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The Drongo: Our guest today on The Drongo is Alexi Caracotsios, a man of countless talents. Readers, prepare yourselves: here he comes.
What are you all about, Alexi?
Alexi Caracotsios: I have spent the last eight years of my life trying to obtain the knowledge (un?)inherent to books, experience, and life.
I have delved deep into the linguistic treasure pool of foreign languages, achieving fluency in five, and being able to dabble around in another three or so. I always thought of myself as a rogue scholar on the quest for truth; now, I am in the depths of an existential crisis as to what the hell any of that could possibly mean.
I really love animals and dancing, and, for a brief period, tango was the light of my soul. I think my true identity is that of a professional sitter who excels at doing nothing. Sometimes I think Winnie the Pooh is my spirit animal. Perhaps not.
The Drongo: As part of our interview, Alexi shared his favorite pieces of music from several languages.
Alexi Caracotsios: I tried to stick to songs I picked up throughout my language journeys, as it's less likely readers will know them. I kept the recommendations to a minimum -- one song per language -- lest I post one thousand different things!
The Drongo: You did well, Alexi, you did well. I've spread your song choices throughout the interview, as an accompaniment to our talk. Drongos, please begin enjoying a multilingual musical feast ... now.
The Drongo: Alexi, having invested time in learning languages, the guitar, Central Asian history, cooking, and boxing, your interests are wide-ranging even by drongo standards. A "rogue scholar," indeed!
Do you intend to become a 21st-century Renaissance man? If not, then what? If so, what does that mean to you?
Alexi Caracotsios: I never thought of myself becoming anything. My descent into madness has, rather, been a stepwise process. I am by nature an extremely curious person. My academic, musical, physical, and other life pursuits have been a way of living and not a means to an end.
Experiencing processes which further deepen my ability to connect and communicate with the world brings me endless joy. I view all my activities as avenues to explore the possibilities of these two simple pleasures.
The Drongo: Tell me about connections.
Alexi Caracotsios: I think once one starts to truly look at an object long enough, they realize that nothing exists on its own. What we see, is merely a reflection of what we know about the item under question. Pondering this reflective process, from both sides, and deepening my engagement with it has been critical for my own journey of self-discovery.
A month or so ago [February 2021], I ran into Nestorian Christianity. It was a highly unorthodox branch (by Orthodox standards, mind you) of Christianity which made its way to China! Yes, there were Christians in Tang China!
However, if you read some of the primary texts from those encounters, one sees a mixture of Buddhism, Daoism, Manicheanism, and Christianity. In fact, the scriptures themselves are called the Chinese Sutras.
Alexi Caracotsios: Learning this blew my mind. It not only made me frantically stop all other intellectual endeavors in order to dive deeply into the world of early Christianity, but also further complicated some of my central questions: how do we define ourselves? Does an East-West divide make any sense at all? In terms of self-reflection, if I am not some atomic particle of a larger ideological or cultural identity, who the hell am I?
I definitely relate in some ways to how the East-West narrative, and the overarching Christian narrative, has historically impacted our world. I think we all do. Blurring the lines and boundaries of religion itself further reduces our ability to form clear-cut narratives. Breaking down notions that distinguish and differentiate us is equal parts terrifying and exciting, because removing differences is essentially an act of linguistic violence. You're destroying the ability to define anything in terms of those differences.
Obviously, we are not all the same, but internal strife is created when you complicate your own narrative from a single sentence with one or two qualifiers ("I am X," Christianity did "Z," and so the world is "W") to a multi-paragraph diatribe in which one approximates: "I may be kind of like X, in a way that is more W than Z."
I have found the further I go down this rabbit hole, the more confused I get. Even the concept of narrative is losing meaning. Recently, a budding sense of freedom and levity has accompanied this confusion. I am still waiting for a day when freedom and levity will take the driver's seat in my brain ...
The Drongo: Does your investigation of connections, and your confusion over them, have any relation to your language studies?
Alexi Caracotsios: A while ago, I found that I lacked the tools to further deepen my own, personal interaction with connection. That is, I had a communication problem. Cue the horns ...
From a very young age, I always loved music. My first big explorations in "language" were the guitar and the French horn. I started playing guitar at ten, beginning with rock, then progressing through jazz, classical, flamenco, ska and everything in between. (I had a ska band in high school for a long time.)
I still have yet to find another medium which allows me to express my internal feelings in such a fluid and immediate way. Unfortunately, due to hand problems, I can no longer play for hours on end, day after day. But, what the hell, I enjoyed so many years of it that I cannot really complain.
The Drongo: I have hand problems myself. It's a shame you were cut off from making music.
Alexi Caracotsios: To me, music was always the supreme form of art and connectivity. It really encapsulates my own personal worldview. We all are just borrowing and stealing from one another. Differences can present the most profound opportunities to connect and co-create, or to divide us.
If you dive into the history of music -- take tango, for instance, as I will bring it up later -- you see this laid out quite nicely. The bandoneon, the most iconic tango instrument, is German. The violin is Persian. Tango uses African rhythms, and was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from a conglomeration of all the differing immigrant groups at the time (mostly from parts of Spain and Italy.) The deeper you go, the deeper the hole gets, and everything starts to connect.
My language journey followed a similar trajectory. It all started one day in high school, when a group of friends and I went to a music festival in Chicago. We went to see the self-proclaimed "Jimi Hendrix of accordion," a Puerto Rican musician who really did create juicy grooves. After the show was over, I went to talk to the man with my awful high-school Spanish, and was instantly frustrated by my inability to say even the most basic things.
From then on, I was hooked. I needed to learn not just Spanish, but EVERY LANGUAGE THAT EXISTS. I started Chinese at university due to my eternal love for Jackie Chan, while continuing to develop my Spanish.
Alexi Caracotsios: Spanish and Chinese opened my mind to how amazing the world could be. These languages led me to travel all over the world: reading about and talking to humans who could not be any more different from me, trying strange foods, suffering through cold nights and many bouts of stomach illness, partying, dancing and experiencing plenty of heart ache.
I found that when operating under a different linguistic system, the world appears in totally different hues. Suddenly, even the most banal items seem rich and rainbow-otic (yes, new word.)
The Drongo: hangs on for dear life
Alexi Caracotsios: I believe the break from the day-to-day mental-linguistic connections we subconsciously make allowed me to see the world as it truly is: overwhelmingly awesome and complicated. Learning to express yourself from scratch is akin to becoming a child all over again. Except, because you are older, it is like being a child who has the mental awareness of an adult. Everything seems more important (because everything is important.)
Many would call this an illusion: because things appear different, you imagine them to be more wonderful. I would call it reality. I think losing your words forces your whole body to attempt to understand one's surroundings, and this is an amazing thing.
After becoming fluent in Spanish and Chinese, and getting verifiably addicted to languages, I learned Greek to connect more with my own heritage. Following Greek, my love affair with Central Asia began, leading me to Uighur, Russian, Kyrgyz and Kazakh, but more on that later ...
The Drongo: Do you find the cultivation of skills enjoyable in itself?
Alexi Caracotsios: Definitely. I find that any skill-cultivation process necessarily includes an extremely social component, too.
For instance, earlier last year I set off to learn how to make cheese. Because of that, I ended up going to several farmer's markets while trying to find a specific kind of goat milk. I did not follow through with my cheese dreams of glory, but you can see how this works. You start learning something new, and you immediately are connected to a larger community (if you look for it.)
This process is inherently pleasurable and fascinating to me. Not only do I get a cool new skill, but also loads of new friends, experiences, and adventures. What more could one want from life?
I see skill cultivation not as the learning of specific things, but more as my preferred way to interact with and live my life.
The Drongo: You said you're in the middle of an existential crisis. What caused you to slide out of certainty?
Alexi Caracotsios: At the core of it, this process has precipitated quite the existential crisis. Not only has intense study, traveling, and learning made my base knowledge set, my standard set of tools for perception, very different, it has also left me continuously destroying categorizations for myself.
To summarize the first point, it is excessively difficult to find polyglot scholars. It is more difficult to find polyglot scholars who explore a generalized set of topics spread out across several geographic areas. It is even more difficult to find generalist, polyglot scholars who study my peculiar set of geographic areas.
I think you get the idea. I am finding that a practice which used to connect me to the world has lately resulted in isolating me from it, something which scares me because it is the antithesis of what I desire.
A large part of my slide into crisis has come from something I recently began to truly discover: more is not better. I think I have spread myself too thin. There is always another rabbit hole to jump down, but the grass is never greener. At best, it is just another species of grass. Which is awesome, but who really cares, except for maybe the cows who would eat it?
Once again, I think my experiences with Central Asia will encapsulate this better than any other answer I could give.
The Drongo: Well then, let's get to it! Why do you adore Central Asia?
Alexi Caracotsios: Because it is Central Asia. This is an extremely loaded question.
The Drongo: One loaded with flavor. Tell us about Kyrgyzstan, about learning Uighur, about kok-boru, about diglossia, about nomads ...
Alexi Caracotsios: Central Asia has always been at the center of the world (excluding the New World, because unfortunately lots of the history there has been destroyed. Thanks, Jesuits.)
Ideas, trade, music, language, and religion passed through this cultural filter. As a result, it is a region which has affected and been affected by everything. To truly know Central Asia, you have to effectively study every classical culture from the Old World.
I understand that any subject can become a black hole for endless exploration. However, with Japan, for instance, they remained fairly isolated and, while you could argue they have always been connected with the rest of the world, it has always been tangential. Central Asia has been a central character in all of world history, and I am a big proponent of understanding the center by analyzing the periphery.
The fact that nobody studies this region blows my mind, but is also understandable: knowing Central Asia means knowing several obscure and difficult languages, and not being able to apply the grandiose ideological narratives (any theory ever) to anything. If you study this region without nuance, excellent scholarship, and a true sense of open-minded curiosity, you will go nowhere.
In order to learn Kyrgyz, I had to learn Uighur and then Kazakh (they are all extremely similar.) After those two, I had to sort of figure it out on the ground. You see, there really do not exist any Kyrgyz language study materials. Additionally! Learning Uighur required my pre-existing knowledge of Chinese, because there are few good materials in English for Uighur, either! And now, to continue my Kyrgyz education, I require Russian! You see, it really is quite annoying.
The Drongo: Why, you could spend a lifetime just studying the languages of Central Asia, and never even get to studying its cultures.
Alexi Caracotsios: I secretly love how "useless" the study of Central Asia is, in an economic sense. It self-filters for people who are true scholars with very little outside motive. Have you ever heard of someone learning "business Uzbek?" I think not.
So, you get the world's best filter for the type of people I want to be around: extremely dedicated, polyglot scholars with no ulterior motives to bastardize the study of the region. No business bros, no Captain Americas, just oddballs making extremely questionable career choices.
The region itself truly is an alternate dimension. Maybe not, like Japan, outwardly strange compared to the USA, but strange in the most peculiar way. In fact, I am not even sure how to describe it. This is the source of my love. Central Asia is simply enigmatic, due to the high complexity of its ties to history, and the fact that it is impossible to ignore.
I invite all readers of The Drongo to watch the following video.
Alexi Caracotsios: Another thing which I love(d) about Central Asia is that, until recently, it existed unexplored and fairly unconnected to the world economy.
The local element still thrives and, because so little is known, there is an element of adventure just in being there. I could pretty much pick any book of Kyrgyz literature, translate it, and have that translation be the first. There are hundreds of unexplored research topics!
As to the local nature of Kyrgyzstan, I present a short anecdote. One time while flying from Bishkek to Osh -- a one-hour flight, or 10-hour drive -- I saw a man bringing bags of raw fish as his carry-on. The reason? He was worried that in the south they couldn't get fish as good as those in the north. The idea of the fish being transported from the north to the south via trucks was simply not conceivable.
Nowadays, the country is a lot more connected. China invests billions of dollars into their economy, Turkey and the USA have extremely aggressive soft power campaigns, and Russia is forever a looming presence. Watching the world fight over Central Asia is extremely interesting to me. Historically, everyone has wanted to control it, but no one has been able to do so for very long (Afghanistan wins the prize here.) Central Asia is just at the periphery of everyone's political power.
So, in short, Central Asia is confusing, very hard to understand, and presents little reward to those who try. It is the golden apple in the eye of the curious-cat polyglot bumbling scholar. Everybody's politics seem to imply they want a piece of the action, but I am not really sure if they do ...
The Drongo: From your descriptions, I'm certain every single curious-cat polyglot who's ever studied Central Asia was a first-class drongo. Unfortunately, we can't all go gallivanting off to Kyrgyzstan, or settle in for long nights of learning Uzbek; fortunately, we can learn from the drongos of yesteryear (and Current Year.)
In that vein, could you please recommend your most cherished books? Pretend I'm a freshman at Rogue Scholar University, and load me up.
Alexi Caracotsios: This is an extremely hard question. The answers vary with what I'm reading! For any drongo, the trick is to just start reading anything, and follow the curiosity rabbit hole.
However, I can give you a list of recommendations from recent readings and things I remember. I have an extremely hard time remembering what I have read, as at times I can go at a rate of six books a month, and at any given time I'm usually reading in three to five languages. It honestly is a problem.
If I had a list of books I've read, I could easily give you summaries and main arguments off the top of my head. But, without a reference point, I just cannot remember! Anyways, here is what I can think of now.
- A Piece of the Action, by Joseph Nocera
- Religions of the Silk Road, by Richard Foltz
- The Tragedy of Liberation, by Frank Dikötter
- Never Forget National Humiliation, by Zheng Wang
- The White Steamship, by Chingiz Aitmatov
- The Obscene Bird of the Night, by Jóse Donoso
- The Lady of Ro, by Gianni Skaragas
- Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis
- The Storyteller, by Mario Vargas Llosa
- Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins
- Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck
- Moscow Petushki, by Venedikt Yeroveyef
The Drongo: I couldn't have asked for a more eclectic (or impressive) list of reading material. I'm still hoping to run a movie night for The Drongo, but there are logistical difficulties with sharing movies. Maybe instead we can have a book club!
Alright, Alexi, I've got one more question for you. You say tango was once the light of your soul. I'm not letting you go until you tell me what that means.
Alexi Caracotsios: For me, the tango encapsulates all my passions and means of emotional expression in one passionate dance. It reflects both my own deep sadness and my joy, the spiritual aspect of music as an escape to another world, and the ability to share all of this with another person. Tango is the light of my soul. Simple as that.
The Drongo: Simple as that.
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My delicious drongos, Alexi is waiting for your questions, comments, and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read some funky short stories on Alexi's "wildly unused blogspace," Pedro Anteen's Wonder Emporium.
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Our tenth (!) interview, at the end of May, will be with Eyal Herling, a veteran trained in explosive-ordnance disposal who's now making a career as a divemaster. Watch this website, or make it easy on yourself: subscribe to The Drongo to get that interview with Eyal as soon as it comes out.