Sunday, March 21, 2010

Flowers speak louder to the expat Dutch wannabe...but why?

I ask my students if they are planning on going to the Keukenhof, the world's largest flower garden spectacle. They justifiably don't understand my pronunciation until a kindly soul who has mastered the deciphering of my butchered Dutch words rephrases the question for the class.

"Thats only for old people and tourists," remarks one, followed by unanimous nods from across the room.

I inform them that I just bought my tickets. In this masterful, single-handed stroke, I have just underlined in their minds how old I actually am!

I take this further. I ask my Dutch colleagues if they are going to the Keukenhof. They ask why would they? They ruthlessly disrupt my definition of this event as an "older Dutch sport" as absolutely lacking evidence and foundation. Not ONE 'older' Dutch colleague has been to it nor plans to go.

It's not like people here don't like flowers. On the contrary. This is a flower-loving nation. Its inherently unfair that the hippies hold the title as the flower-power generation as the Dutch deserve it more so with their daily and weekly purchase of flowers, their home collection of 10-12 different vases for different floral arrangements, and their general tendency to mark occasions with the humbling presence of the thorn and petal.

So why is it that when 7 million tulips are planted annually in the town of Lisse in the South of Holland, do the Dutch scorn and scuttle in the opposite direction? Its obviously not for the dearth of quality flowers.

What happened to the old Dutch Tulip mania that feverishly brought Tulip prices to equal an annual merchants wage in the 17th century? Did that fever find a cure? Has that beast been tamed and domesticated in this remote town for few to witness? Again,..hardly, It is one of the most photographed locations in the world and a million like myself flock annually to this area in search of beauty and should I say this..."Dutch culture?" While I seek to be a commoner, I am rudely surprised that its not the Dutch commons that I was seeking to partake of. Its this morphed tourist-expat-queen type of common that I find myself amongst.

To confuse matters, the Walk Like An Egyptian song frames my experience of entry into this Dutch portal where we are offered maps by women dressed up like the Duchess of the past and as we venture further, Russian dolls play with the landscape. If its from Russia with love, then is it from Holland with I kind of like you but am too reluctant to show it sentiment? How does the simple expat trying hard to become more "Dutch" cope with this foreign love affair?

So can Keukenhof authentically represent "Dutch culture" if it has been architected for the non-Dutch? Can these flowers speak of a Dutchness to us non-Dutch? And if so, what is it that we should be hearing through this floral scream?

Stranger in a strange land is not so alone after all!

How sentimental we can get of the good old days where you could ring the bell of your neighbor for a cup of sugar or stop the policeman to ask how his family is doing. Actually, this is the marketed nostalgia many of us have grown up with; a world of yesteryear where what is now seen as impossible was once, possible and for all probably reasons, true and genuine. We yearn for a packaged past that has been sold to us. Today, we crave community and desperately glorify city youth intermingling and dependencies as a new “urban tribe” behavior– a reassembling of family affiliations and sentiments into a more channeled and contemporary neo-familial relationship based on raw and selfish need.

Social networking sites resemble an online tribal dance. But the underling premise here is that these “old” community patterns have been reinvented on cyberspace. Yet, if you stop and think, perhaps you may struggle like myself to remember the warm sentiments and comfort of the strangers of the past; in fact, as far as I recall, we were warned against them and family served as stronger boundaries to surpass than they are now. What is also surprising to me is that strangers, professional strangers in my life who I’ve never met but have had a few exchanges through email and most importantly, who do not inhabit my quintessential cyber tribal grounds of LinkedIn and Facebook seem to, without much fuss, lend an enormous helping hand. They serve as letters of recommendation, as endorsements, as pillars of faith in my professional pursuits. I wonder how that has come to fruition? Is it perhaps our social status displayed and paraded online that comforts them into throwing their support in for good measure? Is it that cyberspace is now such familiar territory for certain professional groups, more “home” than office, allowing for family like behavior in professional settings? Or is it that one has become very savvy in personal branding, subtly reminding our professional strangers of our presence through blogs and other online thought-clutter, transforming 'us' the 'stranger,' into a familiar household name?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Computers are people too!

Bloggers beware. You thought you were writing for a bunch of info addicts or a grannie with ten cats but alas, you may actually be writing for a far different audience. Be it your instruction manual on how to make a good burrito or your pontifications on the latest video of Lady Gaga and Beyonce, your musings are becoming more and more deeply relevant to your new audience…the computer. You, my dear blogger have given computers a new lease to life!

“…the web could be mined to track information about emerging trends and behaviours, covering everything from drug use or racial tension to interest in films or new products. The nature of blogging means that people are quick to comment on events in their daily lives. Mining this sort of information might therefore also reveal information about exactly how ideas are spread and trends are set.” –The Economist, March 11th 2010

Isn’t it nice to be heard in bits and bytes? Isn’t it a pleasure to help those suffering advertising companies who are overwhelmed by your chatter to at last know you in ways perhaps you don’t know yourself? Alright alright…am being a bit unfair as this can also lead to some really innovative solutions on critical news dissemination or grassroots political action. Besides, it maybe even nice to actually be targeted more appropriately by ads …instead of a teenager receiving ads on Viagra, she can get ads on the latest hip hop albums perhaps? But all in all, one thing is for sure – your thoughts are not alone!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Manufacturing ourselves: What's wrong with that?

A picture speaks a thousand words…yeah I know, what a cliché. Do videos speak more I wonder? So are we experiencing a textual silence or reserve perhaps in this new media age? Hardly. And what happens with all this contemporary chattering? Who is listening? Who cares enough to listen? Apparently not many according to media consumer analysts. People are too busy speaking about themselves, their day, their fleeting thoughts on toilet paper, baby nappies and strawberry yogurt often through the wonderful and humble medium of the picture. As I partake in this tradition by manufacturing my typical day and social life on Facebook as posed moments at happening events, I wonder what’s all the fuss about. After all, we are supposed to be our own best PR agent. If you don’t manufacture yourself, few people will care to do so on your behalf or worse yet, construct you through a montage that is not true to your desired manufactured self. Of course, self PR needs constant work. Me-branding articles..., guidance all packaged for our cyberselves, waiting to put that non-carbon footprint all over the Net. And sometimes it takes a thousand words to come up with the right picture!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Annual Museum Night in Rotterdam- Art becomes life!

What a wonderful idea isn't it? To make "high" culture a popular event is a challenge that the Netherlands seems to have met and even superseded expectations. Here's a glimpse of the program of the night:

All 45 museums and galleries participating in the ninth edition of the Rotterdam Museum Night have announced their programmes, inspired by the theme XS/XL. The spectacular opening at 20.00 hours outside the Laurenskerk will kick off with a musical highlight of XS singing tones, XL music and 999 eyes that will be let off to wander through the night by the minister of Culture Ronald Plasterk. The programme of the Museum Night is varied and consists of pure highlights. The Witte de Withstraat and the Museumpark is the booming centre of the night. Let yourself be surprised by the eccentric circus at Alliance Française or relive your puberty in the National Museum of Education (Nationaal Onderwijsmuseum). Make your own inventions in the Kunsthal, create your own dream world in Boijmans or get the creeps in a show with monsters only: kids are allowed to stay up extra long on the Museum Night! Or you can join in the rhythm of a spectacular performance with the “Journey through the city”.

Now to see if we can make the popular, run-of-the-mill life of ours art!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Gawk and Learn?

Theme parks of the most unique kind are springing up everywhere! Leisure is taking a new turn. Recently Kunming, an area of 13,000 acres in southern China’s Yunnan Province is being converted into a Disney land of the little people. Tourists can come by to immerse in the spectacle of dwarfs performing and living at the same time; it’s a veritable live reality show.

Are these frozen realities that we choose not to see? Will we wake up and feel more inclined to think about disability more deeply or have we made disability exotic here? And even if it has been made exotic, can we argue that perhaps it is still better to be visible than invisible?

Or take for instance the efforts of harnessing the ready-made reality of slums in Mumbai, India, as a tourist attraction to educate and entertain. Packaged tours of poverty sold for the common good? Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum covers an area of 530 acres and sweeps you with experiences of a 100,000 people performing being poor. 50 tours a month take place through these slums, giving you the Kodak moments of exotic markets of incense sticks, mangoes, recycling of garbage and pottery.

Given that poverty is a pressing reality amongst the majority of the world, it is still not acknowledged as mainstream reality in the media. After all, media often serves us what we would like reality to be than being a mirror of reality. So one can argue that it is time to capitalize on alternative realities and compel people to roll down their windows for a change and in fact, actually charge them for it!

Sure this shocks. It is meant to shock. But shock with good intent to make money for the poor, the disadvantaged…people on the margins of society is what the battle here is about isn’t it? Is this a fair trade-off basically is the question.

And then there are theme parks of frozen fantasies, captured nostalgia, pigeon holed into our memory boxes of what the good ole days used to be. Primitivism is another performance that is starting to mint money through adventure tourism. Ever wondered what it would be like to meet cannibals, spears n all, feathers and dancing around the fire?

A little thrill, a little more fear, a lot more exoticism than your run of the mill day job in your office cubicle for sure. Such is the targeting of cannibal tours, a growing niche of adventure tourism where it is promised that you can feel like you’re stepping into a time machine to glimpse at a past that is disappearing fast from social memory.

Of course the discomfort that you feel is partly guilt for gawking, partly a moral outrage to commodify people and capitalize on their desperation, and partly the fear that these people will be frozen with their lifestyles just for us to continue to gawk at them. However, it is worth keeping in mind that applications from 'dwarfs' are skyrocketing at the little people kingdom in China, that the poor in the slums and the 'primitives' in cannibal villages are surviving and sustaining themselves from such tourism. Is morality the prerogative of those who can get on the tour bus and have the CHOICE on whether or not to gawk?