While at Oregon State University, Jordan Machtelinckx majored in Civil Engineering and International Studies, and spent a semester in Cape Town, South Africa in the Spring of 2012. Since his graduation, he has embarked on a journey to explore Eastern Europe and Asia. In this blog entry he articulates how his perceptions of various cultures have changed. Read on to learn about an Oregonian’s experience across the world!
In travelling to entirely unfamiliar places, I have been happily overwhelmed by the complexity and relationships of cultures. Currently on a journey to experience the spectrum of culture and landscapes across Central Asia, I am constantly surprised by the way seemingly different cultures are actually hugely related. I’ve come to realize that geographically neighboring cultures which have always seemed, in my inexperience, to be similar have been, in actuality, historically unrelated until relatively recently. The bottom line is that cultural and political borders are not the same.
I must admit that I have little background knowledge on the subject compared to those who may have studied it academically so my revelations may come without surprise to many, but jumping into the trip with no preparation was a conscious decision on my part. I have been lucky enough to travel by numerous methods for various objectives, but this trip was fueled by little more than curiosity for what I might learn along the way.
For example, hitch hiking across Turkey illustrated the difference between the European-style west side and the Central Asian east side with its significant Middle Eastern influence. Meeting the inhabitants of various backgrounds along the way piqued my interest about the cultural history of the area and motivated me to dive into some articles on regional history that provided headaches of confusion rivalling those of my time as an undergrad in engineering. Trying to research more about the boundaries of Kurdistan led me through articles that felt like condensed political science courses and clarified why so many residents of Turkey identified themselves to me a bit differently than others. Some were proud of Turkish heritage, some of Kurdish heritage, and some of each group embraced Arabic language to varying degrees. I was fascinated to see the associations of these cultural distinctions with my geographical eastward progress.
Language itself is a cultural attribute I have always taken interest in. It was news to me that before Ataturk (modern Turkey’s first president) circa 1928, the Turkish language used an Ottoman script which was closely related in appearance to the modern Arabic script. Crossing from Georgia to Armenia brought me through a small Georgian region where most residents are Muslim Azerbaijanis. Despite the Azerbaijanis being separated from Turkey by Georgia and Armenia, which both use vastly different languages and alphabets, they are in fact historically most related to the Turkish culture (not to be confused with the country of Turkey… that’s the confusing part). In researching the next leg of my journey I discovered that the Kazakh language was originally written using an Arabic-derived script as well, and is actually also a Turkic language. Simply because Kazakhstan now uses Cyrillic, I had always associated both the language and the culture with those of Russia instead.
Coming across these kinds of discoveries as I move eastward was exactly what I was hoping for when I (didn’t) plan this journey. With my lack of previous knowledge I find it hard to retain all the details of this region’s cultural, political and linguistic history I learn along the way, but I am pleased with myself at the knowledge I have managed to retain. I consider myself well-educated in various domains, but the culture and history of this part of the world was not one of them. Wandering across it with no itinerary has proved to be an efficient method of satisfying my curiosity and exposing me to culture and history at which I am – all pride aside – a complete novice.
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