Culture Shock After the Study Abroad Experience

I used to believe that not everyone was susceptible to culture shock. This way of thinking was definitely solidified after my return from my month-long Engaging Europe experience, in which we went to Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. I came back to Oklahoma missing the food and the decent public transportation, but there was no big “oh no” or “oh wow” moment that I was told would happen to me when I returned. At most, I gained an appreciation for the small things we have in the United States, like free public bathrooms and free water, while also appreciating the things America lacks that I saw in Europe, like decent public transportation. Overall, though, I thought myself immune to culture shock. I think you know where I’m going with this.

Nobody told me that culture shock can be bodily culture shock. As I found out the hard way, I am most definitely not immune to a bit of culture shock, as seen by the fact that I still won’t go back to Taco Bell, 6 months later, after I bit into a burrito and tasted that gross fake cheese. Fake cheese is strange. It tastes like plastic trying to imitate chese, and I hate it. But, for months in France I couldn’t wait to come home and eat a cheesy burrito from Taco Bell like I did all the time around this time last year. Also, the oil in everything here gave me severe headaches for a month. The pizza here is drenched in the stuff, and while I liked the taste of that fake cheese, the oil definitely gave me a headache that must have come from the pits of hell themselves. Also, Oklahoma water gave me diarrhea for about two weeks. I was told that might happen, but I’m still calling it a shock.

Once again, though, it was the small things that took me by surprise the most. Netflix suddenly not having a garbage selection of movies and shows, for example, floored me. I was so used to just going without them that I didn’t watch anything out of habit for another month or so. Not being able to walk everywhere was also a bit of a shock to me via my mom. We went to Penn Square mall and I suggested that we walk to Target, which was about 3 miles down the road, “to get something real quick.” She looked at me like I had grown a second head and then said, “and how would we do that? With what sidewalk? With what stamina?” I had become so used to literally everywhere being a pedestrian zone that not having one didn’t even register as a possibility for a second. It was a strange feeling.

Navigating the Future

Now that I’m knee deep in German classes, I figured I might as well make it official and get a minor while I’m at it. After this spring semester, I believe I’ll be only one class away. This naturally is making me consider what exactly I plan to do after I graduate college. I still want to work in mathematics, of course, but my increasing language competency and my study abroad experience are making me more confident in my ability to work outside the U.S. Unfortunately, I know very little about where I would work internationally and how developed my language skills need to be. If I continued to work on my German, I could work in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, or perhaps in the surrounding areas. With English, I can, of course, work in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to start. I like to believe that there are places around the world where I would be able to work without being fluent in the native language, but I do not know where exactly that would be. Such considerations are hardly pressing, but certainly interesting to mull over. I know for a fact that I was not anywhere near as confident in my ability to conduct myself internationally when I started at OU three semesters ago. I find it interesting that such a short period of exposure to different people and places and languages and cultures and aspirations has so drastically affected my outlook on my future. I am still confident and excited, but my vision is different, full of possibilities that I had never considered.

The Value of Gen-Eds

For GEF, I need to know or study a modern foreign language and since I took Latin in high school, I needed to choose a new language to study at OU. To be completely honest, I spent almost my entire summer agonizing over which language to choose. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t trying to learn a language. When I read The Lord of the Rings, I went through the appendix and tried to understand how the elves discussed the weather. When I read Swallows and Amazons, my sister and I learned flag semaphore and would stand on opposite sides of the yard waving pieces of cloth at each other just to say hi. When I volunteered at a local repertory theater or attended a graduation ceremony, I would watch the sign language interpreters working on the sidelines, their swift hand movements so confident and controlled. When I found my mother’s old French textbook, I would wander around the house reciting the simple phrases from the first chapter and trying to wrap my mouth around the unnatural pronunciation. When Duolingo first came out, I started every language they had available, just to see what it was like. I was never disciplined enough to get anywhere, but my unbridled interest was always there.

I’m not quite sure how I landed in German, come to think of it, but I do know I had narrowed it down to German and French. I rejected French because I didn’t like the pronunciation rules. (Of course, now I wish I knew some French so I guess there’s never a wrong answer when it comes to learning.) I originally was just going to take my four classes and get out as quickly as possible. Latin was always the bane of my existence during high school and I didn’t want German to torture me for any longer than necessary. My advisor picked my classes for the first semester and my German teacher was fantastic. I had to attend class every day, since intro language classes are five credits, and I never dreaded doing so. It never felt hard, but when I looked back after the final, I had learned so much more than I’d expected and actually enjoyed doing it. Then the same thing happened the next semester. And during my summer class. And during this past semester. I don’t know if it’s my Latin background helping me out or the amazing German department here or just my excitement at finally taking a solid step towards becoming bilingual, but it’s amazing. It has made me value being in an environment where everyone is learning and everyone is pursuing their passions because it means that I can find out for myself whether my passions and hobbies are actually something worth my time to pursue.

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.

Distance, Time, and Choice

What I'll relay here is not new to any of you. Every human has experienced this feeling before, and countless have doubtless written about it.

I'll throw my thoughts out there regardless.

I have been fortunate in my life - in countless ways, but especially this one - to have acquired enough confidence to be comfortable speaking to new people. Don't get me wrong - all of these encounters terrify me to my core, and I still have to talk myself into them, each and every time. I see or hear someone doing or saying something interesting, enumerate the options in my head, and sometimes decide on putting myself in the most vulnerable position: reaching out for the first "Hello." More often than not, this strategy has allowed me to form a path to getting to know some of the most intelligent, kind-hearted, fascinating people I have ever met.

There's a caveat (isn't there always?). In the case that I meet these people in, say, another country, or on a short trip from one foreign land to another foreign land, maintaining our glorious new friendship presents some challenges.

I can speak about this on the micro and macro levels. I have friends in Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, England, Portland... and two miles from my apartment in Oklahoma. Both distances prove difficult to traverse, and why is this?

Our time is limited. Like, super limited. In fact, I belong to the group of people (we aren't well-formed; we don't have weekly meetings or anything) who are a little bit nihilistic, believing that not a single moment on this earth is guaranteed to us. So those hours watching Netflix or staring at the ceiling or napping in a coffee shop transform into something a lot more precious.*

*That, of course, doesn't mean I stop doing these seemingly pointless things, because relaxation is important too. 

How then, do I choose between all these beautiful people in my life? Our shared experiences form a web of memories that are brought to the forefront by the strangest of triggers, or sometimes wholly by chance. I'll send a text and tell that person I miss them and we'll reminisce and walk through a three-message catch up and promise to Skype. And then life happens, deadlines loom, and that Skype session gets delayed further and further.

It's not for lack of love, simply time and coordination. But there's another factor mixed in, and that's the idea that my self - my essence, my personality, my witty (cheesy?) quips, my love - sometimes feels like an exhaustible commodity. It takes energy, mental strength, and, most of all, time to build up those parts of myself that form a sociable human being.

We tell ourselves that the Internet and social media make it so easy to connect with others, stay in touch, share our lives with those we love. But what we didn't consider was what didn't change at all:

Us.

We're still human. We experience love and joy and euphoria on even the tiniest of scales. We also have pain and exhaustion and mental strain. No amount of Snapchatting can surmount the problem of stress and too little time and shifting lives. That last one is tough - the idea that not only do we just "get busy" but also drift apart in our most core similarities. People come to us when we most need them, and those shared experiences I spoke about bind us together in a manner that, at the time, seems unyielding and everlasting. But our paths diverge, be it by miles or continents, and gap widens before we even realize it.

I think reconnecting is possible and beautiful.

But the choice remains: when will be the last Snapchat be sent, seen, and go unreplied? Do we leave the ephemeral last "goodbye" to fade away when our phone reaches its storage limit? The state of technology makes us hyper-aware of a phenomenon that has always existed - the last goodbye (only now it's called "ghosting").

I argue that the last goodbye can be a beautiful thing, rather than a sad affair. Perhaps in twenty years you'll run into your old friend at an airport and know that the randomness of the universe brought you together again, and that's a lot more profound than maintaining a Snap streak just for the sake of it.

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.

The Portrayal of Muslims and the Iraq War in U.S. Media

This week, I got to go to my first round table discussion of the semester. I always enjoy these talks immensely because I appreciate hearing from experts in different fields related to international current events. Try as I might to keep up with these events on my own, the knowledge that I glean from the news cannot match what I gain from hearing from the experts themselves.

This talk was somewhat different because it related not to a specific current event but to the portrayal of Muslims and the Iraq War in U.S. media over the course of several years. Given my honors research this semester on the fear of Islam in the U.S. and the factors that perpetuate it, this talk was particularly interesting to me. In this discussion, Dr, Kristian Petersen, a professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska, discussed two movies, American Sniper and the Hurt Locker, to highlight common American portrayals of Muslims and the Iraq war. He discussed both specific events from each movie and the ways in which these movies tie in to the predominant media narratives about both Muslims and this war.

The common theme between both movies was a tendency toward a simplistic portrayal of Muslims. Muslims in these films are depicted as a homogenous group, very different from mainstream Americans, predisposed toward violence and radicalism. Dr. Petersen stated that this portrayal, found in movies, TV shows, and the news, creates an atmosphere of mistrust of Muslims and normalizes the mistreatment of members of this faith group. This position is backed up by a great deal of survey data; consistently, surveys show that Americans trust Muslims least of any religious group in the country, and in 2014, 42% of Americans supported the profiling of Muslims. Many Americans view ISIS as what a true Islamic society looks like, rather than an extremist offshoot. As further proof of this mistrust and fear of Islam, hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. quintupled following 9/11, and continue to spike following any terror attacks at home or abroad, regardless of whether or not these attacks are perpetrated by Muslims.

Both movies that Dr. Petersen focused on play directly into this fear of Islam that so many Americans already felt before the movies’ releases. They each depict Muslims as distrustful and uncivilized, and both contain dramatic and stereotypical imagery. These films contribute to the conflation between ethnicity and religion and to the view that all Muslims are extremists who hold radically different views than most Americans. In American Sniper, Arab children are depicted as inherently violent, Muslim homes are depicted as war zones, and Muslim women are dismissed with misogynistic slurs. The film fails to distinguish between Arab and Muslim extremists and between the Arab and Muslim public, contributing to existing American issues making these distinctions.The Hurt Locker employs the same tired tropes; it implies that Muslims are inherently violent and that it is impossible to tell which among them are terrorists and which are peaceful.

This is not to say that there is no violence or extremism in the Arab world today; certainly, these problems exist, and certainly, some Muslims participate in this violence. Dr. Petersen’s claim is that these two films are somewhat problematic because they contribute to the failure of the American public to distinguish between extremism and between the rest of Islam, between terrorists and peaceful citizens, and between Arabs who are Muslims and Arabs who are not. Homogenous depictions of Muslim and Arab society, like those featured in these two films, play into and build upon problems that already exist within American society. They perpetuate negative stereotypes and contribute to the rising Islamophobia within the U.S.

I thought that this talk was extremely interesting because I rarely think about the ways in which depictions of societies outside of my own can contribute to negative stereotypes. Something as innocent as a movie can have widespread societal consequences as it contributes to the collective opinion of a nation that is already afraid. I have no doubt that there is much more nuance to this situation than I have described above; my thoughts here are by no means meant to attack these movies, or to say that they are not valid viewpoints of the Iraq War. I simply seek, like Dr. Petersen does, to shed light on a depiction of a people that may be more problematic than some Americans initially realize.

A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture

Hi all,

Once again, it’s been a while since my last post! I had a wonderful summer interning as a business analyst with Capital One in Plano, and I’ve taken this first half of the semester to dive right into a very interesting, if hectic, start to senior year.

It’s a little crazy for me to think that this is the fourth year I’ve been keeping this blog! Time definitely flies by, and I’m having trouble believing that it will soon be time for me to leave the bubble that is college and make my way into the real world.

Fortunately, I still have some time left to enjoy OU, and part of what has made my time here great is attending various international events through this Global Engagement fellowship. My favorite events are often the lunchtime talks with different experts on various current events and areas of the world, but sadly, my class schedule this semester conflicts with all of these and I’ve had to get a little more creative.

The first event I attended this semester is a fantastic traveling exhibit in OU’s library called A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture. This exhibit consists of a series of large displays with some photos of various negative representations of Arab people that have littered American popular culture for generations. Each large display is in the style of a children’s alphabet book, for, as the first display details, American stereotyping of Arabs can be found everywhere, including sources as seemingly-innocent as children’s books.

The exhibit strove to emphasize that even though anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments have been on the rise post-9/11, these ideas are far from novel in American culture. Comics from Archie to Tarzan to Dennis the Menace have included negative Arab stereotypes, and American movies and novels have utilized such stereotypes for generations. Several of the displays detailed specific pervasive stereotypes that American culture has had a difficult time shaking.

One panel, entitled H is for Harem, outlines the ways in which the American portrayal of Arabic women is often seriously flawed and marginalizing. Arab women are rarely portrayed in American media, and when they are, they are often either hyper-sexualized or depicted as flat victims of violent oppression. There is very little accuracy in the way American media views Arab women, and this is incredibly damaging because many Americans draw their views on foreign cultures and people directly from the media. By allowing these negative (and false) stereotypes to be perpetuated, American culture perpetuates misinformation and ignorance that are extremely harmful to both race relations within the United States and the relationship that our country has with others.

In a similarly harmful vein, another of the panels in this exhibit is entitled V is for Villain, and it outlines the ways in which Arab men are so often portrayed as violent, dangerous villains, rather than as actual people. Much of American media paints Arab men with the same broad brush that in paints the women, but the men are made out to be evil, greedy, and dangerous. This is concerning for the same reason that all negative stereotypes are concerning; it breeds ignorance and mistrust, and it counteracts any hope the United States has of pursuing truly productive international relationships with Arab countries. Within our own borders, the ignorance fueled by these stereotypes makes it difficult for Arab people to assimilate into our culture, and it reinforces the idea that American prejudice against and fear of Arab people is okay.

Hopefully by now I have made it clear that I think this prejudice and fear is far from acceptable. The United States needs to work much more on eliminating stereotypes and instead viewing Arab culture and Arab people with the complexity that they possess. Broad brushstrokes are damaging and unproductive. We as a society have painted Arabs as the “other” for years, and it is time to turn the page.

It is reassuring to see exhibits such as this one focusing on educating people to this issue. Shamefully, before viewing this exhibit, I had not realized just how pervasive the negative stereotypes of Arab people were in U.S. culture, though I’m sure that any Arab-American is painfully aware. Hopefully, this exhibit can combine with an increasing number of positive, realistic portrayals of Arabs in American media to produce a positive change in American society. I know that we can rise above this hatred and fear that we have allowed to brew for so long; what we need now is to start taking our first steps.

The themes of this exhibit have significant overlaps with my honors research this semester, in which I am looking into the roots and rise of Islamophobia in the U.S. It is important to note that not all Arabs are Muslim and that not all Muslims are Arabs; these groups are far from homogenous, but we very often fail to treat them accordingly. This semester, I have been doing a lot of reading and writing over the origins of Islamophobia and their modern manifestations, and I look forward to sharing much of this in another blog post!

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.