Cultural Recon

The pleasure of visiting a foreign country increases a great deal with some knowledge of the local culture. I’ve been sifting through books and movies to learn more about Chinese and Spanish customs, and here is some of what I’ve been checking out:

Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is a classic tale of Spain during the civil war.  Also, his journals from the 1930s-1950s, collected in “By-Line: Ernest Hemingway” portray his own experiences during the fighting. 

For language reference, “501 Spanish Verbs” and “Dimelo Tu!” have both proved useful. Linguists claim it’s nearly impossible to attain natural fluency in any language after the magical age of about four, but it doesn’t hurt to try. 

Waiting” by Ha Jin is a story of China after the cultural revolution. The novel chronicles the life of a military doctor, who is prohibited for decades from getting a divorce.

Rob Gifford is an NPR reporter whose book “China Road” is a study of the modern influence of capitalism on the Chinese. The book documents his travels on the ancient silk road, now known simply as Route 312. 

Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino has nothing to do with culture in particular, but I consider it essential reading for any kind of travel.  In a surrealist narrative Calvino imagines the stories told by Marco Polo to Kublai Kahn of his distant travels. 

Films are a great way to discover culture, also.  Here are a few I’ve been watching:

“Lust, Caution” and “The House of Flying Daggers” are both cinematically opulent; the first imagining Shanghai in the 1940’s, and the other China during the Tang dynasty.  Directed by Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou, respectively. 

Stolen Life,” or “Sheng Si Jie” is an unsettling portrait of life in modern Shanghai.  After becoming pregnant, a university student is forced to make a decision: drop out of school, or have an abortion. 

Please Vote For Me” exhibits how China’s communist order is being slightly re-worked at the grade school level, where students in this documentary participate in a democratic class election. 

China is the native country of admired architect I.M. Pei. The documentary “I.M. Pei: First Person Singular” showcases his amazing work, including the Chinese National Bank in Hong Kong, and the glass pyramid at the Louvre.

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