Japanese Club Movie: Howl’s Moving Castle

The Japanese club had its first movie night, and of course it was a Studio Ghibli movie (not that I mind). The vote went to Howl’s Moving Castle, one I had seen before. Still, the ending is probably the most complicated part of any studio Ghibli movie (things always get hard to follow when time travel is introduced), so it was nice to get a second run through. The event was extremely popular: chairs from another classroom had to be pulled in and there was a scarcity of pizza. I think a lot of non-regular club members were drawn in by the allure of free pizza and the stand-out fame of Ghibli movies. The movie itself was as great as I remember. The visuals remain amazing, the characters are great, and the music -especially Howl’s Theme- is some of the best in all the Ghibli movies I have seen. The next movie is going to be a live action Japanese movie, which I have less experience with. Hopefully it will be interesting, though I doubt it will be as great as Howl was.

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Never Again

This week I finished my midterms and I felt free and relaxed. I was a couch potato right after my last exam was done. Then, my friend suggested that we go hiking. Since I felt that I should get up and move, I agreed and on Saturday, we set out to Bukhansan.

Bukhansan is one of the many mountains in Seoul, and with that being said, it is also one of the most difficult mountains to hike. I’ve been hiking a few times in Colorado, and so I thought I would be fine. I was not. This hike has been, by far, the hardest hike I’ve ever done in my life.

There were TONS of people, mostly older Koreans, but there were a few foreigners. I was embarrassed at my lack of stamina as compared to the older Koreans. They were practically like flying squirrels! They hiked (and even ran) up the trail with ease that made me shocked and scared about their safety.

Back to my situation. I think one of the reasons why the hike was so hard was because of the weather. It was a little cold and dry, which irritated my nose every time I breathed. Also, I forgot how much my ankles hurt the last time I hiked, and so this also made the hike worse. However, the view was worth the death I felt like I was going through.

I would definitely recommend Bukhansan to those hiking fanatics. But as for me, I don’t think I’ll be returning to Bukhansan anytime soon. (I’m still sore and exhausted as I type this.)

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Although it was a little foggy, the tall buildings of Seoul can be seen.
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bukhansan3 People waiting in line to hike to the peak!

 

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The World Doesn’t Need Saving (Unless It Asks).

I don’t think everyone in the world should be helped.

I do think everyone in the world should be helped if they ask for it.

One of the biggest take aways from some of my latest educational endeavors about poverty, volunteerism, and need has been that there is so much muck swirling around a glamorized industry that has been fabricated and dramatized out of actual circumstances . The first time I read a description of volunteerism as being “sexy,” the concept of voluntourism snapped into place for me.  The fact that orphanages are created to attract “big-hearted” foreigners in places like Cambodia and Uganda for do-gooding people to fill their hearts with satisfaction and their iPhones with selfies of smiling, ethnic children kills me on the inside. Sorry for this little rant. This is particularly frustrating to me because I watched this specific example of voluntourism run rampant in my hometown. I even almost fell victim to it!

When I was in my small town high school, after every break there would be a group of tanned, giddy students who would prance around telling anybody with functioning ears that they had found their calling in life–to be missionary and love on little babies stuck in orphanages for the rest of their lives. Don’t get me wrong, aiding people in need, superficially, is inherently good. I even wanted to travel far away to help people who are often featured on those sad-songe commercials and big-eyed, bloated-bellied kids that everyone scrambles for the remote when it flashes on. Additionally, I see how I’ve left out the positives, like that orphanages actually serve an incredibly important and helpful purpose. However, there is a glaring negative that is stuck in a lot of people’s blind spots. Is the work these volunteers do actually impactful beyond the typical week spent abroad?

For example, think about how much it actually costs to send seven caravans full of people to these prized, remote destinations around the world. Could the literal tens of thousands spent of dollars spent on flying dozens and dozens of people be better spent? Maybe yes. That money could be collected and donated to the community to work on improving familial circumstances. Why invest in orphanages that slap a band-aid on a problem instead of working to stop what causes damage? Another thing, why do American teachers get sent overseas to teach English to kids when they could teach other teachers in the targeted region? The local teachers would normally be around for much longer than the American, and could potentially have a much more sustainable impact on his or her community. So why do things like this happen if something else could have a bigger benefit? Personally, I believe it’s because people like to tangibly see themselves make a difference.

There is more to come. This is not the end of this!

Introducing the US…to Korean high school boys

On October 26th, I had the opportunity to participate in a cultural exchange between Kyungpook National University and a nearby high school. I gave a presentation about the United States and my home state of Oklahoma to a group of Korean high school students. This was an exciting chance to introduce my state to some Koreans, since they are relatively unfamiliar with Oklahoma. Quite a few people here who I have introduced myself to have heard of my home state, but most of them do not know where in the US it is located or anything else about it.

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Of course, with exciting things like this one, there is always a catch. In fact, there were two catches. The first: I had to give my whole presentation in Korean. Furthermore, after my presentation I had to talk with the students and answer their questions in Korean for half an hour as well. Oh boy.

Wondering what the second catch was? I didn’t know either, until the moment I walked into the room in which I would give my presentation. The students came from an all boys school. I was presenting in front of about forty rowdy, smart-alecky high school boys. I’m not all that adept at handling high schoolers in general, and rambunctious high school boys are an exceptionally daunting challenge.

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Nevertheless, I accepted the challenge and I spent several weeks preparing a PowerPoint and an accompanying script that briefly introduced the United States and Oklahoma. The size of the United States is too large and its cultures too varied to cover it all in one presentation, so after giving some brief demographics about the country as a whole, I focused entirely on Oklahoma. I talked about our traditional dishes (fried, fried, and more fried foods), and after that I gave a very surface-level presentation on Oklahoma’s culture through its tourist attractions. For example, I told them about the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and also briefly explained the cowboy lifestyle and the plight of the Native Americans who were forced to move into Indian Territory from all over the country. I showed pictures of the Philbrook Museum of Art and the Marland Estate Mansion and explained how oil barons became wealthy and built these huge estates. I also touched on Oklahoma’s landscape, indigenous wildlife, and weather. Tornadoes have to be brought up if you are explaining Oklahoma, after all. If I had known I would be faced with all high school boys, I might have talked more about sports and OU football, but alas, I have absolutely no interest in the subject and wouldn’t know what I was talking about.

After the presentations, the high schoolers split into groups and one international student sat with each group. This section was designated as time for “free talking” between the Korean and foreign students, giving the Koreans a chance to ask the foreigners any questions they had about their countries. I won’t lie; this part was incredibly awkward. I am bad enough at small talk when I can speak my own language, so trying to small talk in Korean was a struggle. Some of the high school students looked anywhere but at me and had trouble thinking of questions to ask. My Korean is not good enough to hold a full conversation and my attempts to ask the students questions were only minimally successful. Nevertheless, with the help of the students’ teachers, we managed a bit of back-and-forth dialogue. Most of it was trivial small talk, like recommending places to visit in Daegu and in the US. The most memorable question was when one of the boys asked me if I had a boyfriend, and when I answered no, he then asked what I thought of his (male, single) teacher, to which I responded “He’s too old.” Also, on a side note, Korean high school boys really love listening to Adele.

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I survived my presentation. To be honest, I read off of my script that I did not have sufficient time to memorize instead of truly presenting, but I survived. The other international students who presented were much, much better at Korean than I was (and I’m not being modest here), but still, I survived. This experience helped me to empathize with the Korean students and exchange students from non-English speaking countries who bravely gave presentations entirely in English in my classes here. It was also an interesting look into how foreigners are perceived in South Korea. Despite my poor Korean, the organizers of this events really wanted me to participate because I was American and White with a capital W. Most of the foreigners who speak Korean well are from other Asian countries and don’t look as “exotic” as I do here. One of the organizers told me that one year all of the international participants came from Asian countries like China, Japan, Thailand, etc. and when people looked at photos of the event they asked which people were the foreigners. Essentially, I was there to make the photos look good. But most of all, it was an amazing experience that pushed me to use my Korean to the best of my ability despite my reservations and feelings of embarrassment. Although it was a lot of work and extremely nerve-wracking, I would do this again in a heartbeat if I got the offer, because I know I would regret it if I passed up the opportunity.

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Is “effective altruism” actually effective or altruistic?

In philosopher Peter Singer’s TEDtalk , the why and how of effective altruism, he discusses the pitfalls of modern charity efforts and how one can do good in the most impactful way possible. He presents interesting points: while most people agree without question that donating and volunteering is always a good thing, sometimes one’s efforts just aren’t effective. Bill and Melinda Gates are his primary example of truly effective altruists; it’s estimated that the work of the Gates Foundation has saved over 5.8 millions lives. Where intellect and a desire to serve intersect, the most good can occur. There are four questions, he postulates, that stand in the way of people giving: 1. How much of a difference can I make? 2. Am I expected to abandon my career? 3. Isn’t charity bureaucratic and ineffective anyway? 4. Isn’t it a burden to give up so much?

In addressing these four quandaries, Singer’s attitude seems a bit negative. His points are excellent: why spend $40,000 to pay for training a seeing-eye-dog for a blind person in America when that same amount could correct vision problems for a few hundred people in a developing country? Certainly, in giving we should be thoughtful. But his attitude borders on condescending, as if those of us who have unknowingly funneled our resources into less-than-perfect charities should be ashamed, or as if there’s no merit in spending that $40,000 for the seeing-eye-dog.

“Some charities are literally hundreds or thousands of times more effective than others,” he says. How exactly does one measure that? Giving should be qualitative rather than quantitative. Most of his arguments center around the monetary side of different types of charity and remove the humanitarian aspect of altruism. A good career to consider, he says, if you wish to help fix worldwide problems, is banking or finance. Why? People in these fields make a lot of money, meaning they have a lot of money to give away. Instead of dedicating your life to service, rake in the cash and donate enough so that service organizations can hire five employees. In his words, “quintuple the impact.” That’s an interesting take on how to center a life around the needs of others.

Is this really altruistic? In breaking things down by the numbers and giving in order to feel fulfilled, a true sense of selflessness is lost. That’s not necessarily bad, though. If people are benefitting from the efforts, does it matter if you’re only giving to eradicate the guilt that goes hand-in-hand with privilege? He speaks about altruism, but says, “I’ve enjoyed giving since I was a graduate student. It’s something fulfilling for me.” Effective, yes. Altruistic, no.

Despite these flaws, I agree with his primary intention in speaking: we have a moral obligation to help others. That’s a weighty issue, of course. To what extent are we obligated? Whether you want to dedicate 10% of your income to charity or choose to be benevolent in another fashion, I believe every person has a right to ample food, clean water, adequate shelter, healthcare, and an education. People should live without fear of violence or persecution. And those of us who have resources to give, should give them. Whether you choose to buy into Singer’s analytical charity game or you just give to organizations that speak to you, give what you can.

 

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Love and support

Even though I have a rough plan for studying abroad, there are still some things that make the worrier in me nervous. One thing that scares me is having to rely on myself to come up with solutions to problems primarily on my own. I like to think of myself as an independent person, but college has made me realize that I am dependent on others, especially my parents, for a lot of things. I call them for advice or support close to every other day, but that will be hard to do with time-zone differences. Another fear I have is standing out and being obviously different. I have struggled with self-confidence since elementary school and tend to overthink social situations. I keep to myself and still have trouble speaking up in class. This makes me nervous about speaking a new language around new people, especially if I am not fluent.

However, I will not let these fears hold me back. I am working now to push through them and find solutions in order to prepare myself to succeed abroad. I am currently learning French, and hope to learn at least a little Italian. I am forming friendships and connections with students and faculty (like the lovely Global Engagement Fellows and our fearless leader Jaci) that have experience abroad that can help me before, during, and after my trips. Since I am planning on studying through an OU center and/or college sponsored program, I will hopefully have an even larger support group during my experiences. I also know that it is up to me to start trusting in myself and learn how to survive on my own.

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Service: an altruistic way to help yourself

I believe that Peter Singer, although sincere and supportive of a good cause, gave a TED talk of mixed values. Throughout, he praised the benefits of “effective altruism.” Essentially, he calls us to give and to serve with both our heads and our hearts. With all of the excess money that we have in the United States, we could do so much to help those less fortunate around the world . This is all fine and good. I agree that we are called to help those in need, but not because of any monetary obligation.  My beliefs come from my faith, and I as a Christian am a called to serve and spread the love of God through the world by living like Jesus: loving, caring, and serving.

However, Singer goes on to qualify certain forms service as being inherently “better” than others. He gave an example about treating blindness in the US versus in “developing” countries: by using the same amount of money, you could help one blind person in America with a guide dog or 400-2000 people if they have trachoma. The answer to Singer is “clear.” Even though he might have a point that more people are helped in the latter, does that mean that blind Americans do not deserve to be helped? Just because someone abroad can be helped easier, does that mean we should just ignore those at home? Doesn’t this also belittle those who have helped with training guide dogs and demean their service and giving? I cannot accept this. All service, regardless of the net gain in benefits should be treated equally with respect.

He then proceeds to talk about a man who donated a kidney as an act of service. At first, he said he felt embarrassed since he still has both of his kidneys. Upon realizing that the “extension of life” could be equated to $5000, the embarrassment left him. He had donated much more than that in his life, so he was “off the hook.” He also said that this is a way that others can make themselves feel better by not giving a kidney. This is unacceptable in my opinion. In 3 sentences, Singer managed to denigrate the actions of a man who gave an organ, a part of his body, to charity; elevate his service above that of others; and establish the selfishness inherent in much “altruism.” For many of the same reasons as in the first example, this infuriates me. This man literally sacrificed a part of himself for a cause he was passionate about. Singer only gave his money. Sure, giving money is important and beneficial, and Singer may have provided a larger “extension of life,” but how dare he demean the actions of others. Service is more than the benefits provided. It is also how the benefits are provided. Passion and love, caring and empathy. This is what connects service to the human experience. We can help by finding our passions and applying them in a beneficial way, whether this involves money or actions . Serve through our shared humanity, not only through our shared bank accounts.

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“The Head and the Heart” (Peter Singer)

Even though I have a few moral doubts about Peter Singer’s suggestions on motivation and even methods of giving, I truly believe that the heart of what he’s saying is true: we, as fellow human beings, have a moral responsibility to aid others if they ask for it.

Effective altruism, which Singer discusses a lot in his Ted talk, is an interesting concept that, I think, can help lead to a much greater impact on communities who need and want help with their struggles. Instead of giving money or time to organizations that are proven to be less effective, a little research can help people who want to get involved to find more efficient and impactful organizations to sponsor. In the end, if a person is committed to aiding others, any good impact is great, but if their impact can reach even further, why not? I personally feel that since I lead a very privileged and sheltered life, that it is a moral obligation for me to support development and alleviation of poverty, starvation, and hunger however I can.

However, although I agree with Peter Singer in theory, I disagree with him slightly in practice. Singer made a clear statement that really struck me: effective altruism is important because it “combines both the heart and the heart.” I agree whole-heartedly that both emotional and rational thinking should be incorporated into efforts to aid others. Without both, a person could end up doing more harm than good. However, in my opinion, Singer continues to account for the head, but fails to continue to account for the heart. He argues that in order to truly be an effective altruist, one has to devote themselves to the most effective, and only the most effective, path, which I disagree with. Rather than choosing a career path or way to give aid that is completely effective but gives no personal enjoyment or passion, I think a person, including myself, should take their talents, passions, and skills and put them to use in aiding others. Rather than going to school to become a banker so I can give huge sums of money to organizations, I believe that I can have enough of an impact by going to school to learn how to help people who struggle with mental illness. I think in order to be the most “effective” altruist, a person should balance their own desires and abilities with effective and far-reaching projects and organizations.

Secondly, Singer argues that effective altruism can become the basis for self-esteem and has the potential to fix all emotional problems. I think this view is problematic, because it frames giving as an escape route, as a cure-all, and as a form of salvation, and as my mom always says, “Ciera, there is a lot of power simply in the way you mentally frame a situation.” Though giving is a good, morally upright thing to do, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling fulfilled by it, no one should base their whole identity and wage all their problems against altruism. I believe that as with the act of giving, balance is the key to motivation behind giving. Instead of becoming the cornerstone of life and identity, I think giving should be another aspect of life, along with career, relationships, family, etc. It also sets up a challenge to long-term sustainability of giving, because if someone believes that giving to a charity or organization can “cure” their depression, or fix their self esteem issues, or whatever else it may be, they are destined to discover that that is not the case, that altruism is healthy and good, but no magic potion.

So, what does this mean for me? I have to be honest, I am a relatively selfish person. I have a lot of empathy for others, but have a disconnect between these feelings and my actions, so this discussion has really reminded me that people appreciate being understood and heard, but they also appreciate food, and medicine, and a bed to sleep on. With that being said, I also want to be realistic and make sure that I keep the balance that I personally believe is so important, especially so as to not burn out on giving. I don’t know the exact form it will take, but I tentatively would like to pledge a certain amount of my income to a proven effective charity that I  have a personal connection with, and continue to support them throughout my career and life, to use my head and my heart to make a difference where it is needed and desired.

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Reflection: Effective Altruism

In class we watched Peter Singer’s TED Talk on the “why and how of effective altruism.” Peter Singer is a firm believer in effective altruism, which boils down to the belief that not only do people have an obligation to help others — but that they should do so in the most efficient, direct way possible. I had never been exposed to this concept before the TED Talk, but I have been giving it a lot of thought in the week or so since I first heard it. I have decided that I am both supporter and critic of Peter Singer’s effective altruism.

Of course it is logical that people engaging in altruism should be concerned with how effective their help is. After all, if someone has limited means to help, it makes sense that if they donate to charities that have proven effective, their dollars will go farther than they might have otherwise. There is no doubt that some charities do more good than others, particularly if they use more donations to make improvements instead of getting bogged down in bureaucracy. Therefore, I do believe that people should heed the effectiveness of a charity/organization/project etc. because an efficient use of resources is always better than inefficient methods. In that sense, I do support effective altruism.

Peter Singer loses me a bit with his theory, however, because of how extreme he takes it. For instance, Singer argues that people should try to get high-paying jobs for the fact that it means they will have more disposable income to donate. I personally feel like people who choose a job just for the amount of money they make are doing themselves a disservice. I also didn’t like that Singer seemed to be arguing against projects that are capital-intensive since they will require more resources than cheaper ones. For example, he made this argument by saying that people shouldn’t spend the $40,000 it takes to train a guide dog when that $40,000 could be used to cure some 400 to 2,000 people in the developing world of blindness caused by trachoma. On the one hand, I do believe that Singer’s argument makes sense, but it seems like a really cold, calculated economic way of looking at life.