What does it mean to be globally engaged without traveling?

For over a year now a lot of people have been isolated from activities that they would normally be involved in. This includes students who were involved in the global community here at OU. I originally had plans to travel to Yamaguchi, Japan before the lockdowns initially began. Since then it has been very hard to tell how things will develop. Initially Japan was dealing with the situation very well, but over time they have had a few slipups and their rollout of the vaccine has not gone very well so far. One of the most important things for me to do over this time period has been to stay engaged with news coming out of Japan and the rest of the world as a whole. This situation has taught everyone how connected the world really is as a situation in one country could affect the rest of the world.

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Vaccine Rollout

The vaccine rollout here in the US had a lot of initial hurdles, but seems to be on a good trajectory now. Japan, in contrast still has a long way to go with their vaccination rollout. This is troubling as I am still planning on studying abroad there this coming Fall. Japan has had a history of problems with vaccinations, so I think that is part of the reason it is taking so long to get going. I think that once a couple of vaccines are approved there then they will be able to speed up the vaccination program a lot, but until more vaccines get approved I am very worried.

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Global Engagement Day

On April 14th I got the opportunity to go to the online version of the global engagement day. It was a good chance to see some familiar faces that I hadn’t seen in a while. I even recognized ne of the students presenting about their study abroad experiences from my Japanese class. His experiences were really interesting to me as I haven’t actually heard too much of the experiences of anyone who has went to Japan. I feel like he talked about some really practical stuff that will be helpful if I am able to travel abroad.

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Cultural Relativism

As an anthropology student, most of my courses are centered on examining cultural practices through a lens of cultural relativism. Coined by the father of modern anthropology Franz Boas, cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person’s own culture, and not be judged against the criteria of another. This idea is valuable in the field of anthropological study as it guides an ethnographer through the conduction of fieldwork, driving them away from making of unfair judgements or conclusions when studying a culture’s practices. It encourages the anthropologist to remove any personal biases which may prevent them from understanding practices as they are understood by those who engage in them.

In a globalized world, the skill of cultural relativism is one which should be harnessed by all. I find this perspective useful in aspects of my life even outside of my anthropological studies. When I travel internationally it is especially critical in enhancing the immersiveness of my experiences. When I studied in Italy for a semester, I arrived in the country with the intentions of fully embracing its culture. I developed my understanding of Italian culture by observing the behaviors of locals. I noticed many clear differences between Italian and American culture. When greeting, Italians often lightly kissed each other on both cheeks. In America, this would be considered an unusual invasion of privacy for a casual greeting, especially from a stranger, but in Italy the gesture indicated friendship and affection. Other differences took me longer to grasp. I gained an appreciation for the slower pace of Italian life only when I let go of my own time-dictated American habits. The relaxed Italian lifestyle helped me fully understand the beauty of living in the moment. We miss so much when we forget to pause and admire the world around us. By identifying the new aspects of my environment and their significance to its people, I was able to understand and adapt to the Italian lifestyle. Overall, this experience abroad taught me the importance of stepping out of my comfort zone. My willingness to immerse myself in the culture allowed me to gain a unique Italian perspective and a sincere appreciation for the culture.

This practice of cultural relativism is also valuable on an international scale as it’s lack can lead to conflicts and misunderstandings between countries.  In my Reproductive Politics class this semester, we read a paper titled “‘What About Female Genital Mutilation?” And Why Understanding Culture Matters in the First Place”. In an article about the paper, anthropologist Richard Shweder discusses the problematic narrative about Female Genital Mutation (FGM) in Africa which circulates in North America and Europe. These erroneous understandings of FGM characterize it as a terrible, abusive reproductive practice which strips African women of their rights and sexuality. It spreads a narrative that African culture does not respect the health and wellbeing of its women to a degree which requires international intervention. However, discussions about the practice of FGM with African women gives light to a different narrative. African women do not feel abused by the practices of FGM, rather they view it as an beautiful, coming of age ritual to which they look forward to. The practice of FGM holds a different meaning to African women that is not understood by the international community. Despite judgements and interventional policies from the West, these women continue to engage in these cultural customs and practices as they are meaningful to them. The topic of FGM is just one example of many in which lack of cultural relativism can lead to misunderstandings on an international level.

Diwali Mela

With COVID-19 restrictions, lots of organizations on campus had have to reenvision their traditional events. Last semester, I attended OU’s Indian Student Association’s Diwali Mela. Usually, this event is a large-scale catered event with live dance performances. However, the event looked a bit different this year, taking place outside on the south oval in a come and go fashion. ISA set-up tables of free, Indian food including samosas, laddus, Frooti drinks, and ice cream. The event also included a diya painting stand. Diyas are small, clay oil lamps popularly used during Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. I walked over to the event after my honors class, loading up on the delicious free food and the beautiful painted diyas. While this past year as been difficult and often lacked a sense of normalcy, I am grateful that organizations like ISA made an effort to continue their usual celebrations (with the necessary accommodations for health and safety). Especially as Diwali is a major Indian holidays, marking the beginning of a new year in the Hindu calendar.

Sal mubarak!