April 2, 2010

The Continental Drift

When I was a kid, the world was simple- it had only six continents- Europe, Asia, America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. That is what I learned in my Geography class. People living in those areas were, therefore, Europeans, Asians, Americans, Africans, Australians and..Antarcticans, I guess. I mean the ones working at those weather stations. Is this fair? I think so. Then came the news stations, and the BBC and the cable news such as the CNN, and it all changed. Plus, as I traveled around the world, I saw that some people did not see the world in the continental sense but more like a bunch of regions, shall I say? In the Gulf countries, for one, they never talk about themselves as Asians or even Middle Easterners- they are "Khalijees-" the Gulfies", that is.

But cable TV networks again were particularly guilty of muddling things up. "And now, so-and-so is reporting from Asia". Where in Asia? Is she reporting from the other side of the Bosphorus? No, she is in Singapore. So my question is: "How come whenever they report from Asia, it is almost never Turkey or Syria. Or the Russian Far East. "Oh, that's not Asia", some will answer. So, what is it? Turkey is in the Middle East. So is Syria. Isn't the Middle East in Asia? And Turkey, for a long time was called Asia Minor. So, are these reporters in Asia Major now? Did I miss something? "And this is our correspondent reporting from Asia Major, good morning to you all".

The city of Istanbul straddles two continents, and the folks there are proud to be able to walk across the bridge and end up now in Europe, now in Asia. So do many people in Russia and Kazakhstan near the continental divide that goes along the Ural mountains into the Kazakh steppes. Some people have spent their entire lives living in Europe and working in Asia, all while remaining in Turkey, Russia or Kazakhstan. However, according to the BBC, in order to do that you will have to commute not from one Kazakh yurt to another, and not from one part of the Old Constantinople to another, but to fly in a private jet from Paris to Beijing. Kind of expensive and time consuming if you ask me. A Turk can do it for free several times in one day if he wants.

Whenever they talk about Asia they are showing the Thai "nail dancers" or Sri Lankans on elephants. When the CNN "reports from Asia", one sees crowds of people on the streets of Tokyo and Seoul. Does that nullify the Turk's, the Russian's and the Kazakh's bi-continental life experience? According to the BBC and CNN it does, I guess.

If you listen to American news stations talking about the US dealings with "Asians", the only Asian countries will be those where people have black hair, somewhat yellowish skin, and narrow eyes. So, again, the experience of commuting between two continents in Istanbul is erased and ignored. "Yeah, it is "Asia" , maybe, but I never thought about it that way", an average American reporter would probably say.

In the UK, when they talk about the "police looking for two lost Asian teenagers" they mean people from the Indian Subcontinent-Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri-Lankans, etc. This way, the whole continent of Asia in Great Britain has been reduced to about one fourth of its size, as it were. If a Japanese teenager is missing, he/she will be referred to as an "Asian teenager" in the US, but only as a "Japanese teenager" in the UK. Two Pakistani teenagers, on the other hand, missing in New York, will not be talked about as " two Asian teenagers" though. Their eyes are not narrow enough, maybe?

A lot of it is done for simplicity's sake since these are the parts of Asia that provide immigrants and tourists to the two countries of the US and the UK, and these, in turn, dominate the airwaves with their news. Maybe all that a Turk needs to do is switch the channel to the local Turkish news, and again be reminded that Istanbul does, in fact, connect Europe and Asia even though no pagodas, beturbaned maharajas or battling samurais are anywhere in site.

When the BBC and CNN talk about Europe, things get more complicated. Snobbery is probably more of a reason than anything else. There has been some talk on the English language radio and TV about countries like Latvia, Slovenia and Slovakia "joining Europe". What do you exactly mean: "joining"?. Shouldn't it be "joining the EU" instead of "joining Europe?" And wasn't it "the EEC"-the European Economic Community before? So, how do these largely political and economic organizations equate to being a whole continent? Where was Latvia before it had joined Europe? Was it in Africa? Oh, you are telling me it was in the Soviet Union? OK, so, you may dislike the Soviet Union and want to exclude it from the enlightened and civilized Europe, so much I can buy, but Latvia became independent in 1989 and then, it "joined" Europe in 2004? Was it in Antarctica those thirteen years? Or did someone dig a moat in 1989 and separated it from the mainland for all those years and then, later, covered the moat with earth so that it would "join" Mother Europe?

Russia is another favorite" victim" of the European and the BBC/CNN snobberies. Pick up any encyclopedia and open up the page where it says "Europe". It will clearly delineate Europe as a huge land area running from the Atlantic, where Spain and Portugal are located, to the Urals in Russia. This way, European Russia covers exactly one half of Europe- its eastern half. So, Russia is, in fact, Eastern Europe. Not so on the English-language airwaves when news is being reported. They are talking about negotiations between "Russia" and "Europe". Many weather maps showing Europe completely exclude Russia or only show a small sliver of it. The huge European expanse stretching from the Carpathian mountains to the Urals has now been semi-officially transferred to Asia. I guess people in Tokyo and Seoul must be rejoicing. Why aren't there any celebrations in the Pakistani neighborhoods in the UK?- Asians have now acquired one half of the European continent. Without any huge military campaigns. Where Genghis Khan, and Kublai Khan have failed, the BBC and the CNN have succeeded. How come such an auspicious event has gone unnoticed and there have been no fireworks in Beijing?

OK, great. So, Russia has now been officially transferred to Asia- check out the CIA World Fact Book. Its location is now listed as Northern Asia although the site does accede that its eastern part is "sometimes" ( wow! how generous! and when is that?) included with Europe. But, gee, whenever there is an Asian political summit, Russia is not invited. How come? Isn't it now the biggest country in Asia? So how come you do not see Putin hobnobbing with the Japanese or lining up for group photos at all these Asian political meets, grinning in unison along with all these other smiling Asian faces. Somehow he is not even invited. Strange.

When the newscasts of the BBC and the CNN talk about Eastern Europe they mean Poland and Hungary. But in Eastern Poland ( and also in Southern Lithuania and in Western Ukraine) there are landmarks- stones and columns and such, indicating the "Geographical Center of Europe". So, how can it be in the center of Europe if it is in the very East of it at the same time?. I am all confused.

I have asked around and the help has arrived. I have consulted a few Britons and they have explained to me that Russia is "a special region". Maybe according to the BBC, again. I guess they think that they rule the world and are divinely authorized to assign new classifications to countries that did not request them to begin with. They have been shifting multi- trillion-ton landmasses with ancient cities and hundreds of millions of people in them, from one continent to another all without the help of even one bulldozer. A truly amazing feat of the British engineering ingenuity, if you ask me.

So, Russia is not a part of Europe or Asia. One said- it is "Eurasia". But wait a minute! Eurasia is an uninterrupted terra firma stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. That is the definition that I know. It includes Portugal and China. Now, are you going to tell me that while now Russia is excluded from both Europe and Asia, the "real" Europe, and, possibly, the "real" Asia are now kind of excluded from that "new" Eurasia? I have not heard of many "Eurasian" games being conducted in Beijing or Seoul. I have not heard of the collective Eurasian identity that people would be proud of, except, if they are a mixture of a Japanese mother and a German father. So, Eurasia before was a real continental land area from Lisbon to Kamchatka, but now it is only from the Belarus border to Kamchatka with anything south of Siberia excluded? You got me there. I am totally confused. Who is "passing" these new definitions? Is there like a boardroom somewhere, some "Worldwide Continentalist Definitors Council" that switches and assigns names to continents without asking the residents of those places as to what they call themselves or the place where they themselves live?

Looks like the BBC has moved more landmasses around in just under half a century than the Continental Drift had in three billion years.

But I am not just blaming the BBC or the CNN. I was in working in Thailand in the 1990ies and one Thai university professor has confided in me the fact that she had never considered Iranians and Arabs as "Asians". "Different Asians" she would say. "And their language is like English". I guess to her Thai ears if a language was not tonal like Thai or Chinese, and if people did not have straight black hair and high cheekbones, they were simply not Asians. Asia sure has traveled a long way from the shores of the Bosphorus in a few hundred years. And, according to some people, it never went back there again. In Thailand, they talk about themselves being "the hub of Asia". I guess they decided not to ask people on the streets of Tehran if they would grant them that title. They just went ahead and named themselves "The Great Asian Hub".

A lot of that happened when the world "Oriental" became politically incorrect. It used to be that there was one Asia where all people were Asians. But there was a part of Asia where people had Mongolian-like features. These were called "Orientals". They protested and said" do not call us "Orientals", call us "Asians". The "Great Asian Drift" took place after that, I guess. And hundreds of millions of people had lost their Asian identity.

And look at the Middle East and Africa. First there was a Near East, Middle East and a Far East. Now, many people started complaining about the Eurocentric orientation involved in such definitions, so some geographers have tried to change them- now you were supposed to have South Asia, South East Asia. East Asia or sometimes, North East Asia, etc. "Northern Asia" meaning Asian Russia/Siberia has almost never been used, and "Western" or "West" Asia also sounds strange. When they talk about American troops in Iraq, they never talk about " our involvement in Western Asia". But the words "Near East" have been replaced with "Middle East". Why not the other way around, though? Now it stretches from the Eastern Mediterranean to Pakistan. But how can it be "Middle" if there is no "Near" anymore? Would not it seem more logical if they got rid of the term "Middle East" and replaced it with "Near East"? Why didn't it ever happen? And why is Uzbekistan- Central Asia, meaning it is in the center, but Lebanon is in the Middle East, meaning again it is in some center/middle but why is "their" middle located so far west from the Uzbekistan-style center/middle?

Another arbitrary land shift by newscasters.

Now, Egypt, for example, is almost always talked about as part of the Middle East in various TV discourses and in papers. However, it is in Africa. Many African-Americans proudly see Egypt and its ancient history as something to add to their cultural heritage. So, is Egypt then located in both places? Sinai is, but when they talk about Egypt, they kind of talk about Cairo and Alexandria which are both in Africa. North Africa. So, I guess Egypt has been able to violate the physical law of not being able to be in two places at the same time. When I visited there in the year 2001 I was proud to say to myself that now my feet had stood on the African soil. However, I felt insecure about claiming to anyone that I have, in fact, visited Africa- I had been to Egypt, hadn't I? Still, something was gnawing at me as if saying " Yeah, it is in Africa, sort of , kind of, but it is not in 'real' Africa. It was not until I got to Kenya three years later that I felt that I could now fully say that I had been to Africa. The people around me were black, there were elephants roaming on the savannah- yup, that was Africa. But Egypt? Nah! I would have hard time convincing people back home that I have been to the 'Dark Continent" even though the my feet fully touched it when I was walking down the streets of Cairo.

So, looks like we have several Africas- the real- Sub-Saharan "Black" Africa, the North Africa which may or may not include Egypt, which is part of the Middle East ( and the Middle East is supposed to be in Asia) . The North Africa, which has almost identical Arab people as Egypt but is never included as part of the Middle East in any news, and South Africa, which is a country. And then we have "Southern Africa" which is South Africa and places like Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, etc. But the term NortheRN Africa is almost never used. There is also no WesteRN or EasteRN Africa, just "West" and "East" Africa. Somehow inconsistent, if you ask me. Also, be honest with me, when you hear that there is a bunch of Africans coming to your college party, who do you see? A bunch or Boers or Tunisians? I don't think so. You probably expect the real Africans- the sub-Saharan ones. Just like when you hear that a bunch of Asians are coming, you probably do not mean people that look like Ariel Sharon or Queen Ranya ( sp.) of Jordan.

Now, once we get into the Americas, things get complicated in their own way. Go to a US embassy somewhere South of the US/Mexico border or even visit the US immigration and pick up a "Welcome to the United States of America" brochure. Now, turn it around and there will be a Spanish text on the other side. It says in Spanish: "Welcome to the United States of North America". Wait a minute! What is going on? Mexico was in North America last time I checked. And the name of Mexico is, in Spanish, "United States of Mexico". So, you have two countries in North America and one is titled "United States of America" in English ( and "United States of North America" in Spanish) and another North American country called United States of Mexico? And it is in North America, too? Hmm. I am getting all confused again.

Also, are there now seven continents after all, and not six? Is South America a continent? According to the newscasters around the world it seems to be. To appease some people they are now talking about "the Americas". But are they talking about the two continents or one continent that now goes by this plural name? I guess it became two continents when the Panama Canal was dug out in the jungle, and thus, split America in two. But they also talk about "Central" America quite a bit. So, am I to assume that Central America is part of North America on the northern side of the Canal, and part of South America on the southern part of the Canal which is just a small bit of Panama? And does South America begin on the Panama- Colombia border? It is kind of confusing again. Is Central America treated as a new continent? I doubt it. But then, where is it?

Then, the term "Latin America". Supposedly these are the countries whose people speak languages that are derived from Latin- Spanish and Portuguese. French, maybe. I guess, French Guiana and Haiti, with its French-based Creole, can be included in it, although Haiti is usually put in the Caribbean by the newscasters. Puerto Rico is also part of the Caribbean and so is the Dominican Republic and Cuba. And the Caribbean is what Columbus discovered when he discovered "America". However, since the Caribbean is not really part of South America or North America but only of Latin America, at the time Columbus had discovered it, the people there did not speak any languages that were based on Latin. So, does it thus follow Columbus did not discover America when he landed in the Caribbean, after all? He did not discover South America or North America since most of his American voyages were to the Caribbean. Or did those Caribbean island cease to be America after he had left? No one speaks about them as America anymore. How come?

Maybe, since his sailors were speaking Latin-derived Spanish and he must have muttered some words in his Genovese dialect while walking around the isles, he did discover something which upon his crews' beginning to speak Spanish there, immediately became "Latin" America? All right. I'll go with that. I am not entirely convinced, but I will let it slide for now.

What about Quebec? It is a French-speaking Canadian province although its residents say " I am going to Canada" when they head for Toronto or Montreal. French is a language that is based on Latin. Should we call the Quebecois "Latin Americans", then? They, as Mexicans, are located in North America, but Mexicans are arguably Latin Americans, but the Quebecois are not. How come? I am again confused. And what about the Cajuns and the Louisiana Creoles? Are these Latin Americans? Before they became US citizens, were they seriously considered as such? They sure fulfill the definitions. Or does one have to be a member of an independent country in the Americas to be one? If so, why do they talk about the "Latinos from the Southwest", meaning people from New Mexico or Arizona? Oh, I see, these are "Latinos" but the French speakers are " Latins". OK, I will agree to that. So, then there must be a separate "Latino-America" and Latin America, the first one housing people who speak Spanish and Portuguese and the second housing people that speak any language derived from Latin. So, now we have South America, Latin America and a new "Latino-America"- which includes all the people with names such as Gomez, Lopez or Rodriguez? Some people would like to think that way, I am sure.

BBC and CNN, where are you? I need your help.

The only continent that presents relatively little confusion is Australia. People from there, be they of European or of any other descent are supposedly "Australians". But how come they and the New Zealanders are often invited to all these Asian political and economic summits? Are they Asians, too? Or are they invited in the capacity of observers? And why did some Singaporean officials talk about the Australians "becoming the white trash of Asia"? They are in Asia, you mean? And, recently, there were race-motivated riots in Australia which were described as those between the Lebanese and the "White" Australians. Aren't the Lebanese "white", too? They sure are in many neighborhoods in the US. Ask a few bigoted black guys there and they will describe them by several unflattering terms reserved for white people in the US. In the land of Oz they are not, then? And why were some of those "white" Australians carrying all these Australian flags when they went to beat up on those Lebanese-Australians? Weren't those Lebanese Australian citizens or residents? Weren't many of them born there? Again, strange. I don't get it.

Finally, you still hear the term "Australia and Oceania". Now, where is this Oceania? Some of it, I guess, includes Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. But I once saw a map that had Australia and Oceania 'above' it- i.e. Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Aren't these part of Asia? And if these are part of Asia, how come they are islands that are off-the-coast of Asia? Since Asia is a continent, only a part of Malaysia should be there but the rest of it, along with the Philippines and Indonesia should be in Oceania, not in Asia. But both the Philippines and Indonesia are members of the ASEAN. Strange!

I really and truly give up. I am going to ask the BBC about it. They obviously know better about those things than I do


No comments: