Wearing Ethnicity

 

Cultural mashup: Indonesian batik shirt meets Scottish tartan pants. Photo credit: Tumblr

Cultural mashup: Indonesian batik shirt meets Scottish tartan pants. Photo credit: Tumblr

As the trees shed their leaves with the coming of autumn, so do we as people shed our summer clothes. If Target ads are any indication of fall trends, plaid is the pattern of the season. While tribal and Polynesian prints are considered ethnic summer motifs, Scottish plaid has eagerly been integrated into American fall style.

U.S. clothing brands systematically strip cultural significance from garments by consolidating African, Asian, or indigenous American prints into a single category, despite the comprehensive distinctions between all three and the tacit variations within each macrocosm. PacSun, a portmanteau of Pacific Sunwear, is an explicitly American retailer focused on the Californian lifestyle, yet the search word “ethnic” brings up multiple hits on their website. The supposedly ethnic garments feature a mixture of South Pacific and Aztec prints. It is worth noting that these clothes are also displayed on models of ambiguous heritage.

"Ethnic" prints at PacSun. Photo credit: PacSun

“Ethnic” prints at PacSun. Photo credit: PacSun

What is ethnicity? As per Merriam Webster, the word ethnic is defined as, “Of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.” Essentially, everybody is ethnic; there is no intrinsic or exclusive correlation between ethnicity and people of color. Often, people conflate ethnicity with otherness, and in doing so marginalize people of color. The Scottish tartan prints that are currently splashed across clothing store windows are equally as ethnic as the popular Javanese batik designs that have transcended textiles and entered the world of stationery and wrapping paper.

Batik, possibly derived from the Javanese word ambatik (“a cloth with little dots”), is a dye-resist wearable art form deeply ingrained in Javanese culture. These stylized garments can be found throughout Asia and Western Africa, though the most intricate patterns have been developed on the Indonesian island of Java. Javanese artists use simple handmade tools to draw elaborate wax motifs on natural fabrics like cotton or silk, as the wax adheres best to densely woven textiles. These artists, generally female, melt wax in an iron or earthenware container called a wajan, before starting. The canting, a small, spouted copper cup affixed to a bamboo handle, works as a wax pen, enabling the artist to mask off dye-resist designs in wax.

The canting tool used to lay wax on cloth during batik printmaking. Photo credit: Adwindo

The canting tool used to lay wax on cloth during batik printmaking. Photo credit: Adwindo

Batik patterns are distinguished as either geometric or non-geometric. Most patterns are accessible to the general public, but traditionally, specific designs are reserved for wedding garments or royalty. For example, the Kuwang, consisting of overlapping circles, has been a staple pattern of Javanese royalty since the 13th century. In the city of Yogyakarta, the checkered X’s and O’s Grompol motif is customarily selected for wedding ceremonies. Grompol (“gather together”) symbolizes the union of luck, happiness, children, and a harmonious marriage.

Unlike Indonesian batik, where decorations are artfully printed onto the surface of a blank cloth, Scottish tartan patterns are woven into the fabric, so that design and form are indistinguishable. Tartan patterns are commonly referred to as plaid in North America, but the word plaid derives from the Scottish Gaelic plaide, meaning blanket. Plaids, generally comprised of a long length of tartan fabric, are worn over the shoulder in traditional Highlander garb.

Traditional Highland tartan kilt and plaid costume on the Starz series Outlander. Photo credit: Starz

Traditional Highland tartan kilt and plaid costume on the Starz series Outlander. Photo credit: Starz

Now used to signify family connections, clan tartans are an important element of Scottish national identity. From modern Scottish National Party referendums to the historic ’45, Scots have sought independence from the United Kingdom for centuries. In 1745, several clans were brutally decimated in the wake of a fierce Jacobite rebellion against the British crown. Though the Highlanders were defeated, and their “Bonnie” Prince Charles Edward Stuart never ascended the throne, they retained their Scottish identity through clan tartans.

As a result, the British passed the Tartan and Dress Act of 1746, effectively outlawing traditional tartan in Scotland. The law was eventually repealed in 1782, consequentially strengthening Scottish national pride in tartan. Though there are thousands of unrestricted tartan patterns available to the public, many Scottish people will only wear the pattern connected with their family name. However, there are a few tartans that are generally viewed as being off-limits. The Balmoral tartan, ironically, is restricted to members of the British Royal Family. Likewise, Burberry’s iconic Haymarket check is trademarked.

Tartan is uniquely tied to Scottish ethnicity, yet it is not perceived as an ethnic textile in the way of Indonesian batik. U.S. clothing stores appropriate foreign cultural prints, and sell them as exotic trends—so long as the people who traditionally wear the clothes are not white. This exoticism of the unspecified other is modern Orientalism on a global scale.

Advertisements

DIY Crochet, Sewing, and Watercolor

DIY doll and crochet

Handmade bunny doll with crochet hood, infinity scarf, and leg warmers.

Last week was hectic, so there was no Cultural Parallels article yesterday. In fact, I’ve decided to publish that particular segment on a biweekly basis for the rest of the year. I may choose to revert to a weekly schedule in 2016, though. I can’t believe it’s almost October!

Now that my sister’s birthday has passed, I can share some of what I’ve been working on lately. As I mentioned in my greeting cards post, I love designing personalized envelopes even when they’re store-bought. This year, for my sister’s 22nd birthday, I drew lipstick, mascara, nail polish, eyeliner, and lip liner on the envelope. Some of the curves ended up a little wonky after I inked the lines, but that’s down to nerves. More importantly, I learned that premade envelopes come with a waxy finish that repels watercolor paint. In hindsight, I probably should have foreseen that, but oh well. Now I know.

Watercolor envelope

Hand drawn birthday card envelope depicting assorted makeup.

DIY crochet boot cuffs

DIY crochet boot cuffs, made with bulky yarn.

Part of my gift to my sister this year was a pair of crocheted boot cuffs. These were the first human-sized garments I’ve crocheted, and I’m proud of the outcome. I taught myself how to sew earlier this year by stitching together a little bunny I drew. My favorite part of the whole project was embroidering his little gap-toothed face. After he was complete, I used him as a model to create tiny crocheted outfits.

Handmade bunny modeling a handmade crocheted mini poncho and leg warmers.

Handmade bunny modeling a handmade crocheted mini poncho and leg warmers.

To date, I’ve made him a buttoned poncho, leg warmers, and an infinity scarf. I started working on a hood a while ago, but abandoned the project when I couldn’t decide whether to turn it into a hooded cape or a hooded scarf. I bought a few new skeins of bulky yarn today and a larger crochet hook, and I’m planning on crocheting a human-sized scarf now that I have the hang of working in the round. Once I finish, I’ll post the result here.

DIY bunny doll

The handmade bunny — tastefully nude?

Landfills and Air Pollution

Cultural Parallels

Clean energy, waste disposal, air pollution, and climate change are polarizing subjects worth discussion. Melting glaciers, a rise in sea level, warmer oceans, and changing wind patterns are all indicators that global warming is a real concern. One of the greatest consequences of climate change is unhealthy breathable air. Millions of people die unnecessarily each year, as a result of solvable issues like toxic air pollution. To mitigate landfill waste and air pollution, countries like Sweden and the Netherlands have taken innovative steps toward creating a more sustainable planet.

Sweden is close to realizing its dream of achieving zero waste. Today, less than 1% of Swedish household waste ends up in landfills. Swedes have been perfecting the art of converting garbage into energy since 1904, when the first incineration plant was built in Stockholm. The waste burnt in the 32 currently existing plants produces heat for around 810,000 homes and electricity for 250,000 homes.

Swedish landfill

Less than 1% of Swedish household waste ends up in landfills. Photo credit: Sweden.se

To encourage a national commitment to conservation, recycling stations are required to be no more than 300 meters (984 feet) away from residential areas. Paper, plastic, and glass are reused, while food is composted and repurposed as soil or biogas. In fact, the garbage trucks that are used to collect waste typically run on recycled electricity or biogas. Most importantly, special trucks are employed to collect discarded electronics and chemical waste.

According to the United Nations University’s Solving the E-waste Problem Initiative, 48.8 million metric tons of e-waste, or electronics waste, is generated globally each year. At 6.1 million metric tons, China generates the second highest amount, after the United States. Much of the world’s e-waste winds up in the southeastern Chinese town of Guiyu, which is considered the global electronic graveyard. Guiyu is inundated with more than 1.6 million tons of e-waste annually, resulting in $600 million worth of recycling. Though many items are refurbished and resold, burnt plastic and circuit boards have turned the surrounding air and water toxic. Roughly 80% of the local children suffer from lead poisoning, due to the high amount of metal contamination in the air. It is important to note that particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) can enter the bloodstream through the lungs.

Guiyu landfill

A young girl holding e-waste in the Guiyu, China landfill. Photo credit: Greenpeace

In contrast, the Swedish government claims that the smoke from Swedish incineration plants consists of 99.9% nontoxic carbon dioxide and water, which is still further filtered. While cleanly burnt garbage in Sweden creates energy, its unregulated Chinese counterpart creates profit for migrant workers. As such, both countries eagerly accept refuse. Sweden imports 700,000 tons of waste from other countries when they exhaust their own pile of rubbish.

By almost eliminating the need for landfills, Sweden has greatly reduced its methane emissions. According to a 2013 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landfills account for 18% of methane emissions in the United States, making them the third largest source in the country. Methane is considered a greenhouse gas because it absorbs and emits radiation, which directly contributes to global warming. Landfill food waste is a significant factor in global climate change, as the decomposition of piled organic matter produces methane gas. Deprived of oxygen, decomposing food in the lower layers of landfill waste is subjected to anaerobic digestion – a biological process wherein bacteria work to decompose organic material. In the process biogas is released, of which approximately 60% is methane. Unlike Sweden, America annually discards enough food to fill 730 football stadiums.

Smog Free Tower

The Smog Free Tower, conceived by Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde and scientist Bob Ursem. Photo credit: Studio Roosegaarde

In an effort to reduce global air pollution, Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde collaborated with Delft University of Technology researcher Bob Ursem and European Nano Solutions to produce the Smog Free Tower. Essentially a large-scale air purifier, the tower works by drawing pollution into its purification chambers through a wind-powered ventilation system atop the tower. Nearly 23 feet tall, the tower purifies up to 1 million cubic feet of air per hour by ionizing airborne smog particles. Particles smaller than 15 micrometers take on a positive charge, and are attached to a grounded counter electrode in the purification chamber. Once clean, the air inside is directed through vents near the bottom of the tower. According to Ursem, the brilliance behind the tower, and the difference between it and other ionic air purifiers, is the fact that the tower does not produce ozone. This is because the tower does not charge the particles with negative voltage.

Roosegaarde says he created the tower with China’s capital city, Beijing, in mind. As such, the artist plans on taking the tower on a global tour, to increase awareness and demand for the device. Air pollution health concerns manifest primarily as heart disease and respiratory problems, resulting in millions of premature deaths each year. Though many believe that Beijing is the world’s most polluted city, India’s capital city, Delhi, holds that title. In India, permanent lung damage is the second most deadly affliction after heart disease, killing 1.3 million annually. Air pollution and landfill waste are intrinsically linked. Simply put, creating less waste would minimize air pollution and save lives.

Saturday Morning House Fire

Firefighters

I’ve always heard that life slows down during a tragedy, enabling you to catalogue the minutest details you might not have otherwise noticed. In these cruelly stretched moments, colors are sharper and whispers are louder as disaster etches its indelible stain on your memory. We were watching the Swansea vs. Everton match, and through the window we saw people run past our backyard, into the open field. Everyone was pointing.

In idle conversation, people ask, “What would you save, if your house were on fire?” Have you ever noticed how brooding intellectuals always seem to ask that question in quasi-deep indie movies? It’s like a litmus test for character, as though it’s gauche or shallow to value your belongings. My books are my most prized possessions; they’re memories and friends. The Harry Potter books I waited for in midnight lines; the expensive art and architecture tomes with their bright, glossy pages; the carefully preserved single issue comics, nestled in their sheer, plastic wrappers; dog-eared, USED-stickered, college textbooks; dictionaries of multiple languages; shelves upon shelves of packed and stacked novels and anthologies, and my mother’s college poetry books. If catastrophe struck, I assumed I would protect these books, but they flitted through my mind quickly, no more than an errant thought.

Continue reading

Under the Knife: Appearance and Wealth

Cultural Parallels

Looks aren’t everything – unless you live in Brazil or South Korea. Appearance-wise, the two nations are polar opposites, yet both countries strive for a similar physical archetype. South Koreans undergo elective surgery to diverge from perceived Asian homogeneity and attain elements of Western beauty. Conversely, as a result of Brazil’s long, painful history of slavery, the country has an extremely diverse population. Between 1501 and 1866, an estimated 4.9 million slaves were imported to Brazil from Africa, which is a staggering 40% of the total slaves brought to the Americas. Despite this diversity, many Brazilians are determined to look white, regardless of how many procedures they might have to endure. Appearance and wealth are closely linked in Brazil and South Korea, and for many, cosmetic surgery is a small hurdle to jump in the race toward prosperity.

Miss Bum Bum 2015 contest

Contestants in Brazil’s 2015 Miss Bum Bum competition. Photo credit: Splash News

Whereas many Americans are familiar with the concept of post-op vacations as a means of concealing surgeries, Brazilians are not ashamed of cosmetic work. Breast implants and butt lifts are regarded as investments in Brazil, and are accordingly flaunted as status symbols. In a country focused on aesthetics, cosmetic surgery offers the promise of upward mobility. Women are pressured to conform to Brazilian society’s ideal physique – tall and white, with straight, blonde hair, large breasts, and a round bottom – regardless of the reality of said society’s racial demographics. According to the 2010 census, 47.73% of the population identified as white, while 43.13% considered themselves multiracial, or Pardo (brown-skinned). Though nearly half of the population has brown skin, it is understood that Brazilian women with Caucasian genotypes are more likely to be professionally and romantically successful. For this reason, women risk their health undergoing multiple surgeries and subjecting their hair to formaldehyde-infused Brazilian Blowouts to achieve a whiter appearance.

Cosmetic surgery, South Korea

An ad for cosmetic surgery in South Korea. Photo credit: Business Insider

Likewise, many South Koreans endeavor to attain Western features by going under the knife. Blepharoplasty, known as double-eyelid surgery, is the most common cosmetic procedure in South Korea. The procedure transforms the Epicanthic fold responsible for creating a monolid into an eyelid with a crease. Overall, cosmetic surgeries are used to distinguish trendy South Koreans, with the schoolgirl look serving as the current inspiration. Along these lines lies another popular surgery, the aegyo sal (eye smiles), which involves injecting fat under the eyes to mimic the convexity that appears when smiling. The purpose is to permanently emphasize a pleasant, youthful appearance. It is important for South Koreans to uphold a specific look, as companies frequently require job applicants to provide photographs with their résumés.

In South Korea and Brazil, there exists an explicit corollary between appearance and wealth. Surgeries are more than the norm – they’re expected of those who wish to succeed. Cost also plays a seminal role in the prevalence of cosmetic surgery in these two nations. Brazilian and South Korean patients often pay as little as a third of what American patients might be charged for similar cosmetic procedures due to supply and demand. In short, there is such an abundance of plastic surgeons that prices must be competitive to create a profit.

Woman going under the knife

Brazil has 5,500 certified cosmetic surgeons, as well as an additional 12,000 doctors performing procedures without requisite training. Photo credit: Voice of Mia

Despite a dearth of medical doctors, wherein 10,000 general practitioners have been imported from Cuba, Brazil has more cosmetic surgeons per capita than any other country in the world. According to Brazil’s Federal Council of Medicine, the country has 5,500 certified cosmetic surgeons, as well as an additional 12,000 doctors performing procedures without requisite training.

Brazil surpassed the United States in 2014, briefly becoming the cosmetic surgery capital of the world. In 2013, 1.5 million cosmetic surgeries were completed in Brazil, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. However, South Korea recently surpassed Brazil in nips and tucks, and now reigns as the cosmetic surgery world capital. It is difficult to adequately estimate the percentage of South Koreans that have gone under the knife, though some reports speculate as much as half the population. As the cosmetic surgery industry is not regulated in South Korea, there is no requirement for official records to be kept.

Scenes of Italy

Italian gelato

Corner gelato shops are as ubiquitous in Italy as Starbucks cafés are in America.

Art, history, food, fashion, and culture; Italy has something for everyone. I’ve written about my experiences in Venice and Florence, and will undoubtedly go into further detail about the Vatican and Rome later. Below, I’ve chosen one representative photograph from each stop on my tour of Italy.

Venice

Venetian gondolier

As Venice is comprised of over 100 islands connected by bridges, walking and gondola rides are the most common modes of transportation.

Florence

View of Florence from Michelangelo Square

From this vantage point at Michelangelo Square, you can see Ponte Vecchio, Palazzo Vecchio, and Florence Cathedral.

Pisa

Pisa Baptistry, Pisa Cathedral, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Piazza del Duomo contains the Pisa Baptistry, Pisa Cathedral, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Vatican City

Laocoön and His Sons

One of my favorite sculptures, Laocoön and His Sons, on display at the Vatican Museums.

Rome

The Colosseum

The view inside the Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre.

Bonus

Gelato

Seriously – gelato is everywhere in Italy, and it’s amazing!

Military Women and Music

Cultural Parallels

 

From propaganda potential to protest principles, music has always been an important element of war. In our darkest hours, music has the ability to remind us of our humanity. Military drummers once charged into battle, unarmed, to rally troops, demoralize the enemy, and send messages with their instruments. Throughout history, soldiers have sung ballads to remember the fallen and boost morale. And yet, while music is an effective tool in the promotion of military unity, it has also been used to segregate female soldiers in Israel and Russia.

33rd Caracal Battalion

Soldiers of the 33rd Caracal Battalion. 70% of the soldiers in this infantry combat battalion are women. Photo credit: Pinterest

Women serve in various military roles around the world, but only three nations conscript women. Eritrea’s indefinite conscription of men and women, instituted in 1995, is a human rights violation, while Norway’s recently approved female conscription, effective January 2015, boasts equality. Israel, however, is unique for being the first country in the world to conscript women. Shortly after gaining independent statehood and assembling the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 1948, Israel began requiring mandatory military service for adult women without children. Before the late 1970s, female soldiers were restricted to serving secretarial and technical roles in the Women’s Army Corps to mitigate the possibility of their becoming prisoners of war. After five weeks of basic training, the women generally served as nurses, signal operators, flight controllers, drivers, clerks, and teachers. Manpower shortages in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, compelled women to undertake additional field roles. The 2000 Equality amendment to the Military Service law expanded these opportunities for women, and sanctioned entrance into light combat and combat support roles. The amendment states, “The right of women to serve in any role in the IDF is equal to the right of men.”

Though Israeli women have earned the right to defend their country, they are not permitted to sing. Kol B’Isha Ervah, literally, “The voice of a woman is nakedness,” prohibits women from singing in the presence of men, in accordance with Orthodox Judaism. IDF rabbis of the Haredim, a strict Orthodox sect of Judaism, prevent female soldiers from participating in certain celebrations and ask them to dance in separate areas from men. Many argue that one female voice cannot be heard within a group, under Talmudic rule. The Talmud, a rabbinic text, states that “Trei Kali Lo Mishtamay,” two voices cannot be heard simultaneously. This principle is used to prohibit two people from reading out of the Torah at once, but it is also being used to consider leniency for female singers.

Female Israeli soldier with rifle

IDF soldiers carry their weapons everywhere off-base, as they can be imprisoned for losing them. Ein Fashka, the Dead Sea, Israel, 1989. Photo credit: Unknown

Israeli women are required to serve in the IDF for 24 months, though certain service roles, such as those involving combat, may legally demand a commitment of 36 months. Female combat soldiers operate for three years of active duty, and are required to remain in reserves service until age 38, regardless of motherhood status. Otherwise, religious conscience, marriage, pregnancy, and motherhood are all valid exemptions from joining service initially.

Though women are not subject to conscription in Russia, female soldiers represent ten percent of modern Russian military strength. However, women’s involvement in the Russian Armed Forces stems more from necessity than equality. Sustaining heavy losses during WWI, the Russian Army was forced to begin relying on women. In March 1917, a recruit named Maria Bochkareva, formerly of the 25th Reserve Battalion, formed the Women’s Battalion of Death to increase manpower. Bochkareva enlisted approximately 2,000 female soldiers between the ages of 13 and 25. The young women fought bravely against German forces during the 1917 June Offensive, but the battalion was quickly decimated. Within three months of action, the Women’s Battalion of Death was reduced from 2,000 to around 250 soldiers.

A Miss Russian Army 2007 beauty pageant contestant

A Miss Russian Army 2007 beauty pageant contestant. Photo credit: Toovia

After WWII ended, many military career opportunities were closed to women, despite equality policies. Sexist attitudes run rampant, though women have the legal right to serve in the Russian Armed Forces. The modern Russian Army currently holds an annually televised beauty contest called Miss Russian Army, dedicated to determining which female soldier is the most beautiful. Held at the Russian Army Theatre, participating female soldiers and sailors are expected to model their uniforms on a catwalk while singing military propaganda songs, with such lyrics as, “Since we are soldiers, our first concern is automatic weapons; boys come second.”

The Miss Russian Army pageant unapologetically uses female soldiers as props to increase army recruitment of young men. Ironically, Russian officials prohibit the women from wearing bikinis during the beauty pageant, though Israeli female soldiers, restrained on duty under the watchful eye of the pious Haredim, are often seen wearing bikinis at the beach while toting rifles over their shoulders. Whereas Israeli women are legally bound to serve without singing in the presence of men, Russian women are tolerated in the military so long as they entertain men with a song and dance.

La Sagrada Família

 

La Sagrada Família

The Passion Façade of La Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain.

Situated in Barcelona, and considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sagrada Família (Holy Family) is one of the world’s most innovative places of worship. Construction began in 1882, though Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí revised the design a year later, infusing the Gothic basilica with Art Nouveau elements. Due to lack of funding and socio-political disruptions such as the Spanish Civil War, architects have worked intermittently on Sagrada Família for well over 100 years.

La Sagrada Família

Construction at La Sagrada Família has been ongoing for over 100 years.

La Sagrada Família

Detail of some windows on the Passion Façade of La Sagrada Família.

As they say, Rome was not built in a day. Envisioning the church as a tribute to the life of Jesus Christ, Gaudí understood that he would not live to see its completion. With three distinct façades representing the Nativity, the Passion, and the Glory, the building is brimming with religious symbolism. Gaudí’s design includes 18 spires representing the Twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ. Architects project a 2026 completion date, symbolic itself as the centennial of Gaudí’s 1926 death.

La Sagrada Família

Detail of La Sagrada Família spires capped with wheat and grapes, representations of the Eucharist.

Anything worth doing takes time and conviction. Many renowned artists spend their entire lives overlooked or ridiculed, never able to experience the recognition they achieve posthumously. Though often criticized as gaudy, Gaudí’s aesthetic transformed Barcelona. Sagrada Família, along with signature works like Park Güell, Casa Milà and Casa Batlló have come to define the city.

Sagrada Família

Detail from the Nativity Façade.

To me, Sagrada Família encourages perseverance; something I’ve been lacking lately. After receiving a disappointing job rejection, I’ve found it difficult to motivate myself to write anything. I started this blog as a creative outlet, hoping to engage readers and inspire discourse. Through a tenuous connection, I was fortunate enough to meet with a TV executive a few months ago, on the day I posted my first Cultural Parallels article. He wished me luck, but advised me that people are not concerned with culture. Based on my recent rejection and the absence of response to the Cultural Parallel entries, I started to believe him. I turned to some of my favorite miserable book passages, allowed myself to mope, and then moved on.

La Sagrada Família

Detail of a window on the Nativity Façade of La Sagrada Família.

“He was letting go of things as he sat there so quietly: of some hopes, a few plans, pictures, intentions, and his whole being was undergoing the wrench of separation.” –Kate Chopin, A Mental Suggestion

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” –Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Maybe people don’t care about my Cultural Parallels now – maybe they never will – but writing is both my Sagrada Família and my sea. Writing allows me to reinterpret the world while simultaneously asserting my place within it. It also keeps me from knocking people’s hats off. I can’t control society’s interests; all I can do is persevere.

DIY Greeting Cards and the Digital Age

DIY Thank You Card Set

Four handmade thank you notecards and envelopes.

I’ve been experimenting with DIY thank you cards as a creative outlet. For years, my sister and I have added personal touches to Hallmark envelopes by creating elaborate designs suited to the occasion. Last year, when she legally became old enough to drink alcohol, I drew a wine bottle with flowers springing from the top. When I finished, it occurred to me that I’d drawn a closed bottle, but that’s neither here nor there.

Wine Bottle Envelope

The hand drawn wine bottle envelope I made for my sister.

I wanted to take my work a step further, so I cut and folded my own envelopes and inserted polka dot liners cut from a large sheet of scrapbook paper. To create the cards themselves, I measured out 3.5” x 5” notecards, realized I couldn’t find my paper cutter, and resigned myself to manually cutting each rectangle. My goal was to maintain a cohesive design element between the envelopes and the cards, so I focused on the seafoam green liner for inspiration. Ultimately, I settled on drawing Echeveria plants because I love the way the fleshy robin’s egg blue leaves transition into rosy blush-tinted tips.

Succulent Card

Handmade blank thank you notecard with a watercolor Echeveria drawing.

DIY Envelopes

Charcoal grey DIY 4-Bar envelopes with seafoam green and white polka dot liners.

As I was working, I thought about NPR’s article last month on Hallmark’s struggle to stay relevant in the digital age. With the advent of the quick and thoughtless “Happy Birthday!” Facebook post, e-cards, and other means of digital communication, the greeting card industry has been jettisoned into that desolate pit of obscurity known only by other relics of bygone ages. We are a nation of consumers, governed by capitalist commandments. We hold fast to the fallacies that Thanksgiving is naught but Black Friday Eve and generic labels are a sin. We throw cash at all our favorite brands, but $4 greeting cards are viewed as superfluous expenditures.

For most people, greeting cards are a waste of money. I keep all the cards I receive in shoeboxes, so I was surprised to read multiple comments on the NPR article stating that people generally throw them away after reading. With all the “You Know You Were a 90s Kid if…” listicles and I Love the [insert decade here] VH1 shows, it’s apparent that we are obsessed with nostalgia, and yet have no time for sentimentality.

Perhaps the real issue is that our nostalgia is rooted in narcissism, rendering sentimentality worthless in the digital age. People love looking back into their own past, but they have no use for boxed remembrances. Physical cards are essentially direct messages from sender to recipient. Unlike publicly visible social media messages, they aren’t meant to serve as exhibition. They aren’t sharable or likeable; they’re inadequate social barometers.

Card companies like Papyrus have responded to the decline in sales by creating 3D cards with unique designs. Rather than hoping to sell high volumes, it seems as though their brand strategy is to depend on society’s lust for commodification. They’re appealing to people who find exclusive cards irresistible, regardless of their cost. Like the Etsy shopkeepers who create handmade cards to supplement their own income, I know I’m hammering one more nail in the card industry’s coffin with each card I make. When I reach a level of wealth that enables me to spend $10 on a sentiment, I’ll return to the card aisle. Provided it’s still there at that time.

Living with the Dead

Cultural Parallels

Regardless of religious dogma, most cultures believe in a clear line of demarcation between life and death. Certain holidays, such as Samhain or Día de los Muertos, celebrate the dead and are believed to be occasions where the veil between life and death is at its thinnest. During these special events, the dead are given an opportunity to once again enter the realm of the living, under the caveat that they will soon depart again. However, in South Korea and the Philippines, growing populations and dwindling space have permanently blurred the line between the living and the dead.

Of the 13 million Filipino residents living in the capital city of Manila, 43% live in informal settlements. While some live under bridges, or along highways, over 10,000 people call Manila North Cemetery their home. Laid out in 1904 to spread across 54 acres, it is one of the oldest and largest cemeteries in Metro Manila. The community has flourished over the course of several decades, with multiple generations of families spending their whole lives between the walls of the cemetery. Residents make wages by working as caretakers for the mausoleums they inhabit, or by selling food to neighbors and mourners. Children help collect money for their families by carrying coffins and rummaging for saleable plastic or scrap metal.

Two young Manila North Cemetery residents riding a bike beside stacked tombs. Photo credit: AP

Two young Manila North Cemetery residents riding a bike beside stacked tombs. Photo credit: AP

Sleeping atop graves or playing between the stacked tombs, Manila North Cemetery residents spend their lives in communion with the deceased. Though many work to protect the burial sites from grave robbers, the residents themselves are in constant risk of peril. Gang violence and robberies are prevalent in the cemetery. Without access to hot water, electricity, viable roofs, or locked doors, cemetery conditions are hazardous for the dwellers. Still, the inherent dangers do not prevent the tenants from growing their families.

The Philippines has one of the fastest growing populations in Asia, largely due to its status as a devoutly Roman Catholic nation. Under the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines, abortions are illegal. Abortion patients and doctors alike face imprisonment for taking part in the procedure, with longer sentences imposed on women who sought abortions to “conceal” the loss of their virginity. However, the threat of incarceration is only one of many reasons some Filipino women avoid abortions. Though some clinics perform clandestine abortions, the fee of 2,000 to 5,000 pesos – roughly $43 to $108 USD – is too high for many impoverished women. Many fear facing complications resulting from unsafe abortions, knowing that some hospitals refuse to treat these injuries, while others punish patients by operating without anesthesia.

Extreme poverty and religious beliefs have resulted in unmanageable surges of population growth, with no immediate sign of hope for change. Government officials repeatedly threaten the cemetery dwellers with eviction, but with nowhere else to go, the families have no intention of moving. While many Filipinos are fighting to live among the dead, South Koreans are increasingly choosing to avoid graveyards.

Prompted by a dearth of cemetery space, South Korea passed a law in 2000 requiring the removal of subsequent graves after a period of 60 years. This law undermines the traditional conviction that burial sites are places where the dead may rest in peace for all eternity. To avoid future exhumation, the majority of South Koreans now opt to be cremated. However, the rise in cremation has stimulated a cultural shift in traditional beliefs.

South Koreans believe that the dead rightfully deserve to be returned to nature, though many are unsatisfied with the idea of ashes being spread in the wind. Traditionally, South Koreans have strong bonds with their ancestors, and it is common for family members to regularly visit gravesites. Cremation strips relatives of a place to visit when they want to be with a deceased loved one.

Bonhyang beads, made of cremated remains. Photo credit: NY Daily News

Bonhyang beads, made of cremated remains. Photo credit: NY Daily News

Based in Icheon, South Korea, a company called Bonhyang transforms the cremated remains of loved ones into decorative, Buddhist-style beads for a fee of roughly $900. According to CEO Bae Jae-yul, Bonhyang beads are unadulterated, containing only human remains. Rival companies, such as Mikwang, blend in supplementary minerals to produce more symmetrical, gemlike beads faster and at lower temperatures.

These companies subject cremated ashes to ultrahigh temperatures, until they are crystalized and transformed into beads. Bonhyang’s whole process lasts 90 minutes, and results in blue-green, black, purple, and pink cremation beads. The ashes of an average adult typically generate four or five cups of beads, and those with higher bone density, namely children, can result in double the amount. Families often disperse the beads among their relatives, so that the departed can remain with multiple members of the family. Many keep the beads on decorative dishes, or in glass containers in centralized locations of the household.

While some might be hesitant to openly display the cremated remains of a relative on their coffee table, many cherish the beads as tangible connections to their ancestors. Rising population and limited space have forced South Koreans to welcome the dead into their homes, whereas mirrored conditions have had the opposite effect in the Philippines. Stricken by greater poverty, Filipinos have countered population capacity by instead moving in with the dead.