Monday, October 27, 2014

Study Abroad Sneak Peek: Chile

Waking up every morning to a view of the beautiful Cordillera de los Andes is the icing on top of this study abroad cake here in Santiago. I say that a bit tongue-in-cheek, especially since Santiaguenses love their desserts (sorry all, my jokes have not improved).

Santiaguenses also love their slang, and I have picked up so many 'Chilenismos' while being here. Almost a completely different Spanish language, Chileans love to throw in the words 'cachai' (do you understand?) and 'po' (our version of 'like') just because they can. I never get tired of hearing Chilean Spanish; as grammatically incorrect as it is, it sounds so beautiful and rolls so easily off of the tongue. Becoming practically fluent in Chilean Spanish has been an accomplishment for me, though there are definitely still times I stare blankly at my friends hoping they will repeat the slur of syllables I barely understood (did he say Pisco or is that just wishful thinking?).

In all honesty, though, I feel so lucky every day to be a part of this study abroad program. Not only do I have the opportunity to work with the Ministry of Justice's Department of Human Rights, but I also have the opportunity to travel - and the geographical diversity of this country makes all of that traveling so worthwhile! They say that Santiago is a first world city in a third world country, and the amount that I have learned through my classes and through the people I have met in my travels have really opened my eyes to the contrasts between Santiago and many other parts of the country. Santiago is a livable, lovable city. I mean, I've had the opportunity to continue teaching Bollywood classes here!

Take a step out of Santiago though, and you'll definitely see the changes: multinational corporations and their factories lining the highways, luscious and never-ending patches of farmland, small houses with tin roofs, isolated country homes of the obviously wealthy. It's a different world. It seems that the single thread of continuity along the varied landscapes and structures of Chile is also it's very backbone, the backbone that I wake up to every morning: the magnificent Cordillera.

Credit for this blog post goes to third year Global Scholar Anjali Mehta. Thanks, Anjali!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lunch With Marjane Satrapi

I was running late for class. After running up two flights of stairs with my lox and bagels in hand, I had finally made it to Professor Knight’s World Politics class for Global Scholars. It was like any ordinary Monday morning: everyone was chatty, excitedly discussing the readings, and still joking about how “metaphysical” the theory of constructivism is. The second the clock reached 10:20 AM, Professor Knight began making announcements. I was contemplating whether my lox and bagels would still be fresh after class when I heard Professor Knight say, “I know this event is happening the day before your midterm, but Marjane Satrapi is coming to speak at AU.”

I gasped. I squealed. I spun around in my chair and accidentally hit my friend sitting next to me. Professor Knight was about to explain who Marjane Satrapi was to the class, but noticing my near heart-attack when she mentioned Marjane’s name, Professor Knight allowed me to describe the life and works of my favorite author. I immediately began discussing how Marjane’s first book, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, impacted me as a daughter of a political refugee, the beauty of the story behind Chicken and Plums, etc. After my long-winded description of Marjane Satrapi, Professor Knight announced that we would have to submit in writing why we would want to meet and have lunch with Marjane Satrapi.

Right after class, I ran back to my room, turned on my laptop, and wrote a five paragraph essay in thirty minutes describing why I wanted to have the honor to meet and have lunch with Marjane Satrapi. Six days later, I was notified that I was chosen to attend Marjane Satrapi’s speaking engagement and attend lunch with her. I was over the moon. I began to look up other interviews she had done so I wouldn’t bore her with the same mundane questions.

It was a foggy, disgustingly humid morning when she came to speak at American University. Obviously, this didn’t affect my mood. I walked, practically skipped, to the front row of the auditorium in Ward Circle Building where she was speaking. At approximately 10:30, Marjane Satrapi walked in. She surprisingly resembled the drawings of herself in Persepolis. She dressed and behaved as the avant-garde, punk-goddess, Iranian-French artist I expected her to be. 

As she spoke, her humility, reflective personal introspection, and marvelous sarcastic wit when answering the questions the moderator asked engaged both the sense of humor and political energy held by all in attendance. Her humility was evident when she discussed the success of Persepolis. She discussed how she, as an artist, found it easier to discuss the Iranian Revolution from her own perspective. During interviews, her political views came to light as she discussed how she believes in the idea of political evolution as opposed to revolution because, “... Revolutions only breed bloodshed.” Thus, she unintentionally became the voice of a generation and was first labeled as an Iranian political expert by the media. She was able to shed this role because, as she said, “I am an artist, not a politician.” Although she isn’t a politician, she could definitely be a satirist. She compared George W. Bush to Ayatollah Khomeini by stating, “In America and the Iran the mixture of religion in power never gives a good result, just look at Bush and Ayatollah Khomeini.” She also threw in a jab at the 2000 election by saying, “...Wait, that’s when he [Bush] got elected twice. Okay.” Marjane Satrapi also established herself as an ally of the oppressed. You would probably assume by this sentiment that she is a feminist, especially when she referenced her friends wearing mini-skirts as a sign of a sexual revolution. This would be a false assumption. She is a self-proclaimed humanist. Her denial of calling herself a feminist was shocking to most of the audience and some wrote her off as a hypocrite. However, she still stated she was against the patriarchal establishment. What I found particularly interesting was her tying of the patriarchal establishment to the schema of dictatorship, especially in her homeland of Iran.

Between Marjane Satrapi’s speaking engagement and lunch, there was an interlude because of a tornado warning. Eventually, we were able to have lunch with her and she began the discussion in what I thought was an interesting fashion. She asked us to introduce ourselves. This immediately established a more personable setting than the auditorium, which enabled us to ask her more personal topics. Questions ranged from discussion of her upcoming movie (which she said is an example of her inner masochist), tackling the bourgeois, her artistic inspiration, and lost love. Marjane Satrapi stated that she hated the word “graphic novel” because not only was it a term to make the bourgeois feel better about reading a simple comic book, but it also makes her think of pornography. I was glad I was able to ask her about why she decided to use the female name, Iran, to represent her male protagonist character in Chicken and Plums. Interestingly enough, she explained how the male protagonist was actually representative of herself and the loss of love between he and Iran represented her relationship with her motherland. She then, in true Marjane style, bridged this idea of loss of pleasure she derived from the loss of her homeland to how our society in general forces us to deny pleasure. As an example of this denial of pleasure, she slammed women’s magazines. She stated, “I see all of these women’s magazines that claim feminism while they tell women to lose ten pounds of belly fat. I don’t want to lose ten f******* pounds of belly fat. I want to be reminded of all of the good sandwiches I’ve eaten. Life is short and we are all going to die. We should enjoy the now.”

By now you’ve probably realized that Marjane isn’t the one to hold back. I almost forgot to mention how she stated that religion is an opiate of the masses and her criticism of George W. Bush’s attempts to secure oil reserves under the guise of bringing “democracy” to the Middle East. One topic she wouldn’t touch upon was the story of her first love she met in Austria. When the topic was brought up, her feisty attitude was tempered by slight melancholy. The only thing she said about the matter was, “Human beings are not equal in front of death. A rich man can hire nurses to take care of him and massage him, but what about a poor man? He has nothing. We are only equal in front of a broken heart. No amount of money can fix that.”

The experience that the Global Scholars program provided me to meet and have a conversation with a rebellious intellectual that encapsulates the spirit of American University and a woman I would consider one of my inspirations, Marjane Satrapi. She enhanced my understanding of the obvious difficulties of Iran’s establishment of a stable governmental system post-revolution, indulged my desire to comprehend this political climate from an artist’s perspective.

Credit for this blog post goes to 1st year Global Scholar Mary Marston! Thanks, Mary!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Study Abroad Sneak Peek: Belgium

           I have always loved fall.  But autumn in Belgium in an entirely different season than the fall I’ve adored in Los Angeles.  For one thing, the season actually begins close to the calendar’s “First Day of Autumn”.  I’m not joking—the day before that first day, it was sunny and too warm to wear tights and sweaters but literally overnight fall set in and the gloom of clouds and drizzles made themselves very much known.  Of course, I don’t mind the clouds—the softer lighting makes for interesting pictures—and my hot chocolate addiction looks all the more reasonable when it’s a bit chilly outside.  Long story short: I’m loving the Belgium weather.
            As this program is called the EU in Action, it makes perfect sense to be in close contact with the institutions that make the EU function and make Brussels more than a pretty dot on the map.  Monday ended with a trip to the Council of the EU (note: different from the Council of Europe and the European Council, which are of course very different from each other) to discuss the current period of transition plaguing, I mean, that the EU is currently enjoying.  All of us geeked out a bit when we got to sit in the Council members’ chairs and “represent” (for a half second) an EU country. (We also had fun guessing the English names of the EU countries based on their native names). 
Belgium is an interesting country to live in.  The divisions along language lines are very real and very stark.  For example, one of the first weekend I was here I went to a castle in Flanders, which is the Flemish speaking region outside of the Brussels region. As soon as we crossed the border between Brussels (which is dual-lingual) and Flanders, everything was in Flemish.  The next day I went to Namur, which is in Wallonia aka the French-speaking region of Belgium—everything is only in French. This includes train announcements when traveling within Belgium; based on where you are going and coming from, the order of languages the announcements are spoken in changes! The language divisions make the governmental makeup of Belgium all the more interesting.  Most political ideologies are split into two parties—one for the French and one for the Flemish.  Thus, forming a parliamentary government can be quite difficult.  Belgium holds the Guinness World Record for longest time period without an official government: 541 days.  After the most recent elections, the Belgian government was just sworn in on Saturday, five months after the elections!
            My time in Belgium has been awesome, and I look forward to the adventures I have here for the rest of the semester. Until then, au revoir DC!

Credit for this blog post goes to third year Global Scholar Becca Ehling. Thanks, Becca!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Back in the (Former) USSR

Studying in St. Petersburg has been an incredible experience so far, but even better was returning to the city for a second session. Petersburg has become a second home to me. It has a very different feel and pace than DC, but I embrace the two cities as my homes and workplaces. Perhaps I’m just drawn to cities built on swamps.

The architecture of the city is like no other. Much of the “Cultural Heart of Russia” looks like no other city in Russia, or Europe for that matter. It has the canals of Venice with every apartment building looking like a Viennese palace. In a single intersection, you can see a 17th century hospital in the imperial style, a dark-grey Soviet office building, and an ultra-modern apartment complex. The city has been at the center of some of the most tumultuous events in the 20th century, and yet maintains a blissful elegance. As the autumn approaches, the 22 hours of sunlight (called “white nights”) and warmth dwindles to 2 hours of daylight and bitter cold, with heavy, lead clouds that weigh on the city.

My program (CIEE) has done a wonderful job exposing us to the city and providing opportunities to make friends with Russian students. I really appreciate the efforts made by Russians and Americans to get to know one-another through broken language, facial expressions, and (hopefully inoffensive) hand gestures. The stereotype that Russian’s don’t smile in public is completely true, but I have found the majority of Russians to be very warm once you reach out to them, and always curious to hear what the American has to say about Ukraine.

It is a particularly interesting time to be in Russia. Only after living in the city for about 3 months, on and off, have I started to feel the impact of the sanctions over the crisis in the Ukraine. Watching US media coverage of the crisis and then Russian media gives two entirely different narratives: Russia and the West playing power politics, versus a civil war and humanitarian crisis in a troubled border region. There is certainly no shortage of opinions regarding Ukraine, as many people in St. Petersburg have some sort of familial connection to Ukraine.

I am very much looking forward to seeing what the coming months hold as the atmosphere of the city changes and classes become increasingly more challenging.

Credit for this blog post goes to third year Global Scholar Andrew Arrington. Thanks Andrew!