Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 film, “In the Realm of the Senses,” is a febrile sadomasochistic romp that ends with the female protagonist lopping off her lover’s genitals and carrying them around with her. The movie is widely considered a classic of contemporary Japanese erotica, but it has always been remarkable to me for its title alone, which seems a perfect expression of the sensations we encounter when we travel somewhere foreign. It’s hardly original to assert that of all the ways we experience place, sight is perhaps the least important; the thing that convinces me I’m actually in Japan, for example, is never the slur of neon outside the Tokyo-bound train’s windows, but the perfume of soy sauce, cooking oil and burning cedar that is particular to the country. The same is true with Delhi: You step through the airport doors, and there it is — singed rubber, wet concrete, damp loam, roasting cardamom. These days, thanks to the ongoing globalization (or democratization, depending on your perspective) of fashion and music, many cities can look, and sound, very much alike. But a place’s fragrance is inimitable, a visceral biography of its cuisine, places of worship and landscape.
In our Travel issue, we pay homage to the many ways — sight included — that we come to understand a nation, a town, a culture. Sometimes, what we’re really seeking on our travels is an absence of sensation; being a stranger is both liberating and discomfiting because it means we have willfully traded a context we understand for one we don’t. The zing of travel is the vulnerability it inspires, and the promise that that vulnerability might lead to a transcendence of our everyday existences. Certainly that was true for poet and critic Meghan O’Rourke, who left an especially chaotic period in her life for the Hoh Rain Forest, in Washington’s Olympic National Park. The Hoh, which is filled with old-growth Sitka spruces, is one of the quietest places in America, and within its borders, O’Rourke began to reconsider how much silence we can really bear: We say we crave it, but do we really? Is silence truly conducive to peace? Or are the two in fact not as aligned as we’ve been taught to believe?
But one might also say that that very question — that something, or someplace, isn’t in fact what we’ve been taught to believe — is what animates every trip, and every traveler. In her story “Born in the U.S.A.,” Ligaya Mishan asks whether, in parsing “authentic” from “fusion” cuisine, we are missing some larger phenomena: specifically, the rise of what might be called Asian-American cooking. Mishan suggests that while foods made by Americans of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese descent are distinct in their flavors and ingredients, they are also part of a larger expression of cultural and racial identity. Like Mishan, I grew up in an Asian-American household in Honolulu (both of us were in fact editors on our high school’s newspaper, albeit a few years apart), and like her, I understand that to be Asian in America is to carry the burden of a special foreignness, one irreducible even by multiple generations of citizenship. For years, many kinds of Asian food were considered too loud, too aggressive, too expressive, for the American palate (even as we as people — according to recent reports — are considered too inexpressive by casting directors and producers to appear in movies or TV); the fact that this country’s cuisine now includes fish paste, gochujang and black sesame alongside jalapeños, collard greens and sauerkraut is a reminder that sometimes, it takes the tongue to recognize what the eyes cannot.
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