Saturday, December 27, 2008

LDN 3: Salad Platter

My sister and I decided to get an early start today. The museums here open at 10 AM, so we wanted to walk around the area before the opening. The plan was to visit the National Gallery and Tate Modern.

We got off at Leicester Square and walked around the area. This place is one of my favourite neighbourhoods in London. Here one could see the contrast between the old and new buildings. I have fallen in love with the old white and red bricked buildings here. Even though I walked around this area a million times before, I had never been to the National Gallery before. The building itself is in the Trafalgar Square and is gorgeous. The big dome inside the gallery is spectacular. I believe I took a picture of it. I am a bit obsessive with picture-taking, which annoys my sister a lot. Things my poor sister has to put up with, during this trip.

The National Gallery, like the most British museums and art galleries, is free, and very welcoming. I was drawn to this gallery because of Van Gogh and Monet's art pieces that are present here. This gallery also has one of the many water lilies painted by Monet. Monet and Van Gogh, along with Picasso, are my favourite artists. I also enjoyed the BSing session that ensued when my British friend and I decided to make sense of the paintings that surrounded us.

This was my first time visiting London with our very own Londoner travel adviser. He pointed out things that we wouldn't have noticed otherwise. Moreover, he pointed out our inherited Canadian traits, which were totally oblivious to us. Apparently, things considered polite in Canada are rather offensive in Britain. Also, he pointed out, compared to the British, we are overtly polite. He took us to a Persian restaurant for lunch. My sister and I had never had Persian food before, so it was a unique experience.

During the lunch we were comparing the degrees of racism between London and Toronto. Coming from Toronto, I had a strong belief that Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Although, I am not as defensive about Toronto as my sister. But my friend made me see racism in a different light.

In Toronto, people are colour-blind in the sense that everyone is seen as an equal. For that reason I used to think that Toronto is one of the most tolerant non-racist cities in the world. As a visible minority I have not been attacked by racist slurs, but I have experienced passive racism. For instance, I never realized I was different from the rest of Canadians until I became more socially involved and started entering venues where one wouldn't really see a minority. I think it is a combination of our political situation where we are more skeptical of Muslims, or the fact that I have become more self-actualized that I have realized how different I am from the mainstream culture. For instance, in Jhumpa Lahiri's book the Namesake the protagonist grows up hiding his parents culture, whilst trying to fit within the American mainstream culture, but in his 20s he realizes that he is neither American or Indian, he is somewhere in the middle.

So going back to the first sentence of the previous paragraph, you might wonder what is wrong with being colour-blind, and reckoning everyone as equals. (I pondered over this question all day today). But the thing is we are not equals. Malcolm Gladwell discusses this topic in his new book Outliers. In his book, he discusses the age old dichotomy nature vs. nurture. He mentions, Bill Gates attended a high school that had a computer lab, and back then only a few schools had computer labs, and only a few teenagers had an early exposure to the computers. Moreover, Bill Gates also had an access to the computer labs in Seattle's Washington University. So by the time he got to Harvard, he already had an early start compared to his peers. This gave him an edge, and an advantage over others.

Similarly, the children of immigrant parents are not only left to learn the culture of their parents' adopted countries and their birth country on their own, but are also required to interpret the culture and translate it for their parents. The responsibility is on them to find a middle-ground where they have to find an equal balance between learning two languages at the same time. Stephen Jay Gould also discussed this phenomena in his book The Mismeasure of Man. In the book, he criticizes the biological determinism theory, which claims that IQ is inherited or it is some gene that you can locate. He mentions that intelligence is a combination of myriad factors.

So in Canada, by ignoring our differences we are not being anti-racist, but we are ignoring the obvious. You have probably heard of the "melting pot" and the "salad bowl" expressions. So after hours of pondering on London's double-decker I tried to come with an expression to classify the problem we have in Canada. Canadians clearly don't suffer from the melting pot phenomena. Canadians are allowed to express their cultural identities. We have Mandarin, Bengali, Jewish, Greek, and Muslim schools in Toronto. In downtown Toronto we have Little Italy, Portuguese and Greek neighbourhoods, the largest Indian bazaar, and one of the best China Towns in North America. Heck, our China Town is even bigger than the one in London.

But just because we don't have forced assimilation doesn't mean we have the salad bowl situation in Canada, where all the flavours are mixed. People from the same ethnicity (in most cases) have no exposure to other ethnicities. In my university, they had a halal hot dog vendor. Mind you, University of Toronto is one of the most culturally diverse universities. But, there were these two white students who had no idea what the word halal meant. One of them thought it meant that it meant the meat was organic. If someone asked me to explain halal, I would either explain it using the Jewish kosher meat practice, or just simply brush them off saying, "Oh, it is a religious thing." I don't know if I can blame this on my Canadian culture, for not really giving me the vocabulary to explain my religious heritage to someone, because after all we do focus on our commonality. We are all Canadians. We all came from somewhere. Regardless of our different ethnicities we all have equal opportunities in our True North strong and free.

Since, in most cases, we express our ethnic uniqueness only within our own communities, in our own community centres, we don't really get to mingle and learn about each other. Don't get me wrong, I am grateful for the opportunities to express our cultural beliefs we have in Canada. I also love the fact that we have so many cultures living in Canada. But, we are all hidden in our own little neighbourhood pockets. The children who are brought up in Italian communities and neighbourhoods have no exposure to other minorities. They learn to classify them all as one social group, "the minorities", but yet as Canadians.

So what we have in Canada is a salad platter not a salad bowl. You have all these cultures present in the same country but there is no intermingling. However, in London, as my friend pointed out people are more aware of each others cultural uniqueness. They know what a sari looks like. There is no beating about the bush. They realize that not all British are the same. They are British but they are from different cultures. So in order to have a successful society you need to fulfill every one's needs as a collective-society, not as an amalgamation of various communities.

So this is where London, is yet again, better than us. Yes, there are cases of racial profiling where people of a particular ethnicity are stopped at the security checks. But the authorities are only doing that to ensure we are all safe. It is for our own safety.

So that was an enlightening discussion.

Going back to the details of my day. After lunch, we walked around the city. I think the best way to get to learn about a new place is through walking. But, for some reason London is extremely cold. I feel that I am dishonouring my Canadian heritage by being cold here in London.
I also had the best hot chocolate in this really posh place. Unfortunately, I have forgotten the name of the place. The hot chocolate was served in china cups, with three different types of sugar. There was a library in the sitting area. They also had a fireplace. Having a British friend totally paid off here :).

Later in night, we also visited Tate Modern. I had learned about this museum in the Time Magazine. As the name indicates the museum promised a collection of contemporary art. (Duh!) There were paintings, and visual and audio displays by a diverse group of artists. I really enjoyed the "Material Gestures Contemporary Paintings" wing. Here there were two amazing paintings by Pablo Picasso, called "Goat's Skull Bottle & Cattle", and "The Studio". I also really liked the following paintings:

- Albert Oehlen's "Loa"
- Mark Bradford's "Los Moscos"
- Claude Monet's "Water Lilies"
- Lee Krasner's "Gothic Landscape"

In the 1980's wing I exceptionally liked Julian Schnabel's "Humanity Asleep". The museum also has other interesting wings such as Poetry and Illustrations and States of Flux. The building of the museum reminded me of this building we had in my university (CCIT - if anyone's interested). It is by far the best museum I have visited during this trip.

After visiting the National Gallery earlier in the day, I had a new admiration for these contemporary artists. There was an illustration where the artist printed out a whole bunch of one paragraph stories and pasted them on a wall. And, you look at it and may wonder what is so special about this, anyone could have done that. I don't know if this art display would survive the test of time, but it surely, in my opinion, showed confidence. The artist had so much faith in his work that he sold the work to Tate Modern so other people can see it and wonder about it.

This made me think of Van Gogh. I consider Van Gogh as one of the best painters. His vibrant colours, self-portraits, starry night, sunflowers, his shoes, the painting of his room are beautiful in my eyes. But during in his life, he never considered himself to be good enough, and lived a life of sordid oblivian. I guess (and I am just hypothesizing here because other than the compulsory high school art credits I have never taken art history) what Van Gogh lacked was confidence in his work. As far as I know, he died alone, unknown, and poor.

Going back to Tate Modern, it is one of the most stimulating art galleries you may find. The only thing like this we have in Toronto is Nuit Blanche, where they display modern art. Tate Modern has the perfect location. On the way back we walked on the Millennium Bridge to return to Central London. I am planning on visiting it again, so we are gonna try to squish it in on our last day here in London.

I know this is probably the randomest post in the history of blogging. So apologies for that. I just had to get it all out, even though I am a day behind. I also apologize if it is incoherent as I am tired.


Shak said...

The hot chocolate was had at The Library Bar of The Lanesborough Hotel at Hyde Park Corner.

I think that some people make it really difficult for others to do nice things for them. While this may not be a problem in Canada, those in the UK have much less patience, might eventually get bored and just not bother anymore :)

Zany said...

Thanks for the warning, Shak :).

Daisy said...

How interesting to hear about London through the eyes of an enlightened visitor. Looking back at it from Paris, I do miss its multiculturalism alot. Not least because of all the wonderful food. Although they do do great hot chocolate in Paris I'll give them that.

Zany said...

Thanks for reading, Daisy. Since I am in Paris now, I would definetly try the hot chocolate here.