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Visiting the Zoo: a staple of privilege

Whilst the current weather may not imply it, we are into the summer months! At this time of year staff and students begin to take a much needed and well-deserved rest after the challenging academic year we have all faced. With this time, holidays, day trips, meals out, picnics, walks and many more joyful pastimes begin to fill up the calendar, although many of us find ourselves quite restricted due to the ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, we should all make the most of the time off to re-charge and spend time with our loved ones. For myself and my partner, this meant a day trip to Whipsnade Zoo!

Whilst the weather app assured us it would not rain, we spent a fairly windy and wet day walking around Whipsnade Zoo viewing the animals and all in all having a fabulous day. The schools are not out yet, therefore most visitors were adults on annual leave, individuals who I assume are retired, or parents with small children. We had plenty of space and time throughout the day to see the animals, read the information plaques and enjoy a wet but scrummy picnic. I dread to think what it would have been like in the height of the summer holidays!

But where am I going with this other than to brag about my fabulous day at the Zoo and what has this got to do with checking our privilege? Well, it begins with the cost to entire said Zoo. I have not been to a Zoo since I was in my school years. We used to visit Colchester Zoo most summer holidays with the Tesco Clubcard vouchers, which in a nutshell meant you could exchange Clubcard points for vouchers/tickets which included the Zoo. Therefore a trip to the Zoo when we were younger cost petrol money and a picnic (which was always done on the cheap). This is an affordable day out, but we were only a family of 3 (1 adult and 2 children), so not that many Clubcard points required, and quite a minimal picnic. Also we were fortunate enough to have a car which is not the case for all families. So even with the vouchers and picnic I cannot help but reflect and think how privileged we were to be able to visit the Zoo.

The Zoo trip this week cost just short of £50 for a student admission and an adult admission. I did think this was quite a lot. I think about what the cost would be for 2 adults and a child (or multiple children). Already this is gearing up to be an expensive day out. The Zoo has lots of interactive parts for children to engage with and learn from, and of course they have animals. But is the Zoo really aimed at educating all children or is it only those children whose families can afford it (E.I children belonging of a certain socio-economic status)?  Once we arrived at the Zoo and looked around the carpark we couldn’t see a Bustop. What about the families who cannot afford a car? The food outlets were extortionate: £4 for a coffee!! Its cheaper in the West End! The same statement although different prices applies to ice-cream. I feel good that we have taken our makeshift picnic and flasks with us: but what about those who cannot?

The long-winded and verbose point I am trying to make is that even everyday things require us to check our privilege. I spoke to my partner on the drive home about the beauty and wonder of the Zoo and how we are fortunate to be able to go and how I was fortunate to go most summers as a child. But once the Clubcard vouchers stopped, so did the trips to the Zoo. There are many who are unable to enjoy the Zoo, to gain from the educational experience of learning about the animals, what they eat, where they live etc. And I can’t help but reflect and wonder is this establishment really inclusive to all? Is there something society can do to break down the class barriers which appear to be present when planning a trip to the Zoo?

The ‘Dangers’ of Travelling

This month, during the brief lull between the teaching and marking season, I had allocated myself a bit more free-time than usual. I have not been able to indulge in my hobby of travelling for a while, so instead of this, I have been watching travel related-television programmes with the hope that these will provide me with some kind of joy.    

This attempt has been a partial success; an influx of comedy travel shows have worked wonders to uplift my spirits whilst simultaneously reminding me about the beauty of nature; animals, plants, sea, land…(and even humans).    

Covid has taken over travel related news at the moment, but in ‘usual’ times it does not require much effort to come across travel documentaries or news reports that seem to encourage prejudice by depicting other countries and travelling as being strange or dangerous. I do worry that this type of coverage might discourage people from wanting to explore the world.  

It is difficult to assess the extent to which the television influences our opinions, but when I was a bit younger and discussing my travel plans with others, sometimes I would be met with the following comments:  

Response: I would love to travel but I can’t  

Me: Why can’t you?   

Response: It is dangerous!    

Me: How do you know this?  

Response: …It said so on the television  

There are many genuine reasons that prevent people from travelling, such as, money, responsibilities, health, conflict, misogyny and racism etc. But I find the above reason to be such a shame.   

I have encountered many myths over the years which seem to have been gained from watching the television. Here are some of my favorites:   

Myth 1: If you see a [insert wild animal here], it will eat you alive  

My experience: Take crocodiles for example, these are not as bad as they seem. Yes, arguably crocodiles are death machines but I have seen many in the wild and I am still alive.  

Myth 2: The local ‘criminals’ are dangerous   

My experience: On very rare occasions I have witnessed crime being committed whilst abroad. I once sat on a coach full of people who were attempting to smuggle cocaine to Brazil. I have also stumbled upon situations which the media described as ‘riots’ and I have also witnessed a few thefts. In these situations, the locals were not a danger to myself, but crime seemed to be a way of being able to afford to live or the result of the occasional angry outburst amongst crowds of protesters, motivated by frustrations with the state.  

Myth 3: If you accept the hospitality of strangers you will be murdered in your sleep  

My experience: The chances of this happening are very slim. Travelling tends to restore my faith in humanity, the people that I meet whilst travelling can be incredibly kind and helpful.   

I found that whilst I was a student, I was able to travel to many places on relatively limited over-draft funds. I hope that the students that I teach are able to do the same, as travel really can broaden the mind. Although, maybe I am wrong for encouraging others to travel, as travelling also makes you very aware of the damage that has been caused to the world, and my own part with in it.    

The industry of hope

There is expectation in hope that things will change.  Every personal and social issue that is not going according to plan, all the adversities and the misfortunes, are placed on the anticipation that eventually, things will change.  The conviction for the change is hope.  Hope is a feeling based on emotions, irrational and inexplicable.

Hope is a refuge for those whose lives are wronged and feel unable to do anything but to hope.  Millions of people hope for better days, better health, better relationships, better lives.  This hope keeps expectations high even when you are told of the opposite. 

Consider the following dialogues:

“The environment is changing, global warming, the pandemic and the economic recession.  It looks like we’ve had it!  We are one meteor away from a catastrophic event”.  “I agree with what you say, but I hope that despite all these we will find a way out of all these.”   

 “Your crime is too serious; looks like you are going to jail”.  “I hope the judge is lenient and maybe I will not go to prison”     

“The tests indicate that your health has deteriorated, it is unlikely to change; I am afraid you have only a few months to live”.  “I hope that God will listen to my prayer and cure me”.

“I do not love you anymore, I want to leave you!  “Don’t break my heart; I hope you change your mind.”

All these have one thing in common.  The respondent’s hope for something, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  This unwavering conviction comes at a price!  The entire world is built on an industry of hope.  Institutions, systems, “experts” and many more who profit from the misfortune of others.  One of the main benefactors in this industry is undoubtedly religious institutions and belief experts. 

Some years ago, in one of my trips, in found myself in a monastery that has a tradition of snakes appearing on the day of the ascension of the Virgin Mary.  The revellers regard it as a sign of good fortune and favour from her grace.  I was in the monastery on a different day, when a group of boisterous Russian tourists were trying to buy some grace.  The lady in the church was clear; a small bottle of holy water 3 euros, a small bottle of oil 5 euros.  There were bigger sizes and of course for more certainty of hope, a purchase of both is indicated.  Since then, it got me thinking; what is the price of hope? 

Faced with a terminal disease, how much would any of us will pay to live a little bit longer?  The question is merely rhetorical, because each of us is likely to pay according to what they can afford.  There are those who may care less for themselves, but are willing to sacrifice anything for someone special; or a great idea. 

Since the discovery of electricity, Victorian scientists dispelled the expertise of those charlatans that spoke with the dead and commuted with the spirits. Even though there have been mounting evidence against them, their industry of hope is still booming. People like to hope. They embrace its positive message. After all Dum Spiro Spero.*

There is of course the other side; Nikos Kazantzakis famously said; “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” It is liberating not to hope, but it is very difficult to achieve. Personally, despite experiencing negative situations, and even after meeting some naysayers armed with a sour face in life, I will never stop hoping that people are better inside and they can change and embrace their better selves. My hope, I fear, is incurable.

*While I breathe, I hope

My Criminology Journey: Haley

The start of my criminology journey is not very exciting. I am not fully sure of how or why I ended up studying the subject. I was advised to study hairdressing at school as my predicted grades were not good enough for university, but the idea of trusting myself with a pair of scissors was very unnerving. I had a dilemma at college as I was unable to decide whether I wanted to study healthcare or construction – two courses which bore no similarity. In the end I give up trying to make decisions and studied A Levels because that was what my friends were doing.

University may as well have been on Mars at this point, as it was completely mysterious and unknown to me. Whilst at college, I was asked by my tutor to go to an open day at Oxford University. I saw this as an opportunity to unmask this university ‘thing’ for what it really was, so I agreed to go. I felt completely out of place throughout the day and found myself gobsmacked by the sheer privilege of the place, the culture and the students etc. At the same time, I was fascinated by the available courses, so I decided to continue my studies into higher education.    

My first attempt at university did not go as well as I had intended it to. I had other issues to contend with at the time, so I dropped out after two weeks. However, in 2010 I enrolled at the UoN and never really left. I had a great time studying criminology at UoN as I thought that my course was very interesting and the teaching staff (aka @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou) were spectacular.  

I did not realise this it at the time but I was well prepared for critical criminological discussions because I came from a background where people would be demonized for a whole host of social problems – it was clear to me at the time that this was unfair. Whilst enjoying the course content I did have to make a considered effort to improve on my writing skills, but it was worth the effort as this improvement worked wonders on my grades. As an undergraduate, I used my overdraft and savings from working part-time jobs to go travelling at the end of each academic year, this was beneficial for helping me to understand criminological issues outside of the UK.      

In 2015 I began teaching as an associate lecturer at UoN and I really enjoyed it. I also completed an MA degree in Social Research. To fast-forward to today, I now work as a lecturer in criminology – and this really is, beyond my wildest dreams!

Studying is not always a smooth ride for some, but if you work hard, you never know where you might end up.

A sissy works at the beer garden. #BlackAsiaWithLove

A sissy works at the beer garden I pass on the way home. In Vietnam, these common watering holes are called “Bia Hoi,” and this one sits at the intersection of two major roads, across from one of the city’s largest parks, on a corner adjacent to one edge of a university campus. To say that this place is a sausage fest would be an understatement. Like drinking holes in so many parts of the world, this is a space for men.

Men come here. Me, too. Although I stick out as a visible foreigner, I am part of the crowd of men. In every part of the world I’ve encountered, there’s nothing weird about a guy sitting around having a beer. Hence, it’s not uncommon for local groups of men to send one over, or invite me to their table for a drink. This has drastically different implications than men in pubs buying drinks for women, especially a woman sitting alone in a drinking hole, which is the LEAST likely thing to see here, despite the number of Bia Hoi’s owned and run by women in Vietnam. The majority here are either men in starched shirts and slacks stepping out, or other groups of guys crossing from the park to gather here for a post-match drink. I started coming here years ago with a man I met through work, and stop by every now and again. As compared to other masculinized spaces, there’s no competition here, and the primary resource – beer – flows freely.

The sissy wears an apron to serve the food and beer. He ties his apron tightly over the same loose orange T-shirt all the other guys wear to serve. This, of course accentuates his curves. While the others walk around baggy, clothes hanging loosely like a barrel sac, with this apron, the sissy has seriously upgraded the uniform with color, shape and flare. What’s more, his hips switch back-n-forth, too quick to be a pendulum. Naw, he switches like nobody’s business, and you really see this the way the beer garden is set-up with several rows of long tables. This is his cat walk. While the other servers seem to be drudging through the labor, the sissy flutters around like a butterfly. And he always looks at each customer, takes time to chat, and seems to have the patience of Job when it comes to their eventual drunkenness. Beer loosens tongues.

The sissy has to march back and forth the serve the orders like a busy bee. It’s hot, so the sissy fans himself with the menu, like it’s a prop, as he prances up-n-down the rows as if it’s his own stage. Everyone else pales in comparison, they’re just there to work. The sissy is there to ‘work’, or as Fergie says: “Make YOU work!” Life’s a stage, they say, and er’body gotta play they part.

The sissy stands at each table like a tea-cup, grinning, weight shifted to one leg, hips leaning to the side, back arched, hand on his hip, holding a pen waiting for the men to call out their food orders. Unlike the other servers who seem to just stand there bluntly to take orders, the sissy acts like a host, and actively shows folks their seats, offers that they take a look at the menu, and genuinely makes sure they are all satisfied.

This sissy has mad flavor, even in this part of his career – of which I know nothing – save for what I’ve seen of him serving beer in a local Bia Hoi. He makes such a flutter when he moves around, just doing his job, that I too, see him on stage, among peers, not drowning in this mundanity. I almost wish he would bring some Hot Lunch from Fame, for those hips are already singing the body electric. Those shoulders practically shimmering as he walks friskily across the pavement, arms stretched open, elbows squeezed, holding a beer in each hand – swish, swish, swish. I can see the musical notes floating around him as he makes his way, doing his job dutifully, albeit with Glee. “Just do it,” I want to say to the sissy. Free us from these seats.

In some places, even today, our existence is a crime.

#ProudBoys

A grand day out

https://letterboxd.com/film/a-grand-day-out/

Have you noticed how the news is reported these days in respect of Covid-19? Gone are the individualised and personalised stories of the casualties of this awful virus. Gone are the stories of individual and collective heroism of ordinary, actually extraordinary, people.  Gone is the mention of the R rate and the discussion around it. Gone are those pictures of the people that died.  No longer the headline, Covid- 19 is reduced to the middle order and consists predominately of the number of cases and the number of deaths. We watch these figures rise on a daily basis and we hear discussion about local lockdowns and areas with high incidents. We hear confusing stories about lockdown and then no lock down and then lockdown or is it partial lockdown and where exactly does it apply? We hear about areas that have high incidents where no action is being taken, well not yet anyway. And companies that remain open despite outbreaks only to be forced to close, let’s be honest, because of media scrutiny. We hear more from Nicola Sturgeon the first minister of Scotland than we do from our own prime minister.

We are sucked into a world of tourism, safe corridors and safe countries, lists and the plight of the aviation industry. We hear tourists moaning about self-isolation (I constantly scream at the tv you made that choice you ****). We are sucked into the debacle around schools and qualifications and returning to school. And we are told by Boris that we should all go back to work, back to the office. We hear of tourists returning on flights having contracted Covid-19 and passengers not wearing masks on flights. At the same time, we are told by bosses in the aviation industry that the industry is doomed unless something is done about it, this self-isolation malarkey really isn’t good for business. Once again, I shout at the tv (I don’t suppose you’ll be getting on one of those cattle trucks in a hurry you ***). Do I sound angry, I guess I am?

When the virus first struck, whenever that was, we all probably didn’t take it that seriously, serious but you know, not that serious. Then there was the lockdown, now that was serious, and it hit home how serious it was. Then we watched the tv and that reinforced how serious it was and if you weren’t a little concerned for yourself, your friends and your loved ones then you really weren’t in touch with reality. And then the economic costs started to rack up and that became really serious. And then, the government decided that since the NHS hadn’t been overwhelmed it was now permissible to open things up. And then, the government decided that it would pass the responsibility for the management of Covid to local authorities. And somewhere along the line, the responsibility for ensuring my safety, and yours became that of business. As long as businesses could assure us that they were Covid safe then we could go back to work and go shopping and eat out. In fact, you could eat out for 50% less in some places aided by a government scheme. A scheme to get businesses back on their feet which of course involved packing people in. Just how Covid secure are these places, well you take your chance, but you can feel assured.

I decided to venture out with my wife to get ourselves a new mattress.  The old one has had its day, we meet in the middle of the bed every night, whether we want to or not, the only solution, to try to sleep as close to the edge as you can and if possible somehow cling on. Time for a new mattress.  I’m not sure about these new-fangled mattresses (you know, the ones that come in a box and then pop out never to be returned to the box) and so rather than shopping on line we went to a store.  We entered the store, masked up as is required, to be greeted by an assistant who pointed to the hand sanitiser. “oh, that bottle doesn’t work”, she says, “try the other but you’ll have to hit it quite hard”. Oh well, at least she’s wearing a face shield and I notice the other assistants are doing the same, except that theirs are up, a bit like a visor really, as they hang about talking to each other. One saunters over to us and after a brief conversation leaves us to look at and try the mattresses. Now that sounds alright doesn’t it, except that not only was his face shield not down, he’d taken it off altogether and thrown it onto the bed. We kept our distance.  So, the markings on the floor suggesting 2 metre distance and the hand sanitiser at the entrance and the issue of face shields to staff are all Covid compliant but in operation, not really. Still we had a grand day out and felt quite assured.

As we hear the clamour to get schools back up and running, we hear about the plight of the school children and as a consequence, the voices and concerns of the teachers are drowned out.  As we hear the concerns of lecturers from their union, the lecturers themselves and even the medical profession, their voices are drowned out.  The only thing that seems to matter now is the economy and business. Those that run it are not on the coal face and will not be putting themselves at risk, but they tell us how we must all do our bit and return to work.  If you wonder how getting children back to school fits in, well parents caring for children at home are not in the office working.

I selected some passages from the government guidelines regarding Covid 19.

“The more people you have interactions with, the more chance the virus has to spread. Therefore, try to limit the number of people you see – especially over short periods of time”


“limit the number of different activities which you partake in succession to reduce the potential chain of transmission”


“group size should be limited to the minimum which allows the activity to take place”

Now isn’t that confusing. We must all get back to work and back to the offices and, yet the government’s own guidelines seem to suggest this should not happen unless absolutely necessary. How exactly does this fit with teaching and class sizes and the number of students that teachers interact with? The same applies to lecturers at university, of course they have the added problem that the students will have come from all over the country and then come together in a Covid -19 cauldron. Pack them all in but you can feel assured that schools and campuses are Covid safe (a bit like those planes returning from foreign climes).

I feel like I am in a socio-economic experiment. An experiment where I see the disadvantaged and weak in our society put at risk for the sake of business. Where the older generation are made to feel dispensable and unimportant.  Where figures are manipulated to downplay the seriousness of the problem. Die on day 29 after infection and you won’t be included in the Covid statistics.  I see an experiment where facts are bent, ignored, and a narrative that subjugates the truth to management and business ideals.  It looks like I’m going to be shouting at the tv for a very long time and I must be honest I really don’t feel very assured.

https://twitter.com/JeffOllerton/status/1301492068125224962/photo/1

Road trip

In all fairness a road trip is a metaphor for life.  We live in perpetual motion, moving forward and going from place to place.  Our time is spent through journeys in our space, through the time of our lifespan. Alone or with others, planned or unplanned journeys are to happen.  That is life as it is.

Sometimes of course a road trip is nothing more than an actual trip in a countryside, quickly to be forgotten replaced by the next one!  On this occasion, I shall try to narrate it as it happened, as it is fresh in my mind and the images can be vividly recalled.  Maybe in future it would serve as a reminder, but on this occasion, it is merely a reminder of a very odd trip!  At this stage, I would like to state that no humans nor animals were hurt during this road trip. 

I am driving on one of the island’s country roads, the road is narrow going through the lush pine forest, some sycamore trees on the side.  The track is leading up and down the mountainous path.  The scenery is scenic and probably the reason people choose it.  The road alternates views from the forest, the valleys, the canyons and the sea in the distance.  Hues of green, and blue everywhere; and the smell.  The pines joined with thyme and other fragrant herbs, a combination that gives the air that scent I cannot describe. The light blue of the sky meet the Aegean blue in the distance.  

As per usual, on a road trip I prepare my maps, and plan the route in advance, but just in case I also keep an eye on the road in case there is a change.  On this occasion, the public works are working wonders; the street signs are non-existent so I opted out.  Interestingly instead of traffic information there were signs but not about the road ahead.  Somewhere is the midst of the journey there is the first sign about Jesus.  According to the sign “He is the truth, the way and the life”.  I am unsure about the destination, but at least Jesus is aware.  The next couple of signs involve Jesus and his teachings whilst the last one is making me feel a bit uncomfortable.  “Jesus died for your sins” it proclaims!  Ok fair enough, let’s say that he did.  Any chance of knowing also whereabouts I am and where I am heading.  The route continues with further signs until we come to a stop. 

Finally, more signs.  On this occasion there are some holy sites and monasteries.  One of them is of a Saint most revered that apparently most of his body rests in a nearby location, (minus an arm and a shin).  Later, I discover the Saint helps sick children and those who suffer from cancer.  Admirable, considering that he’s almost 300 years dead. Still no actual traffic information on the road!  At least the signs got me reading of a fascinating man long gone.  It is fascinating reading on beliefs and miracles.  Within them they hold peoples’ most secret expectations, those that under normal circumstances, they dare not to speak about.  This is a blog post for another time; back on the road trip and almost two hours on the journey.     

At this point, a herd of cows who have been lunching on the side of the road, decided to take a nap on the road.  To be honest, it is only one of them who is blocking the way, but the rest are near idly watching.  At this stage, I come to a stop waiting for the cow to move.  The cow who was napping opened her eyes and looks at me, I look back, she looks away and continues to lay motionless in the middle of the road.  I briefly evoke the Saint.  Nothing.  I am contemplating Jesus and still nothing.  After some time, around an hour of cow staring I am going for my last resort.  I get out of the car and promise that unless the cow moves, I shall part with vegetarianism.  Now I am openly threatening the cow to eat her.  This is when nature retaliates.  A flock of goats join the cow.  They meander around me and the stubborn bovine.  The road is now akin to a petting zoo. 

I employ a trick I picked up from cowboy films.  I raise my hat, luckily, I am wearing a hat, weaving my arms furiously and making sounds.  The cow is despondent at first and the goats just talk back.  After a few minutes I have managed to get the cow to move and the goats are now at the side of the road.  That’s my opportunity to leave.  As I turn back, I notice another car behind me; they are also travelers who begin to applaud my efforts at husbandry.  The road is clear, and I am on my way. 

The next hour is less eventful although the road is still hairpinned; now it’s heading downwards and from the mountains its heading to the sea.  I arrive at the sea way over the expected time and I manage to find a spot to park.  One the wall, next to the spot someone wrote “you vote for them every four years like cows”.  The writing is black, so I assume an anarchist, or maybe the author had a similar driving experience to me, or it’s just an unfortunate metaphor.    The sea is cool and the views of the sea and in the distance a group of islands, spectacular.  There are hot springs near by but in this weather the sea is more than enough.  After all that drive, a stop at a local taverna is inevitable.  Speciality dish mosxaraki or beef stew!  I think the Saint is testing me! 

On the way back, the road is empty.  The cows rest on the side of the road.  I slow down, I look out…they look away.  At a local coffee shop a patron asks for the Covid-special coffee.  I suppose a joke about the thing that occupies everyone’s mind.  He doesn’t wear a mask and doesn’t seem to believe this pandemic “nonsense”.  I was wondering if he is related to the stubborn cow.  The trip ended and it formed another of those planned road trips.  There was nothing spectacular about it.  There is however the crux of my point. Like life, most of our roadtrips are unspectacular on their own.  It is what we remember of them that matters.  In the last months millions of people went into lockdown.  Their lives seemed to stand still; a road trip can also be a metaphor, provided we don’t forget the details.      

Things I Miss (And Don’t) – Bethany

I was inspired by @5teveh’s post about what things we may be struggling to be without, as well as what beauty we are finding in this new way of living.

I think it’s easier to start with what I don’t miss, which like many I am sure, is commuting. Some days I can commute a total of 3 hours round trip, and I am not even doing a lot of miles, but traffic is just bad. That’s 2 I guess, commuting and traffic. While I am at it, I don’t miss the things that go along with a long journey, such as trying to make up for the time I feel I’ve lost or, to be honest, thinking about my journey – that in itself can be a burden.

Me time! now, this isn’t a strictly-miss/don’t miss but rather something I have gained more of in the lockdown. Like us all, we have more time to ourselves, which for me has meant more time for reading. I tend to read every day anyway, but with the added time I’ve managed to devour 10 books in my 4 weeks of lockdown.

I am lucky that I am not in lockdown alone, I have my partner and my beautiful dog, who luckily is so small she doesn’t need frequent walks. However, this leads me on to what I miss. I miss walking freely with my partner and the dog, deep in the countryside, saying hello to other dog walkers and letting the dogs play, walking with friends and family and chatting while taking in the fresh air. This is one of my favourite things to do. It clears my mind and I miss it every day.

As mentioned above, but also like everyone, I miss my family, I do not live that close to my family, so when I visit them or they visit me, it’s a real occasion, for which we have planned what we will do, where we will eat and when the next visit will be. Not knowing when this will be is the hardest.

I think I echo others when I say that I miss the freedom and miss having (or at least the feeling of having) some control. I am aware of my privilege, I know the lockdown can bring the worst out of us sometimes, we moan about things that can seem trivial, especially when others are suffering more. I feel guilty, more than I did before I was forced to think about it every day. I miss not feeling guilty that I could be doing productive things like others, like filling every second with yoga (never done yoga before- why now?) or some other new activity.

The lockdown has made me think more simply, think of things day by day, there is joy in that, but I also take joy in picturing the moment where it all feels a bit better, I don’t think that will be the day the lockdown ends, but in months maybe, where I’ll be on a walk amongst the trees, with my favourite people and my favourite dog.

Mourning Travel. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Mourning Travel.

One of the first casualties of Corona was travel. Nations immediately began controlling the flow of people in and out of ever-broader borders. First neighborhoods, then cities, regions, and countries all closed. As fear of the virus spreading spread, different parts of the world became associated with Corona, though bullheaded public figures even continued to call it “Chinese”

A few years ago, I got a 10 -year visa to China through work and had planned to travel there much more than time has allowed. Now, I am fearful of ever traveling there before my visa expires. I am unable to accept the many invitations to connect with my previous students who’ve returned to China and know of my interest in the region’s cultures. I have been to southern China on several study trips with students. We finally ventured to Beijing and its wonders on a later trip. Naturally, I did my happy dance when I reached a peak on the Great Wall just a few years ago. I am now on sabbatical in Hanoi, just released from lockdown.

It was a lifelong dream to visit China, I was raised on my godmother’s stories about growing up in Hong Kong, savoring the flavors of her homeland in her kitchen in Kentucky. I knew I had to see for myself. As a kid, she and I would go on shopping day-trips to Chicago’s Chinatown, a 7-hour drive each way. For those few hours in Chi-town, we’d be transported to a world where finally she was the insider. She spoke for hours in several dialects with all the people around that I didn’t understand, and we even browsed restaurants that resembled what she’d told me home was like. We’d go in and eat not from the tourist but from the Chinese menus – foods that were not nearly available in Kentucky.

Kentucky is pretty black and white, but there, in the heart of Chinatown, in the heartland of America, smack in the middle of the 80’s, I got to experience my godmother being in the majority. Growing up close to my godmother confirmed I could experience more freedom through travel. This was a key insight into the world for a gay kid growing up in the Bible Belt; I could just go away. Travel has always exposed me to new ways of being in the world.

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Pride, Nehru Park, New Delhi 2008

“You’ve got to go to the city/They’re going to find you there…” -Flawless, George Michael

Travel is essential for the development of a healthy self-identity as a queer person. ‘Travel’ is, in fact, inseparable from the notion of a gay community. This is exemplified by having to leave our homes and communities to commune with others queers, and certainly the richness of gay tourism. One might also consider how gay identity uniquely depends on the very idea of gayness traveling far and wide to enter the minds of gays isolated everywhere.

Knowing gay people is a primal impetus for me to travel. Rather than just seeking to know ‘different’ people, places and cultures, I crave knowing how people like me thrive in those places. We’re everywhere.

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Celebrating India’s decriminalization!

It has always struck me that as queer people of color, we too often must venture outside our ethno-cultural communities to meet gay people. I came out at 16 and by then only knew gays within my age-group. Fortunately, in that era of grand community building, a local charity had organized a gay youth group. There, in addition to comradery, the adult facilitation and guest speakers provided mentorship and what we now understand as inter-generational knowledge. They also alerted me to queer writers: Through Sister Outsider, I’d traveled around the world with Audre Lorde long before I stepped foot outside of north-America. This is a powerful glue that can sustain solidarity within any community.

By attempting to transport certain functions of the gay club scene into the virtual world, we have certainly lost a core opportunity for inter-generational bonding. The ominous gay club also functions as a platform for the exchange of knowledge and experience. This phenomenon is sustained by travel, particularly tourism, migration, immigration. Or, how long did it take for nations to consider asylum for queers fleeing in deadly homophobic regimes? Flawless:

Don’t you know, you’ve got to go to the city
You’ve got to reach the other side of the glass
I think you’ll make it in the city baby
I think you know that you are more than just
Some F-ed up piece of ass

Pride – both metaphorically and literally – has circulated the globe, first and foremost through travel and tourism, then through globalizing the fight against AIDS. By the mid-90’s, the attention of gay rights advocates had widened to confronting homophobia. If health was a human right, then surely freedom from stigma is, too. Mind you, this same argument fueled the successful campaign in India to decriminalize same-sex sex, which was based on colonial legislation. Rights advocates in India had successfully used case law to articulate access to healthcare as a civil right, showing how stigma impeded this for queers.

Sadly, the exact same Victoria-era law has been strengthened and extended in many African nations, legitimizing jungle justice! For many, travel is a lifeline, including asylum. For queers in the African Diaspora, this is yet another form of exile – banishment from the motherland.

Under the bridge downtown…

If there were ever a community consumed with travel, it would be LGBTQ+ folk. Our folk knowledge is transmitted in myth and music, for example, lyrics urging gays to head to the shelter of the city. Whether chants about finding a YMCA, or told to Go West to be “together” in the sanctuary, mythical San Francisco, for gays to achieve self-realization, we needed to ‘know’ urban life to counter traditional values in the homestead. “I think you’ll make it in the city, baby.” There -away- we’re promised a new beginning with freedom. I’m very proud to have seen this through.

Gay civil rights have advanced globally far faster than those of any other recognized minority group, and certainly, one factor is… (drumroll) …we’re everywhere, even where there’s no Pride! Like ether, our pride travels through the stratosphere.

Black son of the south (A 2-part short story in prose). #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Pt. 1: Somewhere Over the Rainbow

As the sun rises, and over the horizon, I can see the first capital of the Confederacy, I am forced to remember that this is the south.

There’s country music blasting from the speakers in this restaurant, and the young woman serving me has such a twang, you’d think she’s about to sing…her own rendition of Achy Breaky Heart.

The waitress calls me ‘Sweetie’ though she’s clearly half my age.

I’d much rather be called ‘sweetie’ than sir, not that I’m ashamed of being middle-aged.

I appreciate coming back down south and feeling this cosy feeling from virtually everyone I meet. Plus she’s sincere, too. I can see that the staff here are mixed, and yet I have this burning feeling that there’s more here than meets the eye.

In this part of the country, we pride ourselves on our gentile ways.  For years I’ve wondered if this is just how we southerners learned to cope with an excessively violent past.

My grandparents fled from here in the 40’s, just after the war, so terrorized were they of establishing a life of dignity outside the cotton fields they plucked as kids. Now, there is a localised justice initiative to mark the numerous racial hate crimes known as lynching.

The initiative has an eerie collection of jars filled with actual soil from (known) lynching sites. There’s at least one of these large pickle jars full-o-dirt from every county in this state alone. You know it’s Bama, too; there’s so much of that familiar chalky, red clay that’s still all around us. Dirt so red, you now wonder if it’s ferrous or blood!

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Notoriously, lynching is NOT a practice of the antebellum south, for black labour was far too valuable to just maim, torture and burn up black bodies like what’s done in these heinous hate crimes then.

I know not every white person down here is a descendant of slave-holders, slave-drivers or slave-catchers. Many may have never owned a single slave, yet…

Yet, any white person down here benefits from white-skin-privilege. Even white immigrants have famously fallen into line, capitalising on the slave economy, commoditizing King Cotton in one way or another. Not only Stevie Wonder, but even Wikipedia can see that.

The Wiki history entry of the in-famous commodities firm Lehman Brothers’ opens dryly like this: “In 1844, 23-year-old Henry Lehman, the son of a Jewish cattle merchant, emigrated to the United States from RimparBavaria. He settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where he opened a dry-goods store…”

Henry’s brothers came over within a few years – legally, supposedly – and thus began the in-famous firm. The brothers quickly saw that the farmers were rich during harvest and broke when it came time to plant. The dry-goods store quickly began accepting raw cotton as a form of payment. They hoarded cotton when it was plentiful and cheap, selling it when stocks drew low; economics running counter-cyclical to farm life. Did it matter to the brothers that the cotton was produced by slaves?

The brothers opened their first branch in NYC in 1858. That’d be New Yawk ‘fore the Northern War of aggression, y’all. Their firm dug so deep into the commodities trading economy that the youngest Lehman brother’s son, Herbert, was eventually a senator, 4-time governor of New York, and among other accolades is quoted in the current US passports espousing the value of immigrants to the nation’s roots and success. Lehman Brothers’ 2008 bankruptcy has been called “the biggest corporate failure in history!”

Did you know there are entire regions of the United Kingdom that evolved on the back of King Kotton as a commodity? Manchester, “famed as the world’s first industrial city,” was nicknamed Cottonopolis. The Industrial Revolution was fuelled by slavery! Ironically, the liberation of one group of people depended upon the enslavement of another. His-story should tell both sides, else it’s a damn lie. Did you know those cotton mill workers were sent aid by the Union government when the Civil War curtailed these cheap exports?

But anyone down south was in one way or another entangled in the slave economy as much as all of us today can’t have a smartphone free of labour and land exploitation. The fact that I may never see a child mining tin in Indonesia, or set sights on bonded labourers toiling away for cobalt in the Congo, does not admonish me and my gadgetry from any responsibility to do better.

So, the pleasantries that we southerners find necessary are well-crafted ways of disarming one another from a past filled with mass artilleries in everyday life.

I am a Black son of the south.

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@ The Equal Justice Initiative

Free from these chains, I hasten to think what life was like for my grandparents. Armed with their southern draws, having actually grown up cultivating the region’s cash crops, what life could they possibly have imagined for themselves as adults there?

What I do know, however, and I’ve heard this from my own elders, is that while they couldn’t imagine a future there for themselves, they did dream of that vision for us.

And so, here I am living my life…somewhere. Over the rainbow.

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