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What’s your map of my territory?
Instagram filters IRL x French tables vs German tables x Maps & Territories
Hello intersectional thinkers 👋
Greeting from the transit hotel at IST in Turkey!
“Widen your world” is Turkish Airline’s motto, and I think the stars have aligned to have me post this inaugural essay here in Istanbul.
“The map appears to us more real than the land.”
— D.H. Lawrence
Have you ever wondered if the colors you see are the same as what everyone else sees?
When I moved to Sydney, I was certain the colors of this buzzy Australian city were more vibrant than what I was used to in Vancouver.
To me, Sydney had a permanent Instagram filter that accentuated everything with a splash of glistening gold.
The blues of the ocean and the beiges of the sand looked warmer. The innocent reflections off a window seemed more textured.
Is this why Instagram filters are named after cities?
I asked around to see if anyone else shared my discovery. But to my disappointment, there were only non-committal answers like “Maybe?” “I haven’t really noticed.” “It’s probably your sunglasses.”
Refusing to believe this was all in my head, I typed “Do colors in different countries look different?” into Google.
The first result: The way you see color depends on what language you speak.
The article succinctly explained:
Not only do different cultures categorize colors differently (e.g. in Greek, light and dark blue are not just shades of blue, but fundamentally different colors ghalazio and ble).
But depending on your surroundings, your color perception can change (e.g. Greek speakers who lived in the UK for an extended period of time tend to see ghalazio and ble as one similar color: blue).
Our social context determines what colors we see.
Does this mean what I see in the photographs might not be the same as how you see it?
Perhaps we don’t see through our eyes as much as we do through our minds.
So that got me thinking, what else am I seeing differently?
Before I learned French, a table was a table. It’s usually made out of wood. It usually had four legs. Nothing extraordinary.
But my whole world came alive after I started learning French. With gendered nouns, le table (the table) started to look a little masculine, la chaise (the chair) more feminine in comparison. An almost romantic concept that made realize why all the inanimate objects in The Beauty and the Beast were personified. The author Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve didn’t have to think very hard, the French language already created the characters for her!
But the romanticism was quickly shattered when I learned German. Now both der tisch and der stuhl (the table and the chair) look more valorous, and the dining experience suddenly seemed less flirty.
When my dad moved his business down to southern China, I was quickly let in on an unsettling social nicety: you have to refer to a stranger as a ‘beautiful girl’ or a ‘handsome guy’ in order to get their attention.
“Beautiful girl, can I order some take out?” “Hey handsome guy, get out of my lane!”
But in northern China, this would just be rude.
So I’ve had to update my beauty standards to keep up with the daily social banter. Not only do I need to see beauty in everyone, I need to see it in myself in order to answer to the casual ‘hey beautiful girl’ greeting everyone throws around.
Before I left Vancouver, I thought people in Canada looked Canadian. It never crossed my mind to think “Oh, this person must be a tourist!” “Where is this person from?” Simple, I know. But my Vancouver was a bit of a bubble.
But when I moved to Paris for school, I was constantly grilled with this series of questions: “Where are you from?” “Where are you really from?” “Where are your parents from?” “Where are your ancestors from?”
That’s when I realized I don’t look Canadian outside of Canada. I looked Asian and was expected to be one.
Which wasn’t a bad thing because then I moved to Japan.
Since I spoke Japanese and looked Japanese enough, I could live life peacefully without raising eyebrows. Until I realized that with my foreign name, I couldn’t get into some of the nice restaurants, I would cause unnecessary nervousness for hospitality staff, and I kept getting this strange question: “When are you leaving Japan?” So I started using a Japanese alias for the inconsequential stuff. Apart from feeling like a spy living a made up life, everything has been functioning smoothly since then.
By the way, I’m not saying we don’t share anything across cultures. In fact, ideas that are celebrated as culturally unique ideas are often rooted in shared human wisdom. The Danish Hygge is similar to Gemütlichkeit in German, which is also the general idea behind 小確幸 shokakko in Japanese. And that’s actually my point:
The map is not the territory.
What we see is an interpretation of what’s actually there.
And in order to see for ourselves that the map is not the territory, we might need to see more maps.