This will be my very last blog post of my undergraduate career, and as I think back on my 4 years here, the memories come flooding back. The highlights of my undergraduate career include the incredible experiences made possible by OU’s Global Engagement Fellowship Program, such as studying abroad in Beijing, China and Stuttgart, Germany, and getting connected with people all around the world (from Bolivia to Italy to China). Looking to the future, I was awarded the prestigious Fulbright research grant! I will be going to Germany in September to research oncolytic viruses for one year, and I am beyond excited. I could not have done it without the support of my GEF adviser, Bushra Asif, as well as my family and friends, who proof-read my Fulbright application and encouraged me along the way. Even though I am sad to be leaving OU, I cannot be more thankful to all the people here who made my experience so full. As I look forward to more adventures, beginning from Germany and then going who-knows-where, I will never forget where I came from and will be forever indebted to this beautiful place.
“AshLEYNE!” my OU cousin said, trying to get my attention.
“EsTER!” I replied, emphasizing the second syllable of her name, like she did mine.
Ester was an exchange student from Bolivia this semester and was also my OU cousin (not to be confused with my Chinese OU cousin from a couple years ago, also named Esther). Ester is the oldest of four girls, and it was the first time she had been away from her home for such an extended period of time. It was fun watching her grow during her time in Norman, working her way through culture shock, homesickness, and language barriers–all things that I experienced during my semester abroad in China. Sometimes she would ask me questions about the confusing English language for homework assignments.
“What is the meaning of this idiom–I’ve got your back?”
“It means… that I’ll be there for you, especially in the hard times, that I’ll stand behind you and support you no matter what. Like for example, I’ve got your back, Ester.”
She smiled and laughed, “Yeah, okay, I’ve got your back too, Ashlynne.”
Even though Spanish was not my target language, I enjoyed every moment with Ester, even the times when she made fun of my broken attempts at my 6th-grade-level Spanish. She stayed with my family for a weekend in Texas (my parents spoiled her so much – even more than me!), and on the drive back to Norman she promised that if I came to Bolivia, she and her family would host me and take care of me (and hopefully translate!). On that word, I think now I’ll have to go to Bolivia someday. I would have never imagined going to the middle of South America, but now that I am connected to an OU cousin there, I have a reason to go!
Gehen, ging, gegangen. Go, went, gone. That’s about how my last semester of undergrad felt.
In March, I attended the Puterbaugh Festival for Jenny Erpenbeck, a prestigious German writer whose signature piece of work, Go, Went, Gone, has gained international praise, including from the globally engaged university located smack-dab in the middle of the United States. Following the event, I read part of her book, even though I don’t consider myself much of an avid reader, though I’d like to be. The story centers around Richard, a retiring German professor with East German roots whose direct interactions and friendships with refugees shape his perspective in a society that is growing increasingly hostile toward migrants. Richard himself experienced displacement in his lifetime, but his history does not automatically transfer to compassion to refugees until he begins to know them personally.
I was most intrigued by one speaker at the round-table discussion who had performed a psychological experiment to study how people would respond to or help others who had experienced displacement. Serbians who were displaced in the 1990’s were recruited to participate. Two groups were primed with questions; one priming them with their national identity, and the other priming them with questions of displacement, experiences that they would share with refugees. Each participant was given a certain amount of money, and they could send some, all, or no money to an anonymous refugee in Syria, and what they did not send, they could keep. The sad conclusion was that both groups sent only about 25% of their money. This implies that even the Germans who might have had similar experiences to Syrian refugees in the past (a large majority of Germany’s population are refugees or descendants of refugees), are still not much more sympathetic than those without experiences of displacement.
But at the end of the discussion, an older professor at OU stood up and made a remark that gave the audience some hope. He said that throughout history there have been some key books, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that revolutionized societal thought and changed history; Go, Went, Gone could be such a book.
This semester I attended a lunch talk given by Carston Schapkow on the recent political climate in Germany, especially related to the rise of the right-wing populist party, Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), which is currently the third-largest party in Germany and is the topic of much concerned discussion both in Germany and around the world. While the AfD began as a Eurosceptic party against the economic Eurozone, it has been more recently described as being German nationalist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and stands against the large number of immigrants that have come, and are still coming to Germany. After Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to welcome the wave of refugees, many native Germans became disgruntled as refugee camps sprouted throughout Germany. After the terrorist attack occurred during the Christmas market in Berlin, Germans felt vulnerable and began to look to AfD as a way to vanguard Germany’s security and stand for the voice of the “Volk” or the German people. Schapkow also pointed out that many similar populist parties are sprouting all over Europe.
Even though I was not surprised by the fact that Germany’s refugee crisis has led to anti-immigration sentiment, I was taken aback by the extent to which this has transferred into a political movement that is gaining power, not only in Germany but also all over Europe. The rise of populist parties in Europe is a testament to the fact that more Europeans are becoming dissatisfied with the incompetence of the EU and are looking to more hard-line parties and strong leaders who challenge the notion of unity and tolerance and stand for the voice of their own citizens. While I was in Germany last summer, I remember talking to many Germans (who like to talk about politics) that were dissatisfied with Merkel’s tolerant policies and found the refugees to be a nuisance to their life and their own German society. It seems as if the political climate in Europe is gradually brewing into a perfect storm, and I am eager to see how the political climate changes.
Even though the semester just started, I’m already looking at plane tickets to go to Beijing this summer or to visit Germany again. Don’t get me wrong – my semester has been going pretty well so far, and I like (almost) all of my classes. My favorite classes this semester are Immunology and German. My German teacher is an amiable British bloke whose jokes in German seem way funnier than in English, just because I can actually understand them, and so I laugh more heartily as a reward to myself and as a sign that I actually got the joke. Today in class he played a song by the famous actress Marlene Dietrich, who, along with many other artists, lived outside Germany during the Third Reich in voluntary exile in defiance and insistence that there was another Germany that existed during that time. She always had a love for the Germany of her youth, and eventually was buried in Berlin after living in Paris for most of her life.
In her deep, velvety voice, Dietrich sings metaphorically about a suitcase that she still has in Berlin (link to song here). Even though she enjoys life in Paris, Rome, and Vienna, she still has a suitcase full of the blissful times of the past waiting for her in Berlin. The song expresses a perfect nostalgia that does not necessarily neglect the happiness of the present, yet dreamily yearns to return to the past. The song was absolutely mesmerizing, and a wave of nostalgia with a tinge of sadness hit me. The first wave was for Beijing, my second home, and then the second wave was for Stuttgart, which also occupies a special place in my heart after studying abroad there last summer. I began to think about my transitory dreams to travel back and pick up the suitcases that I’ve left around the world. Some people can’t understand why I have to retrieve them, especially if I’m enjoying my life here in the USA. But Marlene understands my nostalgia, or, rather, I can understand hers. Once you’ve traveled or lived abroad, you know the places where you’ve left suitcases, and the places that will always beckon you. The more I travel, the more I leave my “luggage” around the world. Who knows which suitcase I’ll find, re-open and add more memories to this year.
After taking Erica to eat authentic Mexican food, we decided to give her an authentic Texan experience at the Fort Worth Stockyards Championship Rodeo. After eating delicious Texas barbecue, we made our way to the rodeo. During the patriotic intro with the song “I’m proud to be an American,” I couldn’t help but look over at Erica and feel a tinge of awkwardness as the whole arena sang, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” I did not have that same awkward feeling when I went to the rodeo a few years ago, before spending a semester in China. Travel sure has wrecked me from my nice happy, patriotic life. Now I over-analyze the patriotic songs I grew up singing, the size of our fridge, the number of cars we own, and the plastic cutlery we waste. But it was fun watching Erica throughout the evening-I couldn’t help but think if she would also struggle singing Chinese patriotic songs after going back home.
I took Erica home with me over the weekend after finals week to visit Texas and taste some authentic Mexican food. We went to the most hole-in-the-wall place we could think of –“Taqueria La Original.” The salsa there is spicier than most Americans can handle, the TV in the corner plays dramatic Spanish soap operas, and the street tacos don’t have any shredded cheese on top. So to me, it seemed pretty authentic, but to be honest, I’ve never been to Mexico, so I can’t say what authentic Mexican food is like. Although the large photographs of London that hung the walls made me doubt the “Mexican-ness” of the restaurant, it still is one of my favorite Mexican restaurants. It did make me wonder if my judgement of authenticity is actually accurate, especially considering that many cuisines have become a blend of many different cultures here in the melting pot of the United States. That’s probably why when people ask me to take them to a good American restaurant, I shrug, and take them to a Mexican restaurant instead.
In October, OU’s South Oval swarmed with curious students carrying plates of traditional Chinese food, making their way through the various cultural booths during OU’s yearly Confucius Institute Day, the institute that allowed me to study abroad in Beijing for a semester. After grabbing some spicy pork and fried rice, I made my way through the booths, sampling Chinese tea, learning about traditional Chinese instruments, and practicing calligraphy. I joined a group of students practicing Chinese hacky sack (毽子) for a while, remembering the time I watched a group of older men in Beijing that were hacky sack masters. It was a nice break between Microbiology classes. Later, I ran into some of my international friends at the booths, and we took a break to grab a free snow cone–a first experience for them!
This semester as part of my participation in CESL (Center for English as a Second Language), I spent time with a group of students from China, including, of course, a weekly trip to Walmart in a car full of rapid-fire Chinese that was sometimes hard for me to keep up with.
A few weeks into the semester, they invited me over to their apartment for traditional Chinese food. For dessert, they topped cinnamon sugar toast with moose-tracks ice cream, an invented delicacy that seemed like an appropriate American conclusion to the Asian meal.
In exchange, I began to invite them over to my house on Monday nights for a home-cooked American meal and a window into my college life. I was surprised when they turned down the chopsticks that I offered and instead grabbed up a fork to eat the spaghetti I had made. “Forks are way more convenient!” they said, an honest confession to the superiority of Western cutlery. As we ate the simple American meal, we all reminisced over the delicious Chinese food at BNU’s cafeteria–凉面 liangmian, 包子 baozi, 火锅 hot pot, and 八宝粥 eight treasures porridge– admitting to the supremacy of Eastern cuisine. After dinner, Yedda gravitated toward my guitar, so I taught her a few chords and a basic song. Erica sat in our big velvet-green recliner and read Ovid for her classical mythology class. Wuyan pulled her Japanese textbook out of her bright yellow backpack and pored over Japanese. Jo chatted to her friends on WeChat while reading a book. I sat contented, studying Microbiology, enjoying the presence of my instant friends, in the back of my mind knowing that our time together would quickly come to an end.
During Monday of finals week, Erica told me (around 10 pm) that she just found out that it was Jo’s birthday. In the crazy hour that commenced, we pulled off a surprise birthday party, complete with snacks from the nearby 7-11, and a birthday card. I’ve begun to realize that nobody in Traditions locks their doors, because we all just walked right into her apartment, went to her room, and woke her up to wish her happy birthday!
A few days later, as we said our last tearful goodbyes, promising that we would see each other again in the future, I remembered my own goodbyes when I left Beijing 2 years ago after studying abroad at BNU for a semester. I remembered making the same moist-eyed promises to my Chinese family. I’m grateful that in the last two years I have had the opportunity to see some of them again in unexpected places — England, Poland, and California! Even though we will still stay in touch over WeChat, that evening I couldn’t help but look at flights to Beijing during spring break — a visit is way overdue!
This semester I attended a lecture on the topic of immigration and integration in Germany.
It has taken Germany a long time to realize that it is built upon migration. One in every five Germans comes from a migrant background. Migrants make up more of its population than the USA. During the refugee crisis in the last 3 or so years, over 2 million people flocked to Germany from Arabic countries. At the peak, 12,000 people were arriving every day. Angela Merkel, Germany’s prime minister, decided not to close its borders, and as a result, the federal department that deals with immigration had a 50% increase in staff, but even still, takes months to settle cases.
Integration courses for language and orientation emerged to facilitate these refugees entrance into German society. Merkel said that integration is an expectation that refugees will learn German and abide by German laws. But the recent political climate is shifting against welcoming the refugees, mainly due to security concerns. The recent election has given rise to a new leftist party which maintains a stronger stance against the refugee influx.
As one who has been to Germany and witnessed the influx of refugees from Arabic and Farsi-speaking countries, I recognize that behind the large and looming numbers like “2 million refugees flooded into Germany,” and “6 month wait time for asylum status,” are real people with families back home and unpredictable futures. I admire Germany’s welcoming efforts to ensure that these people transition smoothly to the German way of life. I hope that Germany continues to keep its borders open and maintain its welcoming stance towards migrants.