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Do you mix up Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, and Uzbekistan? I do. But while Americans go about their business completely unaware of those Central Asian countries, a vibrant culture flourishes there.

Every once in a while, I make an effort to learn something about the “stans” — for example, when I read a Uzbek novel, The Railway, a few years ago. Even that I found hard to follow.

Tara Pandeya is an American dancer who decided to immerse herself in the traditional dance of Tajikistan. She writes at Dance Magazine, “Two years ago, I was touring the world as a principal dancer in Cirque du Soleil’s production of Dralion. But after 1500 shows on a five-continent and 170-city tour, I left the commercial entertainment world to reconnect with the art form I’m most passionate about: Central Asian dance.

“I have dedicated the last 18 years of my life to dance styles from the Central Asian Silk Road region. My fascination started when I was 13 and fell in love with the miniature paintings of Central Asian dancers and the Arabic calligraphic script I saw in museums. …

“Months after leaving Cirque, I moved to Tajikistan. I had planned to stay for one month but ended up staying for a whole year and dancing as the first Westerner in Lola, the state-funded Tajik National Ensemble.

“The other dancers were confused, cautious and curious about me. In the beginning, I felt like a complete outsider. I was new to their culture, food and environment, and could not speak the language. My daily routine after a full day of rehearsals was to also take a private class to better understand the nuances of the different styles and to push myself technically. The other dancers observed my dedication, and over time I earned their trust and respect. …

“Sometimes I had issues getting into high security buildings because of my American passport, so our director had to start carrying a certified paper clearing me for entrance. We toured within the country on poorly-maintained roads via a bus provided by the state.

“There were rarely enough seats for all of us, and often the men would stand for long parts of the journey so the women could sit. …

“During rehearsal one day, a local journalist noticed me and, thinking I was Tajik, invited me to participate in a televised dance competition which brought together dancers from every region of the country.

“I made it through all four rounds of cuts and amazingly, I won. … I was stopped several times on the street by strangers — the produce guy at my local grocery store said he was excited to see me dance so beautifully in a style from his culture, and hoped that if a foreigner placed so much value on their art forms that local Tajiks would learn to appreciate these forms more themselves.

“This year, I was selected by Forecast, an international mentorship platform, to have my work produced in Berlin … [It will] express the concepts of migration, otherness and gender inequality.”

That interests me — especially as what I know of Tajikistan today is that it is a harsh dictatorship and dangerous to minorities. Anything that builds understanding among ordinary people has to be a step in the right direction.

More at Dance Magazine, here.

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Photo: Amy Sterling
Amy Sterling’s guerrilla-gardening campaign means tulips will be blooming in unexpected places come spring. You could do this in your neighborhood.

Boston Globe reporter Steve Annear gets all the fun stories. Here is one that John knew at once was made for this blog. I do love public-spirited projects that people organize just for the heck of it.

“Amy Sterling had tulips on the brain,” writes Annear. “After returning from a recent trip to Amsterdam, where she served on a panel about artificial intelligence, the Cambridge resident went to a home improvement store and picked up a bag of bulbs so she could plant the spring-blooming flowers in her yard.

“When she was finished gardening, Sterling and her husband, Will, realized they had about 50 bulbs left over. In a moment of spontaneity, they decided to bury them in random places around their neighborhood near Inman Square.

“Now Sterling wants others to do likewise and participate in this act of so-called ‘guerrilla gardening.’ …

“ ‘It’s just a way to cheer people up,’ Sterling said. ‘Get outside, it’s super nice out, go plant some stuff, and then sit back and relax — and when spring comes, you can enjoy the spoils.’ …

“After burying bulbs beneath public trees in Cambridge Sunday, she posted a picture of herself, shovel in hand, to the Boston Reddit page, as a way to spread some happiness, [and] others quickly latched on to the concept. …

“Sterling started calling around to Home Depot stores in the area, asking if they’d be willing to donate to the cause. In the days since sharing her impromptu project with others online, Sterling has collected hundreds of additional bulbs, she said. …

“Sterling said she chose tulips because they’re ‘a signifier of the death throes of winter’ and require very little maintenance. You dig a hole, plop the bulb in the ground, cover it up, and then just wait, she said. …

“She has also started a Google signup sheet for the ‘Boston Tulip Takeover,’ where people can get a free bag of tulips to plant around their neighborhood.

“ ‘We need some actions to bring us together,’ she said, noting that the news has been particularly hard to swallow lately. ‘And remind us that people are generally pretty nice and want to do well for their neighbors.’ ”

More at the Boston Globe, here.

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Pretty much every job I’ve had since the early 1990s came with a free mug. One day I decided to line up my job mugs and take a picture.

The one on the far left is from a Yankee Swap at either Harte-Hanks or Charlesbridge. I can’t remember which. The second is a stand-in for Harvard Business Review. I broke my HBR mug and didn’t love the job enough to replace the free one with a paid one.

The next two are from jobs I had in Minnesota. My husband was running a company in Maple Grove, so I moved to Minneapolis for a few years.

The two mugs after Minnesota represent 15 years of my life and two small pensions. My final paid job (the cute mug with attached spoon) lasted eight months before I decided all I wanted to do now was volunteer in ESL classes for immigrants.

If you have photos of your own job mugs, I’d love to share them.

I’m laughing at myself here.

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Photo: Catskill Mountain Foundation
Catskill Mountain Foundation’s Doctorow Center for the Arts provides cultural opportunities in a rural area.

The arts are important everywhere, not just in cities. But sometimes it’s a challenge to attract to rural areas the kind of philanthropy that keeps urban cultural institutions alive.

Through the lens of a rural New York foundation, Mike Scutari of Inside Philanthropy considers the issue.

“In 1998, [Peter and Sarah Finn] founded the Hunter, New York-based Catskill Mountain Foundation, an organization committed to transforming rural communities through the arts. …

“The genesis of the CMF dates back to the early 1990s, when the Finns took over a family property in the town of Hunter. ‘The community had gone through a long decline,’ Peter said, and ‘many buildings on Main Street were for sale, and some buildings were in a serious state of disrepair and collapsing.’ …

“Peter and Sarah grew up in families that were very involved with the arts and had read stories about communities that were transformed through arts-based economic revitalization. …

“In 2018, the CMF will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Its program offerings include over 20 performances and 200 films a year, artist residencies, education programs, a piano performance museum, gallery and bookstore, and, for good measure, an operating farm.

“Its success is all the more startling when you realize that Hunter, New York has 2,732 residents.

“The problems facing rural communities are deep and complex. Yet we generally don’t see rural areas receive a proportionate amount of support from large institutional funders. … Funders, quite understandably, want the most bang for their buck, and more people live in urban areas. …

“Finn’s smaller-is-more-impactful approach flips conventional wisdom on its head: Funders can move the dial more effectively by operating in more concentrated communities. …

“[One] important form of engagement is ‘attracting others to invest in the community. Others who have invested significant amounts into the community have stated outright that they were inspired to do so by the work of the Catskill Mountain Foundation.’ …

” ‘Historically,’ Finn said, ‘the Town of Hunter was once known as a bar town. Today, it is known as a family arts community.’ ”

Read more at Inside Philanthropy, here.

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The United States still has a primarily throwaway culture and has not caught on yet to the Dutch “repair café” concept or Swedish notions about a mall for recycling.

Which is why it probably took a New American to notice that there was a need.

As Isaiah Thompson reports at WGBH radio, “It isn’t entirely clear from looking through the big windows facing Dorchester Avenue, in the Field’s Corner neighborhood, what the business is.

“The only advertising is an inauspicious plastic sandwich board reading ‘Repair Service: From $30 and Under 30 Minutes, Walk-in Welcome.’

“Inside is a large, room, with electronic equipment stacked in bins along the wall and lying in piles around the floor, and a few guys hunched over cheap plastic tables. But what they’re doing is as much a fine craft as it is hi-tech.

“They’re fixing cell phones.

“These guys don’t work for Apple or Samsung, or any manufacturers. That’s the whole point.

“ ‘I’m not officially sanctioned by the manufacturer,’ explains Quang Le, who, with his friend and business partner Minh Phan, started this scrappy repair shop in 2015.

The shop, says Le, ‘exists because there’s a need, and they don’t satisfy it.’ …

“The need he’s talking about is ubiquitous: cracked smartphone screens.

“Samsung screens can cost hundreds of dollars to replace. iPhone screens can cost an Apple customer around $150. …

“ ‘When they come to my store it’s like 80 bucks … Wouldn’t you rather go to the store down the block? we do it in like five minutes!’

“Born in Vietnam, Le came to the United States as a foreign student when he was sixteen. ..

“Where most of us see broken glass, Quang saw opportunity. …

“Le realized that by teaching himself this one, super-difficult skill: separating the broken glass from working screens — he could get an edge – and make money.

“He and his partner Phan hired some friends. They bought heavy-duty glue-warming tables from China. They built a dust-proof chamber out of metal. And they taught themselves by watching Youtube videos – and by trial and error. …

“ ‘Like, we broke so many screens – like we broke probably hundreds of them, trying to do it,’ Le chuckles.” Read more here and see what ambition Le wants to tackle next.

Hat tip: The International Institute of New England, on twitter.

Photo: Isaiah Thompson/WGBH News
Quang Le has built a business doing phone repairs the tech giants would rather not bother with.
 

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Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The museum now offers free family admission to new citizens.

The magnificent collections of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts have gotten out of reach for many people as admission on most days has escalated. So it was with great interest that I read at the MFA website about a generous program for one deserving group of people: New Americans.

“Starting July 1, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), [began welcoming] newly naturalized U.S. citizens living in Massachusetts with complimentary one-year family memberships through a new program called MFA Citizens — the first of its kind in the country. …

“Engaging new citizens is part of the MFA’s ongoing efforts to build a more inclusive community of visitors, volunteers, staff and supporters, fostering the next generation of museum-goers and professionals that reflects the region’s changing demographics. …

“New citizens can sign up for the program by showing a copy or photo of their naturalization certificates at any MFA ticket desk within one year of their ceremony.

“In addition to free admission to the MFA for one year for two adults and unlimited children (ages 17 and under), discounts on programs, shopping, parking and dining, and invitations to member events, the MFA Citizens membership includes a special in-person welcome packet in a custom-designed tote bag. Included in the packet [is] information about upcoming exhibitions and programs — available in Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole and Portuguese, the most common non-English languages spoken at home in Boston. On-site signage in these languages will also be placed at the MFA’s Huntington, Fenway, and Schools and Groups entrances to encourage enrollment. …

“The Museum will work with Project Citizenship, the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement and Boston Public Library to raise awareness of the MFA Citizens program among the approximately 25,000 immigrants who are expected to go through the naturalization process across the Commonwealth within the next year. …

“In addition to hosting ESL classes and conversation groups, Boston Public Library’s Central Library in Copley Square and 24 neighborhood branches house Immigrant Information Corners, which provide information about resources and services available to help advance the well-being of the city’s immigrant residents.”

They don’t put this initiative in terms of the current controversies swirling around immigration, but to me it feels like an institution taking a positive stand in a troubling climate. I hope it will catch on.

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Photo: Wycliffe College/PA
English school girl
Gracie Starkey wrote a winning haiku. Here she is at the prize-giving ceremony in Tokyo.

I’ve always liked the standard 17-syllable haiku poem and taught the form to fifth graders years ago. Asakiyume remembers one I wrote for her at a business magazine where we worked. It was about a dream she’d recounted, and it referred to the moon as “trending downward” (business jargon we heard a lot).

Of course, most experts are Japanese. Until now. Here is a story my husband emailed me about a young girl in England who won a haiku contest.

Steven Morris writes at the Guardian, “A British schoolgirl inspired by an autumnal stroll across a newly mown lawn has become the first non-Japanese person to win a prestigious haiku competition.

“Gracie Starkey, 14, from Gloucestershire, beat more than 18,000 entries to take the prize in the English-language section of the contest organised annually by a Japanese tea company. …

“As she and a friend took a walk after [her school’s haiku] workshop, grass cuttings stuck to her footwear and the haiku came to her:

“Freshly mown grass
“clinging to my shoes
“my muddled thoughts

“Her poem – a non-traditional form that does not follow the classic five-seven-five syllable pattern – was entered into the competition organised by the multinational Ito En, first held in 1989. For the first 27 years the English-language section was won by Japanese people. …

“Gracie said she was amazed when she heard she had won and had been invited to Tokyo.

“ ‘I could only tell my mum and dad and sister and my Japanese teacher at Wycliffe College,’ said Gracie. ‘I told my friends that I was going to Wales for a week and that I wouldn’t have any phone reception.’ …

“As well as winning the trip, Gracie’s poem was rendered by a famous calligrapher, and she received a cash prize. Most thrillingly, her poem is being reproduced on thousands of bottles of green tea. …

“Previously she had little interest in poetry. ‘This has certainly made me more interested in poetry and in Japanese culture.’ ”

More at the Guardianhere.

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