It takes years to know a place. To settle in, to explore the forgotten corners, to take the roads less traveled. Most of us know our hometowns well and most upperclassmen would probably say they know Norman. Sheffield is entirely new to me. I have spent two months here and all my afternoon excursions and weekend explorations have only revealed a fraction of the city’s charm.

This morning, I took a bus into the Peak District, a nearby national park, and found out that I could purchase a student day pass for trips through the area for only £3. The expansive and gorgeous wilderness of Yorkshire was much more accessible than I had realized. This afternoon, I visited a new coffee shop and found out that the student who sits across from me in my literature discussion section works there. I savored my americano and worked through homework under artfully shaded Edison bulbs that I had never before noticed. I had often walked the bustling high street running out front but never stopped to sip a coffee on their plush teal couches. Last night, I was walking to a convenience store and stumbled upon a cafe connected to an indie cinema. It was only a short distance from the main train station and a mere block from the music venue I had visited the night before.

Although I have settled into a routine, attending the same classes, shopping at the same grocery stores, and the like, it is incredibly easy to try something new. I have an informal list of places I want to visit before I leave and despite my best efforts, I feel like the list is growing faster than I can check it off. Even though I am sure I will not be able to visit everything, I am glad that I will have seen so much of the Sheffield that is never included in visitor guides or on lists of must-see destinations.

Marzo y Las Fallas

It’s spring time here in Valencia, which means the flowers are blooming and the hours of the day adequate to spend at the beach are increasing. March has been quite the month – from friends visiting for spring break, to celebrating Valencia’s largest annual ordeal, Las Fallas, and much more.

First, Las Fallas. Las Fallas is an incredibly event that the people of Valencia and the surrounding areas put on each year. It requires year-long planning and several group efforts to make everything come together. To begin explaining the festival, I should tell a little about the history. Las Fallas has slowly evolved over time, but it first began as a festival celebrating the patron saint of carpenters, Saint Joseph. In the past, carpenters would use planks of wood to set candles on to do their work in the winter months, and then when spring came, they no longer needed these planks of wood so they would then be burned. This act, corresponding with Saint Joseph, is what has developed over time to the modern-day version: constructing ginormous, beautifully crafted art pieces to the height of buildings and then on the last day, setting everything on fire (naturally). Several other events decorate the festival days, such as la ofrenda, which is where each of the fallera mayores carry flowers to offer to the Virgin of the city, and of course, fireworks…but not like woo America! 4th of July fireworks…I mean this is really a production.

Anyways, the timing worked out phenomenal, because my friends could join me for the festival during their spring break. They loved it as much as I did, and as neither of really knew what to expect, we were pretty amazed.

March also brought me an amazing weekend in Barcelona with some of my friends here in Valencia (and Maddie was the last visitor and got to come too). One of my friends studying in Germany has a family house outside of Barcelona that he invited us all to for the weekend after Las Fallas. We made big paellas and spent the whole day hammocking and looking down at the sea. In this day, after the craziness of Las Fallas, I really saw my life slow down before my eyes. How is it that I can have such strong days, such vibrant memories, all within such a short period of time? If my life continued this way, from here on out, for the rest of my life, at the end of it all I will feel as if I have lived a million lives in one. Looking down at the sailboats this day, I made a promise to myself. I was going to maintain this quality of life, this level of happiness, for the rest of my life. I know there will be down points, difficulties, of course – but now that I have had a little taste, a little taste of how sweet life can be, how could I go back? I won’t and I promised myself that on this warm spring day outside of Barcelona.

April is just around the corner and she also holds several great adventures…Seville, Morocco, Ibiza. I look forward to it all.

Lastly, I just want to remember this day of cleansing and cleaning with Josefine, the 30th of March. We got out of bed and went straight for a run to the beach and then came back and cleaned the entire apartment between the two of us. It felt so good to spend this time with her and just zone out a bit and clean (a lot of mess occurs when you have 12 visitors in one month). I am so lucky to have met her, and I know we will be friends for a very long time to come – my Swedish guardian!

Besos, Heath

Day of the Dead

On October 25, I went to go see the one-act play Day of the Dead by my freshman mentor Robert Con Davis-Undiano. When R.C. told me OU would be producing his work, I knew I had to go.

The play was meant to explain the cultural history behind the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. It also aimed to portray the significance of the holiday to modern-day Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

To accomplish these goals, the play focused on three women, all played by Norma Lilia Ruiz Cruz. The first, Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of life and death, connected Day of the Dead to its Aztec roots. The second, Catrina, a traditional Day of the Dead figure, brought us to Mexico in the not-so-distant past. Finally, Elena, a Chicana doctor on the U.S.-Mexico border, confronted present-day immigration and border patrol issues while arranging her Day of the Dead altar.

I liked the focus on women and thought the choice to use one actress was brilliant. The play was definitely direct about its intent to teach but enjoyable none the less. Check out a full review by The Norman Transcript here.

Being Honest About Language and Culture Shock

South Africa was amazing. I loved my time there. I saw so many beautiful things and made some great friends. However, I sometimes struggled with language barriers and cultural differences–culture shock.

South Africa has eleven official languages, nine indigenous and two colonial. South Africans speak any one of the eleven languages, one of which is English. English, however, is not many South Africans first language. Those who speak the other ten languages, though, learn English as a second language in order to communicate with each other and participate in state activities like education.

I was warned that this multitude of language might be straining, but my language challenges originated within my exchange program rather than South Africa at large.

I was the only American in the program. This meant I was also the only native English speaker. I gather that this is a common experience for Americans in UP’s exchange program.

In some ways, this gave me an advantage over my peers. It was easier for me to understand professors, read and write assignments, and communicate with locals. Everyone spoke my first language at least to a certain degree.

In other ways, this isolated me. Understandably, no one wants to speak in their second or third language all the time. This meant if I was in an all, say, Dutch-speaking group, they tended to speak only in Dutch. This left me out of the conversation, often confused about plans.

I logically knew that my friends did not do this to hurt me. I knew they enjoyed my company. Yet, situations like this mentally and emotionally wore on me. It made me feel like they didn’t care about me, like I was nothing to them, like I was invisible.

And though my English skills helped me, almost no one I encountered was on my level. School officials and my friends all spoke excellent English, but it was never native American English. I had to exert extra energy to focus on what others said, either because of their accents or their phrasing. I did not have the easy flow of conversation that comes from speaking to someone who has the same first language.

Beyond language, culture played a part, though more minor, in my frustrations. My friends appreciated me as an individual but, especially those from Europe, often made references to unfavorable American stereotypes. My love for peanut butter and Coca-Cola earned me innumerable obesity jokes. My ignorance of Angela Merkel spurred multiple conversations about Americans’ uncultured self-centeredness. I don’t even like Donald Trump, but I hated hearing derogatory comments about him because for them, he represented the United States.

I didn’t have anyone to share these frustrations with, who would understand them on a personal level, and that made them harder to handle. Even worse, I was the only one who had this problem. Everyone else in the program had at least one person from their home country. While my two Mexican friends celebrated Mexico’s Independence Day and Day of the Dead together, I worried about what Thanksgiving would be like as a celebration of one.

It makes me feel unnecessarily guilty, but I went home a few weeks early to spend Thanksgiving with my family. Finals were over, I had no more travel plans, and I was done with culture shock.

I changed my flight without telling anyone except my sister and surprised my family the day before Thanksgiving. It was its own amazing experience.

I want to make it very clear that I loved my time in South Africa. I wouldn’t take it back for the world. I enjoyed being a resource to my friends who wanted to improve their English, and I liked that as the first American many of my friends had personally known, I could project a favorable image of my country.

But my struggles were real, and I want to share them. I received one small warning about these issues, and maybe if I had known more, I could have been better prepared.

How Corruption Undermines Sustainable Development in Africa

For GEOG 1103: Human Geography, I had to attend an outside event related to the class and write a paper about that event. The following is the summary section of my paper.

I attended InFocus Africa’s forum “How Corruption Undermines Sustainable Development in Africa” on October 25, 2018 at 5:30 p.m. in the Main Dining Hall of Headington College on campus. The event began with an African-inspired dinner. Afterward, three speakers presented on the topic. The talks were followed by a question-and-answer segment facilitated by an InFocus Africa member. Unfortunately, I had to leave at 7:30 when the Q-and-A started. 

The first speaker was Dr. Greg A. Graham, an assistant professor in African and African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Graham outlined a genealogy of corruption. In the 1990s, a negative view of corruption in Africa was prominent. Development and democracy were seen as positive goals for African states, and corruption impeded those goals. These perceptions of Africa corruption became a justification for government usurpations, as during this time period multiple African military regimes were overthrown by democratic systems. As Dr. Graham pointed out, these ideas and movements came from outside of Africa. 

Dr. Graham then went on to explain African corruption from an internal perspective. Outsiders see Africa as rife with corruption, as if corruption were embedded in African cultures. Dr. Graham argued that African practices are not corrupt, but rather some can facilitate corruption. He then provided several examples including negotiations and gift giving. He also acknowledged the possible downfalls of ethnic solidarity networks and beliefs in redistributive accumulation, mainly nepotism or similar situations.

Finally, Dr. Graham connected his lecture to sustainable development. He proposed that such movements must be organic; they must stem from the people themselves. This brand of solution would sidestep corrupt government systems, benefiting the majority rather than the few. 

The second speaker was Dr. Andreana C. Prichard, an associate professor of African history in the Honors College at OU. Dr. Prichard focused on the corruption of good intentions into unintended outcomes. She analyzed three case studies involving Western-rooted charities in Africa. The first case involved the American charity More Than Me in Liberia. A scandal broke out upon the realization that a charity executive had been raping girls in his care. The organization did not handle the situation well. Officials dodged questions during interviews and refused to admit any wrongdoing beyond hiring the culprit. They would not acknowledge any problematic institutional systems that might have allowed this abuse of power. 

The second case looked at mission orphanages in Kenya. Dr. Prichard began this part of her presentation by defining orphan as a fluid category. When abolitionist missionaries came to Kenya, they predominantly worked with children, taking in those they defined as orphans. In 1898, famine struck Kenya, and many parents practiced pawnship to survive. This meant they exchanged their children for needed resources. The Kenyans expected the return of their children when they repaid their debt. However, the missionaries perceived this exchange as abandonment and refused to return these “orphaned” children. They had been teaching these children Western culture and feared them backsliding into their Kenyan culture. Therefore, as Dr. Prichard explained, the use of orphan became a mechanism for social control during colonialism. Post-colonialism, a redefining of orphan by aid organizations has created a manufactured orphan crisis, which attracts activism and tourism to Africa.

Dr. Prichard’s third case evaluated an American Christian charity, Upendo Kids, in Kenya. Similar to the first case, a staff member was found guilty of assaulting children in his care. Dr. Prichard wrapped up her talk by connecting these cases. These organizations began with good intentions—to help vulnerable people in Africa. They failed to do so because they did not understand cultural context or pay ample attention to harm caused. 

The third speaker was John Michael Koffi, the author of Refuge-e: The Journey Much Desired. A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo himself, Mr. Koffi’s presentation asked the question, “Whose perspective?” When one considers corruption, whose perspective is one seeing it from? The refugee, the official, or the outsider? He drew attention to corruption’s morality struggles. For example, refugees often pay to be smuggled across borders. This contributes to corruption, but it is necessary for the refugees’ survival and quality of life. Mr. Koffi complicated this example further by highlighting corruption as a reason for refugees’ situations. He became a refugee because a dictator drained his country of resources for personal gain. Paying smugglers seems a small act in comparison, but it still feeds into the corrupt system. 

Mr. Koffi viewed youth as the ones who promote democracy. Young people’s participation could lead to change, according to Mr. Koffi, but corruption pushes them away from government activity. Mr. Koffi promoted more investment in youth in countries with refugee and corruption problems as a solution. 

The 2018 Neustadt Festival

This year, I attended the Neustadt Festival for the third time. (I missed the one in 2017 because I was in South Africa.) This year’s prize recipient was Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American writer. I was lucky enough to be able to attend Haitian literary and cultural events all three days of the festival, October 9-11.

First, on the evening of October 9, I went to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art for the opening-night celebration. I mingled and ate snacks until Danticat made her remarks before the preview of “Women Like Us,” a Haitian dance.

The next day I attended the roundtable discussion “Edwidge Danticat’s Literary Message” made up by Catherine John Camara (an OU English professor whose class I have taken), Marcia Chatelain, and Florine Démosthène. I thought this panel would provide me with a good overview of Danticat’s work, but it also did an excellent job of framing her writing in a Haitian-American context. They discussed Haitian-American immigration and American perceptions of Haitians and Haitian culture. They analyzed African influences on Haiti and compared diaspora writers to Haitian writers.

The final morning I saw the full performance of “Women Like Us” as well as “ReBIRTH.” I found both dances powerful, especially the latter. I enjoy the performing arts and appreciated the exposure to another culture in that form. Danticat followed these performances with her keynote, ending the festival.

How Narratives Shape Us

On September 24, I attended a high table dinner at Headington College honoring Macarena Hernádez, a journalist and professor. As the audience enjoyed the free food, Hernádez gave a talk, “How Narratives Shape Us.”

She focused on border narratives, three borders in particular: United States/Mexico, Mexico/Guatemala, and Haiti/Dominican Republic. She interspersed her lecture with video examples of her journalistic work pertaining to those borders. You can also see some of this work on her website.

I enjoyed the dinner for two reasons (beyond the free food). First, Hernádez’s emphasis on the power of story aligned with my own beliefs. Second, she opened my eyes to issues I had never considered. While Americans tend to pay attention to our own border with Latin America, we rarely consider the borders within Latin America, which can be just as contentious, if not more so.

Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair

I also began volunteering at the Native American Languages Collection at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History last semester. I chose the NALC for its connections to diverse literature and Native cultures. I have done a lot of archival work, recording information for the collection database. However, this semester we have been focusing on our biggest community event, the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair.

The fair actually takes place next week—April 1-2—and I urge you to attend if you have any interest in Native languages/cultures. You will see posters, comics, books, and essays on display. You can watch performances, including modern/traditional songs, spoken poetry and prayer, and short plays. We will even be viewing short films made by students. You can visit the ONAYLF website for the schedule.

I will be volunteering all day Monday. Hope to see you then!

My OU Cousins Family

Last semester I decided to rejoin OU Cousins. I hadn’t participated in the group since my freshman year, but I was excited to connect with international students again, especially after being an international student myself in South Africa.

At the matching party, I paired with Jade, who is from France. While there, I ran into fellow GEF Anne Delong, who had matched with Jade’s Belgian roommate Jolien and Rosie from Vietnam. We decided to merge into one OU Cousins family, adding Nelson from Venezuela at the last minute.

This year with OU Cousins has been amazing thanks to this family. We have tried American burgers at McNellie’s and Italian-American dishes at Othello’s and Olive Garden. Jade’s family immigrated to France from Italy so her reactions were priceless. We celebrated both mine and Jade’s birthdays. We went to see Venom at Meacham. They even came to support my monologue during Me Too Monologues.

Jolien returned to Belgium at the end of last semester, but I hope to see the rest of my Cousins at least a couple more times before I graduate!

Being Exposed, Spring Break, and Bum Knees

Anticipation is tied to planning which ultimately breeds stress. What little measures can one take just to avoid it? Well, I found out that not putting off tiny tasks (anything that may take less than 10 minutes) should be handled immediately. My issue comes from an earnest part of my soul; I aspire to be a perfectionist.

It is a hard pill to swallow that I cannot possibly achieve perfection, much less really come to terms with the mediocrity of my work. I don’t know how many people from younger generations like the show Courage the Cowardly Dog, but it was a masterpiece. In one episode, a malignant tutor comes to Courage’s home to provide him puppy training. Her style is perfection, and always pushes Courage to become better and better. Her harsh criticisms wore him down to the point of basically killing him. Just an aside: this show has always been kind of odd being filled with moments that are non sequitur and random elements (this is from the dog’s imagination, after all).

That being said, Courage finds a piranha in his bathtub who turns out to be very wise. He advises Courage by telling him that true perfection does not exist, and that he is being too hard on himself. Courage is moved by this–and so was little 9-year-old me. I do not quite remember another moment when the moral of an episode ever hit so close to home. For all my life, I had not been able to ever achieve perfection or even anything close to it.

For instance, writing a blog post can take as long as several hours given how I worry that I will look back on these posts in the future and sigh at my ignorance. Shouldn’t my travel blog be enlightened and contain great amounts of information on the level of being a guru? Many of my peers seem to know so much already, and I cannot even aspire to be half as informed as them. I try too hard to anticipate the possible mistakes that I could make, and ultimately I do nothing that all. It is crucial that I get my own opinions out there, because otherwise this experience is for not. Even more importantly, I must understand the true importance of not putting things off. Getting things done on time and not begrudging the deadlines is so important.

I feel that familiar self-conscious exposure as I write this, but I am driven to continue because the feeling of hitting the publish button after a potentially risky post is always so cathartic. It brings me one step closer to dropping my own personal censuring and just throw my own peculiar combination of 1’s and 0’s into the web. It’s good practice to eventually try practice it in everyday conversation. It is scary to do, but as always I will try to remember the piranha’s lesson and develop my own personal Courage.

So I went to Dublin for the beginning of my travels for spring break <3

This of course introduced its own set of problems, since we missed a bus ride. On the plus side, we got to stay an extra night in London!

Funny side story: We had missed our bus earlier that day, so we felt a bit dejected being two broke college students that had to spend another 60 pounds. We were trying our best to find a decent and cheap hotel for the night, so we went door to door on this street of hotels trying to find the best deal. Desperation started setting in around hour 22, and my knee felt like it was about to break. The British were closing in on all sides… and there it was. A hotel that gives students. Abby went in to get a quote, and when we decided it was too high even still, the man decided to give us an offer that we could definitely refuse. He took us down into the basement which double-backed under the street. There was no heating or air conditioning, and the room smelled heavily of cats. There, under the pavement of one of many London streets, in the bowels of cat aroma, was a singular mattress covered by a stained blanket with a single dangling 60 watt light bulb (which flickered to life). I could not help but laugh right there in front of the man. 

So we booked it out of there and I used some of my precious data to find a decent hotel nearby. 

The next day, after a full night’s rest, we made it on time to a really nice train. I got to sit next to this American man who was exploring grad student programs in Europe in molecular biology. He was so intelligent and told me all about the research that he’d like to do. We got to talking about his experience, and I did my best to learn from it. Eventually we made it to the ferry station on the opposite side of the British isle in a town called Holyhead. We got on board this huge ferry that was much more akin to a mini cruise ship, and I got to try a lager. On the down side, it was very windy that day, so the waters were incredibly choppy with 20+ foot waves. We unwittingly sat at the very front end of the bow and settled in. A rugby match was playing, and people were really getting into it.

30 minutes later, I noticed how much up and down movement we were making about the same time my stomach began to abandon ship. I wasn’t the only one, sadly. The whole ride lasted about 4 hours, so I was miserable for a substantial part of it. We finally made it to land (solid, immobile, beautiful land), and found our home in Ireland. We settled in for the night at our Airbnb with a Domino’s pizza and watched a bit of Queer Eye. It was the closest to an American experience that I could possibly get, and I enjoyed every moment of it (besides seeing my parents, but that’s a topic for the next post).

There was surprisingly much more Gaelic than I anticipated; turns out it is far from a dead language. I guess that I just assumed that it is so close to England that the inevitable influence of English over the people would squash out other local languages. It was nice to see it on every sign and hear it over my shoulder on the bus.

We got to see the St. Patrick’s Day Parade of 2019 in Dublin which was wicked cool. We explored the streets and got just a little tipsy before heading to our tour of the Jameson Distillery. I learned that it is incredibly easy to malt barley, and it is quite tasty. It would make for a perfect addition to trail mix, so I might try that out.

Overall, this experience was all over the place. It kicked off my Spring Break to a really great start, and I would not have it any other way.