Episode 14: Decolonization and Asia


One night in Bangkok makes a hard man tremble.” Weird concept musicals by Abba members aside, Asia is a place that many in the West have a fairly Orientalist relationship with, seeing it as both exotic and primitive. In today’s episode, we explore that relationship; starting with the French “restoration” of Angkor Wat, we move on to the naming of countries and map making. Includes some digressions on CSI, lese-mageste laws, the play Cambodian Rock Band, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. If you’re not a regular reader of the notes, be sure to at least check out note 20 (around 1:10:40) for transcription of a bit that had to be cut because of recording issues.

Notes, Annotations, and Corrections

1/ Jesse: If anyone is wondering, the CSI:Miami episode is “Man Down,” season 5, episode 15 (aired in February 2007).

Em: Sir Archibald Mapsalot III.

2/ Emily: “So, Asia… uh… It’s really big.”

About Mongolia: There’s a lot of China that is farther west than Mongolia, but you could also say the same thing for a lot of South/Southeast Asia–China is very big. Technically, the US Department of State classes it as East Asia, but I don’t believe the UW-Madison Department of East Asian Languages and Literature had anything to do with it (go figure). Arguably it has more in common with a lot of Central Asia owing to having been ruled by various Steppe nomad tribes–although come to that, China was as well, and–

Anyway, enjoy this song by the premiere heavy metal band of Mongolia, the HU. [Great song!–Jesse]

3/ Anthony Reid’s Wikipedia page has a list of his publications. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce vols. I and II are the ones that I read.

4/ The lese-majeste laws in Thailand basically limit what can be said about the royal family (as well as royal development projects, the royal institution, the entire Chakri dynasty, and any previous Thai king). Every couple of years, there’s a big case of some foreigner being brought up on charges for drunkenly punching a portrait of the king or stepping on a bank note or something. Unclear how this will change under the new king (Rama X), who is not as beloved as his father was. There have been a bunch of higher profile cases recently (a lot more protests recently).

The King Never Smiles, by Paul M. Handley, was an unauthorized biography of Rama IX (Bhumibol) and did not paint him in a good light (I believe it cast some doubt on the official story of how he came to be king as well–although other biographers, including the authorized biographer William Stevenson, have also proposed weird theories and gotten their books banned as a result). If all of this sounds very mysterious, go read Ananda Mahidol’s (Rama VIII) Wikipedia page.

5/ The mysterious book about Thai prisons may have been The Damage Done by Warren Fellows, but “Thai Prison Memoirs” is an entire genre–here’s a list of several. Note that they are disturbing.

QI clip about prison. [Most of QI is hilarious. This clip is not!–Jesse]

6/ Siem Reap, Cambodia. Lovely place. Be careful not to wander through random fields and be careful going out late at night–one of the unfortunate legacies of the various wars Southeast Asia has faced (both the Viet Nam War and the Khmer Rouge takeover) is that there are unexploded mines and other ordinance in many places–I believe Cambodia has the highest ratio of amputees per capita in the world because of this.

Em’s entire shpiel about Angkor is largely drawn from Penny Edwards, Cambodge, University of Hawai’i Press, 2008. Amazon link.

French Indochina was Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Three major types of Buddhism:

  1. Mahayana Buddhism (e.g., Zen): Anyone can become enlightened through meditation.
  2. Theravada Buddhism: We will support the monks so they can become enlightened. The good karma this generates will allow us to be reborn and become monks to become enlightened.
  3. Vajrayana Buddhism (e.g., Tibetan, like the Dalai Lama): Kind of Mahayana, kind of its own thing. It’s–weird. (Like, intentionally weird stuff–a lot of esoteric rituals.)

In general, you get Mahayana Buddhism in China, the Koreas, and Japan; Theravada Buddhism in mainland SE Asia + Sri Lanka; and Vajrayana Buddhsim in Tibet and its mountainous border regions (Northern India, Nepal, Bhutan), and also in Mongolia, Tuva, and parts of Western China (the Steppes, including, oddly enough, Kalmykia–a Russian federal subject with the population of Madison that is the only place in Europe where Buddhism is the most-practiced religion).

7/ Columbusing: Discovering Things for White People. [Reverse Columbusing is usually just assimilation. 🙁 –Jesse]

Old joke: What did Watson and Crick discover?
Answer: Rosalind Franklin’s research notes. [Love this, glad we could use it here!–Jesse]

8/ “There were Khmer people living in Cambodia…” Worth noting, though Em explains a bit later on that Siem Reap was not part of Cambodia when Mouhout found it, that the capital had been moved from Siem Reap to Oudong (not directly–it moved all over the place), possibly as a result of the war with Thailand that led to Cambodia losing the Siem Reap area in the first place. In 1865, the capital was moved again to Phnom Penh, where it remains to this day.

9/ For more on icons, see episode 10.

10/ The whole Khmer Rouge situation was way more complex than can be summarized here. (And I [Em] didn’t really want to talk about it in the episode, because there’s a TON of legit history in Cambodia, and not everything has to be about the KR.) But I think we talked about it enough that I should provide a few resources…I am trying to think of how I learned about it…and the answer is really when I visited the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) in Cambodia, that was sort of when I started to find out about it (there was a bar that showed a documentary that I wound up watching too, and the next day I think I went to Tuol Sleng–there are a lot of really well-documented sites in Phnom Penh). But since flying to Phnom Penh is not a great option at the moment, you might want to check out this virtual exhibit by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The cliff notes version is something like:

  • The Khmer Rouge were a radical Communist/Marxist group that took over Cambodia in 1975 and held power until 1979. Saloth Sar, alias Pol Pot, was its leader.
  • Unlike other Communist groups in the region (like the North Vietnamese), the KR had this weird ideology that focused on the rural peasantry and a rejection of technology/intellectualism.
  • The KR was a brutal regime that singled out and killed intellectuals, city residents, religious practitioners (of any religion, I believe), and Cham and Vietnamese minorities. Even wearing glasses was enough to get you sent to one of their prisons, where you would be interrogated, tortured, and killed.
  • In 1979, the Vietnamese government got tired of Cambodian incursions into Vietnam and launched an attack, eventually toppling the regime. Although foreign journalists had been writing about the situation well before that (see, for example, the film The Killing Fields), the international community did nothing, and some intellectuals (like Noam Chomsky) actually denounced refugees, saying they were anti-Communist and therefore clearly lying about their experiences.
  • The KR were largely never brought to justice–Saloth Sar died in 1998, having been imprisoned on house arrest for about nine months, and many KR members continued to serve in the government of Cambodia for a long time. However, relatively recently a few of the surviving members of the regime were convicted by a UN tribunal. Part of the problem was apparently finding a definition of genocide that would include most of the people Cambodia killed (about one to three million people in all, about a fifth of the population of the country), but exclude “the killing of a specific class of people,” which would also have implicated Stalin (and thus made Russia–part of the international court–angry). My former colleague Dr. Michelle Caswell has written a lot about the KR, record keeping, and archiving–I suggest checking out her works.
  • Because a lot of Cambodians don’t like the Vietnamese much, there are still a lot of sympathies in the country for the KR–their legacy has been very politicized and the atrocities (somewhat) forgotten. Which is a weird and terrifying sentence to write. Also I met a woman who was with the Vietnamese army when they rolled in (I think everyone was required to serve–I don’t remember what her position was) and she mentioned how she would always remember the smell in Phnom Penh when they arrived…
  • Sorry, that got dark. Anyway, Cambodia is a nice place to visit now.

Jesse: We can all agree that the definition of genocide should have included Stalin, and that is all I have to say about Russia at the moment.

11/ Lauren Yee, Cambodian Rock Band. The play premiered at South Coast Rep, and the main actor Jesse is discussing is Joe Ngo. Check out this essay he wrote for TheaterMania about how his parents’ stories as survivors of the KR became integral to the play!

Also check out the music of Dengue Fever. This is the one you have possibly heard before if you are into Welcome to Night Vale. But they have a ton of other songs up on YouTube–just be sure to search for “Dengue Fever Band.” [Here’s a Spotify link to the Signature Theatre cast album of Cambodian Rock Band. Their album is also available to buy.–Jesse]

12/ Per the name of Thailand/Siam: Thailand was always known as “muang Thai” to the people who lived there (“muang” means city, but also state! Tricky). The name Siam seems to have a disputed source–possibly Pali, Sanskrit, Mon, or from the Chinese “Xian” (which, so the theory goes, would have been pronounced Shi-an and turned into Siam by Portugese traders). Anyway, “Siam” was the official name from around the time of King Mongkut (Rama IV, ruled during the 1850s-60s) until 1939, and then briefly again from 1946-48.

Officially, the US refers to the country-formerly-known-as-Burma as Burma. The UN uses Myanmar. Both names are related to the majority ethnic group (Barmar), one being a more literary form and one more colloquial. The country’s post-colonial government adopted the name “Myanmar” in 1989 as part of a project to kick British colonial romanizations/spellings out of English.

Jesse: Check out Guy Delisle’s work! Here’s the Burma Chronicles link.

13/ Otzi: the oldest known mummy found in Europe (i.e., the one from longest ago, not the actual oldest at time of death).

14/ I’m not going to link to all the various disputes we mention. The biggest things to remember about borders are: they are always porus; things flow across them, in part because ethnic/tribal/etc. groups tend to extend across them; China has a lot of border disputes.

15/ Les Blancs, by Lorraine Hansbury. Fun fact: Lorraine Hansbury attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. [Yay!!!!–Jesse]

16/ [58ish] Actually, it’s “54°40′[N] or fight.” Incidentally, that is not where the border between the US and Canada wound up, which is more like 49° N (except for Vancouver Island). Also, in the 1840s, Canada was really the British Empire, so it’s not like we were going to fight Canada–we were going to re-litigate the revolution. (Although: that distinction doesn’t prevent (modern day) Canada from claiming credit for burning down the White House during the War of 1812 (different war than referenced in the 1812 overture, but still a good one). [Yes! Same War of 1812 referenced in this song, which is what the Candian version is based on. –Jesse]

17/ McGirt v. Oklahoma is the case.

Jesse: Our poet laureate is Joy Harjo.

18/ Map from June 2016.
Maybe from August 2019.

Jesse: Notice how empty the eastern US is…Trail of Tears, other forced migrations, and so much genocide.

More on map projections here and here.

London Underground map.

Also, true story: the DLR (“docklands light rail”) is on the same map (this is how you would get to Canary Wharf, to give a landmark you may have heard of), but if you’re at King’s Cross St Pancras, there’s no one who will tell you that you can actually change from the Jubilee line to the DLR. Em is apparently carrying a lot of unresolved bitterness about the London Underground. But she does love the Parisian Metro. It’s all about finding a language you understand. [I just want to reiterate how much I love subways and all trains and they are the BEST.–Jesse]

The London Underground is not a political movement.

Map of New York’s subways and burroughs. If you look at Central Park in Manhattan, you’ll see how wonky (“stylized”) the map is.

19/ Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, University of Hawai’i Press, 1997. Amazon link. I think he is now professor emeritus.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1983. Amazon link (to revised ed.). Another classic by a scholar of Southeast Asia (although with a bit more broad application).

20/ At 1:10:40ish, we had a recording issue. Here is a transcription of what Dr. Jesse said:

…and so the maps that the navigator had created and learned showed the swells of the oceans. Right? Because islands have swells. And so you could tell when you were lying in the bottom of the boat, specifically [there were] four different swells and you could tell where you were in the island chain by the swells. Of course, European navigators mostly used the surface of the ocean, and didn’t have landmarks outside of islands. The idea that the swells themselves are landmarks is a sort of wonderful point. And something that it took Europeans a while to realize that this was the way they were navigating. And it’s also, of course, why people from the Pacific islands, those types of navigation are how they manage to travel from island to island and also manage to get to places like California and stuff. You have a sort of ability to recognize features that aren’t on most maps, but are there and recognizable nevertheless. Or if you think of something like an electrocardiogram, right? That’s a map, right?

[I know I have to stop saying “right” so much! I can’t help it–it’s a great way to get students to nod at you to show that they’re paying attention.–Jesse]

Sorry for the remaining buzz I was unable to remove.

21/ See Abel Buell’s 1784 map (with giant states of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia) here and read up on it and him here.

Compare Buell’s 1784 map to the 1721 Catawba map sent to Francis Nicholson, the royal governor of South Carolina.

Yinka Shonibare. See also episode 11 note 21.

Here is the Hereford Mappa Mundi (World Map).

Here’s a video on Shonibare’s project on the world map.

Here are some articles about Shoibare’s project with good pictures and comments: Article 1, article 2.

22/ T and O Map.

23/ Czechoslovakia, for the young ones in the audience, existed from 1918 to 1993. Subsequently it became the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The USSR ended in 1991.

The story about the fall of the Berlin Wall being reported while I was in the back seat of my mom’s station wagon on I-90 outside of Chicago (I feel like we were stuck in rush hour traffic (probably near O’Hare) and maybe going through one of those awesome Midwestern thunderstorms) is true as far as I remember. Official demolition of the wall began in June of 1990, so I think that is when we had the conversation, rather than when the Brandenburg Gate officially opened in 1989 or when demolition was completed in November of 1990.

The fact that she was upset says a lot about what being Jewish was like in the US after WWII. For more on this, read Maus. [READ MAUS. Just…read it.–Jesse]

Episode 13: Decolonizing Africa


In the words of the great philosopher Toto, “I bless the RAINS down in AFRICA.” [This song plays every year at the Saturday night dance at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, otherwise known as Kalamazoo. Very medieval. –Jesse]

We explore Africa from a decolonizing viewpoint, including words of wisdom from deceased UW–Madison professor Dr. Harold Scheub, an interesting conversation about the Crusader or Shah ‘Abbas Bible, and the traditions of Ethiopian Christianity, and a few digressions about Mt. Rushmore, trans people and film, the movies Coming to America and The Last Samurai, and some discussion of the spread of religions and Jewish genetics.

Notes, Annotations, and Corrections

1/ The creation of global trade routes and a global system of economics is a major theme of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which covers approximately 1649–1715.

2/ The Chinese did “discover” America in 1421. Allegedly. According to a book by a British man who had no particular training in history and, in fact, not even a bachelor’s degree; also the book was allegedly worked on by over 130 ghost writers and no one fact-checked it. SO, uh. Probably not. Incidentally, the explorer given the honor of discovering the US was Zheng He, who I think we mentioned in another episode–he was a Muslim eunuch, explorer, and diplomat who became an important figure at the court of the Yongle Emperor.

3/ Various pipeline projects have been cancelled. Sort of. [Yeah, the US Court of Appeals already set aside the verdict of the lower court and said the Dakota Access Pipeline can keep running while the court battle rages on. –Jesse]

4/ The guy who carved (part of) Mt Rushmore (he died) and (a non-surviving part of) the monument to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy (he was kicked off the project and his work blasted off the mountain; this is the monument we mention carved on Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, GA) was Gutzon Borglum. (The LCotC bas relief DOES feature Traveler, in case you have been keeping track, along with the horses of Jefferson Davis (Blackjack) and Stonewall Jackson (Little Sorrel). Neither of the other two horses is cool enough to have their own Wikipedia page though.) Borglum was an odd duck–he was a child of Mormon polygamist immigrants, Freemason, and if not an actual Klan member then someone who was deeply involved in Klan politics. He also carved a bust of Abraham Lincoln from a six-ton block of marble, won a prize for carving Union General Philip Sheridan (one version stands in Washington DC, one in Chicago), and did another statue of progressive IL governor John Peter Altgeld. His son, who took over Mt Rushmore after his death, was named Lincoln.

5/ Netflix documentary: Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen. Apparently 80% of Americans don’t know any trans people. That’s so crazy. Apparently I know a lot more trans people than average. [I’m not giving links to D.W. Grifith, but definitely look him up if you want to. More importantly, look up Susan Stryker. She has great books; check them out at your favorite local library or bookstore.–Jesse]

6/ The Nazi anatomy text was Topographische Anatomie des Menschen by Eduard Pernkopf.

The remark about how white supremacy is the playing field we all stand on was something Fran Lebowitz (a writer who exists primarily to occasionally be interviewed by the New Yorker, as far as I can tell) said (in an interview with Vanity Fair). It was something she said in 1997. Actual quote:

The way to approach it, I think, is not to ask, “What would it be like to be black?” but to seriously consider what it is like to be white. That’s something white people almost never think about. And what it is like to be white is not to say, “We have to level the playing field,” but to acknowledge that not only do white people own the playing field but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with. White people are the playing field. The advantage of being white is so extreme, so overwhelming, so immense, that to use the word “advantage” at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that simply does not exist.

Judith of Bethulia.

I don’t know where the idea I had that Jefferson had many children with enslaved Black women came from–we know that he had six with Sally Hemings (who was actually his deceased wife’s half sister. Four of the children survived to adulthood and were freed; the youngest, Eston Hemings, brought his family here to Madison, WI, where he changed his last name to Jefferson and lived as part of the White community and is buried here). Anyway, you can read The Memoirs of Madison Hemings here, and see the reflections of some of his living descendents here. The Madison Hemings piece suggests that he didn’t have children with other Black women that MH was aware of. [As far as I know, Sally Hemings is the only enslaved woman who people know Jefferson raped. (She was a slave and didn’t have the power of consent, although their “relationship” may have started in France, where she was technically free. Why didn’t she stay in France? No one really knows.) That being said, I agree emphatically with Em here because there’s no reason that I know of to be sure that Jefferson didn’t rape any other enslaved women, even if he didn’t have children with them. Assuming that he didn’t is a way of making his “relationship” with Hemings seem more legitimate.–Jesse]

7/ The story that Jesse tells about our mutual great grandfather is, as far as I know, absolutely true. He entered the US via Rotterdam (having traveled with one suitcase, leaving the rest of his belongings behind) in September of 1904, married the woman from the ship in 1910, and became a naturalized citizen in 1917, according to the notes I have. (Also, he spoke seven languages, which makes me wonder if that’s where Jesse and I get it from.)

8/ Harold Scheub obit. The Angelina Jolie film was probably The Good Shepherd, which was not entirely set in Africa but included some scenes set in the Congo (with, probably, no or few actual Africans in them, or at least none with speaking parts). On the other hand, Blood Diamond is more of a White savior thing.

Weirdly, I (Em) was living in Viet Nam when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt adopted a kid from there (renamed Pax Thien). For whatever reason, the Vietnamese people I spoke to at the time were big fans of hers because of this. Also one time, a businessman on an airplane (flying from HCMC to Laos, I think) asked me what I thought of her and then gave me a lengthy lecture about having kids before  my eggs dried up (I was 24?). Luckily it was in Vietnamese, so I only understood about half of it.

This is the attack in Nairobi, Kenya I mentioned.

This article has a good collection of African book covers.

9/ Eclipsed, by Danai Gurira.

Eddie Murphy: Coming to America. Also he apparently flew to the US on the CONCORD. Because it was 1988 and he was classy AF.

You’ve already seen it, but here’s the trailer for Black Panther. In ten years they will remake this with Michael B. Jordan’s character as the hero. [Well, he kind of already is. The problem is that his desire to pillage and destroy Wakanda to make up for colonialism isn’t the answer either. Luckily, Black Panther learns a lot from Killmonger.–Jesse]

Key and Peele were amazing. For example. (This sketch has nothing to do with anything except it’s amazing. No one even has any lines until 3:30 into a 3:40 sketch.) [This sketch is amazing no matter what, but I think it reaches new heights if you grew up during the 80s. Just sayin.–Jesse]

10/ Hidden Figures. Kevin Costner’s character was named Al Harrison. Also, apparently in real life Katherine Johnson just refused to walk all the way to the other bathroom and used the White one, which is a much less dramatic solution.

11/ Bus Stop, by Gao Xingjian. Its initial run was apparently shut down by a holdover from the Cultural Revolution. Wow.

12/ I don’t really remember the plot of The Last Samurai except that a guy hit Tom Cruise in the head with a stick a bunch. Oh, also it turns out that the old phrase, “He who lives by the sword dies by he who lives by the Gatling gun” is true in many situations. One thing I will say about it as a film is that all the Japanese characters appear to have been played by actual Japanese people, which is…often not the case in Hollywood films (Memoirs of a Geisha, I’m looking at you).

13/ The Crusader or Shah ‘Abbas Bible.

St. Louis, aka King Louis IX of France. He led two crusades and, during the second, died of dysentery. Most interestingly, he exchanged letters and eventually sent an envoy to the Mongols. Sainte Chapelle is an amazing chapel.

Judeo-Persian is a bit similar to Ladino (Jewish Spanish) and Yiddish (Jewish German)–syncretic languages typically spoken by Jewish communities in a given area. In this case, Judeo-Persian is a literary form of New Persian with some Jewish idiosyncrasies, and also it is typically written in Hebrew characters (as it is in the Shah ‘Abbas Bible). (There were many more spoken dialects in this region, often referred to as Judeo-Iranian.)

14/ Christianity was adopted in Ethiopia during the fourth century CE (converted by a missionary name Frumentius). By that time, enough people were practicing Judaism that they rebelled when the king tried to change the kingdom’s religion.

The Kebra Nagast is a 14th century Ge’ez epic written by Is’haq Nebura-Id of Axum.

The Ark of the Covenant is claimed to be held by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (an Episcopal Church–sorry, Dan Brown) in Axum. They don’t really show it to people, sorry.

15/ Okay, this discussion about Judaism in Ethiopia and how it was interesting to come to terms with the idea that Judaism was originally not primarily a White religion, begins with me (Em) mentioning something I saw a former classmate of mine post on FB. Since we taped this episode, I’ve become aware that the quote is weirdly similar to some statements made by some anti-Semitic people (Nick Cannon among them) in the media lately. Obviously, the idea that Black people can’t be anti-Semitic because they’re the “original Hebrews” is problematic, and I believe some of the conspiracy theories go on to suggest much worse things. This makes me pretty uncomfortable; I definitely don’t want anyone to point to our podcast as evidence that Jews subscribe to these destructive beliefs, but I thought the discussion of genetics and race was useful, so I kept that in. For the record, I don’t believe the person I saw posting this actually believes all of this (“this” meaning the anti-Semitic stuff).

Anyway, I just wanted to say that as a disclaimer. And this.

Jesse: I love Dave Chappelle! To be fair though, Nick Cannon apologized and may have meant it (he’s been talking to a rabbi, and apparently his grandfather on his mother’s side was a Sephardic rabbi, which Cannon acknowledged he did not want to use as an excuse). Better yet, here’s the ever-incredible Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s take on recent events.

The anti-Semitic rhetoric in question stems from the Nation of Islam, which is an important and influential African American organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Nation of Islam as a hate group due to the “deeply racist, antisemitic and anti-gay rhetoric of its leaders, including top minister Louis Farrakhan.” This is the rhetoric that Cannon and others have recently been popularizing. Be warned: if you click on the SPLC link you will see some truly horrific quotes.