The effects of conflict

This past June in Uganda, I had an opportunity to really see some of the effects of conflict firsthand, and it was really eye-opening. It’s not like Gulu is a war-town pile of rubble or anything, it’s been peaceful since 2006 and is a very safe place. But the people there are still recovering from the LRA conflict, and Northern Uganda is also affected by conflicts in the DRC and South Sudan. There were some things that I expected to see, and some that I just never would have understood or known about without seeing them. Those are the things I’ll talk about here- things that I just didn’t fully understand, or didn’t even know were problems.

Though it wasn’t immediately visible that Gulu had been through a war, the effects on individuals were clear once we started interacting with them. The OU education students were working in a women’s primary school at St. Monica’s, and the rest of us got to tutor some of the students and give exams while we were there. Most of the women in school had stopped going to school when they were very young due to conflict. The women’s education was interrupted at such a young age that they really didn’t have the basic skills you need just to get by. We were working on math skills that I remember learning in first or second grade, like addition and place value. I can’t imagine trying to live without those basic skills, even just for budgeting and keeping track of money. I guess I just take knowing how to do basic arithmetic for granted, and didn’t quite realize all the implications of not actually getting to learn that.

The conflicts in neighboring countries also had some visible effects on Northern Uganda. Early on in our study abroad, we went on a two day road trip around Northern Uganda to drop medical and nursing students off at various health centers. Our journey took a lot longer than we thought it would. I didn’t think much of it, but Sister Rosemary (the Sacred Heart Sister in charge of the compound we were staying on) said that it was due to the heavy traffic of UN trucks to and from Bidi bidi refugee camp near Moyo, Uganda. Bidi bidi currently hosts around 270,000 refugees, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. The massive amount of traffic to and from the camp, coupled with the fact that there is virtually no road maintenance in Northern Uganda, means that the roads around the camp are deteriorating rapidly. We saw the effects of this when our drive took three times as long as predicted. The effects of that on everyday life and development are huge, because it’s really difficult to get much done with almost impassable roads. I certainly never would have known that that would be such a big problem without actually seeing it.

Uganda is still recovering from it’s own conflict, and still has a long way to go toward repairing all the damage that was done, particularly to individuals lifestyles and education. Meanwhile, it’s still dealing with conflicts in neighboring countries. Uganda has a very compassionate refugee policy, and pretty much has open borders, so there are a lot of refugees in the country, particularly in the northern part. In fact, some of the women in the school at St. Monica’s are refugees from either South Sudan or the DRC. This puts additional strain on Northern Uganda to try and accommodate all those people. To add on to all that, people in the South of the country, where the government is, still have really negative opinions about the North due to the LRA conflict and former president Milton Obote’s use of Northern Ugandans as soldiers in his very violent army, so less governmental aid is afforded to the north than the south. Basically, the effects of conflict in Northern Uganda are widespread and complicated, making it difficult for them to continue to develop.

Impressions from Gulu, Uganda

This past June I had the opportunity to study abroad in Gulu, Uganda. I was taking an engineering class, and our main goal was to build a spring box to provide clean water for a planned compound about 2 hours from Gulu. Long story short, there wasn’t a spring, so that project did not go as planned. Instead, we struggled to come up with a useful project, and settled on hiring a contractor to drill a well, making a plan for the water distribution system at the site, and making a map of the site that was to scale. We only accomplished two of these three objectives, as the contractor did not make it out to the site before we had to go home. It turns out that’s just how things work in Uganda, you need to plan for everything to take a lot longer than you might think. I really wish we had been there for more than three weeks so that we could have made a little more progress.

Though the academic experience in Uganda was a little frustrating, the cultural experience was incredible. The one positive of not really having a project to do was that we had a lot of free time to explore Gulu and interact with the people on the compound where we were staying. In the afternoons, the girls in the tailoring school would have a break, and we would all play soccer or netball together, or just sit under a tree and talk. There were also some construction projects going on within the compound – a new library was just built and a new guest house is under construction. I spent a lot of time at these sites attempting to learn how to build things, and getting to know some of the people on the construction crew. Those guys are some of the most impressive people I have ever met, and some of the nicest. They were patient enough to teach me everything from laying tile to making bricks, and even let me attempt to help on their projects. I can’t imagine I was much help, but it was a really good learning experience.

Overall, my impression of Gulu was a positive one. The people we met there are still recovering from the LRA conflict, and many are affected by the current crises in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but they are incredibly resilient and positive people. Things may take a little longer to get done there, but that’s just something you have to deal with in developing areas. I actually wish we had been able to stay longer, because I was just starting to get settled in and build relationships when we had to leave. I definitely want to go back and take time to continue to build those relationships, because Gulu really was an incredible place.

Preparing to go abroad again!

As a Global Engagement Fellow at OU, I get to go abroad not just once, but twice. I did my longer trip almost 2 years ago to China, and decided that this summer might be a good time to go on my shorter trip. OU has a lot of options for summer study abroad programs, and it took me a long time to sift through them all. I had it narrowed down to a few in China and Taiwan, but actually ended up taking my study abroad advisor’s advice and applying for a program in Uganda. The program I’ll be participating in is three weeks at St. Monica’s Girl’s School in Gulu, Uganda. Though I miss China, I’m glad that I’ll be taking this opportunity to go someplace that I’m much less likely to go to after I graduate college. The program also has an Engineering track, and is part of a cooperative development effort between OU and St. Monica’s.

I’m excited to go abroad again, but this will be a lot different than China. I’m pretty nervous about going there because I know so little about what it will be like. When I went to China, I was a little nervous, but I had spent several years learning about Chinese language and culture. I kind of knew what I was getting myself into. I don’t know a lot about Ugandan culture or history, but I do know that since gaining independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda has gone through a lot of violence. I’m nervous about being about being able to interact effectively and sensitively with people whose culture I understand so little and who have been through so much recent violence. You can bet that I’ll be reading a lot of books on Uganda in the next few weeks.

The school we are staying at, St. Monica’s Girl’s School, was actually founded to help victims of violence, particularly victims of a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony. The group abducted between 30,000 and 40,000 children who were either killed or forced to become child soldiers and sex slaves. Children who did manage to escape were stigmatized and rarely accepted back into their communities. St. Monica’s was established to teach skills to young women who escaped the LRA and were stigmatized by their communities so that they could provide for themselves. The school teaches tailoring, catering, and hairdressing, and was founded by Sister Rosemary Niyrumbe. The original school is in Gulu, but there is another campus in Atiak that was recently opened.

The part we will play in all of this is in helping to provide St. Monica’s with enough water. Last year, OU students surveyed people at St. Monica’s and in the areas around Gulu and Atiak to determine what their water needs were. Basically, they found out that everyone has trouble getting water, and that the burden of getting water primarily affects women. This year, we will be building a protected spring box for an agricultural farm owned by St. Monica’s, as well as work on a few other projects to improve the water situation at St. Monica’s. I’m definitely nervous about it, but also excited to be doing something that is useful and bigger than just me going someplace interesting.

Interesting notes from my Chinese Linguistics project

This semester I’m taking an independent study Chinese course. The course is an extension of my previous Language, Culture, and Cognition course, where we proposed a design for a linguistic study. This semester I actually attempted to conduct the study that a proposed. The study I proposed was a linguistic relativity study looking at the differences between Chinese and English. Linguistic Relativity is the theory that the language we speak actually influences the way we think. For example, other researchers have found that the orientation of our writing influences how we visualize scenes, and what part of scenes we pay most attention to. English speakers tend to notice more from the upper left corner of a scene because our text starts there. Taiwanese Mandarin speakers, however, still often read texts that go from top to bottom and then right to left, and they have been found to notice more from the upper right corner.

The study I proposed looked at something a little bit similar to this- the difference between Chinese and English punctuation. Chinese speakers tend to use a lot more commas and fewer periods than English speakers. It’s normal for half a page of text to have maybe only 2 or 3 periods. I wanted to see if this difference in punctuation was reflected in how people parsed long sequences of events in their mind. My method for testing this involved having people arrange pictures that represented a very long sequence of events to see how they broke them down into lines. I only managed to complete a pilot study this semester, but hope to complete a full study in the future. The pilot study only had 15 participants, but there were some interesting results. For one, the Chinese speakers tended to make longer lines with the pictures than the English speakers. This may actually support my hypothesis that how information is parsed in language affects how it is parsed in the mind. Chinese tends to have longer sentences than English, so we might expect that they would break the pictures into longer segments. Another interesting observation was that there was much more variation between English speakers than Chinese speakers in how they arranged the pictures. The Chinese speakers all meticulously arranged the pictures in the order I had intended, while several English speakers put them in a completely different order.

These results aren’t very meaningful at the moment, since it was just a small pilot study using methodology that needs major improvement. I just thought it would be interesting to share because I still find the idea of linguistic relativity really fascinating.

CLC Chinese Language Practice

This is the first semester I have been able to really get involved and participate in Chinese Language Club’s Language Practice Hour. I went to a few freshman year, but never really managed to go consistently until this semester. It was an interesting experience as a CLC officer, trying to figure out when and where to hold it, and how to get people to come. There were definitely a couple hours spent in a dingy room in Dale Hall Tower with nobody except for myself and AJ (CLC’s president). We had a good time attempting to speak Chinese to each other and trying to devise ways to make more people show up.

As the semester went on, we moved the practice hour to a much nicer room in Wagner Hall, found Chinese professors to join in, and managed to offer free pizza. We managed to have 5 or 6 people each week, which was a big step up from just AJ and I sitting in Dale Hall Tower. The moral of the story here is that free food is apparently a must for a successful event. It was good to get to keep practicing my Chinese, especially since I don’t have a Chinese class this semester. It’s important to find a way to keep practicing a language, and CLC practice hour was a good way to do that in the middle of a crazy busy semester. It was also good to meet some of the younger Chinese majors and minors as well as professors I’ve never had class with, and reconnect with old friends and professors from Chinese classes.

Global Engagement Day

This year, OU had it’s second annual Global Engagement day. I initially didn’t think I would be able to go because I’ve been super busy, but I managed to make it to a session where people tell their stories from abroad, and I’m glad I did. It was definitely a very nostalgic experience, because I’ve been so focused on school and rowing that I’ve gotten pretty far removed from my time abroad. I don’t even have a Chinese class this semester to keep me in touch with that experience, so Global Engagement Day was a good opportunity to spend a little more time reflecting on my time abroad. The longer I’ve been back the crazier that semester seems. I definitely spent most of my time there sitting in various coffee shops and studying, but I also did a lot of crazy things like running in the middle of the night and staying at a stranger’s house and going just a step past that one sign halfway up a hill somewhere that said to keep out. I’m really glad I took all the opportunities that I did, because I definitely don’t remember many of the vocab words that I learned, but I do remember the crazy things. Those stuck in my mind, and make for great stories now.

Global Engagement Day was also nice because I got to reconnect with the GEF’s I knew from my class, and hear their stories from abroad. Last time I saw most of them, we were just freshmen who were super excited and nervous to study abroad. It was cool to hear where everyone ended up going and how their experiences went. No matter where people went, they all had some crazy stories about things they did. I think there’s just something about going abroad for a semester that makes people take opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t take. I definitely did a lot more while abroad than I normally would, anyway. Part of it was that I was only there for a semester, and I didn’t want to miss out on anything. Part of it was just that I was succeeding at this crazy thing and it gave me the confidence to do things I wouldn’t normally do. Another part of it was that in a new place with new people, I could be a completely different person who did different things without having to explain myself to people.

Whatever the reason, I definitely am glad I had the opportunity to go abroad and do something outside my comfort zone just about every day. It definitely made me grow in ways that I don’t really notice every day, but that I can see pretty clearly when I think about my life before I went abroad. For example, now I’m so much better at talking to people, because no normal conversation can possibly be worse than two hours of wandering around speaking broken Chinese to a long string of tired airport employees who can’t help you exchange your ticket. Basically what I’m trying to say is Global Engagement Day made me reflect a bit more on my time in China, and I feel really grateful for that experience and all the great stories and memories that I have from it.

Lantern Festival/Chinese New Year

First of all, sorry for being super far behind in posting my blogs. This really should have been posted in February or March, but here it is in May. As usual, OU’s Chinese Language Club hosted a Chinese New Year festival. We couldn’t reserve a room in time to actually do it on Chinese New Year, so we just moved the celebration to Lantern Festival, which is the festival marking the end of New Year Festivities.

As with most Chinese Festivals, there are some cool folk legends associated with Lantern Festival. The most common legend is that once, the Jade Emperor of Heaven sent a crane down to Earth, and the crane was killed by a villager. The crane was a favorite of the Jade Emperor, and he was very angry that it was killed. He told the villagers that he would set fire to the village as punishment. His daughter, however, pitied the villagers, for the killing of the crane was only an accident, so she told them when the Emperor planned to set fire to the village. On the day when the Emperor planned to burn the village, the villagers decorated every house with bright lanterns. The Emperor saw the village lit up from afar, and believed that it was already on fire, so he didn’t go to burn it down. Thus, the village was saved.

In the modern day, Lantern Festival is still celebrated with colorful lanterns. The lanterns are often red, and some even feature riddles for people to solve. There is also a food associated with Lantern Festival, called 元宵 (yuan xiao). 元宵 are glutinous rice balls. Their round shape symbolizes family togetherness. As with many Chinese Festivals, Lantern Festival is a time to gather and enjoy food with family.

The OU Chinese program family had a nice celebration, featuring元宵 and 饺子 (jiao zi, a delicious type of dumpling) that were handmade by the Chinese professors, other CLC officers, and yours truly. Despite the fact that we couldn’t get music or our presentation to work, and the food was a little late, the event was a success. I look forward to next year when we’ll get to do it all again.

OU Asian Food Fair

Today was a good day, because among other reasons, I got to eat some delicious food at OU’s Asian Food Fair. Plus it felt like it was free, because even though it cost $7, I bought the ticket yesterday so it seemed like it was free today. The Asian Food fair is hosted by OU’s Asian American Student Association, and it raises money to provide holiday meals and gifts to underprivileged kids. The food at the food fair was provided by several Asian food restaurants around Norman.

Though I didn’t have time to stay for long, I got to sample several different types of Asian food. To be totally honest, I’m not that adventurous of an eater, plus I had practice this afternoon and I didn’t want to eat anything weird right before practice, so I only tried one thing that was unfamiliar. It turned out to be a desert that was probably coconut milk based and had some fruit and jello in it. It wasn’t bad, so I’d say I made a good choice. Of course, I sampled some more familiar looking dishes from several restaurants

Overall, it was a great way to break up the monotony of always eating the same lunch, and got me thinking about how much I miss Chinese food. Not the stuff you get at Panda Express that’s doused in sweet and sour sauce but the hot pot and Dalian seafood and baozi and $1 fried rice from the sketchy looking shop across the street. I’m not really sure where I was hoping to go with this post, I guess I was just feeling nostalgic. I’ll get back to China someday, if for no other reason than just to see and hear and experience it all again.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far, and thanks to AASA for setting up a great event for a great cause.

Confucius Institute Day

As usual with this blog, it took me a long time to get this post up, but I still think it’s worth posting about. About a month ago was the Confucius Institute hosted an event designed to celebrate the connection between Beijing Normal University and OU and raise awareness about the Confucius Institute and the study abroad scholarships they provide. There were speeches by faculty from Beijing Normal University and OU, performances by Chinese learners from Norman high schools, music, and lots of free Chinese food. As a recipient of the scholarship, I spent a few hours working at a booth telling people about the Confucius Institute Scholarship, and I’ll spend a little bit more time talking about it now.

The Confucius Institute at OU is a really great organization. They provide free Chinese related classes, such as beginning Chinese language, Chinese calligraphy, Chinese paper cutting, and various other Chinese culture courses. They also provide HSK testing, which is an advantage, and sometimes even a necessity, for anyone who wants to study or work in China. Finally, they help students apply to the Confucius Institute scholarship. The Confucius Institute Scholarship is one of the best ones out there for studying in China. It’s not terribly competitive, although you do need to know some Chinese to apply. The application process involves taking the HSK, writing a short essay, choosing a school to apply to, and filling out a fairly easy form. All of this is made even easier by the fact that the lovely people at the OU Confucius Institute will walk you through the whole process.

The Confucius Institute has offices all around the country and world (most of the people I met in China who had received a Confucius Institute Scholarship were from Belarus!), so even if you’re not in Oklahoma it’s still a great resource for learning about China or getting scholarships to go there and study. I would highly encourage anyone who is interested in studying in China to check out the Confucius Institute.

Chinese Linguistics

This semester I’m taking a class on Chinese Linguistics, and it’s one of the more interesting and useful classes I’ve ever taken. I really wish I could have taken it when I started learning Chinese, because suddenly, a lot of things that seemed random suddenly make sense. This post probably won’t interest anyone unless you like linguistics or speak Chinese, but one of my favorite things about learning Chinese is discovering all the weird ways that it makes sense, even though it seems pretty arbitrary.

For example, “this” and “that” in Chinese are “这” and “那”. But sometimes, even most of the time, you’ll hear people pronounce them as “zhei” or “nei”. I thought that it was just kind of a weird accent, lots of people in Chinese have accents and nobody really pronounces things exactly how they sound on textbook CD’s. But that’s not the case! It actually makes so much sense, because “zhei” and “nei” are just shortened versions of “这一” and “那一” (zhe yi and na yi), meaning “this one” and “that one”. It’s a little thing, but it makes so much more sense now.

If you’ve ever written a paper in Chinese, you’ve hopefully used the great trick of mentioning someone or something with a really long name, and then instead of just using a pronoun, write out the whole name as often as possible to help bring up the character count. Maybe not everyone does that, but I do that. And if you haven’t done it, that’s the way to go when You’ve also probably noticed that if you do this you don’t ever get called out for it. Apparently, that’s because Chinese speakers tend to use third person pronouns a lot less than English speakers do, and it’s totally normal to just say the full name all the time. I never noticed before, but now that I’ve been told this, it’s really noticeable every time I read something in Chinese.

There are a lot of other small things that I found interesting, which I won’t go into here becasue this post would be really long otherwise. I would really encourage everyone learning Chinese, or any second language, to take a linguistics class specific to that language, it uncovers a lot of connections that were unclear before, and helps make sense of all the things about language that seem really arbitrary.

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