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TBS Abroad Week 10: Favorite Place

By mkeller on April 23, 2017

Week 10 Prompt: Favorite Place 

FAVORITE PLACE — You’ve already spent a few months abroad. This week, take a picture of one place you’ll miss most—a park, a bookshop, a cafe—after you come home. And explain what makes you feel “at home” there. 


Sabrina Farmer 

Pictured is the landscape of the area known as the Cederberg where I did some biodiversity surveying. I enjoyed being surrounded by mountains again after being in the dry and flat savanna for so long. My friends and I would point at mountains in the distance and then hike up them to see what was on the other side. The views were breathtaking. Each night offered a different spectacular sunset. I would love to go back to the Cederberg and get permission to backpack through it. I could have spent the entire four months there exploring!


Ben Kelsey 

This is a picture of the Kamogawa river, between the Shijo shopping area and the historic Gion district in Kyoto. It’s a popular place to hang out when the weather’s nice, and it has been especially busy recently with the cherry blossom season. To me, this place represents a broader part of my experience in Japan, and one that I will definitely miss when I return to the U.S.: the feeling that there’s something exciting and new to be seen or done at any moment, that there might be something just around the corner waiting to be experienced. This is a feeling that I have had elsewhere, too, but the aspect that is unique to Japan is that it’s still with me after 3 months. I still feel as though every restaurant I go to is an exciting new opportunity to try something new, or to have an even better version of something I’ve already had. Of course, there are always more temples and shrines to visit, more museums to explore, and more touristy areas to take advantage of in Kyoto, but for me there’s a real sense here that something interesting could be found in even the most unsuspecting places. Just today, I was walking through a little residential area on my way to lunch, and I turned a corner thinking that I could make a left soon after. It turned out that I was wrong, and I had to walk a good ways down the road before I was able to return to my path, but I’m glad I did, because the road had schools on either side, and was lined with the last of this season’s cherry blossoms that swayed in the slight breeze and dusted with fallen pink petals. It was a cool enough experience that it was worth going out of my way to see it. That’s the kind of thing that feels as though it’s everywhere in Kyoto. The Kamogama river represents this feeling to me because I only recently found out about it, after almost three months in Kyoto, and it just goes to show that there’s always something else to be seen or done. Whether it’s a view, a shop, or a weird beverage, there just seems to be no end to Japan’s ability to serve up novelty.

 


TBS Abroad Week 9: Learning

By mkeller on April 14, 2017

Week 9 Prompt: Learning

LEARNING — Recent data from the Programme for International Student Assessment find students in China, Korea, and Japan scoring highest on competency assessments in mathematics, reading, and science. These results, and others like them, continue to fuel broad debates about school reform, the importance of education to the global economy, and the need to improve test scores in western countries. Meanwhile, a long line of scholars, theorists, and policy analysts, from Antonio Gramsci to Diane Ravitch, argue that “[t]he more we focus on tests, the more we kill creativity, ingenuity, and the ability to think differently. Students who think differently get lower scores. The more we focus on tests, the more we reward conformity and compliance, getting the right answer.” This week, consider the role education (broadly defined) plays in the culture surrounding you. Where, when, and how do people learn? Is schooling formalized, mandated by law? Are wealthy, “elite” members of society educated alongside the poor, or are they treated differently? Photograph a place you believe typifies learning in the country in which you live: a school building, a classroom, a mosque, a library, a riverbank, a public park, a car repair shop, etc.


Sabrina Farmer 

As most things, education and the definition of education changed in the different locations I travelled to across South Africa. Location one lived in, whether near a city or in a more rural location, completely changed and individual’s access to schools. The three South African women in my study group grew up in the suburbs of Johannesburg and attended WITS University. My South Africa professors attended Universities in either Cape Town or Johannesburg. This more westernized style of education and learning was challenged by the people we met and worked with in many of the national parks. Instead of attending universities, some professors grew up in the area and were experts on how that environment worked. One of our instructors, Philly, was a game guard (one of the people licensed to carry guns so we could walk around in areas with the Big 5 animals) and spoke all eleven South African national languages, was a bird and grass expert, and could tell you everything there was to know about the savanna ecosystem. Many of the formally trained scientists who would come in to the national parks to do research relied on his knowledge to do their work. University education is highly valued and access to it is very dependent on one’s financial capability, but in the fields of conservation the more field skilled individuals were crucial to success. Yet, even though their presence is crucial they do not receive the same benefits.  My time spent studying in South Africa was a combination of these two different learning styles. As a study group, we spent roughly half of our time in the classroom and half of it learning while in the field. Pictured here is my class standing around a tree discussing the dynamics between tree and grass growth in the savanna and Philly watching birds and helping us identify different species for a research project.


Andrew DeFrank 

I see students wherever I go during my days in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Whether blocks from the financial center of downtown, near the Casa Rosada and Plaza de Mayo, on the top floor of a public library near the University of Buenos Aires, or in the working-class neighborhood of Flores after a human rights organization visit, students are ever-present in this dense and well-populated city. 

From what we have learned and observed so far, education is very important in Argentina. Primary and secondary education is formalized and mandatory, and university education is either very cheap or free of charge for Argentines. Our often somewhat young professors for our courses on human rights and social movements care deeply about their academic work. Whenever we have a visiting professor, perhaps recently finished with their graduate school, they are delighted to present their own interests and work to our program.

In my own interpretation, education among young adults has taken such an important place in the minds of present-day Argentines at least in part because of infamous “disappearances” during the final military dictatorship in this country during the 1970s and early 1980s. Over 30,000 people were forcibly “disappeared,” or more specifically tortured and later murdered, by the military dictatorship. Most of these people were young university students or professors, often targeted for their intellectual ideas that ran counter to the conservative and staunchly anti-communist values of the dictatorship. After we visited a former secret detention center, once hidden in the heart of the city, I realized how revolutionary the pursuit of education and intellectual disagreement must be to today’s Argentines. Not 40 years ago, to study and express ideas that ran counter to the government’s preference could have led you to a terrible death.

Argentines also find a source of pride in their generous residency and citizenship laws, which allow a wide variety of people from across the world to study in Argentina for very little money. Argentina’s public undergraduate and graduate educational institutions are well regarded around the world, and so long as you are living in Argentina for an extended period of time, you can enjoy the same low cost of an education as native Argentines.

We’ve also learned quite a bit about the way Argentines view each other through the lens of education and cultural literacy. In the United States, we often equate a person’s social class with their economic means. To be middle class economically implies a certain level of education, of cultural tastes, of social networks, and so on. In Argentina, due to a variety of factors including the economic crises of the 1990s and early 2000s, it is possible for a university-educated, “high-culture” resident of Buenos Aires to not have the economic means typically associated with middle-class life. As a result, education, through fluency in foreign languages, attainment of a college education, and so on, often can replace economic wealth when considering a person’s social class in society. We are only beginning to delve into the way race complicates this dynamic. I look forward to learning quite a bit more these coming weeks about how indigenous populations, Argentines of African or Asian descent, and additional populations, are excluded from this narrative of class and education.

A public library in Buenos Aires where Andrew often does homework alongside Argentine students.

A window in a former “clandestine concentration camp” or detention center, where thousands of Argentine men and women were tortured and killed during the military dictatorship. Their names and faces line the windows of this former naval academy.

A view of La Plaza de Mayo during a worker’s strike in mid-March. Andrew’s class was let out early so they could experience the march and learn from those participating in it. This is also about two blocks from his Spanish-language classes at the Universidad de Buenos Aires.

 


Ben Kelsey 

Education is a very important part of life and society in Japan. It’s visibly present because of the uniformed schoolchildren who can be seen pretty much everywhere, but it’s also present in current thought about modern Japanese society.

Mandatory education in Japan consists of elementary school and some middle school, but the rate of graduating high school is extremely high. This system is punctuated by graduation ceremonies, which take place whenever students move from one school to the next, and this progression through education is mediated by frequent testing. The best colleges tend to be attended by students who graduated from the best high schools, who in turn graduated from the best middle schools, who in turn graduated from the best elementary schools, in what is referred to in Japan as the “education escalator,” because it is imagined that each school will feed its students into the top of the next level of education, so that they are continually led upward with relatively little effort. Even after high school or college, there exists what is called the “education history society” (学歴社会), in which the top universities feed almost directly into the best jobs, and the connections one makes through one’s educational background are vital to success in employment. This is not merely imagined, either, as top government and business positions are occupied extremely disproportionately by graduates of the top 3 or so public universities (which are the best of the best, even above the top private universities). Thus education is very important for parents, and much pressure is put onto students to ensure that they can board this escalator properly, so to speak.

But what form does this pressure take? Around the late 20th century, Japan was at the pinnacle of global performance in math, science, and pretty much every subject that could be tested through a global standardized test. The economy was booming, Japan was thriving, and everyone was very well-educated. On the other hand, students were not particularly happy. Most students would spend multiple hours a day at “cram schools” after school to boost their learning and increase their chances of passing entrance examinations that were crucial to educational success, and thereby success in life (which has also led to some complaints about lower socio-economic status students having less access to these important opportunities, but it should be noted that the Japanese national public education system is identical for every student, regardless of wealth). Problems with bullying and students refusing to go to school, as well as suicide among young people, were at worrying levels, and it was determined that something had to be done. The national curriculum was re-evaluated to focus less on success in standardized, memorization-based learning, and more on fostering curiosity, critical thought, individualism, and the student’s feelings. Additionally, students were given less work to do outside of class, so that they would have more free time. The effect was as desired: students were generally happier. This effect, however, came at a great cost to standardized test scores. Japan slipped down the rankings, and was soon overtaken my many other East Asian nations and others around the world. It was decided that a compromise had to be arrived at to ensure that students would continue to be motivated to study, but that also ensured that Japan’s workforce would remain competitive. The curricula were once again beefed up somewhat, and that’s pretty much where Japan is today. The phenomenon of “entrance exam hell,” especially when entering universities, is very much still present.

I can’t really speak to what it’s like to go through the Japanese education system, since I never have, but I am lead to believe that it’s quite tough. As I once heard a Japanese college student express it, “In Japan, it’s difficult to get into college, but it’s easy once you get there, whereas in the U.S., it’s easy to get into college, but difficult to graduate.” However you imagine the actual difficulty of college in the U.S., the above is comparatively true in that high school is very much the test of student’s mettle, and college is a significant downgrade in terms of time investment and relative difficulty.

My hunch on the matter is that the best education system is probably just a dream, and it really all depends on what outcomes you want. If you want artists, you get rid of standardized tests and hand students brushes and you’ll get artists. If you want mathematicians, you lock them in a room with a pile of textbooks and a time limit and you get mathematicians. And if you want happy, well-rounded, humans who will become productive members of society but still have their own unique interests, you probably want a mix of the two. The thing to keep in mind is that whatever outcome it is you want, it won’t come easily, and it takes an education system that is well-funded and well-staffed enough that it can meet a nation’s needs. It’s a cliché to say that children are the future, but it’s a true one.


 


TBS Abroad Week 8: Money

By mkeller on April 5, 2017

Week 8 Prompt: Money  

MONEY —  Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson wrote in The Ascent of Money that “poverty is not the result of rapacious financiers exploiting the poor.” Instead, he argued, it results from “the lack of financial institutions, from the absence of banks, not their presence.” (13) Ferguson’s point here is perhaps counterintuitive—since without financial institutions, and without any money, poverty as such has little frame of reference. Indeed, as these complexities and others like them perhaps suggest, our relationship with money is often strained and difficult, contentious and potentially (self-)destructive. It may be true that money “makes the world go around,” but it also establishes clear lines between the “haves” and “have-nots.” This week, pay attention to money. What is the local currency? How is money accessed? (ATM, brick-and-mortar bank branches, a black market?) How is it most commonly used? (Cash, credit, check, some other means?) Do people have easy access to financial institutions? If not, do people around you consider themselves “poor?” Photograph something related to money, or something you believe embodies the cultural attitude toward it.


Sabrina Farmer 

Reflecting on the four months I spent in South Africa, I primarily used cash as my main way to purchase items. ATMs were somewhat  reliable throughout the locations I traveled to. The currency used is called the South African Rand which is made up of paper dollars as well as coins. The coins go up to 5 rand while the bills start at 10 rand. The exchange rate while I was in South Africa was 12 Rand to 1 USD. Most restaurants and shops accepted credit cards. Unfortunately, in my time there I did not photograph any of the money I possessed. I found that the financial institutions available entirely changed depending on my location. For examples, my weeks in Cape Town and Johannesburg offered many more options in terms of available banks and ways to access money. Meanwhile, in a few of the nature conservancy’s I stayed on we had no access to ATMs or stores for that matter. One of the most expensive things to access in South Africa is cell phone and/or internet data. As a group, we consistently had problems accessing internet for our projects because in more rural areas it is hardly ever offered for free. At one location, wifi was offered 100MB for 150 Rand, which does not go far when powering computers for research projects.

I am going to use this prompt to talk about a brief part of my program, a home stay in the chieftaincy of HaMakuya. I stayed in a village within the chieftaincy for a total of four days and was offered the briefest glimpses into the lives of people who live very differently from how I do. The home stay was a challenging time for me because I did not feel like we as a group offered enough back to the community we lived with. We were welcomed with open arms but this welcome was also wrapped into the financial gain we could bring them and the power and privilege our primarily white group had. Aside from my complicated feelings about being there, I did enjoy the opportunity to experience a different style of life. The people in the chieftaincy, speaking primarily from the women I interacted with, lived a life with television and telephones, yet no running water inside the house. Our presence stepping in, as one of many groups who come into the community, in my opinion helps to perpetuate the idea that people from outside the chieftaincy have more than within. I myself contributed to their own perceptions of being “poor” because, after noticing my small silver ring I always wear, a friend of my host mother commented how she would love to have something so beautiful from her husband. I myself contributed to the perception of the “have and have-nots”. I was grateful to be so welcomed by my family while feeling uncomfortable about the privileged reasons which afforded me welcome.

Sabrina’s host mother surrounded by some of the family’s children cooking. They were helping her to cook the evening meal.

 

Sabrina with her translator Innocent. He is an amazing soccer player and they bonded through their enjoyment of the sport.

 

Three daughters of Sabrina’s host mother, the two who were old enough to speak and dream want to be doctors when they are adults.

 



TBS Abroad Week 7: Trash

By mkeller on April 1, 2017

Week 7 Prompt: Trash    

TRASH — Data published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development highlight startling facts about trash. On average, the United States is responsible for producing 760 kilograms per capita (about 1,675 pounds) of municipal waste. This situates our nation as the fourth largest producer of trash in the world, trailing only Ireland (780 kg/person), Denmark (800 kg/person) and Norway (830 kg/person). On the other end of the scale, the three lowest producers are China (115 kg/person), the Czech Republic (290 kg/person), and Poland (320 kg/person). While these numbers perhaps reflect varying levels of economic development, they might also serve as pointed commentary on our ostensibly failed efforts to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” Think about trash this week. How much trash do you produce each week? What happens to it? Is it taken to a landfill? Is it burned? Is single-stream recycling available in your area? Is trash picked up once a week from the street curb, is it collected each day, or is there a central collection point somewhere in your city? Consider these questions, then take a picture of trash as it is commonly encountered in your community: in a dumpster, in a gutter, left to decay in a parking lot, etc.


Ben Kelsey 

Trash in Japan, or at least the disposal of it, is a cultural institution. It is easily the most recycling-focused place to which I have ever been. Not only is trash separated into recyclables, compostables, and other, recyclables are separated by type (PET bottles, other plastic, glass, cans, clean paper, other paper and cardboard), and household trash is separated into burnable, non-burnable, and other. These categories are picked up separately a few times per week (by a truck that plays a pleasant jingle as it travels down the road). Large items that don’t fit into one of these categories, such as suitcases, have to be picked up separately for a fee. One of the students on my study group broke a suitcase and had to pay around $10 for it to be taken away. In addition, public trash cans are notoriously difficult to find. They are present in some parks, and outside convenience stores, but that’s about it. Japanese people tend to keep their trash with them when they’re out and about and dispose of it when they return home. As a result, the streets are extremely clean. For this reason, I was unable to find a picture of trash to include with this blog post, because I simply didn’t see any.

This level of diligence in recycling isn’t just wishful thinking, either. Japanese people seem very committed to making sure they dispose of waste properly. Children learn from their parents, and thus the knowledge is passed from generation to generation. As an example, I seem to remember hearing that over 90% of plastic bottles are recycled, and if you’ve ever seen the ubiquity of beverage vending machines in Japan, you’ll know that that’s a whole lot of bottles. There really does seem to be a sense that recycling and reducing waste is the right thing to do, and pretty much everyone is in on it.

Having said that, Japan is certainly not blameless in its production of waste. While it may recycle at high rates, its tendency to use a lot of packaging means that it produces a lot of paper, cardboard, and plastic waste. To illustrate, bags of snack items (such as mini KitKats) usually have each one individually wrapped in plastic, which is very convenient, but seems unnecessary. This pattern continues beyond dessert products and into the famous bento lunch boxes, which often include the plastic box and top, as well as disposable chopsticks in a paper or plastic wrapping, a moist towelette wrapped in plastic, possibly a pack of sauce, and a paper or plastic bag to carry it in. That’s a lot of extra waste. As I say, Japan is famous for its excellent packaging, and it really is both convenient and beautiful, but there are definite downsides to it. I myself, being a foreign student who has to find his own lunch, am guilty of producing a fair amount of trash on days when I don’t eat at a restaurant. I assure you, however, that I always recycle.

Sabrina Farmer 

On my study group, we lived in the relative isolation of different South African National Parks (SAN Parks) and nature reserves. Because of this isolation, we were not able to buy much in our day to day. The large majority of the trash produced by the people in my study group came from food products. Week to week, the students on my group are catered food for every meal by the Aggy Shadow Catering Company. Behind the scenes, our catering company likely produced trash from the packing of food items they purchased. However, once we were served we had no plastic waste and hardly any food leftover. The majority of my personal waste came from buying sweets like candy bars and other junk food at the local gas stations during our days off or travel days. The question of what happened to the trash at each different location varied. In Skukuza, a camp in Kruger National Park where we spent a month of our time, they had just begun a waste separation and recycling system in 2014. The contrast of traveling within the pristine Kruger Park to then driving outside of it where the side of the roads and fields were littered with trash was astounding. The infrastructures in the tourist-centric and tourist-funded SAN Parks were drastically better than the areas surrounding it. While we had running water and toilets in Kruger, we had outhouses with holding tanks in the Hamakuya chieftaincy 6 hours of driving away.



TBS Abroad Week 6: McDonalds

By mkeller on March 22, 2017

Week 6 Prompt: McDonalds    

MCDONALD’S — Few global brands are as recognizable as McDonald’s. According to its website, the McDonald’s corporation operates or has franchised some 36,000 restaurants in 100 countries and employs 1.8 million workers worldwide. Its prevalence has spawned unsurprising imitations—for instance, “McDonal” stores in Iraqi Kurdistan emulate both the appearance and menu of McDonald’s. But ubiquity also necessitates critique. To some analysts, “McDonaldization” exemplifies the homogenization of global culture, a visible (if not vestigial) sign of American-style consumerism spreading throughout the world. This week, photograph the McDonald’s location nearest where you live, if there is one, then answer a few basic questions: What kind of people do you see inside—tourists, locals? Is it busy? Is there any attempt to emulate local culture, traditions, or heritage on the menu? Have you eaten there? Explain why or why not.


Danielle Norgren

I am a person of principle. One of these many principles includes avoiding McDonalds at all costs when abroad. Its glaring yellow arches are an enticing promise of comfort; step through the sliding glass doors and suddenly, I will be able to speak the universal language of fast food. In some cases, speaking won’t even be necessary: touch screens have replaced all human interaction. Thus, in countries such as Hungary or Austria, where I do not speak the language, McDonald’s represents a welcome escape from wild hand gestures and new customs. Up until this year, I have stubbornly refused to accept the comfort that McDonald’s offers. Being abroad, I have assured myself, is an exercise in embracing discomfort.

It is with great reluctance, therefore, that I reflect upon the fact that I have been to McDonald’s four times in the past two months. Each of these times, I have justified the excursions as being out of necessity. Arriving in a train station at 11pm in Florence, for example, meant no other restaurants were available. In Geneva, living on a student budget means I must cross the border to France for groceries. One particularly misplanned week, I realized I was out of groceries an hour before our evening class. McDonald’s seemed to be the only option.

Geneva is an international city. It is therefore hardly surprising that during my visit to McDonald’s I was surrounded by the usual cacophony of four languages being spoken at once. Particularly impressive, though, were the workers and their abilities to switch with ease between languages. Men in business suits, high schoolers with cellphones, and families with strollers, crammed into the entryway. Sitting in the upstairs booths overlooking the train station, my friend and I discussed Michelin-starred restaurants and the show Chef’s Table over our french fries.

My time in Geneva and experiences at Mcdonald’s have also greatly increased my appreciation for American fast-food prices. While I have overcome my urge to visually grimace as I glance at the cost of my meal (Usually around 15 Francs), I am comforted by the familiarity of options. McFlurry, it turns out, seems to be a universal term (or at least in Western Europe).

Danielle’s photo is from https://us.123rf.com/450wm/TEA/TEA1602/TEA160201311/53272655-geneva-switzerland–november-19-2015-mcdonald-s-restaurant-interior-mcdonald-s-is-the-world-s-larges.jpg

 


Ben Kelsey 

The McDonalds pictured is one on a main street-corner close to a very pretty temple.

From my admittedly little experience with McDonalds in Japan, it seems to be mostly frequented by locals, but the cashiers are quick to pull out English menus for foreigners, so I would guess that tourists frequent them fairly often. The McDonalds nearest me is quite busy for its small size during lunch times. The seating area is perhaps two meters wide, enough to accommodate a two-person table and a narrow passageway, and there is also a counter along the outer wall for single-person seating. There is also a small sealed-off smoking room, but it was empty when I went.

The two most noticeable concessions to Japanese food culture in Japan are the teriyaki burger, which I have not tried, but I have heard that it’s okay, and the presentation of the food. Presentation is extremely important in all areas of consumerism in Japan, and the most striking part of a dining experience at a Japanese McDonalds is, in my opinion, that the burgers that one receives actually look like they do in the pictures on the menu, and they come wrapped in greaseproof paper in a little basket. It’s all very attractive. Of course, the cashiers are also as friendly and cheerful as all service staff are in Japan, and welcome customers as they enter and thank them as they leave. It’s sort of a strange experience, to be eating a fast-food burger in that kind of atmosphere.

I have eaten at a McDonalds here once, as much for the experience as for the food. If I recall correctly, I had a chili burger and an iced oolong tea. It was, I would estimate, better than the average McDonalds food in the U.S., but still far below the very high standard of restaurant food in Japan. It was also more expensive than fast food in the U.S., but still cheap relative to other common lunch options. Overall it was a pleasant experience, but one I would probably not repeat unless pressed for time and unable to make it to a convenience store (or konbini, which have an excellent selection of inexpensive ready-made food items). I am perhaps, however, biased by my Americanized taste, and it is possible that I prefer konbini food because it is more novel to me, and perhaps McDonalds is a more interesting experience for the average Japanese diner. Although, to be fair, I don’t think I’ve eaten at a McDonalds in the U.S. in over 9 years, so maybe I’m not the best judge of equivalencies.


Sabrina Farmer 

I am sad to say that during my time in South Africa, I never made it to a McDonald’s and I honestly cannot recall seeing one. This may be because I was not looking for them or because of the dominance of other restaurant chains in South Africa. The most prominent restaurant chain I saw was Steers, a South African fast food chain which primarily serves burgers and chips. The chain began in the 1960s after a South African man was inspired by his observation of the budding fast food business during a visit to the United States. I visited Steers restaurants on visits to shopping malls and during travel days where they are found in conjunction with highway gas stations. They tend to be busy, have a consistent menu, and are similar to that of a McDonalds. The steers encompass some of the tradition of the famous South African braai. Braai nights were my favorite South African tradition, where families and friends get together each week to cook out, in a similar format as a BBQ but so much more. At Steers, there is a theme of items being flame-grilled and they even offer items such as ribs. The Steers chain has spread across Africa and is continuing to spread, the first one located in a non-African country appeared in 2013.



TBS Abroad Week 5: News

By mkeller on March 16, 2017

Week 5 Prompt: News   

THE NEWS — Each day, The Newseum in Washington, D.C. updates an online digital exhibition featuring some of the most timely front pages from newspapers around the globe. Indeed, as this exhibit is meant to suggest, the “front page” is not merely locational or typographical: it signifies weight and importance and serves as a useful indicator of the issues that matter most to people within a particular geo-political area. But not always. Sometimes, western news—and in particular, national news from the United States—is featured on the front page of ostensibly “local” newspapers and magazines, even though the issues discussed and problems addressed may have only tangential relevance to the locals. This week, think about the “front page” both as a medium and signifier. What stories appear on the front page of newspapers and local news websites today? How does this compare with what ordinary “people-on-the-street” are talking about? For what audience is local news written? Can you reconcile any disjunctions? Provide a photograph of a newsstand, newspaper, magazine rack, or local news website to give us a glimpse of the front page. Then, list the price (in local currency) of the daily newspaper, if one exists.


Sean Corrigan 

In Hong Kong it’s quite difficult to take a break from the news. All the subway trains have TV screens that show news, ads, and updates on the celebrity world. It’s all in Cantonese, so I can’t understand what’s being said. But it’s surprising how much visuals can help. Sometimes it’s fun to guess at what’s on the screen just based on the visuals and the small amount of Chinese that I can read, except when the story is clearly about a firebombing attack in a station that I’m just about to pass through. Everyone else watching was weirdly calm about it, so I figured the situation was under control.

When I first got here in January, most of the news reports seemed to be about Donald Trump. Anything people in the US were talking about was being reported in Hong Kong. There’s not quite as much US news now, but it still takes up a lot of air time. The photo below shows a typical news report on the subway. This story was about the man who scaled the White House fence and was caught by Secret Service, and next to it is an announcement to stop the spread of germs, I think.

Below is the front page of the South China Morning Post’s website. They are one of Hong Kong’s longest-running and most trusted news sources. I was unable to find the print version, but I know it exists out there somewhere. A print subscription with delivery costs HK$17 per week, equal to US$2.19


Ben Kelsey 

In my admittedly limited experience, the source for all things newsworthy in Japan is the NHK, Japan’s national broadcasting network (think PBS). My host mother watches it every morning and some evenings, and I usually catch the weather and a few stories as I eat breakfast. The morning news seems to be a fairly even balance of international and domestic stories. Recently I’ve been seeing a lot of news about North Korea, and there seems to be something about the education system most days. Indeed, these seem to be the issues that are at the front of everyone’s mind here. The public education system is a big part of Japanese society, and I think people like to talk about it. I’m not entirely sure what’s said about North Korea (my Japanese isn’t quite that good), but missiles and a missing or dead uncle seem to figure pretty heavily in it. There’s also a sort of round-table talk show every Saturday morning that’s themed around a new topic of public debate each week, and that seems to bring in a panel to discuss it.

I would speculate that the news reflects what people on the street talk about because many of them source their information from that news. In a way that is perhaps emblematic of the sense (true or not) among Japanese people that their nation is extremely homogenous and that everyone should and does have the same concerns, I think that the news, as represented by the NHK, serves to present topics of national debate to the nation. I’m not suggesting that the government is trying to control public discourse in Japan, but from what I can tell, a lot of Japan gets its news from the same place, and I think that this probably contributes to a sense of confronting things as a nation. It’s entirely possible that young people are starting to get their news elsewhere, such as on the internet, but I can assure you that my 70-year-old host mother is not.

The newspaper that is pictured is a local one from Kyoto. I think the picture is about flowers starting to bloom in spring. The website is the NHK website.

 



TBS Abroad Week 4: Religion

By mkeller on March 8, 2017

Week 4 Prompt: Religion  

RELIGION — “Separation of church and state” is a founding concept in the secular republic known as the United States of America. It was intended, initially, as a way to protect religious sects from government interference, but the concept has in some ways reversed itself. Today, in the USA, the dominant concern is the extent to which religion is allowed to influence the political sphere. Indeed, from 19th-century religious revivals to the Moral Majority, Christianity has played–and continues to play–a large role in politics and public life. Meanwhile, in other Western countries, religion’s impact varies, regardless of whether the nation-state is itself secular. Denmark (officially Christian-Lutheran) prohibits judges from wearing any religious symbol–Christian, Jewish, and otherwise; and the United Kingdom (officially Christian-Church of England) has no national prohibitions of any kind. Meanwhile, France (officially secular) has banned explicit religious expression in public, and attempted to ban implicit expressions as well. This week, pay attention to the role religion plays in public life. Do people commonly express religious devotion in public? Are government officials allowed, or even required, to represent specific religious adherence? Is one religion dominant, or is there a plurality? How does religion manifest on the street—preachers, temples, public prayers?


Sabrina Farmer

I am going to use this prompt to talk about one of the biggest frustrations I had with my program: our lack of interaction with people outside of our study group. Though I think my program was amazing from a biological perspective, it really lacked the cultural experience many people look for from abroad. I did not spend the time studying and learning about people in the way I would have liked to on this program. However, South Africa is a very diverse location with eleven official national languages: AfrikaansEnglishNdebeleNorthern SothoSothoSwaziTsongaTswanaVendaXhosa and Zulu. On our program we were lucky enough to be mentored by a man who spoke all eleven of them. Many of these languages are associated with different tribes which have their own religious ideologies and creation stories. While I was in Cape Town for eight days after my official trip was over, I noticed a few Christian churches built within the city. I also visited the Cape Malay region which us where Islam was first brought to South Africa. The community is marked by vibrant homes (pictured here) and during my time wandering around I witnessed a wedding occur. Overall, religion did not play a large role in my South African experience however the diversity of peoples was very apparent and I wish I could go back and experience it more.

 


Sean Corrigan 

Hong Kong is known for its status as a global city and, as a result, has a fair amount of religious diversity. The approach to religion here seems to be quite open and relaxed. There are sizable Buddhist, Daoist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities, all free to practice as they wish. From reading and from conversations I’ve had it seems that religious life became more open after the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. British rule, while not as strict here as in other colonies, favored Christianity.

I had the opportunity to speak to one of the directors of a Thai Buddhist Temple, Wat Tai Wo. The director was raised Christian during British colonial rule and has traveled to many parts of the world. Though dissatisfied with the way the Church runs, he maintains his belief in Christian teachings and is also a Buddhist, two beliefs that are surprisingly compatible with each other. During my visit to the temple I was shown many examples of the mixing of various Buddhist traditions. There are statues, figures, and architectural features in Therevada, Mahayana, and Tibetan styles, sometimes mixing together in a single Buddha statue.

I passed by a Christian monastery during a hike and found a pavilion, traditionally part of Chinese palaces and temples, with a cross on top. This was a beautiful example of how two traditions from opposite sides of the world can mix together in a global city like Hong Kong.

Because Hong Kong is a place of religious freedom, much of the conversation about religion here has a lot to do with policies in Mainland China. One particularly active group here is Falun Gong. They are a spiritual movement called many different things by many different people and are very controversial in Hong Kong. They have been banned in the Mainland due to their criticisms of the Communist Party. While they certainly have enemies in Hong Kong, the freedom of religion here means that they cannot be banned as they were in China. However, the Party’s response to Falun Gong and the Party’s control of Christian churches is a warning to religious groups in Hong Kong. China has plans to fully integrate Hong Kong into the People’s Republic in the next few decades, so the future of the separation of church and state is uncertain.


Ben Kelsey 

Religion in Japan is something that feels as though it’s everywhere and yet is oddly subtle. Temples and shrines can be found on most blocks, ranging from small wooded shelves with some ornaments to massive sprawling complexes of buildings and gardens, and Kyoto has some of the very best (in my humble opinion). It’s very common to visit them regularly, either for devotional or just tourist purposes, and the more famous ones are often very crowded with both Japanese and foreign visitors, especially when the weather is pleasant. This past week or two has seen the blooming of plum blossom trees, so a number of shrines and temples have had festivals to celebrate that.
I remember reading somewhere that a survey once found that 90% of Japanese people identify as Shinto, and 90% identify as Buddhist (there’s also a very small percentage of Christian and other religions). That sounds strange, of course, but it really does seem like the two religions coexist peacefully. People go to both shrines and temples to pray, for luck or particular occasions, such as before an exam, and for festivals and other events. Because of this, and because the temples and shrines are such a notable part of the Japanese city environment, it feels as though they are as much a cultural institution as they are a religious one.
Among all the temples and shrines in Japan, my favorite has to be Fushimi Inari, located towards the south-east of Kyoto. It is famous for its many orange torii gates, and lies sprawled out on the side of a hill. Climbing up to the very top is an experience in itself, and the little shrines dotted along the path, as well as the view at the top, are worth the effort.


TBS Abroad Week 3: Color

By mkeller on March 1, 2017

Week 3 Prompt: Color  

COLOR — This week’s prompt was simple: Find and photograph something colorful!


Sabrina Farmer

This is a photo of a rocket-ship cone flower! I took it in the Cederberg region of the Cape. It is the size of an outstretched hand.


Sean Corrigan 

Spectacular sunsets can’t make up for the problems caused by air pollution, but they sure are trying to! Photo taken on Cheung Chau Island.

 


Danielle Norgren 

This is a photo of the most colorful place I have ever been, Chefchaouen!

 


Ben Kelsey 

Here’s a picture of some koi carp at a Buddhist temple in Tokyo.

Quanzhi Guo

Snow-covered red roofs from the Prague Castle.

Red roofs in Porto

Rain-washed red roofs in Florence



TBS Abroad Week 2: Cars

By mkeller on February 22, 2017

Week 2 Prompt: Cars 

CARS — Cars aren’t just transportation. It’s almost a truism that they signify freedom and individuality in whatever society they’re driven, regardless of what “freedom” or “individuality” means locally. For example: open access to the Nürburgring allows Germans to probe their tolerance for danger and speed; Cuba’s relative economic isolation in the 20th century forced car owners to develop innovative ways to keep their vintage American imports running; even in the Soviet Union, car ownership was permitted but carefully managed in what Lewis Siegelbaum called a “Faustian bargain.” But changes in the culture of cars are now appearing, and definitions of individuality and self-expression face yet further refinement. In the United States, there is growing enthusiasm for driverless cars–suggesting mere occupancy (rather than operation) might now be sufficient to express individuality. Meanwhile, in Europe, fallout from the emissions scandal has prompted Volkswagen to speed-up its development of electric powertrains–good news for global CO2 emissions, but guaranteed to eliminate the rumble and gurgle of gas-powered cars. (Whither “POWER!” as Jeremy Clarkson would yell?) This week, observe and listen to cars. Do people use cars to express some aspect of their individuality, or are they simply a way to get from point-A to point-B? How do people commonly interact with cars–as taxis, rentals, privately-owned consumer goods? Are cars viewed as good for society or a nuisance that must be contained and managed?


Sabrina Farmer

Due to restrictions on walking in many South African National Parks because of the danger of the Big Five, automobile travel is the way that most visitors get to see the parks. If you are going to be driving through a national park, the best mode of safari-style travel is in the back of a game driving vehicle (GDV). GDV’s are essentially a truck with a raised bed that is lined with seats, shaded by a sun roof and enclosed with helpful side panels that keep passengers safely away from any dangerous animals. Instead of being cramped in a van pressing your face (or binoculars!) to the window to try and spot an animal, GDV’s allow you to feel the wind in your hair, the dirt in your mouth, and the sun in your eyes. Do not forget your sunglasses or sunscreen, and maybe a bandana to cover your mouth. Since I associate national parks with outdoors experiences, driving in GDV’s allowed me to feel like I was experiencing the nature of the park more, even though I was not actually walking around in it. However even in GDV’s, automobile traffic could not be avoided. People come to parks like Kruger National Park to see the animals, so naturally when a pride of lions is next to the road the cars flock to it and create a traffic jam. Fortunately, those in GDV’s often have a higher vantage point and these jams do not reduce animal spotting ability. During these jams, I often found myself wondering what impacts the presence of so many cars were having on the animals and their stress levels. As tourism increases even further to Kruger and other similar parks I think that traffic management and limitation will become an even greater issue.


Sean Corrigan 

My biggest lesson in Hong Kong car culture came, unexpectedly, from a lecture in my computer science class. Our professor was explaining “if statements” to us. During his explanation, he said that unlike in the West, people in Hong Kong take a much more practical and economic approach to deciding whether or not to marry someone. In the C programming language, the evaluation looks like this:

if (<He has a car> && <He has an apartment>)

<Marry him>;

else

<Don’t marry him>;

Meaning that if your potential husband has both a car and an apartment, you should marry him. Of course, this block of code was just a light-hearted take on a marriage decision process that showed us how a programming concept works. While it was mostly a joke, it highlighted that in Hong Kong, car ownership is a symbol of being in good enough financial shape to support a family.


Regina Pimentel

The most noticeable thing about cars was the fact that driver’s seat in New Zealand is on the right, and they drive on the left side of the road. This makes crossing roads a slightly stressful situation because you have to look right first, then left. In Dunedin, the city I am currently studying in is home to a large student population; therefore, most of the cars seen around my apartment are gently used or look like older models of cars. As an abroad student, there has been a heap ton (NZ term for “a lot of”) of talk about buying a car for weekend road trips and general adventuring around New Zealand. I hope to buy a car or find a friend with one in order to adventure out during my stay here. Most people seem to have the same relationships with cars. It’s not about the color, model or year of the car but its whether it can take you to the beginning of a hike, or to a beach on the coast etc. Most of the people here look forward to the activities done after you get out of the car, so in a way having a car is having the freedom and access to explore and adventure.

Here is a picture of a hill in Dunedin that I took from a bus on our way to Signal Hill.


Ben Kelsey 

Cars are, in a sense, paradoxical in Japan. Some of the most easily recognized Japanese brands in the US are those of car manufacturers (Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mazda, to name a few), and I think there’s something of a conception of Japan as a powerhouse of safe, reliable, efficient, and inexpensive cars. Both of the last two cars my parents have owned have been Japanese-made. And yet, cars seem to be much less of a cultural icon in Japan than they are in the U.S. Car ownership is not uncommon, certainly, but it’s not a given, either.

I’ve spent the vast majority of my time in Japan in large cities, with the traffic that inevitably comes along with that. For this reason, my experience may be skewed, but cars are certainly not the main mode of transportation. Subways, buses, and trains are the workhorses of transportation here, and they faithfully, punctually, and efficiently carry their many passengers to and from work every day. The suburban image of driving into work is certainly not the norm, even in the residential area on the outskirts of Kyoto where I’m living.  That being said, every few houses has a car in the driveway, but in the driveway they seem to stay for the most part. In the city, the roads are usually full of cars, but they are still outweighed by the traffic of foot and public transportation.

I’ve been lead to believe that obtaining a driver’s license is a notoriously difficult, time-consuming, and expensive process in Japan, and while I do know at least one person who has one, the rate of 16-18-year-olds who have one seems to be extremely low. And can anyone really blame them? Who wants to learn how to drive and buy and maintain a car when you can ride 200mph trains in comfort instead? Either way, I suspect that many people just don’t want to go to the effort.

Perhaps another reason for the relative lack of car use might be the different conception of space and the destination in Japan in comparison with the U.S. While the suburbanite dreams of taking off on a road trip to see the vast, open, free unknown waiting just beyond the neat edge of their lawn, explorable on their own terms by means of their motor vehicle, might still resonate in the U.S., in Japan it feels much more as if that which is desired hides in some nook or back alley, tucked into a valley next to a river, hidden from view by a sliding door or the delicate branch of a flowering tree. The destination cannot be reached by road, nor does one need to go far away to find what is sought; rather, one should look more deeply into what is already present.

On a more concrete note, the trend of driverless cars is one that might seem particularly suitable to the technologically adept Japan, but I suspect that it will not prove as exciting here as it might in the U.S. My guess is that driverless trains are more likely to catch the attention of discerning passengers and investors, as these serve a much larger portion of the population, and have a much larger market. Driverless buses may, admittedly, be appealing, as well, but I find it hard to imagine Elon Musk pitching driverless cars to a crowd of people whose wallets all contain a Pasmo (“a rechargeable contactless smart card ticketing system for public transport,” according to Wikipedia) but no driver’s license. I assume you would still need a driver’s license to drive a driverless car? Right?

 


TBS Abroad Week 1: Walking (Paths)

By mkeller on February 15, 2017

Week 1 Prompt: Walking (Paths) 

Paths and trails, whether around a city or on a college campus, raise surprising ethical, moral, and practical questions. From an act-utilitarian perspective, almost any pathway is “good”–so long as it is pleasant to traverse or speeds people to their destination. But, from a Kantian perspective, the categorical imperative suggests we should only use paths than anyone can use–e.g., the more people who walk a dirt trail, the more the environment is damaged, and the less likely it is to remain passable. Meanwhile, landmark disability rights legislation, including the ADA in the United States, stipulate that all pathways must be accessible to people with limited mobility–suggesting it is immoral not to construct paths from durable surface materials. This week, pay attention to one of your usual walking paths. Notice its physical, moral, and social dynamics: Where does the path go, and whom does it help connect? Is it accessible to people with limited mobility? Can anyone walk it, or is its use controlled? What is the surface material? Does it take you directly to your destination, or is it a wandering route through a park, designed to maximize pleasure with beautiful views of nature?


Sabrina Farmer

The first half of my program was spent in the South African savanna, primarily on Kruger National Park. Kruger is home to the “Big 5” or the five most dangerous and difficult animals to hunt: lions, leopards, African buffalo, elephants and rhinos. Because of this, you cannot walk around freely within Kruger and instead have to be behind fences at all times. For the research I was assisting in, I got to be among the lucky few who have the opportunity to walk around the park on animal formed game trails, with rifle-armed guards called “game guards” for protection. Pictured here is my game guard Philly as he is directing us to slowly walk away from a territorial bull elephant. Walking within Kruger was a stressful experience while at the same time being pinned behind fences made me feel very cooped up, so my time spent in Kruger was a challenge!


Sean Corrigan 

All Colgate students have a special relationship with the hill. There are a few ways to climb it, including Persson Steps, the path by the library, the stairs behind up to Curtis behind Dana, and a couple others. Some junior and senior students walk up the hill every day for classes, some evade the climb by taking the Cruiser on most days. If you’re anything like me, you leave your room at the last minute and get to class just on time using the most efficient route you know. Any small increase in efficiency gives me an extra couple minutes of sleep, and that is something I value deeply. These extra sources of efficiency include cutting across patches of grass, taking the cruiser when available, and leaving on time

While Colgate’s hill can be a challenge on some mornings, it is quite small and its slope is quite shallow when compared to the hill at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This sharp difference in hill size and steepness brings with it an interesting set of challenges and opportunities. Their network of pathways, staircases, and elevators is quite impressive. Slopes and sheer cliffs too steep to build a path on can be worked around by taking an elevator up to a walkway. One part of campus includes a series of escalators, similar to the Persson Steps of the future.

These escalators are at the bottom of the giant hill. Their main purpose is to help students overcome the psychological barrier to starting their climbs. Another part of campus boasts a staircase to nowhere, which I found when I thought I outsmarted Google Maps.

The above staircase ended at a cliff, where it was only a 20 to 30 foot drop to my destination. I swallowed my pride and hung my head in shame as I took the extra 10 minutes to go around the hill that had defeated me. The view going around the hill was nice, though.

Like any campus, it takes time to become familiar with the layout and best mode of transport to take: walking, their Cruiser equivalent, or elevators to pedestrian bridges. Building a campus on a hill and planning pathways around steep inclines is always a challenge. Accessibility here and at Colgate are in similar states. It is technically possible for someone with limited mobility to get anywhere on campus, but the physical setting and lack of resources dedicated to this issue make it very difficult. Like Colgate, everyone here has their own relationship to the hill, with some embracing it, and some able to avoid it.

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