Saturday, January 1, 2011

it takes a long time to plan a trip around the world

In the last few months I fell into reading a bunch of books about other countries, starting with two vivid accounts of life and food in Europe- Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, and My Life in France by Julia Child. I've always appreciated European culture, and the experiences of both women were pretty ideal - beautiful homes (eventually!), lavish meals, and the opportunity to pursue their passion. They were enjoyable reads, and started me daydreaming.

A devoted fan of fiction, I next read a novel and a set of short stories by Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri. The Namesake traced the path of a first generation American man from his birth to recently immigrated Bengali parents, through his various rebellions and separations from his culture and through his coming to terms with his heritage. Lahiri's writing and storycrafting is impeccable, and I was drawn to her characters despite their flaws. I had never really considered the experiences of newly emigrated peoples and their first generation progeny, and I have begun to ask more non-natives about their experiences with living in America.

Next, I followed Karen Muller's exploits through Japanland. Although the descriptions of martial art traditions and buddhist spiritual journeys were intriguing, what I found most interesting about her book were the times when she shared her culture shock and accompanying frustrations. Her goal was to go to Japan, learn about various subcultures, and create a documentary, but in the process she learned so much about herself and about being a Westerner in Japan. It was interesting to consider what I might learn about myself if I were ever to live in such a foreign place.

Most recently I have been fascinated with learning more about Islamic countries, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan. Through Khaled Housseini's novels, the Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, I learned, basically for the first time, about groups like the Mujahideen and the Taliban, the extent of restrictions placed on women, the complex relationships between people groups such as Pashturns and Tajiks, as well as issues of class division. I never really had had an interest in any of these topics, however, through Housseini's poignant and sometimes horrifying stories I developed a respect for the women who push forward in the midst of such limitations, and the men who develop independent thought and respect for all people, regardless of gender, class, and ethnicity.

I shifted from Housseni's fiction to Greg Mortensen's account of his quest to promote peace through education in Pakistan and beyond. Mortensen came upon this passion through chance, when the small village of Korphe in Northeastern Pakistan showed him great generosity and kindess after his failed mountaineering expedition. Although originally intending to return and build one school, Mortensen developed a passion for helping the people he encountered on his trips Pakistan, and continued developing schools throughout the area, despite the challenges and personal danger that he encountered after 9/11. Mortensen firmly believes that the education of women is essential to the betterment of society in areas with extremist influences.

Through reading these varied accounts of life in other countries, I found myself trying new recipes, looking up photographs of various cities, and reading newspaper articles I normally would have bypassed on my way to the Entertainment section. I like those changes, and I want to keep up with learning about people and places that I am unfamiliar with. Eventually I hope to go to some of these places in person, but for now, I'm happy to be an armchair explorer, and I would love to have you join me on my journey!

My goal is to spend each month investigating a country/region/subculture etc. I plan to try recipes, look up pictures, listen to music, research history, read books about their culture, etc. I will document what I find here, and I hope you join me on my journey!

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