Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Welcome to the Space Jam

September 5th, 2009 · 1 Comment

A great perk about studying abroad in England is that you’re doing just that: studying. Everything we do is a learning opportunity. We constantly are taking note of the interactions between people, what groups of people are present in what area, and conversely what groups of people are absent from what areas. As much as I love this constant state of observation, I can’t help but wonder if sometimes I’m reading too much into situations. About three minutes ago when I started this blog, I planned to write on how different groups of people are treated differently throughout London. I still believe this is true. But in those three minutes, a wonderful thing happened. Space Jam came on! If you don’t remember, the movie involves Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny saving the world from evil aliens. Talk about quality entertainment! Two children from London picked out the flick to watch before their bedtime and, being the mature people that we are, four of my fellow students and I are kindly decided to keep them company (while reciting our favorite lines right along with them). The children can’t be more than nine years old. We are all a little more than double their ages. Yet here we are all sitting around a television enjoying a Saturday night together. As this happens, I’m wondering: just how differently are separate groups of people in London? In its first couple scenes, Space Jam has told us that forced control over others is wrong, that stealing talents and goods from others is wrong, that everyone has something to learn from others, and that everyone has something to teach others- not too shabby for a movie that stars a basketball player and an animated rabbit.  On our visit to a gurdwara, we were told that those who followed  Sikhism believed in lifelong communal learning as well. I in no way mean to belittle Sikhism to the level of Space Jam. I do believe though that the people sitting in the lounge with me are listening to similar messages as those that are delivered in gurdwaras. With such similarities being apparent in mainstream culture and arguably a minority religious belief in London, the separation between these groups is sadly easy to recognize. This may seem paradoxical but I believe it makes sense. Clearly, the mainstream culture and minority cultures claim to believe in similar ideals: communal learning. Yet the London community is separated (making such learning difficult) based off of ethnicity, race, and class. How frustrating! I could understand if these groups’ core values or ideals were so conflicting that problems arose and, therefore, separation made a bit more sense.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Some sort of disconnect is present. A misunderstanding between cultures? A hypocrisy in one or both? What accounts for this separation?

There doesn’t seem to be easy answer. Our class discussions have tended to point the finger at the majority culture and for the most point I’ve supported that sentiment. But I don’t know if the answer is really that simple; that is, I don’t think that the mainstream culture holds 100% of the responsibility for the separation that exists between cultures. But Space Jam reminds us that we can all get along in the end if we just communicate with one another instead of ignoring how much we have in common and highlighting our differences. That’s not to say that our differences should be completely erased. The Sikhs have a beautifully unique lifestyle that, in my opinion, shouldn’t be ‘mainstreamed’. But to have a gurdwara all the way in Southall rather than have a felt presence in London, to have Brick Lane be a predominantly Bengali community with few other places in the city where such communities exist, basically to have a separated society is, to me, exactly opposite of what all of these communities teach. Maybe Michael and Bugs need to make another movie for this lesson to be learned. I know I would gladly spend another Saturday night learning from them. But my hope is that the lesson isn’t just taught. Clearly, that is already happening. The hope is that the lesson starts being learned and applied. Maybe I’m reading too much into Space Jam’s influence on London culture. But as a student who is always observing and studying what’s going on in my surroundings, I don’t entirely think that’s the case.

Tags: Audrey

The East End, Sikhism and Post Colonial Literature

September 5th, 2009 · 2 Comments

On Wednesday our entire class went on a walk of London’s East End. After reading a few books this Summer dealing with this part of the city I had a very narrow view of what to expect before going on the tour.  The East End is typically home to the most recent immigrant population of London which today is the large Bangladeshi community that has immigrated within the past 30 years. Most of the post colonial literature we read portrayed the east end and specifically Brick Lane as a dingy place where its inhabitants are trapped between their home culture and the culture of Great Britain. Often this leads to conflict and not the best living situation. 

After hearing all of this negative portrayal of the East End I was surprised once we got away from Liverpool Street Station to see a quiet, unobtrusive Brick Lane. Part of this could have been attributed to Ramadan taking place which nearly all of the East End Bangladeshis observe. That being said it was evident a lot had changed in Brick Lane over the past few years. It was noticable that the city had been putting in a strong effort to change the dynamic of the area.  As we concluded our walk and moved into a more well-off area near the Tower of London I realized that the image I had of the East End going into the tour was not close to what I had found. In fact the only thing that reminded me of the East End I read about was when I was riding west on the Central Line later that afternoon from Mile End to Bank and I noticed an incredible difference in the overall quality of  the  two Underground Stations. When hearing about Brick Lane I  had expected something more akin to East St. Louis but instead found something closer to East Dublin or East Carlisle. Sarah made a great point in class today that the Brick Lane area seemed to have a bit of a “hipster” feel to it. To go along with this  you’ll notice one of my hyperlinks above is connected to a series of restaurants on Brick Lane. Ten and maybe even five years ago this would never have happened.  Although there were signs of immigrant communities in Brick Lane they did not become extremely noticeable until we got to the Whitechapel area.  If Brick Lane is indeed becoming an area where the London mainstream is beginning to spend a good amount of time and money then where are the first generation immigrants being pushed to?  

On Thursday we got to observe another area of London where immigration was prevalent as we headed to Southall, home to a large Indian community. Unlike the East End my first impression of Southall was just what I expected it to be. Walking through the area I noticed a very diverse Indian community consisting of people dressed both in western attire and in traditional south Asian clothing. Along the walk I noticed a few Churches which told me that the community has assimilated into the greater British culture a little bit. After a few more minutes of exploration we arrived outside the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, put scarves over our heads and prepared to head inside. Upon entering the first thing I noticed were the separate areas for men and women to hand over their shoes and cleanse themselves before prayer. The only experience I had to compare this to was when I visited a mosque many years ago and the same process took place.  As we entered the main hall and waited  to begin our tour I took in my surroundings. There was a man writing Punjabi on a whiteboard and a collection of men women and children wandering throughout, praying and meditating but most of all staring at the group of 28 Americans standing in the middle of the Gurdwara. Eventually our guide Mr. Singh showed up and began to tell us all about the Gurdwara and about Sikhism. The main things that I gained and understood from his quiet, pensive voice is that Sikhism is a religion of love and a religion in which learning takes place throughout one’s entire life. No Sikh has all of the knowledge in the world and each member of the community has the ability to learn from each other and from God.  Mr. Singh was a very humble man and spent a lot of time continually apologizing to us that he was not a worthy guide. I sensed that humbleness is a quality found often within the Sikh religion. Although I felt slightly uncomfortable walking into the prayer room, bowing to the guru and heading back out I enjoyed my experience at the Gurdwara overall. The visit was capped off by a wonderful meal that was simple but nourishing, a metaphor of the Sikh religion as a whole.

On Friday as our class discussed the post-colonial literature we read I tried to find connections between our experience at the Gurdwara and the stories we read about.  None of the books we read featured a major Sikh character so it was hard to make a direct comparison. However, one thing that I noticed that seems to apply to all immigrant groups is that there are stark differences in how the first generation and second generation handle themselves in the community. In just about every immigrant population we’ve read about/observed here in London the first generation immigrants tend to want to hold on to their home culture/religion whereas the children of first generation immigrants try to fit in with the greater British culture a bit more. This only makes sense considering the majority of them are attending public schools with other children from different backgrounds and have no experience living in the place where their parents are from. I noticed in the Gurdwara that many of the children were dressed in more western garb and wore a dew-rag type of head covering instead of a traditional scarf. Also I did not see anyone at the Gurdwara that was a teenager. It seems to me that England is very similar to the U.S. in that religion is lost on a lot of young people. I’m curious to find out if this is true throughout the world.

Overall my readings of Post-Colonial literature and my visit to the Gurdwara taught me a number of things. The first is that it is impossible to predict exactly how an immigrant group will assimilate or whether they will at all. It is also difficult to predict how each generation will handle being in a new situation. Despite these unanswered questions I learned a lot from the books we read and through our visit to the Gurdwara. I know that this learning will continue as I spend more and more time in London and as I move on throughout life. Much like the Sikh religion, learning about immigration is a lifelong task.

Tags: Henry

Off the Beaten Track

September 5th, 2009 · No Comments


Sir John Soane, R.A.

Yesterday afternoon we decided to walk to the Sir John Soane Museum rather than taking the tube. It was only a few blocks past the British Museum and I was able to see more of the Bloomsbury neighborhood. When we arrived at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, it was easy to spot. First of all, there was a queue of people outside the gates and second, who else would have caryatids on the façade of their house but a classics-loving architect? While I appreciated the concept of the museum, (Sir John wanted to leave his home as a showcase for his antiquities and works of art) I thought it was SO crowded with his artifacts that I could barely focus on the actual architecture of the house. It was like walking into an “Antiques Roadshow” dream house. Ironically, my two favorite rooms were the ones that contained the least amount of classical antiquities, the library and the upstairs sitting room. I loved looking through his books and his paintings (the Turner on the second floor is exquisite!) because I felt that was a better way to try and gage what kind of man Sir John was. You can tell a lot about a person by what he/she reads. I loved the yellow sitting room because it was whimsical and light in the midst of all the dark wood and ancient Greek artifacts. The stained glass and the bright saffron-colored walls provided a nice contrast against the rest of the museum/house. I imagine that Sir John’s wife had a hand in decorating this area (although I can’t be sure) and he left it this way after she passed away. I only wish that there had been some sort of guide that I could have used to navigate through the house or a curator I could have talked to. Obviously, Sir John loved classical sculpture and architecture, and his collection is truly impressive, but I would have liked to see more of the floor plan. Also, I wonder what Soane’s sons could have done to persuade him to even turn the home into a museum. On the homepage all it says is he was “deeply disappointed by the conduct of his two sons.” Any thoughts on that? I really enjoy exploring the places where people lived. It’s fascinating to me… What were they like? What was their daily schedule? What room did they spend the most time in? To any future visitors, make sure you venture down into the basement aka “the crypt” to check out the sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I. This is definitely a non-conventional museum. To be perfectly honest, what it lacked in curatorial flair, it made up for in dedication to preservation. The Sir John Soane museum was a welcome change from the halls of slick marble and crowds of tourists that have been a staple of the larger institutions. Sometimes it’s the places off the beaten track that make the biggest impression. While this museum was not my favorite attraction of London, It does showcase the importance of exploring the smaller, less popular areas. Next stop—Chancery Lane!

Tags: Grace · Museums · Uncategorized

Shameful Shakespeare in a Vibrant London

September 5th, 2009 · No Comments

In our recent talk about the state of theatre in London, Rick Fisher described the different types of theatre that exist. From small plays run out of pubs to full-blown productions of the Lion King, Fisher claimed that it was in London that the art of theatre is truly living. Although I have only been to three plays so far in London, I would agree with Mr. Fisher’s claim. Although there are places like New York City that house both Broadway shows and those of lesser fame, the difference lies in how it is accessible to people. For ten and five pounds respectively, I was able to see two of Shakespeare’s works, All’s Well That Ends Well and Trolius and Cressida . These plays were not staged in some low capacity theatres as well, but the National Theatre and the re-imagined Globe Theatre. Can anyone even imagine paying so little to see a show at big name theatre in New York City? I didn’t think so. In their infinite wisdom, England subsidizes various theatres in order to encourage the art. While not everyone gets a piece of the pie, enough do to encourage new plays and possibly even innovations in theatre. Whether England and more specifically London does it is a matter of debate. Is it truly interested in helping develop the play as an art form, or is it instead purely a way to attract tourists to spend more of their money into an aspect of London? One option certainly seems to fit in with the pattern that London follows with most aspects of itself (rhymes with door-ism), but we should at least entertain the notion that there could be different intentions behind this, if only for a second.

My personal experience with London theatre is admittedly only limited to the more successful theatres (The National, The Globe, The Duke of York), yet I feel that in terms  of identifying a genuine tourist element, it is ultimately helpful. The answer is it turns out… is mixed. Or rather it tries to do both. Take the two Shakespeare plays for instance: Trolius and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well. All’s Well was almost completely true to the actual spoken word of the play, but reinvented the set and the stage arrangements for many of the scenes. Trolius on the other hand took a more traditional approach to the set and costume design, but took slightly more liberties in terms of the script. While this in both cases by itself is no grievous crime, Trolius did something that I’m not so sure I liked: made it too easy for people. Perhaps this is just the English major in me complaining, but in terms of Shakespeare, its difficulty of language is one of the most important parts of it. In the performance of Trolius and Cressida, the acting really left nothing to the imagination. Every piece of complicated acting was overacted to make it simple to understand, Characters were making comments of selling photographs and selling souvenirs in order to get a few cheap laughs, but worst of all, the actors and actresses acted out every single sexual innuendo. If there is one thing the Shakespeare was good at, it’s bending and molding words in order to make the raunchy mind of Shakespeare seemingly appropriate. However, this expert craft of words is lost when an actor points to every part of the body that he is referring to through metaphor. The audience in turn stops listening to what the actors are saying and instead depends on the visual cues from the actor in order to understand what part they should be laughing at. When people stop listening to the literary genius of Shakespeare, you know that something is wrong. I have no problem with helping the audience understand major plot points, but there has to be a line drawn as to what is made obvious. Otherwise the actors are doing the equivalent of explaining the punch line of a joke after you tell it: it makes the joke less funny.

(That all being said, Arcadia at the Duke of York was an excellent play that everyone should see)

Tags: Paul

Long-standing Practice

September 5th, 2009 · No Comments

We were asked in class yesterday to think about the relationships between the literature we read and the Sikh gurdwara we visited.  Although this was discussed heavily in class yesterday, I think that the sense of being ‘with your own’ is greatly prevalent.

Arranged marriage is common in many religions throughout the world, whether or not you believe in the long-standing practice.  Personally, I think that it depends on the individual and the upbringing of that individual to determine if arrange marriage is a good idea.  To me, arranged marriage is very class-based, much like what we have seen around London in architecture and behaviors.  However, it is important to consider that up until the last few hundred years, Western society was as good as arranging marriages for its members.  For those who have read 19th Century literature, there was a large emphasis on class and upward mobility through marriage.  You did not marry someone who was deemed to be socially unacceptable by your class, and most certainly did not marry down (unless in the unlikely circumstance of love).  I guess that I see this class-based relationship as a type of arranged marriage, or certainly as a limiter for people who are acceptable.  However, I think that it is important to draw attention to the fact that this still happens today.  I know that many parents would like nothing more than to see their son or daughter marry someone of their faith, race, social class, and cultural background.  This same idea, that people shouldstick with their own kind, resonates in Mr Ali in Salaam Brick Lane and the marriage of Archie and Clara in White Teeth

It was the Sikh gurdwara that really brought the message home for me.  Yes, they were very accepting of us.  Yes, they fed us.  Yes, they treated us very well.  Yes, I felt slightly uncomfortable at times in the gurdwara whilst being engulfed in chants in unknown languages, unfamiliar architecture, and, to me, unusual customs.  The Sikhs believe in equality, so it seems slightly strange to my Western-raised mind that they would wish to participate in an arranged marriage.  I know that I’ve only had a very brief education into the ways that Sikhism works, but despite being so welcoming to peoples of all faiths, races, and cultures, it strikes me as odd that the Sikhs would be so intent on only marrying one of their own kind.  I guess it just goes back to the idea of keeping ‘with your own’.

Tags: Kelley