Finding Home–家に帰って

Another semester is coming to a close here at OU. That makes two since I returned from Japan. It’s started to hit me recently just how long it’s been since I got back. The Japanese language has three primary verbs for traveling: one for going, one for coming, and one for returning home. I thought I’d returned, but I don’t feel home. Don’t get me wrong, I love OU and my friends here. I love being able to communicate with almost everyone. I love eating cheese in ungodly amounts and being able to make tacos without breaking the bank. But despite all that, I don’t feel like I’m home. I miss Japan. I miss the mountains and the sakura in spring. I miss the smell of the ramen and curry shops along the streets by campus. I miss the friends that came to mean so much to me, even though we were only together for a short time. Mostly I miss the feeling of home that I got from my neighborhood with its quiet streets and the small bakery where I’d buy breakfast. I know it’s unrealistic to look back and see only the happy parts. I spent many lonely nights in Japan aching to be here with my friends. Well, they say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I suppose it’s true.

As it drifts farther into the past, I’m trying to keep my experiences alive within me. I no longer respond to people automatically in Japanese, and I’ve lost the habit of converting all of my purchases into yen in my mind. But I don’t want to lose the part of me that loved and embraced living in Japan. I’m still studying Japanese, though I’m sure I’m not as good as I was a year ago. This semester I’ve also been attending the Japanese Club at OU as much as I can. I have friends there from Japan, and it’s so comforting to fall into discussions about which conbinis (convenience stores) we liked and our favorite parts of town. But for every happy memory there is a pang of longing. For every shared smile from an inside joke in Japanese there is an ache for the sights, sounds, and smells of Kyoto. When I boarded the plane to come back to America, I truly thought I was coming home. Now I’m not so sure.

As I approach the end of my college career, I will look for opportunities to go abroad again. I want to find my home. Perhaps it is somewhere here in the States. Perhaps I found it when I was living in Kyoto. Or perhaps it’s somewhere I have yet to go. Wherever it is, I won’t stop flying until I find it—the place I was meant return to. Home.

Ireland and Brexit

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture with the Consul General of Ireland to the Southwest region of the United States. He was speaking on Brexit and the challenges that Ireland is facing as a result. The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will be the only land border between the European Union and the United Kingdom. To complicate matters, this border has been extremely open for the past 20 years, ever since the Good Friday Accords brought peace to the region. The Irish and British economies are closely interwoven as well with many goods passing the border repeatedly throughout manufacture. Brexit has the capacity to greatly harm Ireland because of this interconnectivity.

Ireland is a small country and therefore a small market. Most of its GDP comes from trade and the bulk of that trade is with the UK, about $75 billion annually. Even as Brexit terms remain undecided, the value of the British pound is falling, increasing the price of Irish goods in the UK. Harsh terms of trade from the EU would make this problem worse for Ireland. Therefore, Ireland supports a soft Brexit, with relatively open borders and low if any tariffs. This would be the best case scenario for the Irish economy.

There is good news for Ireland as well though. The country has seen massive economic gains since its entry into the EU, and 80% of the Irish population favors remaining in the bloc, even after Brexit. To help cement its future growth, Ireland has been expanding its diplomatic presence abroad by opening new consulates and doubling personnel in many of their existing locations. Ireland has long been a small country in the shadow of the UK and the rest of Europe. However, they’ve begun making a name for themselves. Ireland is ready to take a place on the world stage, even vying for one of the nonpermanent seats on the UN Security Council for the upcoming rotation.

I really enjoyed this lecture because I know far less about Ireland than I would like. The downside to focusing my attention on a specific region is that I fall behind on the affairs of the rest of the world. I, like much of the world, was loosely following Brexit when the polls were open and it was current news. However, since the negotiations have been unproductive for so long, I fell out of touch with the issue. I enjoyed hearing this new perspective and getting an update on the events since Brexit was decided upon. All in all, it was another wonderfully informative event here at OU.

A New Journey—Costa Rica

Over Spring Break I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica, my first flight taking me abroad without crossing the Pacific. I was visiting as a student, studying the corporate environment and the function of leadership in Costa Rica. Although I was only in the country for 10 days, I learned a great deal and had the opportunity to experience a culture greatly different from any I’d been in before.

The business culture in Costa Rica is highly developed and well-specialized. Although agriculture remains important to the economy, Costa Rica has emerged as a hub for transnational corporations seeking a foothold in Latin America due to its longstanding democracy, low corruption, and established infrastructure. At the same time, Costa Rica has attracted many important manufacturing jobs in the pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and communications industries because it is relatively low cost while also having much lower risk than the many parts of Asia that would typically attract these manufacturing jobs. Tourism has also been a pillar of Costa Rica’s economy, with visitors coming from across the developed world to experience the natural beauty of the protected landscapes that make up 25% of Costa Rica’s total land area. Lastly, many entrepreneurs and corporations in Costa Rica are working to become more sustainable and promote environmentally friendly industries as a primary driver of the economy. This includes giants like Walmart and Gensler that work with local farmers and businesses as well as small local players who use their own limited capital and influence to promote organic products and clean industries. Altogether, Costa Rica’s economy is remarkably diverse and is growing rapidly as more and more companies strive to take advantage of its developed market and educated labor force.

Culturally, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Costa Rica. I had vague ideas about Latin American cultures, but the picture painted is usually one of an underdeveloped third world country. What I found was starkly different. Costa Rica is highly developed. The population is over 98% literate and the country is 99% electrified. The national electric, oil, and medical services are relatively expensive but highly efficient. Costa Rica has a well-developed educational system and a steadily growing economy. All in all, it is a first world country. At the same time, driving through San Jose, we saw unmistakable signs of poverty and crime from ramshackle buildings to the ever present bars protecting the windows of residences and businesses. In this way, Costa Rica reminded me of China. Both nations are straddling eras, with elements of both preindustrial nations and modern economic powerhouses coexisting within a single country. Old and new, rich and poor exist side by side.

Altogether, I had a great trip and enjoyed myself. I also learned a lot. The way we classify countries is far too simplistic. Calling countries “first” or “third” world gives the impression that some countries are better or further along in history than others. This isn’t true. Different countries have different struggles and different economic systems. However, every country has its own strengths and all have something to contribute to the world. I want to continue traveling to experience more cultures and learn to appreciate the unique gifts that each brings to the international community.

Nuclear War versus Diplomacy

Last week, a diverse group of OU students and faculty as well as members of the Norman community gathered for a lecture by Dr. Trita Parsi, one of America’s leading experts on the Middle East and particularly US-Iran relations. In an era increasingly defined by fake news and bigotry, Dr. Parsi brought a message of hope, describing how diplomacy had prevented a war and allowed two very different nations to reach a tentative peace. Having worked in Washington throughout this process, Dr. Parsi brought a behind-the-scenes view of this profound diplomatic victory. According to Dr. Parsi, the current political landscape in the Middle East, especially in regards to US-Arab relations, was not inevitable. Over the decades, there have been many opportunities for diplomacy to bridge gaps and forge strong and lasting connections between the Middle East and the West. However, these opportunities have been systematically misused or neglected, particularly by the United States. However, under President Obama, diplomacy won the day and nuclear war was averted. Dr. Parsi’s lecture aimed to explain how this unthinkable peaceful solution was attained.

After the Persian Gulf War ended, the Israelis and Iranians who had fought together against Iraqi power in the region turned against one another. Israel convinced the US to broaden its containment of Iraq to include Iran as well, devastating Iran. In attempts to be released from containment and recognized as a major power in the Middle East by the US, Iran began its nuclear program. After containment was broken by the US instigation of the Iraq War, Iran redoubled its efforts to gain recognition, while Israel took a hardline position against uranium enrichment in Iran. Knowing Iran could never accept such a deal, Israel hoped to force the US and Iran into armed conflict, which would shatter Iranian power and influence throughout the region. Meanwhile, the US had an impossible set of goals to achieve: prevent war, prevent nuclear development in Iran, prevent Israel from embroiling itself in war (which would require the US to also go to war), and prevent Iran from defining the new geopolitical order of the Middle East.

Presidents Bush and Obama originally pursued similar strategies of embargoes, sanctions, and cyberwarfare. President Obama even convinced the EU and other developed nations to partner with the US in the worst sanctions imposed on any country in history, causing Iranian GDP to contract by 25% in 3 years and devastating the national economy. In response, Iran did the only thing they could see to do—further expand the nuclear program until the US broke. US-Iranian relations had dissolved into a global game of chicken composed of nukes versus sanctions with the addition of the Israeli wildcard.

In early 2012, John Kerry approached President Obama to convince him that a secret negotiation channel was needed between the US and Iran to provide the possibility of a diplomatic solution, since the official channels were simply feelers to see if the other party was close to breaking. The country of Oman, long friends with both the US and Iran, volunteered to host these secret meetings, with the first taking place in July of 2012. After two years of tense negotiations, riddled with distrust on both sides, the Sultan of Oman carried the US deal to Tehran, where the Iranian government accepted the terms. Iran would be allowed to maintain a modest stockpile of low-enrichment uranium but would cease increased enrichment. In return, the US and its allies would lift the sanctions.

Unfortunately, this hopeful end has not been stable. President Trump has consistently threatened to break the deal with Iran and impose new sanctions. This uncertainty has prevented businesses from returning to Iran and stymied economic growth. At the same time, the President has offended many international allies, further eroding the US’s influence globally. Lastly, funding cuts to the state department have left many key embassies understaffed. South Korea, our main buffer against possible North Korean aggression, does not currently have a US ambassador. Such actions make future diplomatic negotiations by the US nearly impossible. The Iranian Nuclear Deal is precarious and ready to fall. Unfortunately it may only be a precursor to what is to come.

I really enjoyed Dr. Parsi’s lecture. His credentials working alongside both parties in the Iranian Nuclear Deal gave him a fascinating perspective. He also was able to flesh out the underlying motives of all parties involved. I had never really studied Iran and the nuclear deal before now, but I feel like I have a working understanding of the situation after the lecture. Yes, the US could have gotten a better deal. However, by the time the US was willing to engage with the Iranians, the nuclear program was much too far along for a better deal than what we got. Therefore, one of the key takeaways from this lecture was to start diplomacy early. If we had opened negotiations with Tehran when the Iranians first sought a diplomatic solution, Iran may not have had nuclear capabilities today. The second key takeaway is that America needs allies. The nuclear deal could not have been concluded without Oman, an Arab Muslim state that made an active effort to see diplomacy rule the day. We could not have negotiated on our own. Lastly, I think this situation serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy and perspective. Each party had its own needs and objectives. However, it is very possible that all three countries could have seen their objectives fulfilled years earlier if they had only been willing to honestly and transparently deal with one another. These three lessons are the most important in my opinion from the lecture and the US-Iran Nuclear Deal.

 

Embracing Unity

As the worldwide trend toward globalization continues, new opportunities and struggles are emerging for many fields. My own time spent abroad would likely have been impossible without the ease of traveling and security that has resulted from globalization. However, interconnectivity has greatly affected the business world too, my other field of study. Although Price and other business schools have increased their education in international affairs, many business students in America still remain unaware of business culture and developments outside of the US. I believe this to be a problematic gap in their education. However, despite this trend, some faculty and students are making active efforts to educate themselves and their peers on rarely discussed topics in international business.

One of these efforts led to the creation of OU’s first annual Unity in the Global Economy conference, which took place last week at Price College of Business. Unity is an event dedicated to the celebration of cultural differences in business around the world. Various cultural organizations from the university came together to meet with American students and each give a presentation on their own small corner of the world. I had the pleasure of listening to representatives from the Chinese in Business College Association, the Angolan Student Association, the Indian Student Association, and others speak about their own countries and how business communities abroad differ from the one in the States. I learned a great deal about business in Angola, East Africa, and Turkey, areas I haven’t studied very much in the past. I also got to talk one-on-one with several of the representatives, exploring more detailed nuances of their home countries’ economies.

I am thrilled to have been involved in making the first Unity event a success, even though my role was very limited outside of attending. I hope that next year this event will be an even greater success. Learning about other countries and their peoples and cultures is an invaluable opportunity. I am fortunate to attend a university that supports its students in organizing events like this in order to foster that learning and a greater appreciation of global unity.

Facing the Future United—Indonesia

While I was living in Japan, I discovered once again the extent of my ignorance of the rest of the world. Many of my friends were from countries I knew little if anything about. One of the most striking examples to me was Indonesia. Having met many students from Indonesia during my stay in Japan, I began to realize I knew nothing about their country despite its large population and relevance in ASEAN, a major economic bloc. I began to remedy this flaw even as I studied in Japan, taking a class devoted to ASEAN and its member countries. However, I still know far less than I feel I should about Indonesia along with the rest of the ASEAN states, so when I saw the opportunity to attend a lecture by Indonesian Consul General Nana Yuliana, I jumped at the chance.

The lecture, which took place earlier this week, was incredibly insightful. Dr. Yuliana has worked in a variety of diplomatic roles across the world, including as a member of the UN’s Economic Council, and is currently stationed at the Indonesian consulate in Houston, TX. Her lecture focused on Indonesian foreign policy, particularly as it relates to the US, as well as containing an overview of Indonesia and ASEAN in a global context. She explained the geography, the population demographics, and the post-colonial history of the country. After the dismantling of European colonies at the end of WWII, Indonesia was formed from a large archipelago of disparate cultures and peoples. With over 300 ethnic groups, over 700 languages actively spoken, and a large population of multiple major religious groups, the original and continued unity of Indonesia as a nation-state is a political marvel. Despite significant challenges to this unity, Indonesia, within the first decade of its existence, already turned its gaze outside its borders and sought to take an active role in international politics. In 1955 Indonesia hosted the Bandung Conference, a meeting of newly independent Asian and African states uniting against colonialism and neocolonialism. Since then, Indonesia has continued its active participation in several international organizations, particularly ASEAN and the UN, where Indonesia is a candidate as a non-permanent Security Council member for 2019-2020.

Like the rest of the world, Indonesia is facing a host of challenges in today’s political climate. With continued conflict in the South China Sea, the threat of North Korea, and worldwide fears of terrorism, Indonesia has much to concern itself with. More locally, Indonesia has expanded its efforts to accept refugees from the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and is serving as a mediator between the Philippines and the Moro National Liberation Front. Through its efforts in Southeast Asia, the Indonesian government is working to promote human rights and democracy throughout the region.

At the same time, however, Indonesia is facing struggles within its own borders. Despite Dr. Yuliana’s praise of Indonesia’s 5% annual GDP growth, my friends from Indonesia have found that national GDP growth does not always translate into actual improved standards of living for the people of a country. Rising prices, stagnant wages, and large public works projects that so far have done very little good for the majority of the population make the realities of Indonesia’s growth much less promising. Careful management and informed economic policy are vital for the Indonesian government in the coming months and years in order to translate short-run growth into reinvestment and long-term sustainable development. Indonesia has come a long way since it invented itself out of the post-WWII ashes of the Dutch East Indies. However, the country still has much growing to do and needs a steady, future-minded hand to lead it up the treacherous path to a bright and secure future for all citizens.

Frozen Time

The past few weeks have rushed past me, occupying my time with midterms, my Fulbright application, and various events on campus. I have adjusted fairly easily to being back in the States, but some days I still am struck by the loss of the mountains on every horizon. In general though, I have been too busy to give much thought to the life I left in Japan. It is the mixed blessing of busyness.

Overall it has been a good semester. I have a class with my OU Cousin for the first time this semester, so she and I get to see each other regularly. I also had the privilege of attending OU’s International Prom with her and a few of my other friends, where we celebrated the international community here at OU. I am working to take full advantage of the many opportunities presented by the university to engage with the international community, including a daily international news update and the school-wide Teach In on the strengths and weaknesses of constitutions. Meanwhile I continue to be involved with the JCPenney Leadership Program, joining with other business students on campus to pursue professional development and the life-skills we will need after graduation.

Although many of my activities have not changed, my life at OU is changing whether I like it or not. My friends who I’ve studied alongside since we arrived here freshman year are searching for full-time employment. Most of them will be leaving me when this year ends. At the same time, with President Boren stepping down at the end of this year, the school itself is poised for change in the coming year. Life at OU as I have known it is changing. Like anyone else, I don’t care for change. If I could freeze these years and my friends and keep things the way they are, I would be very tempted to do so. However, I know that time flows on, with or without me. I will cherish these days that I have left with my friends while looking forward to new horizons and adventures. There is still much of the world left for me to see. I cannot fly if I remain here, frozen in time.

The Road Goes On

I have been back in America for a month and a half now. Midterms are starting at university, and it is now an inescapable fact that I won’t be going back to Japan any time soon. This is not a short vacation back in the States—I’m here to stay for now. I can’t say I like the idea. I got so used to being in Japan.  I complained about it while I was there, but I also loved it. Now I’m having to adjust to being back here. However, I don’t want to become content. I don’t want to lose my drive to travel and see the world. While I’m here though I will continue searching for ways of staying globally involved.

In pursuit of this goal, I’m trying to engage with other countries and language associations outside those I have been involved with in the past. Across campus there are seminars about myriad places and cultures, and I want to learn more about all of them. This week I attended a lecture by Dr. Liu on the history of Chinese radicals. I was probably the only person in the room who’d never studied Chinese, but it was fascinating nonetheless. I was able to learn more about the relationship between Japanese and Chinese and their shared history, as well as continue my study of kanji, the Japanese writing system derived from Han Chinese.

Even as my classes focus on business and economics, I am actively working to continue a rounded and global education both through my continued study of Japanese and Spanish as well as through lectures on campus and personal conversations. I learned a great deal about the world while I was abroad, and I’m more aware than ever that there is much more to learn. I’ve traveled far, but the road ahead of me will hopefully take me many more places before my journey ends.

Kyoto 6.23.17

My Dearest Friend,

With a month left of my semester and a month and a half until I leave Japan, the end of my time in Japan is drawing close. This semester has flown faster than I could ever have imagined. The month since I last wrote has been a blur of flashcards and readings, trying to keep up with my workload. Now with the end of the semester in sight, my normal work has been supplemented with presentations, exams, and research reports. It will be very difficult to make sure I don’t let my busyness get in the way of enjoying my last few weeks here in Japan.

I did have a break this past week however. Two of my close friends from the States are studying in Asia this summer as well, and they stayed with me in Japan for a few days on their way. It was fun getting to catch up and show someone else the city that I’ve loved living in all year. I also finally visited the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji, along with the Ritsumeikan World Peace Museum. It was a relief to have a break from my studies and to explore the city a little more. I also had forgotten just how much I missed my friends from home. So despite being very sorry to leave Japan, I know I’m returning to great friends who love and miss me.

Before I leave I’ll sit down and try to put into words all the things I’ve learned here, but one is already on my mind. Growing up, I loved studying ancient history and civilizations. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese—these groups were so much more interesting to me than politics or modern cultures. It still makes sense to me. I’m a lover of fantasy, so civilizations with their own histories and cultures that were fundamentally removed from me were more interesting to me than the mundane realities of my world. What I didn’t understand until recently is that modern European or Asian countries were no more real to me than their ancient counterparts. I was just as removed from the modern world. Growing up in America, especially living in one city for the majority of my life, everything outside America was either the same as America or didn’t really exist. Even after visiting China last summer, I still didn’t really understand that people live in ways that are fundamentally different than how I always had.

It turns out, I don’t need a car, a dryer for my laundry, or even to be home with my family on every holiday. All of those are good things, but they are not necessary aspects of life. There are also things I always expected to be part of my future that don’t necessarily need to be. I expected my future to be defined by working long hours before coming home to a silent apartment, living out my life in the States. That doesn’t have to be my future. I can travel. I can live in a new country every few years. I can find things I love to do and work to support myself, even if it’s not building a glamorous career. I don’t know what my future holds, but that’s half the fun.

My friend, when I return we will have so much to talk about. I hope you’ll still recognize me. I feel like I’m so different than I was when I left. Honestly, I think I’ve grown into a stronger and more beautiful person. Hopefully you’ll agree. I’ll try to write again once finals are over.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

A Wallet and a Journey

Instead of writing a letter today, I wanted to simply tell a story, particularly to those of my friends who are studying abroad or plan to in the future. Two weeks ago, just as my spring vacation began, I lost my wallet for the first time in my life. I was out with friends and had the wallet in my back pocket. Whenever it’s there, I check on it occasionally because I’m paranoid. Well, at one point in the evening, my wallet wasn’t there anymore. My friends and I all searched the building, retracing my steps since we’d entered. I knew I’d had it when we arrived, but now it was gone. We talked to the staff as well as a couple other foreigners we’d met, but no one knew anything of it. We finally gave one of the workers our contact information and left for the night.

The next day I filed a police report as is protocol in Japan. They assured me I would be contacted if my wallet was found. They, like everyone else I had talked to, seemed pretty sure that my wallet would turn up. In Japan, personal items are usually pretty secure. Pickpocketing and petty theft are fairly rare. Cash is a little bit more likely to be taken, but wallets are usually returned. Alas, I am one of the unlucky—my wallet still has not been found. Within a few days of submitting the police report, I had to begin preparing for this very eventuality. Do not get me wrong, things could have been much worse. Nothing totally irreplaceable was in my wallet. I didn’t have to secure a new passport or anything like that, but I did need a new Japanese residence card and a new health insurance card. So last week, I got to fully explore the wonderful world of dealing with everyday bureaucracy abroad.

I’ve mentioned in my letter series how disappointed I’ve been with myself for neglecting to really embrace my time in Japan and explore my city and the surrounding areas. Well, the natural extension of that sad fact was that I didn’t have a clue where I was supposed to be going or how I was supposed to get there. At first I was trying to work with one of my Japanese friends so that she could either go with me or walk me through these processes over the phone, but I soon realized that I didn’t have time to coordinate schedules before getting my missing items replaced. So I got a list of places I needed to go and forms I needed to acquire and then set off on my own.

I won’t go into the whole process because it was long and tedious. However, I will say I spent hours on busses getting from one part of the city to another just to struggle to communicate when I arrived. It was all incredibly stressful, but I did eventually get everything done that I needed. I was thrilled to be able to finally relax. And then, at the end of all of this, I realized something: I needed this experience more than I can every say. I know my way around the bus routes now. I am confident that in a crisis I can communicate in Japanese, even if it is somewhat childish and awkward. I’ve been to parts of the city I’d never seen and realized that different parts that I had visited were within walking distance of one another. If you had told me a month ago that I needed to, say, take a train to Tokyo, I would have immediately started asking people for help. I think I can do it myself now, even though I’ve never done it before. This whole disaster did what nothing else had and managed to finally push me out of my comfort zone. As much as I hated it and as much stress as it caused, I’m so glad it happened. Losing my wallet may very well have been the single most important and valuable moment of my trip to Japan thus far.

That’s my story. Now, a quick word to those who, like me, have trouble getting out of a comfort zone. You may think that by going abroad you’ve succeeded in breaking the barrier and popping your bubble. You haven’t. It’s far easier than I’d like to admit to build a new comfort zone in a foreign country. So don’t become complacent. And as little faith as you may have in your language abilities, you’ll be ok. I have friends who haven’t taken a day of Japanese who have seen more of Japan than I can name. You are your greatest enemy and biggest barrier. So get out of your own way. Yes, be careful and be smart. But the world isn’t dangerous enough to justify missing it. Do what you came to do. Don’t sit in your room and binge Netflix—that’s what home is for. You have to do it for yourself. After all, we can’t all be lucky enough to lose our wallets.