02 August 2019

Impressions of Wales

Like many North Americans in search of cultural roots older than the late 18th century, I grew up on stories of the “old country,” handed down through my grandparents.  This mostly amounted to my grandmother’s inherited anecdotes of Italian village life; though, I was aware that my father’s side came to the States from Ireland and Wales via Canada in the early 1900s.

The architecture is distinctive.
A coherent ancestry and anything resembling a genetic timeline for me has suffered from name changes, relocations, periods of political upheaval, and all the things that families traditionally leave unsaid, things that exist as lacunae for descendants, who can only speculate on what may have been omitted and why.  I know some of them.  Many others remain a mystery.  But it would only be tragic if I cared.  I don’t.

I could use the internet and modern DNA tracking to learn more, but I’m far less interested in the ghosts of the past than in the vivid persistence of the present in all its terror and beauty.  While it would be fun to meet a particular great uncle, verify some of the more outlandish family legends, or travel back along the hereditary chain to see what my ancestors got up to in different eras, such curiosity is feeble compared to what can be thought, felt, and accomplished first-hand in this life.  My goal is to experience as much of it as possible before I, too, am nothing but dust and a name.  So when I entered Wales last week, I felt completely open, completely willing to experience the place apart from pre-conceived ideas about what it could or should mean ancestrally or in terms of some ethnic memory. 

Given that most people are already linked genetically as distant cousins, feeling an affinity with a place or a culture seems more a matter of personality (and maybe spirituality) than what genomes might imply.  I don’t mean to disregard the value of DNA fingerprinting in genealogical research, but my approach is impressionistic and intuitive.  In most things, I focus on one simple yet incredibly challenging question: what am I feeling?  Being able to answer that as sincerely and intelligently as possible is at the root of all my blogging, articles, fiction, and journaling.  And it is the question I asked myself when I took the train into Wales from Bristol to Barry.
A view of the ocean in Swansea.

My first impression was that Wales has never fully assimilated (or has never been assimilated) to English culture.  Celtic nations seem to have a certain inborn resistance to imperialism, passing down their distinctive attitudes and traditions in spite of those in power.  As soon as I stepped off the train, I could see it.

The signs, as in Ireland, are dual-language in English and Gaelic.  And I heard young people speaking their native language, which, as an American, I find fascinating.  My native language is borrowed from another country.  According to my birthplace, I should probably be speaking a version of Kumeyaay or at least Spanish, but I suppose that wouldn’t be right, either.  As a white American of Mediterranean-European descent, I have more in common culturally with the countries across the Atlantic; though, there are some hallmarks of growing up in southern California that are hard to miss (I do say “dude” from time to time).

The disposition of the Welsh is noticeably sunnier (someone called it “affable”) than what I’m used to in Oxford.  And the countryside seems hilly and lush.  One stops seeing the Union Flag and spots the Baner Cymru everywhere.  Since Edward I’s conquest of Wales in 1282, the line of Welsh princes is said to have ended; however, Welsh independence has apparently remained at issue to this day.  And that is a very tangible reality, especially with all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.

Dylan Thomas' House
For whatever reason, I felt more relaxed and welcomed in Barry and then in Swansea than I ever have in Oxford, taking my time to go to a few pubs, spending time at the beach, and generally absorbing the sense of the place.  As usual, I also had work to do, which meant locating a decent cafĂ© with internet, but that was part of it.  And I came away with a very positive view of the country, having asked nothing more of it than an impression of its everyday life.  As I did when I stayed in Paris for the first time, I walked everywhere, keeping in mind that that true character of a place is most intensely felt “on the sidewalk.”

So what was I feeling during my time in Wales?  I didn’t approach the visit as a tourist (which I think is inherently exploitative and obnoxious—over the years, I’ve come to despise tourism).  I didn’t do tourist things or throw my (largely non-existent) money around the way tourists are encouraged to do.  I came more as a bystander and a witness, maybe as a writer, as someone on an introspective journey.  And I discovered a place that is entirely unique.

The English, especially those in Oxford, tend to speak of the Welsh as if they “still have sheep in the kitchen,” as an Irish friend of mine put it.  English cultural slurs tend to present Wales as a never-ending episode of Jersey Shore, but that wasn’t my experience at all.  The Welsh I met (and the Welsh I know) may not all be wealthy or driven by Oxbridge status, but their culture is intricate, subtle, and stubbornly dedicated to the idea of its own distinctiveness, which is admirable and, for me, an ongoing fascination.

18 July 2019

Re-Imagining Bangkok

I always knew I’d go back.  When I moved to Bangkok four years ago to teach research and writing at Stamford International University, it felt like being shot out of a cannon.  One day, I was in San Francisco hanging out with friends.  Three days after that, I was on a plane. 

Sometime between those two points, I had a brief interview on Skype, which ended with “Okay, see you on Monday.”  I swallowed hard and said, “You mean, this Monday?”  My three interviewers nodded, smiled, waved, and the Skype call ended.  Apparently, that was exactly what they’d meant.  Ten minutes later, I was making lists, looking up last-minute flights, and sending a barrage of emails.

But it was all good.  And by that I mean I’m not exactly a beginner when it comes to picking up and relocating to another country on short notice.  Still, working out all the arrangements and preparations within 72 hours entailed a certain amount of stress and concentration.  It always does. 

By the time I got on the plane, I was ready; though, I felt like I’d lost five pounds just from stress.  The more mobile you are, the more flexible you need to be, and the longer you live.  That’s what I tell myself, anyway.  I also vow every time that I will sleep on the plane, but I never do.  A friend of mine who lives in Japan swears by Dream Water, but I don’t know.  There always seems to be an abundance of lousy Tom Cruise movies demanding my attention.

When some westerners arrive in Bangkok for an extended stay—i.e. not just for a week of malls, Singha, and the Sukhumvit tourist bubble—they feel like the city is perpetually trapped in the middle of a grand mal seizure: the crowds, the concrete, the heat, the colors, the sheer speed of the place in a time zone where everything has already happened and is probably happening again right now.  Sometimes, it’s too much.  But if you can adjust, if you can assimilate enough to fall in love with the place, it will change your life in ways you might never have anticipated.

You soon discover you’re a day ahead on the news.  You spend as much time navigating the dense
streets and commuter trains as you do anything else (an experience that cannot be adequately explained to anyone who hasn’t lived there and struggled with it on a daily basis).  You start to eat differently, breathe differently, think differently.  In Los Angeles, you feel like the city has bitten down on a live wire.  In London, you feel like you’re standing in the capital of the world.  And in Paris, everyone seems to want to discuss and compare their perspectives on everything.  In Bangkok, you get all of that from the moment you arrive and it does not stop.

I not only fell in love with the place, but when I returned west, first to the States and then to England, I felt haunted by it.  The adjustment period was difficult.  I would walk the beautiful tree-lined canals of Oxford and watch people moving in slow motion.  Everything seemed denser, heavier, requiring methodical consideration.  To a certain extent, that is just the nature of Oxford, but the contrast between the two places couldn’t have been more striking. 

I will miss the green spaces of England and the friends I made here.  I will definitely miss the good-natured weirdness of London, the art and culture, and spending afternoons reading in the Embankment gardens.  But it’s time to move on, not back, which means the Bangkok before me will necessarily be different from the Bangkok I experienced four years ago.  That is what stimulates my curiosity the most.  That and seeing some of the friends I've kept in touch with over the years—Facebook has at least been useful in that sense.

Soon, I will have lived more of my adult life outside the United States than in. And I’m certainly not the same person I was at age 18 in southern California, obsessed with getting away from home and into the world. Well, maybe I’m still a little like that, having lived and worked in so many different countries since then. One thing is for sure, I’ll be writing about it as I go.