I Dig Culture, where people gather to learn about each other's cultures.

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What Did You Take for Granted Until Living Abroad?

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” —T.S. Eliot

For what is it that some of us choose to drop it all and leave? To cauterize the ends of possible career paths and budding friendships, shell out hard-won cash and limited emotional energy to jet-set out of one’s comfort zone into a land of strangers?

Is it the draw of afternoons spent on balmy beaches, of evenings brimming with unpronounceable drinks and oddly spiced foods? The thrill of venturing through fragments of exotic architecture, stumbling through bursts of elaborate foreign syntax, or losing oneself in a crowd of novel strangers? Should we peel away the layers of our attraction to new environmental, culinary, and intellectual challenges and opportunities, what core motivation will we find remains to drive it all? Is it, truly, the push to explore the other? Or is it, in at least equal measure, the belief that, in exploring the other, we will actually come to understand ourselves? 

In this discussion, we will explore the latter possibility, in investigating how travel to other countries allowed us to realize what we had heretofore ignored in our own. 

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The path unknown might just be the one back home.

Brian: This might be a really superficial way to start what could be a deep discussion, but I didn’t realize that raccoons are only in North America. They’re kind of like the panda of North America. I realized this at the Beijing Zoo while on a trip to China.  They kept on talking about how pandas are one of the most amazing and rare animals in the world. Then I saw a raccoon at the zoo and realized that I saw them all the time in North America, which is the only place they’re found naturally. They’re really smart and famous for their prehensile hands. When I was a kid they always tore apart our trash.  I kind of miss them now.  Really fascinating animals. Have patches on their eyes and look like robbers.

Kelley: It took moving to a huge metropolis like Beijing, and then Seoul, to make me realize how much I had taken for granted the natural world. Blue skies. Birds in the morning and crickets at night. Thunderstorms with lightning, and rain that comes down in big droplets that leave the smell of spring. These are generally not features of big cities, regardless of what country they’re in. So it was almost a bigger shock to adapt to urban versus suburban/small-city life than it was for me to get used to the more distinctly Chinese or Korean aspects of my new societies.

Maur-Anne: I took for granted that everybody had an opinion about everything. French people keep asking “What do you think about that?” Koreans often answer “I don’t know; I’ve never thought about it.”, and it tends to annoy me. A good example would be one video I saw of Obama giving a talk in Seoul; at the end of the speech nobody asked any questions except for some Chinese guy. French people do have an opinion about everything because French people expect you to have an opinion about everything. Otherwise you’re not showing consideration. Even if you’re not sure about what you think, you’re supposed to think about it and show a little bit of effort. It’s also because French people have kind of a fear of being manipulated by society; they enjoy showing that they have critical thinking skills.

Kelley: Really? Are you sure that you’re not talking about Americans? I’ve always thought of that as being a very strong characteristic of people from the U.S.

Maur-Anne: Maybe France even more than elsewhere.

Brian: Yeah, the West has been heavily influenced by French philosophy.

Brian: That’s one thing that I appreciate about Korea. I don’t have to hear strangers’ opinions about things I don’t care about. People will just talk to you and not stop talking to you, unless you’re rude. Like waiters.  I guess there is some charm though to being able to talk to strangers naturally which is not really common in Korea.

Maur-Anne: In France we contain our opinions to lively conversation and socializing.

Brian: Waiters, guys fixing things at your house. They’ll just talk to you for like an hour.

Maur-Anne: Social security and health care system; I always thought these things were normal. As a kid, I always had one free dental consultation a year. Most of the medicines are reimbursed. So I thought it was normal.

Brian: But it’s pretty cheap in Korea too.

Maur-Anne: Well say I want to take a blood test in Korea; I have to pay a lot of money.

Brian: Well, you’re not on the national insurance.

Maur-Anne: I have international insurance, and it’s still expensive. Also, cheese. I took cheese for granted.

Kelley: This might be sort of random, but I really miss being able to make friends with minimum effort. When in Beijing and Seoul, I feel extra barriers of language, culture, and the general sense of my status as an outsider boosting the activation energy required for new relationships. In some ways this makes my Chinese and Korean friends more special—as, to me, they have been more hard-won—but as someone who is already on the passive side when it comes to initiating and maintaining social bonds, I often feel a bit more lonely here than back in the United States. I never realized how easy it could be, in theory, to just strike up a conversation and find common ground with somebody—because I had never experienced before just how hard it might be in other circumstances.

Brian: Sometimes I just like being left alone.  Leave me alone, guys.  I’m leaving.  (Brian leaves the room)

Maur-Anne : Wait, don’t go!

Kelley:  Just let him go.  He’s a grumpy Brian (laughs).  Also on the topic of people, living in China and Korea has made me really miss the full range of racial and ethnic diversity we see back home. I remember my first time back to the U.S. after a two-year stretch in Beijing. I landed in New York and just found myself transfixed on the subway at the tapestry of humanity around me. I had never fully appreciated the cultural and aesthetic value added to my life by random strangers on the street, but now I see it as stunningly beautiful. That’s not to say that I can’t enjoy diversity of style, manner, and personality in either Beijing or Seoul—it just takes a bit of people-watching to find that I can. But the ethnic diversity here is certainly of a different character and range.

Maur-Anne: People who look at me on the subway and hold their bags like I’m going to steal them made me realize how much I took for granted living as a member of the racial majority in my own society. My white friend said that people have given her the finger in the street. One time, another French girl was with me, and Koreans started speculating about how maybe she’s a prostitute who works in Itaewon. At the same time, it’s a very good experience to live somewhere as part of a racial minority. It teaches you humility.

 

(Featured image credits.)

Planning on a Hospital Stay in South Korea? Don’t Forget Your Extended Family

“I want to use the restroom,” I said in my best Korean. The nurse stopped in her tracks and tilted her head as she considered what I had said.

“Where are your friends?” she asked.

Confused, I cast a glance at the clock hanging above my bed. “Working,” I said in bewilderment.

The nurse sighed and hurried out of the room with one last glance in my direction. She returned after a moment with a wheelchair from the hallway and helped me navigate myself into it, taking special care of my wires and recently operated leg. I got the distinct impression that the nurse really didn’t want to help me into that restroom, despite the task being what I had thought was part of her job. 

Later,  I would learn that the responsibilities of nurses in South Korea are, in fact, vastly different from those in the USA.

In America, nurses do a variety of small jobs. They hook up monitors, make note of the patient’s fluid intake and output, check to see if the patient has been getting adequate rest, relay information given to them by the doctors, and ensure that the patient is following a prescribed diet if one exists. In many hospitals in South Korea, the story is quite different…

Approved for release by USNS Comfort PAO LT Susan Henson (pao@comfort.navy.mil or sdhenson@comfort.navy.mil).

An American nurse checks a boy’s vital signs after surgery.

I was asleep, finally. It was probably around 9 or 10 A.M. I remember having already been woken up around 5:30 A.M. for my morning butt injections. I hated those. I was victim to the nurses’ needles at least three times per day. I switched sides on the nurses because each butt cheek would become so sore that sitting on it became uncomfortable. Later, someone would tell me that injections are cheaper than pills. Maybe that’s why I was getting so many? I didn’t know.

Anyway, it was around mid-morning, and I was finally asleep, when I suddenly heard the crinkling of cellophane. I opened my heavy eyes slowly, seeing only a wall of black fabric at first. It backed away from me, and surprised, I looked up and realized what I was seeing. A man in a suit was standing at my bedside and placing something beneath the pillow, where my face had just been a second before.

Why was a man sticking things under my head, and why was he waking me up when I was finally, finally asleep, I asked myself. By the time I opened my mouth, the man had moved on to give one of his bags to another patient. I propped myself up on my elbow and pulled the package out to look at it. It had several hard fruit candies inside with a religious leaflet. Ah. Advertising for a church, I realized.

I looked around the room. There were seven other patients and some of their family members. At the other end of the room, an older patient talked with a person I didn’t recognize. They had Bibles in their hands.

In the United States, I have the impression that the nurse is like a knight standing guard between you, the patient, and the outside world. If a visitor comes into the hospital and brings forty friends, the nurse and/or nurses will not let the stress of forty visitors (plus one) into the room where the patient is fighting a battle to regain or maintain newly-won good health. It wasn’t long ago that men weren’t allowed into birthing rooms. It wasn’t long ago that children weren’t allowed into hospitals. If it brings too much stress, or too many germs, the nurse forms a human barrier against it and keeps that riff-raff out of her kingdom.

And yet here I was, trying so hard to finally get some sleep, and a strange old man in a pinstriped suit was sticking candies under my pillow. He didn’t even ask if I was diabetic! On a few occasions, a woman would come with huge trash bags full of things like panties, slippers, socks, and pajamas, which she would drape across our beds and start hawking right there in our room. Other patients would come in from other rooms while dragging their IV carts behind them. Then, people would actually buy this woman’s underwear.

The American parts of me thought, “What the hell is going on here!?” How could people expect to get any sleep in these conditions, and did nobody care at all about the germs from outside? Seriously? The nurses weren’t monitoring the things that were happening in that room at all. By this point, I had contacted my friends and coworkers and told them that the nurses made it clear to me that I would need help from someone other than them.

It is thus impossible for me to write this without making some mention of the gratitude I owe to so many people from outside the hospital. There were people who helped me take a shower, despite how awkward it is to help your friend undress and get in and out of a wheelchair while naked. There were friends who helped me repeatedly get into a bathroom that really wasn’t meant for handicapped people. There were people who brought me home-made chili, fruit trays, chocolates, chips, candies, books to read, extra blankets, and pillows. One person even painted my nails. My boss came to make sure I used the restroom and got fresh water to drink at least every morning and every night. She held a cup and straw to my mouth and stayed with me for eight hours post-operation when I was told I wasn’t allowed to lift my head from my bed. I never knew how loved I was until I needed to be loved in this way. Thank you.

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My boss’s lovely daughter and my coworker’s brand-new son during a wonderful visit that lifted my spirits.

But the bottom line is, we had people barging into our rooms day and night, and the nurses were doing nothing. They didn’t help us get our lunches, they didn’t help us into the bathroom, they didn’t even help me get down to the basement when I started physical therapy and learning to walk again. I began to think about what that meant for the hospital environment. It meant that we patients had to rely on other people to fight for our right to sleep and regular bathroom visits.

Because of this initially uncomfortable situation, I realized that the hospital is a much more cheerful and welcoming place when you rely on the help of your loved ones than on a stranger to care for you.

In thinking about it, I realized that if I had to choose between my own mother helping me get my pants down for a shower or having some stranger do it, I’d rather it be my own mother. On top of your own family members caring for you, the fact that my bed had no privacy curtain coupled with the fact that I was stuck in a room with seven other people meant that those seven other people were in the same plight as I was. Though some of them could walk, they understood what it meant to be there in that moment and to be stuck in it. One of the walkers would get our lunch trays and put them on or next to our beds, and the woman who did this for me always slammed mine down and yelled “EAT YOUR RICE!!” in Korean. It was like I had my very own angry Korean grandmother, and even though I really, really did not want to eat my rice, the fact that she wanted me to eat it made me very happy—and it even made me try a little bit.

Perhaps even worse than not monitoring who was coming or going, the nurses didn’t seem to care whether we left—which we did. Every couple of days, one of the walkers would simply leave the hospital altogether (still wearing her gown and still pulling her IV behind her on a wheeled stand), and return with treats for us, having walked herself all the way to the supermarket and back. Why even stay in the hospital?

The surgery I had, while I don’t recommend just going in and doing it for fun, is actually an out-patient procedure in the United States. However, in Korea, I had to beg them every day to let me leave. Finally, twelve days after my operation, they let me go…but they didn’t know that I had actually left before. With the help of two friends, I decided to go outside and get some fresh air, and even go to a café just behind the hospital. We had a really good time taking pictures of me pretending to walk, but really just balancing on my good leg with the wheelchair out of view.

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I would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for that meddling conscience! People probably would’ve worried if I disappeared.

 

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It was about as soft as my bed. Top-notch spot for a nap.

I thought very seriously about going home, but since I lived two floors up on slick granite floors and was completely unable to bend my leg, I decided to stay until they released me. So why do nurses not care if their patients come and go, why do they fill such minimalistic roles, and why do they not care who visits the patients?

I found an interesting blog written by a Canadian woman who talks about her child’s stay in a Korean hospital, and she recounts many of the same things I’ve mentioned, though it seems that her hospital was furnished with more equipment than mine. It’s important to remember that my story might stray from the norm.

Originally, my thought was that patients in Korea have long hospital stays because Koreans work hard and have stressful lives, so staying in a hospital grants them a reprieve from their responsibilities. I recall someone telling me that a hospital stay can be a bit like a vacation for people there, and I remember being a little horrified by the notion, because I would have much preferred to have been at work than confined to a bed. I did some digging around on the Internet and learned that there are incentives to having patients stay longer. Apparently, South Korea ranks #2 behind Japan in average length of hospital stays in the OECD.

In my reading, I also read that there are fewer nurses per patient in South Korea than there are in the US and in most other OECD nations. Perhaps this helps to explain why nurses seem to do so little for patients in Korea. Perhaps they’re stretched thin. I came across an article advocating better treatment and conditions for nurses in South Korea, and it said:

“Nursing in the two countries also differs in many respects, too. For example, in addition to the much higher patient load in South Korea, nurses there are expected to fulfill many of the duties support personnel here in the United States would normally handle. Sung Hee Kwon, an operating room RN at Korea University Hospital, was impressed that OR nurses here never leave their patients’ bedsides. Back home, she is expected to also manage all the OR equipment, supplies, cleaning, set up, ordering, and inventory.”

It appears that while I thought my Korean nurses simply didn’t care much for me or that culturally they weren’t expected to, what may have been happening is that they were simply too busy to devote to me and my fellow patients the kind of time and attention that I expected due to my American background. I am quite impressed by the number of tasks that nurses accomplish which have so little to do with direct patient care, like the management of inventory.

Another interesting excerpt from the article is this paragraph:

“We are still thinking about what number to propose in Korea,” said Yoo Ji Hyun, RN and secretary general of KMHU. “To start, we’re looking at a range from 1:5 to 1:10. But the hospital industry is attacking that, saying that 1:10 in Korea is about the same as 1:5 in the United States. That’s why we’ve come to compare actual nursing tasks to refute their argument.”

Why would the hospital industry attest that one nurse for ten patients in Korea is the same as one nurse for five patients in the US? I think it is making a reference to the apparent fact that much of the care patients receive in hospitals comes from patient family members and friends than from nurses. Given what I’ve learned about nurses’ responsibilities, I’m inclined to disagree with this ratio.

Korean nurses don’t do less; they do different things. Perhaps if Korean hospitals hired support staff to take care of some of their responsibilities, the nurses could devote more time to patients—but is it really better that way? When I think of my very own ajumma yelling at me to eat my rice, it honestly makes me think fondly of my time there somehow.

Perhaps they’re already doing things in the best way possible.

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How a Football Coach Influenced a Culture

2002_FIFA_World_Cup_logo.svgOn a warm Autumn’s day after wandering aimlessly around Seoul Forest taking pictures, I decided to have a cup of coffee before heading home. I entered one of the many cafes just before the sun started to set and was greeted with a warm smile from the guy behind the counter. He was not much older than me and had those thick dark framed glasses that every Korean guy seems to have. When I ordered my coffee in Korean the guy saw that as an opportunity to strike up a conversation with me. After I answered his question about where I was from, he said: “Nederlandu? Ahh, Eindhoven!” At that moment I could not exactly place why he didn’t mention Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, or even Utrecht, but he gave me the answer himself soon after: “PSV Eindhoven! I like Hiddinguuu!” I half tried to change the subject by saying that I came from a city near Amsterdam and support Ajax, but the harm had already been done. He ignored what I just said and went on about Hiddink. “Yes, Hiddingu” I replied eventually, accepting my defeat.

Yes, Guus Hiddink. The Dutch coach of the South Korean national team who was so successful at the World Cup of 2002 in Japan and South Korea by leading his team all the way to the semifinal and beating some top teams along the way. The success story of the Korean national football team at the 2002 World Cup is well known and documented. Just say “Italy” in South Korea and many Koreans become teary eyed and talk about the best victory in their football history. Hiddink is the cultural link between my country and South Korea, more so than Hendrick Hamel, who shipwrecked on Jeju island during the Joseon period (although they are both represented at the Dutch museum on Jeju island). Through the success of Hiddink, the Dutch became familiar with the Koreans and vice versa. Before that World Cup, I wasn’t really interested in Korea. Sure, I knew about the war between the North and the South, my father drove around in a Hyundai Lantra, and we had an LG DVD player, but that was about it.  However, that would change that summer. Unable to qualify for the World Cup ourselves for the first time in 16 years, which was a tragedy all in itself (Jason McAteer, the bastard), the only Dutch link to the World Cup we had was Guus Hiddink, the coach of South Korea. So without a team of our own, the Dutch media focused on him.

I remember there was much sympathy for the South Korean team in the Netherlands. The passionate support of the Korean fans, dressed in red with all kinds of attributes, was similar to our own way of supporting our national team. We learned about the Korean fans cleaning up their own mess after supporting their team, which amazed the Dutch and started a discussion about our own short comings, because we always leave a huge mess after a game. The way South Korea played (attractive attacking football) captured the hearts of many Dutch people because of the similarity in style with our own national team.  However, nobody (the South Koreans included) had any expectations at the time, because South Korea never won a game at previous World Cups and had been beaten by the Dutch team several times with a big goal margin. Also, in their preparation for the World Cup, they had lost two games with a 5-0 margin and Hiddink had been blamed for that, earning him the nickname “Five Versus Zero” in South Korea. The Korean press was extremely negative and asked for his resignation many times; asking themselves why they needed another foreigner, that didn’t understand Korean culture, in charge of their national team. To say it was a surprise to see South Korea progressing all the way to the semi-final and Hiddink becoming South Korea’s national hero is an understatement. It was nothing short of amazing, although they also had a little luck on their way with favorable decisions by the referees. All in all it was one of the best World Cups I have ever seen and our own team didn’t even play (although that’s not entirely true for me because Turkey played and reached the semis as well).

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Still a hero in South Korea after 12 years.

So how did Hiddink become so successful with a team, which had never won a single match on a World Cup? To find that answer we must first see how the Korean national team was organized before Hiddink took over. Korean culture is very suitable in many situations, but sadly running a professional football team isn’t one of them. The not-question-your-boss and don’t-take-any-risks-mentality and seniority-rules-over-all-culture kills competition in sports. Longstanding personal, familial, and school connections were factors in being selected for the national team and a head coach couldn’t ignore them. Older players had more privilege than younger ones (younger players even had to polish the shoes of their seniors) and often didn’t have to fear for their place in the team. Such a power imbalance isn’t healthy in a professional sports environment. In addition, the risk of losing in the preparation to the World Cup, and an early exit for the head coach, was being avoided by playing generally weaker teams, so it would appear that the Korean team was ready to play at the World Cup. Korean culture was a hindrance in starting with the best eleven and a leading cause in the poor performance of the Korean national team in every World Cup before 2002.

When Hiddink took over, he had asked and received plenary powers in operating the national team, including the selection of players, strategies, training, and support. He basically had complete control. The first thing Hiddink did was demanding domestic professional football teams to give up their top players to the national team for 18 months to prepare for the World Cup. He then did away with the risk avoidance; playing strong teams so his side would get used to the resistance they would experience at a World Cup (hence the 5-0 losses against France and the Czech Republic). Then he cut everybody out that didn’t agree to his way of working (that included coaching staff as well as players). Hiddink completely abolished traditional selection policies linked to personal, family, education, and social class affiliations within Korean society. He replaced some of the older players with talented youngsters and the older players that were left he convinced of his way of working. He told older players that they had to respect the younger players and not use their authority against them. He mixed older and young players at the dining tables (a practice that wasn’t common before). All these measures were taken to break the Korean culture within the team. He didn’t abolishing Korean culture completely though, but made use of elements that would give him an edge to improve the team. For instance, he made use of how bosses are never questioned by subordinates brilliantly. In matches during training, where Hiddink refereed, he made mistakes on purpose and asked his players if he was correct. Their culture prevented the players from responding honestly, but he saw in their eyes that they thought he was wrong. So he raised his voice and repeated if they felt they were wronged until they finally responded, and then told them they should put that feeling and energy in their football. This is how he fired up his players. He also did things that Korean coaches could never do, for example asking the president if his players would be exempted from military service so they could make a career as a professional football player (which the president arranged for them), all to get the players so fired up that they would do anything to win.

Hiddink’s method became a model for success in South Korea that was picked up not only by other coaches and other sport organizations, but also by a wide range of businesses. Many books about his methods became bestsellers in South Korea. It was seen as a potential way of advancing Korea’s global interests in all fields, including sport, politics, science, education, the economy, and citizenship. The fact that Hiddink, a foreigner, was able to challenge the authorities and even operate outside traditional cultural protocols signaled that Korean society was changing. It was called the Hiddink syndrome and has affected many aspects of Korean society.  Since going through the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) financial crisis in the late 1990s, Korea’s society became more open due to government policy, but Hiddink, being the first foreigner awarded honorary national citizenship and the law even being changed for that, had an even bigger impact in accepting foreigners in Korean society. Public calls for him to be naturalized as a Korean citizen and the eventual introduction of special government legislation to award him honorary citizenship were unprecedented. It lead to awareness, discussion, and debate about the historically homogenous nature of Korea’s exclusive citizenship, particularly with respect to race and ethnicity.

However, that doesn’t mean that Korean society is suddenly very different after Hiddink’s success. Sure, it’s easier for a foreigner to get a visa and even attain citizenship, but South Korea is still a long way from being a multi cultural nation. In spite of all those copies of Hiddink’s method sold, Korean society is still very much top down and young people’s voices are still often ignored. The effect that Hiddink’s success had in the years after the 2002 World Cup has stagnated somewhat, when looking at election results, corruption scandals, and workplace culture of the past couple of years (the conservative party has won the presidency at parliamentary elections twice in a row). Rather, the success of Hiddink signals a particular point where the nation may have become more open to alternative ways of thinking about its past, present, and future with respect to citizenship and identity. However, I don’t think another stint of Hiddink taking charge of the national team will help South Korea forward again. Everything has its own time and place. For South Korean society to go forward again South Koreans need to change society themselves and, as in any other nation on this planet, that is a slow and difficult process.

 

Sources used:

  • Nammi Lee, Steven J. Jackson, and Keunmo Lee, “South Korea’s “Glocal” Hero: The Hiddink Syndrome and the Rearticulation of National Citizenship and Identity,” Sociology of Sport Journal, 2007, 24, 283-301 http://users.polisci.wisc.edu/schatzberg/ps616/Lee2007.pdf
  • Wat HR-managers kunnen leren van voetbaltrainers (Dutch: What HR managers can learn from football coaches), http://www.timing.nl/9572953/Wat-HR-managers-van-voetbaltrainers-kunnen-leren.html
  • Coen Verbraak, “Guus Hiddink ‘Ik heb mijn macht nooit misbruikt’ (Dutch: Guus Hiddink ‘I have never abused my power’),” VN 03-05- 2003, http://www.coenverbraak.nl/hiddink.htm
  • De Bewustzijnsfabriek, Hiddink-methode: kijk en luister! (Dutch: The Hiddink method: watch and listen!), http://www.debewustzijnsfabriek.nl/inspiratie-1016/de-hiddinkmethode-17
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Whitewater Kayaking in South Korea

Greetings! Today, I will take you on another splendid journey through time. You have the honor of accompanying me as I recount my personal quest to go whitewater kayaking in South Korea. Is it possible? Is it popular? How can it be done? Not only will these questions be answered, but they will also be placed in a cultural context. Do you think you know everything there is to know about Korea? Have you thought about how recent Korean history may have shaped whitewater activity in the country? If you find yourself unable to answer these questions, continue reading.

Kayaking Becomes a Part of My Life

In my home state of Tennessee, whitewater activity generates millions of dollars in economic growth each year as a result of local tour businesses, the sale of locally-made equipment, and profits generated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA releases water from dams periodically in controlled amounts in order to provide whitewater for sport while conserving the state’s resources. Arguably the most popular of such rivers, the Ocoee river generated over 40 million dollars in the space of a single year due to guided rafting trips alone. Two geographic features make this sport possible: mountains and moving water.

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I promise there’s a raft in there somewhere.

I had gone whitewater rafting on the Ocoee every Spring and Summer for a couple of years. One day, I brought my father along and my family was forever changed. Suddenly, my dear old dad put down his xbox controller and each member of my family had a kayak of his or her own. I like to joke that he hit his mid-life crisis, and instead of finding a younger woman and buying a sports car, he decided to throw us all in the river.

With our new kayaks (liquidlogic xp9’s and an xp10 for my dad), we set out to learn everything we could. I had just gotten into the sport, having paddled a couple of small whitewater rivers in the area, when I surprised everyone and graduated from my university. Ready to step out into the great big world, I found myself in contact with a recruiter for teachers to go teach English as a foreign language in South Korea.

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Apparently, this is what aging looks like.

Moving to South Korea

When asked where in Korea I’d like to live, I said it didn’t matter much to me- but that I liked the outdoors. I signed a contract with a school in the city of Chuncheon. “Chuncheon” means “spring river,” and is described as being one of Korea’s best cities for nature and the outdoors. It’s also called the city of three rivers, because of the three rivers that wind through it. Nestled in a mountain range in a mountainous country, it seemed like I would find whitewater there.

I lived in Korea for a total of 25 months. I am not sure if I ever saw a single kayak while there.

The Quest Begins: River Rafting and Sea Kayaking

I tried finding whitewater. I found dams, rivers, and waterfalls, but never heard of anyone actually kayaking whitewater. I learned that in the city of Inje, one can sign up for a rafting trip. Curious about how “big” the water would be, I did a search to see how the river was classed. Whitewater ranges in levels from class I-VI. Class I is very easy water to paddle. Class VI is something people rarely attempt, as rescue may be impossible and death likely. I wasn’t able to find out what class the river rafting trip in Inje would be, so I decided to go and find out for myself.

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Do you recognize this class VI river? [The answer is at the end of the article].

River rafting in Inje would probably have been very enjoyable if I had not already been paddling larger water. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that Inje was a class I-II river. I was not satisfied, and I set out to find something bigger. Unfortunately, my Google searches were yielding nothing. I learned about a trip to a place called “Pirate’s Island,” in Namhae. It was about as far away as possible from my home in the province of Gangwon-do, but among the other activities, the trip listed sea kayaking. I signed up to go on the trip and promptly fell ill. I had to cancel.

The next year, the same travel company advertised the same trip. I signed up and went. After travelling two hours by train to meet the travel company in Seoul, we drove overnight in a bus for five hours toward our destination. At this point, I had travelled seven hours. We started the morning by hiking up a mountain to the most beautiful temple I have ever seen in South Korea: Boriam Temple. We watched the sun rise over the sea. Its brightness spread across the sky and cleared away the twinkling lights of the ships at sea near the coastline along the stars perched in the sky above them. It was breathtakingly beautiful but I was distraced by my excitement for sea kayaking later in the day.

We left the temple and boarded the bus. After another hour of driving through winding mountain roads, while I coped with my fatigue and car sickness, we arrived at a beach. A tour guide left the bus, said he’d return, and after a few minutes he came back. He explained to everyone on the bus that due to choppy seas, we would not be kayaking.

Making a Greater Effort

The rest of the trip was enjoyable and I am glad I saw the temple, but after having travelled all night long and all morning, I was tired and disappointed. Upon returning home, I again searched for a place to go kayaking and came up with nothing. During a conversation with my dad, he told me that one of his friends working for Jackson Kayak, a company which designs and builds kayaks and equipment based in Tennessee, was a customer service representative. Apparently, he worked with a Korean business that sells kayaking gear and equipment. It became my new goal to track them down.

With all of the mountains, rivers, and people dressed in outdoor equipment, I knew that real whitewater had to be somewhere. Finally, it was winter. In Tennessee, kayaking can be considered a winter sport. There is more water in the rivers during winter, so people gear up in special winter equipment and throw themselves down water-filled ravines, often with snow on the rocks beside them. I appealed to my Korean friends on Facebook, asking if anyone knew of a place where I could go whitewater kayaking in Korea. A very, very helpful friend told me about Inje. I explained that I’d already been there and was looking for something bigger, and not rafting. He told me it sounded strange that I wanted to go kayaking in the dead of winter, so I explained that I was used to the idea of paddling in the snow. Finally, he found me a link to a kayaking school. If I remember correctly, they were affiliated with the same company that my dad’s friend worked with.

When I went to their website, I learned that they would take people on kayaking trips through their school, but in order to paddle with them on Class III water (which was my goal at the time), I would first have to paddle with them on flat water, Class I, and Class II water. At each level, I would have to be certified by them before advancing to the next level. The classes were very, very expensive.

I gave up and threw myself into a new sport, which I had fallen in love with in Korea: cycling. I’ve biked in the US, France, and in the Netherlands. It is my very strong opinion that no country so far rivals Korea in cycling infrastructure. It is by far my favorite activity in South Korea. I hope to write about its merits one day.

Asking Why I Failed

I am living in France now, and I’ve learned that kayaking competitions are sometimes held in a town nearby. It should be easy for me to find a place to kayak here. So, in Tennessee, the eastern half of which is mountainous, I can go kayaking. In Normandy, which is not mountainous but does have rolling hills, I can go kayaking. But in Gangwon-do, South Korea, a region of mountains, valleys, and rushing water, it took me two years of searching for a place to go kayaking and I never truly found what I was looking for.

Why?

Why have whitewater sports taken such deep roots in Appalachia and in Normandy, but have not done so in South Korea? One of the first things that outsiders will often notice when they visit Korea for the first time is the droves of people dressed fashionably in outdoor clothing: hiking boots, sturdy hiking pants, windbreakers, and waterproof hats with wide brims. Hiking into the mountains is an extremely popular activity in Korea, and the trails are generally well-maintained and beautiful. Personally, I am impressed with them. Hundreds of miles of beautiful running, walking, and cycling paths stretch across the country from east to west, north to south, and along the eastern coastline. Along these paths, one will often discover people exercising on equipment installed there for public use.

Tennis courts, driving ranges, soccer fields, swimming pools, gyms, and public parks are found everywhere. It has always appeared to me that healthy eating and exercise are large considerations in Korean society. So, why have whitewater sports not caught on in a country which, geographically, seems to be made for it? Why especially have they not caught on in a country which seems to enjoy outdoor sports to a vast degree?

IMG_1566_bike path_resized

Maybe It’s Cultural

One of the jobs of an expatriot ought to be discovering not only how other cultures differ, but also ask himself or herself the question of why it is different. I remember a conversation I had with another American in Korea; we were discussing the idea that “Koreans can’t swim.” It’s not a good idea to make broad generalizations, but this statement danced around inside my head like a carrot in front of a horse for a long time. If I were to accept the idea that Koreans swim less often or less well than their American counterparts do, this might help explain the curious lack of interest in Korean whitewater.

The first thing I began doing was questioning what I knew about Korean swimming habits. Contrary to what my friend said, I knew that many of my students attended swimming classes, and I knew of a few swimming pools in my city. I suggested to my friend that he might be mistaken, and he countered with the idea that Korean children are now learning to swim perhaps because their parents could not. He suggested that maybe their parents wanted to make sure that their children had the opportunity to learn a skill they were not able to learn in their youth.

He told me a story about the time when Park Geun-Hye’s father was a dictator in the newly-recreated nation. He claimed that he read about the Han River in Seoul being surrounded by fences and access to it forbidden. My friend said that since the time of the Korean War, people were discouraged from swimming and from visiting beaches because of the opportunity it might present to defect to either side. Given that the country is so mountainous and the border so heavily guarded, the beach might present a much safer passage across the border. In addition, crossing the border sometimes means crossing a river. Crossing a river means that the defector may have to swim.

Are the Rumors True?

Even now, at night on certain beaches, you’ll find that they are sometimes lit up like the top of a birthday cake before the candles are blown out. I was born in Florida and attended middle school there. I had a particularly vocal biology teacher who lamented the city lights on our coasts because they encouraged hatchling sea turtles to move toward the lights and cross into the road instead of following the reflection of the moon into the sea, as is their instinct. So, when I visited a certain beach at night in Korea, and I saw the flood lights stretched as far as I could see in either direction, I wondered about the effect it might have on the nearby wildlife. What would drive a city to install floodlights on a beach that isn’t used at night?

It made me wonder if the stories about using the beaches to defect were true and it made me wonder if stories about older Koreans not knowing how to swim might actually have some merit. The next day, I went swimming in a very small area of the beach that was roped off and guarded vigilantly by two very fit lifeguards. Most people simply bobbed around where they could still stand up if they needed to, and nobody was trying to do laps. When my friend and I ventured further out to the edge of the barrier, the lifeguards immediately came near to us. Did they think we were in danger of drowning? I’ll never know without asking.

Haeundae_Busan

Haeundae Beach at night.

What Do You Think?

I urge the readers of this article to tell me about their experiences with Korean beaches at night. I also ask that you share with me your thoughts on Korean swimming habits and culture. I do not think that a simple, “general inability to swim” can explain the lack of whitewater activity in South Korea. As I said before, geographically, Korea is as perfect for whitewater as a hand is to a glove.

The image of the Class VI waterfall is Niagara Falls.

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Hot New Sports! Come Read All About It!

This month, I Dig Culture is celebrating Sports, a rather exciting topic to tackle. Here is an opportunity to cover the history, the physicality, the winning, the losing, the traditions, and the power of sports. But, haven’t we seen all of this in previous films and live broadcasts? Remember the Titans, Miracle, ESPN, The Waterboy… Perhaps what is more important is the is opportunity to share some unique sports which exist from opposite sides of the globe. For anyone who is like me and has never really cared for sports of any sort – perhaps this short article will give you a little inspiration, a little kick in the pants to care about a new sport. So, let’s explore two very unique sports that exist on completely opposite ends of the globe, shall we?

dog dancing


Dog Dancing: A Human’s Best Dance Partner?

The sport, or perhaps the art, of Dog Dancing originated in Canada during the mid-1980’s. From there, the idea of dogs’ freestyling to music with their handlers quickly spread to other countries such as England, the Netherlands, the United States and various others. The dancing participants, human and canine alike, have gained popularity for their talents, tricks, and rhythmic show of companionship. How could I forget to mention the various styles of freestyle dance that the dogs and their handlers get to explore? Some of my favorites include the Salsa, Meringue, and Swing.

Uploads of previous filming induce heart-warming feelings for the goofy and cutesy routines between handler and show dog while also leaving the viewer amazed at the almost telepathic connection between the two stars. This sport not only awards its participants with physical trophies and world recognition via the Internet, but also the feeling of becoming one with your freestylin’ doggie.

To learn more about what it takes to become a world-traveling, freestyle-competing, handling team of two, view this YouTube video of trainer Carolyn Scott and her dog Rookie performing a dance routine to a song from the classic movie ‘Grease’. 

If that isn’t enough, there’s also an entire website devoted to dog-dancing routines.

 

 

Buzkashi Gangtas

Buzkashi Gangtas


Buzkashi: Afghanistan’s Life-Threatening National Sport

Dating back to the reign of Genghis Kahn and his fellow traveling Mongols, the game of Buzkashi was born in Northern Afghanistan and Eastern Turkey. Today’s current riders of the surrounding communities treat the ‘game’ as a traditional sport with high hopes of someday competing in the Olympics. So, what is it exactly?

In the simplest terms…
a. Men ride the strongest horses they can buy; the more horses a man owns, the better and richer he is.
b. Once on the horse, the men pick up a dead carcass—usually a goat with its head and hooves cut off—from a designated circular area.
c. While holding the carcass in one hand or with it wrapped up in a whip, the man and his horse ride around until they make it around a pole and back into the circle originally containing the carcass.

Two points to remember:

  1. Buzkashi requires men and their horses to work together, either in teams or individually.
  2. Buzkashi is extremely dangerous.

It has been previously asserted that “in Buzkashi, human life counts less than the result” [1]. This is certain. Humans and their horses are battered up and even trampled at times just attempting to retrieve the stone-cold carcass of the headless goat. It is really hard to watch footage of the sport if you are not used to this type of competition.

Today the sport itself is evolving along with the Afghan culture and region itself. Since 9/11, The United States has been pouring hundreds of billions of US dollars into the country Afghanistan but also apparently its national sport of Buzkashi. One analysis from ESPN reflected on the new wealth of current riders who often make big money from their sponsors and through gambling. It was stated by current professional rider, Mohammad Hasan Palwan, that in the past, if you won, it was “for the province. Now, the sponsors have changed the allegiances, the pride. Victory is no longer for your community.” Now the sport is won for power of the individual [2]. It is apparent that today’s riders are playing the game for more than the revival of traditional sport, but for the power and money available to win. Gambling goes anywhere from $20 to $17,000. It is all seemingly aggressive and involves a lot of different high risks.

A short YouTube video which visually aides one into further understanding into the sport of Buzkashi and its dangerous reality is listed below.

Buzkashi: A Dangerous Game, The Death Game, A Real Sport

It’s apparent that these two ‘sports’ are completely different from one another. Dancing, happy dogs versus life-threatening danger and the high stakes of gambling. In Buzkashi, the rider is putting himself, his horse, other players, and even his family at serious risk. The actual sport involves a dead carcass being carried and dragged across a rugged, dirty surface.  The game itself is, safe to say, brutal versus the extremely quirky yet heart-warming groovy sport of Dog-Dancing. In dog-dancing, there are rarely any dead animals that we know of yet, and the dogs seem to be enjoying themselves for the most part. Whereas the horses, being thrown against one another and clunked amongst hard shoes and kicking.

Despite their many differences, these two unique sports can appear similar in a few ways. For instance, both require the acquisition of personal talents and the talent of a live, animal companion to get their ‘routine’ awarded and as a means to win the competition or sport. Both sports require a form of companionship. In dog-dancing, the owner and the live dog must use their companionship to work together to win. In Buzkashi, the riders use connection with their horses to work together. Their companionship has to be on a higher and more spiritual level. How the individual performs with the animal, connects with the animal, takes care of the animal, and uses the animal are all quite similar. In both sports, the riders and the dog owners must learn to accept and deal with both victory and defeat, not just the competition itself. However, those who love sports often love the thrill of a competition and thus world riders, trainers, handlers, et al, are all viewed as competitors in the end. They want to win; they want the cheese, or goat cheese.

So, there you have it. If you’re not into football, soccer, baseball, volleyball, weightlifting, or any ‘mainstream’ sport – you can be a good sport and check out the trying and telepathic sport of dog-dancing or let yourself and horse get rustled and toughened up in a game or two of Buzkashi. Hey, it’s all about learning another’s culture and their interests isn’t it?

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Blood, Sweat and Tears: the Power of Sport

Sport is a key part of both the past and present worlds. Along with music, literature and dance, it’s something that is both magnificent, yet odd: we don’t need any of these things to survive really but it’s difficult to imagine living without them. Most appreciate sports for their entertaining, inspiring or competitive values while others dismiss them as “just a game.” For me, sport carries a much heavier weight in society than was previously known or appreciated. It has been well documented that generals used gladiators in ancient Rome to entertain a public and take their eyes off more serious social issues. But even today, out of the gyms, away from the courts, pitches and fields, sport can play a pivotal role in changing lives, communities and even break through age-old domestic and international rivalries.  Because of this, governments and institutes all over the world and stepping up their efforts to support sports diplomacy. Previously major powers saw ‘cultural diplomacy’ such as sport as being weak, inferior or just not worthwhile. This kind of ‘soft power’ diplomacy includes sporting events, language schools and university exchange programs between nations. Governments had underestimated the power of culture and how it can affect people and their perception of foreign nations.

Changing Perceptions

On an international scale, the BRICS association which consists of 5 emerging financial powers (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have (or will have) all invested in major sporting events by 2018. South Africa, Brazil and Russia had/will have the FIFA World Cup, one of the greatest spectacles on the planet. China has and Brazil will have held the Olympic Games which is as big as the World Cup in attracting worldwide attention. These events cost billions to hold and run but can influence the world’s collective image of a nation. Hence the grand opening and closing ceremonies in which nations try to showcase their culture and create a positive brand of their nation which will hopefully lead to an increase in foreign investment or increased tourism in the future.

China held the Olympics in 2008. Can the money spent on lavish ceremonies and stadia change the world’s perception of China?

Bridging Divides

“Sport has the power to change the world…it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

Nelson Mandela

(http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/25262862)

Sport can also influence people who have no interest in the games themselves. Sport can provide the perfect platform for groups to work cohesively together and encourage those watching to follow suit. Two famous examples stand out for me. One, during apartheid in South Africa when the Rugby World Cup was heading to SA. At that time only white players were allowed to play for the national team. Eventually, thanks to President Nelson Mandela, this rule was broken and black players were allowed to play. Despite initial disapproval, the nation soon got behind the team and their success was evident off the field by uniting the nation. The second example that springs to mind is the 1991 table tennis championships in China in which North and South Korea entered as a joint team and defeated the favorites China. This situation overcame the unique and unfortunate circumstances between the two Koreas.

‘Korea’ or ‘As One’ was a 2012 movie that depicted the true story of the two Koreas united at last.

 

Local challenges and Local Success

My favorite sport by far is ‘the Beautiful Game’ as it is known: football (or soccer depending on where you are). I love the sport like millions around the world. Growing up, not only does it help kids stay fit and learn to work in teams, but even as an adult it shows how sport is a universal language that can be enjoyed by everyone. Though playing time has become limited, I play with guys from nearly 10 countries, all whom have different backgrounds and languages yet while playing, everyone is able to communicate. By sensing the power and passion that football carries, some wise people have used it to promote great projects in underdeveloped communities. Academies set up by pros in Sierra Leone for example offer kids a chance to be a part of something meaningful and lighten up their otherwise grim lives. Even in western nations, football leagues have been set up in London for teenagers who are involved in gangs. Games kick off at 3am. Research showed that this was the peak of night when knife crime and anti-social behavior occurred among youths in the area. The project has been running successfully and helped teens explore other options out of gang life.

 

 

Sport is a financial giant with sponsors, merchandise, ticketing and stadia development all contributing to the games natural values. However, the power that sport brings should be worth greater investment. Games can bring families together to the couch, communities gather for cup finals and nations stand up and sing anthems as one. Everyone needs a sport of some kind to appreciate the effects it can over the individual and on a larger scales, institutes, governments and nations should appreciate the diplomatic value of sport.

Globalization Will Kill Black Pete

Every November there’s a good chance that you’ll hear a conversation in the Netherlands that goes something like this: “I just came back from the store and they already sold Christmas decorations! Really? Sinterklaas didn’t even start yet! Every year they start selling the Christmas decorations earlier. What a shame!”  It’s no wonder that stores are selling Christmas decoration so early, given the rising popularity of Christmas over our own local holiday Sinterklaas. Already for many years, many people have not been celebrating Sinterklaas anymore, and the blame is put on globalization, or, to be more exact, Americanization.

Sinterklaas (a traditional figure based on Saint Nicholas) is celebrated annually with the giving of gifts on Saint Nicholas Eve (5 December). He traditionally arrives by steamboat from Spain each year in another city on the first Saturday after 11 November. He then parades through the streets on his white horse, welcomed by children cheering and singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. His Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) assistants (white men in blackface with a wig of black curly hair and dressed up like a 17th-century page in colorful attire—more on that later) throw candy and pepernoten (small, round, gingerbread-like cookies) into the crowd. All of this is televised on national TV. In the period between Sinterklaas‘ arrival and Saint Nicholas Eve, children put their shoes next to the fireplace (or when you don’t have one of those, under a small open window or any other place your parents let you believe a full-grown man can crawl through) before going to bed and singing a Sinterklaas song. My sister and I would also leave some carrots with our shoes “for Sinterklaas‘ horse,” of which only the stumps would remain in the morning, because my father had eaten them all after we went to bed to make it even more believable that Sinterklaas really visited our house. We would also find a small present or candy in our shoes, which was of course the reason we would be awake much earlier than usual.

Sinterklaas in Schiedam (2009)

Sinterklaas in Schiedam (2009)

In the Netherlands, a nation with Christian roots, Christmas has been around as long as Sinterklaas has. It has always been celebrated (reluctantly) one day with your family and one day with your in-laws (yes, we have two Christmas days). Fights would (and still will) break out about which family you would visit on the first day, but there isn’t much gift giving involved. That was reserved for celebrating Sinterklaas, and not only for children, but for adults too. Adults write each other snarky poems and/or construct surprises (pronounced as the French surpris, not the English way), a very creative way of gift wrapping by making something out of cardboard or other solid materials, which contains the gift and some substance as disgusting as possible (usually syrup and Styrofoam, or any other sticky/disgusting combination). However, with Hollywood movies came the commercialization of Christmas and therefore the decline of celebrating Sinterklaas in favor of Christmas. As soon as the children don’t believe in Sinterklaas anymore, the family usually shifts the celebrations to Christmas and puts the gifts under the tree. The poems are sometimes still there, but  the surprises have disappeared. This makes a lot of people in the Netherlands feel sad because they think we’re losing a tradition, while in fact, they are the cause of its disappearance.

Is losing a tradition like this always a bad thing, you may ask? Not necessarily. Holding too much onto one’s traditions causes a lack of progress in society. Not marrying outside of your religious circle, pulling the head off a live goose for entertainment, and football matches available for men only are examples of traditions that have vanished when society thought they were outdated and wrong. Even our beloved Sinterklaas celebration has something outdated in the form of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), Sinterklaas’ helpers that help him to get all the presents to the children. Although as a child I loved Zwarte Piet for being so funny and throwing pepernoten at my face, as an adult I can’t see past the colonial relic of the white man wearing blackface acting like fools while poorly emulating a Suriname accent (Suriname is a former Dutch colony in South America where we used black slaves to work on our plantations).

Two women in "Black Pete" (2009)

Two women in “Black Pete” (2009)

I didn’t always think like this. I never stood still by the fact that Zwarte Piet may be offensive and racist to some until 2013, when the discussion about the controversial figure of Zwarte Piet started to intensify. Before that it simply didn’t concern me; I never considered that the black make up that people would put on their faces was in fact blackface. I never saw race when I saw Zwarte Piet, and I was convinced other children wouldn’t see that as well. Change never comes from those who are unaffected. However, when the discussion flared up in 2013 I started reading interviews with black people and started listening to what they had to say. They told stories about how they hated the Sinterklaas celebration because people (children and adults) would call them Zwarte Piet and make racist remarks. They were told this by their classmates in elementary school or while playing on the street, which I think must have been very traumatizing. As adults, the abuse continued by children calling them Zwarte Piet. For them it didn’t feel they were included in this big children’s celebration. When I heard those stories I knew I was wrong and felt ashamed that I hadn’t figured it out sooner. Although not black myself, I’m part Turkish. Knowing the amount of racism Turkish people have encountered when they started to settle in the Netherlands as immigrants, I feel I should have known better.

Now the celebration of Sinterklaas in 2014 has come and gone and I’m more convinced than ever that something has to change. Slowly more people are waking up to see that Zwarte Piet is in fact racist, mainly due to the racist slurs of the defenders of Zwarte Piet. The awakening of these people was touched off by events within the Netherlands, but are certainly influenced by globalization. The way the international community speaks with shame about our tradition and that many people still defend that tradition also reaches the Netherlands and has an influence on people’s behavior. This happened before with the famous number 39 with rice incident, where a judge on Holland’s Got Talent made racist remarks to one Chinese contestant, asking him if he was going to sing number 39 with rice (a reference to an item on the menu of a Chinese restaurant and basically stereotyping all Chinese people in the Netherlands). It initially didn’t cause a stir in the Netherlands until a clip of the TV show showed up on reddit and being criticized by commenters all over the world. Subsequently it reached other foreign media as well and from then on a huge debate broke out in the Netherlands about whether it was an innocent joke or pure racism. The same is happening with Zwarte Piet, where people on the Internet and foreign media are criticizing the fact that we still keep him around in the Sinterklaas celebration. The effect is that in 2014 there were already changes made to Zwarte Piet’s appearance in some places. Although still not acceptable and not nearly enough, it is a start.

This is the real power of globalization. Because we are more interconnected we see more quickly what’s wrong in other people’s societies and have the ability via the Internet to let them know. Some might say mind your own business because you don’t understand the culture, but as a man with experience with many cultures, I say we must be able to criticize and debate with each other to come to a better world for everyone. Many defenders of Zwarte Piet often say that foreigners don’t understand our culture and therefore can’t claim that Zwarte Piet is racist (Click here for an excellent article about the 10 most common excuses Dutch people make to defend the racist tradition of Zwarte Piet). However, we must stop playing the culture card when racism is involved and be able to admit our own mistakes. Only then will globalization be a positive thing instead of metaphor for a bunch of Western multinationals taking over the world. So people of the world, please criticize those that still defend Zwarte Piet. We can keep our tradition of Sinterklaas, but the Zwarte needs to go out of Piet.

 

Is English a Threat to Linguistic Traditions?

As a native speaker of English, I revel in a fantastic luxury when I travel. Wherever I go, I can assume that the language of business is English. No matter where I am or what I need, if I don’t speak the local language, I can always use English. In fact, if the exchange goes poorly, the person I am speaking with will often apologize for his or her lack of ability in my language rather than scold me for my poor knowledge of the local tongue. I have met many people who berate themselves for their inability to progress in English. These people often lament the pressure they feel to learn it.

“Why should I have to learn their language? This is Italy; they should learn Italian,” my Italian friend might say (if I had any friends).

People like my non-existent Italian friend are living representatives of the mixed feelings many people feel when they think about the role of English in their lives. There are many reasons for embracing English as a global language. Likewise, there are many reasons for rejecting it. Today we ask the question: can the influence of a foreign language on a culture degrade that culture’s linguistic traditions?

We know that living languages are constantly evolving. Speakers of English are rampant thieves; we’ve “borrowed” heaps of words from other languages. We say “borrowed” as though we intend to give them back, but if we’re honest with ourselves we can admit we’re not giving them back. While we know that living languages are always changing into something new, we also know that languages are dying out completely. As cultures come in contact with one another, sometimes one language becomes dominant, and eventually the “weaker” language can die out.

burglar

An English speaker

However, it might be possible for a culture to retain its language while simply picking up the new one instead of replacing it. If this is possible, it might mean that the influence of a second language could develop independently from the original language of the culture. Therefore, the original language would not be very much affected and the culture’s linguistic traditions would not be threatened.

Generally, as language groups come into contact with one another, there is some exchange. Does this mean that one or both of the languages is being sullied or damaged in some way? Not necessarily; the richness of English comes from the fact that it has so very many borrowed words in the first place. Without exchange, we would not have this depth and richness.

From time to time in the United States, a debate arises surrounding whether or not help should be provided to residents in languages other than English. Usually, it is a question of whether or not important documents should be provided in Spanish. There are many people who are against this. “This is America; speak American!” has been part of the debate. Why should we not make things easier for people who are learning English? Opponents of this idea say that it would be too expensive to provide translations. Is that the real reason, or is it rooted in xenophobia?

So welcoming. So smart.

So welcoming. So smart.

Throughout history, languages have been suppressed in one way or another. In the United States, Native American children were sometimes put into schools where they were punished for speaking their mother tongues and forced to assimilate to the cultures of their oppressors. During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Koreans were encouraged to take Japanese surnames and Korean-language newspapers were forced to quit publishing. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the Taiwanese were forbidden from learning Taiwanese Chinese in school. Today, radio stations throughout the world have quotas related to language. In both France and South Korea, 40% of all content must be broadcast in the official languages of those countries.

In order to decide whether or not suppressing language means that cultural traditions are threatened, it’s important to think about the motivation for this suppression. Why have people decided to place a limit on how much content can be broadcasted in English or other languages? Maybe this means that other languages are a threat. If so, how? Why are populations often forced to learn the languages of their oppressors? Is it because stripping them of their language removes a part of their identity?

Is language so strongly linked to culture that one cannot survive without the other? What do you think?

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Globalize Your Traditions

Tradition vs. Globalization

My father’s family moved from Latvia to the United States in the 1940s. With them they brought a vast array of traditions and beliefs and one of my favorite things about this life is being able to participate in some of them. I have always loved listening to Latvian folk tales, making perogs and pastries with my ‘Vecmamin’ (Grandmother), and  wearing some of the older fashions to school. I still love dancing traditional Latvian dances to traditional Latvian songs at family gatherings and weddings. And yet, although my cousins and I have tried our best to continue appreciating all of these special traditions, we are failing at being exactly like our elders.

The Indans Family arriving to America from Latvia circa mid 1940s

The Indans Family arriving to America from Latvia circa mid 1940s

In college, I attempted to tackle this issue of family traditions in peril in a short documentary film. The danger of lost tradition appeared to stem from two main culprits: intermarriage and personal lack of consideration. Particularly the intermarriage, appeared to contribute most visibly to the loss of tradition, but a closer look suggested that the story was perhaps more complex than that. Intermarriage brings together the disparate families and traditions of two individuals from different backgrounds. Traditions may be consequently lost to this new pair, but this does not mean that all traditions are. If anything, intermarriage simply enables one individual to choose among more traditions than she or he might otherwise have in her cultural armamentarium.

A very close friend of mine whose family originates from Venezuela is to be married to an American next summer. Traditionally in Venezuela, the woman keeps both her original last name and also takes on her husband’s last name. Now, living in the United States, she will take on her fiancé’s last name. Even though the situation irks me, as I am annoyed that women ‘have’ to take a man’s last name, there is a beauty in the transition of one’s tradition into a new one. Simply, my friend slipped into another’s line of transmission.

Globalization may be seen as a much more extended, version of intermarriage. Throughout the processes of both Globalization and legal intermarriage individuals experience interaction and integration, making deals or promises, trading and investing. Just like intermarriage, sometimes globalization is looked upon as an imperialistic approach to conform everyone’s culture; to ‘advance’ it. There is some bad to this, some truth; but, there is also some good to focus on.

Because of globalization, now it is not just the United States of America that might be considered a melting pot. Countries all over the world are exchanging their traditions and beliefs with each other at a fever pitch; we are arguably all connecting a little bit more than we used to. And it makes sense that we would. In a world that is constantly evolving, in which new technologies and jobs are being created every day, won’t we have to find a way for tradition and globalization complement each other? Isn’t that a whole tradition in itself: Humans working together and connecting from around the world? What is tradition anyway, and what makes it anathema to globalization – or vice versa? IS the continuance of tradition simple to “Stay Pure” or “Create a Rarity”? Why the versus? Can’t the two complement each other? I vote yes!

Doesn’t the ability of traditions to evolve make them even more special than their oddity or exoticism in their original forms? Just like the evolution of humans, cultural beliefs and customs evolve and twist and turn, and future generations will look back on it all and probably wonder what the big deal is to everybody now. Globalization at its finest, incorporates and appreciates all cultures. The humans working for international trade and investment companies are hopefully taking that to heart.

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French Historical Conversations: Pope Edition

Sometimes people believe that walking under a ladder is bad luck. Sometimes people think that swallowing a watermelon seed means that a watermelon will grow inside their bodies, eventually killing them. This is silly. You know what else is silly? The notion that nothing of intellectual value was occurring between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.

While it may be true that advances in science were lacking at this time in comparison to the Renaissance, it doesn’t mean that people were less creative or less intelligent than just a couple of hundreds of years prior. The Renaissance was born out of an acceptance of the self as a powerful being, capable of accomplishing large tasks. It has been said (by my tour guide in Florence) that before the Renaissance, instead of making great things happen, people simply prayed and hoped that God would make great things happen. It would be much easier that way, wouldn’t it?

With this in mind, we understand that the people of the Medieval Period were somewhat more hesitant to undertake grand construction projects and were very dependent on God. Much of Europe in the 11th century, through which we will take an historic adventure today (aren’t you lucky!), considered itself one great land area under the name of Christendom. In Christendom, spiritual needs were addressed by one branch of power, called the sacerdotium. Secular needs were addressed by a different branch of power, called the imperium. It was very important for the imperium‘s actions to be supported and recognized by the sacerdotium, given the importance of God in the medieval conscience. This division of power and responsibility was intended to meet all of the needs of the people. Therefore, it also meant that clashes between the two branches were about as pleasant as walking in on your parents giving each other a sponge bath. 

Now that I have provided you with this enlightening information about medieval society, you are prepared to enter proudly into the life of one of the most interesting characters in human history: William the Conqueror.

In 1066, William, the Duke of Normandy, waltzed himself across the English Channel and claimed the throne of England. He was a bit like the honey badger; he saw what he wanted and he took it. Way before William became William the Conqueror, however, he was known as William the Bastard. 

This can be a difficult title to carry around when one intends to rule a large territory. Just imagine poor William attempting to go about his business in any normal fashion:

“You there! Hello, I’d like for you to make a longsword with a snake on the pommel, please.”

“Yes sir, Mister Bastard, sir!”

How embarrassing! 

Poor William was saddled with this unfortunate title because he had been born to a powerful father and his mistress, who was not an important character in Norman society. We know so little about her that historians continue to argue about the simplest details concerning her. Historians are very good at arguing with each other. This is why I recommend never inviting more than one historian to a party.

brother-yelling-at-sister

Historians.

 

Anyway, William’s mommy and daddy were not married; this meant that William was illegitimate. Despite this, he was given power over the lands his father held, but not without a great deal of anarchy that he was forced to work diligently to contain. Being illegitimate at this time was probably one of the worst things a person could be; William’s very existence was like a slap in the face of God. People who had been loyal to his father were loathe to grant fealty to someone like William. It was worse than cooties.

William was greatly concerned with retaining power over his lands, but he also wanted to bag a sweet chick. It was because of this that he became absolutely enamored with a sweet mademoiselle who was called Mathilda. Mathilda was remarkable for a number of reasons, one of these being that she came from the territory of Flanders.

Matilda_of_Flanders

I wonder if he called her “cupcake.”

At a time when William was working fastidiously against efforts to usurp him, he decided to marry the aforementioned cutie pie. This posed a problem because William’s contenders feared that they would be unable to remove him from power if he was also given control of Flanders. So, they concentrated their efforts against him. It was also problematic because William and Mathilda were cousins.

Understandably, opponents of William seized upon this unfortunate fact in a manner akin to an untrained mongrel devouring an unattended cut of beef. William’s intention to marry darling Mathilda was so unnerving that even some of his supporters threw their hands up in the air and declared, ” No way, dude!” (Probably).

According to the social norms of the time, cousin-marrying was pretty bad. It was an affront to God Himself.

William really, really like-liked Mathilda, though. So, he asked the pope to sanction their marriage.

If the sacerdotium was cool with it, the people of the court should be cool with it, too

Their conversation probably went like this:

“Oh, hey Pope! What’s up, dude?”
“Oh, you know,  just chillin’ and kickin’ it in the Vatican. It’s hot as hell, though. Heh heh. Get it?”
“Ah, yeah. That sucks, dude. Listen, Pope- have you heard about my new girlfri-”
“Yeah, dude. WTF. You gotta stop that, man. It’s like, gross.”
“Aw, but Pope! She’s so so cute!”

Charlemagne and the Pope

This is Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I, but we can imagine it all went down like this.

And then, William went ahead and married her anyway– even though the pope said it wasn’t cool. We know from historical evidence that William later asked the pope to make a declaration that his marriage wasn’t an absolute travesty and a sin breaking the laws of nature. The conversation probably went like this:

“WTH, man?! WTF. I told you that was super icky. I don’t even wanna be your friend anymore.”
“But, Popey! I couldn’t help myself!”
“Sick, dude.”
“Listen, what can I do to make you let this go?”
“…um…”
“Please, Pope!”

“Alright, I want you to build me some abbeys. I want one for men, and one for women, and hopefully their work with each gender will prevent this kind of atrocity from recurring.”
“Okay, you got it!”
“But wait! I want them to be, like, super awesome. I’m not kidding around, dude. I want towers and spires, and stonework, expertly carved.”

So, William commissioned the construction of two individual, distinct structures which were aesthetically pleasing and innovative. 

Normandie_Calvados_Caen1_tango7174

Women’s Abbey

Caen,_Abbaye_aux_Hommes_02

Men’s Abbey

If you’d like to visit these enduring tributes to forbidden love and papal indulgence, you can find information about visiting hours here. 

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