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.

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

Kyoto 5.7.17

My Dearest Friend,

It seems that this semester will be busier than last. I cannot believe I’m already a month into the semester, and I am only now having time to write you. The beginning of the semester was stressful because of drama, problems with my schedule, and a more intense workload than last semester. My classes are substantially harder but my Japanese does not appear to have kept pace. I will get through the semester, but it will be extremely stressful.

There is good news, however. For one thing, my English classes this semester are much more interesting than last semester. They’re more challenging, but I’m learning a lot. Two of them are politics classes, one regarding theories and one specifically focusing on Japanese politics. I’ve never really studied politics, but it’s an important topic to be familiar with as an international studies major and I’m really enjoying those classes.

Also, I finally had the opportunity to visit Osaka. As silly as it sounds, I had lived here, half an hour by train from Osaka, for 7 months without visiting. However, a couple weeks ago I finally corrected that mistake. I spent the weekend hanging out with some students in my program who are studying business at the Osaka campus of Ritsumeikan. We went thrift shopping, visited Osaka Castle, and then had dinner downtown. All in all, it was an awesome experience, and I had the privilege of sharing it with some amazing new friends.

That’s about all that’s been happening for me. Summer is coming and every day is warmer. It’s still comfortable for me, but several of my friends from further north are already concerned about the coming heat. The flowers are mostly gone, but the city is green again and the various bugs are all coming back. I saw my first spider of the season yesterday. Kyoto has these large, penny-sized spiders that live absolutely everywhere. I’ll try to send you a picture later, but many of my friends are terrified of them. I’ll admit they’re creepy and all too common.

Good luck with finals and the end of the semester. I wish the best to you all, especially those who are graduating in the coming month. Have a great break. I’ll try to write again soon.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

Is It a Muslim Ban?

One of the most contentious debates that is currently dominating American politics is whether President Trump’s Executive Order outlining a travel ban is really a Muslim ban in disguise. While the original ban has been halted by the court system, the question still remains. About a month ago, I listened to a lecture that debated this very subject. The lecture included distinguished professors from OU’s Religious Studies Department, and they gave their analysis of the ban, albeit from a religious perspective. One professor sought to determine if religion, specifically Christianity, could be used to validate the order. Another broke down the role religion plays in our government, as, even though there is a separation of church and state, religion remains a crucial part of our political system. Lastly, Dr. Kimball gave his interpretation on the question on everyone’s minds: is it really a Muslim ban? In his estimation, it was not necessarily a Muslim ban, but it had the potential to become one. Once “religion tests” entered the equation, this order could not be considered impartial to religion.

While this order originated in the United States, it had global consequences. Immigrants, tourists, and refugees were confused, delayed, and sometimes detained. The order even forbid migration from some specific countries indefinitely. The travel ban is an international issue, and it should not have been treated the way it was, without careful planning and care.

UPDATE: Recently, President Trump has come out with a new version of the travel ban. This one is slightly less extreme in nature, and Iraq is removed from the list of countries it affects. However, the Muslim Ban question is still up for debate.

The Yemeni Conundrum

Despite having taken multiple classes dealing with the Middle East, none of them have covered Yemen. I have been to a lecture or two on Yemen before, so I know some general things about the country and its civil war, but nothing in-depth. Professor Bahran, however, provided an easy to follow, concise look into the conflict. I appreciated how he started with Yemen’s history and tied its regionalism into the current war. As an outsider, I assumed the civil war was largely sectarian, since the Houthis have a religious bend. This lecture, though, introduced me to the regional divisions in the country. The North has traditionally held power while the South was relatively subjugated. When the previous Vice President Hadi was elected to the Presidency and the Houthis staged their coup, the country split between the North (relatively tribal groups who back the Houthis) and the South (more urban societies who support Hadi). However, the thing that I really took away from Professor Bahran’s lecture was the hopelessness of the situation. He continuously emphasized that the victims were the Yemeni people in general and, from what I have heard of the subject, it seems like everyone in Yemen has been affected in some way. He did a good job of explaining why the conflict was hopeless, though—both sides have substantial levels of corruption and, in some cases, there is overlap between them; warlords have tried to prolong the conflict to get richer; and the international community has no real stake in the country. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Professor Bahran’s analysis of the situation that the conflict will not end any time soon. From his lecture and the ones I have been to previously, it seems as though the world has forgotten about Yemen and is content to let it suffer on its own.

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Kyoto 1.22.17

My Dearest Friend,

My first semester here at Ritsumeikan has finally ended. The last of my tests have been taken and papers turned in. I now have two months to relax and explore Japan before my second semester begins.

This semester was difficult and full of new experiences for me. It has been my first time living abroad, my first time living for a significant period of time without access to a car, and my first long-term experience with a language barrier. I’ve met people from all over the world who speak every language I can imagine. They come from so many backgrounds and are working toward a myriad of futures. Honestly, it makes me feel small. I’ve seen and done so little compared to most of these people. I’m trying to learn Japanese as my second language, I’ve only been to three countries in the world, and I’m already in my twenties. I have friends here who worked abroad in high school. It makes me wonder how much I missed on account of being born in America.

Don’t get me wrong, I love America. I grew up there, and it’s my home. However, it’s not perfect. The rest of the world seems so far away and insignificant as a child in the US, but it’s not. The world is a vast and marvelous place and has much to teach us, both as individuals and as a country. Many of the issues that are tearing apart America have found various resolutions in other countries. Instead of fighting about what ifs, why don’t we look at the outcomes? As Americans, we like to look at the rest of the world as if it was still in the 18th century. We talk about freedom and our unique place in the world. Yes, we are still a great country wielding a lot of power. But where the rest of the world has seen great progress in the last 200 years, we keep looking back at “the glory days.” I love the foundation of our country and the ideals of our nation. But the world is not the same place as it was when we were founded, and it’s naïve to act like nothing has changed.

When I left America to come to Japan, I didn’t know much about the rest of the world. I thought I did, but I was wrong. I still know very little, but I know some things. And the biggest thing I’ve learned is that while the US has an incredibly strong military, we are not the only important players in the world. We don’t know everything, and in a lot of areas, we’re falling behind our peers. So instead of arguing about the precise meaning of a centuries old document, can we agree to open our eyes and start doing something? I’ve met so many people here who would not go to America if you paid them, not with the way our country functions right now. And I can’t really blame them. But it is my country, and I won’t abandon it, not if I can help it.

My friend, please try to learn something from my experiences here. I know it’s hard to see clearly from inside, but try. We have to do something, and we can’t all get up and spend a year abroad. All we can do is try to bring that global awareness back with us in our suitcases and share it. I miss you dearly. Hopefully I’ll see you soon.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

The Other Side of Brexit

Brexit has come to be one of the most debated events of the year, although I’m sure our recent election will soon overpass it. Because of its global significance, and the shear shock that it happened in the first place, OU has hosted several talks centering on the causes and results of Britain’s rejection of the European Union. I have attended two of these talks, but the most recent was one by Sir Roger Scruton. He is a conservative British intellectual who discussed why it might be a good thing that Britain left the EU. While I am of the opinion that Britain should have stayed, I never really heard the opposing view. Most of the coverage I’ve heard blames the outcome on ignorance, fantastical political promises, and xenophobia. Who hasn’t seen the news report that the top internet search in the UK after the vote was “what is the EU”? Because of these reasons, it was refreshing to listen to Sir Scruton’s side. He mostly cites the want of a British identity as the reason for Brexit. In the globalizing world where nation-states seem to be disappearing, the British people wanted something tangible to hold on to—they wanted their sovereignty back and the illusion of control. He also laid out the treaty that founded the EU and focused on the “elitist” nature of it. The EU, he said, was made up of a European elite of burnt-out politicians that wanted to retain power. These politicians were then free to pass laws that the EU member states were forced to accept and push through their respective legislative bodies. According to Sir Scruton, most of the laws passed by Parliament are simply rubber-stamps for EU policies. I can understand his reasons and they are not illegitimate or something to write-off. However, it was in the Q and A session at the end of his talk that made me question some of his views. He was, of course, asked about immigration and some of his statements regarding this hot-button issue bothered me. He made gross oversimplifications of Muslim societies, saying that the women in the room would not want to live in a Muslim country on account of, among other things, polygamy and lack of rights. He also made a connection between immigration and welfare countries, stating that people moved to these states because of the benefits they might receive from the government. While I cannot say that this is not true for some, I would connect immigration to more developed countries. In most cases, I believe immigrants are looking for economic opportunities and more stable lives for their families, reasons that do not exclusively prescribe a welfare state. Over all though, I believe Sir Scruton’s talk was enlightening in regards to the pro-leaving side of Brexit.

 

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Unity and Politics

Last week, OU hosted its first Unity Symposium. It was an event put on by various student groups that sought to promote renewed understanding and acceptance of peoples with different backgrounds and beliefs. I’m going to be honest, I am currently writing this about a week removed from the event and just a few days after the 2016 Presidential Election. From my vantage point right now, it seems that Unity Symposiums are needed now more than ever, and I’m sad that not a lot of people were able to attend. The symposium consisted of talks from people of differing backgrounds—Muslims, veterans, conservatives, African Americans, undocumented immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community, just to name a few. It was a chance to come together and hear their side, and then ask them questions about their experiences or anything you did not understand about them. It humanized “The Other,” something that I think our country sorely needs in this moment. After the horrifying rhetoric of this election, the people of this country are more divided and aware of their differences than ever. Some people seem to think that Trump’s win gives them the right to demean others and hold themselves above anyone who thinks differently than them, and that is just not right. America is a country built on diversity, and it should accept and celebrate that diversity. Do the words on the Statue of Liberty not say “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? Does it not ask other countries to “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me”? Once, our nation called out to those who were hopeless and hurt, but now it seems we have locked our doors and forgotten what it truly means to be an American. To be an American is to stand up for our neighbor, for those who are different than us, for those who are hurt and afraid. We should be the safe haven of the world, a place to seek refuge and acceptance. We should not be ruled by fear and irrationality. We are stronger than that. We are better than that. In light of the current political events, we need to be more accepting and understanding than ever. We need more events like the Unity Symposium, because we are stronger together—and no one should tell you differently.

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(Picture taken from First Friday Book Synopsis on WordPress)

The Conflict in Syria

OU recently hosted a talk by Dr. Joshua Landis on Syria, its future, and our involvement there. It was an OU Presidential event, with an introduction by the university’s president, David Boren. Since my area of interest is the Middle East, I of course had to go! Dr. Landis’ talk focused on the causes of the conflict in Syria, a murky subject that very few can wade through or even begin to understand. Luckily, Dr. Landis is one of the foremost experts on Syria and regularly consults various world governments on the subject. In his opinion, one of the main causes of the conflict is demographics. When the European powers drew their arbitrary boundaries after World War I, they put several groups of disparate peoples into one country. To make matters more complicated, they then gave power to the weaker, smaller groups, increasing the animosity felt in the newly created protectorates. Dr. Landis cited this conflict as the starting point of Syria’s troubles. The majority of Syrians follow Sunni Islam, but a fringe sect, the Alawites, controlled the government. This led to growing resentments that eventually culminated in the Syrian Civil War.

He likened the events in Syria to post-WWII Europe, with their “Great Sorting Out.” Essentially, after WWII several groups of people migrated (intentionally or forcefully) to countries where they constituted the majority. These movements turned Europe into the collection of nation-states that it is today. According to Dr. Landis, the Middle East might be witnessing its own “Sorting Out” today. Thanks to the civil war and various other conflicts in the region, there has been an unprecedented movement of peoples and changes in government. In Iraq, for example, the minority Sunni government under Saddam Hussein’s Baath party was replaced with Shi’ite members (the majority) after the United States invaded. With Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to step down from power and cede the government to the majority, Syria’s “Sorting Out” has taken a violent turn. In Dr. Landis’ view, it will be a long time before we hear much good news from Syria.

Arabic Flagship Round Table

At the beginning of the semester I was accepted into OU’s Arabic Flagship, which is a language intensive program funded by the State Department that aims to improve student’s Arabic skills and cultural awareness. As part of the requirements, I must attend a weekly round table that discusses a variety of topics, from studying abroad to Janbiyas (an Arabic dagger). One of my favorite topics, though, was the second presidential debate. Before the round table officially started, we received vocabulary sheets that listed words that would frequently come up in the debate. I assumed it would include words like “economy,” “foreign policy,” or “social programs.” Needless to say, I was mistaken. When I looked down at the sheet, I burst out laughing and looked to my friend, needing confirmation that what I held in my hand was real. Amongst the expected and benign words that any debate would include (“Republican Party,” “Democratic Party,” “campaign”) were terms that would have seemed out of place in any other election than the one that we are experiencing in 2016. It was impossible not to be drawn to them. It was like they were bolded and in 30-point font. Staring up at me were words like “sexually suggestive gestures,” “contempt,” and “disaster.” And, of course, the infamous “locker room talk.” If you were curious, in Arabic it would be “كلام خاص بين الرجال”, pronounced similar to “kalaam khaas ben ar-rajaal.” The room was filled with random snickers and congratulations to the student who compiled the list until it was time for the round table to start. We watched about thirty minutes of the debate in Arabic, and then broke into small groups to discuss what we watched. Various questions included, “Who won the debate and why?” and “Do you have any suggestions for the candidates?” Everyone in my group decided that Hilary Clinton won the debate, but that does not really matter. What was so amazing about this experience for me was that I could (attempt) to discuss my country’s politics in a language that was not my own. I was able to interact with people who did not even live in America, and get their perspective on our political situation. Despite the humor of the vocabulary sheet, this round table was serious and extremely important.

Arabic Flagship Program