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Archive for the category “all about … {a cultural project}”

Learning Arabic in its cultural environment: All About… Morocco {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Jennifer Boum Make, a native of France and graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From May-June 2014, she studied Arabic in Rabat, Morocco, with Sprachcaffe Rabat; here, she shares a few words about her linguistic and cultural experience.

henna time at Sprachcaffe Rabat, Morocco, May 2014

Henna time at Sprachcaffe Rabat, Morocco. May 2014

Why are you studying Arabic if you are already fluent in French and English?

When it comes to learning a language, people take on the challenge with different goals, perspectives, and life needs. As a PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Pittsburgh, I’m focusing on the literature of the Maghreb. Before I began learning Arabic, I had never questioned how knowing the language would boost my research, but I’ve been surprised at how much more I’ve learned since then! In Morocco, I was able to taste the language in one of its many cultural environments, and beginning to learn Arabic has greatly expanded my literary horizons. I’ve also discovered some of the numerous aspects of Moroccan quaintness.

Rabat, "Les Oudayas" 05/21/2014

Rabat, Morocco: “Les Oudayas.” May 21, 2014

Why did you choose Morocco for studying Arabic ?

Shortly after I started to look into study-abroad destinations to learn Arabic, I quickly got in touch with a local company in France that offered three destinations amongst Arabic countries (the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, or Morocco — all were so tempting!). I briefly investigated each study-abroad program but mostly relied on my intuition. Going to Morocco wasn’t an entirely random choice; when I was five, I had traveled to Marrakech, Morocco (I am now 23). It’s possible that I picked Morocco as my study-abroad destination for sentimental reasons, even though my original memories of the country are very scarce. Overall, it was the best choice for me in regards to total cost, traveling ease from France, and the length of stay.

I chose to learn Arabic by studying abroad because I am convinced that studying a language in a country where it is spoken is the best way to maximize learning. I wasn’t proved wrong! Being a teacher myself back in the States, I have always told my students that going to the country is the best way to make rapid progress in a foreign language because you get to be fully exposed to the language and its cultural reality. In the same way, I chose to go to Morocco and study with an organization called Sprachcaffe Rabat not only to have the chance to learn Arabic with native speakers but also to make sure I would hear Arabic everywhere I’d go. Classes aside, I most enjoyed staying with a host family in Rabat; living with a family really enhances your learning goals and challenges your linguistic and cultural capacities!

Choosing to live in a Moroccan home was delightfully surprising as my daily activities took a new turn. While expanding my flavor horizons, I also saw myself attempting to juggle between French (my mother tongue) and my broken Arabic, mumbling random words here and there. While I was far from having a full understanding of what was going on in every conversation I had with my host family, I was always able to appreciate these few happy moments that we all experience as beginners in a language when we first can recognize single words in foreign sentences that never seem to end! The same was true in the classroom with my wonderful teacher who would always take my nods and shyly mumbled نعم (“yes” in Arabic) as لَا (“no”) as signs of comprehension. My teacher was the first to appreciate and value the fast progress I had made.

Couscous time at Sprachcaffe Rabat language school 06/17/2014

Couscous time at Sprachcaffe Rabat language school. May 17, 2014

What are your feelings about your language trip experience?

I had never heard of Sprachcaffe schools before, but I really believe in the personalized lessons that I received there, as well as the attention that was given by the staff. Having a couscous party at school was a first! Studying abroad with Sprachcaffe included solid classroom instruction but also so much more; it taught me to find comfort in what became my second home.

Now that my study abroad experience is over, I wish not only to keep up with my learning of Arabic, but I also hope to live in total cultural and linguistic immersion again. I’ve not at all explored half of the possibilities in Rabat, and I sincerely hope that I’ll have the chance to come back sometime soon with Sprachcaffe Rabat! Learning a language is a lifetime commitment, and I wish to commit. Besides that, it only takes a minute to pack your suitcase and go!

Sprachcaffe Schools :

Sprachcaffe-Rabat :

Pride, belonging, and gratitude: All about…. Dairy Farming {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Emily Fogelsanger, a writing major at Messiah College and a native of Shippensburg, PA. She grew up tending tomatoes, milking cows, and riding four-wheelers through sunlit fields, and she considers herself to be a better person because of it. Her favorite activities are climbing trees, eating ice cream, and hanging out with her sisters.


The small, rural town of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, is not exactly a foreign location for many readers of this blog. But dairy farming — a lifestyle that acts as the backbone of Shippensburg, as well as the world — is not always thought of as what it is. It is a means of feeding nations and supporting families for generations.  However, to many people, a dairy farm is viewed as home to large, smelly animals and unruly kids just as degraded.  And let’s not forget the assumption that anyone who is raised on a farm is a “hick.”  Being raised on a family dairy farm myself, I’ve grown up hearing these misconceptions along with a few others, and I hope that this article clears some of them up.

The heifer (female) calves in the barn in the process of drinking their milk from their buckets (2013)

The heifer (female) calves in the barn in the process of drinking their milk from their buckets (2013)

1.  Anyone raised on a farm is a hick.

This is perhaps the largest and most common stereotype that I have noticed.  According to the Encarta Dictionary, a hick is someone who is lacking in education and sophistication. Perhaps this stereotype comes from the fact that many people raised on a farm have a different dialect or wear torn jeans and faded shirts.  I personally grew up saying ain’t instead of isn’t, crick instead of creek, aten instead of eaten, and minnie instead of minnow.  My high school classmates were always teasing me about the way that I talked, and it wasn’t until eleventh grade that I actually stopped being embarrassed about my dialect.  Even though I have now forced myself to speak “correctly,” occasionally a word or two slips past my radar and makes its way into a conversation.  But, understandably, when your family and community speak a certain way, it’s only natural that you do, too.

And of course the clothes we wear on the farm are faded or old; that is logical. Most farm work involves dirt, sweat, and cow manure, meaning that whatever you’re wearing is most likely going to end up with a couple stains or small tears.  When milking, I myself wear a T-shirt and a pair of jeans that have definitely seen better days.  But my milking clothes aren’t the only styles in my closet; like every other farmer’s child, I actually do have a sense of fashion.

And the bit about farmers’ lacking in education? The business side of a farm takes a highly skilled person to make important decisions.  Choices involving when to harvest the corn, whether or not an injured animal should be sold or should be subjected to expensive medication, and which type of feed is best for the cows all require a good deal of patience and often a large amount of research.  Working on a farm requires a TON of knowledge, and a lot of this knowledge is acquired hands-on, meaning that there is only so much that you can learn about a farm from books.

My favorite cow, number 181. 2011.

My favorite cow, number 181 (2011)

2.  Dairy farmers are cruel to their animals.

I’m not sure how this myth came about; perhaps it is a line that vegetarians use to try to keep people from eating animal products. But cows provide a farmer with his living. If a farmer didn’t take proper care of his cows, they would not give good-quality milk in return.  Dairy cows require plenty of fresh feed, water, and a supplement of grass for their diet.  In addition, their hooves need to be trimmed regularly so that they are comfortable and able to produce rich milk.  If a cow is not getting the amount of food or care that she needs, both the quantity and the quality of her milk decreases.

Dairy farmers need to be constantly alert for signs of mastitis, an inflammation in a cow’s udder that results from a bacterial infection; and pinkish sore spots located above a cow’s hoof knows as “strawberries” that can cause a cow to limp.  The life of the entire farm depends on the cows, and a true dairy farmer cares deeply about his animals.

A cow greets a newborn heifer calf that I had just delivered

A cow greets a newborn heifer calf that I had just delivered

3.  Raw milk is hazardous to your health.

I, along with my cousins, grew up drinking raw milk, and none of us suffer from mysterious illnesses.  Raw milk is the milk that comes straight from the cow, free from any added ingredients and still containing milk’s natural nutrients.  Pasteurized milk, the milk that is sold in stores, is milk that is processed by removing natural vitamins and adding artificial nutrients.

After talking to one of my friends who is afraid of drinking raw milk, I think that the biggest reason for this fallacy is that since cows are considered (by some!) to be dirty, unprocessed milk must be equally as dirty. However, the cow’s udder and milking equipment are both completely sanitized before milking begins.  Raw milk is so healthful that many people who are lactose intolerant are able to consume it, and it also is known to help cure diabetes and certain heart conditions.  Pasteurized milk may be what is sold in grocery stores, but in my family raw milk will always be a staple.

4.  Anyone who growing up on a farm has no social life.

Operating a farm requires work from morning to night, and some days we don’t get the opportunity to leave.  For us, milking begins at 5:00, twice daily, and it is usually finished around 9:00.  Additionally, if a cow goes into labor and needs assistance, or if another animal is injured and needs special attention, all less important plans are usually put on hold.  When a field needs to be planted or harvested before bad weather comes, the day can sometimes stretch as late as 11 P.M.

However, most farms nowadays have employees who can take some of the workload. This leaves time to take small vacations or to just take the evening off.  Farmers may have a lot to do, but with everyone working efficiently, there are plenty of opportunities that free up our lives.  Besides, working together every day allows strong friendships and trust to form, so during the days when no free time is available, a farmer’s relationship with his family and his workers provides the best kind of social life.

The large combine prepared to harvest a field of wheat

The large combine prepared to harvest a field of wheat

5.  There is no future in dairy farming.

This is a debatable topic, but I personally believe that there will always be a generation willing to be dairy farmers.  Some children raised on farms are interested in pursuing other lives, simply because dairy farming is extremely difficult and the monetary payback is often very slight.  Additionally, much of your livelihood depends on factors that are out of your control, such as the weather, crop and milk prices, and the health of the cows.

But in each family there is often at least one child who imagines no other way of making a living.  My one younger sister is one of these people who lives to farm, and I fully support her dreams.  In our nation, there will always be a demand for dairy and beef products; therefore, there will always be farms to supply them. Farming is not always easy, but in my opinion, there is no better way to grow up.

My sister Amy and her heifer calf, Spearmint (2013)

My sister Amy and her heifer calf, Spearmint (2013)


Dairy farming isn’t a job; it’s a way of life.  I’ve seen my father and uncle stressed and exhausted day after day, but they always seemed contented.  I grew up running around half the year in my bare feet, and even now, at the age of eighteen, I still do.  I will always have a craving for ice cream, and I will never be able to fully function in the morning without a glass of milk.  Growing up on a farm has accustomed me to things that always stay the same; yet, at the same time, it has helped introduce me to being open to change. In dairy farming, the sense of pride, belonging, and gratitude will always remain.

Living above the land down under: All about… New Zealand {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by my cousin Stephan Troost of the Netherlands. Stephan is currently studying human geography and urban/regional planning at Utrecht University in Holland. In the fall of 2012, he spent five months living and studying at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His favorite memory of living above the land down under is hitch-hiking the South Island — a total of 2000 beautiful and exciting kilometers — and only paying $20 New Zealand dollars to do so.

Fall 2012

90-Mile Beach, Northland; Fall 2012

On beautiful countrysides. Some people call New Zealand heaven on earth. In terms of nature, I’d definitely agree — New Zealand is perfect. I’ve had experiences before where I’ve gone to places that are supposedly amazing but have ended up being a bit disappointing. However, in New Zealand, anytime someone told you that a certain place was great, it always was.

When you’re driving, especially on South Island, the landscape can change drastically in just ten minutes — going from golden beaches to high mountains, waterfalls, forests as thick as green walls, and everything in between. Because New Zealand is so far from everything, there’s an incredibly diversity of species that exist nowhere else.

Too many landscapes!

Kepler Track, Fjordland; Fall 2012.

Landscape love

Coromandel Peninsula; Fall 2013

The temperature is quite moderate — around 14 degrees Celsius in an Auckland winter. The countryside is extremely green because it rains regularly, and the weather changes just as drastically as the landscape. This happened especially in Auckland. One moment, there would be a really big rain shower, and the next minute, it would be sunny like crazy. We say in Holland that our weather’s always changing, but at least in Holland, we can mostly predict what’s going to happen next!

On cultural history and diversity. In my opinion, New Zealand was not heaven on earth when it came to the people, but that’s usual. People will be people. New Zealand was colonized by the British, so most people are still from European descent. However, a lot of people come from different Pacific islands or Asia — like China, Malaysia, or Thailand — to work. I found the different cultures very interesting, especially the colorful and exotic Pacific Islander culture, since it is so different from the culture I’m used to in the Netherlands. Some kiwis — that’s what New Zealanders call themselves because of the kiwi bird — struggle with the fact that immigration has been really high since the 1980s. There are only 4.5 million people on the island, and 45% of Auckland’s population is non-European.  In a few years, no ethnic group in Auckland will have the majority.

The indigenous people are called the Maori, and New Zealanders recognize the Maori as the original inhabitants of the country. An aspect of Maori culture that is often seen is an aggressive type of dance that they used to do to scare other tribes: the haka. It’s good for tourists, but it also shows that New Zealand has a really different history than just a British one.

Multicultural New Zealand

Multicultural New Zealand; Fall 2012

On government, food prices, and public transportation. In Auckland, people live close to one another, but large suburbs are also common, so having a car is a must. Like the States, public transportation is horrible in comparison to that of Europe.

Since New Zealand is so far from everything and everybody, I found the government to be really liberal and independent. In Europe, the news often focuses on events from all over the world, but New Zealand news was mostly about New Zealand, Australia, and random other world events.


Auckland, New Zealand; Fall 2012


The Waterfront, Auckland, New Zealand; Fall 2012

A lot of internationals go to New Zealand, so there are a ton of American fast food restaurants in New Zealand, like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, and Dominos. People are very active in New Zealand, but they eat a lot of fast food as well. Maybe it has to do with the fact that groceries are very expensive.

On its difference from Australia. New Zealand is not Australia. People think it’s simple to fly from Melborne to Sydney to Auckland, but a flight from Sydney to Auckland is still three and a half hours. Both countries have British influences so there are some similarities, but since they’re far apart, it’s more like how it would feel if Canada and the States were separated by 1300 miles. In New Zealand, rugby is the big sport, so a match between Australia and New Zealand is a big deal for Kiwis.

On accents. I found the New Zealand way of speaking English to be really funny. A lot of Americans are familiar with Australian and British accents, but a kiwi accent is different – kind of blend between British and Australian. In the US, if you would say, “I’m expecting somebody,” in New Zealand, you’d say, “I’m expicting somebody.” Find a Youtube clip of Prime Minister, John Key, and you’ll know what I mean.

In general, everyone was relaxed, friendly (“no worries, mate”), and real. They did not act like Americans who pretend to like someone just to be polite; they also didn’t act like Europeans who have to say everything they think. In the countryside, people just helped each other — that’s how I got to hitchhike so much. It’s common and safe there.

Culture-wise, I felt like New Zealand was rather British, but maybe it was more like a combination between the States and Europe. Or maybe it was just an even better combination than all that together.

The future we’d hardly hoped for: All about… Taiwan {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

Wan-Jiun (Paul) Chiou is a professor of finance at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. He specializes in portfolio management, international finance, financial institution management, and the impact of law environment on financial markets. He used to teach in several colleges in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Taiwan. Paul always enjoys being with young people and sharing ideas. He also likes to play games with his family. 

When some people first meet me and learn that I originally come from Taiwan, their first response is “I love Thai food!”

Oh, thanks. I love Thai food too. But you’re thinking of the wrong country!

Taiwan is located in southeastern Asia and is a group of islands off the southeastern coast of China bordering the East China Sea, the Philippine Sea, the South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait. (Thailand, where Thai food is from, is a small country on the Indochina peninsula, bordered by Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia.) Her size is about that of Maryland and Delaware combined.  Though the weather is mostly tropical, two-thirds of the country is mountainous, making Taiwan vary in its ecological environment. The highest mountain, Mount Jade (Yu Shan), is more than 13,000 feet high and is the highest mountain in East Asia.

Ken-ting National Park

Ken-ting National Park

Another question that I get often is “Is Taiwan part of China?”

The fact is: NO. If you want to visit Taiwan, the visa from China’s embassy will NOT work.  You need to go to a Taipei Cultural and Economic Office (TECO) for the visa.

What?  Why go to the “Taipei” office, but not the “Taiwan” one?  In addition, why is there no Taiwanese embassy in the United States?

This is a very complicated issue caused by powers like China, United States, Japan, and the rest of the world.  In the past, Taiwan was like a small leaf in large waters, pushed by waves from different directions. Now more and more Taiwanese people realize they need to fight for the better future that their ancestors hardly hoped was possible.

Currently the population of Taiwan is more than 23 million, similar to the size of California. The majority of Taiwanese (84%), mainly Holos and Hakkas,* are of mixed decedent, including aboriginals, Chinese immigrants, Europeans (primarily Dutch and Spanish), and Japanese. About 14% of them, including my family, are mainland Chinese who fled China after the Nationalist’s defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. The 13 indigenous tribes—like the Native Indians in the U.S.— represent the remaining 2%.  In recent years, due to work and marriage, more and more new immigrants from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and the other countries are coming to join this big family.

Ang Lee (director of film “Life of Pi”)

Familiar Taiwanese-American Faces: Ang Lee (director of film “Life of Pi”)

Jeremy Lin (NBA Linsanity!)

Familiar Taiwanese-American Faces: Jeremy Lin (NBA Linsanity!)

Familiar Taiwanese Faces: Jerry Yang (co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo!)

Familiar Taiwanese-American Faces: Jerry Yang (co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo!)

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Taiwan, also known as Ilha Formosa (meaning “beautiful island in Spanish”), was the stepping stone for pirate groups and merchandisers from sailing from Japan, China, the Netherlands, Spain, and others. This island had been an independent kingdom until some troops from the Ming Empire occupied Taiwan for 30 years. After about 200 years of ineffective and corrupt ruling under the Qing Empire, Taiwan and surrounding islands were ceded in full sovereignty to the Empire of Japan in 1895. After the end of WWII in 1945, the US Navy ferried troops from the Republic of China (ROC) to Taiwan in order to accept the formal surrender of the Japanese military forces, but there was not an international treaty signed to settle the future of Taiwan. After being defeated in China’s civil war in 1949, the Chinese Nationalist Party ruled that the ROC would occupy Taiwan as a “base” to fight against the communists in mainland China. Therefore, believe or not, the official name of Taiwan is the Republic of China. Do not feel guilty; you are not the only one getting confused by the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (China).

After more than 38 years of being ruled under martial law and the dictatorship of the nationalists, the people of Taiwan started to fight for basic rights in mid 1980s.  In 1996, Taiwan held the first direct presidential election under the military threat of China. Now more and more people believe that Taiwan and China should be two different countries due to their differences in lifestyle, democracy, and freedom.

“Mr. Democracy,” Dr. Lee Teng-Hui, President of Taiwan 1988-2000

“Mr. Democracy,” Dr. Lee Teng-Hui, President of Taiwan 1988-2000

As China becomes more powerful, Taiwan is often pushed aside, occupying the place of an “international orphan.” She lost her seat in international organizations (including the UN) in 1970s, is being cut diplomatic relations with other countries (including the U.S.), etc. Today, there are only five countries in the world without diplomatic relations with the United States.  Does America want to continue to treat Taiwan like she treats other hostile countries like Iran, Cuba, or North Korea, just because of her relationship with China?

But visiting Taiwan is wonderful. I should add that you do not need to spend much money to easily enjoy Taiwan’s scenery and delicious cuisine.

Travel in Taiwan is generally convenient and safe. You only need to pay less than $35 to take a train or bus 200 miles from Taipei, the capital, to Kaohsiung, the second largest city in south. The old capital, Tainan, has much history, or you could visit the famous Ken-ting National Park in Pingtung. The eastern coast of Taiwan, Taidong and Hualien, also showcases the power and beauty of the gorgeous Pacific Ocean.  In Taipei, the National Palace Museum is a must for visitors. The exhibits there represent the finest artworks of China’s history.

The first official academy of Taiwan in Tainan

The first official academy of Taiwan in Tainan

Taiwan’s high speed train travels 200 miles per hour between the south and the north.

Taiwan’s high speed train travels 200 miles per hour between the south and the north.

The National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in Ken-Ting National Park, Pingtung

The National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in Ken-Ting National Park, Pingtung

One of the best reasons to visit Taiwan is to experience the core of Chinese culture that is preserved there.  Language is the best example. Though people in Taiwan and China share the same official spoken languages, the Taiwanese use traditional characters while the Chinese use simplified ones that were created during its Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s. In addition, the Taiwanese are also open to western culture and are always ready to embrace new ideas. In Taiwan, you certainly will not feel that you are a stranger!

Ma-chi (rice cakes) ready to eat!

Ma-chi (rice cakes) ready to eat!

No matter where you want to visit, you certainly need to visit the local night markets and try turkey rice bowls in Chai-Yi, Tainan dan zai noodles, Changhua ba-wan (meat sphere), oyster omelets, and other yummy yummies.

It’s not Thai food, but it will not disappoint!

Night markets are the best (but inexpensive) place to explore the delicious Taiwan!

Night markets are the best and most inexpensive place to explore the delicious cuisine of Taiwan!

* Holos are people who speak a dialect in southern Fujian in China. The language spoken by the Holos also is regarded as the Taiwanese language. The Hakkas were primarily from Guangdong in China and immigrated to Taiwan 200 years ago. Hakka means “guests” in Chinese and have a situation similar to that of the Jews in Europe. In 1990s, the leaders of the three Chinese countries — China (Deng Xiaopin), Taiwan (Lee Teng-Huie), and Singapore (Lee Kuan Yew) — were all Hokkaese.

The music, the vibe, the people: All about… Trinidad {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is by Annique Joseph, a Trini native from Claxton Bay. She grew up on the island and moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2010 with her two children to live with her mother. She currently works as a clerk in the Pennsylvania State and Finance building.


When I learned about the Caribbean in school, no one really knew the difference between Trinidad and Tobago. What are the similarities and differences between the two islands? We are two different islands with the same government and currency, but we are definitely different places. People in Tobago have a bit of a different accent, a little bit more like the island of Grenada. Tobago is a bit more of a tourist attraction because they have the picturesque beaches and scenery, but we have all the petrol.

Speaking of accents, all Trinis speak English, but it’s not quite the same as what we speak in America. No, definitely not! If I’m at work, rambling on, and speaking in a normal Trinidad accent, no one understands me. They think I’m not even speaking English. I think one of the problems is that we speak a lot faster than Americans do. Another problem is the different words. “A lime” or “liming” means a social gathering, hanging out and talking, or just going to a club and dancing the night away. Basically, there are a lot of words that a Pennsylvanian wouldn’t understand.

Word order is sometimes different, too. Right. We would say, “The bottle have a yellow label” instead of “the bottle has a yellow label.” Or we say, “Rain fallin'” to say that rain is falling.

And you switch the word order, too. When I was in Trinidad, your mom would often say, “Where Peter is?” when asking for her brother instead of “Where is Peter?” Right! We also say, “What today is?” when asking about the date. But I think in Trinidad, we generally have a good way of speaking. When you are asking someone how they’re doing, they never say, “Fine, thank you.” We usually say, “Not too bad,” which is more true than all the time saying, “Fine.” It’s hard to pass ten to fifteen people at work every day and say, “How are you doing?” when no one really stops in to give you a real answer! All the same, the American way of greeting has kind of grown on me.

Another great part of Trinidad is the Carnival in February right before Lent. What’s that like? Oh, I’ll just have to take you there. Let me put it this way. It is the greatest show on the face of the earth. I think it’s extra ordinary, the music, the vibe, and all of the people, just coming together to dance and celebrate. There’s all the costumes, makeup, music, everything. It’s about relaxing and enjoying yourself — not lying on the beach relaxing, but just relaxing with people and having fun. It’s a fantastic experience that you need to have.

Emmancipation Day. August 1, 2010.

Emancipation Day. August 1, 2010.

There are Carnivals all over the world, so what’s different about your Carnival than, say, the one in Brazil? In Brazil I think the people get a lot more naked than we do while still being able to enjoy themselves, while in Trinidad, I believe there’s laws against that. The entire “Carnival season” has police on duty for 24-hour shifts. This ensures that people have fun but stay safe, although there can be interruptions at times.

How long is Carnival season? Well, Carnival basically starts from the day after Christmas. We call it “Boxing Day.” A fete [party] is also held on the said night, and then things kick off from there. After that, almost every weekend, if not every weekend, is a fete leading up to the two big days. And then the week before Carnival has a fete every night. The Friday before Carnival is called Fantastic Friday when the groovy soca and power soca competitions are held. And then on Sunday night is the calypso competition and the “king and queen of the bands” competition.

What’s the difference between soca and calypso? Soca is real upbeat and dancing music, although “groovy soca” is slower and “power soca” is faster. Both make one feel like jumping and prancing or simply grooving to the rhythm of the beat. And calypso is more of a melody with words about the government, politics, and sometimes things that are happening in the country.

How do the official days of Carnival go? The official days are Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. On Monday morning it starts, most of the time around sunrise. That’s called jouver’t, pronounced joo-vay. There are groups playing old mas and dressed up in traditional mas costumes, like the midnight robber or the blue devil. Then there’s the mocco jumbie — that’s people on stilts. Then there are the bands, all dressed up in different matching outfits, sometimes old, sometimes new. They do mud mas, which is when they throw cleaned and sometimes colored mud or paint on themselves — or on anyone else who looks too clean. So if you’re a spectator, please wear old clothes and be prepared to return home dirty! The bands in the parade, all differently owned, are judged for creativity and leave the streets around 11-12 o’clock noon to give way for the original mas players. There’s the masquerading of the bands on Tuesday as well when people come out in their costumes to play real mas. That’s when you sign up months in advance for a particular group and wear a costume made with a particular costume designer.

Costumes can be expensive, right? Oh, definitely. One can be anywhere from 3000-8000 TT dollars (about $500-1250), according to the band leader or the designer.

Playing with a mas costume. August 2010.

Playing with a mas costume. August 2010.

What do you miss most about Trinidad? Carnival is when I really miss it. Other than that, I miss being outside. I miss it being warm all the time. I miss bare feet and not having to wear so many clothes. In Trinidad, you can go out and call on all the neighbors or just visit a friend, and nobody asks you why you didn’t bother to call first. You can just stop by. In Pennsylvania in the wintertime, you’re inside and you’re inside and that’s it. Also, in Trinidad, you can just go outside and find your own food — that is, if you have a sort of garden. You can dig for yams or pick the green figs from the tree or pick some dasheen bush to make a dish. Go pick some mint for tea or just to season a piece of meat. Mango season? Go outside and pick a mango off a tree. My idea of tea is picking leaves off the bush, putting them in a pot, boiling the life out of them, or letting it draw (sit there for awhile, as the old people would say) and adding milk and sugar if you choose to right before you drink. That’s a fair idea of tea.

Trini countryside. August 2010.

Trini countryside. August 2010.

In the US, most people like Jamaican food, culture, and music. What’s the difference between Trinis and Jamaicans? Trinis tend to be way laid back. “Trini time” means that you’re half an hour late to just about everything. We also have the greatest music here: soca, calypso. For me, the best kind of music is the steel pan. In the days of slavery, they had to make these songs up with rhythm and taste.

What about the difference between jerk seasoning in Trinidad and jerk seasoning in Jamaica? There’s a difference all right! People cook it differently.

There’s also a difference between Kentucky Fried Chicken in the U.S. and KFC in Trinidad. Yes. In Trinidad, KFC is spicier and more flavorful than it is in the U.S. But there’s kind of a competition. We either eat KFC or Royal Castle (which consist of the same type of food), but they both have their customers. I personally like Royal Castle’s pepper sauce, although Trini pepper sauce in general is too hot for most Americans.

Bread, rice and pepper sauce, and fried fish. August 2010.

Bread, rice, and fried fish. August 2010.

What’s it like, growing up in a place that’s surrounded by water? Well, I can’t swim, but that doesn’t matter because you’re not living in the water or anything. One can go to the beach all the time, but you can get tired of it. When people say, “Hey, I bet you’re always on the beach,” it’s like, “Been there, done that.”

Good point. Here’s another way to look at it. Does growing up on an island make people more or less likely to leave it? We get tired of it eventually. A lot of people travel for work, because $1 in the U.S. is worth $6 in Trinidad. It isn’t unusual for Trinis to get out, travel, work, and send money back home, just to build a big house, to buy a nice car, to buy a piece of land and/or take care of their family. But if it wasn’t because of work most Trinis would want to travel anyway too. We sometimes feel the need to want more out of life, just like everybody else, and there’s just too much of the world out there to see.

28 years abroad: All about…the Netherlands {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by my aunt Colleen Savelkouls, who was born in Pennsylvania and has resided in the Netherlands since 1984. Staying at Colleen’s house in the Netherlands has been the way I’ve slept off jetlag for every single trip I have taken to Europe since 2000. Still strong to her Pennsylvanian roots — and accustomed to welcoming family visitors of all ages — Colleen is a great reference for explaining Dutch culture to Americans and expressing what she loves about both countries.


As an elementary school child growing up in central Pennsylvania, I still remember an older Dutch woman coming to talk about Holland. All I remember was her talking about wooden shoes and windmills. After all, isn’t that what most Americans think about when they try to picture Holland today — windmills, wooden shoes, and maybe tulips?

But having lived half my life in Pennsylvania and the other half in Holland, I know that there are many misconceptions that exist. First of all, Holland Dutch and Pennsylvania Dutch are not the same. The latter derives itself from the German immigrants who moved to Pennsylvania and introduced themselves with their “Deutsch” language. Second, most stories about Holland that exist in the U.S. are not necessarily about modern Holland, but the Holland that existed during or after World War II. This was the case with the older Dutch lady that I met as a child, who had left Holland to follow her love, an American soldier. Third, the country’s official name is the Netherlands. North and South Holland are actually provinces of the Netherlands from which ships used to sail with spices and Delft porcelain to sell around the world.

Here are a few differences that I have compiled to explain modern Holland, as well as the trials of living an immigrant life.

Learning languages, learning cultures. One month after receiving my Bachelor of Arts degree in 1984, I followed love to Holland. I believed I could conquer the many cultural differences and was willing to try. I was accepted easily by the Dutch, as most people my age learn English at school. Languages abound in Holland: Dutch students begin learning English around 5th or 6th grade, and in high school, they study Dutch, English, and have at least two years of both French and German. (Students going to college often also study Latin and Greek, for a total of six languages at a time.)

However, for me to learn Dutch at age 22 proved to be more difficult than I had thought. While I am now fluent after 28 years of living in Holland, I still cannot write a letter without asking someone to check my spelling. I now have more compassion for immigrants than I once did, especially a husband and wife team who are trying to learn another language as adults. My Dutch husband can correct my writing, but, as it often does with family immigrants, it often lands on the children’s shoulders to translate. After learning Dutch, I was also surprised to find that my language skills would continue to disable me in a job. I have a university level of thinking on how to approach a job, but my language skills have decreased how I can work. I can think and speak myself into a management level, but especially at the beginning, I could not write at a management level. This was limiting and, at times, very frustrating.

Old windmill near Waspik, the Netherlands, 2010

Old windmill near Waspik, the Netherlands, June 2010

Low skies and cloudy days. The first years of living in Holland, I was always asked where I was from, what I missed most about the U.S., and what was the most difficult about living abroad. My first answer was obviously learning Dutch, but the second answer — what I missed — was the mountains. Holland is extremely flat. I also did not expect to be so affected by how far north in the hemisphere Holland is. Holland is as far north as Alaska’s most southern islands, meaning that you get short days in the winter and long days in the summer (in June the sun sets at 10 PM). Due to the Atlantic Ocean, Holland has a sea climate with rain and low clouds. All together, the winters are usually cloudy, rainy, and have only 7 to 8 hours of light! If we get snow, it usually melts fairly fast. In winters, I yearn for sunshine, although I am grateful that neither summers nor winters in Holland are extremely hot or extremely cold. I tease the Dutch that they only have spring and autumn instead of four seasons.


Sunny view from the bell tower of Oude Kerk, Delft, the Netherlands, 2010

Breaking bread and drinking coffee — together. Another aspect that I had to get used to in Holland was the coffee breaks and the eating of so much bread. The average Dutch individual — blue-collar and white-collar — eat an open slice of bread or sandwich for breakfast, have a 15-minute coffee break coffee sometime between 9 and 10 AM, eat a sandwich for lunch, have 15 minutes for coffee or tea sometime between 3 and 4 PM, eat supper, and have coffee or tea again around 8 PM. In the beginning, I thought that, with so many breaks, I could never get any work done! Now, I have come to love this time. Visitors usually come to visit for coffee or tea instead of a meal; and they usually only accept one or two cookies when sweets are offered. Taking more is considered greedy. The Dutch also have the most delicious (and healthy) bread I have ever tasted, and the aroma of Dutch coffee is phenomenal! I am addicted! Coffee time is also a time to discuss how your day has gone and to plan the next few hours. This must be why Hollanders are known to be good managers!

In addition to bread, the Dutch export excellent cheese. Delft, the Netherlands, 2010

In addition to bread, the Dutch export excellent cheese. Central Market, Delft, the Netherlands, 2010

Windmills and wooden shoes?  I would assume that maybe only 1% of the Dutch still wear wooden shoes on a farm or around the house to keep their feet dry. In contrast, the Dutch are very fashion-minded and follow the latest styles. Amsterdam is getting world-wide recognition for designs and models. Also, while there are still some old wooden windmills existing, many are not in use. Instead, there are a few provinces, especially Flevoland, filled with modern 80-yard-high windmills. This tells you how windy it can get on some days! Don’t try to keep your hair neat!

Not exactly fashion-conscious, supporting the Dutch "football" team in the World Cup. Rotterdam, 2010

Not exactly fashion-conscious, supporting the Dutch “football” team in the World Cup. Rotterdam, 2010

All in all, I have come to love Holland. I would probably have culture shock if I permanently returned to the U.S. after 28 years abroad. In Holland, I don’t have to worry about the violence of guns, and I strongly recommend the Dutch multiple political party system instead of a two-party system that divides the nation. The news in Holland is more international, whereas in the U.S. the media seems to focus just on America’s own problems. There are truly good and bad things in every country, no matter where you live.

Chinese food that isn’t: All about American Chinese buffets {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

However, that being said, I have never set foot in China, nor have I ever traveled west of Italy. But I did write this article for a May 2010 issue of TheBurg after wondering about the extreme oddities of a Chinese buffet (especially a jumbo buffet) where overstuffed Americans are shuttled in rapidly to dine in gorgeous settings, plates are cleared silently by beautifully-dressed women, and the myth is perpetuated that Chinese cuisine, via these buffets, is something that Americans are familiar with and somewhat appreciate. No doubt a Chinese buffet is a cultural experience, but of what kind? 

This article was reprinted on on May 4, 2010.


Chinatown, Philadelphia, Summer 2012

Chinatown, Philadelphia, Summer 2012

The Chinese buffet is an American guilty pleasure.

The spacious booths, the gilded gold artwork — everything about a Chinese restaurant appeals to the American preference for having as much salty food as one can handle, the convenience of not cleaning up and the comfort of never running out of Coke. While this may sound uncouth, even I have to admit that I visit a buffet at least once a month.

We in Harrisburg have more Chinese restaurants in a 10-mile radius from our state Capitol than we have McDonald’s and Burger Kings combined. Good Taste on 3rd Street in Midtown (carry-out only) is for lunch, dinner and midnight cravings, offering an extensive, reasonably priced menu of lo mein, chow mein, beef, pork or chicken. Asian Empire Bistro on Union Deposit Road is a sit-down, white-tablecloth venue geared toward dinner or drinks, providing new twists on old favorites like orange beef and shrimp in chili sauce. If this isn’t enough, there are approximately 70 other Chinese restaurants in the Harrisburg area, catering to patrons’ every white rice, rice noodle need.

According to the U.S. Census, the state of Pennsylvania saw a 61% growth of the number of Asian residents between 2000 and 2010. However, for many of us, a Chinese buffet is as much of Asia as we will ever see. While we hold chopsticks and name our Chinese zodiac, we have to admit we know very little about China. Instead, we secretly believe that every meal in China is deep fried and soaked in sauce. In our eyes, Chinese homes probably come standard with an electric waterfall and a tank of live fish.

According to Indigo Som, manager of the blog “Chinese Restaurant Project,” American Chinese buffets are less windows into a foreign culture than they are mirrors of our own. The very existence of a “Chinese buffet” caters to the American need for choice and individualism. Equally, the idea that food should be heavily fried and rapidly consumed parallels the basis of our fast food culture.

Jingxia Yang (Judy) Stiffler, part-time professor of Chinese at Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA, said the Chinese view food much differently than the idea promoted at a buffet. While most clients finish a meal at a Chinese buffet in under an hour, an authentic Chinese dinner is an opportunity for patience and togetherness. The family sits around a circular table where several main dishes are placed on a large, central lazy Susan. It is culturally acceptable to eat from your own plate, from the dish in the center or to pass food from plate to plate with a quick “Here, try this.” At buffets, we clutch our plates to our chest as we wait for our share of General Tso’s, but Judy explained, “In China, there is no such thing as your ‘own plate.’ Eating is very communal.” A meal with friends can last four hours or more, starting with a cold salad and liquor and moving to stir fries, meatballs and soups. Dessert is only served for special occasions.

Traditional Chinese food differs from what we find under our buffet heat lamps. The country has five to six major types of cuisine that vary by region. Food from the Chinese province of Szechuan, for example, tends to be spicier (think Szechuan chicken) while food from the north of China is similar to that of Russia (like noodles and pickled cabbage). Vegetables such as bok choy, kai-lan, tomatoes and carrots are central to certain dishes, whereas American Chinese food pushes vegetables aside as garnish.

Judy maintained that American Chinese buffets aren’t necessarily poor representations of her country’s cuisine, but we need to regard American Chinese food for what it is. It represents both a nation of 1.3 billion people and a nation with a population one quarter of China’s — ours.

In Harrisburg, Paxton Street’s Jumbo Buffet welcomes the same patrons as the nearby Planet Fitness. Evergreen Chinese Buffet on the Carlisle Pike serves clients in a neonlit former diner. Across social and ethnic boundaries, we value equally the ability to promptly cater to our own tastes, and we rub shoulders with the neighbors with whom we would otherwise never speak. A Chinese buffet becomes a cultural intersection — a place where we are fully American and then some.

Transcending Erasure: All about… Palestine {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Kara Newhouse, author of the blog Rogue Anthropologist. She published these posts individually for Israeli Apartheid Week, a week focused on educating people about “the nature of Israel as an apartheid system” and the injustices therein.

Kara taught and reported from Palestine in 2010. She is now a journalist for the Perry County Times and fights for the human rights of all people in Pennsylvania. Additionally, Kara is an aspiring children’s author, tinkers in portrait photography, and sells hand-woven scarves.


I’ve lived in an unusual array of places in my young life, and I try to be compassionate in my responses to the misunderstandings I hear about those places. I don’t shout when I’m asked if I was forced to wear a burqa, and when someone substitutes Pakistan for Palestine, I chalk it up to alliterative confusion. When people tell others I lived in Israel or ask me what it was like to live in Israel, though, my reaction is a bit different. I have never lived in Israel, nor have I ever said I did, since that would be political erasure of a people and their history. I lived in the city of Nablus, which is in the West Bank of Palestine. Here are five things you might not know about Palestine.

1) Contemporary Palestine consists of two territories: Gaza and the West Bank (so named for being on the western bank of the Jordan River). In 1948, the creation of Israel through the forced expulsion of the Palestinian people who lived there sparked a war with surrounding Arab countries and Palestinians. At the end of the war, Israel had taken over 75% of historical Palestine and obliterated more than 500 towns and villages. What remained of the Palestinian land was the West Bank, which came under Jordan’s rule, and Gaza, which came under the rule of Egypt.

In 1967, Israel launched a successful surprise attack on Egypt and took over large swaths of land, including the West Bank and Gaza in what’s known as the six-day war. Israeli forces have continued to occupy these areas for the past 46 years—hence the term “Occupied Palestinian Territories.” This means that to get into and out of the West Bank, I had to go through Israeli border patrol. While this meant frustration and delays for me as an American, I met many Palestinians who had no hope of ever being able to get through those checkpoints to visit Jerusalem or another country. Military checkpoints are also set up throughout the territories to restrict Palestinians from free movement within the area.

Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is illegal. Under international law, is it not acceptable for countries to acquire territory through war.

israel-palestine map

Israel-Palestine map

2. I know dozens of Palestinians and zero terrorists. It hurts my soul that I even have to include this on the list, but the stereotype of Muslim terrorism broadly and Palestinian terrorism specifically is still present in America. Contrary to that image, in the six months I lived in the West Bank I was joyously invited into Palestinian homes and hearts in a way I’ve not experienced in any other place on the globe. When I have guests in my own home now I try to give back the same hospitality I received. The bar is high.


Samahair, director of the youth development center at al Aroub refugee camp. All rights reserved.


Hamoud, a charismatic 13-year-old selling corn in Awarta village. All rights reserved.

3. Palestine is not a desert, but the desserts are great. The images of sand and blood that characterize the modern Middle East in U.S. news and history books were the only ones I had to draw from when imagining the land I headed for in early 2010. To my delight, those images were far from accurate. Here’s a description I wrote that spring in my beloved new home:

“The region around Nablus is full of rolling green hills with craggy gray rock breaking out from the grass. A few weekends ago, the TYO staff went on a ramble (“hike” by Nabulsi standards, “long walk” by mine) through the countryside, where my spirit soaked in the sun and pastoral scenery of goats and sheep among the olive groves. Even on the city streets I pass lemon trees, orange trees and many flowers in bloom. My friend Mary constantly asks if I smell jasmine, although we haven’t actually seen the plants.”

I miss those olive groves and citrus trees, and I also miss Palestinian sweets, like kanafeh.


The land. All rights reserved.

Manarat Nablus Sweets Shop

Manarat Nablus Sweets Shop. All rights reserved.

4. Palestine is not underdeveloped. It’s been de-developed. I dislike the terms “underdeveloped” and “developing” as ways of describing countries. These words harm our understanding of people around the globe, and slide past the history and contemporary politics of the world economy with a one-dimensional economic attribute. The terms also hold an assumption that all countries are or should be moving on a trajectory toward being like the U.S. and other “developed” countries. What’s happened to the West Bank since Israel began building a wall between the two areas in 2002 is an example of economics working otherwise. An American woman I interviewed in 2010 who’d married a Palestinian before the wall was built spoke to its dramatic economic events:

“Palestine has been de-developed so rapidly. You know, people are so much poorer now than they were even ten years ago. It’s really remarkable, and pretty unusual to have within less than a generation — to have such rapid imposed poverty. I don’t think internationals can quite comprehend…how huge of an impact that has on the ability of Palestinians to effectively organize…Up until the second intifada and the beginning of the real closure, people could work. It wasn’t great, but farmers could sell their produce, and you know, all this stuff. It’s been literally in ten years, people going from okay, a low economic standard of living to real economic insecurity.”

Apartheid Wall Up Close 1

Apartheid Wall Up Close. All rights reserved.

Walking with Hajj Rashad

Rashad Abdel Rahman is 70-years-old and the head of the village council of Isla, where Israel’s apartheid wall has cut villagers off from their land, olive trees, and livelihoods. All rights reserved.

5. Refugees. For my first three months in Nablus, I taught after-school art classes to children from the city’s refugee camps. “How can there be Palestinian refugees in Palestine?” a friend recently asked me. In 1948, when Palestinian villages were burned and families fled the area that is now the state of Israel, they escaped to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Some also took refuge at camps in other parts of Palestine—the territories that are now the West Bank and Gaza. Sixty-five years later, those refugees and the subsequent generations still identify their homes as the land across the border, which they cannot go to. “I live in Nablus, but I’m from Haifa,” is a common thing to hear, even if the speaker is 20 years-old and has never seen Haifa or the Mediterranean coast along which is sits.

While the refugee identity and belief in the right to return endure, other features of the camps have changed. Mainly, the population in camps has grown exponentially while the amount of land allotted for them to live in has remained the same. For example, Balata refugee camp — where many of my students lived — is home to 20,000 inhabitants in a 1 square-kilometer area. Contrary to the popular image of refugees, the dwellings in these camps are not tents. They are concrete apartments squeezed in between and on top of each other as the population has swelled. Many of the homes get little sunlight, and children — like my students — have limited areas to play in.

Balata produce seller

Balata produce seller. All rights reserved.

TYO Art and Storytelling Class

Kara surrounded by her art and storytelling class. All rights reserved.

This post cannot encapsulate all that is life in the West Bank–nor even, can the six months I spent there–but calling the place by name and listening to the stories of the people there is a start to understanding all of the beauty and suffering of contemporary Palestine.

On becoming more selfless and others-aware: All about… Seoul, South Korea {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Katy Weyforth of Fallston, Maryland.


After graduating from college with a degree in geology, I interviewed all summer for jobs that I didn’t even want to do. With college loans looming overhead and credit card debt accumulating up to my eyeballs, I decided to do what I thought any normal 22-year old would: apply to teach English in South Korea. In truth, I had been insanely jealous of my many friends who had studied abroad during high school or college, so I wanted my chance to shine — my chance to get out into the world, to learn a completely new language, to become a pro at traveling alone, and to grow outside of the comfortable bubble of Bel Air, Maryland, that I called home.

Though I had soaked in every word of the 20-page information packet given to me after I was hired as a teacher, I didn’t do much research about South Korea prior to my arrival. I expected that Koreans would stare at my long red hair and that I’d have to learn to bow to others instead of shaking hands. But what I didn’t expect was to become puzzled, confused, embarrassed, and even disappointed about some aspects of Korean life only to find myself later admiring the very things that frustrated me in the first place.

1. Embracing the future means respecting the past. The first thing that amazed me was the vibrant and progressive nature of Seoul. Having been born and raised in the suburbs of Baltimore, I was enthralled by the stunningly-designed high-rise buildings that were interlaced with traditional Korean houses, farmers markets, and historic Buddhist temples.

This intermingling of modern and history is a theme visible in all aspects of Korean culture. On a normal subway commute to work, I would often see groups of aged adjusshees (old men) in the subway station playing ancient Korean board games, oblivious to their contrast to the hurried women clad in fur, heels, and Louis Vuitton handbags. If there was ever a collision between a woman and one of the adjusshees, the woman would quickly bow to the old man, humbly assume responsibility for her error, and continue on.

This modern city simply respects the role of the aged. Instead of demolishing or redesigning their country to reflect South Korea’s growing place in the global economy, Koreans embrace the history that built their nation and honor those that came before them.

A view from my apartment window shows the stark contrast between older Korean buildings and the modern apartment complexes and high-rise office buildings adjacent to them.

A view from my apartment window shows the contrast between older Korean buildings and the modern high-rise offices.

2. A large population requires a large effort. After about a week in Seoul, I noticed that there were no public trash receptacles in the city. I had thought that a bustling city with so many people constantly getting quick bites to eat should absolutely have public trash cans; however, I was wrong! The population density of Seoul, when combined with the global initiative to “go green,” translates into a high level of environmental responsibility from its residents.

I absolutely cannot tell you how it worked, but the city expects all residents to separate their home trash into a billion different colorful bags categorized by type of waste. You are then supposed to find the correct dumpsters in which to dispose of it all. I could figure out the bags, but I could never figure out the pick-up days — anytime I noticed bags accumulating on the sidewalk in front of my building, I’d tiptoe downstairs and add mine to the pile.

However, in my 27 months of living in Seoul, I never saw a rat or a mouse, even during the year in which I lived above a restaurant. The subways were nearly spotless, streets were generally litter-free, and the only pest was the occasional stray cat. The extra communal effort of cleanliness and ‘green living’ made Seoul one of the cleanest cities in my book.

Baskin Robbins: An example of the "Americanization" of Korea.

Me and several friends at Baskin Robbins: An example of “Americanization”

3. The peace of public safety. As ominously vast, busy, and crowded as Seoul was to me, I felt safe in every location and at all times of the day. I noticed police cars on only three occasions: first, when half a park bridge fell into a stream; second, during a highway alcohol screening when every driver was given a breathalyzer test; and third, when masses of young officers were bussed in to prevent rioting on Buddha’s birthday. The only time I saw a gun was on the belt of a bank officer inside my bank on the day I set up my bank account. This was a whole new world for me, a girl who had lived in the suburbs of Baltimore and whose father basically hides an arsenal of weapons around the house! Despite my limited understanding of Korean and my anxiety when following directions in unfamiliar locations, I had peace wandering around Seoul, learning that it can be fun to explore when lost and that back alleys hold the best tea shops.

Just one of the amazing floats contributing to the Buddha's birthday parade.  Though most of the country is now Christian, thousands of people come out every year to enjoy the celebration of their country's founding religion.  Buddhist ideology still runs rampant throughout every aspect of Korean culture.

Just one of the amazing floats of Buddha’s birthday parade. Though most of the country is now Christian, thousands of people come out every year to enjoy the celebration of their country’s founding religion.

Rooted deeply in the Korean psyche is the desire to act for the sake of the family or a group instead of one’s self. Many times I found I had to sacrifice my own desires and accept what my friends wanted instead. I had a difficult time adjusting to this, but after some introspection and a few conversations on Western and Eastern cultural differences with a dear Korean friend, I realized that I was being stretched out of my independent “every-man-for-himself” ideology to become someone who was more selfless and others-aware.

Modern wedding: An example of how much Korean culture embraces the family unit: instead of having a small wedding party and taking photos with immediate family members only, Koreans have their photographer gather every friend and family member together for one big picture after the wedding.

Instead of having a small wedding party and taking photos with immediate family members, Koreans have their photographer gather every friend and family member together for one big picture.

This understanding and respect for those around you, woven like a thread through Korean culture, is what surprised me most about living in Seoul. Even though these aspects of Korea were tedious at first, I eventually learned to step out of my limited zone to appreciate the larger picture of involving others beside myself. When I returned to America, I returned with new insight about how all our actions, no matter how large or small, impact those around us — those of the past, the present, and the future.

Ancient Herbs: I found this tiny shop walking down a back street.  Though there are small pharmacies on every street corner, the value of the ancient remedies can not be understated.  Displayed are containers of herbs and roots with medicinal uses dating back thousands of years.

Though there are small pharmacies on every street corner, the value of the ancient remedies can not be understated. Displayed are containers of herbs and roots with medicinal uses dating back thousands of years.

Better in Masaailand: All about… Kenya {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.
This week’s post is written by Heather Loring-Albright who is pursuing on a Master of Arts degree at the Chicago Theological Seminary with a focus in Women’s Studies and Black Studies. She has traveled to Kenya twice, most recently for two months in 2011. This particular reflection is from 2007 when Heather traveled to a traditional Masaai village two hours from Nairobi. The entire trip was “a painfully short 13 days,” which is why she went back years later. About Kenya, she recalls, “I learned a lot about simplicity and community there. I learned that I don’t need many things to find joy in spending time with other people. Togetherness is a real value for the family that I stayed with in Masaailand, and their community reflected that strength.”
All rights reserved.

My safari at Masaai Mara. All rights reserved.

All too often for Westerners, the entire continent of Africa is envisioned in a series of generalizations that waft somewhere between sand, savannahs, sun, poverty, and violence. However, Kenya is, comparatively speaking, a well-to-do nation. Kenya’s economy is the largest by GDP in East Africa, although low infrastructure investment threatens their ability to grow. Kenya received its independence from the British on December 12, 1963, and today, much of the country is modernized with large cities that exist alongside smaller villages and towns.  Many people travel into and out of Kenya; safaris are the most well-known tourist attraction.
For the most part, Kenya is politically and economically stable. However, there was violence surrounding the elections in 2008, shortly after my first visit. In 2011, I visited an Internally Displaced Persons camp full of people who had lost their homes in 2008 and were still waiting for the government to grant them new plots of land. Government corruption, such as bribes, nepotism, and tribalism is rampant here, but this is not unique to Africa; with Hurricane Katrina in the United States, we saw how all governments tend to take advantage of the powerless and voiceless condition of the poor.
The following reflection is about the Masaai people who live simply and traditionally as nomadic herders within this modernized country. A semi-accurate metaphor would be to say that the Masaai are the Amish of Kenya, for they work hard to protect their tribal lands as well as their way of living. I’ve chosen to focus on how I feel life is better in Masaailand, Kenya, because I think people already have enough negative misconceptions of Africa as a whole, regardless of the country. I’d rather provide a positive and unexpected window into a place that many people will never visit to show what we can learn from Kenya opposed to what we feel must be changed.
Nairobi skyline.

Nairobi skyline.

In Massiland, I most appreciated the following:

1. Patience. When our car broke down — for the second and third time — while driving through Ngong, my host mom would just laugh and say, “No problem.” During one of the breakdowns, we pulled over by a concrete wall which acted as a gate for a nearby business, and as cars whizzed past us amid bright billboards and throngs of people, the driver patiently attempted to fix the car. A tape played over and over again in the tape deck, but eventually, we got going again. Nothing seemed to faze my host mom. In Masaailand, time revolved around our needs instead of the other way around.

All rights reserved.

Friends from the village. All rights reserved.

2. Dancing. Unlike the States, where people feel that they need training or copious libations to make it onto the dance floor, folks in Masaailand are avid dancers. I noticed this at a cultural festival attended by over 1000 people, where soccer and volleyball, food, and time brought people together to talk and laugh under the sun. When a fun tune would start, everyone would begin moving, even the little kids! I was holding a small baby who bopped along to the beat. Back wraps held other children close to their mamas as they moved. It was amazing to see so much movement and appreciation of music by all ages.

All rights reserved.

Gifting me a lesso, a traditional, loose-fitting garment used to provide color and to allow wind to cycle around your body and cool you down. All rights reserved.

3. Community. Because they are a distinct ethnic group, the Masaai have close ties with their family groups and larger clans. People often drop by uninvited. In fact, that is the custom. It is considered rude (or at least unconventional) to schedule an appointment to visit someone. Additionally, if you don’t make house calls, people will begin to wonder why you refuse to stop by and say hello. Visitors are to be treated with the utmost respect and hospitality, so one must always be ready to host.

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Adorable goats. All rights reserved.

4. Chai. Kenyans love chai. It is usually 1 part water to 1 part milk, with “Kericho Gold” or some other type of black tea (grown in vast tea fields in Kenya) plus mountains of sugar. When someone serves you chai, you must drink the entire cup. This becomes an issue when you are making numerous home visits in a row. Chai is highly caffeinated.

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The Maasai are herders; these are cows resting by a tree. All rights reserved.

5. Stars. Although plumbing is typical for the average Kenyan, in Masaailand, it is not, and I loved walking to the outhouse at night. I would regularly turn off my flashlight and gaze up at the night sky. There were so many beautiful stars, big and small, that I could hardly make out all the constellations I learned in school! Being in the southern hemisphere gave me a different view too. It was breathtaking.

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Leaving the Masaai valley. All rights reserved.

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