese Towns with Châteaus and Pubs

421040590_416a162457If imitation truly is the greatest form of flattery, then many in China believe that flattery will get them everywhere.

Over the past decade, China has experienced a boom in the building of look-alike cities and structures, fashioned after architecture from non-Chinese locales. Leading the trend is Shanghai’s “One City, Nine Towns” project, building foreign-inspired housing developments to draw residents out of the city’s crowded center—though it seems that the people have been a little reluctant to make the move.

There’s been a bunch written about the carbon-copy construction—lots of photos, too. Here are links to some of the articles around the Web:

Welcome To the Bizarre Chinese Ghost Town That Looks Like It Was Plucked from the British Countryside
(Julie Zeveloff, Business Insider, June 14, 2011)
“Thames Town is not nestled in the British countryside; it’s located in the northeast corner of China in Songjiang, near Shanghai. And it didn’t grow gradually over hundreds of years.”

Anting New Town: Car Museum, Cafes and Homes, but No People
(CNN Travel, September 24, 2010)
“The Anting New Town development was designed by Albert Speer, the son of Hitler’s favorite architect, to accommodate 50,000 inhabitants in apartment buildings and stand-alone houses.”

Going Dutch: Shanghai’s “Holland Town” Brings Europe to the City
(Mathias Guillin, CNN Travel, July 8, 2010)
“Life in Shanghai can be a bit monotonous: work, party, brunch and then do it all over again the next weekend. If you need to break things up and don’t want to hop on plane, head over the river and check out Pudong’s Nederland, aka ‘Holland Town.'”

Luodian—a Slice of Sweden in China
(Ulrika K Engström,, February 10, 2006)
“Luodian is a fully fledged copy of a Scandinavian town. Even the weather seems to have been specially imported to this newly built development in Baoshan, one of 16 districts in Shanghai.”

China: Shanghai: Citta di Pujiang
(Bret Wallach, The Great Mirror)
“An Italian city in Shanghai? But of course: this is another of Shanghai’s new towns, like Thames Town, but in this case Venice. Well, that’s what you’ll read in the press, but this new town doesn’t ape Europe: it has lots of water, in other words, but an intensely modern architectural style.”

China Builds Its Own Eiffel Tower
(Metro News, September 21, 2007)
“Chinese architects copied the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the famous fountain in the gardens of the Palace of Versaille to make their own version of the French capital. Famous buildings and Parisienne style gardens are surrounded by rows of European-style villas where up to 100,000 Chinese people will live in a special gated community called Tianducheng just outside Shanghai.”

Made in China: An Austrian Village
(Reuters, June 5, 2012)
“A $940 million Chinese clone of one of Austria’s most picturesque villages, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hallstatt, recently opened its doors to visitors in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong amidst some controversy.”

Photos: Jiangsu City Has Four Fake US Capitols
(Michael Evans, Shanghaiist, December 3, 2012)
“The Jiangsu city of Wuxi is home to not one, not two, but four buildings with a less-than-coincidental resemblance to the US Capitol.”

Village Uses Famous Site Replicas to Draw Tourists
(Wang Hongyi, China Daily, October 12, 2011)
“[T]ourists can also see replicas of the US Capitol building, the Arch of Triumph in France and the Sydney Opera House by going to Huaxi village, which is deemed the richest village in China.”

Dorset Town is Re-built in China
(BBC News, July 26, 2007)
“A town in China has been modelled on Dorchester after planners saw the town’s picture on a Christmas card. The development in Chengdun, Sichuan province, named British Town, is complete with mock Victorian and Georgian architecture.”

Mr. Zhang Builds His Dream Town
(James Fallows, The Atlantic, March 2007)
“After lunch, Zhang thanked the guests for coming and invited them to spend time seeing some of the other highlights of Broad Town: the 130-foot-high gold-colored replica of an Egyptian pyramid, for instance.”

China’s Elite Learn to Flaunt It while the New Landless Weep
(Joseph Kahn, The New York Times, December 24, 2004)
“Chateau Zhang Laffitte is no ordinary imitation. It is the oriental twin of Château Maisons-Laffitte, the French architect François Mansart’s 1650 landmark on the Seine. Its symmetrical facade and soaring slate roof were crafted using the historic blueprints, 10,000 photographs and the same white Chantilly stone. . . . ‘It cost me $50 million,’ Mr. Zhang said. ‘But that’s because we made so many improvements compared with the original.'”

Château China: $30 Million “Hobby”
(Sheila Melvin, The New York Times, January 10, 2006)
“The town of Changli, in Hebei Province, resembles any other nondescript county seat in northern China. . . . But just outside the town center is a 200-hectare, or 500-acre, vineyard replete with a state-of-the-art wine production facility; a villa with tasting rooms and restaurants; a three-story wine school; a luxury hotel, and an immense private château. The Tuscan-style complex is so opulent and incongruous in the Hebei countryside that it at first seems like a mirage.”

Related Post:
Shanghai Calling: “Come Home”

[photo: “07/02/23 15:10:06 Shanghai,” by 2 Dogs, used under a Creative Commons license]

Can’t We Just Be Friends? Bridging the Cultural Divide on Campus

 In my last post, on friendships between international and American students, I pulled some statistics from Voice of America’s “Student Union” blog. Actually, rather than a lot of numbers, much of what you’ll find at “Student Union” are first-hand accounts of what it’s like to study in American colleges and universities, while facing the challenges of a new culture.

There’s a lot of insight and candor there, on a great variety of topics. Take, for example, these posts:

But back to the topic of friendships. In my post I cited a recent study that says over half of students from China and other East Asian countries have no close American friends. Under the title “Whose Fault Is It when American and International Students Don’t Mix?” Jessica Stahl discusses a video from the Office for International Students and Scholars at Michigan State University, in which students from China and the US talk about the ins and outs of cross-cultural friendships. Part of what makes the video especially interesting is that the group of four female Chinese students and the group of three male Americans are not interviewed at the same time. While this means they don’t respond directly to what their counterparts are saying, it does give them a greater opportunity for honesty and frankness.

After the introduction, the video opens with a segment called “Forming Friendships: Finding Common Ground.” One of the Chinese students begins by saying, “Finding something in common is really hard, because you don’t make friends with someone without having something in common with them.” I think she makes a good point.

When we meet people, we usually start with questions that will reveal what we have in common. And when we find that we share something—place of origin, interests, likes, beliefs, friends, experiences—we pursue it in conversation to see how good a fit we are. It takes time and patience to get past the superficials to track down deeper commonalities, and people from different cultures often don’t get past the opening conversation . . . or they don’t even begin the conversation in the first place.

On the other hand, just looking like you’re from “someplace else” is enough to draw attention from others with significant cross-cultural experience. So Third Culture Kids often seek out international students, and international students find community among each other, regardless of how far apart their home countries are. But while this can lead to some wonderful opportunities for friendship, it is often a small pool to draw from, and it can further limit one’s feeling of fitting in to the general population.

To pique your curiosity, I’ve transcribed below more of the students’ comments on this topic of making friends. But really, if you’re interested in any aspect of cross-cultural interactions, watch the whole video. It’s 17 minutes long but well worth your time.

FYI: The video description at YouTube states that the panelists are all undergraduate students at Michigan State, and the American students “have all spent time in China and have meaningful Chinese friendships.”

Here are some of the comments made by the Chinese students.

Students’ get-togethers start off by talking about high school life. When they came from the same area, well they have some kind of similar backgrounds and experiences that we don’t really have.

Some Chinese students, when they talk with an American, when they cannot find anything in common, they’ll just keep quiet. So they just ignore you. . . .

They care about their baseball game, football game, everything else, instead of this bunch of Chinese people just arrived.

If you make friends . . . you want to get involved in the American community, they will treat you as either a joke or just ignore you.

I’d rather just be with my Chinese friends.

I’ve met a lot of great American friends who are willing to sit down and listen to you and also share their story.

And by the American students:

For someone who hasn’t been to China before or who doesn’t know the culture, I think it’s going to be difficult for them to kickstart a conversation.

The closest relationships that I’ve had with Chinese students are the ones where the Chinese students make it an effort to also start a relationship as well.

My feeling, from my experience of why Chinese students don’t necessarily form close relationships with Americans and why Americans don’t form necessarily close relationships with  Chinese is more so the flaw of the Chinese students.

Man, all the Asians are always together. You’ll never see one by themselves. They’re always in a group.

Besides those certain things that do make an impact, we’re all very similar, and you don’t need to stress the differences too much, because those are easily overlooked. . . . Differences aren’t a problem. Differences are what make life.

[photo: “When Chopstick Meet Fork & Spoon,” by Lohb, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Asian Squat for the West of the World

If you’re a Westerner who’s traveled to Asia, you’ve probably marveled at the locals’ ability to relax in their preferred alternative to just standing around—the Asian squat. You’ve also probably brought back stories (and photos) of “squatty potties,” and you understand why the bathrooms in international airports have signs that read, “No Standing on the Toilet.”

But if all this is new to you and you see the need for more information, or if you’d like help in pulling off the squat yourself, I refer you to Daniel Hsia’s mockumentary, How to Do the Asian Squat. Watch it because you want to know the history behind the Asian squat. Watch it because you want to know the physics behind the Asian squat. Or watch it simply because “Each and every day, more and more tired-legged, stiff-backed Americans are discovering a new and exciting way to squat!”

And if you really want to get on board (pun intended), take a look at “Nature’s Platform” for how you can convert a Western toilet into your very own squatty potty. The site is complete with testimonials from physicians, anthropologists, and yoga instructors. Unfortunately, it looks as if the company is not accepting new orders at this time. But don’t be disheartened, you can go here for their instructions on how to create your own conversion kit from concrete blocks and plywood. Or as an alternative, you can visit Lillipad of New Zealand, where their trendy (?) looking “squatting platform” is on sale . . . and available. They sell plans for building your own, too. (But hurry, the plans are 50% off till the end of July.)

[photo: “Old Man Squatting on Steps,” by Lon&Queta, used under a Creative Commons license]

Coca-Cola: Selling Soda and Marketing Global Happiness

Remember the Coca-Cola chorus in the 70s singing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”? Well, The Coca-Cola Company is getting one step closer to that goal. Myanmar, one of only three countries left where Coke is not sold, will soon join the rest of the globe in serving the world’s most popular soft drink. After being gone for more than 60 years, Coca-Cola plans to re-enter the Myanmar market soon, when the US government officially allows investments there, this in response to Myanmar’s recent turn to democracy. This will leave only Cuba and North Korea on the outside of the Coke market.

Buying the world a Coke wasn’t The Coca-Cola Company’s only plan. It also wanted to “teach the world to sing” and “buy the world a home and furnish it with love.” Today, Coke’s hopes are still lofty. Their current campaign is “open happiness,” and they are spreading the message that “There are reasons to believe in a better world.” Below are three videos demonstrating this theme—citing what seem to me to be some odd pairings of vague statistics (“While one scientist is creating a new weapon . . . 1 million moms are baking chocolate cakes”). Oh well. They’re fun videos, and the music is cool. It’s the thought that counts, right? It’s Coca-Cola.

The first video is the global edition. The second is for Africa. The third is for India. And finally, the fourth video is of a guy who traveled around the world and drank a Coke in every country he visited.

(Tony Jordan, “Coca-Cola Announces Will Return to Myanmar after 60 Years,” Yahoo! Finance, June 15, 2012)

[photo: “Faces, Langa, Cape Town,” by Dietmar Temps, used under a Creative Commons license]

Please Don’t Ask Me to Eat That

Earlier this year we were with a group of missionaries who were asked to name the worst food in their host country. One lady, who had spent time in Belgium told us about a raw hamburger dish that I remember her calling something like “American beef.” No, not American beef, but American something. . . . Then I saw this article from Public Radio International. Filet américain. That’s what it’s called. Of all the dishes named by the missionaries, this is the one that most kicked in my gag reflex—just to hear about it. Some people eat it with a raw egg on top. That’s just going too far. The author of the article voices his own fear of this Belgian favorite, but not for health reasons. Rather, he’s afraid he’ll actually like it. And then, one thing would lead to another . . . .

Try it once, and soon you’re asking for it regularly at lunch, along with half a liter of red wine. And then you’re having coffee after, along with a digestif. Your afternoon productivity, what’s left of it, starts to slump. Like a good Belgian, you simply shrug your shoulders. . . . Six months go by, and you’re slipping out after you’ve finished a plate for a few quick drags on an unfiltered Lucky Strike. You try to go grow a handlebar mustache. . . .

And then you apply for Belgian citizenship because you know you’ll never get your filet américain fix back in the US.

Maybe it’s not an unwarranted fear, that you’ll become addicted to something that disgusts you. One of the foulest foods in Asia is the durian. Most people can’t even stand the smell. But, they say, try it once, you hate it. Taste it the second time, it’s tolerable. Try it again, and it’s your favorite.

I have a theory. One day our great great great grandparents were going through a famine, and they were forced to eat something that no one had ever needed to eat before. Out of necessity they got used to it. And then when times got better, they still kept it as part of their diet. Maybe it didn’t taste good, but it felt right. It became part of them, part of their story. And then it became part of everyone’s story, kept alive, if by no one else then by the person who could always get attention with “No, I really do think it’s good. Watch me eat some.”

Having grown up on a farm in the Midwest US, I learned to like a few things that might make my city friends squeamish: cow tongue and heart, calf brains (well, I never really enjoyed that one), and Rocky Mountain oysters (fried calf testicles). But I don’t have to go back to old-time examples of Americana to find foods that could gag my international friends. Take for instance a new item soon to be introduced on Burger King’s menu. I’d love to see what my non-American friends would think about their recently announced sundae: vanilla ice cream topped with fudge, caramel, and that all-américain favorite topping, bacon.

(Clark Boyd, “The ‘Américain’ Dream,” PRI’s The World, May 31, 2012; Dylan Stableford, “Burger King to Introduce Bacon Sundae,” Yahoo! News, June 12, 2012)

[photo: “Filet Americain (Raw Beef),” by Kyle Taylor, used under a Creative Commons license]

Red Bean Paste, by Any Other Name, Would Taste as Sweet

As a followup to making Beijing more foreigner-friendly for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government has published a book to provide restaurants with standardized English translations for over 2,000 dishes. While the publication, titled Enjoy Culinary Delights: A Chinese Menu in English, should clear up some confusion, it will diminish the entertainment value of menus in China. Gone will be “red burned lion head,” which becomes “braised pork ball in brown sauce,” and “chicken without sex life” gives way to “spring chicken.” Other substitutions include “shrimp cooked in rice wine” for “drunken shrimp,” “ground pork with green soya noodles” for “ants climbing the tree,” and “stir fried prawns and chicken” for “gambolling dragon and praying phoenix.” These last two aren’t mistranslations, just examples of poetic Chinese names whose meanings aren’t immediately obvious to foreign readers. (Maybe restaurants should just keep these literal translations and follow up with an explanation.) But others, maybe the best ones, come from a less-than-stellar grasp of English, such as the menu item from the photo in this article, which translates what could be called “sesame seaweed” as “dish of sesame oil connected through one’s female relatives.” Of course, if “seaweed” doesn’t sound good to you, the second name might be more appealing.

I don’t remember any specific examples of funny menu items from our time in Taiwan, but this topic reminds me of a couple of canned drinks that were commonly available in convenience and grocery stores. Both were labeled with unfortunate English names. The first is a sports drink from Japan, called “Pocari Sweat,” and the other is a yellow citrus soda, simply named “P.”

(“No More ‘Chicken without Sex Life’ at Beijing Restaurants,” Xinhua, March 13, 2012; “‘Chicken without Sex’ Becomes ‘Spring Chicken’—State Meddling in China’s Menus,” Worldcrunch, from The Economic Observer, March 29, 2012)

For anyone who’d like to learn more about the unique names of traditional Chinese dishes—and the history and makeup of Chinese characters—I highly recommend Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey through Chinese Culture, Language, and Cuisine, by A. Zee. Using the names of foods, the stories behind them, and the stories behind the individual characters, Zee shows how the paths of culture, language, and cuisine intertwine. It will make your mouth water, and it will make menus come to life.

[top photo: “Pocari Sweat” by Dwaasuy, used under a Creative Commons license; bottom photo: “Eight Treasure Vegetables,” by Yoko Nekonomania, used under a Creative Commons license]

Made in Americus

One-third of the people in the world use them, then throw them away. Japan uses about 23 billion pairs each year. And China produces 63 billion pairs annually. They are disposable chopsticks . . . and recently, more and more of them are being made in the USA. Back in mid July, Georgia Chopsticks, of Americus, Georgia, was churning out about 2 million pairs of chopsticks per day, with plans to produce 10 million a day by the end of 2011. Why Georgia? “The Pacific Rim, especially areas of China and Japan, they’ve run out of wood,” says David Garriga, head of the local economic development council, “but we have an abundance of it.” This includes sweet gum and poplar, which are great for making chopsticks because their wood doesn’t have to be chemically lightened, like Asian wood, to achieve the desired color. Susan White, who works at the company says, “Everywhere in America you see ‘Made in China,’ and you wonder if, in China, they ever see ‘Made in America.’” With every chopstick made in Americus going oversees, she really doesn’t have to wonder any more.

If the subtle art of chopsticks usage eludes you, and you’d like some instructions to go with the pictures above, go to eHow’s “How to Use Chopsticks.”

(Philip Graitcer, “Chopsticks Carry ‘Made in America’ Label,” Voice of America, July 18, 2011)

[photo by lintmachine, used under a Creative Commons license]