Rain, 2, 3, 4

Making Perfume from the Rain: Indian Villagers Have Found a Way to Bottle the Fragrance of Monsoons

The mitti attar was in an inch-tall glass bottle on the counter. I twisted off the little gold cap, closed my eyes, and breathed in the scent of the Indian rain. It smelled like the earth. It smelled like the parched clay doused with pond water in the Siyarams’ backyard. The aroma was entirely different from the memory of rain I carried from my childhood and my part of the world—ozone-charged air, wet moss, Wolfe’s “clean but funky” scent of the south. But it was entirely appealing: warm, organic, mineral-rich. It was the smell of waiting, paid off: 40 years or more for a sandalwood tree to grow its fragrant heartwood; four months of hot, dust-blown summer in northern India before the monsoons arrive in July; a day for terra-cotta to slow-fire in a kiln.

Cynthia Barnett, The Atlantic, April 22, 2015


Two Ladies Step into the Slums of India . . . and Find Stories to Tell


Here’s my entry for the “first-world problems” meme: I accidentally left my copy of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers outside overnight. The next morning the pages were swollen from getting wet and I had to throw the dust jacket away.

Woe is me.

If you’ve read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, you’d recognize the irony.

Katherine Boo

Boo’s National Book Award-winning work, published in 2012, is the true story of the people of Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai, India, where ruined dust jackets are the least of their worries. Most of the characters barely scratch out their livings, many by sorting through trash and selling what they can. All are struggling against the surroundings they’ve inherited. There’s Abdul, a teenage garbage picker who supports his family. There’s Asha, who aspires to be a slumlord, and her daughter, Manju, who hopes to become Annawadi’s first female to graduate from college. There’s Abdul’s neighbor, Fatima, a one-legged woman who sets herself on fire, blaming Abdul and his family for her pain. Abdul, his father, and sister are arrested.

Sometimes trying to scratch out a living isn’t enough. Fatima dies from her injuries. Kalu, a young scrap-metal thief is murdered. And Meena, the first girl born in the slum, commits suicide by drinking rat poison.

Boo, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her work in the Washington Post, was introduced to India by her Indian husband. As she writes in her “Author’s Note,” “I fell in love with an Indian man and gained a country. He urged me not to take it at face value.”

That she did not do. Instead, she moved to India and chose to dive into the gritty life of Anawadi, asking questions of what and why and how and what now . . . and listening to the many answers.

Before her move, she wondered if she could handle life in India, particularly spending time in the slums. During one night alone in Washington, D.C., she made up her mind:

Tripping over an unabridged dictionary, I found myself on the floor with a punctured lung and three broken ribs in a spreading pool of Diet Dr Pepper, unable to slither to a phone. In the hours that passed, I arrived at a certain clarity. Having proved myself ill-suited to safe cohabitation with an unabridged dictionary, I had little to lose by pursuing my interests in another quarter—a place beyond my so-called expertise, where the risk of failure would be great but the interactions somewhat more meaningful.

Listen to how she begins the story of what she found in Annawadi:

Lana Šlezić

Lana Šlezić is an award-winning freelance photographer who was born in Canada to Croatian parents. For two years she lived in Afghanistan, documenting with her camera the abuse of women there. The result is the book, Forsaken: Afghan Women.

But, she writes at lanaslezic.com, living in Afghanistan “was peanuts compared to raising kids.”

She says the birth of her first child brought an “emotional upheaval” that was “extraordinary.” When her son was just six weeks old, mom, dad, and baby boy moved to New Delhi. Then, less than two years later, their daughter arrived.

[E]very time I left our home in Delhi to drive across the city—my own children singing or crying or screaming in the back seat—without fail, I would see street kids while waiting at a traffic light. They were everywhere on every street corner and in every neighbourhood. At car windows they knocked relentlessly and if not asking directly for money then offering something in exchange—a dance, balloons, matches, plastic flowers, inflated airplanes, anything for a few rupees. It nagged at me but I had not the emotional nor physical energy to do anything but sigh and lean back into my seat. An inexplicable feeling of impossibility sat like vinegar in my stomach and started to turn me inside out so that my heart actually became visible. Friends told me I was grumpy.

So in December 2011 when I was wandering around Old Delhi—eyes wide open, conflicted heart in hand, mother of two with all the love that brings and a little less exhausted—I walked through a gate and onto a dirt field. It was a park, though not like any park I had known as a child. . . .

Šlezić was captured by what she experienced . . . children playing in the dirt, children showing her their homes amid the squalor, children talking about life and death. She returned again and again, listening to their stories, playing with them, and taking photos, lots of photos. Out of this she produced “A Walk in the Park,” a collection of striking documentary-style photographs as well as portraits of the children. You can see a gallery of her photos online, and you can view a set of nine portraits as well, each accompanied by a short story told in the child’s own words.

You can also watch the two videos below, which serve as sort of “trailers” for her project. As you can see, because of privacy settings, you’ll have to click the image and then click again to start them on Vimeo. What a bummer. That’s two clicks when one really should be enough.

Woe is me.

(Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Random House, 2012; Lana Slezic, “A Walk in the Park: Artist’s Statement,” lanaslezic.com)
[photo: “Pipe Play 2,” by Meena Kadri, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Changing Face of the World, with or without Plastic Surgery

1341534683_634ca4e8e2_mIn 2011, when National Geographic reported on the global population reaching 7 billion, it determined that the “most typical” person in the world is a 28-year-old Han Chinese male.

But that doesn’t mean that the East Asian look is the most popular. Many Asians, such as those in South Korea, are using cosmetic surgery to gain a more Westernized appearance. While Americans have the most plastic-surgery procedures each year, on a per-capita basis, South Korea comes out on top, with 16 procedures per 1,000 people in 2010. Here is the complete list of the top-10 countries:

  1. South Korea
  2. Greece
  3. Italy
  4. Brazil
  5. Colombia
  6. US
  7. Taiwan
  8. Japan
  9. France

In South Korea, as in many East Asian countries, popular procedures—aimed toward an idealized Western appearance—include narrowing and sharpening the nose, adding double creases to eyelids, lightening skin, slimming round faces, and reducing calf size.

But using surgery to chase the features of another culture carries “complex psycho-social implications,” says Mario Dini, director of the University of Florence’s School of Plastic and Aesthetic Surgery. “A foreign patient who wants to westernize their face, which is universally considered ‘successful,’” he tells La Stampa, “hopes that the scalpel will change their culture too—but this isn’t possible.”

Anthropologist and journalist, Geneviève Makaping, from Cameroon, agrees:

The risk of unconditionally accepting to operate on patients and respond “yes” to all of their requests is to leave them in a cultural limbo. The people who want to erase, or minimize, their physical origins usually aren’t completely assimilated with Westerners, and are turned away from their own social groups who criticize and stigmatize this choice because they feel their faces are being discriminated against.

Of course, global norms and ideals continue to change. Watch this National Geographic video  and you’ll see that by 2030, the most typical person will be from India.

Given time, though, due to  intermarrying across cultures, we all my end up looking like Brazilians. Stephen Stearns, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at Yale, tells LiveScience that since the invention of the bicycle the distance between potential spouses has continually increased. Bring in paved roads, automobiles, and airplanes, and our wold has become even smaller when it comes to finding a mate. This means that recessive traits will become fewer and fewer, and other traits that separate us now will blend together. What will this look like? In a few hundred years, according to Stearns, it will look Brazilian.

But why stop at a few hundred years? What about in 100,000 years? Artist Nickolay Lamm teamed up with Alan Kwan, a computational genomicist, to illustrate what they think future humans might look like. Published two weeks ago at MyVoucherCodes.co.uk, Lamm’s renderings show features brought on by increased brain size and life in space colonies. Maybe those old movie images of aliens with large foreheads and oversized eyes were on to something.


(“A Cut Above,” The Economist, April 23, 2012, using information from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; Rosalba Miceli, “Plastic Surgery as a Way to Look Less ‘Ethnic’—and Get Ahead?” Worldcrunch, April 15, 2013, translated from “La chirurgia plastica ‘etnica’ può cancellare i pregiudizi razziali?” La Stampa, April 2, 2013; Natalie Wolchover, “Will Humans Eventually All Look like Brazilians?” LiveScience, September 18, 2012; Nickolay Lamm, “What Will Humans Look Like in 100,000 Years?What’s Hot, MyVoucherCodes, June 7, 2013)

[photo: “Eyes,” by XracZ, used under a Creative Commons license; illustration by Nickolay Lamm, used with permission]

Video Poetry

Two wordless videos

One fast

One slow




One from Japan

One from India

Hayaku and


(Brad Kremer, Hayaku: A Time Lapse Journey through Japan, 2010; Jonathan Bregel and Khalid Mohtaseb, dirs., Holi, Variable, 2012)

Starbucks: Designing a Global Concept

Last week, after a particularly long day, I bought a bag of Chips Ahoy! chocolate-chip cookies and had myself some cookies and milk. Nabisco is an American company, and chocolate-chip cookies are an American original, but eating them made me feel as if I were . . . back in Taiwan. That’s because one evening in Taipei, after a particularly long day, I needed some comfort food. So I grabbed a (very small) box of Chips Ahoy! cookies from the supermarket. It wasn’t that they were a staple of mine in the States. In fact, I don’t remember eating them before moving overseas. That’s why, now that I’m back in Missouri, Chips Ahoy! reminds me of Taiwan. Funny how the mind works.

Something else that reminds me of Taiwan is Starbucks. I’d never been inside one before moving to Taipei, but when we moved to Yong He (now part of New Taipei City), the cafe in our neighborhood became the default location for our weekly team meetings. So now, whenever I see a Starbucks, I think of some I’ve visited in Taiwan: the one underneath Taipei Main Station, the one with the huge second story in downtown Taipei, the one overlooking the harbor in Keelung, the one in the Xi Men Ding night market, and, of course, the one on the corner of an extremely busy intersection in Yong He, just a few blocks from our apartment.

I like Starbucks. I know their drinks are too expensive. And I don’t fit in with the true Starbucks aficionados. But it feels good to me. It feels international to me.

Since its humble origins in Seattle in 1971, Starbucks truly has become an international chain. The Starbuck’s company, which already has over 7,000 cafes outside the US, is making a move to beef up its international presence and plans to open 1,200 stores in the current fiscal year, which started this month. More than half of these openings will be outside the US, with about 500 in Asia. Over half of these 500 will be in China.

Wherever Starbucks opens a cafe, they alter their interiors and menus to fit the country. Take for instance in India, where the country’s first Starbucks just opened in Mumbai this month, serving Indian-grown coffee, murg tikka panini, and tandoori paneer rolls in a cafe that features furniture made from Indian teakwood. And then there’s Taiwan, where the Asian-inspired creations on the menu have given the world green-tea lattes and Frappuccinos.

Take a look at the following video to see how the company’s store designers work to connect each store to its community. Sounds like a cool job to have.

Click here to see a map from The Seattle Times showing Starbucks’ expansion around the world. Or go here for an interactive map from Loxcel that gives statistics for each country and store markers that show addresses and hours of operation. Load the Loxcel map on your smartphone and you can even search for stores that are currently open and click the phone icon to call them directly.

(Melissa Allison, “Starbucks Opens Its First Cafe in India,” The Seattle Times, Oct. 19, 2012; Melissa Allison, “Starbucks Maps Future of Venti-Sized Global Expansion,” The Seattle Times, Aug. 4, 2012)

[photo: “Starbucks Green Tea Cream,” by awee_19, 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]

Maybe the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is #19

When it comes to global best-of lists, I gravitate toward ones that point to something cheap (like “10 Fast Food Items You Can’t Have“), rather than pricey (like “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants“). I think that “The 18 Best Places to Retire Overseas” (Kathleen Peddicord, US News & World Report, March 19, 2012) falls closer to that second category, even though the author promises that these locations are places where “an interesting, adventure-filled lifestyle is available for a better-than-reasonable cost.” But I’m printing the list here anyway, if for no other reason than to show that Jaipur, India, didn’t make the cut.

  1. Panama
  2. Belize
  3. Colombia
  4. Uruguay
  5. Ecuador
  6. Nicaragua
  7. Roatan, Honduras
  8. Argentina
  9. Mexico
  10. Chile
  11. France
  12. Italy
  13. Ireland
  14. Spain
  15. Croatia
  16. Thailand
  17. Vietnam
  18. Malaysia

So what’s so special about Jaipur? That’s the destination of the seven British retirees in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which opened in US theaters this past weekend. Maybe if the film does well, the “Pink City” (as Jaipur is called), or Udaipur, where much of the movie was shot, will find a place on future lists.

Good movie? I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard good things about it. One person who saw it and liked it is an adult TCK who grew up in a place not too far culturally from Jaipur. Read her review at Communicating Across Boundaries.

[photo: “Jaipur Lake Palace,” by jkuba!, used under a Creative Commons license]

200 Years of American Missions: Names and Numbers

On February 6, 1812, Gordon Hall, Adoniram Judson, Samuel Newell, Samuel Nott, and Luther Rice became the first North Americans commissioned as missionaries, set apart by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions at the Tabernacle Church in Salem, Massachusetts. A few days later,  Judson—along with his wife, Nancy—and Newell—with his wife, Harriett—set sail for India, arriving there in June. Samuel and Roxanna Nott, Hall, and Rice joined them there two months later.

On the occasion of this 200-year anniversary Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, announced that since that time, by 2010, the number of Christian missionaries sent from the US had grown to 127,000, or 32% of the 400,000 missionaries worldwide. The US is top on the list, while in 2010 Brazil sent the second-most number of missionaries at 34,000.

So if the US sends the most missionaries, who receives the most? Well, that would the US as well, with 32,400 missionaries arriving from other countries (again, using 2010 numbers). Turns out that many of the Brazilian missionaries are sent to work among Brazilian communities in states in the Northeast.

There’s also another person who is sometimes mentioned along with Adoniram Judson and his group when the first missionaries are listed, not because he went out with them, but because he went out before them. He was George Liele, an African-American former slave in Savannah, Georgia. He gained his freedom before the Civil War, and then he and his family escaped re-enslavement by sailing to Jamaica with a British colonel (sometime around 1782 to 1784). In Jamaica, Liele planted a Baptist church, reporting in 1791, “I have baptized 400 in Jamaica. . . . We have nigh three hundred and fifty members; a few white people among them.”

So who was the first American missionary? That depends on our definitions. The first American “citizens” “commissioned” and “sent,” those would be the ones from Salem. The first ones born in America to travel to another country and make disciples, that would be Liele and his family. My guess is that there would not have been a lot of jealous arguing about “firsts” coming from either group. And who knows? Maybe someone had already gone out earlier, someone now unnamed, someone unremembered, someone who simply went, without fanfare, spreading the hope of the gospel.

(Daniel Lovering, “In 200-Year Tradition, Most Christian Missionaries Are American,” Reuters, February 20, 2012; “People and Events: George Liele,” PBS; Billy Hall, “George Liele: Should Be a National Hero,” Jamaica Gleaner, April 8, 2003)

[photo: “Vintage Globes,” by The Shopping Sherpa, used under a Creative Commons license]