Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What We Make of It

In her introduction to Tattooing the World, Dr. Ellis relates the story of James O'Connell, and the traditional tattoos he acquired while on the island of Pohnpei in the mid-1800s. Previous to his own personal experience, O'Connell had very little knowledge of the tattoing tradition or procedure, but he quickly learned. Apparently, "when his hosts try to explain tattoing, specifically announcing that he will undergo the ritual, O'Connell does not at first understand [...] the unintelligible signs his hosts make become meaningful only when his own arms and legs receive more permanent signs "(3-4). O'Connell did not know he was walking into an extremely painful and invasive process that would change his life forever.

Similarly, when we travel, we often do not know exactly what we are actually getting ourselves into. We can research, read travel books, ask relatives, friends, and experts, but still arrive at our destination completely unprepared. The little things can throw us off. When my grandmother and I went on a trip to Lithuania several summers ago, we had everything planned out: meet very distant relatives at the Vilnius airport, have them help us make arrangements to visit closer relatives in other cities, visit this church, that palace, this historical site of interest. Yet, when we first arrived at the airport, there was immediately a glitch in our plan. Trying to find the bathroom right off the plane is a mistake in the Vilnius airport, and we were admonished by severe security guards (immediately conjuringing up every image of stern-faced Eastern European officials possible) who kept insisting we move along through the very specific arrivals/security route, in Lithuanian of course, which neither of us spoke.

A key problem in this situation was the language barrier, a recurring difficulty for travelers. For O'Connell too, language was a significant part of his tattoo experience. O'Connell describes his tattoo as a language that many, including O'Connell himself, cannot understand. O'COnnell "believed that the tattoo formed a text that could be read only if he could learn a new language" (1). In Pohnpei, "the traditional patterns [of his tattoo] gave him his life and made him fully human. In the streets of New York, on the other hand, women and children ran screaming from his presence..." (1). These native New Yorkers could not understand the significance of "Connell's tattoos, and thus found them appalling and frightening. We fear things we don't understand, whether they be a text in a foreign language, extreme new ideas, or a stern security guard or culture-specific tattoo.

Because of this language-misunderstanding/fear and the lack of control O'Connell had in the tattooing process, a wise comment is that "O'Connell's only choice in the matter is how to respond" (5). He could have shown a weak character and demanded the tattooing stop, as his shipmate did; however, O'Connell "[bore] the trial without complaint," and therefore received a high social standing among the Pohnpeians because of his bravery and "completeness" (5). As for how he responded to the ease of miscommunication about the meaning of the tattoo, he simply decided that the tattoo would have multiple meanings; most interpretative things do have many meanings, that's what makes them noteworthy and interpretative. O'Connell "create[d] his own account of life in Pohnpei" (3). So, in addition to the meaning intended by the tattoo artists, O'Connell's tattoos "mean what O'Connell says they mean. They also mean what his audience and other North Americans think they mean" (3). Despite the fact that "the Pacific interpretations remain inaccessible to him," O'Connell nevertheless can feel some meaning radiating from the tattoos covering his body, because he decided there was meaning he could understand.

Travel is what we make of it, and we cannot allow travel to dictate its own rules on us while we remain completely passive. Do you really want to moan the loss of Chik-fil-A instead of trying all the different local French fry sauces at the corner "Frituur" while you're studying abroad in Belgium? If you are faced with an overwhelmingly foreign situation, you simply have to try to understand as best as possible, whether that understanding is the one known by all the locals or onw that makes sense only to you; the interpretation does not matter so much, as long as you try to make some interpretation. James O'Connell never learned the native language of Pohnpei, but he did go through the traditional tattoo process. In other words, you don't have to be European, but please, don't be an "ugly American."

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