Interactive Research Methods in Gorkha, Nepal

When I first began thinking about conducting research in Nepal for my master’s thesis, I wondered how I could address the language gap between myself and research participants. To better understand how quality education is perceived in the local context, I decided it would be necessary to conduct interviews with school headmasters, teachers, and parents. Having lived in Nepal for eight months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), I speak Nepali at a beginner level but not well enough to capture the full-meaning of interviews conducted in Nepali. Immediately, I knew that it would be necessary to have a translator. Yet, additional questions emerged involving the amount of time and effort it would take to fully understand the meaning of interviews and what might get lost in translation.

When thinking about sample size, the amount of time I would have to collect data, and how to most quickly and accurately conduct interviews, I asked myself who within my participant population would most likely be able to be interviewed in English and who would need to be interviewed in Nepali. Having been a guest teacher or teacher trainer at all of the schools included in my sample population, I understood that most headmasters and teachers would be able to be comfortably interviewed in English. Since interviews conducted in English would take less time to conduct and analyze, I decided that it would be best to hold one-on-one semi-structured interviews with headmasters and teachers. I prepared a set of guiding questions and possible follow-up questions. Due to the semi-structured nature of the interviews, I also had the freedom to ask participants to elaborate upon certain responses in a more conversational manner.

Assuming that interviews with parents would need to be conducted in Nepali, I determined that I could save time and increase the sample population size by conducting group interviews. Reflecting back on my experience being a teacher, I thought that group-work focused activities, such as making a poster, might make the focus group more engaging for participants by encouraging their simultaneous contributions. Thus, I developed a focus group plan that followed a template similar to a lesson plan for teaching. The first activity was to have parents work in groups of 2-3 to create a poster of “what makes a good school.” Subsequently, with the help of my translator, we discussed the meaning of what each group created.

Since it was my first time conducting focus groups in which participants created posters, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. Given the cultural context, I think the poster task was a big success! Parents actively participated in the conversations and created posters that reflected their beliefs. If I were to design my research project again, I would definitely still use the poster making activity. I’m excited to analyze the collected data to determine trends; I look forward to including photos and translations of each poster in my final research report.

Interested in learning more about my experiences in Nepal? Check out my personal blog Highlights of the Himalaya!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Emily Hall, Sigur Center Field Research Grant Recipient. Emily is a master’s student in the International Education Program at the George Washington University. Emily’s areas of interest include understanding and supporting teacher quality and teaching quality in developing country contexts through the lens of cultural anthropology. Her master’s thesis examines local perceptions of quality education in Nepal and analyzes government funded educational reform initiatives seeking to improve equitable access to quality education. To learn more about her experiences in Nepal, please visit her personal blog: Highlights of the Himalaya 

Kindness, Nourishment and Newfound Friends

This is the story of how I ended up eating the best tasting chicken I have ever had during a 10-hour layover in Chengdu, China. While this auspicious event took place at the end of my research journey, the moments that led to it began on my first day of travel as I tried to explain that my checked-luggage was missing in the Chengdu airport.

While waiting for my connecting flight, I met two Americans.

“Did you recheck your bag?” They asked me. “We were told that our bags would go all the way to our final destination but just found out that they won’t!”

At that moment in time, I knew that my bag wouldn’t make it all the way to Nepal.

I arrived in Chengdu at 2 AM and looked for someone to help me fix my baggage situation. However, at that time in the night there were very few staff members in the airport. When I finally located a woman, I tried to tell her that my bag was missing and see if she could help me. But to my dismay, she didn’t speak English. I tried to login to the airport wi-fi on my cell phone so that I could use an Internet translator. Little did I know that in China, certain sites on the Internet are blocked to users unless they have a virtual private network (VPN), so I couldn’t connect to the Internet.

Suddenly, I noticed that a person was standing behind me. “Can I help you?” he asked. “I speak both Chinese and English, so I might be able to help you translate.”

“Help would be terrific!” I replied.

The young man explained my situation. The staff member reassured us that my bag should arrive in Nepal and that if it didn’t, I should speak with the staff at the airport in Nepal for help.

When I thanked the young man for his assistance, he asked me where I was traveling. “I’m going to Nepal for research,” I explained.

Thereafter, we began speaking in Nepali, as the young man himself was from Nepal and on his way to meet his family. The young man, named Sagar, introduced me to a group of his friends who had also been working with him in the hospitality sector in China. The remainder of the 10-hour layover was filled with joyful conversations, stories, and Nepali folk songs.

When we arrived in Tibet, I was absolutely starving. After passing through immigration, we came to a small shop with chips, sodas, and cigarettes. Since I didn’t have any Chinese currency, I wasn’t able to purchase any food. Sagar came to my rescue once again, and kindly purchased me a bag of Tibetan potato chips.

“Here, take this Chinese money,” he said, handing me a few Yuan. “You will need this on your return trip.”

I was absolutely grateful for his help and gave him a few U.S. dollars in exchange.

Sagar (pictured right) and my new Nepali friends in the airport in Lhasa, Tibet (after eating the chips)

To my greatest dismay, when I finally arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, my suitcase was lost as anticipated. My checked luggage included wedding gifts for my friend and American vitamins for another friend’s family. When I spoke to the airport staff about when to expect my bag, I lost hope that I would get it back. The following day, I tried calling the airline, but they hung up on me! I postponed my trip to the village, hoping to at least find out when to expect my bag

In my time of need, my Nepali friends helped me once again.

My college friend, who worked in the tourism industry, had many connections with airlines and called on my behalf. I also had another college friend from China call the airline to ask for help. Miraculously, thanks to the assistance of my friends from around the world, my bag arrived the next day! The staff at the Nepali airport were absolutely shocked. They shook their heads in amazement with wide eyes and friendly smiles.

At last, friend receives American vitamins from lost suitcase.

The rest of my time in Nepal was filled with research interviews and focus groups. I enjoyed reconnecting with students and friends in the village where I lived as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant from 2014-2015. Before I knew it, my time to return to the United States arrived.

On my last day in Nepal, there was no electricity at night. Around 4 AM, I used the flashlight function on my cell phone to go to the bathroom. Enroute, my phone fell and shattered into pieces on the concrete floor. Oops! There went all of my pictures which hadn’t been backed up due to limited internet. Yet, what I was most concerned about was how I would communicate in Beijing and Chengdu in case my bag got lost again.

Another caring friend who had just received the latest iPhone, generously gave me his old phone and downloaded a Chinese dictionary that I could access without Internet. It meant a lot to me that he allowed me to take the phone with me all the way back to America. This act of kindness played a vital role in leading me to the tasty chicken in Chengdu.

When I arrived in Chengdu, I hadn’t eaten for about seven hours. Since I had such a long layover, I was taken to a transit hotel. When I found out that there was no food at the hotel, my stomach growled with immense disappointment. Luckily, armed with the Chinese translation app, I approached the hotel reception desk and asked, “is there a nearby place to get food?” Once again, the kindness of strangers came through. “Come with me, I’ll show you,” the receptionist wrote on my phone in Chinese. When we walked onto the street, the sweet aroma of grilled chicken and noodles filled the air.  Using the Chinese currency given to me by Sagar, I bought some grilled chicken, noodles, and bubble tea. My new friend from the hotel bought me a skewer with three sweet bread balls covered in sesame seeds.

When I took a bite into the chicken in my hotel room, I suddenly felt overcome with gratitude for all the people I had met along my journey to Nepal and back. One of the most challenging and rewarding things about international travel is the extent to which foreigners must rely on the helpfulness of locals.  As I ate my chicken, I felt my worries dissipate. In that moment, I felt unconditionally nourished by kindness and supported by the goodness of newfound friends around the world.

 

P.S. My bag arrived in the United States without complication.

 

By Emily Hall, Sigur Center Field Research Grant Recipient. Emily is a master’s student in the International Education Program at the George Washington University. Emily’s areas of interest include understanding and supporting teacher quality and teaching quality in developing country contexts through the lens of cultural anthropology. Her master’s thesis examines local perceptions of quality education in Nepal and analyzes government funded educational reform initiatives seeking to improve equitable access to quality education. To learn more about her experiences in Nepal, please visit her personal blog: Highlights of the Himalaya 

Summer 2018 Research Fellow – Spotting the potential of technology in filling critical gaps in migrant health

Photo taken by Prajula Mulmi

Anytime I found myself venturing through Kathmandu valley this summer in Nepal, I developed a habit of scanning my eyes through the vibrant streets often riddled with endless traffic in sight.  Each instance would paint a similar picture. The elderly and aging are visible and cannot be missed even if one tried in Kathmandu. Most head to their local temples to attend aarti and make ritual offerings to deities. Others are seen running errands like picking up a sachet of milk to make chia or catching-up with neighbors on the latest political happenings. And then there are those who simply peer through their windows or stand on their balconies to witness the world unfolding before them with keen eyes. Contrasting this population are those dressed in their uniforms and weaving skillfully through the maddening traffic. Young schoolchildren and college students are vibrant and conspicuous throughout the city as well. What one notices over time is the consistent symbolic absence of individuals between the school and college going age and the aging and elderly. If by any chance you miss the significant absence of the working age population visually, you are bound to hear about it during your engagement with the locals. Every household has someone abroad to study, work or do both. A steady stream of young working-age Nepalis arriving and leaving at the airport is another public space demonstrating this on-going trend of migration in Nepal.

In 2014, more than 520,000 labor permits were issued to Nepalis planning to work abroad as migrant laborers.[1] According to captured data, the number of labor permits issued increases every year. What this data doesn’t capture however are individuals headed to countries where labor permits aren’t needed, or working is facilitated via other formal, informal or undocumented channels (e.g. females working in India or recipients of visas or permanent residence in countries like Canada, United States of America or Australia). Making up for their physical absence is the growing reliance on remittance from migrant workers contributing to increasing household incomes as well as the national GDP of Nepal. As much as 25% of the national GDP consists of remittance from migrant workers with inflows topping as much as USD 5 billion according to estimates by the International Labor Organization in 2013. As such, Nepal is ranked third in the world among countries sourcing the highest proportion of remittance in terms of GDP. The economic benefits of Nepali migrant workers filling niche labor markets in countries such as Malaysia, Korea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia among other such countries are manifold. However, studies exploring the recruitment processes and working conditions of migrant workers have revealed indicators of abuse and exploitation involving forced labor and trafficking.[2] Organizations such as Amnesty International have made repeated calls to prevent and protect migrant workers from adverse outcomes while they sacrifice their time with loved ones to labor in foreign countries in the hopes of a better future.

Being aware of the Nepali migrant labor backdrop and conscious of the policies and politics it entails, I was still taken aback when the subject arose in the context of my summer field research activities in Kathmandu, Nepal. A highly esteemed and experienced health care provider at a well-known public hospital in Nepal was the source of a thought-provoking insight. In the context of our interview on the role of technology in providing health solutions for a country like Nepal, they revealed their on-going voluntary efforts to provide medical counsel for Nepali migrant workers abroad via video platforms such as Skype or directly via phone or text messages. They further explained that there were many contextual factors involved in leading to such interactions from cost, lack of access to medical professionals, language barriers, lack of resources such as time and transportation etc. My key informant further noted that their medical oath prohibited them from denying care to anyone especially individuals like migrant Nepali laborers who are underserved and hard-to-reach when adopting the lens of community and population health. Still, they worried that the counsel they provided may not be up-to-par relative to if the person would have been in front of them or if the interaction was aided by another medical professional on the other end even if they were trained front-line workers or nurse aids with minimal medical education and training. This medical professional noted that they include a verbal and written disclaimer anytime they provide medical counsel for migrant Nepali workers. They felt this is the best they can do under the current regulatory framework for telehealth and mobile health in Nepal or rather lack thereof. They were hopeful that guidelines and frameworks to facilitate such interactions would be prioritized and developed by the Nepali government soon, so they wouldn’t have to operate within a gray area.

Processing what this key informant shared, I began to again marvel at the role of technology in connecting individuals in-need and filling systematic gaps before it even becomes evident with data and trends over time. The survey administered by Amnesty International to assess Nepali migrant needs was indeed also conducted via mobile phones. Making the not-so-easily reachable accessible is a boon for researchers looking to cover ground where once it might have been incredibly resource intensive to be able to do so. In the context of migration and immigration, the solutions and needs appear to operate at multiple ecological levels. Policies and regulatory frameworks are necessary to monitor and govern the pathways where such interactions are happening. Awareness and education might be required for governing bodies and medical professionals to understand this phenomenon. Data is critical to understand how these interactions are unfolding and what health and livelihood needs exist among migrant Nepali workers. While the focus of my research wasn’t on migrant Nepali workers as a population, the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) has been identified as a potential tool utilized by this population to manage their health concerns as one of my research findings.[3]

As Nepal moves towards its mandate of universal health coverage and aspires to establish digital governance measures, addressing the health needs of migrant Nepali workers facilitated by telemedicine programs offered by Nepalese medical providers is a topic that requires further deliberation and action. Similarly, researchers and technologists must come together to understand this phenomenon and provide recommendations to policy-makers and practitioners to enable and diffuse any resulting innovations that are likely to make the necessary impact on improving health outcomes for migrant Nepali workers. The potential for replicating or adapting these solutions towards other migrant populations globally is another impetus for funding and conducting research in this area. Therefore, there are roles to be played by individuals and organizations alike in understanding and addressing migrant health needs by leveraging the potential of ICTs.

[1] http://www.ilo.org/kathmandu/areasofwork/labour-migration/lang–en/index.htm

[2] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/12/nepal-migrant-workers-failed-by-government-exploited-by-businesses/

[3] https://www.futurehealthindex.com/2018/03/05/care-at-the-margins/

 

 

Ichhya Pant works at the intersection health, evaluation, data and information and communication technologies (ICTs) with a focus on vulnerable population such as immigrants, refugees, women and children. Currently, she serves as a Research Scientist focusing on monitoring and evaluation on the RANI Project which aims to test whether a multi-level social norms based intervention will reduce anemia in women of reproductive age in Odisha, India. To learn more about her project work to date or thought leadership in her areas of interest, please connect with her on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Research Gate.

 

 

Summer 2018 Research Fellow – Young, female, climbing the doctoral ladder while conducting global health field work

Photo taken by Prajula Mulmi

If you’re anything like me, you’re passionate about improving public health to a fault. Whether it’s reducing smoking among adolescents in the United States, preventing anemia among women of reproductive age in India or understanding the scope of technology-enabled projects in Nepal, you’re all in. All in your textbooks that is… until this summer. In my years of professional public health work, I had not yet had the opportunity to go out in the field and get my hands public health field work dirty! Talking to my friends who had done so was contagious so to speak. All puns intended, of course.

When I found a grant opportunity to conduct field work in Asia this summer, I was beyond ecstatic. I quickly put together a proposal and submitted it hoping for the best and I got it! As a female public health researcher semi-successfully adulting her way through life and graduate school, my self-confidence was at a peak when embarking on this journey. I had completed a desk review working with my collaborators for over a year. I knew the technical and non-technical factors associated with my field work. I had a good sense of the landscape and who I would be requesting key informant interviews from once we hit the ground running. I could read and write the local language, had friends and family in the area, and knew the city well. What could really go wrong I thought? Well plenty, it turns out so listen up and read closely so you can learn from my moments of “could have done things better”:

Lesson # 1: Your work begins long before you get to the field  

            Every country has a local ethical board who will want to know what type of research you’re conducting in their country, how, and what your plans are in collecting and analyzing the data you collect from their citizens at a bare minimum. Often, these ethical review applications are extensive in nature as they should be to protect citizens from harmful and unethical research practices. Bottom line is, you must build these applications into your overall timeline and get them in motion well before you plan to be on the ground. In my case, it took a full six months between pulling the application together, getting it reviewed, revised then finally approved. I did my homework by talking to others who had applied for local ethical approval to conduct field research in Nepal. They shared their knowledge which helped me understand the process a little bit better before getting started. I had individuals review my application before I submitted to catch any errors I might not as a total newbie in this aspect. Once I finally got the application submitted, I began building a relationship with the appointed point of contact. She was super helpful and open to me calling her directly for questions or a conversation. I wasn’t shy about reaching out to her for help and to keep reminding her every so often that my application was still pending approval. Thanks to her help and to all those who helped me along the way I was able to get approval in time for my summer field research grant!

If you walk away with anything from my observations here, remember this:

  • Apply for local ethical approval well in advance. Give yourself say 6 months or longer to be on the safe side.
  • Talk to others who’ve applied for ethical approval before and learn from them.
  • Have others review your application to catch any errors before you submit.
  • Build a relationship with your point of contact overseeing your application and maintain it after you gain approval.

Lesson # 2: You must be culturally responsive but darn it sometimes it’s really oh so hard I tell ya

When the experienced and the wise tell you being culturally responsive is a must in your classrooms, they weren’t kidding, ya’ll! Working in Nepal was no different. I had a list of people I had reached out and the rate of response was fantastic thankfully. However, I quickly realized that most individuals preferred a follow-up phone call to chit-chat and get to know you better prior to committing a day and time for an interview. Getting them on the phone wasn’t easy either. Often, you’d have to try more than once, exercise those patience muscles and keep yourself busy. When you finally nail down a day and time, then be prepared to wait because 9AM might mean 10AM really for some individuals and that’s just how it works in Nepal. Some of your key informants maybe so busy they have three individuals down for the same time. What this means is you find yourself asking them for a time where only you can meet with them and have their attention for say 30 minutes to an hour. I realize I come off somewhat sarcastic. I promise that isn’t my only goal here. It can get frustrating especially on days when you have multiple interviews with a small margin of time to travel across town for the other interviews. In the same breath though sometimes, this worked to my favor. The flexibility in time and scheduling meant I was able to reschedule with some individuals when it just was not possible to make it to my appointment. I was amazed by how easy it was to do this and thankful for their generosity in fitting me in another day and time. There was reciprocity involved in this laidback approach! I realized that although people weren’t bound to agreed upon timetables and sure that pushed me out of my comfort zone, it also made me appreciate the lack of “time consciousness” rigidity. Is it fun to have to wait an hour to hour and a half for an interview you scheduled? NO, not at all, never. However, there is still a beauty in going with the flow and realizing that this is how things work in Nepal and that’s okay! Accepting that I can’t change the working culture in Nepal, I decide to roll with it and mentally prepared to accept scheduling fluidity. C’est la vie!

Tips and tricks for responding to the working culture in Nepal:

  • Phone calls and in-person meetings are preferred over emails and video calls for work-related conversations.
  • Schedules are fluid so learn to go with the flow.
  • Have a good book to read or an electrifying Spotify playlist to carry you through time spent waiting.

Lesson # 3: Young and female ≠ professional, leader or an expert. What gives?!

            Where I really could not find myself going with the flow is when I it dawned on that gender bias still exists and you just must deal with it. Here are some of my interactions while interviewing key informants or discussing my field work with others:

Ichhya, you’re so young (and female). No one will take you seriously in Nepal. Ask falano… they’ll tell you how it is…

So, you’re a master’s student huh?

Are you married? Do you have family in America?

What is your father’s name? Where is your home again?

I noticed your last name is Pant. Which part of the country did your ancestors come from?

Do you have a greencard or US citizenship? (aka what is your immigration status?)

Are you related to falano (Nepali slang for saying “so and so”? You know falano families and Pant families tend to marry each other… Since they are involved in this project too, I wondered if ya’ll were related, you know how it goes…

Notice any trends here? I was shocked I tell you (not really) that I was on the receiving end of such gendered mindsets. Okay, so I can accept that I may look young and I’m female. I get it. It’s a man’s world they say. Especially in Nepal. Still, the assumption that I am master’s student was an intriguing gender bias that was persistent across many interviews. What I’m unsure of is whether it is because I look young or if I’m a female. Probably an interaction of the two factors. What’s important is that someone like me isn’t associated with leadership, expertise or doctoral work. Of course, the sample size here is a meager one but I hope other women working in public health in Nepal speak up with their experiences in the field to balance out this conversation.

In America, we note how public health is a woman’s profession. It doesn’t feel that way in Nepal. Where are the women working in the field there I thought to myself? My sample consisted of 80% males. Do women make it to leadership positions in the field of public health in Nepal? Am I just not meeting them? In talking about this with a highly qualified public health female professional working in Nepal, she confirmed that it’s just the norm. People seem to somehow miss the “PhD” behind your name and refer to you as baini (little sister) instead of “Dr. falano”. They openly take pity on you if you aren’t married by X age or have children. You are defined by who your parents are, what caste you belong to, who your ancestors were, and whether you have a husband or children. It’s just how it goes for the most part. Imagine having to navigate a working environment where you’re baini and your male counterparts are “Dr. falano” after years of hard work and earning a PhD behind your name from a globally recognized public health institution. Unpleasant and frustrating, to say the least…

Not everyone adopts and subscribes to such a viewpoint of course and there are teams and environments where such experiences aren’t the norm. My intention here isn’t to generalize but to start a conversation. Can young and female become normatively accepted as the face of public health leadership in Nepal? If so, what will it take and when will it happen exactly? Yes, I know what you’re thinking. It is 2018 and we’re three months away from 2019. What gives?!

If you’re curious and still with me, here’s how I responded to the questions I noted above:

Ichhya, you’re so young (and female). No one will take you seriously in Nepal. Ask falano… they’ll tell you…

  • (Seriously taken aback)… really? I guess I will have to rely on my intellect and present myself accordingly, so I am taken seriously…  (still taken aback….)

So, you’re a master’s student huh?

  • Oh no, I’m a third-year doctoral student. I mentioned that in our previous conversations but perhaps you missed it. I got my master’s six years ago in fact.

Are you married? Do you have family in America?

  • Yes, I do have family in America but here in Nepal as well.

What is your father’s name? Where is your home again?

  • My home is in Kamalpokhari. Do you know Kumari Hall? Within walking distance to it, in fact…

I noticed your last name is Pant. Which part of the country did your ancestors come from?

  • (extremely uncomfortable) I consider myself “duniya ko Pant” (Pant of the earth)… followed by awkward laughter…

Do you have a greencard or US citizenship? (aka what is your immigration status?)

  • (extremely uncomfortable) Umm… I am a Nepali citizen… (still extremely uncomfortable)

Are you related to falano (Nepali slang for saying “so and so”? You know falano families and Pant families tend to marry each other…

  • No, I had no idea that these families marry into each other. We aren’t related though. (awkward silence)

I don’t know if my response does justice to balancing tilted gender perspectives or if a key informant interview is where I should even attempt to doing so. I frankly was ill-prepared to address them. I did the best I could in the moment where these questions or comments came my way. I realize there are larger gender norms at play and my experiences aren’t simply an artifact of viewpoints in the public health corner of Nepal. We can’t change them overnight of course but I feel, strongly might I add, that it’s time we begin to talk about them, address them and intervene wherever and whenever we can. So, at the risk of appearing naïve and controversial, where do we begin? I want to especially hear from my female and young or (not) public health and development professionals in the field. Please speak up about your thoughts and experiences on this matter because #Timesup.

 

Ichhya Pant works at the intersection health, evaluation, data and information and communication technologies (ICTs) with a focus on vulnerable population such as immigrants, refugees, women and children. Currently, she serves as a Research Scientist focusing on monitoring and evaluation on the RANI Project which aims to test whether a multi-level social norms based intervention will reduce anemia in women of reproductive age in Odisha, India. To learn more about her project work to date or thought leadership in her areas of interest, please connect with her on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Research Gate.

 

 

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – When Your Mother Joins the Adventure!

After 8 weeks of intensive language study, in the classroom for 5+ hours a day, living and learning with a host family when I wasn’t doing field work, it was time to have some fun! My mother, the brave soul, decided to meet me in Indonesia after my program for a week of serious adventuring. We traveled to one of the most remote places I have been in Indonesia (or the world) so far, braving a 12 hour overnight public ferry, broken dive boats, no AC or electricity for that matter, and much more…just for some seriously spectacular diving. Wakatobi, we love you!

This is my final blog post, so I would just like to thank the Sigur Center for funding such an incredible opportunity. My Bahasa Indonesia has advanced beyond what I thought possible, and I made so many friends and connections during my time in Salatiga. I can’t wait to go back. Terima kasih!

 

Chloe King B.A. International Affairs 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
School for International Training Indonesia, COTI Summer Studies Program, Indonesia

Chloe King is a rising senior in the Elliot School, majoring in international affairs with minors in sustainability and geographic information systems. She spent seven months in Indonesia in 2017 as a Boren Scholar, researching NGO conservation initiatives in marine ecotourism destinations around the country. A PADI Divemaster, her passion for protecting the ocean keeps pulling her back to Indonesia and some of the most diverse—and threatened—marine ecosystems in the world. 

Chloe King, pictured scuba diving

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Adventures in Indonesia with Chloe King

 

Chloe King B.A. International Affairs 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
School for International Training Indonesia, COTI Summer Studies Program, Indonesia

Chloe King is a rising senior in the Elliot School, majoring in international affairs with minors in sustainability and geographic information systems. She spent seven months in Indonesia in 2017 as a Boren Scholar, researching NGO conservation initiatives in marine ecotourism destinations around the country. A PADI Divemaster, her passion for protecting the ocean keeps pulling her back to Indonesia and some of the most diverse—and threatened—marine ecosystems in the world. 

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Alex Bierman’s Final Presentation

 

I am incredibly grateful for this summer in Taipei where my Chinese improved dramatically. For anyone looking to study abroad to study Chinese, I cannot recommend ICLP enough. The focus on listening and speaking, along with class sizes of no more than four students, forces you to truly focus on improving every aspect of your Chinese language skills.

For my final blog post, I included my final presentation for my program. For those who would like to listen, I have included the script below to follow along. Please excuse my nervousness and mistakes!

中國侵略台灣的威脅究竟到了什麼程度呢?根據目前的局勢,我的觀點是,現在中國侵略台灣的威脅實在不大。因為時間不夠的關係,以及有歷史以來,台灣的前途一直為外國局勢所影響,再說蔡英文好像不願意公開宣布台灣獨立。因此我會跳過有關目前台灣政局的說明,直接談一談美中政府對兩岸局勢的影響。最後,再做個總結。
關於現在美國的政治情形,川普總統在政治上,給美國帶來了根本的改變。這十五年來美國對亞洲的政策一向很謹慎,現在卻不是。不過,這並不代表川普的策略完全沒有益處。其實他拉近了美台的關係,比如最近美國宣布了一些支持台灣的政策。此外,川普的意見常說變就變,使得全球各國的政府都小心翼翼。連在中美貿易戰爭下,台灣也沒受到實際的威脅。由此可見,不論川普小小的言行如何支持台灣,中國似乎都不會認真地考慮侵略台灣。至於可以持續多久,恐怕就無法知道了。
雖然中國向來主張兩岸統一,然而一直以來都缺乏軍事能力。跟過去1995年到1996年【台海危機】那個時代的中國政府比起來,現在的卻十分不同。在那個時期,中國主席—江澤民沒有他的前任那麼有威嚴。於是,在政治上,他面臨了一些障礙,比如政治派系的問題。由於當時台灣總統李登輝訪美,因此從其他政治局人員來的壓力都落在江澤民的頭上,並且勸他以強硬的態度向美台政府表態。時過境遷後,從2012年起,習近平所領導的政府則很穩定。無論貪污或者政黨之間的鬥爭,都大致被習近平消滅了。同時恢復了人民對共產黨的信心。既然中國人民那麼崇拜習近平,他就不必急於侵略台灣了。假如發動侵略,結果失敗了或沒有完全成功,那麼共產黨的合法性就會消失。
不過,在習近平主席的心目中,無論如何,有一天兩岸必須統一。由於目前的現狀絕不是永存的,因此台灣一刻也不能鬆懈,以免猝不及防。總而言之,我的結論是,台灣最好保持自己的軍勢,要不然得付出失去民主自由的代價。

Alex Bierman, M.A. Security Policy Studies 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
National Taiwan University, Taiwan

Alex Bierman is a M.A. candidate in Security Policy Studies focusing on East Asian security and cyber security. His interests include U.S. policy towards East Asia, Cross-Strait policy, and Chinese politics.

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Last Weeks at ACC

Hi everyone! For my last blog post, I made a short vlog of my last weeks in Beijing. My friends and I performed at a talent show, ate hotpot, went to Beijing’s famous Beihai Park, and visited the Lama Temple, among other things. Check my vlog out below to see for yourself!

 

Katherine Alesio
B.S. Civil Engineering, B.A. Chinese Language and Literature 2020
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Study in Asia Grant Recipient
Minzu University of China – Associated Colleges in China Program

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Time & Memories

My Final Vlog of the Summer.

While these were my personal experiences, they don’t even begin to contain all that this beautiful country has to offer. I suggest you go see it for yourself!

 

 

Zeynep Hale Teke, B.A. Applied Mathematics 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
Taiwan Mandarin Institute, Taiwan

Hale is a rising senior studying Applied Mathematics in the College of Arts & Sciences department at GW. She fell in love with Mandarin and Chinese culture (especially the bits involving food) after her first Chinese class freshman year and does not plan to stop studying it until mastery. Her eyes not only opened to the infinite wonders, sounds, and beauties of Taiwan, but also how deep the Mandarin language really is.

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Tainan

For my last weekend, I took a trip to Tainan, Taiwan’s original capital. The city is most famous for its alleys chock full of little snack shops, the food, the first Confucius Temple in Taiwan, and the Dutch forts scattered around the city and surrounding area. Unfortunately, when I was there, Tainan was experiencing the effects of a nearby 颱風 (typhoon) and it rained almost 14 inches in the two days I was there. This is apparently the average rain fall of July and August combined. so, advice for anyone hoping to go to Tainan…. Wait until the summer is over.

 

Lexi Wong M.A. International Affairs 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei

Lexi Wong is a Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow studying Mandarin in Taipei, Taiwan at National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center. Lexi is currently a first-year graduate student at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs where she is studying International Affairs with a regional concentration on Asia. 

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Qingdao: Ganbei with the World

Hi everyone! Last weekend some classmates and I made the trip to Qingdao, a relatively famous city in Shandong Prefecture known as the home of Tsingtao Beer, to experience the city’s annual beer festival and get a taste of life in Qingdao. I’ve made a short travel video covering our experiences, hope you enjoy!

 

 

Katherine Alesio
B.S. Civil Engineering, B.A. Chinese Language and Literature 2020
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Study in Asia Grant Recipient
Minzu University of China – Associated Colleges in China Program

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – TMI & Baseball in Taiwan

Hello again. This is my first vlog!

 

 

Zeynep Hale Teke, B.A. Applied Mathematics 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
Taiwan Mandarin Institute, Taiwan

Hale is a rising senior studying Applied Mathematics in the College of Arts & Sciences department at GW. She fell in love with Mandarin and Chinese culture (especially the bits involving food) after her first Chinese class freshman year and does not plan to stop studying it until mastery. Her eyes not only opened to the infinite wonders, sounds, and beauties of Taiwan, but also how deep the Mandarin language really is.

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – The Freshness of it All

National Palace Museum
One of may temples- near XiMenDing
Art District featuring famous Mopeds
MaoKong Village from the cable car!

Sometimes I ask myself: What did I gain the most, so far, from my time here?

I could, of course, take a shortcut and give myself the obvious answer. I could say that my Mandarin language ability improved tremendously. That I learn about 200 to 250 words a week. That I can understand roughly 75% 0f what the locals were talking about on a bad day. That I no longer feel the horrible, incessant nauseated feeling in my stomach whenever I have to speak with someone who I can’t speak with in English. That, at some point, I wasn’t just talking AT people or vice versa, but actually having a conversation. However, this would not even be breaking the cusp of all that I learned in Taipei.

If you learn something from every piece of dialogue, interaction, or experience, then my time here has been an unending flood of information.

I assimilated to the food etiquette and committed to memory the names of dishes, crazy snacks, and beverages. Embedded into my mind is the sunset at Tamsui River and the Lovers’ Bridge.  I was taught how to drive a motorcycle/moped cross-country without a care in the world. I was schooled on how to bargain and had to (literally) pay to get to that level. Most importantly, though, I learned to listen.

I listened to the long historical and nostalgic recounts of the elderly or the street vendor owners. I listened to the sound of the wind, easily foreboding a flood or storm. I listened to the sound of high school girls giggling on my metro rides. I listened for the swipes of the paintbrushes or the drums in the artsy districts.

I listened for love, vitality, humor. I listened for life. And I heard.

This may be a romanticized and possibly vague way of expressing myself, but I truly want to impress in you that each soft whisper, scream, or mumble you come across will be unique to your own perceptions, your own colorings of the world around you.

Each of the small, even boring events of day to day life just tickled my fancy. I know for certain that I will miss the smell of the rain in the trees of Yangmingshan National Park. I will miss the bubble tea I buy every day from the same auntie and her daughter down the street. I will even miss my 9AM classes, where my teachers would break out into grins after seeing me arrive panting.

I think… I have gained a happiness that is exclusive to my time on this tiny island and that will remain a part of my youthful memories. AH – so fresh.

Zeynep Hale Teke, B.A. Applied Mathematics 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
Taiwan Mandarin Institute, Taiwan

Hale is a rising senior studying Applied Mathematics in the College of Arts & Sciences department at GW. She fell in love with Mandarin and Chinese culture (especially the bits involving food) after her first Chinese class freshman year and does not plan to stop studying it until mastery. Her eyes not only opened to the infinite wonders, sounds, and beauties of Taiwan, but also how deep the Mandarin language really is.

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – How to Live Like an MTC Student

Though it hasn’t been long since I last posted, my time in Taipei is quickly drawing to a close. Soon I will return to the arduous life of a graduate student. Time passes surprisingly quickly when you are bent over your textbook, trying to discern the delicate strokes of each 繁體字 (traditional character). There’s no shortage of things to do in Taipei and the surrounding area but on a weekday I usually end up doing this:

5:45 a.m. I wake up every day at this time despite my repeated attempts to sleep in until 6:30.

6:45 a.m. I walk under as much as shade as possible to the Being Fit x 7-11 Gym on Songjiang Nanjing Road. Though it’s pretty cool at this time of day (84 degrees qualifies as cool at this point in the summer), the sun is brutal. Luckily, the gym is air conditioned and according to the TV screen at the entrance, has extra clean air. I’m wondering when American 7-11’s will open gyms and if they could ever be popular.

8:00 a.m. I like to eat some surprisingly fresh fruit in the 7-11 (coming to store near you in America?) then walk over to the local breakfast place. Though many Taiwanese breakfast places are now offering Western style breakfast in the manner of peanut butter toast, sandwiches, or eggs and bacon, traditional Taiwanese breakfast for me is what is called a 蔥蛋 (Onion Egg). Sometimes, this delicious egg wrapped in a mysterious Taiwanese tortilla. Another choice for breakfast is 蔥抓餅 (green onion pancake) that I can grab on my way to class.

10:20 a.m.-1:10 p.m. For three hours, my 9 classmates and I work with our teacher, 吳老師 (Ms. Wu) to improve our Chinese. This usually includes forming sentences with new vocabulary, reading, and learning new grammar.

2:20 p.m.-4:10 p.m. For lunch I like to go to the cafe right next to MTC’s building or a vegetarian 自助餐廳 (self-serve canteen). After lunch, I usually return to the library and study some more.

4:20 p.m.-5:10 p.m. Since my class is after this, I have a number of options to learn Chinese. I can go to the library and study amongst my peers (which include students from countries all over the world, professionals, monks, nuns, retired folks, and people from any occupation you can imagine).

If I don’t have anything in particular to study, I can head to one of the required classes. There’s a number of options available, from Chinese in the Media (last class we discussed a famous Youtuber’s visit to the hidden 小吃店 (snack shops) of 淡水), Chinese Cuisine and Dining ( last class, we discussed 東坡肉 -a cut of pork marinated with a strong history behind it), to Taiwanese for Beginners. Participating in these classes usually involves answering questions or roleplaying.

Sometimes, MTC has a showing of a famous Taiwanese TV show called 光陰的故事 (Time Story). This series spans several generations of five families in a small village. Expect high drama with occasional public service announcements (the last one encouraged people to donate blood). Otherwise, I stay in the library or head out to a cafe (a cafe that preferably has a resident cat) for tea where I can study or read (see picture for my reading list).

The only book in grad school I’ll read that has explanatory pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, after watching Time Story, I head back to my humble apartment at then to another self-serve vegetarian buffet.

Lexi Wong M.A. International Affairs 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei

Lexi Wong is a Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow studying Mandarin in Taipei, Taiwan at National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center. Lexi is currently a first-year graduate student at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs where she is studying International Affairs with a regional concentration on Asia.

Summer 2018 Language Fellow: Aceh’s Humanitarianism [Part 4]

After the 2004 tsunami, aid workers from all over the world flew into Aceh. In the aid world, “Aceh” is still associated with the tsunami, beneficiaries of the world’s largest humanitarian response in human history. This narrative not only reduces Acehnese to victims, it also overlooks the role of many Achenese in humanitarian efforts that began even before the tsunami. Aceh’s culture of humanitarianism thus evolved very differently from the rest of the international aid industry – one with important lessons on localization and humanity.

This humanitarianism was on full display when over a thousand Rohingya refugees arrived on Aceh’s shores in 2015, after 7 months of being ping-ponged between different Southeast Asian countries, each refusing them permission to disembark.

(Source)

Although the Indonesian coast guard were under orders to not let the refugee boats land, the Acehnese fishermen deliberately helped the refugees evade them to get to land. When asked why, the fishermen explain that this is their customary law, adat nelayan Aceh, or the custom of the Acehnese fisherman. Namely, when at sea, if they encounter anything that is in need of help, they are under obligation to offer assistance. This is mandatory for injured animals, what more fellow human beings.

(Source)

Hence, contrary to the narratives in Malaysia and Indonesia, the fishermen are adamant that they did not simply offer help to the Rohingya because they were fellow Muslim brothers. As one of my interviewees put it:

“If we [Acehnese] only help these Rohingya because we come from the same religion, what makes us different from the Buddhists that are trying to throw out these Muslims from their own land?”

A spacious refugee camp in Aceh

Aceh’s humanitarian response to the refugees did not stop at the initial rescue. They were given medical treatment, housed, fed, given language lessons, livelihood training, and even access to the local schooling system.

An Acehnese teacher volunteered to teach the Rohingya English and Indonesian.

One of the most important things about the refugee camps in Aceh is the way they treat the refugees with dignity. While most refugee camps are renowned for confining refugee to the camps (like prison cells), I was pleasantly surprised when the Rohingya children brought me out of the camp to this adjacent swimming pool which they could freely use.

Rohingya kids led me out of the camp, right past the security guards to the nearby swimming pool.

(Source)

(Source)

This has not been costless for the Acehnese community, who have their own history of conflict and disaster. In part, it is because the Acehnese know what it is like to be a victim of disaster or conflict, that they understand the importance of treating refugees not as objects to be managed efficiently or securely, but as fellow human beings. Moreover, given the large internally displaced population during Aceh’s conflict years, there is no shortage of Acehnese who have had years of experience organizing camps, aid distribution, and engaging with victims of conflict.

But it is not just their experience as victims that informs the Acehnese of how to do humanitarianism. The Acehnese insist that it is their custom to honour their guests, adat pemulia jamee (literally, custom of honouring the guest).

A cute Rohingya kid pays his respects.

Contrary to the hyper-professionalized international humanitarian industry, everyday acts of Acehnese hospitality like these regularly disrupted my hyper-modern, efficiency-oriented, cold-hearted-optimizing sensibilities. It makes me think that the professionalization of humanitarianism (such as the SPHERE standards) often appears so obviously attractive because it promises tangible, visible, physical benefits, while masking what it takes away – the practical, intangible, human parts of everyday living. That doesn’t make professionalization inherently evil. However, hyper-professionalized projects, designed in the absence of relationships with the very people one wishes to help, become deeply suspect.

Acehnese volunteers share their experience.

As one veteran humanitarian (pictured) put it:

Hermanto shares how Aceh’s culture and humanitarianism during the conflict period and the present (over coffee of course).

“The NGO world is a world where trial and error is always involved. You never have the peak of knowledge in this work. What’s best practice today may not be best practice in the next ten years. Best practices are always relative. Failure is always relative, and we are always learning.

For example, when the (Acehnese) fishermen rescued the Rohingya – that wasn’t the international standard. In fact, they were taking the risk to rescue them because it was illegal. They did it because of their local custom. That suggests that their local custom was better than the international standards. So why stick with the international standards when there is something better? If this best practice is better than the one before, why not change it?

The problem with professionalism is that it kills the inspiration to learn. How do you know something is done correctly if you’ve never failed? You should do first, and learn. Of course, don’t close your eyes when you do it. Keep your eyes open, be watchful, and you can gain new knowledge.”

 

Amoz JY Hor is a PhD student in Political Science at the George Washington University. His research explores how emotions affect the way the subaltern is understood in practices of humanitarianism.

Summer 2018 Research Fellow – Finding an Early Map of Assam

This map was downloaded from Archives.org

Jane Bennet, author of Vibrant Matter, might agree with me when I say that documents in the archives have thing-power. Thing-power, to her, is “the curious ability of inanimate objects to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (Bennet 2010: 6).  A map is an inanimate object imbued with such thing-power. I do not refer here to the sense of exhilaration that a map is able to elicit in someone perusing the archives or an atlas, but rather to the capacity of the map to produce spatial order by locating things and people in relation to each other.

The map above makes the territory of Assam visible by positioning geographical features such as hills, mountains, rivers, and islands in relation to each other. The geographical features that are not sketched are almost as important as those that are sketched on the map. Together, they give this emerging territory of Assam its shape. Assam runs east-west along the river Brahmaputra, delimited in the north and the south by hills that are not fully sketched. The “outside” is allowed to remain an absolute space while Assam is sketched into existence.

Published in 1847, a century before Indian independence, this map sits within a book entitled Sketch of Assam. The author of the book only identifies himself as “an officer… in civil employ.” But he is identified in the archives as Major. John Butler, who was posted in the East India Company’s Bengal Native Infantry. Sketch of Assam is the author’s attempt to sketch—and by this I mean describe and typify both in writing and through drawings—some of the tribes that he encountered during his travels in Assam. By locating these tribes in the hills and in the valleys that fall within the delineated region of Assam as well as outside this demarcated space, he produces a sense of spatial relation between these tribes. For example, the hills to the south of the sketched region of Assam are occupied by the Nagas, locating the Nagas outside of Assam. To the north in another sparsely sketched section are the Abors. On the other hand the Meeree (spelled Meree elsewhere in the book) occupy a huge territory along the Brahmaputra within the territory of Assam. Today, the Nagas are understood to be indigenous to Nagaland and the Abors to Arunachal Pradesh both of which fall outside the territory of the Indian state of Assam. The Meeree are still understood to be a river tribe that live along the Brahmaputra in the state of Assam. Today, they are called the Mishing. I work in Mishing villages along the island of Majuli (Majouli, just south-west of the Meeree territory in the map), and am often reminded by my interlocutors that I should look for the word Meeree/Meree or Miri if I begin to dig into their history.

I was indeed digging for history, and I was excited to come across this book—and this map—in the Nehru Memorial Library this August. I was even more thrilled when I was able to locate it in a digital library and download it into my computer. For several reasons this map is a pleasure to examine. My dissertation examines how the Mishing deal with the massive erosion that haunts the island of Majuli today. This erosion forces them to question how they came to be on Majuli, where they came from, and where they were located before they were located in Majuli. Some of my interlocutors talk about the migration of the community from the hills to the north. Traveling down from the area marked “mountains inhabited by Abor Tribes” the Mishing believe they travelled down the river Subansiri, a tributary of the Brahmaputra to settle in both the territory marked as “Meeree tribe” on the map as well as the island of Majuli.  No one has a living memory of this migration. But it is collective memory, transmitted orally from one generation to another. This story allows them to claim relatedness to the Abor tribes of the north. In fact, in my first year I had a translator who came from the town of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh. He was from the Apa Tani tribe. My Mishing interlocutors immediately took him under their wing, telling me he was “their own” while he was away from home, because of the historic relations between these tribes.

Butler too was interested in these relations. Despite his tendency to homogenize entire communities, he pays attention to nuanced power relations between these communities. He notes that the Abor were a powerful tribe and often lorded over the Meeree. While the Meeree migrated south in order to avoid being subjected to Abor lordship, the coming of the Khamtees from Burma into Assam, threatened their sense of independence. Afraid of being enslaved by the Khamtees, the Meeree sought help from the Abor. Butler notes that these tensions resulted in a violent conflict:

This treatment being less endurable than  that, of the Abors, towards whom a friendly feeling had been created by long intercourse, the Merees were induced  to implore the protection of the latter to save them from being cruelly taken away from their homes  to serve as slaves amongst a strange tribe. The Abors, on their side, perceiving that they were about to lose the greater portion of their slaves by the aggressions of a formidable foe, lost no time in preparing for war; and descending from their mountain fastnesses  to the plains bordering on the Dehong river, a furious battle was fought between them, and,  it, is said,  two or three hundred Khamtees. The contest terminated in the Khamtees being defeated and dispersed with great slaughter, upwards of one hundred men being left on the field of battle. This trial of strength and courage with their warlike neighbours, rendered the Khamtees ever afterwards more circumspect in their demeanour towards the Abors, and the people subject to them. (Butler 1847: 41).

It is interesting to see that while Butler locates the Abors and the Khamtees outside of Assam and the Meeree within Assam he avoids the use of militarized terms, i.e., language that implies a breach of Assam’s borders and its sovereignty. Instead he is very careful to note shifting alliances and the power relations between these communities. While he sketches Assam as a delimited territory, he is not too keen to treat migrations as breach of territorial sovereignty. Instead, he seems to indicate that territories are shaped by migrations. This emphasis on migration rather than invasion is similar to the emphasis on relatedness and territorial interconnectedness that Indrani Chatterjee (2013) makes in her study of monastic governance in Assam. Addressing the need to study the shifting relations between Hindu monasteries and the tribes rather than the supposed differences between them, Chatterjee critiques British historians such as Edward Gait for introducing a language that replaced relatedness with sovereignty and connectedness with isolation.

In further research, it would be interesting to see when exactly this language changed in the official British narrative. When did it become, for example, significant to speak about the invasion of Burma into Assam? How did this shift in language shape British narratives of the expansion of British rule into Assam? How does this new narrative treat the Meeree and their relations to Majuli and other places along the Brahmaputra? What differences does this produce in cartographic attempts to sketch Assam, and locate the Meeree within Assam?

References:

Bennet, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter. Durham: Duke University Press.

Butler, John, 1847. A Sketch of Assam: Some Account of Hill Tribes. London: Smith, Elder and Co.

Chatterjee, Indrani. 2013. Forgotten Friendships: Monks, Marriages and Memories of North-East India. London: Oxford University Press.  

Shweta Krishnan is a PhD Candidate in the department of Anthropology at George Washington University. Her research interests include the anthropology of religion, science and the environment. Her current project explores religious revival amid riverine erosion in the island of Majuli, Assam.

 

 

Summer 2018 Research Fellow – A Year After the Floods

Last year, thanks to a Sigur Center research stipend, I spent my summer on the river island of Majuli in the Indian state of Assam. In late May, my friends in the Mishing village of Sitadhar invited me to join them in celebrating Dobur, the festival that marks the end of the harvest and the beginning of monsoon. We gathered in a bamboo hut in the middle of the field, and offered thanks to the deities of Donyi Polo, the indigenous religion that several of the villagers observe. Not far from where we sat, ran the Luhit, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, that connects these villages to the town of Lakhimpur to the north of Majuli island. Between the prayer and the annual feast,  I walked along the banks of the Luhit, observing the rising waters and the swift current. That day cyclone Mora hit the coast of Bangladesh, and while Majuli was not hit by the storm itself, heavy rain pelted down all night and for most of the next day. Soon after, the north-east monsoon hit the shores of the island. I was scheduled to do some archival work in Delhi and as I headed from Majuli to the port of Nimati in Jorhat town, the currents got stronger and the river tore away the dock where we were supposed to land. Our boat was forced to make an emergency landing. When I called my friends in Majuli that afternoon, they seemed alright. The rivers were full, but they were simply wrapping up the harvest. But the next day, Luhit overflowed its banks and its waters ran ferociously into their fields, wreaking havoc. The Ganggin where we had prayed collapsed, shacks used to keep cows and pigs were damaged and several farmers lost their crop.

Eroded Fields, Sitadhar Majuli

This May, when I visited Majuli—again, in time for the festival—I was asked if I could spend some time helping the villagers set up their new Ganggin. Built close to where the old bamboo structure had stood, the new Ganggin, made of concrete conveyed a sense of sturdiness that seemed to assure them. The grounds we had very casually walked across only in the previous visit now had shallow craters. Large chunks of earth had been carried away, and even if the river had deposited a fresh layer of silt on these grounds, the uneven land was not as conducive to farming as it had once been. One of the farmers told me that he had not finished harvesting his crop when the floods hit. He had lost over 6000 rupees worth of rice, and had also been unable to salvage the corn he grew for personal use.

This year, working with his wife, daughter-in-law and son, this farmer planned to harvest faster than he had the previous year. But as the day for Dobur came closer, he also had to finish building and decorating the Ganggin. The concrete structure had no paint and it looked pretty stark amid the lush green fields. Hoping to brighten its facade, he asked me to make him some flags with coloured paper. The cheery paper, he hoped, would help people who shared this Ganggin forget that they had lost so much only a year ago, and instead remind them to celebrate the new place of worship and the good harvest.

The new Gangging with some of the flags we made.

I—and the good friend whose help I conscripted—spent a good three days making paper flags. Unable to find good crafts material in Majuli,  we planned a trip to the Gar Ali market in the town of Jorhat, where we picked up brightly colored paper, scissors, and tape. Back in Majuli, we wandered around the Goramur market looking for the right kind of chord to hold the flags together. As we sat sipping tea and cutting flags, we invited several questions from curious onlookers. After three days of cutting and tying and more cutting and typing we had flags of three different sizes and styles ready. On the morning of the festival, we worked with the farmer and his friends to decorate the place of worship. After the prayer, he gave us a locket with the Donyi Polo sign on it as a token of his gratitude and friendship.

The day after the festival most of my friends went back to the fields. The festival had come and gone, but the harvest was not quiet over. They worked with an eye on the sky, watching out for signs of the monsoon. I headed to Delhi for archival work, but called to check in when I heard that the monsoons had hit Assam. “This year, we had no trouble from the rain,” one of my interlocutors said. “In fact, we are going to be in trouble because I fear we did not have enough rain.”

I write this blog to call attention to the myriad ways in which people make life amid the erratic climatic patterns in the Brahmaputra Valley. Last year, the rains were heavy in Majuli, and the floods devastating. But where land wasn’t excavated by the flooding waters, the harvest was good. This year, the rains were not as heavy, and the floods not as fierce. But the farmers might have to be concerned about the crop. This uncertainty may not seem entirely uncommon; after all, farming communities have always had to deal with differing patterns of rainfall.

A large crater created by flooding waters in the Sitadhar fields.

But the excavated craters in their fields tell a different story. When Majuli becomes subject to devastating floods, it loses anything between 3.1 square kilometers to 8.5 square kilometers of land (Lahiri and Sinha 2014). Sometimes—like in the year 2005—entire villages have been washed away. Thus, uncertainty in Majuli is not simply a product of capricious monsoonal rain; it is tempered by the erosion of lived places. My dissertation examines how the Mishing draw on their religious ethical ideals, local knowledge, and other resources available to them to build a life amid erosion. As I get ready to wind up my summer, and start a whole year of fieldwork in Majuli two questions come up for me: What will it take for the bureaucratic institutions involved in the prevention of erosion in the Brahmaputra valley to begin seeing erosion, the changing rainfall and the floods as connected phenomena? In other words what will it take for them to recognize these events as part of the global phenomenon called climate change (Ghosh 2016)?  When they intervene will they learn from local efforts or will the techno-scientific machinery of the state efface local knowledges and practices that allow local communities to make life in this damage planet (Gan et al. 2017)?

References:

Gan, Elaine, Anna Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson,  and Nils Bubandt. 2017. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

Ghosh, Amitav. 2016. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Lahiri, SiddharthandRajivSinha. 2014. “MorphotectonicEvolutionoftheMajuliIslandintheBrahmaputravalleyofAssam, IndiaInferredfromGeomorphicandGeophysicalAnalysis.” Geomorphology227(2014):101-111.

Shweta Krishnan is a PhD Candidate in the department of Anthropology at George Washington University. Her research interests include the anthropology of religion, science and the environment. Her current project explores religious revival amid riverine erosion in the island of Majuli, Assam.

 

 

 

Summer 2018 Language Fellow: Political Philosophy at Aceh’s Coffee Shops [Part 3]

What’s in a cup of coffee?

In the modern (read: neoliberal) world, coffee is a part of everyday life, the morning drink one picks up on the way to work. Coffee, or kopi in Indonesian, takes on a very different significance in Aceh. If in the modern world, coffee is an individualized drink that gives one the energy boost for the solitary work in the office, kopi is an inherently social drink in Aceh.

Kopi Hitam, or Black Coffee

One of the things that I quickly learned coming to Aceh is that everything happens at the warkop (or warung kopi, literally coffee shop). It is Aceh’s community and social space par excellence, but many also use it as their “second office” (which is where most people get their wifi), classrooms, meeting rooms, consultation space etc.

3in1 is a very large and popular coffee shop for youths in Banda Aceh.

Politicians, too, each will have their own “base camp” coffee shop, where their constituents can approach them freely. We even saw civil servants collecting the signature of a more senior civil servant in the coffee shop. Because the coffee shop is where everyone goes to, it is where all sorts of networks are formed.

Horas Coffee Shop is one of the most famous coffee shops in Takengon. We also got a chance interview by just hanging out at this coffee shop.

For many Acehnese, the coffee shop is always contrasted to formal spaces. While the latter are felt to be rigid an uneasy (baku), the coffee shop is a place where rank and status disappear.

Kuta Alam (City of Nature) is another popular coffee shop for young professionals in Banda Aceh

It is thus unsurprising that the coffee shop is an important site of contemporary politics in Aceh. Historically, coffee shops were important sites for the exchange of political ideas in Europe as well – it was the staging area before the actual revolutions. Perhaps in the modern world, the rental cost of land is so high that it is difficult, if not impossible, to see the coffee shop as anything other than a business. In Aceh however, the coffee shop remains an affordable site of political community and political action.

Chatting with a human rights activist (and running senator) at midnight.

This was not always the case however. Aceh’s civil war peaked in 2001-2004 when it was put under martial law. Curfews were imposed, and there were frequent spot checks on the roads. These practices, called “sweeping,’ isolated Acehnese from each other – which was part of the Indonesian’s military strategy of breaking up the separatist movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka). Ironically, it was between the years 1996-2004 that Aceh’s student activists’ networks would begin to form. A group that sided neither with the armed separatists nor the Indonesian military, this group rallied around the opposition to human rights violations from either side. They collected reports on human rights abuses and reported them to their networks around the world, hoping to use international pressure to restrain the Indonesian military; they also actively gave “political education” to the separatist combatants on non-violent struggle. Many of them also provided humanitarian relief to internally displaced people from the conflict.

A human rights activists recalled how they discovered the extent of the hidden civil war in Aceh’s interior; at one of the oldest coffee shops in Aceh

Where did these networks form? From the conversations we had with former activists in coffee shops, it seems that many of these networks began in Banda Aceh’s universities – where Acehnese from all over the province would go to (menrantau) get their degree. In the 1980s and 1990s, Aceh’s civil war had been largely fought under the radar, what the Acehnese refer to as DOM (Daerah Operasi Militer). The activists recall that nobody knew that there was fighting, or the extent of the conflict. They had been told that the Indonesian military were fighting drug smugglers or terrorists.

Human rights activists recall how they were considered to be “crazy” for doing what they did; at Lhokseumawe.

By around 1996 however, university students in Banda Aceh got to have a better sense when they compared their experiences. By 2001, it was harder and harder to meet openly under marital law. Yet, university students found ways to meet, including in the meunasah (a small scale neighborhood mosque for the village).

Coffee Shop in the Village

These meetings didn’t merely involve planning mobilization, but entailed discussions of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as one activist who majored in engineering recalled. It seems that what brought the student activist networks together was not merely shared grievances – either personal losses or a sense that the Acehnese nation was being violated. What made the movement unique was how they channeled their energy towards devouring “banned books” to make sense of what was happening, and what ought to be done. Unsurprisingly, many of these university students would take it on themselves to descend from the intellectual safe space in Banda Aceh back to the villages.

Today, these political networks can operate much more openly.

Talking to an ex-negotiator for the Aceh Freedom Movement. Today, he runs a coffee shop, coffee export business, and entrepreneurship school, believing that the economy is an important aspect of post-conflict rehabilitation.

Moreover, the preferred site of struggle is no longer with guns, but through democratic politics. Rather, the preferred site of political discussion is the coffee shop – where the likes of Marx, Friere, Gramsci or other revolutionaries are openly talked about – where political visions are born and networks made.

Kopi Kocok Telur (coffee mixed with egg)

Or, for that matter, over durians, the “King of Fruits:”

Eating durians along the roadside

Below, a durian seller helps us open the durians:

So what politics / philosophy is in a cup of coffee?

“Wine Coffee” with Cinnamon

A lot, if we learn to pay attention.

Amoz JY Hor (center) is PhD student in Political Science at the George Washington University. His research explores how emotions affect the way the subaltern is understood in practices of humanitarianism.

Summer 2018 Language Fellow- Writing, Speaking, Listening, and Embarrassing Yourself in Chinese

Hello! Let me let you in on a secret:

The secret to studying a language and speaking it is to utterly stomp your pride into the ground and make a fool of yourself on a daily basis. I’m proud to say that I have mostly managed to stomp my pride into the ground and then have thrown the remnants of that pride in the trash. Why, just today, I was pretending to be, first, a McDonald’s (麥當勞) fast food worker promoting the newest promotion (又快又好吃!), and then, second, a waitress attempting to convince a customer to fill out a form for a member card.

Fortunately, the entire reason I came to Taiwan was to learn Chinese. And if I must embarrass myself while improving, so be it.

At NT$30, this is a popular dish at 曾家豆漿,a very popular breakfast place near me.

Every day, my teacher, 吳老師 (Ms. Wu) attempts to coerce my classmates and I into making sentences using the grammar patterns and vocabulary from the textbook. Before each class, she asks us to prepare something. Sometimes we have to go and ask strangers on the street (!)  about the lesson topic. I think all students, regardless of their ability dread having to 做報告 (report) and speak to strangers but since most Taiwanese people are extremely friendly, it doesn’t matter if one embarrasses oneself as I did the one time I had to report on Taiwanese people’s favourite places in Taiwan.

After class, I like to go to the cafe right next to MTC’s building or a vegetarian 自助餐廳 (self-serve canteen). Sometimes, I also head to a cafe (cafe with a cat is preferred) to study, eat, or read. Here, it is fairly difficult to stumble over my words, but in the morning, at my favourite breakfast spot 曾家豆漿 (Zeng’s Soy Milk), I had no clue what anything was until I eavesdropped on other customers and discovered the name for a delicious and messy breakfast: 燒餅,加蔥蛋 (flaky sesame bread stuffed with a fried egg and green onions). Before that I just mumbled and pointed at my desired object.

When studying Chinese one must also be willing to write characters repeatedly (see main picture). Each Chinese word has four components; the tone, the character, the Pinyin, and the meaning. When speaking, you must be very careful, as each sound in Chinese can have multiple meanings. For example, the word wen can mean “to ask” or it could also mean “to kiss”. It’s more likely that I have accidentally said 請吻 (“May I kiss?”) more frequently than 請問 (“May I ask you a question?”).

Since I originally learned 簡體字 (simplified characters), I was initially at a disadvantage. Thankfully, living in Hong Kong helped me to learn to read the majority of 繁體字 (traditional characters). I just couldn’t write the characters. In addition to teachers paying attention to those four aspects of Chinese characters, teachers are often able to discern the order in which a student writes a character, forcing students to write exactly in that order. Luckily, we do not have to learn this character:

At 57 strokes, this character, biáng, was apparently once used to punish wayward students.

Aside from the obvious option of venturing outside and speaking to locals, MTC also encourages students to attend additional sessions. From Chinese in the Media (last class we discussed a famous Youtuber’s visit to the hidden snacks of 淡水), Chinese Cuisine and Dining ( last class, we discussed 東坡肉 -a layered cut of heavily marinated pork- and its history), to Taiwanese for Beginners, all of these classes attempt to encourage students to speak and participate more but most students are shy.

My favourite class is actually the class where we watch Time Story (光陰故的事). Though it doesn’t give me a chance to practice speaking Chinese, its actors all have different accents from Taiwan and the mainland. If one wishes to learn Taiwanese, one could also attempt it by watching this series. Sadly, I believe Taiwanese is beyond me even when I am reading the subtitles.

瑪蒂達: The only book I’ll read in grad school that has illustrations.

Finally, I have bought a book in Chinese to improve my reading Chinese skills. Unlike English, Chinese can be divided into written and spoken Chinese. This means that when you are reading, you’ll most likely see characters you’ve never learned or never speak in daily conversation. My choice of reading is 瑪蒂達. I haven’t read the book in approximately 20 years, but it is just as hilarious as I remembered. And it is really helping me to learn some very interesting words. It does feel slightly odd to be reading what is an elementary school level book in public, but when your Chinese reading level is at an elementary school level, that’s the only choice you have.

Until my next post, I’ll continue to embarrass and simultaneously learn Chinese while entertaining the citizens of Taipei to no end.

 

 

 

 

 

Lexi Wong M.A. International Affairs 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei

Lexi Wong is a Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow studying Mandarin in Taipei, Taiwan at National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center. Lexi is currently a first-year graduate student at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs where she is studying International Affairs with a regional concentration on Asia. 

Summer 2018 Research Fellow – Rest in Peace Myitkyina: A Case Study in Local Initiatives and Provision of Public Goods in Myanmar

The RPM team loading a coffin to its free-of-charge funeral transportation van 

Myanmar Rescue – Kachin, locally known as Rest in Peace Myitkyina (RPM), is a Myitkyina-based rescue team in Kachin State, the northernmost state in Myanmar. It was first founded in 2012 and since then have become an integral part of the local communities across Kachin State.

When the group was first established, its initial aim was to provide free funeral transportation in the Myitkyina area. This of course is a much-needed service in all localities across Myanmar. The vast majority of the people of Myanmar cannot afford to own a vehicle of any kind. In fact, according a recent survey conducted by the USAID in partnership with the Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports, only 5% owns a car or truck. Therefore, transporting caskets to cemetery, let alone the funeral attendees, can be a daunting task. There were church-based funeral transportation services in Myitkyina, but they typically “suggest” a donation of 60,000 kyats (about $45), which was not affordable for many families. There were also Buddhist-monastery-based funeral transportation services which were free, but religious-community-based service provisions rarely ever cut across religious line in reality even though they are not meant to be so. This is why the founder of RPM, who is an ethnic Kachin and a Baptist, had a difficult time finding an affordable funeral transportation service when his father passed away. The challenges, both emotional and physical, inspired him to start a community-based free funeral transportation service that is detached from religious affiliation. The group began with just 8 individuals who were all close friends of the founder. Today, there are more than 50 volunteers (all unpaid) ranging from teenagers as young as 13 to 65-year-olds.

Since founding the group’s activities have expanded to include ambulatory service, transportation of dying persons (and sometimes already deceased) from the hospital to their homes, and anything rescue related. For example, when two local boys drowned in the Irrawaddy River, but the bodies had not turned up, the RPM was contacted to search for the bodies. The geographic converge of the service has also necessarily expanded to regions outside of Myitkyina. That is because other localities in Kachin State lack free and reliable rescue services, and also because given that Myitkyina is the capital city of Kachin State, its general hospital, perhaps the most comprehensive and advanced hospital in the state, receives patients from all over the state. Sometimes a family in Danai, about 80 miles northwest of Myitkyina, would contact RPM to transport their loved one to the Myitkyina hospital. Sometimes, the hospital staff would call RPM to transport dying patients to Hpakant (70 miles from Myitkyina), Waingmaw (across the Irrawaddy river from Myitkyina), and Chipwi (close to the Chinse border). Because RPM responds to emergency situations, it is always ready to go regardless of the time of day (the night I talked to the group, they brought a cordless landline phone with them and warned me that they might have to interrupt our conversation and get going should the phone ring), and teams of volunteer rotate for night duty.

Such geographic expansion comes with more interaction with the authorities at check-points (there seem to be a check-point before entering any township in the state). Some check-points cannot be passed between 6pm and 6am. An RPM volunteer recalled a time when they were transporting a deceased person from the general hospital to Waingmaw around mid-night and had to wait at the check-point until 4am to be allowed to pass.

The RPM team carrying a coffin to a burial plot at a local cemetery

RPM is just one of many incredible local initiatives that grew into much needed public goods. The government in Myanmar is simultaneously big and small. It is big in a sense that its public administration span from the union government (akin to the federal government in the U.S.) all the way down to all ward and village tracts, which is the lowest level of administration unit, across Myanmar, including the border area. Its hierarchical and expansive nature allows the government to extend its presence to every corner of Myanmar (except in the rebel control areas), yet it is unable to adequately provide its citizens’ basic needs such as street lights, drains, road construction and repair, emergency service, etc. (and we haven’t even started talking about the state of government-provided welfare in Myanmar). And it is not clear when it will be able to step up to provide these basic needs. Right now, in many localities across Myanmar, it is the ordinary citizens who are taking charge to come together to dig drains and wells and even provide 24-hour emergency service.

 

Jangai Jap, Ph.D. Political Science 2021
Sigur Center 2018 Field Research Fellow
Myanmar

Jangai Jap is a Ph.D. Candidate in George Washington University’s Political Science Department. Her research interest includes ethnic politics, national identity, local government and Myanmar politics. Her dissertation aims to explain factors that shape ethnic minorities’ attachment to the state and why has the state been more successful in winning over a sense of attachment from members of some ethnic minority groups than other ethnic minority groups. She has won the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and her dissertation research has received support from the Cosmos Club Foundation and GW’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies. 

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Video Blog: 去外澳海灘走一趟

 

 

大家好!既然我在台灣學中文,就應該多練習吧!為了喬治-華盛頓大學Sigur Center部落格的要求,我上個週末拍一段視訊。麻煩大家忍我用一些台灣的說法。部落格就是博客,視訊就是視頻。這只是一些台灣跟中國不同說法的例子。雖然從開始學中文起,我一向學簡體字與中國大陸的說法,但是在台灣的過程中,我很認真地試一試學繁體字。

由於在華盛頓的時候我的空很少,因此我決定趁這個在台灣難得的放假去宜蘭的外澳海灘衝浪。來台灣之前我十年沒衝浪,所以第一次試試看在衝浪板站起來就倒在水裡。台灣的氣候與地理帶來了很多生物多元化。看我拍的視訊之後,你就可以了解台灣的風景究竟那麼好看。根據古老的成語來說,「上有天堂下有蘇杭」不過若是古代的哲學家當時有機會來台灣享受自然的美麗,那麼那個成語的確讀作 「上有天堂下有台灣!」

 

Alex Bierman, M.A. Security Policy Studies 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
National Taiwan University, Taiwan

Alex Bierman is a M.A. candidate in Security Policy Studies focusing on East Asian security and cyber security. His interests include U.S. policy towards East Asia, Cross-Strait policy, and Chinese politics.

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Taiwan’s Colors

Views of Taroko National Park, once home to the aboriginals.
Baseball, the national sport of Taiwan, is great to watch when a player throws you a ball as a souvenir.

How can I begin to talk about Taiwan? For such a small country where you can go from one end to the other in about 4 hours, it hides an enormous amount of natural beauty, modern technology, history, and my personal favorite, bubble tea. Every city gives off a different feeling. To me, among some of the easily reachable cities, Taipei represents industry and advancement, Taichung, as the city where the aforementioned bubble tea was founded, epitomizes food and beverages, and Kaohsiung signifies art and expression. There is never a shortage of the kinds of places that satisfy any given mood.

There are a few conditions that I use to rate my experiences in certain countries: Uniqueness, History, Nature, Entertainment, Price, Transportation, and Hospitality. Uniqueness encompasses concepts such as culture, heritage, and tradition; ultimately, they are things I can do that are specific to the area. History indicates important cites, buildings, memorials, or the like, where I can go to better understand what happened in the past and honor the sacrifices people have made. Nature means the overall preservation and protection of natural resources, such as mountains, reserves, parks, and oceans. Entertainment implies the availability of fun activities that are not specific to any region, but are usually recognized as fun, such as ice skating, while Price is the average cost of living and how much it hurts my wallet (and subsequently my heart). Transportation is the extent of public access to other destinations via a vehicle. Finally, Hospitality quantifies the attitude of the public and their willingness to communicate when I have questions. This system is in no way a grading system for the public to take heed of, but rather a personal one. Needless to say, Taiwan ranks high in each category and has left an irreplaceable impact in my heart.

Releasing lanterns into the sky in Pingxi, visiting a plethora of night markets, climbing to the top of Jiufen, which inspired the popular movie Spirited Away, and admiring the view, walking along Kaohsiung center amidst trolleys, people, huge interactive pieces of art are just a few of my inimitable experiences in Taiwan. Influenced by the Dutch, aboriginals, and of course the Chinese, Taiwan gives off a distinctive blend of culture and exhibits them most exquisitely within their libraries, memorials, and museums. Furthermore, their huge national parks, each characterized by something special, such as volcanic sulfur or waterfalls, are most beautiful and worth seeing. Some are even close enough to cities to take a day trip to and spend the day relaxing away from the hustle and bustle of a metropolis. Not just that, but smaller parks are also abundant and brimming with life, while the streets are decorated with lovely sprinkles of trees and plants. Entertainment and Price go hand in hand, and both are very reasonable. The former is extensive, and depending on the area of popularity, such as karaoke in Asia, more or less expensive. Nevertheless, it is very doable. To be quite honest, while its transportation is far-reaching in terms of inter-cities and inner-city transit, I have a difficult time making my way out of the general public and into smaller villages, lesser known areas, or some parks. However, I do not think this is an issue of the country itself, because renting a motorcycle is a valid, safe, common, and cost-efficient solution. However, I have forgotten to bring my license and thus my inconvenience is a result of my thoughtlessness. Lastly, although I have observed that Taiwanese people are a commonly caring and helpful people, they are nervous to approach foreigners in fear that they will need to speak English. Even in markets where one must latch on to potential customers, shop attendants or stall owners stand watch at a corner and don’t approach unless I have proven myself to speak Chinese. While this is slightly disappointing in that I can be afraid to make the first move, especially when speaking Chinese, it does give me a reason to push my limits and step out of my comfort zone to better my language abilities. For this, I am thankful.

Although I sadly don’t have much remaining time here, I hope to make the most of it by exploring and experiencing everything that I can. I am eternally grateful for having the opportunity to reside, albeit for a short period of time, in such a wonderful enigma of a country!

Zeynep Hale Teke, B.A. Applied Mathematics 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
Taiwan Mandarin Institute, Taiwan

Hale is a rising senior studying Applied Mathematics in the College of Arts & Sciences department at GW. She fell in love with Mandarin and Chinese culture (especially the bits involving food) after her first Chinese class freshman year and does not plan to stop studying it until mastery. Her eyes not only opened to the infinite wonders, sounds, and beauties of Taiwan, but also how deep the Mandarin language really is.

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Digging Into Datong

Hi again! This last week or so has been a whirlwind of activity, as directly after our midterm exam, we made our way to the train station to catch our sleeper train to the city of Datong (大同市), in Shanxi Province. Unfortunately, due to the recent severe rainfall resulting from a hurricane near the coast, the train tracks outside of Beijing were covered in water, and our train was delayed three hours while the tracks were cleared. We eventually made it on the train, and settled in for the six-hour journey. Many of us napped, some did homework, others played cards or chatted amongst themselves or with other friendly passengers, and though we arrived in Datong rather late, overall it was an enjoyable experience.

Our first full day in Datong was our busiest, we climbed Mount Heng, visited the Hanging Monastery, and admired the world’s tallest wooden pagoda. Mount Heng, or Hengshan (恒山) is the northern mountain of the Five Great Mountains of China, the most renowned mountains in Chinese history that were regularly the subjects of imperial and common pilgrimage. Hengshan is about an hour drive southwest of central Datong, and is littered with Taoist temples and shrines to mountain gods dating back to the Han dynasty.

We hiked from the parking lot to one of the highest vantage points on the mountain, although unfortunately didn’t have time to make it all the way to the top. The lush forests and nearby lake made for breathtaking scenery, and it was with regret (and rumbling stomachs), that we made our way down the mountain for lunch.

                              

After, we visited one of Datong’s most popular attractions, the Hanging Monastery. The Hanging Monastery (悬空寺) clings to a crag of Hengshan, and is dedicated to three religions, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. According to legend, was built by a single monk, Liaoran (了然), in the late Northern Wei dynasty to appease the severe yearly flooding in the region.

Wooden poles drilled horizontally into the cliff face and vertically into the surrounding rock support the monastery’s 40 halls and pavilions. The temple is protected by the summit from rain and sunlight erosion, which along with its location well above ground level (and a restoration effort in the 1900s) has left the monastery remarkably well-preserved.

                                

Our final stop was one of the tallest wooden pagodas in the world, again about an hour from Datong. The Sakyamuni Pagoda is a wooden pagoda built inside the Fogong Temple complex in 1056, during the Liao dynasty. It has survived several earthquakes and although severely damaged during the Second Sino-Japanese War, was quickly repaired, and today is the oldest fully extant wooden pagoda in China.

                                   

After returning to downtown Datong, my classmates and I, exhausted from the sightseeing,  quickly ate dinner and went to bed.

Our second day in Datong was our last, after breakfast we trekked out to our last site, the Yungang Grottoes, before boarding our return train to Beijng. The Yungang Grottoes  (云冈石窟) are ancient and massive Buddhist temple grottoes, located about half an hour west of central Datong.

There are 53 major caves and 1,100 minor caves, excavated during the Northern Wei dynasty, which are today part of a large outdoor complex including several gardens and other historical buildings.

                                               

Since the caves and cliffs are sandstone, the grottoes and Buddhist statues inside have been exposed to heavy weathering over the years, especially the ones exposed to the open air. The wooden buildings in front of many of the cave entrances were constructed during the early Qing dynasty, built in an attempt to preserve the caves.

After viewing the caves, we took a short shuttle ride to another part of the complex for lunch and some light shopping, before packing up our things and returning to Beijing. The trip back was much like our journey there, with several rousing games of Uno and a serious game of weiqi being played along the way.

                              

After arriving at our university, although some students had hoped to rally and head to Sanlitun (三里屯), an area known for its foreigner-friendly clubs and bars, most of my classmates and I promptly passed out, and woke up late on Sunday, ready to face the coming week (although less ready to do the homework most of us had neglected)!

Next weekend, I’ll travel with some classmates to Qingdao, in Shandong Province, so keep checking back for updates on the fun!

 

Katherine Alesio
B.S. Civil Engineering 2020
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Study in Asia Grant Recipient
Minzu University of China – Associated Colleges in China Program

Summer 2018 Language Fellow: Aceh’s Natural Beauty [Part 2]

There is little doubt about the resplendent natural beauty Aceh has to offer. For one, its beaches are absolutely serene:

Paradise at Pulau Weh

 

How can water look so turquoise?

 

Breakfast

Post-swim

 

 

 

 

 

 

These beaches are on an island off of Banda Aceh called Sabang or Pulau Weh. I didn’t have an water-proof camera to show pictures of the incredible colours of marine life one could witness underwater.

It was also fun that we got around on “mario carts:”

From the beaches down below, Aceh has magnificent mountains above as well. Another popular location is the coffee growing region of Takengon:

Mosque under the Mountains

 

Open padi/rice fields, in the mountains

 

Backyard Padi

 

Fish Farm in the mountains, Lake Laut Tawar

 

 

Gayonese coffee is internationally renown, and grown right here:

“Seladang: Have your Coffee in the Coffee Garden”

 

Red fruits are ripe; Green ones are not.

Where coffee comes from: the seed of the coffee fruit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moving south, here’s a shot of a beach in Meulaboh:

Sunset over the Bat Cave

Even Banda Aceh, the capital, has terrific sights:

Fisherman at Lho Nga

 

A crowd assembles for the sunset and returning fishermen

 

The road between ocean and aquapond

 

Coloured Boats

As a claustrophobic city kid who grew up in Singapore, even the sight of expansive open green space (with a volcano in the backdrop) absolutely takes my breath away.

In my most recent trip, I heard that Singapore was often used by separatists’ propaganda as a posterboy of what Aceh could look like if only it got independence. While Singapore can often be attractive as a model of catch-up development in Asia, I wonder what gets lost in the pursuit of “development” – nature, but also heritage and spirit – themes that Singaporeans are all too familiar with.

Searching for heritage: each grave stone comes from a different era

Ironically, even as Acehnese are looking to Singapore for a model of development, Singaporeans are looking to retrieve something that which has been lost through their experience of development, that which has been endearingly called “the kampung spirit,” or the spirit of community (associated with the village).

The hometown coffee shop of a friend. The architecture encourages maximum ventilation for the tropical weather.

For many Acehnese, the site of the community is in the WarKop (Warung Kopi, or Coffee Shop). I will take up this theme in my next blog post.

 Amoz JY Hor is PhD student in Political Science at the George Washington University. His research explores how emotions affect the way the subaltern is understood in practices of humanitarianism.

 

Summer 2018 Language Fellow: Aceh 13 years after the Tsunami and Beyond [Part 1]

My fieldwork site is in Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh is at the western most province of Indonesia, and is known as the historical gateway to Indonesia – from economic trade, to cultural, political and religious influences.

This point is literally what is called “Zero Kilometer,” referring to the western most tip of Indonesia:

Aceh is probably most known by foreigners for being hit by one of the most devastating tsunamis in recorded human history – the boxing day tsunami of 2004.

Related image

(Source)

The magnitude of the tsunami was met with one of the largest humanitarian responses in the history of humanitarian responses. Crucially (and the subject of a future post), the tsunami also brought an end to a 30 year-long civil war.

Below is an aerial photo of Banda Aceh (the capital) today:

(source)

The oval-shaped building at the centerpiece of the above photo is the state-of-the-art Tsunami Museum, also pictured below:

Image result for aceh tsunami museum

(Source)

This is not to say that Aceh has been “built back better” without complications after the disaster. Some aspects of the destruction are irreversible. Apparently, there was a land bridge to the island pictured below before the tsunami (the waterbody was originally a lagoon). Now, the village from the island cannot return to their ancestral land

Banda Aceh’s urban landscape is also unsurprisingly replete with memorials of the tsunami. Below is a picture of a boat that was swept on top of a house after the tsunami. It has now been preserved.

The landscape also includes structures such as the one below which people can run to in the case of another tsunami.

Image result for aceh tsunami museum

(Source)

One challenge of such structures is that they are often left unused and thus lack maintenance because they do not serve other functions. This can be seen from the interior below:

From the sky, one can see the colored patterns of tsunami houses – houses built from the tsunami reconstruction. There are different colored patterns because different NGOs would reconstruct different communities’ houses, and is seen today as a symbol of inter-NGO politics that characterized the reconstruction.

Below is a street-view of a tsunami house. Some of these houses are empty today, especially those that were rebuilt in locations that are no longer inhabitable. For example, few live next to the coast worst hit by the tsunami – not only are many still traumatized by the ocean, but many of the aquaculture ponds (that were the main source of livelihood for the communities that used to live there) are beyond rehabilitation. I was told that it is not uncommon that such neighborhoods are inhabited by students who have moved to Banda Aceh for study – the ones who need cheap accommodation and have little alternative.

Although the boxing day tsunami grabbed headlines all around the world, the 30 year civil war (most of which was kept secret, and ended shortly after the tsunami) has gained less attention. Tellingly, in comparison to the tsunami, there is very little memorialization of the conflict, even though both ‘events’ registered over a hundred thousand deaths, with the latter occurring over a 30 year period, and thus leaving a much deeper impact on the Acehnese’s social pscyhe. Below is one of the memorials that have been erected to remember a torture center in Pidie, Aceh. It is a stark difference from the tsunami museum pictured earlier. Although such a memorial is surely sensitive to the central government, the Acehnese we talked to are clear-headed that remembering the conflict in a fair way is important to learn from their history.

Crucially, it is problematic to reduce the Acehnese identity to victims of either the tsunami or the conflict. Aceh has a rich heritage that not only extends much further back into history, but also much further into the present. In these narratives, the Acehnese are not merely victims, but actors in their own rights – fighters, activists, humanitarians, each with different ways of exerting agency over who they are and their future. If we pay attention, they also offer lessons for the world.

I will take up some of these themes in my upcoming posts.

 

 

Amoz JY Hor is PhD student in Political Science at the George Washington University. His research explores how emotions affect the way the subaltern is understood in practices of humanitarianism.

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Video Blog: A Trip to Jiufen

Greetings again from Taipei! For my first video blog post, I did a very short video in Jiufen (九份), a town just on the outskirts of Taipei. Please forgive me for the shaky camera work! The town was formerly the site of a gold mine operated by the Japanese during the era of Japanese occupation. Though the Japanese were not the first colonizers of Taiwan (occupiers of the island also include the Dutch and Portuguese), they left the most notable imprints on the island.

As my Mandarin teacher pointed out, the Taiwanese have a mixed view of the Japanese occupation. On one hand, the Japanese built up much of the infrastructure that the island uses to this day (from the post office and bureaucratic system to the roads and the hot spring bathhouses spread throughout the northern part of Taiwan), but on the other hand, the Japanese occupiers did very much exploit the natural resources of the island (including the aforementioned gold and wood).  Today, there is no shortage of admiration for Japanese products, department stores, and food (the Japanese even claim that the best Japanese food outside of Japan is in Taiwan). Additionally, there is a definite mutual admiration for each island nation’s tourist destinations.

Later, I hope to write a post on my daily routine. Until then, 再見!

 

Lexi Wong M.A. International Affairs 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei

Lexi Wong is a Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow studying Mandarin in Taipei, Taiwan at National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center. Lexi is currently a first-year graduate student at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs where she is studying International Affairs with a regional concentration on Asia. 

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Exploring Religious Influences on Conservation in Indonesia with Chloe King

Indonesia, situated in the “ring of fire,” one of the most geologically active regions in the world, is prone to a wide range of natural disasters: volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, flooding, and drought are all regular occurrences in Indonesian life. The causes of many of these natural disasters also make Indonesia one of the most environmentally productive regions in the world, with nutrient-rich soil and coral reefs lush with fish, and for generations Indonesian people have thrived off these resources. However, both the unpredictability of the landscape and the seemingly boundless riches have combined to create an impossible dilemma: Indonesia is facing some of the fastest rates of environmental destruction in the world, perpetrated by its own population, and there is no solution in sight.

During all the time I have spent in Indonesia, I am continuously surprised by a general “wait and see” attitude in regard to both natural disaster and conservation planning. I have seen this as far east as Raja Ampat and as far west as Java, and this summer I decided to get to the bottom of it. I set out to understand how natural disaster planning and environmental conservation are intertwined in the minds of many Indonesians, particularly around the concept of “pasrah,” or surrender to God. Pasrah is profoundly linked to a wider state of passive acceptance that comes with many kinds of religious beliefs, particularly in Indonesia. It is a concept in which God possesses agency over human fate, in which all that will befall humans is predestinated. To me, this concept seemed entirely foreign; to most Indonesians, it is a concept that rules over everyday life.

In this regard, if it these events are all predestined, then attempting to plan for the future, to avoid natural disasters, is not only pointless, but an insult to God. As one scholar put it, planning in Indonesia is akin to atheism, a concept not only foreign but practically non-existent. This concept is widely seen throughout Indonesia in regard to natural disasters, from the eruptions of Mt. Agung in Bali to the tsunamis in Aceh, and it makes natural disaster planning difficult. Many people around Mt. Agung in Bali have been reported saying, “When the volcano starts erupting, that’s when we’ll go.” Communities often refuse to evacuate from the area despite official warnings, and planning for the event of an explosion has not improved significantly over the past several years. Is this a trend in Indonesian communities, and if so, how does it influence care for the environment? If all is predestined, that there is also very little humans can do to influence the natural environment around them—for better or worse.

Nearly 3,000 meters high, rising in between the Special Region of Yogyakarta and the province of Central Java, Mount Merapi is regarded as the most active of more than 100 Indonesian volcanoes and is among the most dangerous volcanoes on earth; the last major eruption in 2010 killed 347 people and caused the evacuation of 20,000 villagers. Despite the tragedy of these eruptions, recent research has shown that neither the villagers around Mt. Merapi nor the residents of Yogyakarta regard the eruptions as disasters, but rather a warning from the supernatural world.

The town of Salatiga, where my language program is based, is 23 km north of the base of Mt. Merapi, and many of its residents remember the eruptions of the past. Salatiga is the largest town in the high-risk area, with over 170,000 residents. I have interviewed and surveyed over a dozen residents during my time here, trying to understand what the concept of pasrah means to them, and how it influences planning for the future. While the survey sample was small, it became apparent that regard towards “pasrah” and a pre-determined future strongly influenced regard towards the environment. Those more inclined to believe that natural disasters were directly influenced by God were less likely to see humans as the cause of environmental destruction; those who did not view natural disasters as a result of God’s will were more likely to see humanity’s role in environmental degradation.

While pasrah is a concept that initiates from religious teachings, religion can also provide important lessons for overcoming the tragedy of the commons problem. The Quran states: “There is no joy in life unless three things are available: clean fresh air, abundant pure water, and fertile land.” There are over 750 verses in the Quran related to the environment, and Muslims are commanded to respect the environment and “Preserve the earth because it is your mother.” Likewise, the Catholic religion teaches respect for all creation, for “[t]he Lord’s are the earth and its fullness; the world and those who dwell in it” (Ps 24:1). These teachings were widely recognized by the people I surveyed, and added critical perspective to the context of pasrah in everyday life.

In May 2006, BBC news reported that in the villages around Mt. Merapi, “the local people do not listen to government officials. They listen to Marijan, the old “gate-keeper” to the volcano who enjoys an intimate spiritual relationship with Merapi.” It continues to be a struggle for the Indonesian government to prepare local communities for disaster, especially when people generally believe that whatever happens, it is the will of God. Likewise, in recent years Indonesia has experienced unparalleled rates of environmental destruction, from overfishing to deforestation to plastic pollution.

The government has begun several initiatives to both protect its residents against natural disasters and guard the future environment its citizens depend on. However, in order for individuals to realize their role in addressing these issues, religious institutions must emphasize the human responsibility for protecting the planet we live on. While pasrah is a concept that will always pervade Indonesian society, religious teachings can also inform people of their responsibility to care for their future. While the future may remain the will of God, the future health of the world’s environment remains in human hands.  

 

Chloe King B.A. International Affairs 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
School for International Training Indonesia, COTI Summer Studies Program, Indonesia

Chloe King is a rising senior in the Elliot School, majoring in international affairs with minors in sustainability and geographic information systems. She spent seven months in Indonesia in 2017 as a Boren Scholar, researching NGO conservation initiatives in marine ecotourism destinations around the country. A PADI Divemaster, her passion for protecting the ocean keeps pulling her back to Indonesia and some of the most diverse—and threatened—marine ecosystems in the world. 

Summer 2018 Field Research Fellow: Past and Present IDPs in Northern Myanmar

 

A farm near Pyinmalut village.

Tens of thousands of Myanmar citizens today are internally displaced. It is estimated that there are about 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kachin State and northern Shan State alone. Some estimates go as high as 120,000. These estimates are unlikely to include IDPs who have left the camps and attempted to integrated into nondisplaced communities; this means that the estimates do not indicate the cumulative number of civilians who have been displaced as a result of armed conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar. These IDPs have been taking refuge camps for seven years now, and the amount of aid they receive have dwindled over the years. Several forms of domestic abuse, difficulty in accessing basic education, making ends meet, and young girls trafficked across international border are common challenges faced by IDP families.

This is not the first time that civilians in northern Myanmar have been displaced. In the wake of Kachin armed rebellion in the early 1960s, many families were displaced. Some more were displaced in the subsequent decades. However, this was before the age of media in Myanmar, and international and domestic communities seemed unaware of or easily forgot about their displacement. Furthermore, these families resettled in new places and began their lives anew, further obscuring their displacement. Therefore, it was not until 2011, when fighting resumed in the Kachin region, that people started talking about IDP crisis in the Kachin region. However, it is worth reflecting on the previous waves of Kachin IDPs, for they illuminate invaluable insights on dire implication of armed conflict and displacement on ethnic minority communities in Myanmar. Just a few days ago, I had a unique opportunity of observing just that.

I stayed at Pyinmalut, which is a village tract in Katha Township, Sagiang Region for about three days. It is located along the Irrawaddy River, which is the largest and most important commercial waterway in Myanmar. It is just a few miles south of Kachin State and west of northern Shan State. There I met families who were displaced decades ago from southern Kachin State and northern Shan State. When their villages became consumed by armed conflict, they fled to Katha which offered safe refuge. Decades have passed and by all account, they seemed settled. But there is an undeniable stagnation particularly in education and job security.

The only job available to the villagers seems to be to work as day laborers, usually under 90-degree weather, on surrounding rice paddies. This job pays about 4000-5000 kyats (about $3.5) per day, which would amount to a decent monthly salary (Myanmar standard) if the laborers were guarantee 5 days of work every week. But laborers from this village do not get a full month of work even in July, which is when the bulk of planting occur. Once the planting is done, the villagers then wait for the harvest season when they can expect day laborer jobs. Every now and then, a few villagers would land fruit-picking jobs, which typically involves climbing up trees. Depending on difficulty of tree-climbing and the baskets of fruits picked, the laborers could earn up to 9000 kyats (about $6.5) per day. But there aren’t fruit plantations in the area, so fruit picking jobs usually last a day or two at most. The bottom line is that there is no job security.

Negative implication of the lack of job security in the village is most felt in terms of education. Even without cash in their hands, the villagers cannot hire “tuition teachers” for their children. In Myanmar education system, tuitions are integral part of obtaining formal education. They are usually held before or after school and during weekends by public school teachers for a fee. The parents typically explain that without tuition their students do not perform well in school. Tuition becomes even more important for 10thgrade students who will sit for matriculation exam at the end of the academic year (tuition is perhaps even more so than school itself for 10thgraders. Why students and parents alike believe that tuition is integral to passing the matriculation exam is a discussion for another time). Total tuition fee for a 10thgrade student can average 1,000,000 kyats (about $714) at the lower end. How can villagers making 5000 kyats intermittently afford to pay for tuition? As a result, matriculation exam success rate is fairly low and even those who passed the exams rarely ever achieve subject distinction. The parents cannot afford to pay for university school fee and with relative low passing scores, scholarship or sponsorship from philanthropic families cannot be expected. For the few students who make it to universities, their scores are not high enough to pursue professional majors, which means that they cannot make a living in the cities. Thus, the cycle of job insecurity continues.

This is not to say that every displaced person remains stuck in the village and remains in poverty. Some were able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps because they have family connection, resources and for many other reasons. The lucky few ventured out to the jade mines of Hpakant, Kachin State and became wealthy (chances of this happening are probably the same as that of winning lottery). But generally speaking, displaced families are systematically disadvantaged in their attempt to achieve desirable societal outcomes.

Although poverty is experienced by the Bamars, the ethnic majority in Myanmar, it is important to note that displacement and subsequent implications predominantly affect ethnic minority communities because armed conflicts tend to be ethnic in nature in Myanmar and are waged only in ethnic minority areas. A glimpse of the previous waves of IDPs suggest that even decades after they have resettled, the vast majority of displaced population remain uncertain of their future.

 

 

Jangai Jap is a Ph.D. Candidate in George Washington University’s Political Science Department. Her research interest includes ethnic politics, national identity, local government and Myanmar politics. Her dissertation aims to explain factors that shape ethnic minorities’ attachment to the state and why has the state been more successful in winning over a sense of attachment from members of some ethnic minority groups than other ethnic minority groups. She has won the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and her dissertation research has received support from the Cosmos Club Foundation and GW’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies. 

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – First Weeks in Beijing

Hello everyone! 大家好! I’m Kelly Alesio, this summer I have the opportunity to study Mandarin with Hamilton College’s Associated Colleges in China (ACC) program, so I’ll be living and attending classes at Minzu University of China, in Beijing’s Haidian District.

This program is an intensive one, recommended by the university’s Chinese department due to the program’s relatively small student body and individualized instruction, moreover, ACC student must adhere to a language pledge the entire time they attend the program.

I arrived in Beijing in mid-June, and after reaching Minzu University and sleeping for 12 hours straight, I immediately took my language placement exam.

In the couple of days between the placement exam and the beginning of classes, the ACC teachers my classmates and I to few well-known sites in Beijing, Tiananmen Square and the nearby Jingshan Park (景山公园), a former imperial garden with an amazing view of Beijing’s Forbidden City.

Although I had heard quite a lot about the rigor of ACC’s curriculum, particularly the summer session (it’s only 8 weeks long, as opposed to the spring and fall sessions’ 13 weeks), it was rather difficult initially to adjust to three to four hours of back-to-back language instruction (completely in Chinese!), and took slightly longer to become comfortable expressing myself in everyday life using a foreign language I’m not yet fluent in.

Additionally, the vocabulary learned at each level in ACC isn’t the same as those learned at a similar level in George Washington University’s Chinese courses, so the first week mostly involved adjusting to the workload (fourth-year students are expected to learn over 100 new words a day), and playing catch-up with some of the vocabulary.

My second week at ACC was both more difficult and more fun. The second week marked the start of extracurricular activities, of which I chose Taijijian, a form of the traditional Chinese martial art Taijiquan (太极剑) that includes swords (not sharp ones), and calligraphy, as well as our weekly 800+ character essays and oral presentations.

On the second Friday of the program, after our weekly exam, my classmates and I met our language partners, Minzu University students who would be in Beijing or studying at the university during the summer, and later our met Chinese host families. Additionally, the fourth-year students had the opportunity to visit a museum dedicated to Lu Xun (魯迅, real name Zhou Shuren), a highly influential 20th century author famous for his breadth and depth of work, having produced everything from thought-provoking essays on the Chinese education system, to classical-style poetry, to Chinese translations of foreign literature.

In these past three weeks I’ve fortunately found time to hang out with both my Chinese host family and my language partner, and had the opportunity to visit the Mutianyu (慕田峪) section of the Great Wall, explore a popular hutong (a traditional Beijing neighborhood), and visit Beijing’s National Gallery.

As I go into my fourth week at ACC, which marks both the halfway point in my time in Beijing as well as the beginning of midterm exams, I find that our small student body, regardless of year level or home university, has become increasingly closer, and more confident speaking Chinese in our private lives, whether deciding what movie to watch or debating the merits of the various campus canteens. I’ve eaten a variety of delicious (and strange) meals with these wonderful people, and can already tell these are friendships I’ll want to hold on to even after I return to the States.

 

      

It’s been a fantastic experience so far, having the opportunity to study Chinese intensively along with a group of incredibly motivated and hardworking classmates, and I’m looking forward to what the rest of the summer will bring!

After midterm exams, we’ll travel to Datong, a city in Shaanxi Province (山西省) about 6 hours by train from Beijing, so keep checking back for updates!

 

Katherine Alesio
B.S. Civil Engineering 2020
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Study in Asia Grant Recipient
Minzu University of China – Associated Colleges in China Program

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Exploring the Influence of Foreign Powers in Taiwan with Alex Bierman

18th century cannons on display outside the former British Consulate section of Fort San Domingo.

The view of the Tamsui River from Fort San Domingo.

For much of its existence, Taiwan has not had the opportunity to determine the direction of its own fate. While China has historically been and currently is the major agent of foreign influence, foreign powers have impacted Taiwan’s development for nearly four hundred years. The best place to learn of these influences is Tamsui, a small fishing village turned major port as a result of European imperialist powers. Currently a part of the larger New Taipei City, Tamsui (淡水) is home to Fort San Domingo (紅毛城), a physical embodiment that has preserved the history of foreign influence in Taiwan. The fort’s name translates to “Red Hair Fort,” as the Dutch were often referred to because of the color of their hair.

For much of the 17th century, the Spanish followed by the Dutch effectively maintained control over the island for their own trade benefits. Situated at the mouth of the Tamsui River, Fort San Domingo was originally built by the Spanish in 1628. Four years prior, the Dutch established a base in Dayuan (modern day Anping, Tainan) as an ideal location to intercept Chinese merchant ships from Fujian to Manila, thus disrupting Spanish trade. In response both to this Dutch interception and a surprise ambush by aborigines, Spain seized Keelung and Tamsui, solidifying its presence on Taiwan. The Spanish protected their trade with the help of the wooden Fort San Domingo. In 1642 at the Battle of Keelung – just six years before the Dutch would officially realize independence from Spain – the Dutch defeated the Spanish, becoming the sole major power on the island. While the Dutch East India Company’s rule on the island would only last until 1662, it brought about massive economic development.

After the fall of the short-lived Kingdom of Tungning (東寧), established by the Ming-loyalist Koxinga, the Qing established Taiwan as a prefecture of Fujian province in 1684. While nominally under Qing rule, Taiwan remained a frontier where people struggled to make a living. The Qing repaired Fort San Domingo in 1724, and it would stand unperturbed for more than a century. Then began the so-called “Century of Humiliation” in China, caused by foreign imperialism and intervention. The Qing rented out Fort San Domingo to the British in 1867 to serve as consulate as a result of the Treaty of Tientsin after the Second Opium War. The Mudan Incident of 1874, where 54 Japanese soldiers were ambushed and killed by Taiwanese aborigines, revived heavy foreign intervention in Taiwan. The Japanese launched a punitive mission in retaliation against Taiwan, marking the first successful deployment of Imperial Japan’s military, just six years after the Meiji Restoration. The Qing tried solidifying its position on the island, declaring Taiwan a province in 1886, but the power differential caused by Japanese expansion concurrent to Qing enervation was already drastic. Taiwan would then be subject to 50 years of Japanese rule.

Fort San Domingo would continue as a British consulate until the Japanese took control of it in 1941. In 1948, the British re-took control of the fort, continuing its service as a British consulate until the breaking of British-ROC diplomatic ties in 1972. The fort was then handed over to Australia as a trusteeship but was then handed to the United States once Australia-ROC relations were severed. Not until 1979, as a result of the US-PRC rapprochement, was Fort San Domingo finally handed over to ROC control. The fort has since become a grade-one national historical site in Taiwan, granting tourists the opportunity to learn of the rich history of foreign influence and intervention on the island.

 

Alex Bierman, M.A. Security Policy Studies 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
National Taiwan University, Taiwan

Alex Bierman is a M.A. candidate in Security Policy Studies focusing on East Asian security and cyber security. His interests include U.S. policy towards East Asia, Cross-Strait policy, and Chinese politics.

Chloe King stands on a balcony overlooking a series of small islands in Raja Ampat, West Papua

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Exploring Improbable Indonesia with Chloe King

Chloe King waving her arms up in the air, standing in front of Raja Ampat, West Papua.
Raja Ampat, West Papua—stunning both above and below the water, and home to the highest level of marine biodiversity ever recorded.

Whenever friends, family, and perfect strangers ask me why I love Indonesia so much, I find myself seeking an answer as multifaceted as the country itself—a task that is, quite frankly, impossible. I frequently describe the kindness of the people, the towering volcanos and kaleidoscopic reefs, the enchanting playfulness of the language. At times like this—when I can’t explain my infatuation in a few sentences or even a few days—I realize that is the reason I love Indonesia so much: its diversity defies description, no matter how many years I spend trying.

I first came to Indonesia to work as a PADI Divemaster during a gap year before attending GW, and fell in love with the people, language, culture, and underwater world—knowing that each of these terms encompasses a diversity beyond knowing. There are over 8,000 inhabited islands, 300 languages, countless indigenous religions and belief systems, and thousands of coral and fish species. I have since spent just under a year in total in Indonesia, returning again and again, seeking to understand a place so impossible to describe, knowing I have only just scratched the surface.

The beginning of this summer in Indonesia provides a perfect example of the intoxicating complexity of this place. I decided to fly out a few weeks before the start of my language program, knowing that I was about to begin dive hours a day of intensive Bahasa Indonesia training for eight weeks. So naturally, I headed straight for the ocean. I spent several days in Bali for freediving training, in the sea each day till the sun set over the gently smoking Mt. Agung (which would soon spew its ash and cancel hundreds of flights), listening to the tinkling of traditional brass instruments mixing with the evening call to prayer. Days later, I flew to the Raja Ampat islands in West Papua, returning to one of my favorite places on earth to follow up on research I conducted in the region in 2017. From traditional dances to magically ordained soccer games, from birds of paradise to mating sharks, one would be hard-pressed to find a place with so much to see. In no time at all, I was on a flight to Java, the largest and most populous island in Indonesia, driving through winding roads surrounded by rice fields that quickly turned into crowded cities that seemed to have sprung suddenly from the earth.

Far from the ocean and the places and people I had grown to love so deeply, I felt—for the first time in the almost 11 months I had spent in total in Indonesia—entirely out of my element. During the drive from the airport to my new home, I began to feel nervous. As the sky grew dark and neon shop lights flickered to life along the city streets, we pulled into the driveway and I saw the house I would live in for the next eight weeks. My host mother came into view in the doorway, her smile immediate, as she exclaimed, “Chloe! Selamat datang ke Salatiga!” Welcome to Salatiga.

Indeed, in the weeks since my arrival, to say I feel welcome is perhaps an egregious understatement for the joy that is finding a new home in every corner of this magical country. And I have only just scratched the surface.

 

Chloe King B.A. International Affairs 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
School for International Training Indonesia, COTI Summer Studies Program, Indonesia

Chloe King is a rising senior in the Elliot School, majoring in international affairs with minors in sustainability and geographic information systems. She spent seven months in Indonesia in 2017 as a Boren Scholar, researching NGO conservation initiatives in marine ecotourism destinations around the country. A PADI Divemaster, her passion for protecting the ocean keeps pulling her back to Indonesia and some of the most diverse—and threatened—marine ecosystems in the world. 

Aerial view of the coastline of Taiwan

Summer 2018 Field Trip Fellow – Experiencing Chinese Culture in Taiwan

Taiwan is a must-come place for those interested in China. Upon arriving at Taiwan, I can’t help to be astonished by the closeness between Taiwan and mainland China in almost every important aspect of social life. The quiet and warm scenario of countryside reminded me of the villages of my hometown Zhejiang. The way in which people talk to children is also telling: on both sides of the strait the interactions with children is a means of education. On the train from Taoyuan Airport to Taipei city, my computer received the warm attention of a lovely boy with glasses, who obviously thought it was an advanced play station. When he tried to observe this wonderful machine more closely, however, his grandma came and told him that other people’s belongings should not be touched. Such educational experiences are very common for Chinese children in both mainland China and Taiwan, and similar patterns probably cannot be observed in other societies.

Another definitely impressing experience is my time at the National Palace Museum of Taipei. No one could deny that the Palace Museum is one of the best place to enjoy the beauty of China’s cultural heritage. From gorgeous jade and porcelain artwork, to the immensely fluent and dynamic calligraphy, and to the traditional Chinese paintings which are relatively static but of infinite transforming potential, I was deeply caught up by charm and appeal of the collections. Apart from its high aesthetic value, the exhibition is also an excellent source to sense the social, intellectual, and ideological world of traditional China.

On the other hand, Taiwan’s experiences of modern Chinese history were also very different from mainland China. Between 1895 and 1945, it was under the political control of the Japanese empire. After 1945, the KMT replaced Japan as the ruler of Taiwan. After 2000, the DPP and the KMT took power in turn. Such experiences determine that there are some perspectives and expertise in Taiwan that are not present in mainland China. For example, Taiwan’s scholarship on the KMT and the Nationalist army is generally of higher standards than that of mainland China. Moreover, the island’s cultural and social landscape is also deeply shaped by its history of immigrants and local inhabitants. The announcements on the Taipei city metro are made in four languages/dialects: Mandarin, English, Southern Fujian dialect and Hakka dialect.

Zhongtian Han, Ph.D. in History 2021
Sigur Center 2018 Summer Field Trip Fellow
Taipei, Taiwan

Zhongtian Han is a history Ph.D. student interested in modern East Asia and strategic studies. His research focuses on the strategic history of modern China and Japan.

Skyline of Taipei

Summer 2018 Language Fellow-大家好!

A night view of Taipei in the Zhongzheng district. Taipei is a delicate mess of small alleys, known as 巷 and each given a number and a name that is usually associated with a nearby major road.
Zhongtian district in Taipei, Taiwan.

Greetings from beautiful breezy, dry, cool Taipei!

Just kidding. At the beginning of summer, Taipei is beautiful but it is not breezy (unless a storm is imminent and you are standing in precisely the correct spot). With temperatures ranging in the mid-80s to mid-90s, it’s also far from cool. Umbrellas are ubiquitous throughout the city for the aforementioned exceedingly hot temperatures and for the always looming thunderstorms. I’m told that Taipei in August may be even more brutally hot but receives more washings from the frequent taiphoons. (I’m a huge fan of taiphoons as they used to come regularly in Hong Kong and allow a respite from work)

I’ve traveled to Taipei a number of times (humble brag: mostly for running marathons and half marathons) and each time I’ve been surprised by the lack of skyscrapers in this city as well as the general friendliness of people. It’s unsurprising why many Hong Kongers move here permanently and why so many people are utterly charmed by Taiwan.

In fact, I see Taipei as having far more in common with the calm and quiet of Kyoto than the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong. Perhaps this calm and quiescence is due to the oppressive heat, but I believe it is the spirit of Taiwan that has imbued the Taiwanese with a sense of serenity that is broken only by the constant grindings of scooters on the roads or the general busyness of Ximending.

I’m not sure if this suits me. As a born and bred salt of the earth American and naturalized Hong Konger, I’m accustomed to being busy and walking quickly to and fro regardless of my destination. Even after spring semester of graduate school – which could be arranged to fit next to the definition of busy in the Britannica Encyclopedia – I seek to be occupied by a task.

This morning, I became occupied by the Elephant Mountain hike, which allows hikers to sweat copiously in anticipation of an Instagram worthy photo of the Taipei 101. Luckily, the is a dearth of hiking around Taipei, which I hope to explore and a dearth of vegetarian restaurants to furnish such sweaty hikes. Until then, 再見!

 

Lexi WongLexi Wong M.A. International Affairs 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei

Lexi Wong is a Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow studying Mandarin in Taipei, Taiwan at National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center. Lexi is currently a first-year graduate student at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs where she is studying International Affairs with a regional concentration on Asia. 

Barrier gates block off sections of a busy street

Summer 2018 Language Fellow – Opening of the New American Institute in Taiwan Complex

 

Two proud supporters of Taiwanese independence protesting the R.O.C. government
Two proud supporters of Taiwanese independence protesting the R.O.C. government
Police matched if not outnumbered the protestors/supporters outside the new AIT complex
Police matched if not outnumbered the protestors/supporters outside the new AIT complex

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 12, 2018

I have now been in Taipei, Taiwan for a little more than a week. While I have finally acclimated to the time difference, I have a feeling the same will never be true regarding the weather. Nevertheless, I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to spend a summer studying Chinese at National Taiwan University’s International Chinese Language Program (ICLP). Without the generous grant from the Sigur Center, I would likely never have had the chance again to devote so much of my time to improving my language abilities.

While most of the Asia policy world was focusing on the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, another important change in U.S. policy towards East Asia was occurring in Taipei. I, along with scores of elderly Taiwanese avidly advocating for Taiwanese independence stood outside the new American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) complex for its dedication ceremony. While the ceremony itself was closed to the public, members of Taiwan’s Independence Party arrived by the bus load proudly waving their pan-green independence flags and American flags. As far as I could tell, I was the youngest participant by at least 40 years.

Seeing so many eager citizens declare their love for their own country and the U.S. instilled within me mixed emotions. It was heartwarming to see these elderly Taiwanese celebrating this perceived improvement in Taiwan-U.S. relations. Just thirty years ago, Taiwan was still authoritarian. The chance to peacefully petition their government would have been unthinkable decades ago. An elderly man screamed at a row of police that instead of retaliating, just stoically stood in place. Seeing such active participation in Taiwan’s nascent democracy was truly an incredible spectacle. Conversely, being aware of the immense political obstacles that prevent Taiwanese independence made me realize that they will likely never see what they most desire in their lifetimes.

The new AIT complex finally finished years behind schedule and cost more than $250 million USD. One can only wonder if it was a coincidence that the complex’s dedication ceremony fell on the same day when China and the rest of East Asia were so focused on the Trump-Kim summit. The truth is, the new complex does not signal increased U.S. support for Taiwan. Despite rumors that high ranking officials such as Mike Pompeo or John Bolton would attend the ceremony, a lower ranking official was sent instead. Ostensibly, the U.S. refrained from sending anyone too controversial to avoid upsetting China. Since Trump took office, however, the U.S. has done more vis-à-vis Taiwan than it had in the past fifteen years. Small steps like the Taiwan Travel Act and the opening of the new AIT compound may signify more changes to come during the Trump administration. It is incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to be on the ground in the heart of Taiwan during this time of change.

Alex Bierman
Alex Bierman, M.A. Security Policy Studies 2019
Sigur Center 2018 Asian Language Fellow
National Taiwan University, Taiwan

Alex Bierman is a M.A. candidate in Security Policy Studies focusing on East Asian security and cyber security. His interests include U.S. policy towards East Asia, Cross-Strait policy, and Chinese politics.

Chinese Communist Party office building

Summer 2018 Field Research Fellow – Exploring the CCP Revolutionary History at Nanjing, Jiangsu Province

Jiangsu Provincial Archives Researching the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and associated topics is inherently difficult. First and foremost, every historian of the CCP has to deal with the limited accessibility of archival materials in mainland China. When I began my research trip in Nanjing and at the Jiangsu Provincial Archive, I was surprised to learn that, in contrast to common perceptions, the sources for the revolutionary period (pre-1949) was even more strictly administered than the early PRC period (1950s). In the beginning, they would not allow me to see anything and there is even no archival fond catalog available for the revolutionary period (while there are plenty for early 1950s). After some detailed inquiry about my research topic and suggesting some published primary sources at the archive, I was finally allowed to see three archival fonds, for which I’m truly grateful.

In addition to the limited accessibility, the archivists later told me that during the 1950s, the CCP leadership ordered all materials related to the revolutionary period to be transferred from provincial archives to the central archives. Though the provincial archives certainly didn’t give up everything, there is indeed serious limitations on what scholars can get by using what was left at the provincial level.

Why is the revolutionary period so sensitive for the CCP? Some may suggest that the revolutionary period was violent. But the early PRC period also witnessed much violence such as the “suppressing counter-revolutionaries” campaign. The issue here is legitimacy. For the CCP, its victory in the revolutionary period an important source of its legitimacy. In the CCP’s jargon, its victory and ruling party status is “history’s choice” (lishi de xuanze) and “people’s choice” (renmin de xuanze). Therefore, the party would not allow those revisionist interpretations of the revolutionary period which might undermine its historical legitimacy. The CCP’s sensitivity is not misplaced. Even in mainland China, there are challenges to the party’s interpretations of the revolutionary period. Some suggest that the CCP didn’t fight the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), and others doubt the actuality of some revolutionary and anti-Japanese heroes. The party called these revisionist interpretations of the revolutionary period “historical nihilism” (lishi xuwuzhuyi). This particular political sensitivity of the revolutionary period should receive the attention of every responsible scholar in the field. It is the academic community’s responsibility to maintain high scholarly standards, especially for these sensitive topics.

Zhongtian Han
Zhongtian Han, Ph.D. History 2021
Sigur Center Summer 2018 Field Research Grant Fellow
People’s Republic of China

Zhongtian Han is a history Ph.D. student interested in modern East Asia and strategic studies. His research focuses on the strategic history of modern China and Japan.

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