Asia: The mystery of the Orient. Exotic people, exotic clothes, and exotic food. Parasols under cherry blossom trees. Staggeringly beautiful pagodas with highly delicate ornamentation. People who are short of stature, but high in courtesy. Humid jungles. Roll upon roll of luxurious carpets. Fragrantly perfumed air enveloping crowded market stalls. A medley of spices waiting to be unleashed.
Asia: Hot. Humid. The short, staccato clamour of horns punctuating the incessant drone of traffic. An acrid stench of mingled fumes and durian pervades the air. Masked and hooded figures driving with abandon, giving rise to the adrenaline rush of death-defying acts of crossing the street. Street food at every corner, same same, but different. Low prices. Highly caffeinated shots of coffee; essential to keep the average visitor awake and alert to this perplexing and enticing setting.
So which is it? Which is the real Asia?
Well, I can honestly say that both descriptions accurately fit the bill. There is nothing straightforward about Asia. Contrasts and contradictions meet you at every turn: surprise and incredulity, victory and defeat, joy and despair. These are all emotions that the average person may experience (and sometimes in rapid succession) upon setting foot on Asian soil. But through it all, a ray of curiosity shines bright. A people, ready to learn and to change, quick to welcome, and quick to share: this is my impression of what has been called The Orient.
It is astounding to me that in the aftermath of such pain and destruction that this part of the world has so recently faced, that human resilience is what shines through the brightest. Not only resilience, but tenacity, the foresight to educate, and above all, hope. Hope for a better future, for a higher destiny. I see this in the focus on schools, in advancing economies, and in the adoration in the eyes of a child’s grandparents.
Art is another example of how this region of the world is challenging both self-imposed and outside perceptions. In particular, the ongoing exhibit at the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum showcases contemporary Asian art, looking deeper at the cultures of the countries within the continent than the politics and geographies which embroil them.
The Guggenheim’s exhibit: No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia is ongoing until the 22nd May 2013. If both New York and Asia are a little too far away, why not browse through Jean François Hubert’s book The Art of Champa?