From Wainui to Woonsocket

Capture I love place names that just roll off your tongue like “Woonsocket.”  Every time I drove to Rhode Island I found myself repeating “Woonsocket” over and over again.  Then I moved on to the other “–ets” like Pawtucket, Muskeget, Nantucket, Narragansett…

Wait a minute!  What does this “–et” mean that is spread across the landscape in New England?

Patterns in place names should cause us to stop and ask questions about the indigenous language all around us.  I searched for some meaning to the “–et” and found that it seems to generally mean “place of.”

The indigenous place names of New Zealand don’t roll off your tongue as much as sound like the even beat of a drum:  Whangarai (fang gore I), Whanganui (fang ga new ee), Tauranga (tow rung gah).  Te Puke (Tee Pook Ee).  Whakatane (Fahk A Tahn Ee).  You get the idea.  They sound like a Maori war dance when you read them off.  I have a New Zealand friend who lived in the inner city of a U.S. city and would just start saying New Zealand place names when she felt threatened.  She figured it sounded like she was putting curses on people.  I did find one New Zealand place name that did seem to roll off your tongue and on for a distance:  Wainuiomata (Wah New Ee Oh Maht A)–Wainui for short.


And then there are the place names that are totally indecipherable.  At the top of my list if Natchitoches, Louisiana which is not far from Nagadoches, TX.  Natchitoches (nack a dish) took some time for me to learn to pronounce as well as spell (spelling not being one of my strengths).  Nagodoches (nack a doe chez) makes much more sense to my phonetic approach to spelling.  Both of these are not far from Baton Rouge (Bah’ toh RRRooozh).

Transformative Cross-Cultural Relationships

Every year, as we decorated our Christmas tree, one of my daughters would pull out one particular brightly colored ornament that would prompt me to recall, one more time, the Chinese friend from graduate school who gave it to me.  And every year I wondered:  Where is Ji?  I so hope he is well.

Ji joined my office in graduate school in the early 1980s.  He had come to the U.S. on a one year program from his work unit–it was early in the process of China opening to the world.  We called ourselves the “office of failures” because we had all done something prior to coming to graduate school.  The office included a failed bureaucrat, failed historian, failed book seller, failed missionary, and Ji became our failed communist.  He endeared himself to us by putting up with our humor.  If someone came into the office and needed a chair to sit on, we would point to Ji’s chair and say “sit there–that is the People’s chair.”  He had this wonderful smile in response.

Ji was always asking questions and observing culture and language which also led to much amusement.  A roasted pig was served at the wedding of a graduate student and Ji concluded that Americans roast pigs at weddings receptions.  We corrected his assumption.

Ji was welcomed into my extended family.  He joined us for a ten hour car trip with members of my extended family to visit my parents one Thanksgiving.  I remember listening to him practice American expressions in the back seat such as  “Amazing”  “That is so interesting.”  We kept ourselves amused by speculating on cat-dishes in China:  sweet and sour tabby;  Garfield with beans on the side.  Over that Thanksgiving my father took him all over town to introduce him to small town America–to a farm, probably to a mortuary (my father taught death and dying), to just about everywhere.  Ji put up with us–though might have been confused–when my father’s friend sent a pizza box that was gift wrapped for my father’s birthday.  Inside was a cow pie.

Over the years, about once a year, my aunt asks me–remember that trip?  Where is Ji?  I hope he is well.

Ji also got to know my grandmother.  My grandmother was known for being able to strike up a conversation with anyone she met and find a connection to someone she knew.  When she first met Ji we just held our breath and waited to see if she managed to find someone that he knew in China…

Later in her life, she would say to me–remember that person from China?  That was so interesting.

Ji got an extension to stay a second year and then attempted to get into graduate school in order to apply his classes toward a degree.  He was denied by the university because he had gotten his undergraduate degree during the cultural revolution so it was not considered valid.  He had to return to China and his work unit.  I remember leaving him off at the airport, wondering and worrying about his future and whether I would see him again.

Literally every day I continued to think about Ji.  He was on my mind and in my prayers.  We sent him greetings in recordings from a family gathering.  I thought of him daily, if not multiple times a day.  Eventually he was able to get into another graduate school in the U.S. We helped by putting his name on our bank account–well, it never actually got on there because he didn’t sign the card, but we added the name for awhile. In the midst of all those transitions, one day I realized that I had not thought about Ji for several days.  I found out that I had stopped having him on my mind the day he had left China for the U.S. graduate school.

We met several times in the years after that but then I lost track of him.  I searched occasionally on the web.  My father, as he declined, would occasionally ask me:  Where is Ji?  I wish I knew he was doing well.

When living in Hong Kong, I would occasionally look at the map, seeing Ji’s hometown just north of Vietnam and think about going there.  He had called it the garden city.  I wondered if I could somehow find out what happened to him if I went there.  My mother recently asked me–Where is Ji?

This past month, I managed to work through a friend who knew someone from the graduate school he attended, who then figured out a way to search for him, and directed me to a university in China.  A Chinese colleague of mine read the website to figure out the email address that I could use to reach him.  We have exchanged emails and news about families!  I am so happy that he is doing well, and especially that he has a family.  My aunt and my mother are so pleased.

This Christmas, when I take out the Chinese Christmas ornament for my tree, I am going to think of Ji–and his family.  But I don’t have to wonder about whether he is well.





Nature or Nurture: Are Geographers Made or Born?

new Drive

People who share my discipline often say that geographers are born, not made.  They recall being the children that always spent hours pouring over maps and atlases, and serving as the family navigator on road trips. I certainly experienced a certain “coming into my sweet spot” experience when I discovered the field.  I could study aspects of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities in order to understand what I saw around me.  I could use abstract concepts to explain concrete patterns on the ground.  I still find it incredibly satisfying, a pleasure that I have to monitor around my daughters

What is it that makes us different, we geographers?   Are we visual learners? Is that the distinction from others?  Or are we “lumpers” rather than “spliters”–people who naturally are trying to understand phenomenon as wholes rather than reducing them into smaller and smaller parts?  Or are there developmental experiences that shape our interests?

I contemplated whether I was born a geographer, or became one this past week when I visited Winston Salem, North Carolina.  I had not been to Winston Salem since I lived there as a five year old.  I spent my first five years on the prairies of Iowa, went to North Carolina for one year, and then returned to the prairies of the Midwest.  I believe that in some way that one year fueled my imagination and my ability to image all possible worlds.  Did it make me a geographer?

As a five year old, I can remember the strangeness of the place–the Appalachian mountains and its coal beds, the hilly terrain, the red soil, the smell of the clay, the Baptist church my father pastored that was filled with tobacco farmers, and civil war bubble gum collecting cards.  I adapted overnight and took on a southern accent, yet maintained a northern identify in my bubble gum card collection.  Did I ask questions about all of this of my parents, or was all this processing going on in my mind?  And is it the multi-sensory nature of how I interacted with this place, almost feeling it in my bones, that characterizes me as a geographer?  I smelled.  I saw.  I heard.  I felt it.

A discussion with my mother and brother on the apartment complex where we lived that year, finally identified its location.  My mother thought is was east of the Baptist hospital where my father was in chaplaincy training, but my brother, who was 7 when we lived there, remembered the street.  I wondered if I would recognize it.  I remembered red brick apartments buildings with a hill behind our particular building (I slid down the hill using a plastic covered winter coat in a rare snowfall) and a parking lot at the bottom of the hill.  I could see myself at the bottom of the hill in the parking lot talking to my friends about the Civil War cards and could also picture a playground nearby.

DSCN0817 DSCN0822When I drove down the street, it wasn’t the detail of the buildings or the inside of the apartment that I remembered, but the context–the hill, the parking lot, and the grassy lot–and it was all there.  I think I know which building I lived in from that larger context–the visualization–whereas my brother remembers exact numbers and streets (he is a medical doctor).

I went by the Presbyterian church where I went to kindergarten.  North Carolina didn’t have public kindergartens at that time–something else that became part of my memory.  I was surprised that it was right across the street from the larger apartment complex.  It had had no relational spatial location in my memory.  It’s location was not part of my mental map.

DSCN0821Did this experience of living in a different world at such a young age make me a geographer, seeking out yet other possible worlds to explore over a lifetime?  Or did I see, smell, hear, and feel this place in the way I did because I was born to do this?





Rules for Living (and traveling)

I have a rule that I try to live by:  Don’t fly into or out of airports in the southeastern United States in the late afternoon or early evening during the months of June, July, and August.

My rule comes out of the knowledge of the climate of that part of the world.  This Humid Subtropical region has very unstable air in the heat of the summer, meaning that the air has a tendency to rise if slightly heated.  The intense rays of the sun during the summer months during the day start this upward motion as as the day progresses–convection.  By late afternoon, the air has risen in the atmosphere to the level where it reaches condensation point, giving off even more heat energy which reinforces the upward movement and builds quite violent afternoon storms.  That is the scientific reason for my rule.

There is also a practical reason for my rule illustrated by the way that my week unfolded.

On Monday I left with a group for North Carlina to spend the week visiting campuses.  We arrived mid afternoon and only had to drive through the late afternoon storm en route to our hotel several hours later.  On Wednesday I had booked a round trip ticket from North Carolina for the day to go to D.C. for a meeting.  As I left the hotel at 5:30 a.m. to drive to the airport, leaving my suitcase and computer and everything behind, I thought briefly about taking my toothbrush and phone charger with me, but quickly pushed the thought out of my mind.  The meeting went well, and ended in plenty of time to get back to the DC airport. The plane loaded on time–5 p.m. and left the gate.  Two hours later we were still sitting on the runway waiting for a route to be established that would take us around the storms that had developed in the southeast.  We finally went back to the gate, were told we had 20 minutes and then would reload, but the flight was soon cancelled.  After standing in line I got booked on a flight that left at 10:40 p.m.  It was eventually cancelled.

After standing in line I was finally informed that I had a flight from North Carolina to Boston on Friday–I already knew that.  Given that reality they were trying to figure out why I was in DC.  After much searching, I was told that the only flight to North Carolina was the next day, Thursday, and it went from DC via Boston, stopping in Philly and reaching North Carolina at 10 p.m..  But, I said–I live in Boston and my luggage is in North Carolina!–circumstances that again, could not be easily explained.

I asked–How about just sending me to Boston this evening or early tomorrow?  No can go–my ticket was for DC to North Carolina so it had to be written to get me from DC to North Carolina no matter where it took me in-between.  All this time I was monitoring the power left on my phone, worried that I would not have enough left to finalize arrangements for a hotel.  I knew I needed to go buy a power cord for my phone if I was staying overnight but as I headed toward the stores, they were shutting down for the night.

Finally around 11:30 p.m.  I had my ticket to North Carolina via Boston and a hotel booked.  I went out to the taxi stand to find 91 people in line (as reported by the teenager in front of me).  I scribbled the name of the hotel down and its address before my phone died.

Arriving at the hotel at midnight, the desk clerk was confused by my lack of luggage-.  It is a long story, I explained, reporting that I was from Boston but my luggage was in a hotel in North Carolina.  He let me plug in my extra battery for my phone into his phone cord for the night while I went to my room to unwind and try to sleep.

The next morning I received an email from an un-named airline, reminding me that I was booked on the 10:40 p.m. flight the night before. Strengthened with a Starbucks cappuccino, I took the subway back to the airport, got on standby for an earlier flight to Boston, arranged for a colleague to get my luggage and empty my hotel room in North Carolina, and arranged for a shuttle to pick me up in Boston.  I purposefully did not make my connection in Boston.

I am glad to be home because my colleagues are returning today from North Carolina on a late afternoon flight…


Points, Lines, Areas, and Depth

Geographers often refer to spatial phenomenon as being represented by point, line or area symbols, depending on their areal extent, whether there is directionality to them, or other characteristics. I recently completed a road trip that took me through areas, following a line of the route, but encountering points along the way. 


          The trip started at my home north of Boston with my older daughter who flew in to help me drive west to Michigan.  We had two choices for a route lines, one along the south shore of Lake Erie along the northern edge of Ohio or another through Ontario.  The Ontario route was shorter, but required taking a risk of long waits at the border crossing points.  We took our chances.After following the Erie Canal route across New York, we crossed into Ontario at Niagara Falls.

          While Niagara Falls is a destination point, it actually is part of the Niagara escarpment which crosses across southern Ontario, northward creating the Bruce Peninsula and a line of islands.  This is a ridge of hard dolomite that shapes the areas on either side of it.  As my daughter and I drove along Lake Ontario through the fruit belt of Ontario, the escarpment was on our left, the lake on our right, and the fruit in the small area in between where a unique micro-climate exists.My daughter had been in kindergarten when we had lived in Ontario for a few months.  Now she was driving me across the landscape.  I asked about her memories of that time—did she remember visiting the peach orchard in the fruit belt?

          As I looked around me, I saw all the elements that represented the region for me—green barns and Tim Horton coffee shops.  I wondered if I could have ever come to be a Canadian and wondered what kind of emotional attachment I would have had to the region if I had sought a different life on that side of the border.


          When one traffic lane disappears and merges into another in Ontario, a mysterious event happens—in the U.S., the middle line disappears as you merge to the left—in Ontario the two lines meet.  This took me weeks to figure out when I lived in Ontario.  I would find myself totally confused and not able to identify why—two lines were not supposed to meet!  So during this trip I just sat and watched what happened to my daughter as she was driving in the right lane and it started to merge with the next lane on the left.  Sure enough—she screamed as she tried to figure out how to merge without crossing a line.  I was entertained.


          We arrived in West Michigan for my younger daughter’s graduation from Calvin College.  I have lived most of my adult life with Dutch North Americans—areas of settlement across North America, interconnected by lines of migration.  In many ways, I probably identify or at least see “normality” in this ethnic group and their communities—Dutch names, jokes about Canadians (the migration crosses the border), conservative libertarian politics, high levels of education.  The pot holes and Middle Eastern food of West Michigan also made me feel at home. But in looking at the names of the list of board of trustees and graduates at my daughter’s graduation, I again wondered about my relationship to these places in which I had invested so much.  I’m always a translator between regions—between Canada and the U.S., between Dutch Reformed and other groups.  So is it like a colleague recently said to me—“the irony of my career teaching Spanish is that I can never, by the nature of not being born as a Spanish-speaker, become an expert in my field.”  When you are a translator between, in which space do you stand?  Or can between-ness in itself be an identity?

GC 091

          In West Michigan I picked up my mother, my younger daughter, and a family friend from Illinois where I grew up.  We began our road trip back toward Boston, along a route that involved points.  Often you think of a linear route as one directional, but in some sense the linear route took us back and forth through time, somewhat like Dr. Who. 


          We stopped overnight south of Indianapolis to intersect with friends from Central Illinois who met us there—friends who had known me since I was eight years old.


           We stopped in Morgantown, WV to have coffee with a friend who I had known in Minnesota in graduate school—we have geographer-colleagues spread across the world with the University of Minnesota as our point of reference.  We stopped in Pennsylvania at a meeting spot to have dinner with a couple who I had known for 30 years—they had visited me in Iowa and in Michigan and I had seen them at my geography meetings regularly.  I had gotten to know their son in the past 10 years and he ended up living in Hong Kong when I lived there.  We had breakfast in State College, PA with friends who had lived in my building in Hong Kong just two years ago.

          Points, time, and lines intersecting along our route.



          Our route took us through Appalachia where I left my daughter at Mt. Laurel, WV to work with a couple of catholic nuns who work in educational programs in a remote area. 


          Driving through the narrow valleys and coal areas of the Cumberland plateau intersected with some of my earliest memories.  When I was 5 years old we lived in North Carolina.  I can remember traveling from the flat region of the Midwest to the area of windy roads of the Appalachians—I can almost feel the big trucks on the narrow roads.  I can still see a girl who came to visit who had part of her family in the hospital from an accident on one of these narrow roads with a truck.  I recall the smoke of coal in coal mines abandoned yet still smoking from fires.  I can hear the voices.  I can almost feel my five year old self in a strange region. 

          My younger daughter’s future intersected with my past.


          Finally we reached home (my home).  But then we made one more short trip.  My mother and I went to New Hampshire to meet someone who grew up in my home town who now lives in Maine.  We met at a middle point on the route between.  We talked about people who tied us together in the distant past in a place where our lives intersected long ago.

Bob Breckenridge

          Points of intersection.  Areas of influence.  Routes along the way.  And the people who have shared parts of the journey and given us depth and dimension.