Asia Through the Eyes of Michael Yamashita

2007 introduced me to the works of Peter Hessler. His invaluable work on River Town and Oracle Bones were powerful narratives of a foreigner writing in China. The country transformed him. His books cut a deep swath into the private Chinese space which is almost often too subsumed into their public Confucian ethic. The insights and experience he share will transform how we see the Middle Kingdom itself.

I am fascinated by the east meets west dynamic. Not only is it a crucial component of this century’s zeitgeist, but it resonates deeply in my life and identity as a Filipino raised in the style and slant of the west. Throughout the years I’ve gone out to reclaim my Asian identity. It is a complex process however; the Filipino identity itself is neither here nor there — neither Asian nor western. Much social deconstruction and personal reconstruction have to be done for me to know who I am as an Asian (which in itself is already a troublesome construct).

People such as Peter Hessler, and now Michael Yamashita, seem to have perfected that project. Speaking specifically of the latter now, Yamashita is a Japanese American with a passion for photography and travel. He has married those two passions together into what I consider the dream job: a writer, teacher and photographer for National Geographic on the Asia beat.

Michael Yamashita at the Great Wall of China

He first got my attention in the documentary on Zheng He I’ve reviewed previously. I appreciated his depth, curiousity and insight as he traveled from Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and ultimately to the east coast of Africa. However, my focus was still very much on the narrative of Zheng He. Then a colleague lent me a copy of his documentary on Marco Polo and with that, Yamashita won me over. My focus was no longer on the story of Marco but on Yamashita himself. I was simply in awe with how he cut cross Venice, Central Asia and into the legendary Mongol capital of Xanadu. I wanted to be where he was, talk to the people he were with, and breathe in the sights and sounds of the towns he toured. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a thousand pictures paint a single world. This photographer drew me into the world he captured. Outstanding.

All of the following images are from MichaelYamashita.com

The not so great wall. An eroded Han Wall stands out against the backdrop of the Qilian Mountains
The not so great wall. An eroded Han Wall stands out against the backdrop of the Qilian Mountains
A caravan of camels passes through the Sands that Sing, in the desert of Taklimakan, China.
A caravan of camels passes through the 'Sands that Sing,' in the desert of Taklimakan, China.
A large torii, entrance gate, frames a snowy scene at the Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, Japan.
A large torii, entrance gate, frames a snowy scene at the Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, Japan.

I have promised myself to get three of his photo books this coming holiday season. They’re all in my Amazon wish list: Zheng He, Marco Polo, and the Great Wall. There is also one on Japan and another on the Mekong river. I may get those if the budget allows.

On a more general note, I’ve noticed my growing interest in Central Asia lately. I’ve be reading more into the Silk Road and I’m looking at it from the over-all context of trade and exchange throughout Asia (thus Zheng He is also another favorite). My take-off point is still China, but I’m also slowly moving into the Persian empire as a starting point. I imagine that I’ll be crossing over to the Hellenistic world soon so don’t be surprised if I teach world history eventually. Come to think of it, teaching two Asian History classes and two World History classes would be awesome. Talk about crossover potential!

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