Christopher Han

Breaking Through

I’m back in Los Angeles now, and as I reflect on my time in Louisiana, I ask: how am I different than I was at the start of the trip?

There are simple answers to this question. I am 21 now (woo!); my face feels a lot cleaner (something about the humidity opening up pores? I’m not entirely sure how that happened); I know what creole/cajun food tastes like; I have experienced the glory of a Cafe Du Monde beignet; I now know the streets of the French Quarter better than my hometown’s; I can read a whole lot faster than the beginning of this trip; and my heart is definitely a few years closer to a heart attack (note to self: daily fried food is a no-go). In a few years, I may look back on my time in New Orleans and remember these things, but I do not think these memories are necessarily “life changing.” Yes, eating a beignet was wonderful! Its pillowy center, encapsulated by a crispy deep-fried crust, topped with a mountain of powdered sugar, was quite an incredible flavor impression, but will it affect the way I see the world? Definitely not.

Andrew sent our group this quote at the beginning of the trip regarding travel:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
— Mark Twain

I love food, so when I travel, I look for the best food that the place has to offer. From the fanciest of restaurants to the ghettoist of street shacks, I want to try everything. I am especially interested in region-specific, cultural foods that will be hard to find in LA. The search for food has led me to uncomfortable places and types of food I would rather not have again, but the marvelous palate explosions of a hit far outweigh the few memories of repulsion. This process of immersive discovery applies to much more than food, and I think this is what Mark Twain is talking about in his quote.

Google translates travel as:

making a journey, typically of some length or abroad.

It would be dangerous and foolish to assume that this “travel,” on its own, will combat species-old powers such as “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Twain must be under the impression that travel is more than arriving at a new location and moving your body through that place just to say you’ve been there, for one could travel through the heart of Los Angeles, down Figueroa St., and be oblivious to the wonderful Korean, Mexican, Chinese, and all other wonderful types of cuisine that LA has to offer.

It has become much easier to miss things. You can travel to a new place and find stuff that makes you feel at home, and it’s easier to gravitate towards things that you are familiar with. I admit to this; whenever I go to a new place, I usually have to find some sort of rice dish because rice reminds me of home (Maybe that’s why I gravitated so closely to rice and beans, a.k.a my favorite creole dish). Twain isn’t talking about going to a place and finding a nook that reminds you of the “little corner” you left behind. Instead, he glorifies travel because it is the very opportunity to escape that tendency and discover a world that is literally out of your own.

Prior to this trip, bookpacking was a new concept for me. In fact, even reading literature felt pretty foreign. (As a student in the Iovine and Young Academy, I spend most of my time with software, discussing design, and trying to create innovative products. Not much time for books.) I was a bit apprehensive of letting the books be my guide. Would the whole thing be some cheesy literature tour? How much could a book really reveal about a place? Would I miss things in Louisiana if the books led us astray? Though I cannot give a definitive answer to these questions, I do know that bookpacking has given me the opportunity to travel as Mark Twain would have. In the same way immersive discovery through food has developed my appreciation for a diverse flavor profile, immersion in literature has developed my appreciation for diversity in history and ideology and literary culture. Bookpacking has led me down roads that have been ideologically uncomfortable, challenging my own prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. The books held nothing back. They were what they were, unchanging pillars that influenced the way I mentally pieced together the puzzle of Louisiana. As we read through each book and experienced the reality of the various cities, I began to see a clearer picture of Louisiana and Cajun/Creole culture; and in turn, I began to see a more complete image of the South and the United States. Literature in New Orleans has brought up new questions and has revealed new material I never heard in a classroom before. I definitely felt away from home, and that was good.

The return home has corresponded with the return of responsibilities. Those stresses I left behind—school projects, job search, planning for next year, and cleaning my room—they’re still here, and they’re still challenging to manage and figure out. Yet, my frame of mind approaching these small puzzles of life is different than before. The world feels a lot bigger now, and my personal decisions feel a lot smaller. And this is not just a physical reality I refer to; the world of literature adds a separate dimension. What I realized is that people have told stories about the routine of life for centuries. There is a parallel struggle of characters and people to make something new of the monotonous nature of their societies. That routine carries on today, and I am faced with this same “problem” that the characters and people of the past faced. Different cultures have tackled this obstacle in various ways. For the Big Easy, the posture is: routine life is stifling and demoralizing, so I’m going to do it my own way.

I hope that I can embrace that mindset for a long time.

Seeing Like Ignatius

The first time I saw a hot dog cart in the French Quarter, I embraced my English nerdiness and exclaimed to everyone, "Oooo Oooo. Confederacy of Dunces! Ignatius! Let's get one!" Though my request was returned with quick disregard, this moment sums up my experience bookpacking with A Confederacy of Dunces. Simple, yet sublime, connections between my reality and the novel's fantasy.

The author, John Kennedy Toole, fills the novel with constant references to real streets and areas of New Orleans, so when I first read the book in Southern California, I couldn't quite envision the world Ignatius, the main character, moved through. The places were insignificant to me, and names such as Canal St. and the Quarter were just empty signifiers. However, this all changed when I arrived in the city and began to see the same streets that Toole refers to in Ignatius's story. As I became more familiar with the structure of New Orleans (the street organization, the public transportation, the culture of different parts of the city), I began to piece together Ignatius's world. Things that seemed insignificant during the first read became immensely meaningful. I saw the hipster/la-di-da culture of the artists on Pirate's Alley, the hustle and bustle on Canal Street, the party life on Bourbon, and the plethora of people in costumes. And as I began to see the Ignatius's world, I began to empathize with his world view. While reading his controversial comments in So Cal, I thought Ignatius was simply a pretentious complainer; it was quite amusing. However, upon experiencing particular parts of New Orleans's culture, I was able to understand and sometimes even sympathize with Ignatius's thoughts. Here are some of the places I connected with Ignatius's account:

Ignatius and Me.

Ignatius and Me.

Bourbon Street

"I guessed that the residents of the area were still in bed recovering from whatever indecent acts they had been performing the night before. Many no doubt required medical attention: a stitch or two here and there in a torn orifice or a broken genital. I could only imagine how many haggard and depraved eyes were regarding me hungrily from behind the closed shutters" (230).

Technically, it is unclear whether or not Ignatius is specifically referring to Bourbon Street here, but the combination of balconies and flying cans fits the bill pretty well. Throughout the novel, it is described as quite the rager with a high stripper population, but those characteristics didn't stand out to me too much. I was actually unfamiliar with Bourbon St's reputation prior to seeing the place, and I imagined a world similar to the Las Vegas strip. Upon arrival, I soon came to the conclusion that Toole accurately characterized the street as a haven for debauchery. A festoon of dance clubs, bars, and anything else related to liquor, Bourbon is definitely one of those places where inside secrets/stories are created. Upon walking within one block of the street, the scent of trash and overnight puke overtake the senses. T-shirts donning sexual innuendos and Mardi Gras beads with phallic emblems can be found at every convenience store. The graphic content of the street was quite unsettling, and I did not feel comfortable taking pictures of the artifacts for this blog.

I honestly felt a similar disdain and discomfort as Ignatius while walking down the street. Booze and drunkenness do not draw my interest, and from the moment of first scent I wanted nothing to do with the street.

Because New Orleans has so much alcohol and cigarettes and other "vices" readily available, the city must have a large impact on the development of teenagers' opinions regarding these entities. I feel like the lifestyle would lead people down one of two paths: a lover of these things or a hater of these things. Ignatius's disdain towards alcohol must come from a constant exposure and a corresponding repulsion to the intense party scene of places like Bourbon. And after walking down the street a couple of times, I can say that I share Ignatius's opinion of this place.

Pirate's Alley

"He had read in the morning paper that a ladies' art guild was having a hanging of its paintings in Pirate's Alley. Imagining that the paintings would be offensive enough to interest him for a while, he pushed his wagon up onto the flagstones of the alley toward the variety of artwork dangling from the iron pickets of the fence behind the cathedral…[He] viewed the oil paintings and pastels and watercolors strung there. Although the style of each varied in crudity, the subjects of the paintings were relatively similar" (243).

There is an interesting "artsy" culture in New Orleans. Now, I am not referring to the "starving street artists" who look like their livelihood depends on how many paintings they can sell in a day. Instead, I am referring to a group of people who come to the streets, looking very clean cut and hip. They paint and draw and write and play music in the streets, yet their outward appearances give the impression that their livelihood is independent of how much artwork they can sell. This second breed of artists are the people who work at the corner of Pirate's Alley and Royal Street. Just like the women in the novel, artists hang their work on the cathedral's fence, and each artist's work is distinct from the others.

New Orleans is a historically artistic city, filled with wonderful music and literature and art. But these hipster artists and the city seem to be disconnected. Although the ambiance of this part of NOLA is not as bougie as the women's club in Ignatius's story, these hipster artists differ from the demographic of the other street activities. Coming from LA, I thought this part of the Quarter was pretty cool. In fact, some of our teammates even got personal street poems (How bougie/artsy is that??). I thought it was all very fun and very cool that this place had such fine artistic roots. But I can easily see how someone like Ignatius would criticize these people. They must be people like Edna, frustrated by the routine of their upper-middle class lives and are seeking a romantic awakening through art. And for Ignatius, living in the shotguns of Magazine St. As a lower class citizen, it would be quite easy to be disgusted with these "artists" who are disconnected with the reality of city living. Ignatius does not like the bougie, and I empathize with him.

Ignatius represents a wonderful and different perspective on New Orleans culture. A Confederacy of Dunces illustrates this city’s diversity of culture more than any other book we’ve bookpacked with. Even though Ignatius is contentious, he is insightful. He is a free thinker, and the remarks he makes are mostly objectively true. In fact, Ignatius is very observant. Because he is not bound by any sort of New Orleans groupthink, his insights are actually perceptive, and he exposes nuances of the city that may be passively overlooked. By walking through the same streets and parts of town as Ignatius, I can no longer deem his outlandish claims as outlandish. Instead, the novel forces me to really look into what goes on in the city and analyze the routine within its rambunctiousness.

Unforeseen Lessons

In my K-12 years, I received a sub-par American history education. Through a series of unfortunate events, I graduated high school, without formally studying the Civil War. For this reason, I don’t think I understood the weight of slavery in the United States, particularly the slavery of Africans prior to the Civil War. Now, Louisiana’s history dates long before America’s purchase of the territory in 1803, so its history of slavery dates back to its initial colonization by the French. As the territory passed through French, Spanish, and American regimes, its rise to power was dependent on the sheer manpower of slaves. Born and raised in So-Cal, I used to think that the setting of the antebellum South was just that, a setting. Because I had never visited the Deep South, I never saw a plantation or a slave quarter or anything else related to slavery on a first-hand basis.

My understanding of the South was imaginary. How could I comprehend the lifestyle of a slave when I hadn’t experienced the sweat-nullifying humidity of Louisiana’s air? Or the swampy wasteland the slaves were expected to build plantations on? Or the physical separation that divided slaves from their masters? I couldn’t conjure up the reality of this place by trying to piece together nonfiction research and fictional exposition passages on the region. My whole perception and understanding of slavery and the plantation system changed upon my arrival in New Orleans.

It is clear that the scars of slavery still run deep in Louisiana, and it is impossible to avoid slavery while studying the region. All of the books we’ve been bookpacking with, touch on racial tension to some degree; they reveal a seemingly intrinsic conflict between Whites and Blacks from French colonization onward. For Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, this conflict is portrayed within the context of the plantation system. The main character, Louis, owns an indigo plantation and, in turn, owns slaves. The dynamic between master and slave from Louis’s perspective is undermined by the novel’s focus on vampirism, but it is important to understand the context of life on a plantation. Just like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the setting of Pointe du Lac is important to experience in order to empathize with the background of Louis. Using Interview with the Vampire as our guide, we headed to the Whitney Plantation to garner a deeper understanding of the history of slavery and the plantation system.

I could read all about the history of slavery, find memoirs about the plantation lifestyle, calculate death rates of slaves in Southern Louisiana, or analyze photographs taken during the time; but none of these initiatives could prepare me for the ominous burden of walking through the slave quarters of the past. I imagined the work-crippled bodies of Africans, separated from their biological families, packed into these shacks that served as their homes, and it was powerful. I had a bit of a Will Hunting Moment.

Ali, our tour guide, commented on the illiteracy of slaves. He explained that their illiteracy did not mean they were stupid, they simply could not read and write the English language. The entire reason for the slave trade revolving around Africans was that they had desirable skills that appealed to the white slave owners of the time, so in fact, slaves were brought from Africa because they were extremely intelligent and skilled craftsmen. Interview with the Vampire touches on this topic a bit, as Louis explains, “I had several extremely intelligent slaves who might have done his job just as well a long time before, if I had recognized their intelligence and not feared their African appearance and manner” (Part I, Page 27). I think the novel undermines the importance of slaves to the plantation and the development of the grandeur of Southern Louisiana, but as I found out at the Whitney, most plantation owners would think the same thing. Ali did a wonderful job at explaining the systematic breakdown of the slaves that has created a trans-generational rift between White and Black culture in the New Orleans region, and books such as The Moviegoer and A Lesson Before Dying document this conflict into later eras of Louisiana’s history.

For me, learning about slavery and the historical conflicts of this country have been enlightening. I learned a lot about how the past has influenced the way racial relations work in the present. All of this new knowledge was only possible through the process of bookpacking. It was a different experience than bookpacking The Awakening, as that was more of an immersive learning experience, seeing and feeling and smelling the ocean that enthralls Edna. This time, Bookpacking led me to learn more about the contextual history of the Interview with the Vampire and further understand the region that we were traveling through. It showed me bookpacking is more than just taking books to places in order to understand the literature better; instead, bookpacking can implement literature as a guide to better understand the history and culture of a place.

It was confusing, each sound running into the next sound, like the mingling reverberations of bells until I learned to separate the sounds, and then they overlapped, each soft but distinct, increasing but discrete
— Interview with the Vampire, Pt I, Pg 21

Additionally, I wanted to somehow portray the heightened senses of Louis upon his vampiric transformation. I captured some audio at The Whitney, originally attempting to capture the perception of a plantation owner observing his/her property. However, Louis experiences his transformation in a similar setting as The Whitney. I used a combination of audio filters to recreate the aural transition Louis might have experienced upon garnering his new vampiric senses…

California Boy Goes to Swamps

After three days on Grand Isle, it was time for our team to head to New Orleans. On our way to the Big Easy, we made a pitstop at Lafitte, a small town named after the notrious Gulf of Mexico pirate, Jean Lafitte. Here, we grubbed at a small mom & pop restaurant named Boutte's. I had the best red beans & rice here.

After a quick bite, our team journeyed to the Barataria Preserve in Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. Our team got the opportunity to walk the trails that run through the swamp and marsh. It was a biome unlike any other I've seen in California. For those who are unfamiliar with swamp and marsh, it may be hard to comprehend just what a swamp and marsh is; I definitely didn't understand prior to seeing it in person. While Wikipedia's pages may be of some use, hopefully my aural and visual records can help you understand the flavor of this incredible natural habitat. Sadly, we did not see an alligator…

The Sound

We’ll start with the basic soundscape of the swamps. You can here birds and insects filling the aural atmosphere. Occasionally, a breeze will rustle the leaves and add another layer. I captured this recording near the entrance of the trail, so some vehicle sound was captured. In order to remove the unwanted sound, I ran the track through a few filters, removing as much of the sound as I could without jeopardizing the integrity of the soundscape.

A bit later, the wind died down, so I took another capture of the general swamp soundscape. Since I was further along the trail, I was both closer to the animal sound sources and further from vehicles in the parking lot. This allowed me to turn up the gain of my recorder and get a clearer recording of the soundscape. Using moderate filtering, I focussed this track on the birds and insects of the swamp.

As our group journeyed further into the swamp, the sounds became progressively weirder. Here, we have an added layer of swamp frogs.

Then we encountered some interesting insect sounds.

But the granddaddy of all weird sounds has to be this strange, sheep-like sound. I am still unsure what kind of animal could produce such an interesting tone, but one of our teammates claims a frog was making this sound.

The Look

The Song of the Sea

Our first book, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, took us to Grand Isle. An island off the southern coast of Lousiana, it has been historically implemented as a summertime vacation spot for the wealthier demographic of Louisiana. The foliage and overall vibe are a cross between the speed of Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California, and the foliage of Kauai, Hawaii. Here are some pics to give you a sense of the place:

The Awakening

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her
— The Awakening, Chapter VI

During her Grand Isle getaway, Mrs. Pontellier, a.k.a. Edna, becomes an independent thinker and challenges the social boundaries/expectations placed upon her. There she experiences Creole influences that draw her out of the conservative, Puritan, American heritage that defines her worldview. The influences of physical affinity, emotional affairs, and romantic music draw Edna out of her world. She eventually goes back to her New Orleans home, and in short, sees everything differently and does some radical stuff in comparison to the social expectations of women during the late 19th century.

The Sound

I want to focus on Edna’s aural stimulations at Grand Isle. Her romantic conversion is closely tied to her relationship with the ocean. In Chapter 6, Kate Chopin gives us insight into why Edna is starting to conjure new thoughts and realign her worldview.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation
— The Awakening, Chapter VI

Something about the ocean’s natural sound unravels Edna. While on Grand Isle, I decided to capture what Edna might have heard in the ocean. All my audio is captured in stereo, so it will be best experienced with headphones (if you’re a real audiophile, you can download a 96kHz 24bit WAV through Soundcloud). Listen and try to hear the whispering, clamoring, and murmuring of the sea.

There is a lot to this Grand Isle soundscape. The churning of mild waves and the calls of various birds bring a nature-driven character to the sound. This gulf sound distinguishes Grand Isle's aural temperament from its costal counterparts. It is minimal, not having too many layers, yet each aural element is thick and complex. Overall, the timbre sets a mood of relaxation, solitude, and environmental immersion. Compare this to the Pacific Ocean along the Los Angeles coast; its atmosphere screams action. Bigger waves bring a boomier presence of water; a greater traffic of people creates a human-based walla rather than a bird-based one; depending on the beach, planes or piers add an industrial/city character to the beach instead of the lonely solitude of the Grand Isle coast. Grand Isle’s soundscape proves that Edna’s transformation must happen on Grand Isle. There, the aural serenity allows her to sink into her own world and put aside the hustle and bustle that comes with her conservative wife-life in New Orleans.

The Music

Another element adds to Edna’s transformation, music. In Chapter 9, the romantic piano playing of Mademoiselle Reisz moves Edna into a new emotional dimension. While it is unclear what piece Mademoiselle plays, readers know that it is one of Frederic Chopin’s preludes that arouses Edna’s emotional passion. A good guess at the piece could be Chopin’s Prelude in E-Minor (Op. 28, No.4). “The very first chords which Mademoiselle Reisz struck upon the piano sent a keen tremor down Mr.s Pontellier’s spinal column.” I think this prelude would stir such feelings.

Immediately after this new wave of emotions, Edna conjures up the confidence to swim in the ocean. I think this moment completes Edna’s transformation, as Kate Chopin continues:

[Edna] grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before
— The Awakening, Chapter X

I imagine Frederic Chopin’s Prelude flowing through Edna’s ears and body. It is the anthem that gives her confidence to swim and break from the social boundaries that previously kept her on the shore. I’ve superimposed the prelude with the gulf soundscape to give a sense of what Edna may have perceived as she grew in confidence.

It was quite windy throughout our time on Grand Isle. A slight breeze would roll in from the ocean and create a torrent of sound for my microphone setup. Unfortunately I did not bring a windscreen with me, so I had to make some on-the-fly DIY maneuvers. I tried socks and sweaters; they worked…but they really didn’t do a good job blocking the wind. Luckily, our team’s Airbnb provided these small facial towels. With just the right thickness, the towel canceled out the the torrent of wind without blocking too much of the high frequency content. Combined with a bit of EQ processing, it was the perfect solution.

Makeshift Zoom H6N setup

Makeshift Zoom H6N setup

Also, there were interesting animals along the beach. I was impressed by this crab's camouflage abilities.


Hi. I'm Chris

Before I really get into who I am and what I envision this blog to be, I want to quote Kate Chopin.

[Edna] let her mind wander back over her stay at Grand Isle; and she tried to discover wherein this summer had been different from any and every other summer of her life. She could only realize that she herself – her present self – was in some way different from the other self. That she was seeing with different eyes and making the acquaintance of new conditions in herself that colored and changed her environment…
— The Awakening, Chapter XIV

I hope that this 2017 Summer will affect me in a similar manner as Edna’s did. When I compare the way I viewed my world on May 14 to the way I will view the world on August 21 (Beginning of USC school year), I hope that I will “see with new eyes” and be capable of doing things I never would have imagined possible. My summer’s theme, beyond the 4 weeks of Bookpacking, is discovery, and I am expecting my Backpacking experience to be a great starting point for the adventures that lie ahead.

Where I was:

When Andrew explained this course to me back in October, I was drawn to a couple of his value propositions:
  1. The opportunity to create a multimedia “Bookpackers Guide” to New Orleans
  2. The opportunity to rekindle an enjoyment for reading

I study Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation at the USC Iovine and Young Academy. My program aims to develop the ability to think and create across disciplines and practice innovative problem solving. My emphases within the program are Visual Storytelling and Audio Design, so the opportunity to create a multimedia reflection of my time in New Orleans excited me. Additionally, the premise of Bookpacking, reading literature on the road and discovering the worlds these stories take place in, excited the idealistic romantic within me. Bookpacking is an innovative practice, combining flavors of cultural studies, literary analysis, history, primary research, and travel. It seemed a wonderful practice of the interdisciplinary skills I have been studying over the past three years.

My Junior year closed with a time of apprehension and slight stress from an enormous wave of planning I had to get done: straightening out my plans for the remainder of the summer after Bookpacking, planning the animated film I am producing next year, ideating on my Academy capstone project, and working on a Fulbright proposal. After a crazy last week of school, I managed to move out of my apartment and pack for this trip ~4hours before our 7AM call time. As our plane flew over the beautiful American Southwest, I tried to simultaneously catch up on sleep and finish reading A Confederacy of Dunces, and those who know me well know that I am a terrible multitasker.

Where I am:

Within a few hours in Louisiana, I was met with this:

The sunset over the Mississippi River bayous was something to behold for a lifelong Angeleno. The sky's golden blue gradient, intertwined with the sun's sparkle off the heads of swamp shrubery, dazzled me. I had never seen so much water everywhere! The water seeped out of the ground along both sides of the road, and I didn't know where it was coming from. My eyes were heavy and my brain was quite sleep deprived, yet the scenery captured my attention the entire drive from New Orleans to our team’s beachside home on Grand Isle.

Throughout the drive to Grand Isle, I saw small, rundown, riverside shacks that families lived in. I remember passing a family on its porch; the children skipped up and down the steps; the momma held a toddler baby; and the father sat on a rocking chair, sipping a beer. Their front lawn was marshy, their house's paint was peeling, but they were chillin’. I tried to envision just how different my life was from the lives these kids would live. What were their dreams? What kind of education would they receive? And most importantly, would they ever taste Korean food?!? As our Mercedes Benz luxury van strolled alongside the Louisiana marshland, I continued chewing on these thoughts.

There is no question that the environment, weather (#humidity), and lifestyle of Southern Louisiana is far different than my life in Los Angeles. But what really makes this place so different than my home? I hope by capturing and analyzing the aural and visual stimulants of this area, I can discover some of these unique elements. Join me in discovering the sights and sounds of Southern Louisiana.