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See Inside July 2005

The Big Dig

A cross-cultural look at cultural crossings
Steve Mirsky



FRANK VERONSKY
Generations of American kids have been told that if they dig down far enough they'll get to China. Of course, this assertion is not true. For one thing, most kids dig with spoons or those cheap, red plastic shovels, which could never make it through the planet. Another reason is that kids are notoriously bad at shoring up the sides of deep holes, resulting in inevitable cave-ins once they reach a depth of six inches.

The subject of kids digging to China recently came up in casual conversation among some friends who apparently had even more free time than kids attempting to dig to China. I first asked Scientific American editor in chief John Rennie where he thought an American kid would actually wind up. "If we had a globe in the office, I could check," he responded. "But of course there's not a globe to be found. Nor an astrolabe. And all our mortars and pestles are broken."

The question then arose as to where wee ones worldwide wonder they'll wind up. I e-mailed acquaintances around the world. While awaiting responses, I located a globe--start from most of the contiguous U.S., and you'll end up drowning in the Indian Ocean. (Although if you start in Albany, N.Y., you'll come out suspiciously close to Albany, Australia. And Scientific American copy editor Michael Battaglia says, "In Buffalo, with all the snow, we would dig to the driveway surface.")

Although globe-trotting Scientific American editor George Musser hadn't heard any international versions of it, he likes the dig-to-China idea despite its inaccuracy. "Sure, the antipodal geography is incorrect, but it helps turn the idea of a spherical planet from an abstraction into something concrete," Musser says. "I considered it a success when I asked a roomful of middle school boys what they'd see if they looked straight down and they answered, 'Up girls' skirts.' When you're teaching, you take what you can get."

Then the variations rolled in. Claudio Angelo writes, "In the Brazilian case, Japan. And it's not a myth! I have friends of friends who indeed dug long enough and wound up (or down) in Japan." Taro Mitamura sends word that Japanese kids reciprocate by heading for Brazil.

South African Rehana Dada says, "We got Australia, but that's because we're Anglocentric." Many Europeans likewise start for Australia or New Zealand, with some exceptions. "We are less ambitious than Americans," says France's Odile Eisenstein. "We dig till the center of the earth." Scientific American art director Mark Clemens grew up in England. "At the age of six, I chose the lowest point in the local park," Clemens says, "and with four other friends we started digging, determined to reach my friend's cousin in Australia." Even with the advantage of starting at the local minimum altitude, they didn't get too far. "Seven feet. About to India, I believe," he recalls.

Aussie Natasha Mitchell and New Zealander Graham Collins, a Scientific American editor, say they also dug for China. (Even though the Antipodes Islands, near New Zealand, got their name for being straight across from Greenwich, England.) "Digging to Britain just doesn't have the same ring as digging to China," Collins says. He also recommends a 1988 New Zealand movie called The Navigator, which "features medieval miners in England who dig through the earth to modern-day New Zealand seeking a cure for the Black Death," ironically while inventing black lung.

The last word goes to Chinese journalist Li Hujun: "I don't think there is a similar expression in China. The ancient Chinese believed that the sky was round and the earth was flat--the tortoise was the symbol of heaven and earth, its shell compared to the vaulted heaven and the underside to the flat disk of the earth." And who can't dig that?

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