Support Bani’s Medical Fund!

Hola beloved community,

I’m raising some emergency funds for my healthcare. If you could donate or share my story please do! I’m not asking for much, just a few bucks will honestly go a long way. Below are the deets. Make a secure donation by clicking here.

Gracias!

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I moved back to Quito, Ecuador seven months ago to have access to affordable healthcare so that I could address my different disabilities, which doctors are still trying to diagnose. But insurance payments, co-pays and medication (not covered by my insurance) all add up, in addition to having to pay extra for tests (cat scans, X-rays, echos) for my pre-existing conditions. Yesterday, my doctor sent me to buy a brace for my right hand, but I can’t afford it. I’m a struggling writer and don’t have the funds to cover these medical costs, so if you could just donate a few bucks, it would go a long way. Donate here.

On The Cusp of Dual Identities #Dispatch: Afropean

All photos courtesy of Johnny Pitts

All photos courtesy of Johnny Pitts

Johny Pitts is a writer, photographer, and broadcast journalist interested in issues of Afro-European identity.  He won a Decibel Penguin Prize for a short story included in the ‘The Map of Me'; a Penguin books anthology about mixed-race identity. He recently collaborated with author Caryl Phillips on a photographic essay for the BBC and Arts Council England dealing with London and immigration, and curates the online journal Afropean.com, for which he received the 2013 ENAR foundation (European Network Against Racism) award for a contribution to a racism free Europe. He currently hosts a youth travel show for the BBC and recently finished the first draft of a travel narrative about a five month trip through ‘Black Europe’, due to be released in 2015. john@afropean.com

Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work and the impetus behind it?

John:  Well, I hold American and British passports, I was raised between London and Sheffield, in the UK.  My Father is black, my mother is white, and I was born on the cusp of Capricorn and Aquarius, so even my star sign dual! So I identify with W.E.B DuBois’ double consciousness stuff. I feel as though I kind of grew up in that liminal terrain between cultures, races and spaces,  and I suppose my work is all about trying to find some kind of coherence in that liminal space. Instead of seeing myself as half-this or mixed-that, I try to solidify the cultural ground I walk on as something whole. And that is where this term ‘Afropean’ comes in.

It is a platform to engage with-and acknowledge the duality of- my influences, whilst bringing them together as something new. I didn’t create the term Afropean, so in a way I’m working off the backs of a Generation X who came of age in the 90’s. People like Neneh Cherry, Zap Mama, Stephen Simmonds, Les Nubians…artists and musicians who brought forth new aesthetics that were a mix of African and European influences. The word was being used, but it hadn’t really entered the popular lexicon, so I snapped up afropean.com and tried to create a community around that. See if there was a way for Afro-Europeans to get a sense of themselves in the same way I feel African Americans did.

Bani: Do people use the word in real life? I mean, outside the internet.

John: I’m hearing it more and more. They seem to be most comfortable using it France. To be honest, though, I don’t necessarily use it in on a day to day basis. It’s more an inclusive platform from which we can all engage in the idea of a Europe more in tune with its multi-cultural, multi-racial population. I’m seeing it online more and more though and, in a way, for better or worse, the line between ‘real life’ and our digital lives is getting ever blurrier.

Bani: Of course.

John: So to see it growing online, must be to see it growing on the streets, and in people’s minds. Our community on Facebook and the subscribers to the website is growing exponentially.

Bani: Which speaks to a great need for this type of platform.

John: I think so. It’s weird – growing up in the 90’s, as a young black person, there were very few celebrations of black culture. At least, it never entered the mainstream really. Anything mainstream that could be called ‘black’ came from the States. It’s still that way now, to a certain extent, but things are changing. I think Afropean is one of many outlets taking advantage of this wild-west era of the internet, where we have the opportunity to cut out the people controlling the media, and tell our own stories.

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Bani: Which is a main obstacle in trying to build (cross-cultural) community – the representation in media (or lack thereof) sends a message to marginalized people that they don’t exist, or do, but in limited, stereotypical ways.

John: Exactly! I work in TV, and also as a writer, and the classic thing you hear is ‘oh, we already did a show or book about black people 15 years ago, we don’t need another one…”

Bani: Because a black person can’t tell a story in the mainstream without it being an “identity narrative”.

John: Exactly, and as you know, it isn’t just ethnicity, but also gender, sexual orientation and so on.

Bani: The default narrator is a straight white male.

John: For sure.  And within the sphere of ‘black culture’ it can sometimes feel that the default narrator is African American.  Something that I’d like to make clear though, is that I don’t really see myself being part of that whole African American hegemony argument. So often you’ll see a division at black-consciousness conferences between African Americans and Afro-Europeans. Afropean is about being inclusive, and encouraging dialogue, and even though there was/is more room made for black American culture in Europe than black-European culture, I think the contribution of African Americans is certainly valuable and, at times, even a template to how we might be able to get a bit more unity and exposure in the afro-European community.

Bani: Word. I mean that it’s interesting to me that black-American history tends to overshadow Afropean “consciousness” but more so that in other regions (Asia, Latin America) black-American “culture” has been commodified and exported like a lifestyle that can be bought and sold. Yet when we look to local movements to progress black communities, it’s like, a completely divorced thought.

John: Yes. One of the funny things I noticed on my voyage through ‘black Europe’ is that very often you’d find Ghanaians or Nigerians talking and dressing like parodies of African Americans because it’s more culturally acceptable to be African American around the world, and especially in Europe, than it is to be African.  And they tend to assume that very commodified and exported idea African American culture you’re talking about.

New Europe

Bani: About your travels, you took a five month trip through “black Europe” to document Afropean culture across the continent, is that right?

John: Exactly. After seeing these interesting Afropean images creep through the stereotypical black images in the media…in places like Trace magazine, and in some of the great Afropean soul and Hip-Hop, I wanted to see where this stuff was born…was there a community to liaise with? What does it mean to be Afropean? Is there any point in trying to bring the black European diaspora together, or are we all too different? These were some of the questions I sought to answer on my travels.

Bani: What were the results? I’m sure it’s too long and nuanced to answer here (that’s why you have a book-type project in the works, no?) but did you feel a sense of collective identity? Were there communities to liaise with?

John: Yes, it is complicated, but ultimately I did find commonality through people living life on the margins. We were similar by virtue of facing the same problems: old, stubborn European countries clinging on to outdated self-images and national identities. That’s the thing about Europe – it is so old, and  obviously its colonial history heavily shaped the way many European countries view themselves and ‘the other’. And it’s a case of teaching an old dog new tricks.

Bani: Do people create problems for you in reading your identity outside of Europe? As in assuming you’re not from there? Does that happen within Europe too?

John: I had an interesting chat with a black British friend living in New York recently and he told me that I’d have no problem with white people in America at all, as soon as they heard my accent. Because when they heard me speak with a British voice, the blackness disappears. It is a blackness that Americans don’t have a shared history with, so they feel more relaxed. I thought that was interesting, and during the many times I’ve been to America, I’ve never been victim to any overt racism.

Because of my background, which actually also has Scottish, Irish and Cherokee America roots, I find that half the world actually looks like me. When I was in Fiji, they thought I was Fijian, when I was in Morocco, they thought I was Berber, when I was in Japan, people even thought I was part Japanese.

Bani: Same.

Black Guard

John: But I would say that there is a certain ‘Afropean’ sensibility.  Look at and listen to Sade, Les Nubians, Zap Mama, Seal, Stephen Simmonds, Baloji, Joy Denalane and you get a sense of it.  I very much feel Afro-European and I think people sense that more and more – the way I talk, act, dress…it is all connected to blackness and Europe. Or, rather, a response to being black in Europe.

Bani: Was there something you learned about the diaspora that you hadn’t known/realized before your trip?

John: So many things, but because I’m not a historian, it was finding out about people like Severus Septemius, the African Roman Emperor, and, in racist Russia, learning that possibly the most famous Russian, and the Godfather of Russian literature, Alexandr Pushkin, was an Afropean, and even wrote a book about his great black grand father entitled Peter The Great’s Negro. So many stories I wasn’t taught at my British school, which led me to believe black people’s contribution to history was slavery and the Blues.

Bani: Sigh

John: So it was that the diaspora isn’t some new phenomenon. Immigration isn’t new. The Moors practically created Southern Europe.

Bani: Right, how can people express their identity when they’re taught it doesn’t really exist. Schooling + media = erasure.

John: Exactly. I often say that my identity is something I’m constantly in the process of inventing.  Maybe it is a human condition, but it isn’t made easy when you’re told you have no history or place, really, in the country you call home.

Bani: It’s funny. On Facebook, some folks and I shared a link for a round-up on the best being Latino-in-New York movies and one of us lamented on how we gotta make an Ecuadorian-NY film ’cause none exist! Yet there are a zillion Ecuadorians in NYC. Anyway, that’s just my background.

John: But it’s true. You need to do it! I’d watch for sure! Ha!

Bani: It would be epic! And I never use that word

John: Ha! It’s interesting, I literally just came off the phone with Angelique Kidjo before this interview and she said that she loved New York because the whole world is there. I don’t mean to make light of the struggle of people in New York but the whole world is in London too. In fact, I think a recent census said that more languages were spoken in London than anywhere else on earth.

Bani: I came from that background, of being in the most diverse town in the world, and not seeing reflections of that anywhere. That shit is internalized.

John: But here is the problem – London still exports this image of itself – the Queen, Big Ben, London guards. The UK isn’t a democracy. We still have hereditary peers in the house of lords. 1/6th of hereditary peers are required to be male. That shit still exists here! NY has the advantage of being relatively new so it is a little easier to shape in one’s own image.

But London is still controlled by a small elite, who are often aristocracy, often went to the same private schools, the same universities. They are the people who don’t just control the country, but also the very idea of what it means to be from that country. Most of Europe is the same. It is an old, stubborn class-based continent.

Europe has been written about so much, but travelling through the continent and looking with new eyes really shed light on new landscapes…new stories. We think the world is small, but it is only small if you look at it with one pair of eyes. I would love to read the story of a Guarani travelling to Norway, or an Eskimo journeying to Brazil. If you feel that you are living on the margins of society, it’s your duty to help edge your story onto the pages of the narrative, and turn what society calls niche, into something everyone can understand. Travel and tell your story, whatever your background. Oh, and checkout afropean.com! :)

Bani: Word!

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Retracing The Freedom Trail by Bike #Dispatch: Erick Cedeño

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Over the past three years Erick Cedeño has traveled long distances by bicycle: from Vancouver, Canada to Tijuana, Mexico and from St. Augustine, Florida to New York City. But in August of 2013 he embarked on a different kind of trip, one measured not only by miles but also by history. He rode from New Orleans, Louisiana to Niagara Falls, Canada along The Underground Railroad route, developed by The Adventure Cycling Association using the spiritual slave song “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, which relays directions for escaping to freedom by following the North Star. One known path followed waterways from Alabama north to the Ohio River — and this became the basis for his route.

Bani Amor:  Tell us about yourself. What do you do and why do you do it?

Erick Cedeño:  My dream is to see the world by bicycle. In 2011, I did my first trip – 2,300 miles from Vancouver, Canada to Tijuana, Mexico. Then in 2012 I rode from St. Augustine, Florida to New York City. My last trip was from New Orleans to Niagara Falls, Canada retracing one of the original Underground Railroad routes by bicycle. I do it to challenge myself mentally and physically, but also to learn about history and people. After my first bicycle trip, I fell in love with traveling by using my own power.

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Photos courtesy of Erick Cedeño

With traveling by bicycle, you get to smell, see, and feel like no other method of transportation.You engage with and discover people, nature, yourself. I learned that traveling by bicycle gives me an inner peace. You learn to stay in the present moment and not to think about the challenges in the past or the future. You learn that you have only the few miles ahead.

Bani: Sounds mad Buddhist. When did you first experience the urge to travel?

Erick: When I was 5-6 years old my mother would take me walking to a restaurant every Friday. We would walk about a mile and half to McDonald’s and walk back home. One day, my mother (who did not drive and depended on public transportation) saw me walking by myself past the McDonald’s about almost 2 miles from my house. She stopped the bus and got off. She asked me where was I going. And my response to her was – I just wanted to see what was past McDonald’s. I had a love for traveling and exploring at a very young age. She never was upset with me from that incident, as a matter of fact she encouraged me to travel and explore.

Bani: Yesss, I was the same exact way

Erick: I always said that I was born to the perfect mother because she would never limit me. She would travel everywhere and I always wanted to go with her. One time, we dropped my mother off at the airport and I said to her, “I want to go with you”, and she said you can’t because you do not have clothes or your passport, and I replied, “I do, they are both in your suitcase”, which I had placed there myself. She bought the ticket at the airport counter and I got to travel with her.

Bani:  jeje

Erick:  One time, when I was 11 years old, my mother took me on a two-week trip to see the pyramids of Mexico, and that had such an impact on me and my love for travel. I believe it came from having been born and raised to a mother who always wanted to travel and see the world. She always told me when I was young…when I die, I will die happy because I will not have any regrets. My love is to travel and that brings me happiness. Those words have stayed with me ever since.

Bani:  She sounds like such a badass!

Erick:  She was fearless…

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Bani: Back to your cycling adventures, what inspired the Underground Railroad trip?

Erick:  One day, I was having lunch and thinking which route to travel next and it came to my head…I wonder if I can retrace the Underground Railroad. From that moment, I got home and started researching to see if it was possible to travel, ride and visit historical sites of what is known as the “Freedom Trail”.

Bani:  Why did it appeal to you?

Erick:  I find traveling by bicycle physically and mentally challenging. But when you travel with a purpose it is more enjoyable.

Bani:  Did you come out of that trip different than you were before? How?

Erick:  Every trip teaches you different lessons and you always come out different. This particular trip taught me many lessons – how previous people who had traveled the same route endured many sacrifices to reach freedom. It taught me that when we travel with a purpose we can endure challenges. My bicycle was stolen in Buffalo, NY, only 15 miles from reaching Canada after traveling more than 2,100 miles. I did not want to give up on reaching Canada. I wanted to experience the same feeling the previous freedom seekers felt in crossing Niagara Falls. I was able to borrow a kid’s 10 speed bicycle to finish my journey.

Bani:  That’s incredible. So what’s next for you? I heard you wanted to bike from Florida to Panama, and across Africa.

Erick:  I would like to retrace the Trail of Tears from North Georgia to Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears was the forced relocation of Native American nations from southeastern parts of the United States following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. I would also like to ride from Miami, Florida to Panama City, Panama, where I was born. My goal is to travel through Mexico and Central America to learn about the ancient civilizations, speaking to elders and shamans along the way.

I just want to encourage people of all ages to travel and discover their world by bicycle. It could be their neighborhoods, towns, cities, countries or the world, but when you travel by bicycle you will definitely learn something new. Every single time.

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Closing The Adventure Gap #Dispatch: James Mills

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James Edward Mills is a freelance journalist, independent media producer and founder or The Joy Trip Project. Working in the outdoor industry since 1989 as a guide, outfitter, independent sales representative, writer and photographer, his experience includes a broad range of expeditions that include mountaineering, rock climbing, backcountry skiing and kayaking. He is currently a contributor to several outdoor-focused print and online publications that include National Geographic Adventure, Rock & Ice and Alpinist. His first book, The Adventure Gap (Mountaineers Press) is available here.

Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?

James Mills:  I’m a freelance journalist specializ[ing] in creating stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living. I also have a direct interest in issues of diversity and environmental justice.

I recently decided that I’m not a travel writer. I’m a writer who happens to travel. I don’t think they are the same things. Travel writing is a very specific genre of literature that doesn’t often include the things that I write about. The same goes for adventure writer but to a lesser extent. I definitely write about adventure, but not for adventure’s sake. My focus is primarily on individuals whose work includes a higher purpose in adventure or exploration that has a humanitarian focus or an interest in environmental protection.

For example I’ve written a lot about Shannon Galpin who has done quite a bit of work in Afghanistan on behalf of the empowerment of women and girls through the creation of the first national female cycling team. Travel, adventure definitely, but in the pursuit of a much higher cause.

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Bani:  So what was the spark that got you in the outdoors in the first place?

James: When I was 9 years old my brother and I joined a Boy Scout Troop in Los Angeles that was heavily into backpacking and mountaineering. From then on through high school I spent at least one weekend every month camping somewhere, primarily in Southern California. When I graduated from college I took up rock climbing and then got a job doing outdoor retail at REI in Berkeley. From there I worked for the North Face in sales and started my own agency in the midwest in 1992. I’ve been here ever since.

Bani:  Awesome. Was there a particular instance that inspired you to start writing with a “higher purpose” in mind?

James:  It was right after 9/11 when I decided I wanted to make a career change from sales into journalism. At the time I felt like no one was really doing much to tell the stories of people trying to save the world while there seemed to be plenty of those trying to destroy it or capitalize off of the suffering of others. Since I started writing professionally those are the topics that I’ve felt most drawn to and passionate about.

Bani:  Which leads us to your first book, The Adventure Gap. Could you tell us more about how the project came about?

James:  I’d been writing about diversity in outdoor recreation for a while. I produced a documentary for an NPR program on the Buffalo Soldiers as well as several magazine stories. I was working on a piece about diversity in the National Park Service when I became acquainted with the newly appointed director of diversity and inclusion at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin. I was originally interviewing her on her role in making the most prominent outdoor education institution more relevant to people of color.AG-Cover003

That conversation led to a much deeper discussion on what practical steps one could take toward achieving the goal of great inclusivity. A few weeks later I got an email from her asking me what I thought about putting an all African-American team on the summit of Denali.  I naturally thought it was a great idea and asked what I could do to be a part of it. I knew right away that it would make for a great story and of course a book.

Bani:  Expedition Denali was a game-changer! What are your hopes in how the book is received?

James:  Well I hope that it will sell a million copies! But the reality is I’m concerned that it will fall on deaf ears. Our modern world is too full of people today who simply won’t understand why this was such a landmark event. Even though the team didn’t summit, it set in motion a conversation about a critical issue that each of us, regardless of race, will have to face at some point in the future – a profound lack of support for environmental protection among the majority of the US population. But because there are so many people prepared to deny that diversity in outdoor recreation is important, we’re going to face an uphill fight to create a movement toward greater inclusion. I can only hope that I succeeded in writing a compelling enough adventure story that will captivate readers’ attention long enough to make them think about the book’s primary message and overall theme.

Bani:  Addressing the whitewashing of adventure media is one thing, but how do we effectively continue a conversation around environmental and conservation issues within our own communities of color? You’re challenged with getting white outdoorsy people and urban-dwelling people of color to agree on something.

James:  As a person of color by definition if I continue to travel, adventure and write my way through life I’m contributing to the diversity of outdoor recreation. I can also try to tell the story of people of color out there pushing the boundaries of the field and illustrate their efforts to defy notions that suggest that these are things the black and brown folks don’t do.

I’m pretty cynical to the belief that I’ll ever convince anyone to think differently about these issues. As a writer and a journalist all I can really do is tell the truth as I see it. As an athlete, now that both my legs work properly again, all I can do is push the boundaries of my abilities and do it with style.

Bani: Why do you think that lie – that black and brown folks just don’t care about nature – is so pervasive? Do you think that’s just the fault of poor representation in media or an intentional notion of white supremacist thinking?

James:  Unfortunately it’s a lie that we perpetuate among ourselves. Young people are given a very clear message that unambiguously says, “black people don’t…” There are stereotypes that we impose upon ourselves and people in our community that are so thoroughly entrenched that to do anything contrary to this common belief is to be “less black” or trying to “act white”.

The consequence of going against the accepted definition of what it means to be black in America today is to be ostracized by one’s peers or even one’s own family. Who wants that? So we perpetuate the lie in order to fit in, but we deny ourselves the opportunity to experience something that is not only wonderful but part of our birthright as human beings, spending time outdoors in pursuit of something extraordinary, an ecstatic experience in the natural world.

Bani:  What are your plans for after the book release?

James:  Sell, sell, sell! I’m coming full circle on my career, but now I’m pushing a product of my own creation. I want to write popular fiction and hopefully create compelling characters – people of color – who exemplify the best qualities of stewards dedicated to protecting and preserving the natural world.

Bani:  Sounds like a plan!

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Honey, Food is All About Power #Dispatch: Thy Tran

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THY TRAN is a San Francisco-based writer and chef-instructor who specializes in the history and culture of food. Her research into how diverse communities grow, cook, sell and eat has taken her from Seoul to Singapore, Cusco to Kochi. In addition to contributing features in publications such as the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Saveur and Fine Cooking, she co-authored Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide, Taste of the World, Essentials of Asian Cooking and The Kitchen Companion. Thy is a founder of the Asian Culinary Forum, a nonprofit organization that hosts multidisciplinary symposia exploring the forces that affect Asian communities and their  cuisines around the world.

Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?

Thy Tran: Firstly, I’m a freelance food writer and editor, with an emphasis on providing historical and cultural context in nonfiction culinary reference books (cookbooks, food encyclopedias & dictionaries, travel guide books, etc.). I’m also a chef-instructor (I was trained as a chef and used to work in restaurants), so I teach a range of cooking classes, for both youth and adults, lots of nonprofit cultural centers, culinary academies, and the like.

I started a nonprofit, Asian Culinary Forum, to try and address the media’s messed-up representations and narratives of Asian communities and their food. But that’s definitely a labor of love — all volunteer work but extremely rewarding, too.

For the work itself, I veer strongly away from trend or lifestyle topics. I’m mostly interested in how people cook in their own homes, the kinds of decisions they make for their themselves and their families, and how what we eat is a living thing, always changing, no matter how hard we try to imagine it as “true” or “right” or “authentic.”

I didn’t start out specializing in Asian cuisines (I was trained in “classic” French traditions), but once I started freelancing, it was obvious that people expected me to address Asian cuisines and would, more importantly, pay me to do that. I do LOVE what I do, so no complaints. But there’s definitely some pigeonholing that happens in the professional world.

Bani:  How do power dynamics play out in the ways we read and write about food?

Thy:  Oh, honey, food is ALL about power!

Photos courtesy of Thy Tran

Photos courtesy of Thy Tran

Cookbooks that are meant to be sold to travelers as souvenirs will still have a bit of romanticizing of history, rural communities, mother’s kitchens, etc., and then set up a dichotomy between imperial dishes (which are the ones that tend to become famous in other countries) and “country cooking” of the peasants.

Take any classic cuisine, from France to China to Thailand, and it’s the flavors and stories of the court society that is served for special occasions, including upscale restaurants for travelers. Parallel to that, people like to “discover” and experience rural food off the beaten path. The cookbook industry reflects that tendency to think of food in those two categories. Normal, everyday food regular people eat is not what most people think when they think of the flavors of another country.

There’s a difference between power and privilege. The two are related, of course, and as international travelers and women and people of color, we negotiate them in complex ways.

When I was a student and traveled low budget in Europe, I had trash thrown at me and learned the racial epithets for “Asian” in various countries just by walking down the street. Now, in business dress, people assume I’m Japanese or Chinese, and so they treat me very well, to my face at least, because they think I’ll spend lots of money.

Bani:  Then it shifts when we look at who’s marketing whose culture for which audience and who gets appointed the authority on a country’s cuisine.

Thy:  Ahh, yes. And hence the reason that it was three women of color, all of whom worked in food publishing, who founded the Asian Culinary Forum. We were so tired of seeing others determine the narratives.

Bani: That’s dope.

Thy:  Some would say it’s “the market” who determines what ends up in cookbooks. For example, editors will say that people will want, for example (a real one), a story about clay pots in Vietnamese cooking, because when they go to the restaurant, they always see on the menu clay pot catfish or tofu or whatever dish.

You will try to explain to the editor that NO ONE in Vietnam or no Vietnamese immigrants use clay pots. It was used during times of war and poverty, when the military needed metal or when a person can’t afford modern cookware. But the editor will say: well, we already shot the photo, and the food stylist used a really beautiful clay pot, and so…please write a few paragraphs about this “traditional” method of cooking.

Notice that the readers are always assumed to be white, or at least not of the ethnicity of the author of color. That’s a seriously huge assumption that deeply affects the voice of travel and culture (including food) writing.

Bani:  Yes, the default reader remains white, even though statistics show otherwise.

Thy:  So, how can you argue with “the market” which is a stand-in for “majority” which is stand-in for “white”?

Bani:  And the writer must twist their voice to suit the white gaze. The result in a lot of food and travel writing is you end up getting a lot of white people tryna sound like each other.

Thy:  I used to joke that Saveur magazine had three basic narratives for their features:

1) Back in college, I visited this completely alien country and fell in love with it immediately. I wandered the alleyways and discovered amazing places with real people serving real food. I revisit as often as I can, and I now consider it a second home. Here’s a great recipe for paella.

2) When we fled the war, the only thing we took were the clothes on our backs and our grandmother’s recipe book. Now, join me as I return to my homeland and learn how to make dumplings while reconciling with past devastation and modern development. [Insert requisite description of boy using cell phone while riding a water buffalo.]

3) When I was little, our nanny/cook/farm hand would let me sit on a stool in the kitchen and she’d sing while grinding corn. Here is her recipe for tamales.

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Photo by Myleen Hollero

Bani:  Terrible, please stop!  Is that what you meant by pigeonholing in the industry – getting sicked with the Asian stories, as long as it’s in their voice?

Thy:  I could go on for hours about voice, whose voice becomes expert and why, and the way money becomes a part of that equation. It’s a very touchy topic among my colleagues, and I can tell you that there are many Facebook debates about this among food writers.

Well-meaning white writers feel real confusion and, depending on their personality, varying levels of anger and grief about why we writers of color are upset at the invisible expectations. I should say, invisible to them.

Pet peeves — like anonymity in photo captions (“sidewalk vendor serving up delicious soup”) or tired tropes (“her grandmother’s recipe”) — sound like petty complaints and apparently should be dismissed in the face of a world traveler’s good intentions to explore and educate.

Deeper issues, such as who can become instantly an expert in anything outside of their own experience gets lost in things like “the market” or by explanation of passion being the most important part of travel and writing.

Bani:  Their delicate feelings always gotta come first.

Thy:  I think the privilege of being a blank slate — that any interest can become an expertise (and one that earns you money) — is something still very much taken for granted. On the other hand, I can assure you that there isn’t a single editor who would sign me up for an article on traditional uses of olives, even if I traveled in the Middle East for a summer and read a few cookbooks — which is what many white writers can get away with.

Bani:  Shit. Seems bleak.

Thy:  Actually, I think the whole abundance of unique personal approaches to cooking on the internet now is a good thing for this. When you have gatekeepers, the stories are obviously much more controlled. There isn’t money in internet writing, but then, that’s a good thing for the larger picture.

Bani:  Yes – fuck the gatekeepers. The larger the picture, the better.

Thy:  I also make a point of holding editors accountable for terrible decisions. You don’t want to burn bridges if you plan to keep making money, but there are ways of letting the editors and others in the industry know about irresponsible, unprofessional practices. Once, an editor decided to change my submitted article drastically without letting me know. I wrote a piece on Sikhs and their tradition of serving free food to everyone regardless of race or religion in their gurdwaras. I mentioned a festival in California’s Central Valley where 90,000 people shared food with all-volunteer labor and no money exchanging hands. The editor decided that couldn’t possible be right, and so she just downgraded the attendance to 9,000.

She also shifted the entire article into first person, and even made up some conversations at the temple, in order to make it more “authentic.” This resulted in me seeming to talk while everyone was cooking in the langhar, which would have gone completely against the practice of meditation and silence in that particular kitchen. The article ran that way.

The changes were so egregious that, years later, I mentioned them when I was a speaker at a major food conference in front of nearly a thousand other writers and editors as an example of what needs to change. So, never stop fighting, but you just have to think carefully about where you can make the most impact.

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2nd Generation Immigrants, 1st Generation Travelers #Dispatch: Desi Globetrotter

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Parm Johal is the Founder and Editor of Desi Globetrotter, an international travel blog with a focus on independent travel through a South Asian lens. Based in Vancouver, Parm is a freelance travel writer with articles published in Conde Nast Traveller India, Huffington Post Canada, AsiaRooms.com, Mybindi.com and MasalaMommas.com. Parm’s favourite travel moments include backpacking solo in Spain and Portugal, exploring the streets of Mumbai and experiencing the magic of travel with her husband in Turkey, Europe, Thailand, Japan, Argentina and Uruguay.

At Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

All photos courtesy of Desi Globetrotter

Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself. What do you do and how would you describe your work?

Parm Johal: I’m the Founder and Editor of Desi Globetrotter, a travel blog with a focus on independent travel through a South Asian lens. My travel articles use Indian cultural references, slang, pop culture, Bollywood and a bit of humour to connect to Indian travellers around the world. My passion for travel writing began when I launched Desi Globetrotter in 2012 – really from a need to find a creative outlet around my passion for travel.

My second passion is Arts & Culture – I’m also a full-time Arts Programmer at a community centre near Vancouver, BC where I plan and develop arts based workshops, build community partnerships, plan community festivals and organize public art and community art murals. My two passions intersect when I travel as well – I love checking out the local street art scenes when I’m travelling whether it’s in Buenos Aires or Havana. I’m very grateful for finally designing the life I want and following both of my passions.

Bani:  That’s awesome! What prompted you to start Desi Globetrotter in the first place?

Parm: I felt there was no travel blog online that really spoke to my experiences and interests as a South Asian traveler. Although I’m born and raised in Canada, I still have a very strong affiliation to my culture.

I’ve been inspired by travel bloggers worldwide, but there are very few travel blogs written for a South Asian audience. Although the spirit of travel is universal, the way we view the world is often defined by our cultural background and many young South Asians tend to struggle with their Eastern traditions and Western upbringing. For example, a gap year, where you take a year off to travel after high school or university is a common concept for Westerners, but not for South Asians. Try explaining a gap year to Indian parents – good luck! Desi Globetrotter aims to bridge that gap and be an online travel resource and a voice for South Asian travellers.

For instance, when I was in the souks of Fez, Morocco, seeing an Amitabh Bachchan (legendary Bollywood actor) DVD being sold on the streets is what caught my attention. I would not have read that in a mainstream blog. Also, when I was Buenos Aires, I read about a Sikh temple in northern Argentina. No mainstream travel blog would cover that. Nor would they cover how Turkish Kemal Pasha dessert is very similar to Indian Gulab Jamun. Desi Globetrotter readers are wanting to read more targeted content – and Bollywood, Indian food, similarities in cultural traditions is what helps bridge that gap.

Bani:  I feel that. When I’m traveling, I’m always looking for other Spanish-speakers, and get super excited when I meet other Ecuadorians!

Parm: It’s so funny. My parents barely travel so one of the few things my mom always asks 1) Did you meet any Indian people 2) Is there any Indian food 3) Did you talk to any Indian people.

Bani:  Haha!

Parm:  I guess it’s that connection we’re after.

Bani:  True.

In Paris

Parm in Paris

Parm: The other reason I also started Desi Globetrotter is that all eyes are on the Indian globetrotter as well as the Chinese tourist. South Asian from India are travelling more and especially young Indians are looking for independent, non-packaged options as well.

They are connected, tech savvy and very different from the parents generation. My parents for example barely travel and I know they are uncomfortable eating non-Indian food or venturing outside of their norm. Younger Millennial South Asians are exploring cultures, eating like the locals and trying to understand the local cultures. But slowly the parents generation will evolve a bit as well.

Bani:  But isn’t there a part of South Asian culture that’s always been about travel, always someone in each family who has traveled abroad, some who’ve stayed there?

Parm: Yes, immigration or studying abroad for school has always been a part of our culture. I mean come to Canada, US and UK and South Asians have made a home. Vancouver has a long history of South Asian pioneers making their way here as far back as the early 1900s.

My dad came to Canada in 1960s and my mom in the 1970s. Back then it was always about travelling to make a better life, working hard and sending money back home.

Bani:  Did these earlier generations of travelers influence you at all?

Parm: No, I don’t think the earlier generations influenced me, but what did was two things – 1) independence and growing up – leaving my small town for the big city of Vancouver to go to university and earlier travels with my mom to visit family in UK and India when I was young.  2) Growing up in a small town in the 80s where there was a lot of racism.

When you’re 18 and in small town BC you have to leave and thankfully I came to Vancouver, a very multicultural city. Although racism still can exist, it’s more covert, and going to university and meeting so many new people was awesome. Many of my close friends were an influence in my travels. That’s where I came across the idea of a gap year. Trying to explain that to my parents that I wanted to work on cruise ships was tough!. They were like “What?!”

In terms of issues that people of Indian descent face when traveling I would say there are lots of stereotypes like those I mention in my post 9 Things Not to Say to Indians When Travelling or Anytime. Things like “Do you Speak English?” or “I heard Indians smell bad because they eat a lot of curry” or “Did you have an arranged marriage?” It’s okay to ask questions out of curiosity, but I find the way it’s asked is almost always insulting.

Bani:  So fucked up!

Parm: Yes, sometimes I’m so dumbfounded that I don’t even have a response and then I’m kicking myself afterwards.  I think now with the world forever changed by technology, POC have a voice more than ever and can help shape and change those perceptions.

Bani:  Especially when it comes to travel media. White people are just the gatekeepers in most industries and they get to tell the world’s stories. Even good white travel writers can’t speak up on things you or I talk about. It’s specific to our experiences as POC. And it’s saddening that most travel media is specific to white people’s experiences. It locks out all this potential.

Parm: Yes, that’s exactly it. Although I’m a newbie in the travel writing world, I’m trying to educate myself on how to use words properly and in context. I never know if using the word “exotic”* is ever appropriate.  There’s also another dynamic as well – I’m born and raised Canadian. I didn’t grow up in India. I never faced the hardships my parents have so I do come from a place of privilege. But I’m still viewed as a minority and my skin colour, name and interest in South Asian culture puts me at a disadvantage.

Bani:  Same. I’m from the States and living in my fam’s homeland, Ecuador. It definitely puts privilege in perspective. Then it’s uncomfortable to be lumped in with these other USian expats, who are white and way privileged. Yuck.

But folks like you and I are becoming the majority in many first world countries. Looking around, our stories are mad normal to me, not some sort of exception to the dominant narrative. I just think we need bigger platforms for talking about these specific experiences – traveling abroad as POC.

Parm: Yeah, I hear ya. Even when I visit India, locals there have a way of just picking up that I’m Canadian. As a travel writer I didn’t even flinch when pitching to Conde Nast Traveller India – I didn’t even think of pitching to the US version.

Bani:  Ha!

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

Parm: We need to start a POC travel conglomerate. The tourism boards are picking it up and are going more targeted. It just sometimes ends up being more about $$$ POC tourists bring than the stories themselves. In local Vancouver media, every summer during tourism season the media picks up on how much money was spent locally by Indian and Chinese gobetrotters and speculate whether the numbers are up or down.

Bani:  Yup, at the end of the day, it’s all about money. This is why travel writing vs. straight up tourism propaganda is brought up so much these days. And at times, I think POC travelers should be especially wary of who they’re throwing money at, because colonialism and neo-colonialism have fucked with our histories most and it’s intricately tied up with tourism.

Parm: Yah, neo-colonialism is still very much in tact. I always feel stuck with this – on one hand my blog is geared to South Asian travellers and I want to work on opportunities that come with working with mainstream travel brands that can help out my readers, but at the same time I want to be careful in what info I’m putting out there.

I just try to be as authentic as possible and talk about my experience in that moment rather than trying to speculate on another culture. Colonialism and neo-colonialism are so complex and so ingrained that sometimes people aren’t aware of it. Voluntourism can also be a form of neo-colonialism.

Bani:  Absolutely.

Parm: Part of it is what we’ve been fed in the media and part of it is the education systems in the West. With the world so connected right now and people learning from other cultures without borders, it helps to bring out our stories more to enhance understanding.

I would like mainstream travel media to listen and observe and to peel back the complex layers, histories, and experiences of POC as travellers and travel writers. To give a balanced view of the world, these voices need to be heard.

*-Use of the word “exotic” denotes Othering language, turning the subject into the foreign, often inferior “other’ and the user as “normal”, common, accepted.

If you enjoyed this #Dispatch, please consider donating using the Paypal button on the right-hand column. Thanks!

Telling It Like It Is

What up folks,

It’s been a while since we’ve had a legit one-on-one. In the meantimes, I’ve been working hard to deliver you the #Dispatch interview series with travel writers of color, our last one of which featured writer Nandini Seshadri in the talk Traveling While White, Traveling While Brown. Meanwhile, our talk with Abena Clarke, Travel Is Not A White Boy’s Club (And Never Has Been) was recently republished by Matador Network. The comments on there remind me how important this project is and I’m pumped to keep bringing you this suff. If you are someone you know would like to be interviewed, get in touch at heyitsbani@gmail.com.

Also also, Nathan Mizrachi over at Life is a Camino interviewed me about traveling on the cheap in his masterpost – Not Rich, Just Savvy: 9 Travel Bloggers Share Their Budget Travel Tips. Actual quote – “Sell all your shit, travel light and go far.” – Me.

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Finally, if reading about canines in space, Colorado’s trans community or James Baldwin’s exile floats your boat, you better check out my Legends and Expats series over on Nowhere Magazine, which focuses on diaspora.

And if you’re into showing love, do it with your dollar bills! Click on the Donate button over on your right ’cause I’m cute and broke.

Traveling While White, Traveling While Brown #Dispatch: Nandini Seshadri

Nandini Seshadri is a freelance writer, short-story author and social media addict. She keeps a blog over at nandinisniche.tumblr.com which she updates mostly when she’s supposed to be working on her novel. Her work is set to appear on Narrative.ly and Mommyish.com soon.

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Bani Amor:  Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?

Nandini Seshadri:  I’m a fiction writer, mainly. I write short stories and try very hard to write novels. I’m also a longtime blogger, started blogging way back before blogger even existed (2003). But blogging has somewhat fallen by the wayside since I had kids. These days my primary identity seems to be mom.

My work is and has always been very feminist. I am Indian, and it has always been very clear to me how much my society stacks the deck against me. Didn’t hurt to have an openly feminist mother.

Bani:  Feminist moms are the shit (hey ma!)

Nandini:  And also, since I have moved around a lot since childhood, never living in one city (sometimes even country) or one home very long, I also write a great deal about identity, fitting in, and being an outsider.

Bani:  What usually enables and propels you to travel?

Nandini:  Work! (and following spouses or parents for work) I come from a family of immigrants. In the middle-class South Indian community I come from, there is this deeply embedded idea that someone who gets out of India has “made it”. It definitely used to be much stronger when my family first emigrated. I also ended up traveling during college for debating tournaments. I am now in a financial position to travel for pleasure too, and do it happily and eagerly.

One of the first members of my family to go to USA was my cousin (who is actually my father’s age because of the age gap between siblings) in the ’80s. Everyone sang his praises and he has always been considered the pioneering success. But because our family is also middle class and upper caste, there are also all these whispered stories about how he was ‘reduced’ to working as a dishwasher to put himself through college in America, the horror, the horror. Then his parents wanted to go see him in America too, and they went for six months, which was considered a huge deal… but again, whispered stories about how his mother wanted to stay longer, and in order to support herself she had to work as a nanny. That was also considered beneath us.

Photos courtesy of Nandini Seshadri

Photos courtesy of Nandini Seshadri

So I come from a certain subsection of Indians for whom this “going to foreign” deal is a complicated business in terms of power structures. Do we take the prestige and much-needed money from leaving but accept the dishonor of working menial jobs? Or do we stay and keep working “respectable”  but low-paying jobs in poor, unglamorous India?

Bani:  The immigrant’s dilemma.

Nandini:  I also think it’s interesting how we carry our hangups with us when we travel. I have relatives who will rant at great length at their racist experiences. “All the white guys in my office get birthday cards and cakes, but I don’t”, etc., but then again, have no trouble turning right back around and being shockingly racist towards darker skinned people.

And along comes a white liberal American saying how white people are the source of all racism, and I can’t help feeling that’s turning the rest of us into noble savages or people without humanity.

Bani:  It shows a complete lack of global historical context.

Nandini:  To be sure, white supremacy is the source of a lot of racism, but things like casteism or colorism – which are arguably shades of racism – aren’t fiction!

Bani:  I remember moving to Ecuador the first time, five years ago, and it was kind of on the heels of a falling out I had with several radical POC groups I was involved with in the States. It wasn’t until I started living in the South that I realized how white-centric our politics had been. How much of our energy they took.

Colorism, racism, white supremacy – specifically, anti-black racism and anti-indigenous sentiments – run MAD strong here. My concept of what it meant to fight racism completely changed. And I mean, over time. Of course, it’s still changing. Having grown up in the States, I will always be used to a single narrative on what that means. It’s regional.

Nandini:  Regional is exactly it. I’ve always had this idea that people of the same perceived racial group can have very different (and equally valid) reactions to a Supposedly Racist Thing. And you’re right, it all comes down to regional pressure points.

Like, to a person living in India, Gwen Stefani putting on a bindi to make a fashion statement is just complementary and mildly flattering (if they have heard of her). To an Indian-American it is cultural appropriation, right? With real harm done to the Indian-American community. I’d always tried to articulate it as  living in a country where you are the majority and you have the privilege of being secure and unshakably the ruling culture.

Bani:  Also, when you’re an immigrant, you’re reeling from one form or another of displacement. You tend to hold on tighter to your culture, or assimilate. It’s not that black and white, but in my experience, it does seem very extreme. You’re either really offended or don’t understand at all what the fuss is about.

Side story: a friend of mine here is Afro-Ecuadorian. She has a fro. She lives in a artist-traveler-hub kinda house, and foreigners are ALWAYS touching her hair. The way she reacts – positively – has always stopped me from acting on her “behalf” – telling them not to do that. And I honestly have fought the urge to many times. But I thought, who the fuck am I to tell her what to be offended by?

One day, I was watching a video in English, something made by black American women along the lines of “why you can’t touch my hair.” I explained to her what I was watching and she was so pissed! She wondered why anyone would give a shit one way or another.

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Nandini:  But I struggle with all this. I don’t live in India anymore even though I keep going back for visits because my family lives there. It’s easy to point fingers from the outside, right? And not at all productive. And then, my location means that my expressions of frustration fall on white ears more often than not and that is deeply uncomfortable for me too.

Bani:  Oh yeah. When (foreign) white women complain about sexist men in Ecuador, I feel caught.

Nandini:  How do you deal with that?

Bani:  Honestly, I’ve always sided with the men. I say, who are you to be coming here and judging All Ecuadorian Men based on the one or two you’ve slept with? As if white men in their home countries aren’t sexist! Which, really, is not “siding with men”, but unfortunately, it does put me in this #NotAllMen position, you understand, because they’re talking about my family and friends. But you can’t come here for your thesis or your bs volunteer job for a year and claim yourself as an expert on our men.

Nandini:  Oof, that makes me feel a bit like shit. I had such terrible experiences with street harassment and street sexual violence in India that when a white woman complains about it, I feel solidarity more than anything.   I can’t help it. Of course, it often goes off into the “gosh, Indian men!” direction and then I get all outraged and say angry things about racism. I feel caught too.

Bani: Well, notice I didn’t mention street harassment. These were about consensual relationships, not victimization that white women were feeling. I kind of feel like that’s another animal.

Another side story: when I was a teenager, visiting my white, gentrifying friend’s place in Brooklyn, she got hollered at and said something racist to me. I don’t remember what it was, but when I spoke up, she said “I can’t help it if they’re all the same demographic!” I stayed silent.

Nandini: OUCH. that hurts. What does one even do!!

Bani:  As with the white women in Ecuador, I see the uninvited, displacing presence of someone in a place inhabited by a majority of poc. Then there’s the misogyny. Women of color, who are native to certain places, we are caught under all these oppressions – we have to side with someone. But who will side with us?

That #YesAllWomen discussion completely, conveniently left out any discourse on what it means to move around the world as white.

Nandini:  That sounds interesting! Please say more on the “what it means to move around the world as white” and how #YesAllWomen left it out.

Bani:  The implications and repercussions of moving around the world as white. The entitlement, the lack of reflection. Because of white supremacy, whiteness is put up on a pedestal of beauty, and women of color around the world have to deal with this. Here, in Ecuador, there is a rainbow of skin colors, right? But mostly, we are dark-brown. But on TV, in the ads, the media, it’s all whiteness, all the time.

White women are rewarded for this, but when they travel – to neighborhoods of color, to majority non-white countries – there are repercussions.

Nandini:  I was trying to explain this to someone who lives in Vietnam and is tired of dealing with street harassment there – to the extent that she called it racism against white women. This friend of mine is pretty feminist, and I sympathized with her completely about the street harassment but had to really break it down that THIS is sexism and THAT is racism and street harassment ain’t THAT.

Bani: That is some basic shit.

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Finally, I wanted to revisit the convo that linked us up in the first place. We came into contact after I posted Teaching English in China while Black, and felt some sorta way about it. Mostly because linguistic imperialism really saddens me when a person of color engages in it and that person has US privilege and doesn’t take that into account, at all. You responded by rightly pointing out the Orientalism in the article.

Nandini:  Yes, I was wishing she would just come right out and say this is racist and NOT excusable. All through the article, though, she didn’t say that. Which I sympathize with, she was in a tough situation and I think she was trying to acknowledge her first world privilege in this way, by downplaying the fact that these third-worlders had some kind of power over her. It was as if she couldn’t bring herself to believe this is possible, because she was so ensconsed in her view of “I am superior to these people, and I am here to teach them things.”

I wish that when western feminists speak of intersectionality, they would speak more of first world privilege, orientalism, and the global South. I wish we would discuss the ways in which it especially benefits USA to be the cultural center of the world.

As for travelers of color from first world countries, I really do have a lot of sympathy for the impossible bind that many of them find themselves in, and most never suspect they will ever experience these things. There are so many blogs – google “black guy in Japan” – about the utter shock and horror at the racism they experience outside of USA. I feel for them.

But they’re also usually in the business of modern day colonialism. Which they don’t see anything wrong with, and maybe in capitalistic terms they’re right, but it’s hard to sympathize when those who are willingly cogs in the machine of wiping indigenous cultures and languages out. At the end of the day they are still US Americans, and they carry cultural hegemony with them. When they travel somewhere to teach rather than learn, the thing they are teaching is US supremacy.

Bani:  Starting a dialogue on that is tough, because there are many travelers of color, but not A TON, and when we feel empowered to talk on that – I mean a lot of folks my age, on social media – it’s with this double sense of entitlement. I should be able to go where I want, etc. So how do we approach places with the fullness of our identities?

When we travel somewhere, we take all that shit with us. We don’t leave anything behind. Our identities travel with us. I wonder how travel can change our identities, especially what and how we think about them.

Nandini:  That identity bit, right here in the feels. To travel is to lose your fixed identity.

I think as travelers we have a responsibility to read native voices, make ourselves familiar with context and history and culture before any significant travel. As first world travelers we need to be careful not to participate in neo-colonialism.

If first world people traveled for the reasons and with the attitude that third world people do – not for the romance of living an “authentic” noble-savage life, or for the sake of writing a book about how quaint “those people are”, or to teach them how to speak and think and live like first worlders. If, instead, first world travelers went consciously for (responsible) personal pleasure, or to learn something, or to earn a living. We would travel with arms stretched out for alms, conscious that we are in this to take more than we can hope to give, conscious that this means we humble ourselves. I think that would be the first step away from a neo-colonialist mindset. Away from entitlement and towards honoring the people of the places we travel to.

‘Outlaws, Outliers, And a Healthy Distrust of Single Narratives’ Dispatch: Lisa Hsia

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Winter 2013 filtered summer 2014 (1)

Images courtesy of Lisa Hsia satsumabug.com

Lisa Hsia (Satsumabug) is a writer and artist living in Oakland, California. Find her online at satsumabug.com

Bani Amor:  Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?

Lisa Hsia:  I like to describe myself as a writist and arter. It speaks to the way I see my work — transdisciplinary, with the different disciplines and genres bleeding into each other, rather than interdisciplinary, where you have a solid grounding in multiple disciplines and then put them together. In some ways I see my life as having that kind of slightly mish-mashy quality as well. I thought for a long time that I was going to be an academic, and even though I’m not, I was just thinking the other day that a lot of what I do as an artist looks like what I did as a scholar: read, think, talk, write. Everything is part of the process.

Bani:  Do you reflect on your travels as an artist, a scholar or both?

Lisa:  Definitely both. As an artist, as a visual artist as well as a writer, I’ve had a lot of practice in observation and imagination. Meanwhile, my academic training gave me a much more critically nuanced outlook than I think I would have had otherwise. But both backgrounds prompt me to study everything broadly before picking out individual things that interest me.

I would say, though, about traveling as an artist – I really started to think about the nature of seeing. I like to bring a sketchbook around with me, and I did that during our travels as well, but I noticed that when I first got to a place, I couldn’t sketch. I didn’t want to and it didn’t feel right. Over time I realized that was because I didn’t know yet what I was seeing, when everything was unfamiliar. We often tend to think of seeing as a kind of physical act, like something a camera does, but really it’s an act of interpretation (that’s borne out by the science of seeing too). Our brains are as involved as our eyes are. Stillness is an underrated part of traveling.

As a kid I used to get in fights with my mom when we went on trips, because she is of the go-go-go, guidebook-in-hand school of traveling, and I’d rather sit and take things in.

Bani:  I sometimes feel like a bad traveler because I never ‘see the sights’. I walk around and around and around and end up drinking with teenagers in parks. I’m trying to drink things in. That’s why I stay in places for too long, and sometimes end up moving in. It takes some time for me to get from the ‘witnessing’ to the ‘engaging’ to the ‘creating’.

Lisa:  Haha, I have blog posts about this that I wrote during our travels! When we started traveling I had a lot more angst about being a “bad traveler” – I would imagine some snotty jet-setter type telling me I hadn’t REALLY seen a place because I hadn’t seen the major sights.

Bani:  Apparently, there’s a special place in hell for Bad Tourists.

Lisa:  Ha, well, I can imagine the heaven of Good Tourists, and I don’t think I’d want to go there.

1 Scotland -Princes St, Edinburgh

Princes Street in Edinburgh, Scotland

Bani: Same. As a POC, specifically as an Ecuadorian-USian living in Ecuador, doing the touristy stuff brings a whole nother level of discomfort. My multiple identities rise to the surface and duke it out for attention. There is an inner conflict that is too messy to detangle in that unforgiving space.

Lisa:  Yes. That’s something I’ve always felt even if I didn’t always articulate it explicitly. It’s not always even super direct. Sometimes it’s just the tourist attitude in general. There’s so much entitlement there, and so much condescension. So much Othering. It’s sad, but it was such a common attitude that it kinds of blends into the background, like people wearing cameras around their necks. Oh! Well, here’s one that made me feel really uncomfortable.

We were in Istanbul for a month, staying in a pretty local neighborhood, meaning not where all the tourists hang out. There are cats all over Istanbul, street cats and pet cats. There was a mother cat and her kittens living outside our apartment building, and there was a white woman who lived nearby who had taken it upon herself to look after the welfare of these cats. Not a bad thing, in and of itself. The first time she saw us admiring the kittens she told us what she’d named them, and she said, “This one is Neko. You know why?” She pronounced it like NEE-ko. I said no, I don’t know why. And then she got a little flustered and said she’d assumed we were Japanese; neko is the Japanese word for cat. But it’s not pronounced NEE-ko; it’s more like neh-ko.

Bani:  Ugh

Lisa:  That’s not a huge deal, but I didn’t like it. And then another time, she got really frustrated because people were leaving food out for the cats that isn’t Western-style cat food. Stuff like pasta or bread. And she kept talking about how “these people” don’t know how to feed cats, they were going to kill the kittens, etc. She even posted a sign in English and Turkish admonishing people on their treatment of the cats. I’m not sure whether she wrote the Turkish part of the sign. Somehow I had an impression that she didn’t speak Turkish, even though she’d been living in Istanbul for several years.  I think she was an English teacher.

Bani:  Figures.

Lisa:  But the way she said “these people” and the way she presumed to tell them how to treat their street cats…It felt like she had a lot more respect for the cats than the people. Of course I am also judging her, because I don’t know anything about her except for these interactions, and for all I know she could be a pillar of the community. But her attitude didn’t strike me that way.

There was also a white New Yorker in Reykjavík who told me all about how Maine lobster is better than the langoustines they serve in Iceland. That was weird.

Bani: So that woman assumed you were Japanese. Was your nationality ever put into question by locals or other travelers?

Lisa:  Totally. There was a waiter in Paris who asked where we were from, and when we said “California,” he just shook his head and said, “Non.” A lot of restaurant touts in Istanbul would call out “Konnichiwa” to us.

Bani:  !

ParisSketch

Le Palais de Tokyo

Lisa:  Actually, some of them would go, “Konnichiwa. Nihao. Anyonghaseyo!” Which, besides being annoying/insulting, was just bizarre to me, because it made me want to go to their restaurants less, and I can’t imagine that ever being a successful marketing strategy with me. But then I think, it has to work with a lot of tourists, because otherwise why would they do it?

There’s definitely a big difference in the way people read things as condescending or helpful. This might be a little off-topic since it doesn’t have to do with travel, but I’ve noticed this with immigrant parents versus their US-born kids. Things that offend the kids will read as perfectly okay, or maybe even good, to the parents — like depictions in movies, that kind of thing.

Bani: That sometimes has to do with desensitization. Sometimes, cultural cues are offensive AND helpful. And that’s confusing when you’re 2nd gen.

Lisa:  Yeah, definitely. And as a US citizen, fluent in English and with lots of education and resources, I have a kind of international security that my parents, as immigrants, don’t have. Or don’t have to the same extent.

Bani:  Speaking of this: Were there instances where your ethnic background helped you to ‘blend in’ to some places you’ve traveled? Are there positive and negative aspects to that fluidity?

Lisa:  So much yes, to both those questions! The blending in is a very strange thing. I found that I both craved the ability to blend in, and resented it. Which I think is reflective of my own sense that I don’t quite fit in anywhere. There was a sense of extreme relief when I could pass as a local, which happened in places like Japan or Singapore, or in London or Toronto. But on the other hand, I was a foreigner in all those places, and sometimes I wished people could see that.

That might actually say more about the loneliness of traveling than about anything else.

I think a lot of the negative was about loneliness, now that I think of it. I’d enjoy the feeling of blending in with people or feeling like I’d found “my people” somehow, but that would never actually be true. Which is something I’ve struggled with in my regular life, too, and actually I think the traveling helped a lot with that.

Bani:  Is it hard to build alliances on the road? The find community?

Lisa:  I feel that being able to claim membership in a group can be a really comforting thing, but sticking out can also lead to real connections with other people who also feel slightly at odds with the group.

Bani:  Maybe, as POC in the U.S., we feel at home with feeling at odds with the dominant group? We want to be visible in our difference but not ostracized for it? Queers are like that sometimes.

Lisa:  That’s true, but as someone born in the US, I also think I have a level of ease in the dominant group that I didn’t fully appreciate until I left the US.

Again, that’s part of the loneliness and feeling marginal — encountering other Americans on our travels was more often alienating than not. Part of me would want to reach out to them, but part of me didn’t, because of the many ways I feel at odds with US American culture.

ReykjavikPaintings

Reykjavík, Iceland

Bani: Yes – traveling abroad dislodges that thing that says ‘I belong’. I guess I didn’t realize how much I didn’t belong until I started leaving the States.

Lisa:  Yeah, I would say that traveling made me feel both my belonging and my not-belonging that much more strongly. But I would see that play out with different people in other countries, and that was reassuring in a way. Everywhere you go, you find people who don’t quite fit in, and that can be comforting.

Bani:  Outlaws looking for outlaws.

Lisa:  Outliers looking for outliers. It was also interesting for me, in talking to other outliers, to see how our sense of not-fitting-in was both similar and different.

This isn’t exactly on the topic of what I just said, but coming from the US, I was fascinated with racial/ethnic homogeneity in other countries, and how that affected the racial consciousness of people living in those countries — either people who fit the dominant group, or immigrants or minorities.

I was talking with several New Zealanders with Māori heritage, and although their struggles in some ways mirror the difficulties faced by Native Americans in the US, the Māori are much more visible in NZ than Native Americans here. One of the people I spoke to said she thought it might just be a “numbers game” — in a country with fewer people, you know your neighbors a little differently.

On the other hand, someone I spoke to from Hong Kong — a well-traveled person who has actually lived in the US — made really overtly racist remarks about African Americans. Lack of diversity makes it really easy for people to engage in the worst kinds of Othering.

Bani:  Meaning that they lived in a part of the States where there weren’t many African-Americans? I hate that excuse (even though I get it). I mean, how much diversity do folks need to not be racist? What’s the quota?

Lisa:  Actually, no, and this is what made me furious. She lived in LA.

Bani:  Ughhhh

Lisa:  Yeah. And I agree, lack of diversity is not an excuse. It’s a kind of explanation that I do understand, but still. But I think it’s easier to be racist when there’s nothing in your society to challenge that view.

Bani:  Reminds me of my family – immigrated to New York in the 60s, moved to Florida in the 90s. Really anti-black. Haven’t changed much.

Lisa:  And the myth of colorblindness is so alive and well in this country, it’s no surprise that it’s even stronger in more homogeneous countries.  I met an Italian exchange student who said her family’s comment on her studying in the US was, “Don’t come back with a Black boyfriend.” She said they were kind of joking, kind of not.

Bani:  I grew up with that ‘advice’. Living in Ecuador, I understand the kind of society that fostered their thinking. Well I don’t ‘understand’ it, I just witness it and can make more sense of it as an adult.

Lisa:  Which is another part of that feeling of multiple identification — I feel really comfortable in Asia for many reasons, but there’s a lot of (often latent) racism there that I refuse to identify with.

KyotoPainting

Kyoto, Japan

Bani:  This is all leading up to my last question! Travel can force us to reflect on place and belonging – you’re in a new place and trying to find some footing, your community. When have you felt most ‘at home’ in your multiple identities, in your travels?

Lisa:  Ooh, that’s an interesting question. I would say there were two separate ways that I felt this.

One was when I was art-making. I don’t want to be glib about this, but there are ways in which art (visual, performance — anything non-verbal) speaks all languages, or perhaps transcends languages. Drawing, painting, and sketching were a kind of “home” for me that I could call up no matter where we were, and that was so comforting. I think many artists understand this feeling of art being both a reflection of ourselves and something separate from ourselves, and when people got my art, I felt like they could see or accept me in a way that was different than connecting on a more personal (meaning, me-the-person) level.

The other was when I got to know other people who were also outliers. I felt like we were able to see and acknowledge the complexity of each other’s multiple identities, and in that sense, finding each other was also finding a “home” or a people. Immigrants and the children of immigrants, racial/ethnic minorities (especially if they were also of mixed racial or cultural heritage), queer people, and also just anyone who felt at odds with the expectations of the dominant culture.

I think a lot of us with multiple identities know the relief of finding such fellow-travelers (pun intended) — there’s a sense of being able to let down some protective walls. And of not having to explain/justify certain things that are integral to our existence.

And on that note – being an outlier also means feeling freedom to critique the mainstream, which could be REALLY comforting in a foreign place.

Bani:  Hmmm

Lisa:  As a traveler I want to be really respectful of the place and culture and people, but sometimes I also want to say “WTF?!” and it felt easier to do that with people who were not fully identified with the majority.

Or I felt I could ask questions about things that confused or bothered me and get a thoughtful, nuanced answer and not just a textbook kind of reply. For instance, I got really cool New Zealand history lessons from new Māori friends, who told me things that I wouldn’t have found in a guidebook or in museums.

Bani:  Oh right. I thought you meant you felt comfortable asking other foreigners local questions

Lisa:  Yeah, not that.

Bani:  The truth always takes some searching, and everyone has a different version of it. In this way, it’s truly rewarding to get ‘off the beaten track’.

Lisa:  Yes! And I guess what I’m saying is that I feel like some people stop searching at an earlier point than other people, and I connected more with people who searched more deeply. And that was often because of their multiple identification.

Bani: A healthy distrust in the system can go a long way.

Lisa:  And a healthy distrust of single narratives. I think sometimes people just don’t know. Like people in the US not knowing Black history, or the history of Chinese immigrants, etc.

Bani:  Yes. But we act like we DO know. And don’t even ‘know’ it, we’re familiar with it, with the dominant narrative. For me, and this is a very generalized statement, but I feel being of color, queer, all these things, prepared me for the discomfort of the ‘unknown’ of travel. It doesn’t really scare the shit out of me. I’m used to and somewhat comfortable with being the Other. I know that I’m the one that’s foreign, not the place.

Lisa:  Hmm, I think it might have been the opposite for me — I think I was a little more afraid of travel because I thought I might stick out too much in some places. But I’ve come to more of that feeling you describe, of feeling paradoxically comfortable in lots of places/communities because I’m so often an outlier anywhere.

Bani:  It wasn’t immediate, it took some evolving. I’m just used to sticking out. Everywhere.

Lisa:  I think this is so interesting, because, circling back to what we were talking about at the beginning of this convo, when travelers who aren’t as marginal/multiply-identified go around the world acting so entitled, not to excuse that behavior, but I think that’s their way of coping with the unfamiliar — instead of feeling “foreign” everywhere they just act like they own everyplace. ;b

Bani:  Very true. They’re trying to balance out the power (even though it’s inherently imbalanced!)

Lisa: These are two really, really different styles of traveling and of just being, in general. I’d be interested in hearing more about this evolution of yourself as a traveler.

Bani: I’m writing a book about it! Thanks again for chatting with me tonight, Lisa.

Lisa:  Thank you! I really appreciate these dialogues you’re creating and like I said in my earlier email, I so wish all this had been on my radar when we first started traveling.

Bani:  I’m def no pioneer – there are lots of resources (poc travel blogs/critical thoughts on travel, neocolonialism, etc.) that I can direct you to.

Lisa:  Well, I think in a way we’re all pioneers just for not staying quiet.

Bani: Truth.

Travel Is Not A White Boy’s Club (And Never Has Been) #Dispatch: Moving Black

Hey people! Here’s my really belated interview with Abena Clarke of the blog Moving Black. Because of our traveling ways, our exchange took place over e-mail, over two weeks, in different time zones, in Accra, California, Ecuador, New York, Kenya and maybe London. It also took a while because I was reveling in VONA lyfe in California, and then my laptop broke! All complications aside, we managed to have a really straight up discussion on travel writing’s ‘bloody’ relationship with people of color, and how we might be able to approach a future together. Read on and get schooled!

dispatches

MsMovingBlack (aka Abena Clarke) is a Caribbean-based London-born teacher, writer, historian and armchair activist. She currently lives in Martinique but of all the countries and continents she’s visited, she’s most at home in the centre of a dance floor.

Photos courtesy of MsMoving Black

Photos courtesy of MsMoving Black

Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?

I would describe my blog, Moving Black as the place where I record my adventures, conversations and thoughts on travel, identity, stories past and present and the interplay between them.  I try and provide an alternative discourse on the places I visit, and describe my experiences as a black British woman in them.

For me, the most easily accessible travel writing seems to be by white people and for white people. I am not white. I have a bunch of white friends, but I also have a big black family and a bunch of black friends and when we travel, we experience the very same places differently. I try and reflect that in my writing. In addition, the places we and I choose to visit and the museums I choose to go to are not necessarily those which your average white person my age would select. I try to contribute information about those places that do exist and are of interest to people like me but which are difficult to find information about.

In South Africa, for example, I wanted to visit Ginsberg in the Eastern Cape province, because it’s the spiritual home of the Black Consciousness Movement and the physical place where Steve Biko grew up and did amazing work as part of the Black Community Programmes in spite of being ‘banned’ by the apartheid government. The Steve Biko Foundation has an amazing community centre there, with a Heritage Trail and a museum, library, bar and restaurant (not to mention snazzy conference facilities) but when I was looking for information about the place, all I found was backpackers saying, “Spend one night if you must – there’s nothing to do here.”

When I went to Haiti, same thing. I was reading a lot about how dangerous it was and how I’d be crazy to go out at night. But as a black woman, this was not my experience. I dress simply and blend in a black crowd and was perfectly safe out alone at night in Jacmel and Cap Haitien for the most part.

Munich, Germany

Munich, Germany

There are a lot of black people who don’t get to the historical sights when they visit the Caribbean, or get past the safaris of Africa for one reason or another. I’ve got nothing against beaches or animals, but I think the black adoption of traditionally white modes of travel is problematic. No holidaymaker should be engaging in Orientalism when they travel in 2014 or beyond. But ‘point and stare’ tourism is still the standard because ‘difference’ and ‘exotic’ remain unconnected with a full humanity. ‘They’ are not like ‘us.’  Rome is still marketed as the birthplace of ‘civilisation.’ Like, really. I hope my blog contributes to black people, particularly those keen on independent travel, thinking carefully about their holiday destination choices and the role they play in those destinations in maintaining power relations.  It’s not sexy, but I try and make it light-hearted in my writing!

Oh – and you asked me about myself.  When I was the only black person in our group of 15 British kids sent to teach English in Thailand at 18, I prepared myself mentally.  I was British too, but I was not white from a semi-rural nor a privileged background.  All the same, I was still flabbergasted when in our second group meeting after we’d been in in our respective schools a few months, a girl admitted that she was having difficulties settling in and with colleagues because “They all look the same!”  Once it was said out loud, the group expressed their collective woes borne of differentiating between one Thai person and another. Seriously.  This was at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

I grew up in a different world from those kids. A happy multicultural politically-progressive area in 90s London, whereas these guys were from small towns and villages where black people were spotted at bus stops and Portuguese people were dark-skinned and ‘foreign-looking’. And I realised, these were the people travel literature was written for: upper-upper-middle class white people on an adventure with more-than-colonial undertones. One of them even went on to study ‘South-East Asian studies’. I fell in love with backpacking that year, but I fell out of love with mass-produced nonconformity, and learned quickly that travel and travel writing are not progressive unless you consciously make it so.

The Malcom X and Betty Shabazz Center, New York

The Malcom X and Betty Shabazz Center, New York

​How can travel media change to become less of a white boy’s club?

Short answer:  “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Chinua Achebe

LONG answer: Travel media can’t change unless the world changes. As long as travel media continues the tradition of denying people the opportunity to talk about their own hometowns, and instead pays foreigners to report back on someone else’s country, and no one sees anything wrong with that, it will continue to be a white boy’s club. Even if there are more people of colour in that club, travel writing will remain essentially an orientalist endeavour.

Stories about ‘them’ and ‘us’ and the essential insurmountable differences between humans and their collective groupings will abound. George W Bush’s cabinet had 2 people of colour in important positions – Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell. It was lauded as the most diverse cabinet in US history in some quarters if I remember correctly. But it was not a progressive cabinet in political terms because, to paraphrase Angela Davis, diversity which doesn’t produce change is meaningless and BECAUSE it looks progressive, can get away with being reactionary, i.e. backward!

The problem with travel media, for me, is really a more broad discourse. Who has the right to speak? Who has the power to be heard? Who sets the terms of the discussion? Who and what subjects are included? Who and what are excluded?

Travel writing has a troubled history. The tradition of travellers’ tales is deeply rooted in the period of imperial expansion in Europe, it is closely linked to colonialism and ‘scientific’ racism. Travel writing, like early anthropology, provided evidence of white superiority through its representation of the exotic as barbaric, or lascivious or simply ‘other’. It played a key role in creating a popular imagination in which people are sufficiently characterised as so different, their lifestyles and cultural practices so alien, that they’re not fully human, and thus, with their humanity diminished bit by bit, story by story, you arrive at a world where brutal barbaric invasions are romanticised as bringing civilisation! Cruel, inhumane exploitation is barely thought of as unfortunate because it also involved ‘modernity’ or ‘Christianisation’. There is a lot of blood on the hands of travel writing. Then and now.

I don’t think I’ll make any friends but here’s my two cents: Travel media can’t change to become less of a white boy’s club unless it, by some unusually effective process of reflection, looks at itself and asks how it became one in the first place.

'Grafitti Street', Fort-de-France, Martinique

‘Grafitti Street’, Fort-de-France, Martinique

White boys didn’t invent the movement of peoples or travel for pleasure. If necessity is the mother of invention we know that travel has historically been very closely linked to trade. Where some people go to trade, other people follow to travel.  The link between the US ban on travel to Cuba for nationals following the trade embargo is one example. The place of Timbuktu in popular imagination is another. Our conceptions of geography itself are wedded to our political realities; how else do you explain that ‘everybody’ has heard of the Caribbean islands – Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas – but few people would place Cuba, Haiti or the Bermuda triangle in that same geographical region? How many people have heard of Martinique or Guadeloupe?  Let alone place them firmly in the same archipelago as St. Lucia or Trinidad if you gave them a map?

How is it that lots of contemporary travel writing is still so keen to present a place of wonder, relaxation or exploration for the traveller or tourist, and not as someone else’s home? Filled with all the stresses and joys of life for the people who live there?  What is it about the way we travel, that makes the realisation that the ‘unique’ transportation we’re taking in an ‘exotic’ destination is somebody else’s oh-so-mundane ride to work, a bit of a buzz kill?  Why are we so determined to talk about Jamaican beaches and landscapes, with reference to Jamaican crime, and not Jamaica and the IMF? Why is an authentic African adventure one which features seeing African wildlife and not one which features meeting African people, on their turf, as equals, or better yet, with them as the experts?

If I throw the question back at you, do you want travel media to become less of a white boy’s club, or all media? Travel is not a white boy’s club and never has been. We can’t talk about who gets to travel and whose lands are turned into ‘destinations’ – and whose aren’t – without talking about history and power. Well, I can’t!