what it means to be a “foreigner"
In class we discussed the idea of what it means to be a “barbarian” and how the term, in ancient times, was used to denote “a foreigner” or “non-Greek speaking” individual—in contrast to its modern (negative) connotation. Actor Gary Cooper’s slightly offended reaction to King Kublai Kaan identifying him as a “barbarian” in the clip we watched in class from “The Adventures of Marco Polo” epitomizes, for me, the perversion of the term.
And yet, while Marco Polo might have appeared to be the “barbarian” or “foreigner” in the context of his surroundings, it is apparent through the documentation of his travels that he absorbed the variety of people he met on his journey with an equally critical eye—put simply, to him, they were the “barbarians”.
Polo speaks of the citizens of the “Lesser” Hermenia as “poor creatures, and good at nought, unless it be at boozing,” the Turcomans as “a rude people with an uncouth language of their own,” and the natives of Tauris (worshippers of Mahommet) as “a very evil generation”. His Christian bias is rather obvious, as well, in his criticism of the shortcomings in the practice of the “Christians” with whom he comes into contact.
What I found most interesting, however, on the topic of what it means to be a “foreigner” and what/who we classify as “foreign,” was Marco Polo’s interpretation of “Orientalism” (assuming he did, in fact, reach China, which is apparently a debated issue in and of itself). In contrast to the more negative depictions of foreigners in foreign lands previously mentioned, Marco Polo appeared to withhold the utmost respect for The Great Kaan and his prosperous kingdom. In the words of Marco Polo, he was “The wisest and most accomplished man, the greatest Captain, the best to govern men and rule an Empire.” Polo details the organization of his city “like a chessboard” with its gates, palaces, straight and wide streets and the particular order in which they treat their foreigners—assigning them barons and servants to ensure they are well-cared for, but do not step upon the threshold went entering. Polo is fascinated with the cultural wealth of the kingdom (in addition to the gold and silk). He details passages concerning their festivities—the Kaan’s birthday, New Years, hunting/gaming ceremonies, etc.
While reading Marco Polo’s account of the East, I could not help but consider the modern conception of Orientalism and how our way of thinking differs so drastically (even today) from the East (China in particular). Thus, I decided to include in this blog post, although it supposed to be the more acadamic analysis of the text, a link to this Ted Talk I watched last week by Martin Jacques
. It discusses the issue of China’s emerging power and how we (in the West) will be unsuccessful in coping with the economic changes due to our inability to relate to this “foreign” ideology and the history behind it.