On Pastries and Internships

There are many things that I miss about Germany. The cold, kind-of blustery days spent discovering historic cities, exploring Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets), Dönner kebabs, among others. But I think the thing I miss most is the plethora of delightful pastries, purchasable at almost every corner. It’s hard to find baked goods that are quite that good here in the US. But I got a throwback to those delights the Friday before Thanksgiving, thanks to efforts of the OU German Club. At their annual Weihnachtsbäckerek (essentially Christmas baking), one instructor brought a traditional Austrian cookie, Vanillekipferl. These cookies are essentially a shortbread with almond flower, providing them with a subtle sweetness that can be increased with a dusting of powdered sugar. I’m a sucker for baked goods, and those hit the spot. They’ll definitely be incorporated into my Christmas traditions from here on.

The German Club provides many opportunities to experience German (and Austrian) culture throughout the semester, opportunities that enhance my appreciation for the unique and storied history of that region of the world. Additionally, the German Club provides its members with the knowledge needed to take advantage of opportunities to study or intern abroad. At this same event, they included information about an agency that coordinates internships for interested students in Germany. One of the barriers to entry to this program was possession of a Lebenslauf (resumé in German). Although I don’t currently have the requisite skills to create this document, I hope to take classes that will continue to increase my skill in the German language. The German Club is an invaluable resource for enhancing my immersion in German culture, and I hope to take greater advantage of those resources in the future.

South American Anti-Corruption Politics

Power corrupts. It certainly could be said to be generally true, and it’s a problem that is combatted in nearly every government in the world. In particular, South America is known for its struggle with and against corruption, an effort that continues into the present. The struggle in South America was discussed by two professors at OU at an international event that focused on corruption and the fight against it in Peru and in Brazil.

Corruption takes a variety of forms across the world – but the most common type discussed in this lecture was businesses taking advantage of government connections to make tremendous amounts of illicit profit. In both Peru and Brazil, companies would contribute significant resources to elect certain leaders who could provide government contracts – significant sources of virtually guaranteed revenue. Once these businesses, frequently large and potentially even popular with the citizens, had gained these contracts, they would drive up the costs significantly. This resulted in, essentially, the theft of millions, and in some cases billions, of taxpayer dollars.

As a consequence of this corruption, many politicians in South America have, in recent years, made strong (apparent) stands against corruption. Many of these leaders have ultimately been shown to be corrupt – accepting bribes from corporations to provide them with favorable rulings. Even judges, whose careers in the public eye had been made through strong anti-corruption campaigns have been shown to have been living in the pocket of these very same corporations.

In both Peru and Brazil, the situation seems to be improving in small ways, and corruption is certainly down from its all-time highs. The way forward is unclear, however. For virtually the entirety of their existence, the governments of Brazil and Peru have, at a minimum, existed with ever-present corruption. Should this corruption be eliminated, civil unrest would almost certainly follow, due to the dramatic changes in government structure. This is not an argument for corruption – rather, it is an acknowledgement that the situation is never black and white. There are always shades of gray.

P.S. One thing that I found very interesting at this talk is that at least some of what is considered corruption in South America, namely the participation of businesses in election through the contribution of funds, is legal in the United States. It makes one consider, at the least, what actually makes corruption wrong? And further, what actually is corruption?

 

 

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The Reunification of Korea

Among the most oppressed countries on earth is North Korea. South Korean leaders, with support of other nations, have attempted at various times to open peace talks with North Korean leadership, although the consensus is that little has been achieved through these talks. There are many challenges facing any unification effort, including enormous costs of reunification and incredible cultural disparities between the nations.

The significant challenge of potentially reunifying Korea can be likened to the reunification of Germany, a work still in progress. Although it has been 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are still challenges Germany faces to become unified in the eyes of all it’s citizens. Many former East Germans still experience less prosperity than their former West German countrymen, and some still feel like “second-class citizens.” As they first entered West (reunified) German society, they expected that they would immediately reach the same level of affluence enjoyed by West Germans. This was not the case, and today there still exists a continuing effort to overcome the two economies’ differential. At the time of reunification, West Germans made ~2 to 3 times as much as East Germans.

Bringing this conversation back to the reunification of Korea, South Koreans today make nearly 25 times as much as the average North Korean – a staggering difference in the wealth of these two nations. The costs of overcoming this wealth gap would be undeniably massive – certainly in the many trillions of dollars.

A wealth gap is not the only challenge facing unification – another tremendous and saddening issue is the health of North Koreans. This was not a challenge experienced by Germany, and, as such, there is virtually no extant information on how one could appropriately handle such a challenge. Many North Koreans have diseases that are significantly less frequent in more developed nations with strong healthcare systems. Tuberculosis, parasitic worms, and Hepatitis C afflict a large swath of the North Korean population. Should reunification successfully be initiated, the government will have to create a plan to provide healthcare to and improve the health of the population of North Korea.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the cultural disparities between North and South Korea must be overcome. Even in Germany, where the cultural differences were comparatively small, there remain distinct political divides between former East and West Germany. Alternative für Deutschland stands as a representative of this divide. The cultural divide between North and South Korea is far more severe. South Korea is a strongly developed democracy, while North Korea is a ruthless and brutal dictatorship, one that allows any of its citizens few, if any freedoms. One defector who occupied a high place in North Korean government was given virtually no choice in his life. He was told to attend a university, he was told what he would study there, he was told what his job would be. Even high-ranking individuals are given no choices in life. This man was unprepared for life in South Korea, and today still struggles with the many choices that most of us consider a normal part of day-to-day life.

Its humbling to realize how little I know – it’s a big world out there. As I researched this post, I was struck by how little I actually knew about North Korea – the challenges faced by the people, the fight for unification, and even the challenges facing successful unification, after the process is begun. I’m reminded that I ought to look out more – after all, it’s so easy to get caught up in your own (or my own) world, wherever that world might be. And regardless of anything else, this story made me realize that there are people, many people out there, in need of help. And I need to do something about that.

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A Growing Threat?

In today’s volatile political climate, ascertaining the truly important aspects of (frequently dramatized) news stories is a consequential challenge. Within reason, especially in print mediums, American news outlets successfully inform the public on current events. However, as dramatic stories attract more viewers, television news outlets, as well as newspapers and the like, frequently focus on sensational events, sometimes letting equally important, if less exciting issues, fall through the cracks. One of these less sensational issues is the United States’ growing competition with China.

Dr. Robert Sutter, a professor at George Washington University, came to OU early in April to discuss the United States’ growing competition and “whole-of-government pushback” against China. China is rapidly becoming one of the most powerful economies in the world, currently standing (with respect to GDP) second only to the United States. Many politicians in Washington on both sides of the aisle are concerned about the growth of the Chinese economy and the impact that it could have on America. In particular, China’s influence in technology is enormous, and, according to Dr. Sutter, their goal seems to be becoming the dominant force in technological development in the world.

This desire for dominance is significant on a number of counts. First, the U.S. military is highly reliant on the United States being at the forefront of technological innovation. A Chinese takeover of this arena could, without exaggeration, pose an “existential threat” to the national security of the United States. Second, if the U.S. loses its status as the dominant world economic power, the dynamics of world politics will dramatically shift.

Dr. Sutter concluded by saying that he believed that China poses a greater threat to the United States than virtually any other nation or challenge today. He argued that something needs to be done on this front – but only time will tell if our strategies are effective.

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The Arab World Today

I cannot, and will not, claim to be any sort of an expert on the Middle East. I had only a cursory knowledge of current challenges prior to attending an event, hosted by OU’s college of International Studies, in March of this year. Although I can’t say I know much, I do feel like I, at least, have some concept of how much I don’t know about the challenges currently facing the Arab world. Since 2010, their has been significant unrest across many nations in the Middle East as the populace rises up, demanding improvements from their leaders.

Unfortunately, change never comes easily. The rulers in the Middle East, by and large dictators, regardless of whether they claim that title, are unwilling to relinquish their power. This is not unique to them; unfortunately, their desire to retain as much power for as long as possible implies that the unrest shall continue for a significant period of time, with rulers using virtually any means necessary to retain their authority. On the topic of authority, power comes, first and foremost, from money. And virtually all of the money in the Middle East is somehow tied to oil. The most economically powerful countries are tightly connected to the oil, often attracting the best workers from across the Middle East. A significant portion of the high incomes that can be earned in these countries is sent back, helping to keep the poorer countries running smoothly. Somewhat surprisingly, foreign governments are often responsible for keeping dictators in power, providing them with desperately needed funds. All this is to say, for the leaders currently in power in the Arab world, money is the essential ingredient to power retention.

Although there are still many significant problems facing the Arab world today, there are signs that things may be improving. And according to the speaker, the less involved foreign governments are in the affairs of the Middle East, the more rapidly change will occur. He does not believe that the Arab spring is spring – rather, he argues that it will be carried through until things improve in the Middle East.

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Canadian Strife

I would argue that, as in many other situations, many people think that governments in other countries are immune to many of the challenges are government and political system face. Corrupt officials are exposed, we frequently disagree with where our nation’s leaders are taking the country, and we seem to be constantly facing some new scandal. Although we imagine that “the grass is greener” in other countries, that’s just not really the case, as the scandal that has been rocking Canadian politics shows.

Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, came into office with a message of change – promising that he would “change politics.” [1] Now, a powerful Montreal-based oil company, SNC-Lavalin, is accused of using bribery to obtain government contracts and is currently facing a criminal case. In spite of the seriousness of these charges, it appears that Trudeau and/or senior officials in his government pushed for a comparatively minor punishment of fining SNC-Lavalin rather than pursuing a criminal case against them. If convicted of criminal charges, SNC-Lavalin would be barred, by law, from receiving government contracts for 10 years. As has come to light, Trudeau and other high-ranking officials feared that this result would cause the loss of many Canadian jobs. The government’s interference in this case has resulted in the resignation of multiple members of Trudeau’s cabinet and continues to hound the Prime Minister as he heads into the next election cycle.

This story seems to highlight the universal nature of the problems experienced by governments across the world. The specifics may vary from place to place, but the overarching problems and challenges remain. Will these ever change? I can’t say – all I can do is hope that a better understanding of all nations and their challenges, and not merely our own, will strengthen my convictions and help us all contribute to a stronger society in the future.

[1] NBC News article

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Cultural Immersion (Even in Norman)

After my first experience studying abroad, the importance of being immersed in different cultures has been pushed to the foreground of my thinking. In particular, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to fully appreciate a language without also having at least some concept of the culture associated with it. The OU German Club provides many excellent opportunities for students who study German to learn more about the culture itself. Just this semester, I was exposed to one of Franz Kafka’s most famous works, “The Trial” for the first time in a dramatic reading, in part sponsored by the German Club. I also had the opportunity to attend “Die Zauber Flöte” (“The Magic Flute”), an opera by Motzart that was promoted by the German club. In addition, the German Club organizes weekly meetings at a local restaurant (Stammtische), where any student can go, eat, and (of course) speak German.

I believe that these events, and others like them, have significantly increased my appreciation for and desire to learn the German language. It’s not merely a matter of comprehension, I wish to be able to read, understand, and fully appreciate German art and literature (as I can already appreciate German food without the language). Although I probably won’t be able to take more German in the near future, I hope to use the opportunities that are available to continue to immerse myself, to such a degree as I can, in the culture and develop my language fluency.

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Brexit and the Irish Border

I can’t claim to exactly understand all the issues at play in Brexit, whether the social factors that led to the referendum that started Brexit, the political bartering between Prime Minister Theresa May and the EU, or otherwise. From what I can gather, however, there is division and discord on nearly every significant issue. As one (important) example, the EU allows free movement of peoples across borders inside the EU, while the U.K. wants the authority to vet and control the individuals that enter the country. Despite the discord, there is one issue upon which both sides agree: there cannot be a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

A hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland recalls the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s, when terrorism rocked Ireland and Northern Ireland. No party wishes to precipitate a recurrence of this violence. As of yet, there has not been a proposed solution that satisfies both sides. As an example of a proposed (and rejected) solution, there could be a soft border in Ireland with strict controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. This plan has been rejected since it would merely divide the United Kingdom and encourage Ireland to unite. However, early on in the process of negotiating Brexit, the EU demanded that there be a “backstop” solution to the Irish border question; a failsafe that would kick in, should the U.K. and EU fail to find a compromise regarding the Irish border.

The backstop is this: the U.K. would leave the EU (i.e. they would no longer have representation in the EU) while remaining in the EU Customs Union. Such an occurrence does not significantly effect the EU, while such an eventuality would leave many in the U.K. dissatisfied. Essentially, they would still be bound my many of the rules and regulations of the EU, without having any say in the creation of these laws. Personally, I see no particularly clear solution to this problem that can satisfy all parties involved. This issue serves to highlight the many factors and complexities that muddy the waters in international relations.

P.S. For those interested in some excellent summary information in this topic, check out CGP Grey on YouTube – there is a series of videos on the topic of Brexit, including reasonably clear summaries at the many issues and factors at play.

 

References

I used “What is the Irish Backstop, and Why is it Holding Up Brexit?” as my source for background info on this post. <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/30/world/europe/irish-backstop-brexit.html>

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My Adventure

As I sit in the B-section of FCO getting ready to start my roughly 40-hour trip home, it’s hard to internalize and digest my time in Europe. I can honestly say that this semester was better than I ever could have imagined. When I arrived, I didn’t think that this experience would change me; four months later, I’m leaving a different person. I’m going to talk about how this semester changed me and why that’s what made this semester great.

Europe is a different ball of wax – everything just moves a little bit differently than in the USA. Especially in Italy, timetables are more relaxed, trains are frequently delayed, and most people are comparatively chill (at least when compared to me). This generally relaxed atmosphere, coupled with walking or taking public transportation everywhere, changed my general demeanor and attitude. I had to relinquish my perceived control, especially when it involved TrenItalia, and role with the punches. This made me more relaxed, less stressed, and generally happier. Hopefully, I can carry this new-found attitude over to driving at home.

When in Europe, you are rarely alone. I lived in a single room (hallelujah!), but when I was not in my room, I was always around other people, whether other OU students or fellow pedestrians/travelers. This constant exposure to people, particularly when traveling on weekends, has made me a more tolerant individual. When there are so many people around and so much to see and do, you just can’t be concerned with what other people are doing, unless they’re walking slowly and in the middle of the lane; literally nothing is more frustrating than that. I learned (imperfectly) to not sweat the small stuff and focus on what aspects of my experience I could control.

As I traveled through Europe, and even when I was just studying in Arezzo, I was constantly struck by how lucky I was. I got to live in Europe for four months – that’s just generally awesome. I’m more grateful than I can express for that opportunity and to the people who made it possible. Without the support (and occasional push) of my parents, I might not have gone to Arezzo for the semester in the first place. And I also have to give a shout out to Kevin Schuetz who gave me a job at Koda CrossFit Norman as a freshman in college. Without that job, there’s no way I would have been able to travel around and see everything I did. The appreciation I have for this experience carries over into everything – I have a greater sense of gratitude for everything I have.

Europe challenged me in a lot of ways. Public transportation was not remotely self-explanatory for me (especially at the beginning); the language barrier was a perpetual challenge; budgeting time to allow for weekend travel while keeping up with school was (and still is) a work in progress. But being there required that I rise to meet those challenges; although I was far from perfect, I certainly tried. And strangely enough, in the midst of all the “vacationing” (as my dad calls my semester), I learned to love working hard – to be challenged and then face those challenges.

More than anything else, going to Europe this semester was an adventure. It was completely different from anything I’d ever done before. I’m not sure I can stress strongly enough how different it was. I was tested, and those tests forced me to grow. That’s why I loved this semester. It wasn’t exclusively about getting to travel around to all the cities I visited. While I was traveling and visiting all those different cities, those places were changing me. Although mine was a rather less dramatic journey, I still feel a bit like Bilbo on his return from the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. His adventure left him changed, and the same is true for me.

The Travels Pt. 3

So . . . Prague happened. Having completed my traveling for this semester, Prague is second only to Berlin in my mind. Prague was something else. Within one hour of being in the city I had fallen in love. I knew it was going to be good when I walked into a main square and saw a Christmas tree silhouetted in front of an amazing, Gothic church façade. And it was more than good; it was great. The Christmas markets had great food (especially gnocchi with sauerkraut) and high quality products that made my Christmas shopping pretty easy. Inside the castle complex I discovered my new favorite church in Europe: St. Vitus’ Cathedral. It was a spectacular example of Gothic architecture, and I am a sucker for beautiful Gothic churches. There were great views and tons of cool museums. But more than anything else, Prague had a unique atmosphere.

Prague was the perfect mix of old and new. I’ve been in cities that have felt really old (like Rome) and in cities that are ancient and magnificent (like Siena). I’ve seen cities that have embraced modern society (like Berlin). Prague was the first city that seemed to have bridged the divide between the old and new. Sections of the city, such as the castle complex, had the charm and wonder I would expect from a fairytale. Other areas, such as one near the National Monument, were modern, bustling thoroughfares. But regardless of my location, it was always uniquely Prague. The city had not lost its identity to the modern world, nor was it stuck in the past refusing to adapt to a changing world. I’ll be coming back to Prague.

Now, just to wrap everything together (as it relates to traveling), here are my top three trips of the semester: in first, Berlin; in second, Prague; in third, Bern. The one thing these cities have in common is a great ambiance and unique character. Simply being in these cities was enjoyable – sitting in a café for hours would be awesome in any one of these cities. And of all the cities I’ve visited on this trip, these are the three that I want to go back to more than any others. So, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.”