The Origin of Stigmas

Like perhaps many Americans of my generation, I grew up seeing items in stores labeled with the oh-so-familiar “Made in China” stamp. I thought this was a mark of poor quality and cheap materials. I had no foundation for this belief—it was simply that which I had always known. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that this stigma may in fact be unfounded. Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to a lecture by Dr. Elyssa Faison, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Faison’s lecture focused on the American views of the major economic powers of the East at the time of their rise, namely China and Japan.

In the late 1940s, just after the close of World War II, Japan was making great strides to rebuild its economy after the war. And yet, the American perspective on Japanese goods was less than optimistic. The label “Made in Japan” was a running joke because who wanted cheap Japanese goods? This all too familiar situation did not, however, stem from actual poor quality goods. Instead, a slew of propaganda created for the war had been slowly released from production and began to invade the minds of the populace. These “documentaries” and advertisements accused the Japanese of underselling Western products and pirating Western designs. Thus the global image of the Japanese economy turned sour. These ideas remained prevalent into the 1980s when Japanese electronics and cars began to find their way into the West. For years, the older generations were hesitant about trusting Japanese made cars and gadgets, but slowly the old stereotypes began to die and were replaced by a respect for the strong and unyielding Japanese economy.

As I listened to Dr. Faison’s lecture, I was struck by the similarity between these outdated ideas about Japan and my own childhood beliefs about China’s economy. Therefore, I was very curious to find out how these representations came to be transferred from Japan to China. The answer should not be surprising. Just as US propaganda painted the Japanese as scammers and thieves for the sake of WWII, the rise of Communism in China drove the US to declare a new enemy. Propaganda once again served its purpose and dictated a generation or more’s view of an entire nation.

That’s the path these ideas took to their resting place in my childhood beliefs. There is little to no evidence to back up either of these stereotypes, and yet they are very hard to displace. Many Americans still consider Chinese goods to be inherently cheap. Given time, we will, hopefully, overcome these misconceptions. Then we will be able to see other cultures for what they truly are, rather than for what an outside power paints them to be.

Heroes for Today

Last weekend the new James Bond movie came out. I didn’t grow up with James Bond, but since coming to college I have seen several of the movies and found that overall I enjoy them. As such, when a group of my friends decided to go see Spectre on opening weekend, I opted to go with them. I have no intention of weighing in on whether it was a good movie. I enjoyed it, but that’s all I intend to say about the movie. What I do want to talk about is the protagonist.

Since going to the movie, I’ve become increasingly aware of the admiration many Americans have for Bond. More importantly, I’ve realized that many of my friends have a surprisingly strong desire to be like him. Perhaps I’ve just missed something, but I don’t like Bond all that much. He’s arrogant, reckless, and, for all his strength and cool gadgets, unable to protect those he cares about. The movies are fun, but I don’t want them to be more than stories. I also don’t want my little brother, or anyone to be honest, growing up with a desire to be like James Bond. Bond is an outdated icon of a world many people are glad we have escaped.

Our nation and our world are currently embroiled in debates about diversity and equality. I generally try to avoid these debates because I feel as if I am unqualified to say anything about these issues. I try my best to listen to the calls for equality and embrace diversity in my own life, but I avoid joining the discussion beyond that. Today, I am going to make a comment—if we want to change our world, let’s start with our children and the next generation. Instead of raising our children with icons like James Bond, let’s find new icons who embody the ideals we desire to see in our young people. Does our world really need a James Bond in this day and age? I don’t think so. Perhaps it’s time we found better heroes.

Reflections by the Fire

I sit here in this place that has become my home and think. I’ve become so accustomed to this inn and these friends and the laughter and stories that we’ve shared. A lot has changed over the months here though. Many friendships have grown, though some have faded. Some paths have converged, while others have split, leading us apart. I’ve met some of the best friends I’ve ever had, and also lost contact with some of my friends from childhood.

It’s not just the group that has the changed though—I have changed. I have been assured by my friends that I’m very different than the girl who came to college last semester. The months have worked their magic and aged me. I have become more relaxed, more open to others, and more cautious with my words. I have learned more than I could have dreamed. Topics I once knew nothing about, I can now hold an intelligent conversation concerning. This semester I was involved in another political discussion group, again joining with other students to watch the weather of the world. After the first few weeks, I noticed that my fellow group members, knowing my field of interest and study, would ask me about economic issues in Asia. At first, I really didn’t think I was qualified to give any sort of response. However, I began to see a change in my answers as they became tolerably informed. I am by no means an expert, but I know enough now to analyze and think critically and give informed opinions.

The opportunities I’ve had this year have been innumerable. I’ve gotten to sit down and talk to academics and business executives. I’ve traveled to new parts of my country, while preparing for my first flight abroad. I’ve made friends from throughout the world, even from my own corner of it. As much as I’m excited to fly next week and start my journey abroad, I’m a bit sad at the thought of leaving this inn and this fireplace. However, I know I will return. And when I do, I will be a bit older and a bit wiser than I am now. Such is life. Even returning to the same place, I’m not really the same person who left. But I don’t believe that’s a bad thing.

Bearing Hope

I have returned to my inn, my temporary home, after another flight. Last week I traveled with a few of my friends to St. Louis, Missouri, for a national expo with Enactus. I’ve spoken about Enactus before—it’s the group I’m working with to bring down sex trafficking. It was, in fact, in furtherance of this goal that I was at the expo. My team was going to present a short explanation of what we’d been doing this semester to a panel of business executives. Why is this important? Well, first, the winners of various rounds earned prize money for their projects. All of the teams are working on limited budgets to solve problems in their communities so this money is quite valuable. Second and, for me, more importantly, these business executives are in a position to do far more than I can for my cause. As I told the tale of the voiceless victims of human trafficking, I watched the faces of the judges, hoping to see reflected in them the concern I felt. In some faces, I did.

My team actually made a wonderful showing considering it was our first year at competition. We placed in the top 64 teams, bringing in a few hundred dollars for our projects. As for me, I was inspired by the number of teams working toward the same goal as me. There were numerous projects regarding sex trafficking, and some received significantly more funding than we did. These were much older projects that have had amazing impacts and will continue to do so. I didn’t realize so many people knew or cared about those faceless women sold into prostitution. It was a blessing to see.

The winning team from the US will be competing in South Africa in a few weeks against the top teams from across the globe. I can’t imagine how many other projects there are worldwide to bring down the sex trade. If just 1% of projects are dedicated to this end, then there are hundreds of projects around the world working alongside mine. Together, we really do have the ability to make this change, both in our individual communities and around the world. Together we can bear hope into the darkest corners of the world to those who need it most. This is my dream. Perhaps it is also the true reason for my journey.

A Home Abroad

Growing up, I always tended to focus on things beyond my little corner of the world. I wanted to learn about other countries and cultures, not my own. As I’ve transitioned into college, I’ve been able to turn my attention to practical applications of that longing, such as study abroad. However, I think it’s very healthy to, occasionally at least, turn my attention back to my own country. Just the other day, I had that opportunity thanks to my OU Cousin.

I’ve mentioned the OU Cousins program before. Basically, every semester I am paired with an international student so that we can get to know each other and learn from one another. My cousin from last semester had to leave over the break and is back home in China. This semester, my cousin is a girl named Sheila from Angola. Sheila is also a freshman and will not be returning home until after graduation, so she and I may have the opportunity to continue on as cousins for the remainder of our time at OU. Anyway, Sheila and I were eating dinner together the other day, and she was telling me about the frustration she’s had trying to get her driver’s license. As she was explaining her various problems, I realized that the process of getting a driver’s license is actually incredibly difficult for an international college student. Not only does the serious lack of driving in college lead to very few opportunities to practice, but the system of working with a licensed adult when learning does not work well when your family and friends are all in another country. How is my cousin supposed to practice driving here? Besides that, she is currently enrolled in a required class about OU and the various help options OU offers its students. I didn’t have to take that class. The information was on my class syllabi and is posted across campus. I know she appreciates the existence of the options and the university’s dedication in making sure people are aware of them. However, is a required course really the best option?

I’m beginning to ask so many questions like these. I’ve never thought about what it would be like to be an international student in the US. In some ways, I’m sure it would be great. But there are also a lot of issues that would make it really hard. Now I’m starting to think about what it will be like to be an international student in Japan, where I plan to study in a couple years. I’m sure it will be hard, but I’m also excited. The whole world waits. I just need to remember to engage with the world I’m already in as well.

Hazy Horizons

The world is in a state of turbulence; this is a pretty standard belief. But the average standard of living is higher now than ever before in history. The American people are also, on average, safer and more prosperous than ever. So why do we characterize the world as turbulent? It was this question address by Dr. Thomas Finger, a faculty member at Stanford University and former Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis of the State Department, in his keynote address to round out this year’s International Studies Symposium at the University of Oklahoma.

The world is moving forward and upward, true, but there is still turbulence. This is because, for once, we can’t see the future. We do have enemies today, but they are much harder to identify than in the past. We used to know our enemy, whether Nazi Germany or the communist regime of the USSR. However, using Dr. Finger’s analogy, we have traded in a dragon for baskets of snakes. We cannot focus our energies on a single target, and each of our snakes has to be handled in a different way. Thus, we need to redefine how we deal with the world’s turbulence. Also, part of our problem is the change that has occurred in our definition of national security. We once defined national security in terms of the safety of the US homeland. Now, we have decided that all US citizens must be safe at all times no matter where they are and for what reason. How can we commit to such a promise? Is it even our place to risk our armed forces to save those who intentionally put themselves in harm’s way in the pursuit of glory or riches? I don’t know, but I do know that we need to decide what we can commit to and what is not our battle. The turbulence of this day is different than any we’ve faced before. We need to recognize our new breeds of enemies and develop new methods to fight them while preventing our paranoia from creating more. Our uncertainty cannot be allowed to destabilize us. We must move forward, regardless of the clarity of our horizons.

The Burden of Hope

Not every journey takes you far from home. One of the most frightening and impactful journeys I’ve ever taken started in my own backyard. Sugar Land, my hometown, is just a half hour from Houston, TX. Houston has the unsavory reputation of being one of the world’s hotspots for sex trafficking. My senior year of high school, my principal took the senior class on a field trip intended to open our eyes to the world we had inherited. The first and, for me, most haunting portion of the day was spent on a bus tour of the city’s red light district. A woman who has devoted her life to trying to bring down the sex trade pointed out building after building, brothel after brothel, prison after tortuous prison. If it’s so easy to find them, why haven’t these harbors of sin been destroyed? That’s what I wondered that day. I left that experience wanting desperately to do something, anything. But what could I do? In the drone of my daily life, unable to take any action, the weight of that day was slowly pushed aside and forgotten. Of course, that’s the terrible thing—we forget. We forget about those women and their pains. We forget, but the nightmares don’t end, not for them.

That day could have been an untimely end of this journey for me, but, thank goodness, it wasn’t. This past summer, the burden was brought back into the light for me, this time in a way that allowed me to shoulder it. I had the pleasure of being in a community production of Les Miserables at a local theater. Despite my best efforts, I managed to find myself cast as a “Lovely Lady,” quite a pretty euphemism for such a tragically misrepresented group. However, my director was intent on showcasing the true nature of the sex trade—powdered and painted slavery. As I stood on the stage during the first run, dressed in a ragged corset and skirt, waiting to see which girls the various “customers” would lead offstage, I had a tiny glimpse of the world I was trying to reveal to the audience. As our choreographer coached us in how to stand and pose, I could only imagine the horror of actually being trapped in such a life. Not only did we use the production to give the audience a window into this shadow world, but we also donated a portion of the ticket sales to stop sex trafficking. Less than a year after my first true encounter with that life, I’d managed to become a part, albeit a small part, of ending it.

Less than two weeks after the closing of the play, I left for the University of Oklahoma, my burden weighing heavily on my mind, and my recent victory driving me towards further fights. That first weekend, the new freshman had the opportunity to learn about the various groups on campus that we could join. When one of the groups told me that they had a project working to raise awareness regarding the sex trade, they immediately had my attention. I ended up joining the group, the OU chapter of Enactus, an international organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people in need through the power of entrepreneurial action. My Enactus team has three different projects, and I am working on Project Hope, the one that had caught my attention that first weekend. Because of this organization, I really am able to help make a difference. From organizing food and coin drives, to creating a documentary-style video, to hosting a speaking event for No Boundaries International, an organization working to end the sex trade in Oklahoma City, we are working to let the world know about modern slavery. I may not be able to do much, but I can do more than I had ever dreamed now that I’ve found others who also want to make a change. And if everyone does the little they can do, then perhaps we really can change the system. Maybe together we can make the world a little better and a little safer for us all. After all, my journey never was supposed to be just about me. If I don’t leave this world a little better than I found it, what was the point of journeying to begin with?