Category Archives: cultural differences

An Architecture Jury: Writers Dwellings


Arriving at the University of Arizona’s CAPLA (College of Architecture, Planning, + Landscape Architecture), more than a dozen students dressed in the proper architects uniform– black shirts, grey trousers, and fashionable shoes– milled around, nervously. Today, an architecture jury would critique their end-of-term project.

The project’s challenge: design a series of dwellings for writers staying from a week to a year at a writers retreat.

The retreat will in fact exist. It’s current incarnation contains a multi-story library and an equally high white canopy punctured by organically shaped apertures. The canopy rests atop poles symmetrical as streets on a grid system. The writers dwellings would be suspended from the canopy.

My architecture friend Matthew asked me to sit on the jury, as I’m a literary writer and an international architecture journalist. My approach was as Sandra Marchetti wrote on the Minerva Rising blog: “Although each writer needs some modicum of tranquility to write and revise, I also need community and guidance to make my poems into fully realized works.”

Other jury members included UofA lecturer, award-winning architect Michael Kothke; and UNLV lecturer, Valley native, and former Will Bruder staffer, Eric Weber.

Justin Wolfe's Project. See the Kahn?

Justin Wolfe’s Project. See the Kahn?

Suspension Problems

Some designs gave author platform a new meaning. They surmounted the problem by designing a catwalk, a sort of roadway system to each other’s dwellings. I rather liked this option, though I had to chuckle that the architects never seemed satisfied. (Industry people satisfy other industry people the least.)

Other students, troubled by the notion of suspended buildings, placed dwelling entrances on their third stories. That meant writers were forced to access the dwellings in a labyrinthine manner: entering the library, ascending to the third story, then walking across to their units.

Writers wouldn’t want to leave the safety of our writing cave to enter the communal hub of the library. Writers need isolation. Occasionally we want to talk to the other writers and our last desire is to be surrounded by a hub. Instead, we should have access to the ground level for moments to walk the campus/enjoy our solitude outdoors, access to each others’ residential units, and access to the library.

Unique Units

The 14 projects we jurors faced demonstrated a range of imagination. And two surprising points.

Visible influences included Corbu, Luis Barragan, Zaha Hadid, and Jeanne Gang. One reminded me of a writers colony on Fogo Island. One of my favorites reminded me of Japanese lanterns, lighted and ready to alight in the night. On another, the  marriage of futurism and organicism encapsulated the spiritual undercurrents of a Herman Hesse novel or Kafka’s anthromorphism.

A third project, done by a Chinese student, also stood out. My fellow jurors judged her work quite differently than I did. Yet having lived, worked, and played for two years in China, interpreting its architecture for local and international magazines,   gave me a different perspective from them. I might not have privileged her project, but nor did I expect her to create aesthetics that suit my Western views when her birthplace favored almost entirely contradictory set of standards.


My Own Writing Space

The students surprised me on another point. Many of them showed no inclination to design the furniture that decorated the dwellings. Beyond that, they designed the writing spaces with the sterility of an accountant’s desk. Considering there are slews of books and online images of writers spaces, not to mention the litany of posts that float down my Facebook feed, their failure to research one of the most significant elements of the whole challenge, stunned me.

Overall, I want to serve on another architecture jury. This event nearly combined my travel, teaching, literary writing, and architecture work. Architecture and writing are the two loves of my life. That’s why I understand what it’s like for those students to work on projects until sunrise spills its radiance onto them.



Curse the Waiting! The Global Faces of Impatience


Before I lived abroad I thought Americans were the most impatient people in the world. After three years and as many countries, I saw impatience in every culture. It’s a human condition. Just as people feel when impatience stabs, it’s also unnerving to discover what turns people into players in their own mini-dramas. Let’s take a look at some seemingly arbitrary experiences that makes us all realize how ridiculous impatience is— even if it is a human trait.

I was unaware of the stereotype of the Chinese as bad drivers until I lived there. Though reams could be written about what makes them bad drivers, for the sake of brevity let’s just talk about honking. This is apparent in north and south China. For instance, if a line of traffic doesn’t move forward before the light turns green, the long line of cars begins honking. Then, regardless of the fact that the six lanes are each 43 cars deep, #2 through #43 honks. This is not simply little putt-putt honk. This is full-on laying on the horn as if it’s the one-note soundtrack for the NASCAR race going on in his mind. Then there’s honking when the cars reach another stoplight. Honking when they drive the same speed as the car before them. Honking when they drive the same speed as the car next to them. Honking at pedestrians walking in the opposite direction as if suddenly he’ll turn around and want a ride in your direction. Honking at pedestrians walking perpendicular to them. Honking at a car a quarter-click down the road that looks like it might turn onto your empty, two-land road. The impatience is so predominant that its manifestations become habit, an undiagnosed tick. This, however, is more like road rage, less like the high school girls of LeRoy, New York.



Imagine you’re shopping for something, a purse, a video, whatever, at a market. It seems you’ve got the vendor’s stall almost to yourself when whamo! A corpulent woman shoves you aside with one hand. You’re not even looking at the same purse she is. Yet she’s decided she must haggle— now— with the vendor. Then another woman comes up and begins screaming with the vendor, and then another and another until you’re surrounded by a cloud of women like a cloud of gnats. You soon realize that acting polite (at least by your country’s standards) means this vendor will sell out of purses before you get yours. Therefore you watch the crowd of screaming, haggling women for a few minutes. You pick up the gestures— those geared toward the vendor and others to thwart other shoppers—and strongly push your way back into the crowd that seems to have shit you out like yesterday’s lunch. Within minutes you’ve got your new purse and new uses for elbows and shoulders. Only the strong survive.

What would happen if you make a Peruvian wait a full minute before answering a door? Would they break out in nervous hives? It would never have occurred to me that I’d be thinking, ‘Crikey, shut your pie hole!’ about an impatient Latino. Their reputation is one of almost sloth, yes? Not so when it comes to doors.
There they wait in their cars when picking up a friend from his house and honk until the maid comes to open the (nonelectric) garage door. But it isn’t just a pop-pop honk like the Chinese. This is a cartoonish dut-dah-dah-DUN-dah dat-DUN. Rather than get out and open the things on their own, they get their money’s worth out of their maids, honking for her services as if also trying to get their money’s worth out of their car’s accoutrement.
Same can be said of doorbells. These can’t be rung only once; it’s an unwritten rule to ring them in quick succession half a dozen times. They will not cease ringing the bell until indeed the maid has run to answer the door.

I don’t deny I too become impatient about certain things. But, just as age comes with wisdom, patience comes with travel. It’s taught— or forced— me to simmer down the mini-dramas. It’s allowed me to spend my waiting time focusing on things I like (reading, listening to podcasts, writing, smoking cigarettes, observing people). Patience is perfect; She always gets what she waits for.



What Then Is Patriotism?



Watching President Obama’s State of the Union address last week on CNN Español at the gas station near my house, I got to thinking again about Overseas Americans Week. I published three posts about OAW and, just days away from repatriating to the US, citizenship was heavy on my mind.

People would be fair to say one’s acting spoiled, possibly even philosophically-sophomoric if they considered relinquishing their American citizenship. However, we hear mostly about only those who relinquish US citizenship because they don’t want to be double taxed or to be heavily taxes on outrageous incomes. Most of the people who we don’t hear about relinquish for reasons so confounding, so complex, so deeply personal that it’s tantamount to converting one’s religious beliefs. Those who’d never considered relinquishing that little blue leatherette book have no right to judge.

This isn’t a post about judgment, though. I’m curious about the meaning of patriotism. My curiosity has me wondering what citizens from other countries think about citizenship. I wonder how that differs from my own considerations. No one is right in this game, of course, so I’m not looking for a debate. But when it’s your country’s music and TV shows pervading the air waves, your country’s movies in the theatres, your country’s accents that ESL students pay extra for, your country’s much-ado that’s covered before even the local country’s nightly news programs, your country’s fast-food restaurants and cigarettes and soft drinks and …  you’re constantly reminded of your homeland.

Chinese flag image

First thing you think of when you see this flag? Credit

That’s not to say there aren’t things from England and Italy, Spain and Australia in these countries. But no other country’s presence is as prevalent as that of the gold ole’ U.S. of A. (Now, being from there, so of course these things obviously attract my attention.) This prevalence exemplifies what people mean when they say that a country’s becoming Westernized. Personally I think that statement’s bollocks; the world is becoming global, and with that comes homogeneity. Whoever says something is Westernized doesn’t have a very keen eye to see that every country still retains its own sense of aesthetics and persona. Though I do concur that seeing a Starbucks on every corner in Shenzhen, China, and the Miraflores district of Lima, Peru, is a bit disconcerting. It smacks of assembly line monotony. (Fortunately in China there was also Illy, an Italian coffee brand that strikes me as a far superior alternative.)

Patriotism of late divides more than it unites. Marco Rubio’s speech– or should we call it the Republican Party’s rebuttal?– after President Obama’s State of the Union, whether in Spanish or English, was a demonstrative example of that. Too many people believe that if compatriots don’t use one prescribed set of vernacular terms they’re unpatriotic. That’s shyte. I’m no less patriotic if I vote one way vs another– or even if I don’t vote at all.


Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 12.16.14 PM

Image from a Google search of “patriotism” whilst still in Peru. Credit

Some people don’t understand patriotism. “For some people, traveling far from home makes them increasingly proud of that place they left behind,” writes Ben Groundwater in Australia’s The Age. Indeed. That happened to me, especially in the first few months of my Chinese experience. Groundwater addresses this: “And what makes your country so much better than everyone else’s – other than your familiarity with it?” Sheer arrogance. I fess up to having a lot of that during my time abroad.

“The more I travel the more I become convinced that the whole concept of nationality and nationhood is irrelevant,” Groundwater writes. But when he goes on to say that where you come from shouldn’t matter to anyone or even to yourself, that’s not something I can get behind. Yes, he and others who say where we’re born is a matter of chance, not something we earn, are right. However, our nationality also shapes how we think and speak and act. Even the way we move. No matter how worldly and educated and experienced we become that’s an inseparable part of our identity. Our cultural upbringing affects many of the circles within the Venn diagram of our individual constitutions.

Anyway, in last week’s citizenship posts likened US citizenship to the Popular Crowd’s table in the high school lunch room. Every country I’ve lived in and visited televises debates by candidates for US president, covers the presidential election night, shows the president’s state of the union address. Everyone knows who the president of the U.S. is.

But none of this gives us the right to say America is number one. Saying any country is #1 is akin to saying a God belongs to a particular country. No matter how much you import or export, no matter how much of your culture is privileged above others, no matter if students yearn to study there or now, and no matter if you’ve got the biggest damned military arsenal in the world, you are not #1. In certain categories measured scientifically various countries can claim the #1 spot– such as number of mass murders, percentage of poor people, rate of GDP. But no category entitles any country to the #1 spot– and certainly not permanently.

To believe in #1 is nationalistic. To believe is #1 is buying into political propaganda. To believe in #1 is to be blinded by a myopic view of one’s country, and that’s a slippery notion. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to love one’s country. Patriotism is love for one circle in the Venn diagram of our constitution.

I’m returning to the U.S. this week. Not because I think it’s superior. It certainly isn’t. But because I wish to return to a set of beliefs and practices I was raised with. I’ll tell you, I see more of my country’s flaws than I did when I left in 2009. But that’s alright. I’ll accept those flaws and I’ll practice some of the things learned from the other cultures I’ve lived in. Because, after all, the U.S. started as a melting pot.

What mementos of your homeland would you be unable to escape from if you relinquished citizenship? What is your definition of patriotism?