Laurasia (supercontinent), ancient continental mass in the Northern Hemisphere that included North America, Europe, and Asia (except peninsular India).

(woman), a young professional from the U.S. who is working, studying, traveling, and living across Laurasia.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Chuseok Long Weekend

I love looking around my table and realizing that no two people are from the same country.  Different languages, traditions, cultures, and different melodies in our laughs.  Yet, we all share something much deeper in common, and we’ve all ended up in the same place somehow. 
At the top of Namsan, people chain their love to its gates: promises, hopes, and dreams.
"But now I been thinkin' what he said, an' I can remember - all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an' he foun' he didn' have no soul that was his'n. Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain't no good, 'cause his little piece of a soul wasn't no good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole." (John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath)  Although he was writing within a different context, Steinbeck sort of perfectly captures how I feel: there’s some kind of wholeness about living in harmony with the global community.  And that comes through our personal connections with one another.

Today (Monday), is the last of three days of the autumn harvest festival, Chuseok (추석).  It is celebrated annually on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, around the Autumn Equinox.  It’s sort of like a Korean Thanksgiving.  Everyone travels to their hometown (usually their ancestral hometown) to pray to their ancestors, spend time with family, and, of course, feast.  They also exchange gifts – usually pretty practical ones like food or toiletries, it seems. 

Traditional Korean dresses. 

In the absence of my biological family, I spent a lot of time with my friends here.  Some of the highlights included eating delicious food, hiking with friends up a mountain in the middle of Seoul called Namsan, and singing in a karaoke bar.  Korean karaoke bars, or Noraebang (노래방), are rooms that you rent out by the hour and are equipped with usually two microphones, tambourines, and a karaoke machine.  Since no one has much vocal talent, it’s a non-humiliating way to belt out your favorite tunes with your favorite people. 

At the top of Namsan with friends.
At the Noraebang with friends.
In terms of classes, things are starting to ramp up with presentations, papers, and exams.  I’m also facing the daunting task of writing two theses this year more head on.  I’ll be writing about vocational training and technical education programs for women in post-conflict societies and how that shapes post-conflict peacebuilding efforts (and maybe sustainable development?); in one, I’ll focus on the population of war widows, and the other on female ex-combatants.  I’m in the process of trying to identify organizations in Sri Lanka and/or Nepal that I might be able to join for about two months this winter to collect primary field data.  If any of my dear readers have any leads in these areas, please send them my way!


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The First Month of School

As I sit here sipping on Theraflu to alleviate my cold symptoms, I realize that I haven’t updated this blog in a month.  Which means that I’ve been in Seoul for a month!  It’s hard to believe that it’s been so long. The beginning of the school year has kept me occupied with some interesting Korea University events.

Friends from Korea, Lebanon, United States, China, France...yep, just a normal Sunday :)

All first semester students are strongly encouraged to attend MT, or Membership Training, to be initiated into their program.  At Korea University, this basically consists of renting a cabin out in the country and drinking a lot of makgeolli, or traditional Korean rice wine.  In small groups, attendees have to drink makgeolli out of bowls before everyone stops singing a KU song.  In my case, this meant that the team leader had to jump in and finish my makgeolli to avoid penalization.  After doing this, in a show of bravado, everyone has to stand and individually shout out a set introduction…in Korean.  Luckily, my enthusiasm helped me to pass this test, because my Korean language abilities are surely subpar. 

The rest of the night is spent eating, drinking, and listening to music with other students from the same program, in my case, about 50 or so of my classmates.  It was really cool to be a part of this tradition, which apparently goes back for generations.  I was told that my group leader helping me out with my makgeolli is meant to signify that people in your program have your back – obviously an important point in a highly collectivist society.  Also, introductions reflect what I perceive as the militarization of culture.  All Korean men have to serve in the military, and it has definitely had an impact on modern Korean society.  The introductions made it sound like we were all off to fight a battle. 

This past weekend was the traditional rivalry between Korea University and Yonsei University, which rank 2nd and 3rd in the country.  (Seoul National University knocks them both out of the ballpark, so to speak.)
A vicious rivalry indeed.
I attended the largest game of the weekend, the soccer game.  This was another interesting cultural experience.  No one really watches the game, so to speak.  Led by a uniformed dance team, everyone sings and dances in the stands to music…that EVERYONE knows.  So, in unison, people belt out lively music while busting out the choreographed dance moves.  It was quite entertaining, to say the least.   Korea University won, of course.  The rest of the night was spent in the streets near KU mingling with students from both schools.

Other than that, classes have been going well.  Taking six classes has kept me really busy, but living quite close to campus has been conducive to getting to know my classmates really well.  I’ve definitely been enjoying my time here.   

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Goodbye, Dominican Republic! Hello, South Korea!

Hello there.  I went radio silent for a while, and for that, I apologize to my faithful readers.  (Hi, Mom!)

Simply, the last couple weeks in the Dominican Republic flew by.  My mom came to visit, I went to a staff retreat at a resort in Puerto Plata, and then Laura N. and Eleni came out to visit me.  Mixed in with the fun, I struggled with an internet connection that left something to be desired to finish writing the peace education curriculum.  With a great amount of focus and at least some amount of luck, I was able to finish writing it, assist in its translation into Spanish, and present both versions to the directors before I left the country.  Wow, what a monumental task.

Why are we all wearing pink?

Me, Eleni, and Laura N. on Calle las Damas in la Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo.
I was literally dragged on stage to participate in a game show of sorts.  This led to countless individuals approaching me throughout the evening and following day and addressing me by name.  Also, note my Dominican clothing that Gladys helped me pick out!  Unfortunately, it did not persuade the host into believing that I was Dominican...:(
I also cried - a lot - with my Dominican family in the days leading up to my departure.  They threw me a party the night before I left, and the children threw me a party in the afternoon.  They were the best and most heartfelt parties I've ever attended.  They were filled with promises of return and invitations to stay in any number of houses (but of course I will stay with my Dominican family when I come back to visit).  I feel like I discovered that I truly am a dominicana pura...I really identified with parts of the culture.  And my community saw it too, and they accepted and valued me for the person that I am - even the non-Dominican parts.  How incredibly blessed I am to have had this marvelous summer experience.  It is something that has shaped me deeply and tremendously.

At the party that the children threw for me on their own.  It was complete with refreshments, balloons, and a song and dance they prepared.  The girls also prepared the finger food: a cheeto, a ritz cracker, and a piece of cheese held together with a toothpick.  Scrumptious!

Some of the evening party guests.

No age restrictions!
My last morning :(
I flew into DC and stayed there for a week at my old group house (thanks, Euclid!), and then I continued my journey to Chicago, where I stayed for a week with my parents.  I kept meaning to update my blog, but then I kept connecting with people and doing things.  So....

I am writing to you from Seoul!  I arrived here just a few days ago, and I'm settling into my new apartment.  I have had the most wonderful experience so far.  I made a friend with a nice young man on the plane, and then a fellow student, Jamie, met me at the airport and helped me find my way to my apartment.  I've been exploring around the city and learning a few key words and phrases in Korean.  I absolutely love the city, the food, but most of all, the people: everyone is so kind and patient.  There are mountains (or big hills, rather) in the city, and I'm lucky enough to live by one.  Today, I adventured through some of the trails; the heavily wooded trail peeks out at times to provide a stunning view of the city skyline.

I will post more later, and I will also probably go back to describe more of the details of the peace education project!

So far, I have surmised that Korean children are adorable.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Fighting Cocks in the Campo

As I mentioned in a previous post, my Dominican family trains fighting cocks.  My first weekend with them, I mustered up my courage and went to see a fight.  When focusing on peace, violence cannot be avoided.  I want to understand how this culture experiences, understands, and interacts with the concepts of peace and violence, transformation and destruction.

Three of us climbed onto a scrap metal scooter and rode down the rocky dirt path to the fighting ring.  When we arrived, a crowd of men were already bustling around outside the ring.  Both humans and roosters contributed to the rising din in the Sunday afternoon heat.

Gladys and I entered the fighting ring, a circle of concrete benches surrounding a green pit; we were the only women present for this spectacle.  Gladys’s boyfriend Aldonis was fighting one of his roosters that day, but he stayed just outside peering in.

Hands gathered two roosters from the holding area and brought them out in rough fabric bags.  They plunged the roosters into the light and spritzed them with water to shake their senses.  Handlers roused the roosters into a fighting mood by jabbing at them and thrusting them toward their would-be opponent.  

The roosters have 15 minutes to fight to the death.  Or 15 minutes for them both to just barely survive.  

The fight was on.  The roosters circled and flew into each other and fought with their beaks and their talons.  An aggressive dance for survival.  The cock fight seemed to embody some key element of Dominican culture, some need for male violence. 

The enthralled men circled the fight, shouting bets to one another.  

Both roosters were tinted red with blood.  One fell and pelted out a heart-wrenching cry.  The other dove in and pecked the last of its life away.  Life is experienced as a fight until death, for roosters and humans alike here.    

After a valiant fight, our rooster died that day.  I looked to Aldonis, searching for any hint of sadness, but I could neither find it then nor in the evening when he ate his fallen rooster for dinner.

Although from my count the family has another four fighting roosters, it’ll be a few more weeks before they'll fight one again. Will this female gringa vegetarian peer into this male Dominican ritual again?  Likely not.  But it certainly wasn't an experience I regret having either.  I feel like I experienced Dominican culture on a whole new level.  

Monday, July 02, 2012

Patience and Perseverance

Last week took off with positive momentum from the week before.  (I was going to post this blog last Friday, but my internet connection wasn’t fast enough to load something as advanced as a blog much less make a post.)  I also wanted to take this opportunity to announce to those of you who might not already know that I was officially accepted into Korea University for this upcoming school year to complete my dual degree in international peace and conflict resolution/international development and cooperation!  Very excited.  I move to Seoul in mid-August.  Also, my blog name, Laurasia, might make a bit more sense now.   

On Friday, I was persuaded (read: coerced) into riding with the ten or so girls who were named queens of the festival of the town's patron saint.  Laura, the foreign queen, la reina extranjera.  We all got a good laugh out of that one, including the queens, who periodically showered me with confetti during the parade.
I’ve been working on the first draft of the peace curriculum, and through raw determination, it’s been moving forward.  At this point, I’m writing out flexible lessons with an introduction, key focus areas, learning objectives, and suggested activities, amounting to about one or two pages per lesson.  From what the teachers communicated, they would put best to use open and flexible plans, and this works perfectly with my vision as well.  The idea is that the lesson plan should be used as a guide, and the class dynamics should carry the class to create shared meanings.  If the end goal is to empower youth to be peacebuilders in their homes, their communities, their country, and the world, the learning process must take the shape of participative, active learning.

Children from a nearby community, my friend Nelson from Santo Domingo, and me.  Behind us are featured the homes where these children live.  Together with a group of visiting volunteers, we forged a river and hiked up many a hill to reach the community to administer eye exams and distribute glasses and food items. 
I’ve also been able to connect more with some of the teachers who have particular interest in peace education, and they’ve been really enthusiastic about the draft materials I’ve shown them.  Even though they are just beginning their month break for vacation, some of them are even giving me their home addresses and phone numbers and telling me to drop by whenever I want for feedback or help translating.  What a shift from my first week here!  (The first week when no one even bothered to tell me where I could work and so I worked in a field under the shade of a tree; it was actually surprisingly pleasant.  Now I work in a room where occasionally herds of goats run by the window.  Also quite pleasant.)

Although I’ve doubted my approach here at times, I’ve been committed to growing relationships and my work here organically, which is to say that I’ve battled against the urge to plow ahead and create this thing on my own.  This past week has been a great reminder that loving patience and persistence separates those who reap the harvest from those who abandon the crop before it ripens.  (My internet connection, coincidentally, also reinforces the lesson of patience every single day.)

Welcome to my community.
Also, my project has taken another unexpected turn.  During my time in Santo Domingo, I developed an interactive community charla, or chat, about conflict transformation.  Charlas are a pretty popular way of transmitting information here, and they take the shape of informal town hall meetings with participants from the community.  However, I sort of abandoned the charla as I shifted gears into the peace curriculum…that is, until this past week. 

One day, the kids around the house were fighting as kids do, and the matriarch of the family was yelling at them to stop to no avail.  So, I told them that if they didn’t stop, they would have to attend my peace charla as a sort of punishment. 

They paused.  Then they erupted into elated cheers.  “A charla!  A charla!  Yayyyy!”  They told their friends about it, and on Saturday, 10 kids showed up for the charla, ages 4-24.  Wilneidys, age 9, was so enthusiastic that she even prepared her own component of the charla by looking up information about “what is peace” in an encyclopedia and writing it out on papers.  The others drew “peace pictures,” and just about everyone participated.
A depiction of the charla, the tortoise of tranquility, and the peace rooster.  They tried to draw a peace dove, but it came out as a rooster, so we just went with it.  The irony is that the family raises fighting roosters.

Their reaction to the charla?  “When’s the next one?”  Pretty amazing where things can go if you let go of an agenda and let things develop where they may.   

During the peace charla.  Here you can see evidence that they were at least partly paying attention.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Gaining Some Traction

Success!  After several failed attempts, I was able to convene the teachers and directors of the school, about 25 in total, to discuss the peace curriculum.  The participation of teachers, students, and community members in the development of this project is crucial both to make the curriculum work in this context and to develop a sense of local ownership.  I will be here for only just over a month more, which makes the issue of collaboration even more pressing. 

When I walked into the room where we were to have the meeting, I saw that they set it up like a formal classroom - teacher at the front of the room and pupils sitting in rows - so I asked people to help me to rearrange the room in a circle to facilitate a more participative dialogue.  I started off the meeting by reiterating that it was meant to be an informal discussion about ideas, perspectives, and personal experiences, but when I started asking questions to get the meeting going, people looked at me with a mixture of blankness and confusion.  At first, I was concerned that what I was trying to say was unintelligible, so I apologized and thanked them for their patience with my Spanish, to which people replied that they could understand me perfectly.   

I realized that people were expecting me to tell them what I would be doing and then dismiss them.  However, after a half hour of pulling responses out of people, they started to get more into it.  At some point, the interest level rose to such a point that every teacher wanted to incorporate peace into their subjects, including mathematics and foreign language, and when I indicated that the pilot curriculum would be focused on high school students, primary school teachers argued fervently about how we needed to start with the younger children.  As a middle ground, I suggested that the older students could lead activities that would integrate the younger students as well. 

At any rate, after talking for a surprising two hours, we broke for lunch, and several teachers indicated again their sincere interest in this project and offered their individual help.  The level of enthusiasm and interest in a peace curriculum definitely took me by surprise.  

At this point, I'm working to adapt the United States Institute of Peace's online peace curriculum toolkit with the school mission and national curriculum.  I've also been considering how to design a mechanism to measure potential attitude or behavior change as a result of the curriculum.  If anyone has any ideas, definitely send them my way.

Part of the school campus.  The school is powered on 100% solar energy!

In terms of personal experiences, I won't lie: adjusting to the campo way of life has had its hiccups.  The heat, the bugs, and the poverty in its many iterations have been a challenge.  However, the people are so kind and wonderful, and I'm surrounded by beautiful mountains and rivers.  

When it's hot, all you need is a coconut and a machete.  It hovers around 100 degrees, inside as well; things are melting that I didn't know could melt.  For example, part of my hairbrush.

Cacatas...tarantulas.  These are real, and I look for them everywhere.  They look terrifying.
I’m starting to establish my identity in the community, which is grand entertainment for both me and everyone else.  I started running in the evenings when the temperature cools to 90 degrees or so, hah, which got everyone’s attention.  People are absolutely astonished by my speed and endurance, and word traveled even faster…within a day or so, it seemed that everyone in the community heard tales of my running.  My ultimate test was when a group of athletic 15-year old boys then asked me to run with them (I passed), and now I workout with a former international baseball player who is now a trainer.  Hilarious.  And, of course, children are always waiting for me when I near the house, and they race the last bit home with me.  This has turned out to be a great way to gain exposure, and...  

...when people tell me I need to eat meat to be strong, which is often, I challenge them to a race…and then they retract their statement and concede that vegetarians too can be strong.   

I also started challenging people when they call me rubia.  I point out the obvious, that I’m not blonde, and then they invariably say something like, “but you’re not brown either,” because that carries a skin tone connotation.  After I let them go back and forth between the two for a few moments, I suggest that since I don’t fit into these categories, they should just call me what I am – Laura.  So yes, my identity is being established as the tall white girl who’s not blonde or brown, does something with peace, who runs, and races with the neighborhood children.  I'll take it.

Tropical farmlands.  This is where I live.
Waterfalled hikes.  Also where I live.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fighting Cocks, Fierce Bugs, and Classism in the DR

I bat away a melange of insects as I write this on the lawn of a school, the only place where I have internet access. On Monday, I moved to Caribe, a small rural village near the small town of Bonao; it’s about an hour and a half northwest of Santo Domingo. I live with a single family, but across the path is where her parents and sister’s family live, which makes it a very social living environment. Also, there are a lot of gregarious young children, each of which wants to show me everything they know, haha. The family’s most, shall we say, unexpected hobby is that they breed fighting cocks, and I accepted (perhaps foolishly) an invitation to observe a fight on Sunday.

The one on the left is alive, which means that he won his last fight.  The one on the right doesn't fight...yet.

The Pied Piper of Caribe.  Only I'm the one being led.
It’s been my personal quest to accept all invitations that come my way. Because of this mantra, I have had some pretty awesome experiences throughout the three weeks I’ve been here, and I have met loads of people from different extremes of society and everything in between. Because I’m here to work in a social sciences capacity, I’ve also used this as an opportunity to ask and listen; because of a range of factors (i.e., my age, my occupation, my gender, my ethnicity, my approach - I'm not viewed as very threatening) people are generally very open to sharing their thoughts and feelings.  The disparate perspectives are starting to come together to paint a bigger picture of the social landscape of the Dominican Republic.

One thing that’s been very noticeable is the general lack of trust in others. Government and police are generally very corrupt, and social services are largely dysfunctional, from water and electricity to public schools. I think that this, in addition to a history of authoritarian rule, has contributed to a sense of competitive self dependency, which has spilled over into intergroup relationships as well. For example, Dominicans are very quick to stereotype people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, imagining each group to be a homogenous and threatening entity. The “Other” seems to loom formidably in every conversation about social issues. What’s more is that there’s an unveiled hatred for the “Other:” stereotyping is typically pared with verbal dehumanization. When I softly challenge people’s assumptions, sometimes they rephrase, sometimes they don’t…it’s just an interesting manifestation of deeply ingrained classism that moves in all directions. People are very proud to be Dominican, but many don’t like to imagine that they share this country with other Dominicans unlike them in some way.

I’m definitely going to try to incorporate some of this observation into the peace curriculum I’m creating for the school out here. Although the levels of direct violence outside of the family are not extremely high, structural violence (i.e., inequality and inequity built into the structure of society) is a big issue here. I’m taking more of a transformational approach in both the curriculum and the workshops I'm designing, so this could work itself into the programming relatively easily. This week, I’ve been meeting with some directors and students, and I’m hoping to also meet with teachers. I’d like to progress the project with as much collaboration as possible, which I’m hoping will make the program contextually appropriate and increase its chances of sticking when I leave in eight weeks. There's a lot to do but not a lot of time to do it!

Switching gears, a couple weekends ago I traveled with some friends I made here to Isla Saona. It’s a beautiful island off the southeast coast of the Hispaniola near Bayahibe. It was a little bit of a ride to get there, but definitely worth it.

Isla Saona.

This past weekend, I went to Parque de los Tres Ojos (Park of Three Eyes) located near Santo Domingo; it’s a park with cenotes (or cave pools fed by underground rivers).

At the cenotes with Catherine, my Chilean friend.