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Crossing the Globe: When Vernacular and Transnational Mix

By Lindsay Kuhlmann

 Semester at Sea is a voyage around the world. While traditional classes are taken by students, it is the non-traditional learning methods that have taught me the most during this voyage. In class, Professor Koptiuch taught us to see the differences between vernacular (traditional) and transnational (global) worlds. Visually we were able to see videos of global cities around the world. The class saw the difference in architecture, people, and scenery in these videos and read articles of current issues affecting the cities. When the ship would dock in the cities that we had studied there was a sense of preparation. Soon, however, we would find that the learning had just begun.

      cowcar      All the videos in class could not prepare us for the personality of the cities that smacked us in the face in each port. While exploring the cities, students saw familiar buildings and sites. This was thanks to the educational videos we watched in class. Yet entering the cities that we studied was like taking a trip to space after studying the planets. Nothing can compare. We were able to see modern day Cairo where ancient pyramids shared the skyline with modern sky-rise apartments. Vietnam was once a place we learned about when studying the Vietnam War but now it had become a place where we saw the vernacular mixing with the transnational. We started to see examples of the issues affecting global cities, like gated communities, run-down apartment buildings due to lack of housing, and the accumulation of slums. The sights we saw burned images into our minds. How can we forget Yangon, Burma, where McDonald’s and Burger King had not yet arrived, which was one of the only places we visited where this was true. dragon

            One of the most important differences we saw traveling around the world was the transition from Asia to Europe. Buddhist temples slowly began to be replaced by church steeples and the prayer calls of mosques. Shaved heads became covered heads. Personally, the two countries that I found the most fascinating were China and Spain. Both were modern in their own way and both had their own vernacular particularities. It was amazing to see the global similarities mixed in with the vernacular differences.

            The object of this project will be to show the reader these two countries through my eyes and point out the vernacular and transnational differences between Spain and China. By the end the reader should be questioning whether there truly is a vernacular when a country is considered transnational.

First read my  discussions of the two countries by clicking on the links here, and then read my analysis below:    

China Article: Same Country, Two Different Worlds
Spain Article: Vernacular in a Transnational World


When questioning whether a country can still maintain some of its truly vernacular elements when it has come to be considered transnational I do not mean to say that Spain and China have become exactly the same country. They do maintain their differences based on their vernacular pasts but rather these vernacular pasts have shifted meanings due to their transnational status. In order to illustrate my point further I’d like to use the example of another Asian country, Burma.

 burma           Burma, to me, is closer to a vernacular country than any of the other Asian countries we visited. Due to the fact that Burma has in power a military regime that has “aggressively transformed the capital city in line with strategic, commercial and ideological goals" (Seekins, pg 258) the cities' only new buildings are giant hotels owned by the government. These new hotels symbolized a transnational world in a vernacular state. They have every amenity a rich foreign traveler could ask for but nothing a Burmese citizen would. The Burmese seemed unaffected by the commercialism that comes with a transnational world and rather seemed very content with their daily lives. Visiting Inlay Lake, my friends and I arrived during one of the yearly boat festivals. Unlike Spain where the Flamenco dancers perform night after night for tourists, the people observing the boat races included only about ten tourists and the rest were Burmese. The organizers of the boat races didn’t care if we knew what was going on, they were there for the villagers competing in the races. This was much different than other experiences I had in more transnationalized countries that have made their traditions something for tourists to see rather than for their own people. 

g-lin Even in China, the traditional village that I visited seemed aimed at tourists. While I am sure there that these villages did function solely for the people living in them at one point, due to the transnational influence on the vernacular these village traditions have transformed over time. Dances and songs that were once only sung on special occasions are now sung multiple times every day for tourists. Every vernacular aspect in the village had somehow been touched and changed by the transnational.


Next time that you are traveling and witnessing the “vernacular” ask yourself if what you are watching or participating in is being aimed at the citizens of a country or at the other tourists. The vernacular traditions are what separates one country from another, whereas the transnational is the common thread that makes this world all that much smaller. Spain and China both have their differences based on their vernacular pasts but the more their cultures become transnationalized the more their similarities grow.  

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