An Anti-Blog Post

When I started A Catalog of Curiosity in early 2016, part of the point was to reach out of my comfort zone. I wanted to make a commitment to myself to try new things and broaden my horizons. I had been out of grad school almost a year and I missed the way it had pushed me. So, with the help of my readers, I made my list of new experiences for me to try and blog about, and that ended up entailing writing about topics I had never written about for an audience. That has been great! I’d dabbled in reviewing museums and exhibits before, but I do much more of it now. I’ve now blogged about my experiences attending events I wouldn’t normally try, like Toastmasters’ meetings, which was also a new thing for me to write about. This blog was one inspiration for starting my newsletter, where I share short-form recommendations of media and events as well as updates on my own projects. 

I’m roughly halfway through the “catalog” or blog list (plus I’ve added some off-list adventures), and there’s one type of post that I’m finding doesn’t work so well. The list items are all related in some way to my work in the broad sense: history, writing, teaching, and navigating the role of museums in their communities. Getting to know the communities around me better is important to me because museums need to understand, work with, and serve a wide range of communities, and also because I think learning about other people is everyone’s work, as a component of civic responsibility and of being a person who never stops learning. However, I put a couple of items on my blog list that were focused on learning more about certain immigrant cultures without figuring out a structure for my learning ahead of time, and I’m finding that the topics aren’t a good fit for me to blog about. I’m thinking particularly of “Get to know a little bit about Brazilian-American culture“ and “Learn more about Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean American culture and history,” although there may be others that I come across. They are very broad -- my hope was to do a couple of new-to-me things for each post, rather than my typical one experience per post, but I’m finding it tricky to write about them without treating those things like stand-ins for the whole of the topic.

One place I visited as part of trying to get to know Brazilian-American culture was a Brazilian restaurant in the neighborhood I moved from a year ago. My spouse and I had always meant to try it, but never did while we lived there, so we headed to our old stomping grounds for a visit. I’m glad that the blog prompted me to finally check it out. The lunch buffet was three-quarters meat (and priced accordingly) and we’re vegetarian, but on the regular menu there were a few vegetarian combo plates. The restaurant had a nice mix of people I assume were Brazilian-American or Brazilian (I assumed this because they were speaking Portuguese) and outsiders to the culture, so I didn’t feel like I was intruding. The TV had a Brazilian channel on and the front entryway had a newstand with Brazilian newspapers, some Brazilian packaged snacks, and community notices and local business ads, bilingual or in Portuguese. A family at a table near us was having a birthday party. It made me think about how much food can mean to people as a connection to culture and as a reason and means to gather. The restaurant seemed like a little hub for the Brazilian community in the area.

Plantains, yucca, shredded kale, rice and beans. All very tasty,
 although it was a lot of starch at once.
I definitely recommend this restaurant (Oasis in Medford, if you live in the Boston area) but on this blog, I try to write at least a bit about what I learned, what I took away from an experience. If I were blogging about this particular restaurant, I could do that, but I can’t use Oasis as a stand-in for a culture. “Brazilian-Americans are just barely vegetarian-friendly, but their few vegetarian dishes are tasty?” That could be true or extrapolating way too much from this steakhouse. If I were learning Portuguese, this would be a great place to spend time, eavesdrop a little, pick up a paper. I hoped to use that front newsstand area to learn about other things in the area I could do to learn about Brazilian-American culture, but if those advertisements were there, they weren’t in English -- which is fair! I also watched a Brazilian TV show on Netflix recently (3%, a very good, dark speculative science fiction show) but it would be even less responsible to generalize from that. There are a couple of Brazilian nightclubs in Medford and Somerville, but I hate clubbing. Would I learn more about Brazilian-American culture there? Maybe, but it would still require overgeneralizing. You could also learn about queer culture by going to the right nightclubs, though, and this queer would rather stay in on a Friday night with some chamomile tea.

Similarly, I recently visited the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Arts, a small museum in Roxbury, in part because I’d heard it has a good collections of Afro-Caribbean American art. I had a good time at the museum, but what I saw was too small a sample size to feel like I had learned about the Afro-Caribbean experience. In some of my blog posts, I write about whatever the experience made me think about, whether or not it’s directly related to the main content of the experience. I even ended up writing about whether museums can reach out more to unions after attending a meeting related to the MBTA (Boston’s transit system). But, something about that approach feels a little disingenuous in this situation. Perhaps it’s because white culture, on the whole, has a bad habit of taking the bits and pieces of other cultures that we like most or interest us most and focusing on them. It’s not that I thought, when putting the “explore another culture” items on the list, that I could get a representative taste of those cultures, just that I didn’t anticipate the differences between getting a little sample and writing about what I learned from it. I also don’t mean that it’s not possible to write responsibly about experiencing bits of my neighbors’ cultures -- just that it’s not a good fit for this blog, at this time. This blog is about learning journeys, and this time I’m most interested in writing about the “how do I approach this” part of the journey. 

Abundant Life, by Robert Freeman, part of the Mardi Gras Indians exhibit
at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

When I started A Catalog of Curiosity it was modeled after the bucket-list style “101 Things in 1001 Days” projects I’d seen other people do. After a while, I noticed that my readers didn’t seem to care whether I fit everything into just under three years, which meant that I felt able to do them on my own schedule. 101 things in 1001 days means about one list item every ten days, and when I was trying to fill my time post grad school, that was perfect, but now that I’ve gotten involved in a number of other projects, I’ve settled into a rhythm of about one thing a month. However, I think that trying a bunch of discrete things (*not* as vague as some of the things on my list!) is a great way to go about learning about a culture, and if a checklist helps you the way mine helps me, great. Go to that restaurant you’ve been meaning to go to. Watch that show with subtitles that mean you can’t watch it while you’re doing chores. Go to that annual festival that’s welcoming of outsiders but a bit out of your comfort zone.