Behind me on the bus sat a teenager who enjoyed streaming basketball games on his phone. He wore a Los Angeles Lakers lid and a black shirt with the letters U.S.A. brazenly embroidered in the middle. He enjoyed cursing in English. I never considered myself invested in sports, but I watched the Super Bowl this year because my home team, the Philadelphia Eagles, had been playing. The only other time I had watched the Super Bowl had been in 2005 when the Eagles were also playing, ironically also against the New England Patriots. I assumed he supported the Lakers because he lived in LA, but the moment he opened his mouth to loudly yell out the f-word after a failed foul shot, I knew that he had stepped foot, or at least lived, in the United States before.
I remember listening to New York City by the Chainsmokers live at Made in America. It had been my favorite song for a long period in my life, forever capturing the sentiments I had surrounding concepts like love I had during my freshman year of college, when I had first discovered the Chainsmokers. I remember the first song, Welcome to New York, that played when I listened to 1989 by Taylor Swift for the first time, reinforcing the idea of starving artists discarding their comfort to live in the Big Apple. I remember the song Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z playing during the teacher-sponsored, elementary school graduation “party,” when I thought that Girlfriend by Avril Lavigne would be the song of our generation. An idea that pervaded throughout my entire life.
It’s the city of lights where artists go to pursue their dreams despite encountering one of the highest living costs in the world. It is the financial capital of America, where Wall Street bankers and traders dine regularly at Michelin-star restaurants while working 100-hour weeks as analysts straight out of college, which incidentally, has now started to recruit during freshman spring. It’s also the place where stop-and-frisk policies illuminated systematic discrimination against blacks and Hispanics in the criminal justice system. It’s a city riddled with inequality and indifference, but somehow stilled glorified to an idea pursued by innumerable individuals around the world.
Perhaps the person who sat behind me on the bus had some connection to Los Angeles beyond cultural fetishization from mass media propagation. I wouldn’t know. After all, I am speaking almost completely out of conjecture. Not verifying my sentiments with facts tends to skew my opinions in directions other than productive, but I suppose I never have taken any of my sentiments without some serious grains of salt. Despite not knowing the background of anyone on my bus beside my tour guide, I wonder if my ideas still have merit. After all, high-income American cities are certainly not the only cities that have been fetishized throughout the world. I never really had to be reminded of that. A Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn irregardlessly played on the TV screen in front of me, Chinese dubbed. I watched it briefly, trying to count other affluent cities of former colonial powers.
A phrase caught my attention. I thought I misheard, and I did. “Egypt” in Chinese sounds similar to “cancer chicken.” I misheard when I woke up from my fifth nap that I had taken in the past five hours. Needless to say, I had been confused for more time than I would’ve liked to be. Long bus rides with a steady rhythm tend to have that effect on me and, of course, the other 30 people that were sleeping on the bus. The movie and changed to a Chinese documentary of the Roman conquest in Egypt in some time period that I cannot conceptualize. Like lead actors in movies, the characters of Octavian and Cleopatra were exceedingly attractive, purely evaluated on the sharpness of their jawline and cheekbones. The marble statues in museums across Europe seem to confirm this notion of extraordinarily attractive figures throughout history.
I remembered that, for the longest time, I thought that everyone who lived before the 18th century had silky smooth skin and six-pack abs. Then, as I grew older, I started to encompass more facts within my understanding of the past. For example, since the largest sector of the economy before the second agricultural revolution had been in agriculture, it meant that the majority of the populace had been farmers, who worked outside. And since they did not have broad-spectrum ultraviolet protection, it would mean that these farmers would not have the same clear skin that had been portrayed in marbles statues. It is only through a series of dry historical facts can I fully conceptualize that not all individuals in the past had the same appearance of a Greek God or Goddess that I could find at an art museum. I am ashamed but also very not ashamed. Q.E.D.
Although vintage pictures have been a fairly recent interest of mine, I never enjoyed the grainy themes for its representation of a moment in history that is supposedly better than the time period that had defined much of my coming to age. I don’t long for the past because of the social and racial issues that had defined much of its time nor for the pop culture that is supposedly better than the culture that exists presently. I also don’t believe, like Lana Del Rey, that I had been a part of the past even though I cannot remember it. To me, it’s a much simpler concept; the past represents a time that I wasn’t alive. Or, at least, living. Because, while I attempt to leverage almost of my energy to constantly live with as much intention as possible, I cannot help but to sometimes yearn for a time when my life had not been defined by a series of decisions.
The Vatican Museums are considered to possess some of the notable pieces of art throughout history. Most of the art revolves around Christian imagery. Although I had only gone to church a couple times in my life, I did recognize some of the scenes from the background research I have done for my study of English. There were some notable themes that popped up in my head throughout my visit. The scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion seemed to be fairly clean despite the violence of the scene that is alluded in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The statues of angels seem eerily reminiscent to the weeping angels in Doctor Who, probably because they are both stone angels, and all stone angels look the same to me. The Sistine Chapel, including the fresco painting The Creation Adams, did not allow for pictures. I walked by The Transfiguration by Leonardo da Vinci and pressed ’58’ on my audio guide.
I was greeted with a short sentence. “The Transfiguration by Leonardo da Vinci is considered to be the most important painting in the world.” Really. The most important? Not one of the most important? Literally, the most important? Immediately, a sense of iration boiled within me. I understand that the Catholic Church, back then, had thought it was the center of the entire universe as deemed so by God. But, given modern advances in science as well as the mere concept of religious tolerance, I expected the church to, at least, understand that within other cultures The Transfiguration may have been completely irrelevant. Unless, of course, the Catholic Church decided to violently spread its culture through the use of a conquest. But, of course, that would go against the overall Christian message of love and tolerance. It must’ve been a mistake. Silly me.
I approached a museum guard for directions to the exit, only to be greeted with an eye of surprise and an “I don’t speak English.” It’s interesting — if a white European approached me with a European accent, it would be considered sexy and attractive; if I did the same thing, I don’t think the same sentiments would hold. Because, while I study English in college, there wouldn’t ever be a time that my English would be considered to be better than someone with a European appearance. I cannot even count the times that people have complimented by English for being “not bad.” My race would be oftentimes mistaken and pointed out. One day, I would look Korean. The other day, Japanese. I would sometimes acidly smile. Sometimes, I would politely correct them. Sometimes, during an especially infuriating incident when someone greeted me with “Ko-knee-chee-wa, you want selfie?” I burst into a blazing inferno, only to be met with a “Whoa, why you so angry?”
But alas, so it goes. Of course, I know that not all western Europeans leverage the cultural hegemony that has given them almost infinite cultural capital over every other culture. But, oftentimes, it does feel as if my culture is exoticized and estranged by these individuals who approach me with assumptions regarding my culture. And while I am always willing to discuss my culture, which does not have as much cultural capital as American or western European culture, I would always prefer not to exist a tool for practicing the five, vaguely-Chinese words that people seem to say more as a tool of marketing or dominance than an honest attempt to speak another language. But what does my opinion matter? After all, I merely exist as an extension of the stereotype of a Chinese tourist. Where is the authority in my words if I cannot even speak English?
Because here I am, frantically replaying the same clip on my audio guide while trying to find the exit. “The Transfiguration by Leonardo da Vinci is considered to be the most important painting in the world.”