Book Club pt 2

For the second semester in a row, my friend Tram and I led an Honor’s College Reading Group. After And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, which we chose for our first reading group this past Fall, we decided to go with a decidedly more dated work of fiction: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Tram and I were not complete strangers to Agatha Christie’s writings, but neither of us had heard of this particular novel, despite its well-deserved reputation as one of her best. We chose Roger Ackroyd from her vast catalogue of published works after reading a handful of the overwhelmingly favorable Amazon reviews, and it did not disappoint. Agatha Christie was an incredibly prolific author; according to the inside cover, only the Bible has sold more copies than Ms. Christie, the original mystery writer. To our pleasant surprise, Christie proved a popular pick, and our reading group filled up in a matter of weeks, with a short waitlist to boot. Of course, a few of our members would never show up to claim their copy, and attrition would take its toll as the semester dragged on, which may have been exacerbated by scheduling; we attempted to stretch a 312 page book to fill an entire semester. The bite-sized portions that this created were appealing at first, but we quickly realized that mystery novels are not designed for such piecemeal consumption. Consequently, a few of our weekly meetings adjourned early because we simply ran out of things to talk about. You live and you learn.

Tram and I once again spearheaded a weekly bribery scheme in an effort to retain our book club members, to varying levels of success. We made a concerted effort to provide some sort of sugar-loaded baked good each week; the highlight of the semester was the blackberry pie, courtesy of a generous guest celebrity chef who goes by Sojeph. I’m ashamed to admit that more than half of the baked delights this past semester were purchased, not handmade, but we made a good-faith effort to provide for our book clubbers and sometimes the bargain cookies from Baked Bear were our only option. I’m not sure if any of our attendees made it to every meeting (although I’m fairly certain that I did), but some of the most consistent also happened to be big Agatha Christie fans. I owe them my gratitude for entertaining our wildly off-base theories as we tried to predict the outcome of the mystery at every meeting, and for not ruining the shocking conclusion that left most everyone reeling. The aforementioned individuals were also very helpful when we didn’t understand Christie’s references to characters or happenings in her other books, which few of us had read.

Through the ups and downs of the semester, an Honor’s College Reading Group provides a refreshing break from the mundane, and Tram and I are currently discussing our next selection, coming Fall 2018. I don’t yet know what we’ll be reading, but I would love to have you along for the ride!

Ice Cream Social

For one of my events this spring I went to the ice cream social held by CIS, because who is going to pass up free ice cream anyway? I have to admit, I wasn’t feeling overly social at the time though having just finished a biochemistry exam and not having slept much the night before, so I lurked in a corner and people watched while nursing a bowl of chocolate and vanilla. What I noticed was an interesting lack of interaction between US students and international students. I know that OU tends to group its international students at Traditions West and on the international dorm floor, while most US students live elsewhere (with the exception of those who opt for international floor/housing).
The effects of this were fairly obvious, as it was clear that the international students had all befriended each other, while most US students hadn’t entered those circles and were socializing amongst themselves. I was in a similar situation in Australia, where a series of unintentional barriers between exchange and new international students and the Australian students left international and exchange students to mostly befriend each other. In Australia it seemed to be partly due to many of us arriving second semester, after all the other students had already formed their friend groups and stopped attending social events looking to make new friends.
Here at OU I think a big part of it is the policy of grouping international students into housing together. I can see some of the reasoning behind this (putting “very” new students together to figure out the new country, for example) and I know OU has some awesome programs like OU Cousins that try to counter this trend of international students and US students not mixing, but I would be interested to see what would change if US and international students were mixed evenly together in housing. I suspect there would be a lot more interaction between the two groups, which is really a huge part of why OU takes exchange and international students in the first place after all.

Constructivism and the Ebola Epidemic

Paul Richards writes “Ebola is a disease of social intimacy” (Richards 1). Ebola is transferred through bodily fluids, and therefore is often transferred to those caring for the sick or washing the bodies of the dead. There is no cure for Ebola, simply palliative care. Although there have been several recorded outbreaks of Ebola, the 2013 outbreak in Upper West Africa quickly turned into an epidemic. With inadequate domestic health systems, Doctors without Borders, among other NGOs, were the main actors on the ground (Arreguín-Toft and Mingst 420).

The efforts of such aid agencies can be understood through the constructivist lens. A book published in 2017 notes that constructivists would focus on “how we think we know what world health means, and how that meaning came to be established” (Arreguín-Toft and Mingst 424). This means that all foreign aid efforts and healthcare infrastructure must be evaluated in terms of their cultural and historical contexts. As mentioned previously, Ebola is a very intimate disease. There are many social practices deeply engrained in local cultures that contributed to the spread of the disease. For example, ritual burials where the bodies are washed before they are buried is a very dangerous practice during an Ebola epidemic. Due to the spiritual and social implications of a traditional burial, however, many Africans continued to wash and bury bodies in the traditional way. Western aid workers, however, drew problematic assumptions based on this fact. Many assumed that Africans were “stubborn” in their “unsafe” traditions and unwilling to listen to the recommendations of aid workers (Richards 48). This apparently problematic assumption does not recognize that from a social and spiritual perspective, an “epidemiologically safe” burial is deemed spiritually unsafe by the local population (Richards 52). The issue is the social disconnect between the Western aid workers and the African locals, who are acting on their ingrained social practices. This idea exemplifies the fact that cultural ‘norms’ and ideas drive the behavior of a country’s citizens.

Despite providing medical resources, the aid workers were primarily responsible for “changing the ideas” of the people in Western Africa (Richards 28). This, in itself, exemplifies the “constructivist” viewpoint. Western aid workers acted in ways that reflected their individualistic, direct, and informal upbringings. They struggled to understand the communal, traditional, and spiritual characteristics of African culture. This led the aid workers to act in a way that did not include locals in the Ebola eradication efforts.

In a 2014 post, Susan Shepler describes the popular coverage of the Ebola crisis, “People on radio call in shows have asked: Why can’t they understand what needs to be done?  Why they need to submit themselves and their loved ones to quarantine? (Shepler)” This type of coverage highlights the “ignorance” of African citizens. This is not “ignorance,” however, and can be explained by several cultural factors. The most important factor that highlights the ‘constructivist’ viewpoint is that African citizens have a “mistrust for the state” (Shepler). Because of this “mistrust,” many ignore public health warnings from the state. This “mistrust of the state” that Shepler mentions is something that is deeply woven into the actions and decisions made by many African people. This exemplifies the ‘constructivist’ viewpoint in that politics and decisions of people are shaped by “non-material” elements.

The “constructivist” viewpoint can also be explained by the differences in the “norms” between the home countries of the aid workers and Western Africa. In developed countries, it is common to have a surplus of household supplies including trash bags, rubber gloves, and rain jackets. In developing countries, however, these items are not common. In 2014, as the international push to stop Ebola began, The World Health Organization developed their agenda to fight Ebola based on what they call ‘the messaging approach’ (Richards 124). The “messages” spread by the World Health Organization included how Ebola is spread, how to safely care for someone who supposedly has Ebola, and how to create protective clothing from “common” household items. The World Health Organization, however, did not acknowledge the impracticalities of these messages. Resources such as raincoats, trash bags, and gloves are difficult, if not impossible, to find locally in Western Africa. The differences in resource constraints, and the “norms” in each society influenced how The World Health Organization initially responded to the Ebola crisis and how locals reacted to the messaging.

As a final point, it is important to recognize that while the Western response of aid workers to the Ebola epidemic can be explained by the “constructivist” point of view, the situation entirely violates the ‘liberalist’ view. From a liberal perspective, the efforts to end the Ebola epidemic should have been a group, “holistic” approach. It is clear that this is not what occurred. The efforts to end Ebola were more divisive than communal.

Domestic and Foreign Effects of International Aid

“The urge to help” is a common phrase that resonates throughout many academic works. While, in many cases, the “urge to help” may be less pragmatic and more self-benefitting, there are domestic social benefits that result from these trends. Evidence of this can be seen throughout the ethnographic report The Need to Help by Liisa Malkki.

It has been established that positive intentions do not directly correlate with positive outcomes. Nonetheless, it is important to consider the implications of positive intentions in a domestic atmosphere. In The Need to Help, Malkki discusses the implications of international aid efforts in the country of Finland. Finland’s culture stresses the importance of the individual; community is not integral to Finnish society (Malkki 137). In her book, Malkki refers to the community that has been built as a result of the “Aid Bunnies” (a project of the Finnish Red Cross). This “community” is largely archived on crafter’s blogs and internet sites (Malkki 119). This community can also be exemplified by the various knitting groups that have arisen from the project. In Finland, many people, especially the elderly, gain community from these domestic volunteer efforts. It is important that Finnish people are encouraged to find community, as loneliness can lead to several negative factors including an increased mortality rate (Malkki 138). This contrasts the American need to help, which stems from the American values of self-improvement and reliance on fake humility.

It is evident that as many Fins participate in humanitarian efforts to achieve community, they are not acting in complete selflessness. It is also apparent that in many (if not most) humanitarian efforts the actor is not completely selfless. The “Aid Bunny” project allows for people to participate in humanitarian efforts in a more “human” way while creating a sense of community for its participants and allowing them to fulfill a specific internal need. The question that remains is: where do we draw the line between preserving domestic humanity and, the more pragmatic option, effectively meeting the needs of foreign aid-recipients. An effective answer to this question requires more analytical research on the impact of aid in foreign countries.

While it is difficult to interpret the fine line between the two aforementioned values, it is important to consider the impact of citizens’ imagination on foreign aid-recipients. Imagination in humanitarian efforts have two main effects: imagination makes performing humanitarian efforts more meaningful, and it de-individualizes foreign aid-recipients. It is important that aid workers and volunteers understand the implications of one’s “imagination.” In The Need to Help, Malkki writes “The suspension (if not erasure) of the child’s parents, siblings, grandparents, and other relatives, and also friends, teachers, and neighbors, was a striking feature in the imagining of the needy children” (9). Adding imagination to the visualization of the needs of foreign aid recipients neglects many important factors. This omission can perpetuate a problematic image of foreign aid recipients. The use of imagination in foreign aid is an important factor to consider when evaluating the efficacy and value of international aid projects.

In a recent discussion with Betty Bigombe, she was asked about the effectiveness of campaigns such as The Enough Project. Although it has garnered national attention, The Enough Project has long been criticized for their ineffective and incomplete messaging about conflict minerals in the Congo. Bigombe remarked that it is difficult for American activists to tell the complete story and still gain support. Despite this, the publicity that the campaigns provide is very important (Bigombe). This idea parallels that of the “Aid Bunnies.” Although it may not be the most effective or pragmatic way of addressing an issue, it garners national attention and allows a wide range of participation in philanthropic acts.

The provision of foreign aid affects both the provider and the recipient countries. When evaluating the effectiveness of various humanitarian efforts, the social domestic benefits must be evaluated in addition to the more pragmatic foreign effects. Foreign aid efforts in Finland, specifically the “Aid Bunnies” have been successful in boosting Finnish morale. These domestic effects are important to recognize when determine the efficacy of various international aid projects.

Coming Home

I wanted to dedicate my final Puebla blog post to coming home. Being back in the US (specifically, my hometown in New Jersey) has been a bit challenging, but the transition has actually not been as difficult as I had anticipated. I think this is probably because I never truly left American culture while I was in Puebla. I spent most of my time surrounded by Americans, and half of my classes were in English. I even lived in an apartment (and shared a room) with other girls in the OU in Puebla program. Still, adjusting back to life in the United States has been a process. I’ve noticed myself maintaining certain habits I developed in Mexico, and even missing certain things about living there.

Of course, the most obvious difference between daily life in Mexico and in the US is language. I still sometimes say “gracias” when the waiter brings my food out or someone holds the door for me. I typically only have this problem while I’m in public. In Puebla, I always spoke Spanish when out and about, and reserved English for when I was home or with American friends. So now, when I’m talking to my family or friends back in the US, it feels totally natural to speak in English. But when I’m out at the grocery store or my favorite coffee shop, I have to remind myself of the language I should be speaking. However, being in a place where I can communicate fluently has given me back a certain level of confidence that I didn’t even realize I had lost while I was in Mexico. I feel much more secure knowing that I can easily understand and respond to just about anything that might be said to me. I used to take for granted that I could express myself in English pretty much effortlessly. After having this ability taken away from me for a few months, I certainly learned to appreciate it!

While I’m very grateful to finally be home, I do miss some things about Mexico. First of all, their fresh produce was so much better than anything I can find here! Around Puebla, there are carts selling fresh mango and fruit juice on just about every corner. We lived within walking distance of several farmers’ markets, where we could always go to pick up some very affordable fruits, veggies, eggs, or tortillas. And of course, I’m ruined for American Mexican food. Chipotle simply can’t compare to the real thing. Also, I loved Mexican currency! It’s actually really pretty—all of their bills are brightly-colored and feature intricate designs and pictures. I’ll include a picture of my personal favorite: the 50-peso bill. In comparison, American money seems kind of bland. Finally, I miss the weather in Puebla and dreary New Jersey really doesn’t help. So far, it’s rained all day every day that I’ve been back. In Puebla, it gets up to about 80°F every day (never too high above that) and there’s usually plenty of sunshine. It’s very pleasantly dry; if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s humidity.

Overall, I’m relieved to be back home. Living in another country took a lot of effort, and was even a bit isolating at times. I can only imagine how much more taxing it would have been if I hadn’t been surrounded by fellow OU students. But I’m glad I had the experience—it gave me a new perspective on life that I know I’ll carry with me for a long time to come.

The 50 peso bill
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Cancún

As our final group excursion, OU in Puebla went to Cancún. We spent a few days at a beach resort, unwinding after a long semester. I was shocked by how large this resort was—I was constantly getting lost and needing to ask for directions. It seemed to be the size of a small town! Unfortunately, I had to spend most of our trip doing homework. But I still managed to spend some time exploring, and enjoyed being out of the city for a few days.

By far my favorite part of the trip was a tour of the natural wonders of Cancún. Our program director arranged for us to be picked up at 8 am and taken to several destinations in Playa del Carmen. Of course, at times the experience felt a bit touristy, but it was still pretty exciting to see some of the non-beach attractions of the Yucatán.

Our first stop was a cenote. On our way there, our tour guide explained exactly what we were going to see. 65 million years ago, when the asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs slammed into what is now the Gulf of Mexico, a ring of sinkholes formed around the impact. These sinkholes are called cenotes, and many lead to incredible underwater caves and river systems. When we arrived at the cenote, it just looked like a small pond in the middle of the forest. But we soon found that the hole was extremely deep! We took turns jumping in and using the zipline system the tour company had set up. The water felt so good—it was crystal clear and comfortably cool. We were given snorkel gear, and got to spend 20 minutes swimming around and looking at the colorful fish and plants living in the shallower parts of the cenote.

Next, our group stopped at the mouth of a much smaller, mostly covered cenote. It looked like a cave, with the floor covered in several feet of water. We put our snorkel masks on, and followed our tour guide into the (freezing cold) cavern. As uncomfortable as the temperature was, I found I was quickly distracted by the incredible rock formations surrounding us. Our guide explained that the cave connected to a system of underground rivers. At first, I didn’t really understand the concept of an underground river, or how the cenote could feed into one. After paddling around for a few minutes, I finally saw what he was talking about. One second, I was looking down at the rocky cave floor; the next, I was floating over an abyss. There were a few powerful lights installed around the cenote, so I could see about 50 feet down into the gaping hole beneath me. Our guide told us that this was actually the mouth of one of the many underground channels that make up one of the largest underground river systems in the world. Understandably, the Mayans used to believe that these caves were the entrance to the underworld.

After exploring the cave, our group spent a few hours snorkeling in a small inlet on the gulf. The water was warm and it was a nice way to wind down after such a busy morning. We got to see a lot of interesting marine life, including a manta ray, a squid, a starfish, and a ton of exotic fish.

The shallower part of the first cenote we visited
The shallower part of the first cenote we visited

I’ve never been the type to go to resorts or spend much time at the beach, but I’m glad I got the chance to see Cancún. I especially enjoyed learning about the history of the Yucatán, and getting to see firsthand the natural formations and wildlife that the region is known for. It was a great way to end a semester full of firsts!

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OU in AREZZO

This summer I will be doing OU’s summer abroad program in Italy called OU in Arezzo. I finished up the orientation for my classes and bought my books. I also have my passport ready to go. I’m excited because this will be my first time studying abroad and my first time going overseas the program is only for a month but I think that it will be a good indicator of how I’ll do when I have to study abroad in Japan for a whole semester. The classes sound interesting and I can’t wait to see all of the beautiful art, culture, history, and food that Italy will have around. Hopefully, I will be able to broaden my horizons and try new things.

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Japanese Club

This semester the Japanese Club had a lot of cool events that they planned. I went to most of the events and had a lot of fun. The also had a T-shirt design contest. The end design was really cute. I wasn’t able to buy one yet but hopefully, they will still have some next semester. This semester most of the time I went to the club was because of my Japanese group project. It was a good meet up spot for all of my group members and we were able to get some help with the ideas we wanted to put into Japanese.

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Global Engagement Day 2018 Talk

This semester I had the opportunity to present my study abroad experiences at the annual Global Engagement Day at the University of Oklahoma. In this blog post I’ll summarize the information included in my talk.

The main points I went over were as follows:

  1. Why I chose to study where I did
  2. How I prepared for my trips
  3. Some highlights of my time abroad
  4. What I learned about myself
  5. Advice for other students planning to study abroad

One the primary reasons I chose to study abroad in Taiwan and Germany is that I speak Mandarin Chinese and German fluently. Additionally, Taiwan is well known as a major manufacturer of electronics that are distributed on a global scale. Germany on the other hand has earned a reputation for high standards in engineering practices.

In terms of preparation for my trips abroad, a major conclusion from my research was that cash is king for the locations where I was planning to study abroad. I also spent a significant amount of time going through the process of pre-equating my engineering courses so that I would not be too behind on my engineering coursework when I got back to OU. I asked several people for advice, including my sister who had previously studied abroad in college and a missionary who had lived in China for several years.

The major highlight of my time at the National Taiwan University of Taiwan was my involvement in a university group called International Companions for Learning. Through the program I had the opportunity to lead weekly Skype session for a Taiwanese elementary school where I taught the students about American culture. The university even paid for a free trip to the actual location of the school towards the end of the semester! My time in Germany was filled with travel on the weekends when I didn’t have lectures to attend. I was able to visit a new almost every two weeks! In Europe traveling to a different country is equivalent to traveling to a different state in the United States. A cool part of my experience in Germany was that I stayed with a local host family for my last two weeks. My host parents were extremely friendly and taught me many things about Germany that I would have otherwise never have had the opportunity to learn.

I learned many things about myself during and after studying abroad. One was that all of my strengths and weaknesses I have while at have at home in the US are significantly magnified while abroad. A good example of this is being introverted, so if you tend to avoid parties on the weekends, you probably won’t go out of your way to party while abroad. Of course, this might be different for other students abroad, but this was my personal experience. I also learned that I really find myself to be more fulfilled when I enjoy the journey or process of something rather than staying focused only on my goals. A good example of this is my spontaneous trip I took to Geneva in Switzerland. I originally had not planned to visit the city, but the flights back to Germany were cheapest from there. It turned out to be my favorite city of all out of the ones I visited in Europe. Finally, I have learned that no matter what my future career is, I want it to have a significant international component.

In terms of advice to students who are thinking about or planning to study abroad, my primary advice is to plan thoroughly but not obsessively. On the one hand, you don’t want to be in a stressful situation you could have planned for, but on the other hand, there is a certain value to just wandering around for the sake of adventure. Obsessive planning leads to disappointment when plans quickly change. Also, it is important to have fun outside of classes, which may or may not be a hard things depending on what kind of student you are. Make sure to have a support network back home, because contrary to what you might hear from others, studying abroad does not only consist of positive moments (even though that might be a common portrayal). Last piece of advice is specific for those studying abroad in Europe: Make sure to check all modes of transportation. At least for Germany, train tickets are often more expensive (sometime significantly more expensive) than flying by plane (you might have heard of Ryanair and the likes). Flixbus is a great options if you don’t mind taking longer to get to your destination.

That’s it for this blog post! I’ll be posting quite a few more blogs soon detailing what I’ve been up to during the past semester.