There are certain cities in the world that you can never leave. You may physically leave, but you know that there is something in your heart and your soul that has changed forever. Perhaps there is an irretrievable part of you that you have left behind. Or there is a part of the city that you take with you always. It has incorporated itself into your DNA.

For me to experience this feeling, it needs to be a tremendous, complex, encompassing city. It is a city that nourishes as much as it takes away. It is a city that only very slowly reveals itself to you. Little by little. Always leaving you longing, searching. It is a city that in some ways can present itself as so simple and obvious and yet at the same time be so richly layered and intricate. The relationship with such a city, is much like a mysterious, intoxicating, heady love affair.

For me, Tokyo is such a city. Maybe, it is because I grew up in this city. Or because when I lived there, I was young and willingly vulnerable and open.

It had been years since I left Tokyo in my late teens. So much distance had passed, that even though I often reminisced of the life, the food, the experiences that I had, the depth of my feelings had dulled. Then this past November, I went back for just a brief five days. Barely enough for even a quick taste, but just enough to trigger the rush of all the emotions I once felt. The smell of the air. The deep purplish blue hue of the sky at dusk, just when all the neon signs and buildings are suddenly lit. The overwhelming feeling of infinite possibilities. The orange glow of Tokyo Tower against the evening sky. The young couple walking hand in hand oblivious to all the hustle and bustle around them. The energy and excitement bubbles over. Today you may discover something new and wonderful.... Or you may simply find yourself enwrapped by the comfort of something very familiar.

It's a dismal, melancholy day in Los Angeles today. Mist and endless drizzle have saturated the air with a cold dampness. The gray sky feels alien and barren. I stare out the window of my apartment wistfully lost in my memories of Tokyo, full of longing and ache, but I cannot or would not want any other way.

Midtown - Roppongi

Issey Miyake and Tadao Ando's collaboration
21_21 Design Sight

Takashi Kuribayashi's Wald aus Wald Installation (2010) at Mori Museum, Roppongi

Buri - Standing Sake Bar in Ebisu

Yakitori-ya in Azabu Juban
Tempura and handmade soba in Mitsukoshi (12th Floor), Ginza

Tsukiji Fish Market at dawn


Fantasy and Reality Blur in Anime Obsessed Japan

As a woman who has had almost equal exposure to Asian and Western cultures, I have always had a fascination with how women, beauty and sex appeal have been interpreted, developed and depicted in various cultures.

Salesgirls in a department store in Osaka
Obviously, various countries around the world depending on the strength of the global media, have differing perceptions of what an 'ideal' woman should look like. In countries like Mauritania and some islands in the South Pacific, the more robust and plump woman is seen as beautiful. In Mauritania, young girls are secluded and sometimes forcibly fattened up to make them more eligible for marriage. Conversely, in western countries, the fashion industry, the media and the ease of creating computer modified images have idealized an often unattainable and unhealthy skinny body. Models and actresses are often pressured to diet down to minuscule sizes. In China, the offices of plastic surgeons are filled with people who want more Caucasian features - as some view that as the epitome of beauty. And in Iran, nose jobs are a status symbol and a temporary cure for a boredom.

Now with the prevalence and accessibility of internet pornography, there has been plenty research done of late of some men preferring the company of a digitized women online to maintaining a relationship with a real life woman. Unlike the women depicted in the video scenarios, a real life woman might have her own ideas about how she is portrayed or treated. Unfortunately, (in my opinion), you see rising numbers of women (I do live in Los Angeles) desperate to increase their desirability factor by cutting their bodies and augmenting their breasts and hips in the hopes of competing with those online images. Plastic surgery in California is a booming business.

Up until now, I thought that was as bizarre and extreme as it got for women trying to transform their looks to attain that ever elusive image of perfection and beauty.

Then I went to Japan.

So earlier this month, I returned to Japan after a gap of about 17 years and I noticed a bizarre trend amongst teens and young Japanese women. Having grown up in Tokyo, I can tell you that anime is a big deal in Japan. It is very pervasive part of the entertainment and culture. Grown men and on occasionally women voraciously read comic books or mangas or watch the cartoons on TV or in the movie theaters. Now that mangas have gone global, most people already know, the female characters depicted in these comics often have unnaturally curvaceous figures, delicate noses and mouths with extremely large sparkly eyes.
A month or so before my trip to japan, I watched a segment on NHK a Japanese TV station on the popularity on this video game by Nintendo DS called "Love Plus." Love Plus which was released in September last year only in Japan, is a simulated dating game that you would play on a hand held video console. Since its release apparently, this 'game' has gained extreme popularity. The player (ie the man) selects their anime girlfriend from a handful of cartoon college students. Then simulating the trajectory of any relationship, the 'girlfriend' may start off being a little shy and reserved but over the course of a series of dates and trips taken together, she becomes more open and connected. The specific segment that I watched on NHK was about how the seaside town of Atami, taking advantage of the popularity of this game partnered with Konami Digital Entertainment, the creators of the game, to offer a special tour for men and their Love Plus girlfriends. Huge tour buses packed with men and their hand held video console were brought to specific tourist sites, where the men would scan a specific bar code attached to the site and the anime girlfriend would simultaneously 'see' and comment on the experience of the same sites. These men could then take pictures together with their anime girlfriend either in the form of the hand held console or a computer generated life size image (see below). At the end of the day, the men checked into the prescribed hotel with their anime girlfriend. Scanning another barcode at the hotel, the video game would then show the anime girlfriend in the exact hotel room surroundings.
Image from AFP

When doing some additional reading for this post, I came across a story about a Japanese college student who married his Love Plus girlfriend. Publicity stunt or not - that event took a lot of time and effort to organize. (See the video below).

Now as bizarre and dysfunctional as this game/obsession/relationship was to me, I didn't think much of it until I went to Japan. After all growing up in Japan, you get used to seeing some unusual things.

When I was perusing a few guide books in preparation for my trip back to Japan, I read about the growth of an even more pervasive obsession with anime. So based on a few write-ups, I decided to visit the Akihabara district of Tokyo. Akihabara is the electronics/technology area of Tokyo. I used to go, to check out new gadgets and when I wanted to buy some new electronics . There aren't many places in the world that can rival Japan in electronics and technology. However recently, Akihabara has also become a sort of anime district for the geeky techie. There are coffee shops and restaurants with anime themes and women dressed in specific anime costumes - like the Maid Cafe - where cute young women, dress up as anime milk maids. Interspersed amongst these coffee shops are stores that sell a huge variety of anime clothing, gadgets and other paraphernalia. Anime has leapt off the television screen and has crossed over into reality. Neighborhoods with anime coffee shops and stores and tourism packages for men and their Love Plus girlfriends are blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

And now anime has now also crossed another boundary and is influencing how young Japanese women perceive their own beauty and fashion. After all, how do you get a guy's attention when he is in love with a cartoon?

I first noticed it in Tokyo and then in Osaka. I would do a double take when women with their generous curls of dyed blond or light brown hair would walk past. Not because of their hair but because of their unusually large eyes. I started to notice that many of these young women seemed to have that additional eyelid crease, which you normally don't see on east Asian women. Many of these women with the light brown or blond hair had heavily highlighted their eyes with thick black liner, layers of fake eyelashes and heavy mascara. When I talked to my sister about this observation, she has suggested an idealization of Caucasian women, which may have been the case, if not for the attempts to make their eyes extra extra large.
Another day, I wandered through Shibuya's 109 department store, the mecca for cutting edge fashion for young Japanese women. It was Saturday and the place was packed with girls and young women, many of them with their luscious blond locks and big bright sparkly eyes, purchasing just the right attire to add to their very stylized look. It was then it hit me. Thinking back to the NHK segment I watched on the popularity of Love Plus, and the anime coffee shops I saw in Akihabara, I concluded that perhaps young Japanese women are trying to look like anime characters to increase their sex appeal. Have Japanese men become so obsessed with anime that Japanese women feel they need to look like a cartoon character to be attract attention?

Women's magazine with pointers on how to enlarge ones eyes
Well, I don't really know the answer to that. All I do know it that this has become a huge industry in Japan and possibly some of its neighboring countries. A company in Korea called Geo, manufactures extra wide contact lenses to make your iris and your eyes just that much larger. And just like anime characters, you can get lenses in different colors with stars and sparkles.

I also found mountains of magazines in a bookstores, offering step by step guidelines on how to make your eyes that much larger with make-up and other tools. Much of the advertising geared towards these young women have these anime-like women as models.
Mascara for that anime eye look
There are also photo booths all over the place, which you go into with your boyfriend or your girlfriends which enlarge and/or color your eyes when the pictures are printed. My Caucasian husband and I went into one such booths to test it out when we were at Namba Park in Osaka and we both ended up with large bug eyes in our series of photographs.
I should say that this is my analysis after only a brief trip to Japan. I acknowledge, that I don't know for a fact what prompted this new look and why exactly it is so popular. I just wonder when, if ever, women will stop treating their faces and bodies like they were made of clay. Now, I enjoy watching the occasional anime television series or movie, but as an adult, I prefer it stay in the realm of fantasy. Call me crazy, but I like my friends and partner to be of the human variety. And if their eyes are sparkling, it is because they are happy to see me and not because they have stars and fireworks drawn onto their extra large irises.


Business & Tourism Trumps Dictatorship with the Rise of Libya

***March 7, 2011***
When I first wrote this post many months ago, I would have never anticipated what would transpire in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya. And now I watch in horror at the violence that Muammar Gaddafi has inflicted on his people in his desperate and delusional attempts to retain power for him and his family. It has become very apparent of late, that for Gaddafi dictatorship and tyranny trumps all in Libya.

Ever since Gaddafi renounced his program for weapons of mass destruction, he had become a darling of the west. Suddenly his record for human rights violations all got swept under the rug. Likewise, all the crimes that Hosni Mubarak committed against his people were conveniently overlooked in the west and by his partner countries in the region in exchange for his cooperation.

I read an article recently on Al Jazeera, questioning why this string of revolutions across the Middle East came at a complete surprise to the western media. The reporters of Al Jazeera claimed that for anyone covering the streets of the Middle East, this frustration and revolutionary spirit was very apparently bubbling over. Perhaps if the western media actually covered what was happening in the Middle East instead of the preference of sensationalizing so much of the news, we would have a much more holistic and grounded understanding of not only what is happening in this diverse and complex region but also of its people.

Now back to my original article...


It has almost been a year since its neighboring Gulf state Abu Dhabi bailed out Dubai with a $10 billion loan to stem Dubai's potential sudden and steep decline. As Dubai continues to slowly repair and regain its strength after the powerful burst of its real estate bubble and the lingering effects of the global recession, its once slumbering neighbors are percolating, their economies and built environment growing steadily. Dubai's meteoric rise from a small desert oasis to leading global city and tourist destination awoke numerous Middle Eastern countries and city-states to consider their own potential as a global center. Dubai effectively demonstrated what a vision, single-minded leadership, global branding strategies and a little oil and gas reserves could accomplish. For the past few years now Dubai's immediate neighbors, Abu Dhabi, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait have been carefully scrutinizing, modifying and implementing similar strategies - hoping for their own revival and global economic success. And for the most part, the world has taken note. There is another country however, a little further west, on the African continent that no doubt has also been inspired by Dubai's example, but is still operating amazingly enough, just under the global radar - Libya.

For the most part, what the world knows of Libya has been its ties to terrorist activities in the 1980s and the bizarre and violent antics of its leader Muammar al Gaddafi. However, since 2003, under the persuasion of Muammar Gaddafi's London School of Economics educated son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Libya has been working hard to restore its relationship with the rest of the world. Libya abandoned its nuclear and WMD program and paid out US$3 billion to the victims of Pan Am flight 103 and UTA flight 722. In 2004, the United States finally removed all remaining sanctions and re-established normal diplomatic relations. Soon after that, most of the companies that were already eyeing Libya's rich petroleum reserves jumped in. (When I worked for global architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 2000 our weekly business development meetings on the Middle East already included reviews of Libya, while we awaited the normalization of its relationship with the United States).

Since then much has changed in Libya. Huge billboards advertising the latest, hottest real estate developments line the main streets of Tripoli and surrounding towns. For the past few years, while the world's strongest economies have stumbled, Libya's GDP has grown at an average rate of 6%. Earlier this year, Libya opened its stock exchange to foreign investors. Italy's bank UniCredit was recently awarded the first international license to operate in Libya. Over the next ten years, the Libyan government anticipates spending US$500 billion in urban construction projects.
New hotels and commercial high rises along Tripoli's central business district
Many of the initial projects have focused rightly on improvements and expansion in infrastructure, housing and university developments. Architecture and engineering giant AECOM is currently overseeing an US$80 billion project to build 160,000 housing units throughout the country. One quarter of which will be in Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya. AECOM is also laying new sewage pipes, electrical lines and paving roads. Water sanitation, perhaps not so sexy, but direly necessary has also been a priority. Daewoo Motor Sales of South Korea, Italy's Impregilo Lidco, Singapore's Hyflux and India's Punj Lloyd have all signed huge contracts to build networks for drinking water, sewage and storm water.
Eternal Crescent of Tripoli (ECOT) Hotel - one of the many new hotels under construction
Other huge infrastructure projects simultaneously underway include the introduction of 4G wireless services into the country, a joint venture with Russia's Technoprom export and the Libya African Investment Portfolio (LIP) for power projects all over Africa including 400 kV transmission lines in Libya, and the foresightful construction of a high speed rail link along the Mediterranean coast from Sirte to Benghazi - a distance of 550 km. That contract of 2.2 billion euros was awarded to Russian Railways. Two even larger rail routes have been awarded to China Railway Construction Corporation and there is even talk of future trains traveling across Libya from Tunisia to Egypt.

New universities are also underway. New Jersey's Hill International has been hired to manage the design and pre-construction of twenty-seven new university campuses. At the end of 2009, Seventh of April Technological University Campus in Zuwarah received its final go ahead with the appointment of architecture firms IAD and Cottrell & Michelangeli and engineering firm ARUP. The thirteen building, ninety hectare campus will have a special emphasis on environmental sustainability and will be powered by solar energy. The buildings will also be designed for optimum solar and thermal control. This boom of university construction aside from being a necessary development to compete in the 21st century, is also a tremendous symbolic move on the part of the government. April 7th, 1976 the university's namesake marked the day Gaddafi's supporters violently broke up peaceful student demonstrations protesting human rights violations perpetrated by Gaddafi's military. For years after, students and other government opponents were hung in public on the anniversary of that day. The development of these universities all over Libya are therefore a powerful symbol of a government attempting to alter course and move forward.
Model of the Seventh of April Technological University Campus, Zuwarah
There are also ambitious plans to turn Tripoli into the region's financial hub by 2012. Gaddafi's son also plans to make Libya "the Vienna of North Africa," citing his favorite European city. Office towers and luxury hotels are rapidly being built. Turkey's EMSAS Construction is building Bab Tripoli Complex, a US$1.3 billion luxury high rise complex along the road to the city's airport. This project will contain 2,000 apartments, office space, a hospital, and a giant mall with an ice-skating rink and bowling alley. Presently, there is only one five star hotel in Libya - Corinthia Bab Africa. However, several hotels currently under construction will be completed by 2012 increasing room capacity to 2500. Direly needed established international brands such as Radisson, InterContinental, Sheraton, Marriot and Movenpick have also recently been drawn to Libya's potential as a future tourist destination with its lush Mediterranean beaches and its abundant Roman ruins.

Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ), one of the largest UK architecture firms practicing in the United Arab Emirates has also recently set up offices in Libya while working on the interior design for 'seven star' Tower 69 hotel in Tripoli (following the example of Dubai's self proclaimed seven star Burj al Arab no doubt). GAJ was also more recently commissioned to design a large mixed use master plan in Tripoli which would include commercial, retail, hotel and residential accommodations in addition to a retail street. They have also been asked to explore restoring and refurbishing parts of the historic Medina.
Tower 69
The Libyan government has also invested US$5 billion in improving capacity at their airports and building up their airlines. Turkish firm TAV Construction in conjunction with Athens based Consolidated Contractors Co. are working to revamp Tripoli's international airport. This project to be completed by next March will include two terminals that will be able handle 20 million passengers annually. The Libyan government is hoping to see a significant rise in tourism by 2020.

If not already miraculous how any one country can sustain this much development at one time, London based Edward Cullinan Architects have also been commissioned by the Libyan government to develop a master plan for a new carbon neutral city called Madinat Hadaek Shahat to be located in the country's Green Mountains in northern Libya a few kilometers south of the ancient Greek city of Cyrene, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This 1500-hectare mixed use development will include homes for 60,000 people, schools and a botanical garden.

Despite all these impressive projects, development in Libya still has its hiccups and bumps. The use of credit cards is practically non-existent. Any development still does not proceed without the blessing of Muammar Gaddafi apparently. But for the most part, from what I have read, the development strategy while still somewhat haphazard seems sound. It lacks the over the top, superfluous developments that got Dubai into financial, environmental and urban planning trouble. Libya has instead focused on first building up their infrastructure, their sewage, water and power supplies, their roads, transport, and housing and universities for locals (which are direly necessary since unemployment remains around 30% and youth make up the majority of the population). Unlike Dubai, they are already incorporating sustainable technologies into their large scale developments. Also unlike Dubai, there seems to be a much better understanding and appreciation of the social, cultural, historical and economic value of their built heritage. Instead of destroying the old to replace it with the new like Dubai and other rapidly developing cities like Shanghai and Beijing have done, they are already implementing efforts to conserve and incorporate the historic into their new economic vision.

Libya has been on my list of countries to visit for about a decade now since I first read about its architecture in Wallpaper Magazine. Now with this national push to draw tourists to the country, Libya has inched its way closer to the top of my list. I prefer to visit most up and coming cities before they have fully arrived on the global scene. I suppose with Libya, I might just have to hurry.

Energy City Libya - a business class city built along the coastal Malita
with mixed use developments, marina and parks
Libya is 90% desert - so these developments cited are being built in the northern part of the country closer to the Mediterranean


A once unlikely journey

Every so often, in a long and long while, there comes...

- a really well done commercial.

Think what you may about the automobile industry, we can't continue acting like the earth and all its beings are indestructible.


Slum Architecture

I went to the Art Shack exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum, not knowing quite what to expect. I came out discovering an artist, Jeff Gillette, whose work completely enthralled me.

Jeff Gillette - Mickey Jakarta
The exhibition itself consisted of a diverse collection of built spaces, paintings, sculptures, video and installations - all representing various interpretations of the coastal shack architecture. Some artists and designers also drew from the Californian Assemblage movement of the late 1950's and 60's, while Gillette drew from third world slums.
Jeff Gillette - Slumscape
His two paintings, 'Slumscape,' and 'Mickey Jakarta' were so vivid and powerful; the images seemed to pop off the two dimensional canvas. I was transfixed by them. With his installations, he mixed bright and colorful images from pop culture and symbols of luxury real estate with found objects, discarded plywood and a dry sense of humor and irony to make some very provocative statements on class, inequality, ownership, home and the slums. But more surprisingly, what Gillette deftly manages to do in his creative displays of poverty is to show the viewer the weary beauty of shantytowns.
Jeff Gillette - Slums for sale - Slum Installation
This got me thinking about slum architecture. Is there such a thing? The UN estimates that about one billion people, that is 1/6 of the world's total population, live in slum like settlements. By 2030, that is in a mere twenty years, UN Habitat has predicted that the number of people living in slums will double to two billion. From Egypt to China, Brazil and India to Kenya and South Africa and so on, each location, each city, has their unique interpretation of a shantytown. Each is built completely organically based on found objects and easily accessible building materials, influenced by weather, culture and society. Both urban theorist Mike Davis and architect Charles Correa have written about the impact and social dynamic of the slums. However, aside from these two scholars, I found little else on slum architecture. How is it that we know so little about how one to two billion people live?

I think what impressed me most about Jeff Gillette's work, is that it made me take a second and third long and careful look at shanty towns and slums, when I would have normally shied away. It made me think, in my sheltered surroundings, of these meager homes, of the people who live in them and how they live and even of their jarring beauty and creativity.


The Controversy that defeated Terrorism

The frenzy in New York City this past week, brought on by the New York Landmark's Preservation Commission's ruling to allow the construction of an Islamic center and its mosque to be built 600 feet or two blocks from Ground Zero has reminded me of the America that I had once admired and respected and have long since forgotten.
I was living New York when the horror of 9/11 happened. I could not understand how a handful of terribly delusional and savage men could so easily kill 3,000 innocent people; perverting and violating a religion that stands for peace and education for millions of people around the world. From my bedroom window, not only could I see the damage they inflicted, I could smell it. The wind carried the debris of the two fallen World Trade Center buildings onto my street. For days I cried, overwhelmed by their hatred and wanton destruction of my city. I cried also for what I feared would come next. Hatred inspired more hatred. And the U.S. in retaliation, started two wars, which would only perpetuate this cycle of violence. The "better angels of our nature," to quote Abraham Lincoln, had failed on all counts.

Until now.
At a time when European countries from France to Switzerland are passing laws that impact a Muslim's religious freedom from the style of dress to the style of architecture, the city most visibly scarred by fanatics claiming to be 'Muslim' is rising above bigotry and ignorance and instead offering a hand of compassion, understanding and openness.

For me, it came from a very unlikely source - a politician. Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City gave an extremely moving speech shortly after the ruling, (a speech that I have waited almost nine years to hear), with ten religious leaders of various faiths standing behind him in support on Governors Island with the Statue of Liberty in the background. I have included some of my favorite excerpts below. To read the entire speech click here.

*Image from the New York Post

“We've come here to Governors Island to stand where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam, and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted.... And we come here to state as strongly as ever, this is the freest city in the world. That's what makes New York special and different and strong...."

“We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That's life. And it's part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11, 2001...."

"This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan."

“Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11, and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that...."

"On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, 'What God do you pray to?' What beliefs do you hold?'

"...Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation, and in fact their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith community. By doing so, it is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our city even closer together, and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any way consistent with Islam...."

"Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure, and there is no neighborhood in this city that is off-limits to God's love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us can attest."

A few days after Bloomberg's heartfelt speech, Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, made the extremely principled gesture of returning the prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize and the $10,000 honorarium he received from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) five years ago, because they, siding with public opinion, urged the Islamic Center be moved. The ADL insisted that they were siding with the rights of the victims. But as Zakaria clearly points out, dozens of Muslims were also killed on 9/11...and is bigotry acceptable if people think they are victims?

I can appreciate the discomfort some may have to a mosque built so close to Ground Zero. But the fact that New York City and its leadership and prominent figures refused to succumb or be swayed by bigotry or ignorance or fear and instead rose above it says volumes. It is an incredibly powerful and victorious statement about humanity and the "better angels of our nature." And with this strong principled stand, New York City defeated terrorism better than any war ever could.


Being Mixed Race

This past Saturday evening, I made my way downtown to the Japanese American National Museum for a panel discussion on one of my favorite topics, because it is also very personal one - the mixed race experience in America. The actress Amy Hill, herself part Finnish and Japanese, was a very animated and likeable undisciplined moderator. The two panelists were writer and photographer Kip Fulbeck (who is a mix of Chinese, English, Irish and Welsh) whose work focuses primarily on identity politics. And to his left sat Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng (half Indonesian and half white American), who works to promote multi-cultural education and is currently, an education specialist at the East West Center, which promotes dialogue and exchange between the U.S and Asia. I confess, it is rather tough to see Dr. Maya Soetero-Ng, very accomplished in her own right and not think that when she picks up the phone to call her brother, the most powerful man in the world, answers. But Barack Obama for the most part rarely came up in the discussion.

According to the statistics that were presented in the introduction, mixed race marriages make up 15% of all marriages in this country which is somewhat incredible given that only 43 years ago, they were still illegal in the U.S. Mixed race people are also apparently the fastest growing demographic in this country - and yet the stories and needs of this demographic are still largely under-researched and ignored.

The first question to the panel addressed their childhood. Maya Soetoro-Ng spent most of her childhood in Indonesia, often feeling out of place and seen as too American by her classmates. While in America, she was viewed as too exotic. Kip Fulbeck was viewed by his mother's Chinese side of the family as the white foreign kid but in school in San Francisco he was alienated as the Chinese guy. The forms he had to fill-in in school allowed him to check only one race (a situation well-known to any mixed-race individual), which ultimately forced him, as a kid to have to pick regularly between cultures, identities, parents. For Kip, the race that he ticked on the form, was haphazardly based on which parent he felt closer to that day. These daily acts of being forced to select only part of your identity, Kip expressed, often unbeknownst to you, takes its toll over time. The only role model or kindred spirit, Kip sadly admits having as a child was Spock on the television show Star Trek, since on the show Spock is described as half Vulcan, half human and often spoke of the duality and tug-a-war he felt. I could understand how he felt, Kip commented.

During this discussion, there wasn't much presented that was entirely new to me - since I think most mixed-race people have somewhat similar experiences. What I did appreciate however, was their discussion on how they are choosing to raise their own mixed race children acknowledging their own complex cultural identities. Maya regretted never haven taken her children to Indonesia because she can't share with them, what she calls her own 'umbilical stories' which she grew up hearing. The "best thing we can do for our children," she continued, "is to given them as many stories and layers as possible so that they can make their own choices later in life." Kip added that identity is such a personal decision, "but we live in a world that always wants to decide what we are." It is important he agreed to take children to traveling to different cities and to ensure that they are exposed to different people.

Both educators, both Kip and Maya agreed that education in the U.S has a long way to go to be more inclusive in subjects, histories, cultures covered. Kip acknowledged that while changes were being made, they were moving at a glacial pace. Too often diversity is treated as an afterthought, a token image. It is not an organic process or integrated into the whole.

When you are mixed and raised globally as I was, finding a sense of home is often a struggle, so when Maya was asked about how she deals with this dilemma my ears perked up. For her, her mother Ann Dunham was the connection to all her worlds, her tether. But when she died, Maya says she became rather lost. It is then she reflected back to the time she traveled around Pakistan with her mother, and at one point, she found herself straddling the border between Pakistan and China, and documenting that experience through photography she started to develop her sense of comfort resting between worlds. Now she also finds home in her husband and his family; being Chinese Canadian - they keep her connected to her Asian sensibilities. She also finds home obviously in her children.

When you are mixed race - your facial features are for the most part often a little more ambiguous. To many people, you make look somewhat familiar but not quite. Traveling through Egypt, I was repeatedly claimed as their own despite my appalling attempts at Arabic. When I was in Turkey, everyone thought I was Turkish and spoke to me in Turkish. When I returned back to New York City, that same day several women in line at a drugstore, insisted on speaking to me in Spanish - disgusted at my complete lack of knowledge at what they assumed to be my native tongue. I've had people stand in corners at parties, guessing in hushed tones what my mix was - as a party game. I've had people come up to me in grocery stores very randomly to ask if I am Native American, or Hawaiian, or Thai or Filipino or something else.... My light brown skin and nebulous features has allowed me to pass as a local in many parts of the world - until of course I open my mouth. I never thought much of that until Maya pointed out that everywhere she goes people tell her that "you look just like my niece." By being claimed more frequently, she says, by looking like someone's niece, there is an immediate sense of implied trust. It makes it easier, she expressed to bring tougher topics or more unusual comments to the table for discussion.

Shortly after that the panel wrapped up and made their way out to the reception. It was now time for wine and cake, book signing and more pictures.

Fashen Cox and Heidi W. Durrow, producers of the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival to the left;
Kip Fulbeck and Maya Soetoro-Ng to the right


Branding Egypt in an Age of the War on Terror

It seems that the Egyptian Tourist Authority has revamped their old "Nothing Compares: Let the Egyptian sun light up life's richest moments" promotional campaign for the new "Egypt: Where it all begins." So they used a new phrase, new fonts and new images but I found them both equally generic and soulless. I find it absolutely incredible that with over 6000 years of history, culture and traditions to draw from, I felt instead that I am watching an advertisement for a Caribbean island or a party town like Ibiza.

I also found it intriguing that all these ads and promotional materials, in addition to most of the organized tours to Egypt, focus primarily on Pharaonic Egypt or ancient Egypt. It would almost seem that after the demise of the Pharaohs and Cleopatra in Ptolemaic era, Egyptian cultural, social and economic development froze in time. Egypt was for centuries the center of learning, scientific discovery and art and architectural development long after all the pharaohs were buried in their ornate tombs - but one would never know that by looking at these promotional materials designed to attract tourists and investment.

Having studied the architecture of Egypt in graduate school, I found myself somewhat frustrated when the guide books I had purchased on Egypt, along with the tour I was on with my dad in November 2008, barely focused any time and space on the great buildings of the Islamic empires. At the time, I didn't give it much thought and merely chocked it up to the type of tour we had selected and the chosen focus of the guide books I had bought. But a talk I attended a couple months ago at the International Studies Association Conference in New Orleans, made me question whether this was a mere oversight or something more intentional.

The talk was given by Elisa Wynne-Hughes, a graduate student at the University of Bristol in England. She argued that guide books on Egypt and the Egyptian Tourism Board purposely prioritize these ancient Pharaonic sites when describing and branding the country. They encourage tourists to discover Egypt like the colonialists did so many years ago. The Pyramids, the Sphinx, Luxor and so forth all fit in neatly, she presented, into an accepted historical time line of the origins of Western civilization - and so in an age of the War on Terror - this familiarity would make tourists, they assume, more at ease and comfortable, and less focused on issues of terrorism in one of the largest Islamic countries in the Middle East. The images of Islam - the architecture, the culture, even the local people - can be viewed as more threatening to the foreign, western eye and therefore are kept to a minimum. Perhaps that is also why the majority of models in the new print ads are primarily blonds with blue eyes.

When I was visiting Egypt, I did notice that all these Pharaonic sites were mobbed mostly by foreign tourists all led by carefully orchestrated tour groups - much like the one I was on. I noticed barely a handful of local Egyptians. In my ignorance, I concluded that local Egyptians were perhaps less interested, or having ready access to this incredible sites, had already visited these locations. What I did not realize, until I read Wynne-Hughes' paper is that local, poorer Egyptians are forcibly kept from these tourist sites. The Egyptian government is concerned that their mere presence could be misconstrued and intimidating to tourists given the global stereotype of the poor, uneducated, radicalized Muslim.

Ultimately, I wonder where the line is drawn between hiding your history, culture and identity to make your country more 'palatable,' less foreign and frightening, and more attractive to tourists and investments. I get that Egypt is heavily dependent on the money tourism brings in; but isn't that one of the criticisms of globalization - that everything and every place starts to look less distinct, more generic, more the same? Aren't more and more tourists and travellers now in search of that unique, atypical experience?

For me one of the main highlights of my trip were the Egyptians we did get to meet. Never a big fan of tours, I insisted we stay back a couple days in Cairo after the tour was over so that we could wander the streets of Cairo on our own and see for ourselves a tiny bit of the city unfiltered and uncensored. We barely scratched the surface. Contemporary Cairo is thriving and thrilling. There is so much activity and energy. It is both energizing and exhausting at the same time - much like New York City. Yes, it is poor and dirty, but it is also rich with new artistic and cultural developments. It is not Ibiza and it is more than beaches and desert safaris. The Pharaonic and Ptolemaic art and architecture are extraordinary beyond measure but so is the art and architecture from the Ayubbid and Mamluk dynasties. Could it be that the Egyptian Tourism Board is selling Egypt short or perhaps they are underestimating their tourists?


Dark and Poverty Tourism Continued...

Just a brief note building on my previous post on dark and poverty tourism, Conde Nast Traveler has an article out in their March issue on this very topic titled "Controversial Tourist Attractions," where they explore the pros and cons of visiting these 'questionable' locations. In addition to the places I cited, they also bring up Chernobyl in the Ukraine, Devil's Island in French Guiana (as the French Guantanamo opened under Emperor Napoleon III), the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam where civilians and soldiers tried to hide to avoid U.S. bombing during the Vietnam war.

Vietnam's Cu Chi Tunnels
Image from concierge.com


Memories and Splendor of New Orleans

I've written a couple posts recently on Mardi Gras and the the lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans but before I leave the city of New Orleans (in spirit at least, my body is already back behind my desk in Los Angeles), I wanted to share some pictures I took of the splendor and the multiplicity of the city.

French Quarter

Hotel Monteleone
Mardi Gras 2010

Bourbon Street - the night of Mardi Gras

Artist Scott Pterodactyl’s 50-foot-tall tree house at 1614 Esplanade

Algiers, New Orleans
City Park

Until next time....