Orientation

            Where am I, I wonder. In limbo – layover. I want to orient myself, properly situate my body in time and space, adapt to wherever this is, this place. I want to be present, located in a location. I hold my phone, look at the map and the blue dot that says where I am: Eurasia, Russia, Moscow. The GPS clearly says so. But am I really there, though?

            I like to keep track of the places I’ve been, to chronicle my travels and worldly experience. I love maps, and they’re handy for this, but they’re always designed around political borders, which are so woefully unhelpful. They don’t accurately describe where we’ve been. Not really. I want more from cartography. I want to visualize data, to accurately identify the places I’ve experienced. I want to see real geography, demography, to understand Earth more fully. I want to chart my life adventures on a map more empathic, more descriptive. This is what I’m thinking as I stand in this Moscow airport, wondering if I’m experiencing Russia, if this might count as visiting. I think not, despite decent evidence for it. It seems hard to count an airport as seeing a country. I’d at least have to leave this building and go into the city.

            Size-wise, Russia is the largest country in the world, spreading all the way from Norway to North Korea. It really makes a mockery of political geography, confounding conceptions of continents and global regions. It’s the biggest country in Europe and the biggest country in Asia, and that’s when divided at the Ural Mountains. The country is simply too damn big, if you ask me. Do Moscow and Siberia have anything fundamental in common? Somehow I don’t think so.

            What defines a place, anyway? Being an American in Europe, the topic comes up often. Where you’re “from” is shorthand for your experience and personality, along with where you’ve been – places leave imprints. People say they’ve visited the States, for instance, which connotes a sort of worldliness. But maybe they just spent a few days in Manhattan. Does it count? Sure – they felt the busy sidewalks and gruffness that’s too often mistaken for rudeness, the sheer density of a certain kind of person. Hell, they might have even felt it at JFK airport on their way to Iowa or something. I’ve met people who did a semester of high school in America, in some small town in Arkansas or Wisconsin. Surely it counts as having been to America, but not the America I’m “from”, the America that defines my experience. The US is multitudinous. There’s the America of Wal-Mart, guns and the Bible Belt, and then there’s the America of the New York Times, Apple computers and Seinfeld. It renders quite ambiguous the term American, except in the most general, broad sense.  

            Specific places are multifaceted enough as it is: Berlin is at once the European capital of WWII history and weekend-long parties. There are these two simultaneous Berlins, a city once literally divided. Berlin is certainly German – the country’s capital, even – but it lacks so much of what Americans think of when they think of Germany. All the Oktoberfest and lederhosen stuff is in Bavaria, in the south. The big engineering factories and auto headquarters are in the west. And of course all the fascism and nationalism is basically gone, especially in Berlin. So have I fully experienced a “German” essence? Have I really been?

            Germany is one country, like the USA. It counts somehow as one land – Deutschland – no matter which state you visit. Bavaria is a distinct place – a people and their land. It could be its own country, just like neighboring Austria is. Austria, along with part of Switzerland, comprises the rest of the German-speaking world. This swath of central Europe could be one country, or twenty. It happens to be three federations, for whatever reason.

            The USA is stranger still, has even more distinct ecosystems and peoples. It is many nations within one state, really: united states, appropriately. But the borders of each state are themselves problematic. Ideally, the US would be divided into more distinct regions: the tri-state area or city-state of New York, New England, the Rust Belt or Great Lakes, Appalachia, the Deep South, the Southwest, the Great Plains, Cascadia, California… Hawaii is obviously a separate thing, much more akin to Polynesia than, say, Massachusetts. And what the hell is Alaska doing in the union? It’s clearly part of the vast Canadian tundra. And yet, since the US has bought it and claimed it within its empire, the people there count as Americans. The border that distinguishes Canada seems arbitrary in addition – North America in general could very well be one federal union.

            Sure, Stalin moved ethnic Russians to the Far East, but do they actually belong there? And does that make it somehow Russian? I know: it’s almost impossible to say who belongs anywhere, really. Such is the effect of empires and their ravenous creation of history. Imperialism makes a mockery of order, ironically.

            And yet: East Asia is indeed the place of East Asians, each of its countries quite ethnically homogeneous. Arabia is indeed comprised of Arabs. Arabs have also conquered northern Africa and made Muslims of the Berbers, who are now essentially part of the same Sunni culture, and yet Libya remains a part of the African continent, hardly resembling the sub-Saharan land and people so far below it. What’s more African: Arabic or Afrikaans? 

            The world is full of random, inaccurate, curious distinctions. I think it’s stupid.

            To be clear: Nation means people. A nation is a people with shared history, culture, ethnicity, language, belief system. State is a sovereign political designation. A state is a country, a federal republic. Some nations have their own states: Japan, Nepal, Italy. Some states are made of multiple nations: Belgium, Russia, the USA. Kurdistan and Palestine are nations without states, without full recognition by the United Nations. You could say the same for the American Confederacy, where they still wave their flag in preference to the US’s. The world is so delicately demarcated with political borders that carefully acknowledge sovereign statehood, but it’s a total mess, straight lines cutting through nuanced national distinctions. Some people/tribes/monarchies hold their sovereign status, while other distinct nations are disintegrated. How does Monaco – a city on the French Riviera – count as a distinct country, but Tibet doesn’t? If your counting, that means a trip to Monaco + Nice = 2, a trip to Beijing + Tibet = 1.

            The United Kingdom: Scotland and England are distinct nations with differing histories and perspectives, but they share a larger sovereign statehood along with Wales on the island of Great Britain. They all form one country, along with Northern Ireland: the United Kingdom. Going to Belfast crosses off all of it. A two-hour train ride from there gets you to Dublin, Ireland, which counts as its own distinct country, even though it shares an island and is clearly part of the same general region – the British Isles. But they get upset if you point that out, because they identify so much as such distinct people – so resolutely Catholic, not Protestant. Somehow it’s easier to divide an island of similar people than to reconcile political and religious ideas of in-groups and factions.

Is Belgium a real country? Created originally as a buffer zone, it’s comprised of Dutch Flanders and French Wallonia, its capital city a sort of blend of the two, where both languages are spoken and posted. (Mostly it’s French, but lies on the Dutch side). Flanders could easily be part of The Netherlands, and Wallonia could certainly be part of France. So why aren’t they? No good reason! There’s even a German-speaking bit – the East Cantons – which the country took from Germany after World War I, despite its people’s resistance. So you have this country comprised from parts of its neighbors… to what end? Brussels is much more similar to Amsterdam than Honolulu is to Boston. And yet Belgium is politically distinct, with UN membership of course, while also part of one larger regional unit: The Low Countries, the Benelux Union. I haven’t been to the tiny country of Luxembourg (half a million people out of Benelux’s 28 million), but how much different could it be from its neighbors? Must microstates really have more legitimate international identity than huge, dominated territories? Benelux could easily be considered one land. Instead it counts as three.

            Luxembourg is huge compared to the “state” of Vatican City – a neighborhood inside Rome inside Italy that somehow counts as its own country. It’s considerably smaller than Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport, both by size and population. It’s not so different in any meaningful way from Rome – it’s just the Catholic center of it. So here we have a neighborhood of 1,000 people that has more rights at the UN than Puerto Rico (3.3 mil), for instance. Within London, England, UK is The City of London – it’s also just a neighborhood: the financial district. It somehow counts as its own city, with its own laws and regulations. New York has a financial district, too, also just a neighborhood in Manhattan, one of the five New York City boroughs. Wall Street, and more specifically the NYSE building, is perhaps the highest concentration of economic power in the world, but it adheres to the same laws as Anchorage, Alaska. Building, neighborhood, district, borough, city, county, province, region, nation, state, country, union: the arbitrary status of sovereignty and administration; ambiguous, convoluted distinctions; terminology as a means of trying to make sense.

            The world is chaos, in the end.

            I look back at Google Maps, scroll over to where I am going. Southeast Asia, Indochina, the East Indies. Its borders are crazy. The map isn’t fully loading and the rough sketch that Google presents me makes it all the more clear how haphazard and questionable certain borders can be. Sharp jagged lines going every which way – it looks like a child took scissors to this region. I wonder what that will feel like, how clearly the nations are defined.   

            It is helpful to recognize distinctions between places, to locate, identify and appreciate each one. Every place has a certain meaning, and every land and its people enrich the world in a certain way. So it does make sense to categorize the planet, to this extent. Administrative boundaries are necessary in any case. Politics change things over time, but cities and cultures are more robust, definite. There will always be a New York City, defined – if nothing else – by its architecture and skyline, whether it’s part of the Empire State as currently defined, its own city-state like Hong Kong or Singapore, or a new seceded territory that includes its tri-state area, where so many of its workers commute from. Some borders – like New York – should be redrawn. Others, like in Ireland, should be erased entirely, I think. I’m curious what each part of Southeast Asia will feel like, and still wondering what counts as being somewhere. Sometimes I feel there just thinking about it.