Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Assignment 2: Postcards

I am in love with Kreuzberg. I love the tight knittedness of the locals and the magnificent smell of roasting lamb meat at the doner kebab stands, of oil. The sight of leisurely old men having an afternoon beer. I am in love with the golden rays that shines directly onto the buildings' dust encrusted facade and how quickly they turn different shades of pink and cream and blue.

Airports remind me of Love Actually. The whole sending-off, reunion, emotional deal that makes airports interesting. A woman is crying, her mascara is beginning to run as she hugs another woman goodbye. Her face prunes up. I'm gonna look away now, I hate seeing people cry.

Mmmh. The things I get myself into. It's like the chicken pox, only no oatmeal baths.

I'm trying to keep a poker face on but Mert's driving is scaring me shitless right about now. All American Rejects is playing and he's having a grand ol time. My heart's palpitating like crazy. My palms are sweaty. Turkish drivers are like Vietnam moped drivers, minus the moped and insert giant moving metal death traps instead. It's hot and I'm trying to enjoy this but I keep seeing my life flash before my eyes.

It's a whir of noise in here. I'm thinking of mom and how much she'd probably love this place right now, spices and herbs galore. It's a heavy smell and I think of old chinese ladies with crow feet and gray hair and soft hands. Mom used to take me with her to these chinese herb stores on Jackson. They'd grab my arm and pat my hand, grinning their toothy (some missing) smiles. A guy just asked me where I'm from. "America." No, where in Asia? "Oh, Vietnam." Do you know this? "Instant cherry flavored tea?" Yes, very good.

"Sunny days sweeping the clouds away..." I'm often asked why I feel sad when I hear of stranger's death. Sorry if I have a sense of compassion? Our feet quietly pat across the stone laid pavement. "Those who are scared of death don't know a thing about living." Cement everywhere. "Up above the sky remained blue."

Everything echoes in here, I swear I can hear my own breathing. I almost expect these opened mouths to start releasing cries from their O's. How eerie. How enclosed is this space. I can hear footsteps approaching and its making me realize that I do have a route of escape after all.


What does it mean to be a Berliner in a city that is in constant transformation, a place that is relatively new and at the same time historic?

Berlin, for the past half century, has had two separate histories. With the divide, West Berlin has been immersed within the western lifestyle, familiarized with the capitalistic way of living. East Berlin, on the other hand, followed the communist system way of living, one that revolved around community style living, sameness. Therefore when the Wall came down, East Berliners were thrust into a world of mass consumerism and complete exposure to the Western culture, which, in a lot of ways, clashed with what they were formerly accustomed to.

Fast-forward two decades and it seems almost impossible to picture a Berlin without the existence of chain restaurants and foreign products. From street corners to U-Bahn stations, these corporate chains coexist amongst local German businesses. One also can’t ignore the amount of non-German brand names and media that have filtered their way through. From the UK’s H&M clothing line to Hannah Montana merchandises at the Galleria department store to Disney shows like Kim Possible appearing in German television, these are just as popularly viewed and consumed widely amongst similar age groups, globally. And, while some might say that this is the advancement of capitalism and globalization, because such a thing makes the world go round, others might see it as another way to turn something authentic into another generic metropolitan.

With so much non-German products invading the German everyday life, this leads to the question of: where does this leave Germans to cultivate their own sense of self and culture?

To wander throughout the streets of Berlin today, what would one be able to see? Would the impression of a western influenced world outweigh the latter?

Turning to the basic field of sociology, a person comes to develop their sense of identity through their surrounding and through the way they are brought up: family beliefs and cultural beliefs, the idea of nurture and nature. Since Berliners in this new era of reunification are part of this expanding global society, I wanted to further inspect the role of nature.

As an American student with an interest for international studies, I have a curiosity for the motives and intent of certain key players in this globalization aspect in the 21st century. And, having somewhat of an idea and understanding behind the politics of large businesses, I wanted to see how far along I can develop my thinking on this capitalistic phenomenon. Along with that comes the realization that in this world where the line between nature and nurture is quickly graying, who impacts the other more becomes interchangeable. So, if nature is closely sewn to our identity, what does a world-marketed environment do to us as citizens in a society, what does it say or not say about us? I figured that examining a small sample of Berlin could help paint the broader picture.

*Methods of investigation

Taking the nature approach, I decided that my research would require a lot of walking around and visually examining what I see in public spaces. What I was specifically looking for was how much of an impact this spread of American fast food had on Berliners, and how was the consumer responding to these things and places?

The first time I was introduced to Berlin, I was also reintroduced to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Colonel Sander’s outlined smile illuminated in front of me as I stood in Alexanderplatz, dumbfounded at the amount of colorful neon lights that spelled out titles of fast food restaurants I recognized from the states. It was nearly one in the morning and yet every single shop was busy with midnight snackers. However, I had to remind myself that I was standing in the main center for tourists and it was still vacation season.

In the following days, I came to discover that I had underestimated the existence of McDonalds, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks and Burger King in Berlin. From Potsdamer Platz to Kreuzberg to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp museum, these corporate chains were of no strangers to these locations.

Fast food, in America, have the reputation of being, well, fast, and, with convenience there comes the lack of class. The overload of calories and fat along with stories of uncleanliness has created a negative image to fast food. Americans are often warned, despite the inexpensive prices, to avoid these places for health reasons. And, no matter how decked out a fast food restaurant might appear in the states, it will always be considered another cheap meals-for-deals destination.

In Berlin (and other parts of Europe I will later come to discover), while McDonalds (or any other fast food places) might still not be considered a five star restaurant, it does take on a completely different tone. Clean floors, well-furnished furniture and even more vibrant menu images, along with delicate employees who seem to take their work seriously, carefully arranging their burgers that could might as well been taken directly from a commercial, are unique features that sets these restaurants apart from America.

And, while fast food in Berlin did mean fast, it didn’t always mean cheap. A typical combo meal faired around 6,50 euros and only specific locations offered a value menu. These restaurants didn’t seem like the usual run down diners for the lower class, but rather, their décor and pricey element added a certain higher status to these restaurants.

These observations I mentioned to my interviewee, a student I (fortunately) randomly met at the Turkeyimspor soccer game. His name was Iskandar and he was originally born in Lebanon but immigrated to Berlin as an adolescent. He was a third year student, around his early 20’s, at Humboldt University, studying Civil Engineering. I explained to him how the usual fast food diner one might find in the states would appear to look just quite the opposite. He nods in understanding and says that these restaurants are displayed to give it family appeal. Europeans, after all, are often family oriented: meals are cooked, served and eaten at home together. Therefore, in order to attract a sustainable customer base, these restaurants have to appear as if they’re serving to the majority’s interest, family friendly. A marketing technique simple enough that also provides positive results.

“As a non-American, does it bother you to see so many American corporations like McDonalds and Burger King here?”

“You know, I remember growing up in Lebanon, there was only one city where you can get McDonalds, and there was only one McDonalds. However, several years after I had left, I returned and was amazed at how many McDonalds had opened shop in my country.
McDonalds is not so much seen as an ‘American corporation,’ but rather, THE symbol of global marketing. It doesn’t bother me much, personally, because I think it’s something we’ve just gotten used to, I mean, there are over 50 McDonalds here in Berlin alone.”

That distinguished difference, American corporation versus globalization in general, indicated that the accusation on American corporation isn’t so much the concern as it is the spread of capitalism as a whole. Mass production and consumerism is imminent. While locals understand this idea of globalization and it’s manifestation, it is important to acknowledge that in its entirety, Berliners are not completely passive about this expansion of foreign goods.

If one were to travel to the heart of East Berlin, such as the district of Pankow, there is an overall less amount of food chains and a greater amount of local businesses. Upon my exploration there, the sense of pre-wall-destruction was still preserved throughout the neighborhoods. Stores selling DDR antiques could be found taking up an entire block, and even grocery stores were selling DDR goods. By setting up these local businesses and having old DDR merchandises still around, it seems like the people were resisting the overtake of giant corporations.

In a less subtle example, in 2007, the district of Kreuzberg rounded up its residents to protest the construction of a McDonald within their neighborhood. Locals got together to create a citizen’s initiative to dissuade the fast food empire from spreading into their territory. To their disappointment, they eventually lost their battle but without making a statement. As I walked past this notorious McDonald one evening, I noticed that the restaurant sat in its lot, fenced off from the street and guarded by police cars, as if still anticipating revolts. Manuela mentioned to me how a lot of the locals still boycotted this diner and due to fear of violent protesters, cameras have been installed to add further security.

Whether its publicly or subtly, it was clear that a lot of Berliners have a stronger sense of resistance towards the idea of large corporations, especially when its concerning their intimate neighborhoods, ones that they occupy and have made economically function on their own. And why not? After all, these Berliners were here way long before these outside-corporations have been.
And it shows.

Manuela introduced me to one of the more popular “fast” food places around, Curry 36, a currywurst stand that is quite popular amongst Kreuzberg locals. “Popular” would be an understatement. It was crowded with the old and young alike (think our Dicks Burgers on steroids), and the lines stretched out across the sidewalk. There was not an unhappy or unsatisfied face in sight, strangers welcomed others to share their table stands with them. The loud commotion of laughter, shouting orders, and conversations overwhelmed the atmosphere. I noticed that there was no seating available, only tall standing tables were offered to customers to stand at and eat, and while I couldn’t understand their dialogue, it seemed like no one was complaining about their sauce covered sausages or fries or the lack of chairs.

Curious to see if a fast food restaurant was around and how well it faired compared to this stand, I decided to wander around. Lo and behold, the next street over had a Burger King. I stood outside and examined their business: three customers sat outside chatting in Portuguese (I assumed they were visitors or travelers) and three more, all sitting in separate booths, occupied the inside. I continued to walk and discovered a Subway sandwich parlor not too far from where the Burger King was, again, business, compared to Curry 36, was not booming. Kreuzbergers seemed to favorably choose to honor their authentic German dish and support their local business instead of non-local.

This sense of local pride and community support was a noticeable theme within each neighborhood that I approached. Berlin, although large, was made small and personal within these districts. It is that personalization that I believe draws a lot of Berliners together and keeps them unified. That keen sense of social and environmental awareness comes from being well informed about their neighborhoods and their surroundings.

As mentioned before, passivity is not the attitude of Berliners when it comes to events that are occurring around them. It is obvious to interpret just how active these citizens are from something as simple as meandering through their neighborhoods and visually examining their environment.

From the examples of Kreuzberg and Pankow, Berliners seem to define their identity through the way they react and deal with these corporate invasions of space. Whether they choose to consume other goods aside from these foreign franchises or protest these establishments, their actions speak louder than words.

It’s not a matter of denying the fact that globalization has taken root and is expanding daily, it’s a matter of preserving what still exists and showing through consumerism that an authentic Berlin culture, with determination and, often times, a battle, has the ability to triumph amidst corporate attempt at world domination.

Problems encountered and analysis of project:

I didn’t know it then, but Shanga’s exercise on studying people’s interaction with space was a precursor for what I would spend most of my time doing for my research. It is quite a skill to have to learn to converse with body movements. Without speaking a lick of Deutsche, and sometimes running into a place where no one can understand or speak in English, I had to learn quickly how to improvise oral language for body language. Being animated with my facial expressions and hand gestures, along with being able to read and decipher the other person’s (or group’s) was something I had to become comfortable (and skillful) at doing.

I remembered standing awkwardly at the Curry 36 stand, hoping to hear someone throw out an English word so that I can feel less like an alien amongst so many locals, only to be met by more Deutsche. It was then that I realized that I could learn a lot by just studying other’s interaction around me. These people sharing stands with strangers were quite comfortable and happy in this element, ah, familiarity and satisfaction, those were two facts to record. I began to do most of my exploration this way after I realized that finding someone who spoke English was actually a bit more difficult than I thought.

Of course, body language came with recognizing my surroundings and being able to not only see with my eyes but with my nose, ears and hands, too. As Shawn encouraged us to practice more in our postcard assignment, to record things we usually forget to capture, such as what we hear, what we smell, what we see and what we feel, those were things I had to put to use, also. Were these dialogues expressed in a certain way? Were they happy, sad, or upset? Was the smell near the restaurants or stands pungent? Welcoming? These were things that I had to constantly ask myself, and in doing so, I found that they gave me insight on ways to read and understand my environment.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Assignment 4

In between: short stories and poems.

Easy Like Sunday Morning

“I can’t sleep,” my brother confessed to me one Berlin afternoon. My clock was still set to Seattle time, the time indicated 8AM on a Sunday morning. I could read the surrender in his tone through the pixels on the screen. There was desolation in his words, as if the missing period at the end of that sentence was meant for the words that failed to fill in the space of the chat box. And though I could only assume mild girl issues as the case, I decided it best to avoid any further diagnosis. My reluctance to respond made him quickly fill in the void with a question of his own, one that came all too easily, “How’s Europe?”
“Lonely,” I began to type in response, but found myself hitting the backspace, replacing it instead with “Expensive.”
I wondered if he could smell the hesitance in my answer; but seeking one another’s truth was not a part of our relationship, our sibling love settled on clenched fists and bruised skin, not revealing dialogues.
There was so much I wanted to say amidst the casualness. I wanted to ask him if morning loneliness was just as isolating as evening’s. I wanted to ask him if he found relief at the break of dawn’s light through his window blinds or restless at the thought of the stretch of day ahead. I imagined him rolling over in bed uneasily as the neon numbers on his alarm clock beamed relentlessly with numbers that kept moving forward.
I wondered if he imagined my stillness amongst a group of twenty other people. My sealed mouth. I wondered if he felt the foreign I felt, even when he was in the comforts of home and I was overseas. But instead, I found myself folding these questions up and tucking them away, pulling out humorous comments instead, something easier to handle on a Sunday morning.

Soundtrack of the U-Bahn

“The TV is your window pane, the view won’t let you down.”
Eight heads unknowingly bob in unison to John Mayer’s strumming
As I drown out the whir and metal screeching of the U-bahn’s wheels
Grinding against the tracks.

In front of me sits an attractive young woman
Her legs tentatively crossed, her left shielding her right.
Her lips moves slightly in rotation, mutely chewing her gum,
At the same time her eyes seem to be scanning me.
I take on this invitation to stare back,
We hold one another’s gaze as John Mayer transitions into John Legend.

She continues chewing, unblinking,
As if savoring the taste of a stranger’s unbinding attention.

“We just better land on the stars before they come crashing down.”
Her eyelids are lined meticulously with black liner
Can she see the restless sleep I had the night before?
Her cheekbones are slightly dashed with rouge,
I wondered if those bones were often put to work from laughter?

How much of me was she able to decipher?

Her eyes continue to mercilessly grasp mine in a full nelson.
A generous breeze grazes through the opened windows,
Surprising fresh air make its way through the enclosed tunnel.

“You can’t stop wishin’ if you don’t let go.”

Our bodies jerk from left to right
As if rehearsing some synchronized dance,
“We sway like branches in a storm.”

The sudden realization of the awkwardness of staring hits me.
I blink, the wave of my white flag.
I decide to deter from any more uncomfortable confrontation,
After all it’s nine in the morning.

And while
Relentless mouths throw in their towels for the morning
Letting tired eyes shamelessly converse with one another,
I sit in tune with Paul McCartney crooning
“Oh, I believe in yesterday.”
Still unadjusted to this social rule of conduct,
I cheat the game,
Finding amusement in the empty space
Occupying in between the heads of strangers.

A La Mosque

She folds herself over into what looks like Child’s pose. Stretching out her spine she places her forehead on the sea-green carpet. “Subhaana rabbiyal 'Allah.” After a few seconds, she gradually pulls herself upright again, this time revealing a serene face. The lines on her forehead have smoothed over and she miraculously looks younger, somehow more rejuvenated, renewed. She proceeds to close her eyes, letting her lips part ways to let words trickle out. She half sings half chants a prayer, resting her hands on top of her knees, the melody of her voice drifts toward the mosaic walls, bouncing off the tiles and travels throughout the entire mosque. “Allahu Akbar…”
To her background, two men silently pray over in the left corner of the mosque, they rotate between kneeling and standing up, palms extended out as if anticipating the Divine’s touch. Praying with their bodies, they seem to unify the physical with the spiritual.
The only other sound that seems to dare make itself known is the soft sigh of the carpet beneath the shifting bodies.
She looks like an angel with the golden daylight outlining her silhouette and the glow from the chandelier dangling above her. The giant structure of light shimmers boldly, not a single light bulb out of tune. Its sheer height seems to challenge gravity.
In this miniature world, man has constructed his own ocean, his own earth, his own sun, and his own language all for an intangible force with which man dares to reckon.
In this state of mind, she allows herself to be weakened and rebuilt again, here, she finds the vowels and consonants that make up her own language that is to be spoken and understood by only one other existence. And while she realizes that others may never come to understand why she returns to such a solemn place, so different from the outside world, she has found the reason to which only she will come to understand. That language has been uncovered, and with it comes her unbinding vow to rehearse it everyday. As Salaamu 'alaikum wa rahmatulaah…


The sun is setting over the Bosporus as I pause to look down a row of fishing poles leisurely hanging over the bridge’s railing. The sound of car horns honking ceaselessly mix with the voices of hundreds milling about on this Friday afternoon. I inhale a deep breath of salty sea air mixed in with city dust. I admit that it tastes a bit more refreshing than the Puget Sound.
A relieving breeze picks up and begins blowing wisps of my hair across my face, after a few seconds I give up trying to keep my hair tamed, letting the strands fly about with no inhibitions. I feel liberated standing in the midst of so much commotion, as my ears attempt to make out the number of syllables in the unrecognizable dialogues. Old fishermen converse with one another, sharing heaves of laughter in between words. Their weathered skin, leather-like, wrinkle up in heavy folds when their lips curl up, exposing jack-o-lantern teeth.
Up ahead I see a scrawny boy who couldn’t have been more than nine, scrambling over the railing, climbing over to the edge. “Wait a minute, is he gonna…” Taking one look around, as if daring onlookers to stop him, he leaps into the air, an image of bony arms and legs flailing freely through space before finally making a loud splash into the sea. Intrigued by this, a few more people gather over to the railing to watch this escapade. A few seconds later, his head emerges from the water and his bony arms and legs go back to work, kicking and splashing, bringing him towards the dock. Immediately, the maternal instinct in me is to feel relief, alas, he is still alive; at the same time, the kid in me wants to jump in along with him. The waves below tauntingly splash against one another.
It turns out that he is accompanied by several of his other friends, all around his age. One by one they take turn showing off their jumps and cannonballs, tugging and pushing one another into the water. A man in a security guard uniform heads in their direction, he looks on sternly at first, until he, too, seems amused by this childhood glee. Several of the little boys look at him with concern until he gives them a nod of acknowledgement and walks away.
A few men to my side take out their cameras and begin taking pictures of the lively kids in their element. Tanned, scrawny pre-teen boys enjoying the cool relief of the sea on a hot summer day without a care in the world. Their pubescent shrieks and laughter manages to ring above the crashing waves of the Bosporus. The winds begin to pick up again, so I continue my way across the bridge, walking to the rhythmic pace of whizzing cars and indecipherable dialogues.


These arrows
Stuck to the side
Of this building
Next to this plot
Of open land
Will no longer
Exist in five


In the Jewish tradition,
Stones are used in lieu of flowers
To be placed at the gravesite of dead ones.

Piled like pyramids,
One on top of the other,
They sit motionless against the pressing wind.

Perhaps flowers are too delicate,
Too temporary a gift,
For too permanent of an ending.

Whereas stones have weight.
Speaking honestly
Of the burdens left behind by impermeable souls.

Within their pores they contain the pounds of sorrow
That flowers are too vain to carry,
And tears are too fearful to make last.

Distant relatives to Infinity
They can withstand the ticking of the clock,
Remaining forgiving to the disintegration of human memories.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Urban Nomads

Techno-trance music blast through the white sand filled court, scattered about are industrial scraps-turned-art pieces that make up the furniture and décor pieces for this hipster-artist oasis. The blinding daylight cast a hazy veil across this urban land; my feet kick up small clouds of sand as I stumble my way to a bench. Those damned mosquito bites. As my eyes shift around, I half expected one of the inanimate objects to come alive while “I Am the Walrus” spill through the speakers, alas, wishful thinking.

Giant letters in rusty metal spell out ‘ANDBEAT’ next to a patio. The ambiguity of the sign spoke so honestly of Tacheles, a place that, if described, would best begin with a conjunction. Parts of the surrounding buildings still appear as if it had just stepped out of the shadows of war, with decapitated statues and a fractured façade, the stones reeked of Berlin history: war, wall, and all. However, the coats of graffiti and canvases pointed towards a new direction, a location (however, temporary) for nomadic urban artists and art-seekers alike. A gem in a large city, nonetheless, a secret art garden where even Peaches herself resides (when she’s not in rehab, perhaps?).

I stayed pretty quiet on this trip, mainly because my mosquito bites were irritating me beyond the thought of ants in one’s pants, but also because I felt my talking would be disruptive to the music and the creative energy surging through the air. I was also in one of those states of mind where your thoughts are fleeting and it’s hard to grasp onto them long enough to form them into cohesive sentences and expression (maybe it was just the itching speaking). So, I decided to not fight it and to tour this place lost in my own thoughts.

On the other side of the courtyard, I discovered the shacks where artists have taken their work to be put in an informal type of gallery for the public. I kept my camera in my pocket, but couldn’t find the courage to pull it out. In fact, it was a bit overwhelming for me.

The entire time I was thinking of my friend, Joel. He would probably find his home here. The metal sculptures that were once blank faced pieces of scraps left over from (re)construction have been meticulously welded, bent, formed and shaped into identifiable objects: a woman sitting down, the folds of her skin enhanced her feminine figure, I could almost see her take in a breath; some sort of creature that resembled something from Alien vs. Predator, a bass-treble-cleft-and-half-note-unified-into-one, and other pieces that could only derive from an individual's deep abyss.

Like these pieces of scrap-turned-artwork, Joel is a master craftsman at using what would seem to be useless, to be his medium when he creates his own art pieces. A project Joel started on last summer after he got out of the hospital were these head sculptures. He would go to beauty supply shops and purchase Styrofoam mannequin heads, take them home and from there gives them an identity. He masks their plain surfaces with texture and expression, using leather, fabrics, wires, fake vines and pretty much whatever household item he can find, and stitches them together with hot glue or a year’s worth of staples. Even despite the layers of cardboard that would become this head’s skin, he could work past its stiffness and mold emotions onto their expressions. I can imagine him sitting in the living room ripping, cutting, fitting, gluing away as a way to settle with his thoughts. Once you notice just how detailed these sculptures were, you can tell that it was made with a lot of thought and care, and through his crafting fingers, he found therapy in this.

He would always excitedly invite me to come over and check out a new head he’s made whenever I would come home from school for breaks. I loved seeing his face light up with pride whenever he’d unveil to me his new work.

It’s an unsettling feeling to realize the paradoxes that lie within art. While the piece can be timeless and universal, with the constant shift and change with time, its concept can become either accepted or rejected. This gray area makes it vulnerable for a sense of impermanence to set in. The audience and the artists themselves may feel that the art is outdated, and like most things, you have to keep moving on. Maybe this is part of the reason why these artists are constantly put in the position to have to relocate and find a new home for themselves (aside from issues of legal property and fiscal matters). While I am no Art buff, I do think the generalization out there is that art has an obligation to continuously keep up with the times, and when it fails to do so, it gets left behind, discarded and sometimes forgotten by the greater society. And, perhaps just like the artists that occupy these stations now, art can easily be taken for granted, seen as momentary and marginalized. This may sound a bit too irrelevant with what really is going on, but I feel like it acknowledges the paradigm of Berlin: it is so greatly entwined with its historic past and yet coexists in this current that keeps sweeping it forward in time.

For now this is a realm for escapism. Like how Joel finds solace through crafting, I’m sure that these artists share a similar intimacy with the work they create and the process in which they create it. Whether this place will still exist in the next month will be entirely up to fate, although it truly adds a rich, unique flavor, to Berlin.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Istanbul (Assignment 3)

I often heard "melancholy" as the term used to convey the soul of Istanbul.

From the looks of the colorful buildings and beautiful mosques that stand proudly on Istanbul’s many hillsides, sewn together by the brilliant jade-blue Bosphorous Sea, ‘melancholy’ would seem almost insulting to describe such a vibrant place.

However, at a closer glimpse, one will take notice of the crumbling stones from these graying mosques, the gradual decay of the colorful buildings seemingly built on an unstable infrastructure (and definitely not earth-quake ready, as we are later told by Orhan), and the blatant struggle of a culture stuck in a tug-of-war between a traditional way of life and the imminent expansion of globalization.

One image that my mind constantly flashes back to is Orhan taking us to Kanyon Mall. While many of us were quick to whip out our cameras and began to snap away in awe of the meticulous architectural design of the mall, I found myself slumped against the railing, feeling sick to my stomach. As I stood there, I was overwhelmed at the sight of high-end brand named stores that went on endlessly as the mall curved into an unknown horizon. Air conditioner on full blast to relieve shoppers from the unbearable sun outside, pianist playing beautiful classical tunes to humor the mindless passerby next to an indoor fountain. All of these as indicators of class, wealth and of course, the ability to excessively splurge. The mall was its own world. After a quick walk through (for which I am grateful), Orhan lead us out of the mall and down a hill. When we reached mid-hill, he made us stop and turn around. “I just want you guys to acknowledge this view right here.” We turn to face the direction from which we came. I was utterly dumbfounded at the sheer height and size of the mall that seemingly glared down at us. Like a school yard bully, this mall was adamant with its steel structure and dark glass windows. The biggest shock? Realizing that we were standing in a dilapidated neighborhood made up of slouching buildings struggling to stand up on uneven grounds. What an extreme contrast from where we were just a few minutes ago. From Gucci to grimy in a matter of a few steps. No more Prada and Dolce, just a few local shops selling cheap plastic children toy and used auto parts scattered throughout the street front, with a few Turkish faces peering out at this group of Americans wandering through their neighborhood.

We pace a few blocks when Orhan stops in the middle of an intersection and begins to tell us the history behind the establishment of these types of neighborhoods. The concrete slabs of these buildings were plagued with cracks running throughout its surface, the bright colors were mixed with a heavy gray from years of dirt and exhaust breathing unto its façade. We learn about squatters and their “illegal, yet legitimate” establishment, along with how gentrification has played a role in not only impacting local businesses but also where and how these people live.
While Orhan was lecturing, a crowd of the local neighborhood boys began to congregate in front of us, looking upon us with curious stares and attention-craving smiles. When it was time to leave, one of the boys that Orhan talked to asked in bewilderment when he found out that we were American students, “Why would you want to come here? There is nothing to see!”

An innocent question enough, but the response is burdened with so much to say. I defended myself by biting my lip and continuing down the road. In my sheepish head, I thought up of numerous of responses, none of which I found could be summed up in a few words, none that I knew to say aloud in Turkish.

But an honest question at that, also. After all, tourists come to see the readily available Istanbul, one that offers smiling faces, ice cream men in costumes, and cheap deals on jewelry and clothes, not the Istanbul these local boys were familiar with. This version, their version of Istanbul has to be pushed into unnoticeable corners, shielded by decked out malls.

“Because your neighborhood shows the real Istanbul, a city of paradoxes, where a new western-cultivated world is juxtaposed to the opposite, a world stuck in traditional roots of self-labor and the working class.”
“Because this neighborhood, amidst shack, shambles, and renewed, holds more beauty than an overcrowded strip mall that offers cheap bargains for tourists and generic Turkish
“Because this is the Turkey I’ve been wanting to find, the one that hasn’t been overtaken by grand European/American brand; an authentic display of its people striving to survive and preserving the Turkish way of doing things and living.”
“Because this is a huge wake up call to a bunch of American University students who need to witness the spread of gentrification right before their eyes in order to possibly comprehend the issue of social inequality.”

Et cetera, et cetera…

Or simply, “Because there is plenty to see here.”

Perhaps this is where melancholy can be found. It is the feeling of seeing just how incredible, yet, tragic a place is. The understanding that culture is important, and yet succumbing to its disappearance as the western movement continuously makes its way through the streets of Istanbul. A place where polar ends meet just a step away. Melancholy. A sobering state of being. Istanbul.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Little did I know that the woman sitting just a few feet away from me would soon become my new inspiration.

Dr. Susam, a high ranked board member for the Turkimspor club, quickly drew my attention to her when she first entered the room. She was already so charismatic, and she hadn't even spoken a word. A petite woman with a warm smile and eyes that seemed to be able to read right into you, she spoke in a soft manner but with firmness in her words.

As we sat to listen and learn about this club, I kept finding myself shaking my head in awe. They had done so much in their short time as an establishment. Originally started as a football (er, soccer) club for Turkish boys who would have otherwise been rejected from a German team, Turkimspor would later go onto become an empowering foothold for other underrepresented groups. The club expanded to include migrants outside of Turkey; a woman's team; and would become avid advocates for the gay and lesbian community, along with exposing their young members to the importance of education.

Despite harsh judgments and criticisms (even threats and jeers) from those who have different beliefs from this group, they persist and they do so with pride in what they stand for. Even more so, they hold high standards and expectations that all of their members are to encompass these core beliefs, too.

In their humble club headquarter, which also works as a sportsbar/cafe, I would have never expected that such a place was a central movement for social empowerment.

As the meeting concluded and we began to file out, I managed to give her a handshake and asked her a few questions. She gave me a quick synopsis of her life story.

She was a runner in her younger years, running the 10,000 meters and half marathons was her forte. However, she was forced to put aside her passion when her parents made her stick to pursuing higher education. She was heartbroken, but managed to work through it. She got her PHD at Humboldt and is now a social worker, one of 3 other women on the Turkimspor club board member, and a mom. (She also mentioned something about working for the Social Democratic Goverment of Berlin, but I forgot the details...). "It's hard, I'm very tired all the time, but I love what I do."

Fighting words for a fighting woman.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I often hear this from cashiers after I've made a purchased and muster out "Danke!" in my best wannabe- German.

For some reason, this response always brighten up my day a little. Unlike "You're welcome," 'cheers' has this friendly and celebratory feel to it, as if to say, "Shoot, don't even worry about it, just enjoy your day." It also makes me feel a little bit more like one of the locals, less of a newbie.

On another note, Happy Birthday, Shawn!
Here's a birthday poem I wrote for you:

My mom often said that long hair means a prosperous life,
And while I admire your growing gray strands, I also admire the way you write.
Your emails you pack with wit, humor, and hints
About how our lack of decent foot wear is enough to make your cringe.
So, I packed away my red sandals to be replaced with my puma shoes,
Hoping that my outfit suffices for the Birthday boy and our first day at the school.

You always push us to think beyond, and to step outside the frame,
"A tourist and a traveler, please understand that they are not at all the same,"
And so because of you I've learned to put aside my lens,
To admire the scenery, breathe in the air, listen, comprehend,
Leave my mind to take in the images before my camera shutter snaps,
A digital photo speaks a thousand words, but my memory, forever I will have.