Daily Archives: 28 February 2007

China Train Trips: Back Home in the Cold South

In addition to the Far Outliers, there was one other foreign English teacher family in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China, in 1987–88. They averred that the winter we shared with them in “subtropical” south China was the coldest they had ever experienced—and they were from Winnipeg, Canada! The difference was that people in Canada heated their houses and transport and workplaces during the winter, while people in south China did not. So, below China’s Mason-Dixon line—the Yangtze River—there was nowhere you could go to get out of the cold. That was the strongest memory of our trip back home to Guangdong after our vacation trip for Chinese New Year that February.

We started south from Jingdezhen, this time traveling soft class. Our hosts in Jiangxi Province and fellow teachers in Guangdong Province boarded the same train but traveled hard class. (They didn’t have a child at that time.) We had to change trains in Yingtan, a cold and drab railway junction city on the Shanghai–Guangzhou line. We had a long layover, with not much to see, no nice places to eat, and nowhere to take an afternoon nap. Fortunately, our friends found a small, cheap restaurant with hot food, but with a dirt floor and a doorway open to the cold; then they took us to a railway workers’ dormitory and talked the supervisors into letting us all spend a little siesta time under warm blankets on dormitory beds.

The rest of our train trip south was uneventful, but we arrived at Guangzhou after midnight, too late to find a room in the fairly reasonable Liuhua Hotel near the station. So we tramped over to a much more expensive hotel where we spent the remaining few hours of the night in warmth before catching a bus back over the long, muddy, congested road to Zhongshan City the next morning. Our big concrete and tile apartment offered no respite from the cold. It had no heating, and the damp north wind off the rice paddies leaked through every door and window. It was cold, sweet home.

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Pamuk on the Exotic—and What Was Done about It

In “The Return of the Flaneur,” Walter Benjamin begins his review of Franz Hessel’s Berlin Walks by noting, “If we were to divide all the existing descriptions of cities into two groups according to the birthplace of the authors, we would certainly find that those written by natives of the cities concerned are greatly in the minority.” According to Benjamin, the enthusiasm for seeing a city from the outside is the exotic or the picturesque. For natives of a city, the connection is always mediated by memories.

What I am describing may not, in the end, be special to Istanbul, and perhaps, with the westernization of the entire world, it is inevitable. Perhaps this is why I sometimes read Westerners’ accounts not at arm’s length, as someone else’s exotic dreams, but drawn close by, as if they were my own memories. I enjoy coming across a detail that I have noticed but never remarked upon, perhaps because no one else I know has either. I love Knut Hamsun’s description of the Galata Bridge I knew as a child—supported by barges and swaying under the weight of its traffic—just as I love Hans Christian Andersen’s description of the “darkness” of the cypresses lining the cemeteries. To see Istanbul through the eyes of a foreigner always gives me pleasure, in no small part because the picture helps me fend off narrow nationalism and pressures to conform. Their occasionally accurate (and therefore somewhat embarrassing) descriptions of the harem, Ottoman dress, and Ottoman rituals are so distant from my own experience that even though I know they have some basis in fact, they seem to be describing someone else’s city. Westernization has allowed me and millions of other İstanbullus the luxury of enjoying our own past as “exotic,” of relishing the picturesque….

What grievance I feel when I read western travelers on Istanbul is above all that of hindsight: Many of the local features these observers, some of them brilliant writers, noted and exaggerated were to vanish from the city soon after having been remarked. It was a brutal symbiosis: Western observers love to identify the things that make Istanbul exotic, nonwestern, whereas the westernizers among us register all the same things as obstacles to be erased from the face of the city as fast as possible.

Here’s a short list:

The Janissaries, those elite troops of great interest to western travelers until the nineteenth century, were the first to be dissolved. The slave market, another focus of western curiosity, vanished soon after they began writing about it. The Rufai dervishes with their waving skewers and the Mevlevi dervish lodges closed with the founding of the Republic. The Ottoman clothing that so many western artists painted was abolished soon after Andre Gide complained about it. The harem, another favorite, also gone. Seventy-five years after Flaubert told his beloved friend that he was going to the market to have his name written in calligraphy, all of Turkey moved from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet, and this exotic joy ended too. Of all these losses, I think the hardest for İstanbullus has been the removal of graves and cemeteries from the gardens and squares of our everyday lives to terrifying high-walled lots, bereft of cypress or view. The hamals and their burdens, noted by so many travelers of the republican period—like the old American cars that Brodsky noted—were no sooner described by foreigners than they vanished.

Only one of the city’s idiosyncracies has refused to melt away under the western gaze: the packs of dogs that still roam the streets.

SOURCE: Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk (Vintage, 2006), pp. 240-243

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