A summer of travel

This summer, I was fortunate enough to be able to do a lot of traveling. In May, I visited New York City, Toronto, and Montreal for two weeks with a friend I’ve known since middle school, as well as friends who were exchange students at OU. Before leaving, I was interested to see how it would go, if we would make good travel buddies or if there might be some conflict. I was actually surprised how little trouble we had; although we did some things all together, at other times we naturally split up into smaller groups when we wanted to see different things. It was such a fun trip, and it was definitely interesting to compare the three cities as we went to one after another. New York and Toronto were both cities full of exciting things to do, see, and of course eat, as well as people from all different places and walks of life. However, Toronto kind of felt like the younger, cleaner version of New York, with nicer people. Although New York has a certain magic about it with its grittiness and history, I couldn’t help but think Toronto would be a nicer place to live if I had to choose. Nevertheless, both had their own charms and I definitely hope I can return someday (hopefully sooner rather than later) to explore them even more. You could certainly live in both cities for your entire life and still discover new things to see and do. I would also love to go back to Montreal one day. Entering the old part of the city was like stepping into a small piece of Europe, albeit a rather touristy piece. The rest of the city felt like a regular large North American city, which is not a bad thing. With a thriving young and hip community, there were many roads covered in beautiful street art and full of attractive coffeeshops and restaurants.

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From June to July, I traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania to visit my friend Migle who was my roommate during my study abroad in South Korea. I stayed with Migle and her family for a month, and there’s no way I could possibly write about all of the things we did. Not only did we explore Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, we also went to the seaside and stayed in a yacht at the Curonian Spit, which separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic sea. We visited the small town my ancestors came from, Moletai, and we traveled across the border to visit Riga and Tallinn, the capitals of Latvia and Estonia. I went at the perfect time, because I was able to experience both the Midsummer’s Festival/St. Jonas’ Day and the Lithuania Song and Dance Festival. The latter would normally not have occurred this year, but was held specially for the Lithuanian Independence 100 Year Anniversary. Traveling with a local is such a rewarding experience, because you see and do things that you would just not even know to look for if you are touring by yourself. Migle and I also traveled together in Korea, so we already knew we made excellent travel partners because we are interested in seeing the same kind of things. We visited pretty coffeeshops ranging from sleek industrial styles to “soviet chic” style, we explored traditional open-air markets as well as modern shopping malls.  Staying at a local’s house and getting to eat home-cooked food is also a luxury when you are traveling, especially when your friend’s mom is such an excellent cook–I know from personal experience. As much as I loved studying abroad in Korea, not having access to a kitchen or home-cooked food 99% of the time could get tiring. I may write another post later to discuss more about some aspects of my travel in Lithuania, because there is just so much to write.IMG_0245IMG_0403Processed with MOLDIVIMG_0395IMG_0805IMG_0972IMG_1059

In Toronto, Montreal, and Vilnius, there was a certain aspect that gave me a strange feeling as a Jewish person. Both of the cities had thriving Jewish communities in the not-so-distant past. Vilnius in particular used to be called the Jerusalem of the North or the Jerusalem of Lithuania because its Jewish population was so large before World War II. Right before World War II, Jews accounted for 30% of Vilnius’s population. Following World War II, the Lithuanian Jewish population was nearly decimated. Very few Jews now live there, and the Great Synagogue there has been replaced by an elementary school that my friend attended because it was a five minute walk from her home (although the school is now closed, as well.) I took a “Jewish Vilnius” walking tour and while fascinating, it was also saddening to realize that a huge, thriving community that used to live right in and around my friend’s neighborhood had been essentially destroyed.

Montreal and Toronto’s Jewish communities are doing much better than Vilnius’s, but it was strange to realize that the artsy, hipster areas that my friends and I were having fun exploring used to be the Jewish neighborhood of the city. Although I loved the existing atmosphere of those areas, I couldn’t help but feel a little remorseful that much of the Jewish culture in those areas were lost. I wondered what it would have been like to visit when those neighborhoods were still home to a large Jewish community. I was, however, also inspired by signs of efforts to celebrate the Jewish community, such as the Shalom Montreal exhibit at the McCord Museum, or efforts to restore and respect the memory of the Jewish community, such as the current excavations of the yard of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius. Of course in New York City as well there is a huge Jewish population, but during my trip my most significant encounter with Jewish New Yorker culture was eating at the very touristy, very overpriced Katz’s Deli. Hopefully next time I go to New York I can explore the Jewish culture there more fully.

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OU Cousins and the State Fair

This semester, my OU Cousin is a lovely girl named Seunghye. Although we never got the chance to meet while I was there, she is from Kyungpook National University, the school at which I studied abroad in Daegu, South Korea from 2016 to 2017. We got in touch through a mutual friend from KNU when Seunghye came to study at OU. Seunghye has a very bright personality and it was very easy to get close to her, even though I can be a bit shy when I first meet people. We talk together in both English and Korean so we can both practice our language skills, although Seunghye is so good at English it doesn’t seem like she needs much practice.

On Saturday, I went with Seunghye and some other exchange students from KNU to the State Fair. To be honest, it was not as exciting as I remembered it being when I was younger. I have very fond memories of going to the State Fair with my friends in middle school and high school, eating the heart attack-inducing fried food and riding the rides. I guess after I got a bit older and realized how dangerous the rides were (since they made to be broken down and put back together frequently), some of the magic of the fair disappeared. Nevertheless, it is still fun to take exchange students to the fair so they can get a piece of American and Oklahoman culture. Even though we didn’t ride the rides, the atmosphere was quite exciting and the food was…well, it’s unique. Many of the foods they sell there you can’t get anywhere else. We tried the fried oreos and the Indian taco. We also tried several samples of locally-made products, such as wine, coffee, and candy. We also did some people-watching and talked about the Oklahoman accent and Southern dialect of American English, since many fair-goers had Oklahoman accents. Even though it was quite hot, it was still fun since we were there together.

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Arab-Israel Conflict, Where to Now? A group discussion with Dr. Lewental

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On September 6th, I attended a conversation and group discussion with Dr. Gershon Lewental about the present state of the Arab-Israeli Conflict and its future. In the past, I have taken a course with Dr. Lewental about Israeli culture and film that I thoroughly enjoyed. I have not been able to take one of his classes since then, so I wanted to attend this event to hear from him. In addition, as a Jewish person I always feel like I should be more educated about the Arab-Israeli conflict than I am. Despite having learned about it multiple times, because of its complexity the details quickly get fuzzy. I also went to this event to educate myself more about this issue.

An interesting point that Dr. Lewental made about the current state of the conflict is that the biggest change in recent years did not actually occur in Israel or Palestine. The biggest change was the establishment of the Trump administration in the U.S. Like with many other issues, Donald Trump’s rash and uneducated statements and actions, such as his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, have led to unfortunate consequences in Israel. His decision to move the U.S. embassy gives the impression that Jerusalem is a part of the Jewish state and only the Jewish state, which is a conflict-creating move given Jerusalem’s importance to all three of the Abrahamic religions. Trump has given the more extreme members of Israel’s right wing party, which is currently in power, a sense of security. This means that the right wind party is shifting further away from the center.

In July, Israel enacted the “nation-state bill”, which while in reality does nothing, has a significant symbolic meaning. The bill says that Israel is a Zionist state of the Jewish people, which was obviously already the case, but it does not emphasize protections or equality for minorities. The rhetoric effect of this bill is that it provides support for the political far-right, and demotes Arab minorities in Israel as a group. This has resulted in protest rallies among the Druze and Arab Muslims. The Druze were the first to file a petition with the court against the law because they saw it as an attack on them and their ethnic bond with the Jews.

With these events that have had a negative effect on the Arab-Israeli conflict in mind, Dr. Lewental stressed the necessity for both Israeli and Palestinian politicians to be more proactive about improving relations. The problem, he explained, was that it is beneficial for these politicians to maintain the status quo instead of pushing for peace. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu does not subscribe to a particular ideology; rather, he does what is necessary to maintain support so he can stay in power. Right now, this means pandering to the far right. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian state and the Palestinian National Authority, also wants to retain his office, so he has been undermining any potential successor. He has been in power for much longer than he was supposed to be, so his death will likely lead to internal conflict in Palestine over who will replace him. The situation is essentially at a standstill as both of these politicians simply try to do what is necessary to maintain their own personal power, instead of considering what is best for their people. Dr. Lewental said that the political left in Israel need to find a more charismatic figure for their party and make more efforts to persuade the Israeli public that the country does in fact have a “partner for peace” in Palestine.

Overall, the talk was fascinating but not exactly uplifting or hopeful. Although it is a complex subject about which I do not feel comfortable making any predictions, I hope that in the future politicians on both sides of the conflict will be more enthusiastic about coming to a compromise and a solution.

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Catching the Travel Bug and Summer Plans

Ever since I studied abroad in South Korea, I have been dying to go traveling again. People warned me about catching the travel bug after traveling abroad, and they were certainly right.

In fact, I suppose that I caught the travel bug after I first went abroad in high school. During my first international trip in 2012, I spent a week in Poland and Czechia, and then a month in Israel. I loved this trip, and it is where I got my first real taste for international travel. I was then fortunate to have several opportunities to travel abroad during my high school and university years. The next year, I spent two weeks in France with my high school French class. Again, I had a blast, especially because this program included staying with a host family for its duration. I loved the opportunity to have a more immersive cultural experience by staying with a local family. Then in the summer of 2015, I spent one month in the summer in South Korea. Obviously I enjoyed the trip, because I would later return to the same university. At the end of 2015, I took a Birthright trip to Israel for 10 days and I enjoyed revisiting many of the sites I saw in high school as they took on a new meaning because of my more mature and developed perspective. Finally, from 2016-2017, I studied abroad in Korea again for a full academic year. I also took side trips during that year to Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan.

I think there were two features in particular about my year abroad in Korea that caused me to catch a much more serious strain of the travel bug. Firstly, it was the first international trip I went on where I had a lot of freedom. I learned that I loved all kinds of international travel, but I especially love travel that allows me the freedom to explore the way I want.Before that, all of my trips abroad were conducted in groups, coordinated and planned by someone else, and too short to allow for a lot of individual free time. Even during my first month-long study abroad experience in Korea, I often had to attend events or activities during the week and go on pre-planned day trips during the weekend. While I enjoyed all of these activities and they helped me learn more about both traditional and modern Korean culture, I didn’t get to choose what I did or where I went myself. During my year in Korea, the only pre-planned trips and events I participated in were ones on which I chose to go. Although the year went by in a flash, I certainly had much more time to explore the city as well as visit other cities with my friends. I was able to learn more about the parts of Korean culture about which I knew little. I had the time and ability to join a school organization, SWING, which was a volunteering program for Korean and exchange students to plan and execute activities and communicate with disabled community members at a center for disabled persons. This newfound time and freedom also gave me the ability to make many local friends at the university, as opposed to the previous trip where I mostly met with other exchange students. As a result, my Korean language skills also improved a lot while I was there as I talked with my Korean friends.

The second feature of my year abroad in Korea that made me more crazy about traveling was its proximity with my graduation. My year abroad was my junior year in university, and I will be graduating in Spring 2019 because I am participating in a five-year program that complete my bachelor’s and master’s degree. Although one more year seems like a long time, I know from experience it will go by very quickly. Then I will graduate and will have to enter the job market. Who knows when I will have the time or ability to travel for any extended period of time again? Although I feel incredibly busy now, I’m sure I will only become busier when I start working full time. I want to get as much traveling done as is feasibly possible before I graduate. I’m incredibly grateful that I am in a position where I have the time and financial resources to be able to travel, and I want to take advantage of that position.

So with that in mind, I will be spending this summer traveling again. I am so excited to be going on adventures with friends all over the world. I will be spending almost two weeks traveling in New York City, Toronto, and Montréal with my American friend and some Korean exchange student friends before they return to Korea. I have only visited NYC once for an afternoon several years ago, and I have never been to Canada before, so I can’t wait. Then, later this summer, I will spend a month in Lithuania, staying with my roommate from Korea. Some of my ancestors are from a city in Lithuania called Molėtai. I can’t wait to spend a whole month exploring the home country of both my ancestors and a very close friend. I never thought until very recently that I would ever travel to Lithuania. In fact, Lithuania was never even on my radar until I met my Lithuanian friend, Miglė. Now, I will be spending a month there very shortly. Once you start traveling abroad, you never know who you will meet and where you will end up next.

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My first trip abroad, in front of the Western Wall (2012)

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During my year in South Korea, at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju (2017)

 

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With Korean university friends (2017)

 

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Spring Break with my OU Cousin (and other exchange students)

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I was fortunate enough to get to spend spring break with my OU cousin Yooseung and some other Korean exchange students in Florida. Their names are Seungwon and Yeongyeong. When I was at Kyungpook National University in Korea, I tutored Yeongyeong in English essay writing at  the school’s International Writing Center. At the time, I didn’t know that she would be studying abroad at OU the next year, nor did she know I was an OU student. Imagine our shock when we saw each other in the fall at OU. I am so glad I got this chance to get closer to her as a friend, rather than as just a tutor. It’s even more amazing that we were able to spent spring break together in Florida. What a small world.

Thanks to my aunt’s incredible generosity, we were able to spend six days at her beach house in San Destin. I was very excited to get to share this experience with my friends from Korea. Especially since they are studying abroad in a landlocked state, I wanted them to experience an American beach. Rather than spending our days rushing around trying to see and do everything, we took a very leisurely approach to our time there. We spent a lot of time relaxing by the beach, by the pool, and at the house. Some days we ate fresh seafood out at a restaurant, other days we stayed at home and cooked Korean food for my aunt to try. My aunt has the sweetest dog on earth, so we also took great pleasure in giving her a lot of pets and attention. Of course, we also took plenty of pictures.

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One thing I found very interesting on this trip was comparing how Americans and Koreans react when they enjoy something or are surprised by something. I feel like this difference is especially noticeable when comparing the reactions of young women from both countries. Although American girls will react positively when they hear good news, see something exciting and new, or something along similar lines, I think their responses are fairly tempered. They don’t tend to raise the volume or pitch of their voice much, or have very big reactions. At least, not in comparison to young Korean women. In contrast, whenever my friends experienced or saw something new during spring break, they tended to give a very big reaction. Their response was always quite loud and enthusiastic and included oohs and ahhs. The pitch of their voices tended to go up quite a bit. I had noticed this difference while I was in Korea, but had forgotten about it as I got used to it during the year. But after I heard these big and excited responses so often during spring break, I started thinking about it again. Perhaps this has to do with sociocultural expectations and norms. It may be a part of social etiquette in Korea to demonstrate a great deal of excitement or joy in response to good news, a new experience, etc. Of course, as with any cultural generalizations, this doesn’t apply to all Koreans. Everyone has their own personality. Yeongyeong tends to be more mild-mannered and calm than my other two friends who came to Florida, so her reactions were smaller. But in general, it seems that Korean social norms require bigger reactions to demonstrate the proper amount of satisfaction, excitement, or gratitude.

In any case, my aunt loved this kind of reaction. She said my friends were the best guests she has every had at her beach house, and she has had many a guest over. It was an honor.

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A Couple Travel Tips

In my last post, I mentioned I would share a couple of travel tips that I have learned based on my time in Malaysia. I just have two pieces of advice to share, and perhaps you already know them. Still, they may be useful for those who do not have a lot of experience with international (or even domestic) travel.

1) Traveling somewhere you know a local

I think this is probably the most significant thing I learned during my travels last year. From 2016 to 2017, I studied abroad in South Korea. During my winter break there, I traveled to Taipei, Taiwan for about 8 days. After my year of study abroad was over, I spent a few weeks traveling to Malaysia, Vietnam, and Japan. Japan was the only place I traveled without knowing a local there, although luckily I was traveling with a friend. Knowing locals in Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam made my experiences there so much more comfortable and fun. They knew all of the best places to visit and the best dishes to eat. They know the spots that aren’t constantly crowded with tourists. If you don’t speak the language of the country you are visiting, your friend can help you communicate with other locals. They (usually) don’t get lost. When you have questions about something you see while traveling, you have someone to ask instead of just wondering to yourself (or trying to Google it).

I have a couple recommendations in relation to this tip. First of all, if you are traveling abroad, try to befriend other travelers who are from different countries. This is perhaps easier when you are studying abroad, because you will often be taking classes for an entire semester with other exchange students from around the world. Making friends from all over the globe is one of the big advantages of studying abroad. Although sometimes it is bittersweet to have friends halfway across the world who you cannot meet easily, it guarantees you a friendly local if you ever travel to their home countries. My second recommendation is to actually travel to the home countries of your new friends! Even if it is not a place you ever considered going to before, knowing a local who can guide you almost guarantees that you will have a good time there. I would rather go to a country that I had no prior interest in if I had a friend there, than a country I had a lot of interest in but no friends.

2) Travel all over the region you are in!

If you are in a certain region, you should try to explore multiple countries within the region. If you are in a certain country, you should try to explore multiple cities and towns. I admit I don’t always follow my own advice. When I travelled to Taiwan, I probably had time to visit at least one other city besides Taipei. I also think you need to find a balance; there are always time limitations. I would rather spend a full week visiting only one city, learning its ins and outs, exploring all over, than visit five cities in a week. With the latter tactic, you have seen more cities, but you’ve seen much less of each individual city. I prefer to get to know a place. That being said, when you have traveled far from home, you should take advantage of your location. If you go to France, it will be much faster and cheaper to travel to other European countries. If you travel to South Korea, like me, it will be easier to travel to other Asian countries. This is why I also traveled to Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, and Malaysia (with a quick day trip to Thailand) before I came back to the U.S. In my opinion, this is just being practical and using your money wisely. Plus, visiting multiple countries within a region in the same trip reveals to you their similarities and differences, helping you gain a richer understanding of the commonalities and complexities in the region.

Hopefully this advice can be helpful to any OU students who will be studying abroad in the future. Travel as much as you can (within reason), and visit your international friends whenever you can!

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ASEAN Night

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In February, I attended ASEAN Night, an evening of colorful and exciting performances by OU students from several different South-East Asian countries. The event was the first of its kind at OU, put on by the ASEAN Student Association, which was established in 2017. At the beginning of the show, there was a fashion show that displayed the beautiful traditional clothes of the ASEAN nations. This was followed by several different performances of traditional dances with short intermissions that included trivia about the ASEAN member countries. One of the dances that stood out the most to me was tinikling, a Philippine folk dance. The dance involves two people hitting and sliding bamboo sticks on the ground in varied rhythm, and people jumping over the sticks and dancing in synchronization. This dance obviously required a lot of coordination and practice and was very fun to watch.

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Going to ASEAN Night reminded me of my time in Penang, Malaysia last summer. I was only there for a few days, but it was an amazing trip. Malaysia is a diverse country and this fact is visible in many forms. The people, the food, and the architecture is all an eclectic mix of different cultures and religions. The country is known for having large populations of Malay, Chinese, and Indian populations. You can eat food from all of these cultures in Malaysia, and it is all delicious. Although the majority religion is Islam, there are also many Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus. You can find places of worship for all of these religions around Malaysia: mosques, churches, and Buddhist and Hindu temples. Many of the buildings recall the period of British colonization, while others show the Chinese influence that resulted from the large immigration of Chinese in the 1800s and 1900s. The architecture is also a blend of old and new, with sleek, modern high rises and shopping districts mixing in with the more traditional buildings.

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The food and architecture were arguably my favorite things about Malaysia. They were so different from anything I had ever seen in the U.S. or Korea (I had just come from Korea at the time). Korea was in some ways fascinating because of its homogeneity: most of the population is ethnically Korean. Most of the traditional architecture I saw was in the mountains or in small towns, far away from the modern buildings of the big city. The U.S. is diverse, but obviously in different ways from Malaysia. Although I don’t have the knowledge to delve into the complex histories of the U.S. and Malaysia that have resulted in different cultures of interaction between their racial and ethnic groups, it seemed as if in Malaysia, people of different ethnic groups lived in closer proximity. There also appeared to be less intermarriage between groups in Malaysia, but this is all based on anecdotal evidence. Finally, because of the U.S.’s short history as a modern state, the architecture is not as old. This is even more true in Oklahoma than it is in cities on the east coast.

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At ASEAN Night, I was brought back to my time in Malaysia for a few precious moments. I hope that one day I can go back and visit again. I will talk more in my next blog about some pieces of advice I have for travelers that are based on my experience in Malaysia.

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Human Rights in the Americas and the Role of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

On January 25th, I attended the lecture “Human Rights in the Americas and the Role of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights” given by Paolo Abrão, the Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. It was an interesting talk that gave a general summary of the problems in North and South American nations that the Commission is trying to mitigate. Some of the most urgent matters that the Commission is working on include indigenous rights, women’s rights, and immigrants’ rights. Indigenous peoples in many South American countries experience violence and violations of their land rights, for example when multinational companies mine illegally on indigenous land in Brazil and Colombia. In Canada, indigenous women face discrimination and indigenous youth have distressingly high suicide rates. The culture of machismo has been an obstacle for women’s rights in Latin America, although there has been progress with reproductive health rights in Chile and El Salvador, and increased protections for women in Uruguay and Argentina. Nevertheless, statistics show an upward trend in physical and psychological threats to women in various countries and Venezuelan women face a shortage in contraceptives due to economic reasons. Immigration legislation in Brazil, Guatemala, and Ecuador comply with international and inter-American standards, but human rights violations against immigrants in the Americas have increased in recent years. Both U.S. and Argentinian immigrant laws are becoming more restrictive. The possible end of the DACA program in the U.S. would have ripple effects through the Americas as immigrants on their way to the U.S. could end up vulnerable and stuck in countries who cannot easily handle a sudden population increase. Despite the fact that awareness of the human rights violations that the indigenous, women, and immigrants suffer is growing, these violations still continue to happen.

I attended the event after hearing about it from Dr. Morais, my professor for Development Practice. Considering the contents of this talk in the context of what we learned in class made me more aware of the difficulties involved in the practice of aid or development. In class, we have discussed how development or international cooperation is not as straightforward as simply developing a project to target a specific problem in a country. It may go as planned, but there are so many external factors that can affect the result. These external factors that play a role in human rights violations in the Americas are government corruption, economic struggles, and environmental disasters. In countries like Peru, human rights that previously existed have been lost in some cases because of recent economic problems. Systematic corruption has negatively affected the credibility of rule of law, making it difficult to address rights violations through law. This also makes it more difficult for formal institutions to function properly. Often, political leaders can be very intolerant and restrict their citizens’ rights. Freedom of speech is nonexistent in some places: reporters and others who speak out against rights violations are assassinated in countries like Mexico and Venezuela. The government often controls the media. Natural disasters can financially ruin the impoverished, with indigenous peoples often being among the poor in many countries. As mentioned previously, cultural features can also prevent social changes, like machismo hindering women’s rights. A narrow, temporary development project is not enough to fix such complex problems. Systemic corruption may prevent aid or development projects from entering the country at all, or possibly use them to the government’s advantage. It can be very difficult to make progress with development without the support of the state. If one of the root causes of a specific problem is economic trouble (micro- or macro-level), then a project that does not address this root cause may not ultimately be effective. Although we have talked about these difficulties in class, this lecture gave me very concrete examples of what kind of factors can prevent the success of development projects in places close to home. Development is a complicated practice, and requires extensive contextual knowledge and careful deliberation and planning. Good intentions are not enough. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights is playing an important role in human rights development in the Americas by addressing these problems while acknowledging their complexities.

 

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K-pop group BTS at the AMA’s

Last month, something happened that I never would have expected. The K-pop boy band BTS performed at the American Music Awards. Although K-pop artists have occasionally tried to break into the U.S. market, this is perhaps the first time I have seen a Korean artist blow up in the U.S., with the exception of Psy. And while Psy’s American success can mostly be chalked up to a song and music video just asking to go viral, I would attribute BTS’s success to their ever-growing and ever-adoring American fanbase.

In fact, this isn’t the first time BTS’s American fans have brought them across the world to perform in the U.S. Earlier this year, BTS was nominated for and won the Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist, one of two Billboard awards voted for by fans. Breaking Justin Bieber’s six-year streak for winning this award, American BTS fans helped their favorite band to win in 2017.

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BTS winning a Billboard award

 

Now, I hear BTS songs on the local radio. My friends who aren’t interested in K-pop have heard of them. In response to this sudden increase in BTS’s popularity, my friend, who has been a big BTS fan for a few years, asked me if I thought this was the opening of the floodgates. Would other K-pop artists now have a chance to come onto the American music scene?

I answered her honestly: I could certainly be wrong, but I find it unlikely. BTS won their Billboard award because of their huge international fan base, but K-pop is a bit of an acquired taste, and most of the Western population hasn’t developed a taste for it. Last year, CL, a K-pop singer, made her U.S. debut with little fanfare. As far as I know, her fans supported her, but she gained few new fans. This is all a matter of opinion, but I think CL’s English language single “Lifted” would sound much more familiar and comfortable to American listeners than the songs that BTS has performed here, both because of the English lyrics and the American sound. Despite this, her U.S. debut was not a success. As a result, it seems that American audiences (meaning the large majority) aren’t particularly interested in K-pop, or Asian musicians in general. I can’t help but think BTS’s U.S. success is entirely dependent on the obsession-level commitment of their existing fanbase to support them, rather than an increase in the actual number of fans. BTS is known in South Korea for having an international fanbase much larger and more dedicated than its domestic fanbase, something unique for a K-pop group. Another factor may be that the U.S. music industry is already flooded. There are so many American musicians vying to hit it big, there isn’t much room for acts from other countries.

On top of that, watching American interviews of BTS revealed that many don’t seem to be taking BTS seriously. Many BTS fans have complained online that interviewers asked the same boring, vapid questions over and over and didn’t take the group seriously. Some interviewers were even borderline disrespectful, asking why the group wouldn’t release any English-language music. Only one of the members of the band speaks more than a little English, and I got the impression that this was one of the reasons why the interviewers didn’t take the group seriously. The language barrier and communication problems made it difficult for the interviewers to connect with the band members. Furthermore, the group’s hair, clothes, makeup, and mannerisms are quite unusual for U.S. audiences, to the point of even seeming a bit alien at times. Some of the interviewers’s treatment of the group was as if they were talking to children. I am not sure the American media is ready to take seriously foreign celebrities who don’t speak fluent English.

I hope I am wrong about the U.S. music scene’s readiness for K-pop and other international acts. Both the U.S. pop music industry and the K-pop music industry are producing a lot of similar, unoriginal songs. But I think that K-pop’s ability to mix American and European musical influences with a (modern) East Asian twist is a strength, and allows for more variety in K-pop than I have seen in American pop recently. I think U.S. pop music could benefit from more variety, and so I hope that in the future more Korean artists, as well as other artists from around the world, will be able to break into the American music scene and get their music on local radio stations and national TV programs the way that BTS has.

Finally, I think that music is a great way to open the doors to cultural diversity and respect. Music is one very accessible element of culture, and interest in the music of another culture may often lead to interest in the culture as a whole. I started listening to K-pop in middle school; that was the trigger to my interest in Korean culture, and especially the Korean language. If it weren’t for K-pop, I may never have ended up studying abroad in South Korea, which was pretty much the best year of my life so far. Now that I am writing this, I actually owe a lot to Korean pop music. While this view is perhaps overly optimistic, I think if the U.S. music scene allows for more international acts to flourish here, more people will develop an appreciation and respect for other cultures.

I will leave you with a video of BTS’s performance at the AMA’s. It’s a very catchy song, and the combination of the group’s carefully-coiffed style and skillful, synchronized dance moves make it a fun watch:

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The North Korea Challenge in US-China Relations with Dr. Jeffrey Lewis

On Wednesday, October 18th, I had the pleasure of listening to a fantastic talk by Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, an adjunct professor and director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Dr. Lewis presented on the North Korean nuclear program and how it relates to US-China relations as well as relations between all three states. I admire Dr. Lewis for his ability to explain complex topics in a simple, straightforward, and interesting manner. His insights were fascinating, and although I certainly cannot explain it as well as he did, I will attempt to summarize a couple of the main points he made.

1) We are underestimating the progress of North Korea’s nuclear program in the same way that we did the Chinese nuclear program historically.

In the 1960s, the US government severely underestimated the progress of China’s nuclear program, thinking they were much further behind than they were in reality. US officials did not believe China had the technology to develop nuclear power without assistance. When the US continued to release statements that the Chinese nuclear program was not that developed, China decided to prove to the US how far it had come, firing a missile across the country. Unfortunately, I don’t remember all the details but the message of this anecdote Dr. Lewis shared was clear–after China fired that missile, the US started to take the Chinese nuclear program seriously and increase efforts toward non-proliferation to lower the risk of a global nuclear arms race.

In the same way that we underestimated China, Dr. Lewis argues that we are now underestimating the development of the North Korean nuclear program. I can’t keep straight all the technical details Dr. Lewis shared about the particular technological advancements that the North Koreans have made, but his point was that the US consistently denies North Korea claims of these advancements. In fact, experts like Dr. Lewis and his colleagues can analyze photographs released by the North Korean regime of their nuclear technology and conclude that in fact, they are as advanced as they claim to be. This means that the US needs to be taking the threat of a nuclear North Korea much more seriously as they create missiles that can reach increasingly greater distances.

2) We are overestimating the power that China has in convincing North Korea to restrict its nuclear program.

There exists a sort of “common knowledge” in the US that China is North Korea’s closest ally. Although it is not true, many think that China assists the North Korean nuclear program. Many Americans assume that the two are close to the extent that China exhibits a significant amount of influence over North Korea. In fact, Dr. Lewis argues, while China may have more influence over North Korea than the US, ultimately no country has significant influence over North Korea. The ideology that the North Korean regime enforces upon its public and advertises to the world at large does not allow room for influencing powers to exist. Although North Korea is reliant on China for trade and goods, China is just as susceptible as the US to nuclear threats. In a way, the US has been reliant on the idea that China can influence and control North Korea, when in fact this is not the case. Dr. Lewis warns that this overestimation of China’s power is dangerous because it may lead our administration to take more risky action than it would otherwise, thinking that China can “handle” the North Korean reaction.

I feel like I have done an embarrassingly poor job at explaining Dr. Lewis’ points, but I wanted to make a post on this subject because I find it so fascinating. North Korea is an isolationist nation, cut off for the most part from the rest of the world, yet it plays an important role in international relations. Its nuclear program is an important aspect of relations between the US and China. Furthermore, North Korea’s possible actions do not just affect the US and China, but also Japan and of course South Korea as well. If we want to stretch this even further, the North Korean problem is often considered a global issue that must be dealt with by organizations such as the United Nations. If the US or another country were to take unilateral action of some type against North Korea without consent from the UN, it could go so far as to create rifts within the organization. It is likely that the majority of the globe will have to be united in any action it takes to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem for significant change to be achieved. Taking all of this into consideration, North Korea is a volatile and unpredictable force in Asia that we need to keep a close eye on.

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