A while ago, I got an OU mass mail from the professor I studied in Uganda with, inviting people to attend OU’s annual water symposium. I’ve been doing some research on water filtration technologies for developing countries, so naturally I saw this as a good opportunity to reconnect with the more social science side of the issue. The event was free and completely open to the public, and included a discussion on global water issues with a panel, as well as the announcement of the OU Water Prize.
The panel included leaders from non-profits, businesses, and academia who work in water, health, and sanitation. Each member gave a short talk on what they’re working on. One of the talks that caught my attention the most talked about what a successful technology for application in developing areas actually entails, and the basic premise was that simple technology is the best technology. While that may seem a little bit obvious, there are so many well-meaning people and organizations that install electric pumps, or other technology that is difficult for locals to repair if it breaks. The technology that the panelist talked about specifically was essentially a sand filter, but arranged in such a way that makes it easy for people to replace the sand. Rather than packing the sand in a vertical column, like we do in the lab, they simply put the sand in a horizontal box, which is much easier to open and re-pack when necessary.
Another interesting point from the panel was the social issues surrounding water technology in the developing world. One of the speakers mentioned an example where teenagers had been destroying the freshly-installed water filter, because it eliminated the time they had spent together away from their families while they were getting water. This isn’t something that happens often, but is an interesting example of the types of social considerations that we most likely would never predict. The same speaker also mentioned that a water filter is much more likely to be maintained well if it is “owned” by one person or family in a village than if it is owned by the community as a whole. I never would have guessed that, but it’s a really important thing to know in order to actually apply any water filtration technology.
Finally, the recipient of the OU Water prize was announced. This year, the winner was Martha Gebeyehu, for her work in improving clean water access in Ethiopia. She’s the training center manager at Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church, and works to train people in clean water and sanitation technologies. Overall, the water symposium was a really great experience. It was exciting to hear some other work that can be connected to the work I’m currently doing in the lab, and inspiring to hear about the work that Martha Gebeyehu is doing.
As I have every year of college, this year I attended the Chinese Language Club Mid-Autumn Festival celebration. This year I did not have to organize any part of it, which makes these things a lot more fun. Another difference between this year and previous years is that apparently, I am getting old. In the past, when I’ve gone to CLC events, I could always find old friends and reconnect with people I’ve had Chinese classes with. This year, I got to meet a completely new set of people. Most of the people that I started this journey with have graduated and moved on to new things.
So this year, I ended up just picking a completely random table to sit at, and met some really cool people. Early on, I realized that a large group of people at the table were Global Engagement Fellows as well, so it was exciting to connect over that and hear where they wanted to study abroad. Later, I had a really good conversation with a new student who was learning Chinese, and looking into studying abroad in China. It was cool to connect with some people who are where I was a few years ago, and to have answers to at least a few questions. Certainly not all of the questions, but a few. It was a much different experience than these CLC events have been for the last several years, when I knew that some of my best friends would be there, and ended up just talking to them. It was actually a little bit like being a freshman again, having to step outside of my comfort zone and meet new people. Ultimately, it was probably good for me.
It’s been a hot minute since I studied abroad. I did my semester abroad in the fall of my sophomore year, and now I’m almost a 5th year senior (does anyone actually manage to graduate in four years?). I did go to Uganda fairly recently, but that was a year ago at this point too. The experience isn’t still fresh in my mind, but it’s definitely still a really important part of my life. Looking back on what has happened since then, and everything leading up to that semester, it’s clear not that that semester was really a turning point for me. I’ve definitely always been a pretty hard worker, but that semester was different. That semester I didn’t do it just because I didn’t want to let my parents down, or because that’s what was expected of me, or because I needed a certain GPA to keep my scholarship. That semester abroad it was just me (and Sarah), and there were no expectations. It was a totally fresh start. It was the first time everything was truly up to me. That semester was the hardest I had ever worked up to that point. I spent four hours a day memorizing characters, I did 400 meter sprints in the rain, I ran the same 5 mile loop at 9 pm every night. In some ways, it wasn’t different than my life had been up to that point, I was still running and studying. But looking back on it, it was totally different. There was no immediate goal for any of those things, I didn’t run to train for something, I didn’t study to pass any AP exams, or get a scholarship or keep a scholarship. I did everything because I wanted to. I wanted to know more, be faster, and get stronger. It was a subtle shift, and I haven’t done a good job of explaining it here, but it was definitely a shift that changed the way I approach things. When I got home, that stayed with me. I was back in the same environment, but I wanted more. That shift is what led me to walk on to the rowing team, stay motivated to not just pass my classes, but truly learn the substance, and give 100% to my relationships with friends and family. It wasn’t obvious then, but 3 years late I think I definitely can say that my experience abroad changed me as a person.
Something I’ve never really been good at is putting myself out there. Especially in the context of my Chinese language skills. Except for while I was in China, and had to do it, I’ve never really been able to be that person who can start up a conversation in Chinese with the waiter at a Chinese restaurant, or even try to order in Chinese. Even when I know how to say the words, I get scared that I’ll do it wrong, or that I’ll start trying to talk to someone, and they’ll be like “Dude… I’m from Oklahoma, what makes you think I can speak Chinese”.
This semester I actually did make an effort to put myself out there a little more. I actually ordered some bubble tea in Chinese, and it wasn’t hard. It even sparked a conversation between myself and the guy working at the shop, because I’m sure they don’t encounter very many non-Chinese people who can speak Chinese. I know most of the people I’m studying Chinese with have been doing this since they first started, so it’s not really impressive in any way, but I’m really proud that I’m at least making progress.
I also put myself out there a little bit and went to a Chinese New Year event that wasn’t put on by CLC. Or I guess I should say I tried to go. There were performances and dumplings hosted by the Asian student association. When I showed up to the event, there was a line out the door, and it seemed like just about every person in Norman with any connection whatsoever to China was there. I said earlier that I tried to go, because when I got to the front of the line, it was for a raffle, not food or tickets to the performances. I tried to find the correct line for a bit, until I eventually admitted defeat and just went to campus corner. It definitely was disappointing not to actually go to the event, but I am determined to be more determined next year, and not get scared and back out.
Overall, it’s still really hard to put yourself out there. Some people are just good at it, but I am not one of those people. I know it’s theoretically not that hard. Just talk to someone, or ask someone where the correct line is, or say the same order in a restaurant that you ordered a million times at restaurants in China. But it’s still really hard for me to actually do those things. I’m proud that I at least tried, but definitely want to keep improving.
Chinese New Year this year was a little bit different than previous years. I managed to have class right in the middle of this year’s celebration, so I only got to experience the frantic rush to get everything set up, and the end after everyone has finished eating, and we’re all just slowly talking and trying to pick up all the tables. I actually didn’t really mind, because the beginning and the end are the best times to talk to people anyway. Plus there was still a little bit of food left, and I didn’t even have to stand in line to get it. This year in addition to eating food, there was also a dumpling making class, taught by Qi Laoshi, before we ate. I’m definitely disappointed to have missed that. Qi Laoshi has taught me how to make dumplings before, but it’s still just a lot of fun to do with friends. It’s a good bonding experience. I’m also a little sad that I missed the presentation. There’s always a fairly simple presentation to just tell people about the holiday, and talk about some of the major traditions. I’ve given the presentation in the past, and I always like to see what new things people talk about that I didn’t know, or didn’t think to include.
Even though I missed a good bit of it, I still got to see all the people I wanted to see, meet some new people, and eat some good food. I think it’s really important and really cool that we have a Chinese New Year celebration at OU (several actually) to give people a chance to experience a culture they normally wouldn’t.
This year I had the privilege of being a panelist for a discussion at Global Engagement Day on the topic of “Women, LGBTQ persons, and Minorities abroad”. The panel was a good chance to think about my experiences abroad in a context I hadn’t really thought about them before. I never really defined my experiences by the fact that I am a woman, or looked at how those experiences may have been different if I weren’t.
To be totally honest, I couldn’t think of many ways that my experiences in China were defined or limited by my gender. I did take some risks that I probably shouldn’t have, like staying with a stranger my first night in China, or running alone fairly often, usually at 9 pm. The thing is though, I felt completely safe doing those things.
My experience in Uganda was much more relevant to the topic, since the culture there is still one that very obviously oppresses women. The school we were staying at was originally built for women who had been assaulted and subsequently rejected by their communities. Women there have been disproportionately affected by conflicts in the area, and many have been assaulted, and left to take care of children without the support of their family or a husband. They are expected to wear very modest clothing, and work making clothes, growing food, or selling goods in addition to taking care of children and the home. My experience in Uganda was obviously nowhere near what women there experience on a daily basis, but it was a very different environment, in which I was very aware of the fact that I was a woman and the limitations that came with that. I really only had to worry about what I could wear, and when, where, and how I could run, but still found it difficult to adjust to living in that environment. Other panelists for the talk had more extreme experiences, or had to hide who they were while they were abroad. The overarching conclusion of the discussion was that sometimes, you have to put your own opinions and self-expression aside when you are abroad, in order to respect and adhere to the culture you are in.
This year I haven’t been able to participate in a lot of Chinese Language Club events thanks to many of my classes being at night. The one thing I was able to participate in was the CLC fundraiser, which was a book and bake sale. I definitely miss seeing all the Chinese professors and keeping in touch with the other Chinese students, since I’m not in any Chinese classes this semester. The bake sale was a good way to stay in contact a little bit, and spend some time practicing my Chinese and reconnecting with the language.
I quickly realized that my Chinese is definitely not what it used to be, and not taking Chinese consistently the past few years has definitely taken a toll on my language abilities, especially my ability to listen and comprehend quickly, or remember how to write characters. It definitely was a wakeup call to me that I need to be studying on my own in some way. I spent so much time and effort learning the language, and I’m disappointed in myself for not keeping up with it and letting so much of that work go to waste. I hope to be able to keep up with the language a little more moving forward, even if it’s just in some small way like watching a Chinese TV show occasionally.
Next year, I will be in at least one Chinese class each semester, so will have an opportunity to sharpen up my Chinese skills before I graduate. I’m excited to start improving my Chinese again, it’s been pretty static since I came home from China, and I’m excited to hopefully be able to participate in more CLC events since I will have a more open schedule.
This is a very late update on the status of the project we worked on while we were in Uganda. While I was in Uganda this summer, my group and I were hoping to see a well be dug for the Sisters’ new complex. This was, of course, after we had originally planned to build a spring box around a spring on the new land, only to discover that there actually wasn’t a spring. So we settled for paying for a well to be dug, and hoped that we might get to actually see the process. We did not see the process, because the trucks required to dig the well weren’t able to make it through the roads when we were there, and later the truck driver got sick, which precluded them from making another attempt before we returned to the United States.
I said this was a very late update because it really should have been posted 3 or 4 months ago, when the well was finally dug. It was a few weeks after the start of the semester when we got an email from our professor, informing us that the well was finally complete. This was great news to hear, because once we left we didn’t really know what would happen, and whether the well would ever actually get dug or not. This is a huge problem with service trips like the one we took to Uganda- three weeks is not enough time to get a lot done, and unless you or somebody else follows up on what you did, a lot of time it doesn’t end up being completed, or it breaks quickly, and then it’s no longer helpful. I’m glad to know that at the very least the well was dug, and OU also has a long-term plan to continue working with Sister Rosemary, so it should be maintained for a long time.
A while ago, I got a message from one of the girls I met in Uganda. She just wanted to know how I was doing, and wanted help getting in contact with some of the other people who went to Uganda with me. It was really great to hear from her, and it got me thinking about staying connected to all the people you meet when you go abroad. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t done a good job of that. Like I’ve done a really terrible job, despite phones, and wechat, and facebook, and skype, and all the other technology that should theoretically make it really easy to stay in contact with people. But it’s not as easy as it sounds, because once you go back home, and get settled back in to life in the U.S., you just don’t end up thinking about those people as much. Not because you don’t care about them, but you just never see them or hear from them. I’m not particularly talkative either, and it’s not always easy to know what to say when you haven’t talked to someone in a while.
I’ve met so many wonderful people during the two study abroad trips I’ve done with OU, and it would be such a shame just to not keep in contact with those people. Technology is a good tool, but it’s still up to us to keep in contact with people. It’s still up to us to send that first message, and I’d like to do a better job of that in the future. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some messages to send.
This year was the first year that I got to enjoy the Moon Festival celebration put on by CLC without having to worry too much about trying to find a room to have it in, or come up with a presentation, or try to get people to sign up for the CLC mailing list. It was definitely nice to be able to just enjoy the event without running around like a crazy person the whole time. Like every year, we celebrated with moon cakes and other food, and listened to a presentation about moon festival. As a previous presenter at this exact event last year, I was surprised to actually learn something new about moon festival. In addition to eating moon cakes and gathering with family, another tradition is to carry lanterns, or to hang lanterns with riddles on them for people passing by to solve. I didn’t really know about this, but it sounds like a lovely tradition. I did a little more research on it, and it’s actually kind of interesting, because unlike moon cakes, it doesn’t go all that far back in Chinese history, and nobody really knows why there are lanterns for moon festival. Moon cakes are probably the most well-known tradition associated with the festival, and have been associated with in pretty much for as long as it has existed. They are also only associated with moon festival. Lanterns, on the other hand, are associated with a variety of different festivals, and haven’t always been associated with Moon festival. It actually looks like over time, the traditions associated with lanterns were kind of transmitted between festivals, so that now Moon festival, which did not actually have lanterns, and has no story as to what lanterns originally meant to the festival, is now associated with lanterns. I just think that’s pretty interesting.
Anyway, the CLC Moon festival was a lot of fun. It was good to see all the Chinese professors, especially now that I don’t get to take very many Chinese classes anymore. And it was also good to meet the new CLC members and see old friends. The new CLC officers did a really good job of getting the food and presentations organized, and keeping the event running smoothly, and I can’t wait to see what events CLC has next semester.