22.33 is an audio podcast produced by the Collaboratory in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).
The podcast features first-person narratives and anecdotes from people who have been involved with ECA exchange programs. The first season launched on January 2019.
Each week, 22.33 brings you tales of people finding their way in new surroundings. With a combination of survival, empathy, and humor, ECA’s innovative podcast series delivers unforgettable travel stories from people whose lives were changed by international exchange.
New episodes are released every Friday, along with regular bonus episodes. You can listen to 22.33 right here on our website or you can subscribe using any one of these podcasting apps: iTunes, Google, Spotify, Anchor, Blubrry, Breaker, Bullhorn, Castbox, Castro, Himalaya, Listen Notes, myTuner Radio, Overcast, Player FM, Pocket Casts, PodBean, Podchaser, Podnews, Podparadise, Podtail, RadioPublic, Soundcloud, Spreaker, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube. You can also subscribe via email updates.
She was a perfectionist, successful and with her future mapped out. But traveling alone in Ecuador proved full of unexpected challenges—not least of which was answering the question about what kind of person she was deep down. The longer she was there, the more her life slowed down, until one day she found herself unmovably in the present. Carlin visited Ecuador with support from the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship program. For more information on the Gilman program, please visit: https://www.gilmanscholarship.org.
Season 01, Episode 24 - Who You Are, Not What You Do with Carlin Daharsh
Chris: You've worked hard and succeeded a lot in your life. So much so that you became focused only on your ambitious goals, but when you find yourself alone in the middle of a foreign culture, heck in the middle of the Amazon, no less. You realize that what you had previously thought of as a means to an end was actually real life and you, you were in the middle of it. This realization would change you forever.
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Carlin: When I was in Ecuador, I always had an answer to the first questions of small talk. In the United States, we say, what's your name? Where did you go to school? What's your job? As if any of those things matter. And more often than not, the people I meet where their job titles might seem more impressive, I don't particularly like them as a person. And the same applies the other way. In Ecuador, nobody ever asked once where I went to school, they never asked what my majors were, and they couldn't have cared less what my plans were for the future, scholarships I'd applied for, this or that.
Instead, people were asking questions more about myself in the sense of, well, what foods do you like to eat? There's a great restaurant that we should go to. Or it turned into conversations about, which political scholar do you like that we read in class so far? What do you enjoy doing when you travel? Or where do you stay? And asking questions about my family, questions that gave someone a more holistic picture of who I was rather than some sort of title that I thought was impressive.
Chris: This week. Going solo in the Amazon, learning to walk slow in a new culture. And a revelation in the Galapagos. Join us on a journey from Gothenburg, Nebraska to Guayaquil, Ecuador to learn that it's not what you do, it's who you are.
Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all..
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shape to who I am..
Intro Clip 3: (Music) When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you, you read about them. They are people very much like ourselves and.. (singing)
Carlin: My name is Carlin Daharsh. I'm from Gothenburg, Nebraska, but I went to school at Nebraska Wesleyan and studied abroad through the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to Ecuador in 2016.
Currently, I live in Washington D.C. and work for the National League of Cities as their associate of strategic partnerships. So building public-private partnerships between organizations and local governments.
I had always considered myself, as a first generation college student, to be sort of self made. That sounds extremely harsh to think that I made myself into the person that I am and took advantage of opportunities that brought me to where I am, when the reality is I had an amazing mother who studied abroad in high school. She was in South Africa the year Nelson Mandela walked out of prison. My mother from Gothenburg, Nebraska, got to be in South Africa at one of the most pivotal moments in history and was inspirational. And she always pushed me to apply for the things that I wanted to do and to work hard for the things that I wanted. My time in Ecuador, particularly when I was traveling alone, made me realize how much I relied on the people around me to prop me up and introduced me to people and opportunities. And without them, I would not like to see what I would have been like if I was really self made.
The Gilman scholarship was something brought to me by professors at my university at Nebraska Wesleyan because I am a first generation college student. When they found out that I was a Spanish major, it was a no brainer to connect me with a scholarship that could not only allow me to immerse myself in a Spanish speaking culture and environment, but have it funded and paid for by the U.S. Government. It was a wonderful experience and opportunity because I, on the one hand, always envisioned myself serving in a diplomatic capacity for the US government abroad and envisioned myself working in a multicultural atmosphere, and it permitted me to do all of those things.
It was a journey of self clarity and finding myself, which I didn't plan for it to be that way. Before my study abroad, I thought that I had to sort of chase extraordinary moments and extraordinary opportunities to be extraordinary. I wanted to be a scholar, be an author, be recognized for something or another before I went abroad. And I assumed that study abroad was sort of a line item to doing that because all the people that I admired had studied abroad. So I thought that Ecuador, the Benjamin Gilman scholarship, that's the item for me to do what I want to do next and to get to the title that I want to have and the what I want to be.
But then after about two weeks in Ecuador of crying and self isolation, I found out that it wasn't a matter of what I wanted to be, but who I wanted to be. That sounds extremely cliche, but it was about owning my story and coming to terms with the fact that I was out of my small pond. I was out of the environment in which I was the best in my class, I got to be student body vice president, I got to be the best at everything I did in my small town and at my small campus. But when I studied abroad in Ecuador, I quickly realized that I didn't have that support group that always propped me up and let me be the best that I wanted to be in every facet of my personal and professional life. So that forced me to evolve on my own.
I actually was the only American exchange student at my university at Casa Grande in Guayaquil. There was 12 other exchange students from France, but they weren't very interested in traveling outside of the beach area. And so when I made my way toward the Amazon, it was either by myself or not at all, and dove in head first and thought, if I'm going to do it, I got to do it. It was better off for it.
After about two weeks, I decided to jump on a trip to the Amazon, which looking back, I don't know if that was the best trip to do for my first time alone as a solo female traveler, but I did it. I remember arriving to the Amazon and getting in a canoe and we rode in a boat, which is a very generous term for what I rode in for two hours. Once we arrived, we stayed in this hut with another family that lived in the Amazon rainforest. There was no running water, no electricity. I saw spiders that were so big that I almost lost my religion. And decided that I was going to live there for 10 days.
The whole purpose of the trip was not to see how this community needed my assistance or to see how I could sort of make an imprint on these people's lives, but rather it was to live in a community of people who lived radically different from my own. In an effort to preserve their culture and in an effort to preserve their lifestyle and their way of living. So for two weeks I got to cook fish that I caught in the Amazon River and wrap it in leaves and put it over the fire and I got to go on medicinal walks in the rainforest and got to live a life so completely different from my own that I started to capture the things that connected me to those people. It wasn't the fact that I had done impressive things or things that I thought were impressive and extraordinary in the United States. It was, we laughed about the same things and we cried over similar things and our worries were not necessarily the same thing, but were of different degrees. And it got me thinking that life was a lot more than the what and more about the who.
My time in the Amazon was extremely humbling. And I will admit that there was a bit of a complex when I arrived because I have been extremely fortunate in the way that I grew up in the family that I was raised in and the resources that I had access to, plain and simple. And so when I went, to be quite candid, and I'm a bit ashamed of this, there was a savior mentality when I walked in saying, "Well, what do you need? What can I do for you? What are the things you wish you had but don't?" And the longer that I stayed with them and spoke with them, I think that I selfishly took more from them than I could have ever given to them. That was because it was my journey of self discovery.
My study abroad isn't the singular moment in my life that changed me. It was a compilation of a series of moments through my time in the Amazon and in Cajas National Park and in the Galapagos that led me to learning what my journey of self discovery was and what owning my story looked like. After I left the Amazon and was on my two hour boat ride back to the main land where I could find a road to get back home on, I started thinking about if I would've asked them what they needed, what they would have said because it was never something that was a part of the discussion. And it was a really beautiful trip in the sense that I had 10 days to live with a family extremely different from me that didn't expect me to cook for them and didn't expect me to return any favors. All that was required of me was to be a good sport, essentially, and enjoy my time with them, and let them show me their alternatives to medicine in the rainforest and how we use certain plants in western medicine, but then reversing it and showing me how they use it. So it was a beautiful thing.
After I came back from my trip in the Amazon, I decided that I was going to continue on my journey and keep finding opportunities to move forward in Ecuador and figure out the who I was and the story that I wanted to be told about myself. I had no one else around to tell me what that was going to look like. And so it was a great time to try and fail, if anything. That led me to my second or third trip, I'm not sure, to Cajas National Park. I had never hiked before. I'm from the Great Plains and so, I mean, a hill is a very generous term for what happens in Nebraska. But I decided I was going to hike a National Park in Ecuador by myself, and I remember thinking, "Well, I've been to college. I can think critically. I can navigate a National Park on my own and do an eight hour hike on my own and be just fine."
Six hours into it I realized I was way in over my head. It was getting extremely dark out. I started to see fewer trail markers and I started to get extremely scared because I had no food. I packed one water bottle thinking that it would be a quick six to eight hour hike and it would be a snap. I had read reviews online saying that it would be a good afternoon walk. Then I decided that I was going to go back. So halfway through the hike I wanted to retrace my steps and I remember there was a point that I was so full of ... I want to say shame in the person that I was leading up to my study abroad, thinking that this was supposed to be a line item to get where I wanted to be. And it turned into embracing the moment and being proud of the person that I was at that point in time and recognizing the environment and the culture around me in order to appreciate the things that come after it.
There was a trip that I went on, I was in Cuenca for the weekend because it was typically safer than Guayaquil. I spent a lot of time there. I absolutely loved that city. It was nestled in the mountains a little bit and there were so many smaller indigenous communities that you could go visit. There was a day that I said, "Well, I'm going to go on this day-long trip to three different communities." One was known for silver jewelry and another was known for textiles and scarves and things like that. And another was for orchids, because I remember it started right at the orchid farm. I took the bus to the orchid farm thinking, "Well, surely there will be another bus that I just hop on and move to the next city.
I remember feeling foreign because I got dropped off at the orchid farm, did the tour, it was lovely. And then I went to the front desk and I said, "When's the next bus?" And they said, "Well, what do you mean?" Apparently my bus driver only stopped because I asked him to, not because there's an actual bus stop. And I said, "Well, how do people get here?" And they said, "Well, people normally ask the bus to stop and someone picks them up." And I said, "Well ..." so I said, "Where's the next town?" And they said, "It's only three or four miles up." So in the rain, I got out and started walking along the highway and someone pulled over and asked if I wanted to ride into town. Every instinct told me no, but I did, and I can't think of why. But he took me back into town and then offered to drive me around for the rest of the day. It was a very bizarre experience because I remember to everybody else, it seemed so obvious that the bus doesn't normally stop there. It seemed so obvious that I would plan to have someone picked me up, but at the same time it was also obvious to them that you'll find a way to get where you're going.
Nobody was ever panicked for me. Nobody was ever trying to make accommodations for me. And in the United States, quite frankly, I was used to that. I was used to people going out of their way to make sure that I had the convenience of a cell phone charger so I could hail an Uber or a taxi, or finding a way to get to the nearest bus stop when ... or owning a car. The reality was when I told them and they saw the panic on my face, they said, "Well, it's only three or four miles, you'll find your way back." So in that moment, I really understood what it meant to not be surrounded by instant gratification, but instead opening the next door for me to help myself.
I think I was a little cocky. I'd been traveling by my own for a while. I had really improved on my Spanish and oftentimes people thought my accent was Brazilian so they assumed that I was from the area, in a sense. And so I never felt extremely threatened. Then when I was in the ride, he took me along two different towns and when we got to the last one, we'd had great conversation. The alarms started going off again and it turned into, "Well, my house is around the corner," and it turned into, "Well, what are your plans? I realize that you're alone." And the conversation became much more candid about why I was there and how long I had been there. And when that moment happened, we got to the final town and I said, "Well, if you'll let me out, I'm going to grab a quick bite of lunch, check out the store, see what I want to see, and we can meet back here in two hours."
And I remember getting lunch, I don't remember a single thing about that town except that I hopped on a bus and for 50 cents I got back to the next town and drove my bus all the way back to Cuenca. That was the end of the story, but I think it was, again, another one of those moments in building my story. That I had to figure out what my limitations were and how easy it was for me to hop in the taxi with a complete unknown stranger. But then again, trust my instincts and realize when it had gone too far and went to take myself out of this situation.
I stopped getting stressed and anxious when I missed the bus, and I stopped sprinting to the next bus or to the next mode of transportation to get to my destination. There became a time where I essentially became less frightened. Less frightened of the people around me and less frightened of the unfamiliar things around me. The look of the buildings, the streets, the look of the cars, even. Things just looked differently. So after quite some time, I started ... I walked a lot slower and I started looking at the people and the things around me. And if I missed my bus, I went over and bought plantain chips for 25 cents and waited for the next one. It became less overwhelming.
Typically after school, I would want to go straight home and do my homework because it took me a little longer with everything in Spanish, but after awhile when my classmates started asking if I wanted to go listen to this politician speak or that politician speak or just attending events around town, it started turning into yes more than no, and it started turning into saying ... or to accepting that I was in Ecuador and I got used to my schedule and I was more comfortable letting myself go here or there and finding my way back home.
I was going to the Galapagos alone. I got this amazing deal, this great roundtrip ticket. I left school and I was off. It is the longest roundabout way to get to the Galapagos. After a day's worth of traveling, I got on a bus to get to my final destination and I sat next to a gentleman who was also traveling alone from the UK. And we struck up a conversation. I asked him why he was in Ecuador and what his plans were. And that's when the question of what do I want to be and who do I want to be popped back up in my mind. Because I distinctly remember him saying that he had been in Ecuador for two months working at a hostel to pay for his way to the Galapagos because he quit his corporate job in the UK. He was 35, 40 years old, and he'd moved his way up the ladder in whatever company he lived in, had this great house, everything he could have ever wanted, and he just crashed.
He sold everything he owned and decided that he was going to travel. And so he repositioned himself to be living abroad, working in hostels until he could save up enough money to move to the next place. That's when I started thinking about my need to do extraordinary things, to be extraordinary before I studied abroad. Then I realized while being abroad, I got to do really extraordinary things. And while none of them might not be newsworthy or noteworthy in any sense, it was noteworthy in my life and it helped transform me into someone else and closer toward a person that was worth being a friend and being a family member and a great classmate and peer. If I wouldn't have had that experience, I wouldn't have been able to come back and move to DC on my own and begin building a professional life here.
He was sort of Carlin in 15 to 20 years talking about what happens when you focus on the what and less on yourself. After having that conversation with him on the bus ride to my hostel, the next morning I woke up and I got to scuba dive with sharks and sea turtles and I had hiked my way through this beautiful pink salt lake, and I got to see the finches and all of the beautiful things that make the Galapagos islands so renown. And I remember there was a moment where I was all alone and sitting along the beach in the Galapagos and thinking towards the end of my trip, I'd done it and I made it through the four months. I made it through the two weeks of self isolation and crying and I made it through the Amazon and went through an extreme journey of self clarity and put myself through a lot more than I maybe should have, but in the end was able to find my way back.
For the first month, I was just so happy to be back in Nebraska that I could hardly stand it. I'd been gone for too long and I'd experienced a lot emotionally that I needed to be home and I needed to see some familiar things. But there is a period of restlessness and it ... there was a period where I didn't care so much about perfecting every paper I wrote, and I didn't care so much about making sure that I performed as I had before I had studied abroad. Instead I cared more about hanging out with friends and I cared more about going and doing and seeing the things that I'd always wanted to see in Lincoln and Omaha, which smaller cities, but we got a lot more going on than people realize. And it was taking more advantage of those opportunities that I wouldn't have done before because I would have been too focused on the next thing to enjoy my time with my friends. So I came back and that restless period turned into an internship in Washington DC my final semester, senior year. And the decision that this was the place that I want to be, and that's what happened.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name is Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of the U.S. Government-funded international exchange programs.
This week, Carlin Daharsh shared stories from her time as a Gilman scholar in Ecuador. For more about the Gilman scholarship and other ECA exchange programs, checkout eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and you can do so wherever you find your podcasts. We'd love to hear from you, you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov.
And did you know that photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33?
Special thanks to Carlin this week for sharing her very personal stories with us. I did the interview and edited this segment.
Featured music was "Scratcher and Cicle DR Valga" by Blue Dot Sessions, "Prismatone" by Podington Bear, "Jungle Noon" by the New York Jazz Quartet, and "Marble Arch" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
Season 01, Episode 23 - [Bonus] Onstage with the Entire Globe
Enjoy our sixth bonus episode of the year! An interview with Dr. Bernadett Szél, a Hungarian economist, politician, and member of the National Assembly. Dr. Szél toured the United States as part of the International Visitor Leadership (IVLP) program. For more information about IVLP, please go to: https://eca.state.gov/ivlp.
Chris: The 2018 U.S. elections may have been historic for women candidates, but as a female member of Parliament in Hungary, you find yourself a part of a minuscule minority, and so you fight every day to challenge this problem. You find stories of inspiration all around you. But to many girls in your homeland, you yourself are an inspiration.
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Bernadett: I was amazed when I was in New Orleans, when you had the Boo parade. I was amazed by the fact that the whole town was having party together, and there were tribes with heavy music, and people in very scary suits sometimes. I was standing there with New Orleanian families, children, and parents and youngsters, and elderly people, and we were having fun together. We were dancing together, and we were waiting for the candies and for the little things thrown out of these vans. We were so happy together. We were sometimes singing together, and I think that was a very refreshing moment for us, because really, we came from different cultures and we just realized that when it's about Halloween, we all have the same feelings, and I can say the same thoughts. And it was incredible for me to see all those men, serious men, in Ghostbusters suits, dancing to the famous music of Ghostbusters, and also all the serious women and men in a total mask, and those marvelous suits, dancing and singing together.
Chris: This week, celebrating democracy in beauty parlors and nail salons, talking about problems out in the open, and finding a community of women all around the globe. Join us on a journey from the Hungarian Parliament to the halls of the U.S. Congress to strive for equality.
Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: (Music) When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves, and ...
Intro Clip 4: (Music)
Bernadett: My name is Bernadette Szél. I come from Hungary, and I am member of the Hungarian Parliament. I participated in the IVLP program. First of all, these three weeks, I had the chance to spend with a lot of female leaders. Gave me a lot of positive vibration and energy because I come from mainly male dominant field.
As Congresswoman Johnson said, this is a nation of nations, and I was amazed by the diversity. I'm so happy that I had the chance to see Washington, D.C., but I am even more happier to have the chance to see many states here, because yes, you are connected. You form the nation. But in reality, you have very diverse culture, and you showed me a beautiful example how to live together since coming from different cultures.
I am always amazed by the fact that here, people talk about problems in a very forthcoming way. I think this is really important because if you want to be a democracy, then you have to talk about the problems. The atmosphere is very open here. I had the chance when I had the home hospitality to have political discussions with people. People were talking about politics and problems openly, and they did not want to disguise it, even from a Hungarian person or a person coming from abroad. But they were asking me about my home and what kind of problems we have, and you know, this all open discussion between international people is always giving the feeling that you can get closer to each other and you can share your problems, so you can maybe share your visions as well.
It was amazing for me to meet Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson in Dallas. She said while I was asking her about what her motivation is that finding something that is productive on the day while I'm here. And I was amazed by her. She is serving currently her 13th term in the U.S. House of Representatives, and she is actually the first female, and the first African-American to be elected as a Texas Senator since the reconstruction era. She was the one who invited hundreds of women, international peace activists, politicians, educators to Texas to attend the program which is called A World Of Women for World Peace. It was after 9/11, and she wanted to bring a culture of peace in the world. She was promoting nonviolent resolutions in conflict zones. She said when we were in the building that while looking at the window, she can see the positive results of her previous decades in politics. Remember, she began in 1972. But when answering my question about the results, she is the most proud of ... She was talking about giving maternity leave for teachers, and giving school breakfast for poor children.
When we were in New Orleans, I had the pleasure to meet Cyndi Nguyen. She is councilwoman. She arrived to United States at the age of five. Her parents told her that it would be a vacation, but when they were on the ship, crowded ship full of people, she thought that, "Hm, well, this would be a very interesting vacation." She had one of the most difficult electoral districts in New Orleans, but she made up very creative campaign techniques. For example, she goes to nail salons and to barber shops, and she makes constant conversation. So, she has the possibility to meet people on the spot. And she does coffee and conversation as well, but she does one-on-ones in the city hall as well, and she can devote half an hour for one person, and this goes on and on for like three hours of time.
I was amazed that even on Sundays, she finds the possibility to get connection to people. She has Sunday live broadcast on Facebook and it is very interactive. People can ask for questions, because she realized that many working women with lot of children and work and business and everything, they will not have time to deal with politics on weekdays because she wants to be accountable, and she wants to be authentic. I'm very convinced about the fact that without the leadership of the women, societal problems will never be solved. So, I really cross my fingers to Cyndi Nguyen. She was just elected and I wish her all the good luck in her very precious work.
There are not many of us in Hungary who are women and who are in politics. Currently in the Hungarian Parliament, representation of women MPs is exactly 10%, and we want to attract women in politics because we want to have the possibility to learn from their experience, and we want to represent them in the Hungarian political life. We have our special problems being women, and we have our needs, and we want to influence politics. But then we have to run for office.
I've been in the Parliament for 2012. I have already met a lot of young women and they said that they are not brave enough to get in politics because the language that is used in politics is not the language they want in their own lives, and that is why they are sometimes not even eager to follow the news, because they have the feeling that news are not about themselves. And I want to give politics back to people, and that is why it's very important, like what Cyndi Nguyen does to go to the barber shop, to the nail salon, to where people are, so that people can feel that we politician are there for themselves. We want to give information for them, but we also want to listen to them.
Throughout the program, we had a lot of opportunities to meet women in the U.S military and also in police, and I was amazed how hard work it is to hear the stereotypes all the time. I have to tell you that almost 17% of the military are women who are currently on active duty, and in this beautiful country, you have more than 200,000 women veterans. It is very important to fight against stereotypes, because the principle or the stereotype is like that a veteran is a man. Not anymore.
I was amazed when I heard that in many times, women and men are not evaluated on the same basis. Many times, men are evaluated on future performance while women on present performance. Like, Joe will be able to do this job, but she has never done this job yet, and this makes the difference because Joe will get the job, but she will not get the job.
There is a clear correlation between the reported domestic violence events and how many women are out there on the streets. If you have more women out in the streets and if you have more chance to meet them, actually you have more domestic violence issues reported and you can help more people, and you can prevent a lot of issues that must be prevented.
I have to tell you that it was a lifetime memory to meet Chief Jimmy [Purdue 00:11:36] from Texas. He had a vision, because he is really a visionary man, and he had the vision of providing the women in his department with the tools to succeed in the field of law enforcement. He said that first, we have to begin it with ourselves. So, he influenced his own area, and he change his police department by creating environment where women are welcome. I loved his motivation. He said that he has a 25 year old daughter, and he want to treat women in a way he wants her daughter to be treated. I think that diversity he created serves as very good example for many, many police departments all around the U.S. nation and also all around the world, because we all know domestic violence is there. We all know that a lot of criminal acts can be prevented, and I think that the contribution of policewomen and officers is an absolute must in this field.
I was very proud of the fact that we were there from five continents of the globes, representing almost 100 countries in this earth. What I was talking about, how important the NGO participants is when the state operates. I was given a big applause from the audience, and they said that they have never heard a politician talking so nicely about the NGO sector.
This trip was really about diversity for me, and I will never forget the faces I met, because I just realized that we women, we just came from so many countries, but we share basically the same stories. I have all the pictures and selfies with me, and I have all the stories behind those pictures and selfies, and I'm going to preserve these stories for the life time. And I'm sure when I will be on the spot sometimes, giving interviews, meeting people in the marketplace or in front of barber shops or nail salons as Cyndi Nguyen does, these stories will come into my mind. Because really, we gave very precious gift to each other.
Yesterday when we had the private party in the hotel, I was just amazed while I was looking at the different dances of the participants of the programs. They were brave enough to go onstage and show what they have in her own cultures. They were just applauding to each other and really I had the feeling that the whole globe is in that very room.
I have the feeling that these positive vibrations stay with me when I get home, and I can give it over, pass it onto girls and women and other people in my own culture, because I'm really convinced that without women leadership, the societal problems will never be solved. I think what I was given here, all the personal stories of women leaders, they just make me feel we all go through a way which is not easy at all, and we must never give up. This perseverance is an absolute must on this field. Being together with so many women, it was really like a sisterhood, and I am sure that this network will survive after closing this program, because we have so much in common. We have just realized, coming from almost 100 countries of this glove, that even though we come from different cultures and different backgrounds, we share basically the same problems.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, Bernadette Szél shared her story and moments from her recent U.S. IVLP program on peace and security. For more about the Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, and you can do that wherever you find your podcast, and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at email@example.com. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov.
Special thanks to Bernadette this week for her story and her commitment to democracy in Hungary. I did the interview and edited the episode.
Featured music was "Deep Forest" by Ralph Marterie and his Orchestra, "Acclimation" by Water Features, "I Can't Get Started" by Ruby Braff Quartet, and "La Pilatza" by Gustavo Cornenci. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came, and at the end, the credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
Season 01, Episode 22 - Curing Homesickness in a Hurricane with Salma Oubkkou
Based in South Carolina to teach Arabic to American university students, Salma Oubkkou found herself in the path of a major hurricane—and completely new weather phenomenon to her. Her experiences, including a full school evacuation, turned out to be a dramatic, but effective, way to cure her homesickness. Salma visited the United States as part of the Fulbright Foreign Language Teacher Assistant (FLTA) program. For more information about FLTA please visit: https://foreign.fulbrightonline.org/about/fulbright-flta.
Chris: Not only do you find yourself far from home, which is let's say Morocco, you find yourself in the path of an oncoming hurricane, which is, let's say, Florence. As if your surroundings weren't foreign enough, you've never experienced anything like a hurricane before. Yet when you are evacuated inland, it isn't terrifying, it is rather a turning point, actually helping you to overcome your home sickness.
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Salma:In Morocco, we never have hurricanes, so that's exceptional. And it will remain with me as a memory until I die. Yes, and this was the first chance for me to cross the borders to be sociable, and to open my doors for all other cultures, and I tested myself too. How can I deal with people from different origins in such really difficult and critical situations? So this memory it will never die.
Chris: This week, rains, floods, and an evacuation, coastal Carolina chickens and Clemson tigers, and highlighting the strength of Arab women. Join us on a journey from Fez, Morocco to Charleston, South Carolina, and curing homesickness, with a hurricane.
Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: And when you get to know these people they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves.
Intro Clip 4: Oh that's what we call cultural exchange. Oh yeaaah (Music)
Salma: My name is Salma Oubkkou. I'm from Morocco, from Fez City. I'm here in South Carolina. This is my first time I step in the U.S. of course, yes. Before I arrived I was really anxious about it because I knew nothing about America. I just excited about it. Excited we had a course called the US. It was my dream to see this US. And so, I thought it would be like, just like an adventure because I have no background about America before. And more than that, I've been teaching in Morocco, and because I teach English not Arabic they always ask me, "Have you ever been to America that you are teaching us American English?" The answer of course is, "No." Of course. Before I come, I always look at it as a dream coming true.
My first day, it was from the plane from the airport in the electronic elevators. One of my big bags fell down in the stairs. And there were people before me, of course, which was dreaming because I'm scaring people, just like rah. I thought that's just the beginning, Selma, and everybody's looking at me because "what is she stupid?". And then because I fell, because I have a lot of stereotypes, I'm coming with a lot of stereotypes that maybe Americans don't like Arabs. But then of course, that was just psychological.
So its was really a huge homesickness at the beginning, it was not easy. So I was feeling like a foreigner, I'm a stranger. Everyone looks at me, everyone stops me. Some may welcome you, but no one really hears when I say someone is like "Someone like you coming here?" So you feel that you are a foreigner of coarse. Especially at the beginning I had no friends and no FLTAs with me and no Arab people with me there, so I was a real foreigner and you know it was August so no one was there. It was like, a I feel like a ghost. At the beginning I was a foreigner, but with time...
And then as part of homesickness I find no one on my side. No Arab people and no one with me in the house because it was only the beginning and no Moroccan food or Arab food at the beginning because I don't know shops where you buy the food. So I was alone in the house and looking in doors on me for two weeks trying just to adapt, calling my parents and my family as if I'm with them.
How I overcome that is thanks to of course the hurricane came on the spot and then I have roommates around me they changed my life. I have a German and two Americans. We sought to go together. We went to Charleston. It's another city and we start to travel together. We start to go to the mall and to the parks so famous the place with the parks and I saw across these borders and whenever there's an occasion, a presentation at the university, there's a cultural event, I'm there. I'm part of it. Community service after the hurricane, I'm part of it. I went to schools. I volunteered in schools. I painted with kids. I helped them after the hurricane and I changed my life.
I said, "Hey Selma, stop looking in the little doors. You have to change your life. You're not here to stay in the house and take some chances. So it was my choice to change and overcome homesickness. And of course, the Americans, American citizens, American staff members they play a huge role in making me adapt because I received a warm welcoming from them. The whole support from everyone and of course they make you feel at home and they invited me many times to many places, so many American houses, they did not leave me alone.
In my first day of teaching I was really so anxious and I did not get that interaction from my students because I'm so different from them so I surprised myself because I was so weak at that moment. I could not really deal with that lack of interaction and I was so scared and I went back to that homesickness. This is my first day. Everything's new, everything is different. So I surprised myself because they were so excited to come. They were waiting for this first day and then when I finished the session I was so sad because I was scared that they would not interact with me, that they would not love me maybe because that's different. And then of course I was surprised because I didn't expect from myself to be sad. I'm expecting for myself to be strong because I'm coming with that energy, excitement, and readiness to start a journey of Fulbright. But of course that class, first meeting, first contact, is really so normal, so natural.
My feeling of being a part of the south currently of the American culture of the American men starts with the hurricane. I received an alarm saying that the hurricane is coming, pack your clothes and go. Of course I phoned my supervisor. He said don't freak out, don't worry, we are here for you so no worries because really I was scared because we had an application, they gave us an application where you had to find how the hurricane is close to you, how much of it close to you and of course it was so close coming. So the coming day, we left the university and of course one of the best lessons of the hurricane's evacuation was going with the students. Most of the students are international students which is diverse and we had a great staff with us. We were just like a family.
So most of the people left the university because they have their houses here, they have friends to go to and they scared us at the beginning. They said, " Look, you may eat and sleep on the gym floor, so be prepared for anything." So we took the shuttle of the university with the coastal Carolina's chicken as our mascot and we went to Clemson. It was half a day trip and they packed us with pillows, blankets, food, they packed us with everything. We were just so spoiled. Yes, and of course they said hurricane's coming. It's maybe to grade 2 to grade 3, but who knows if it will go to grade 1, but we don't know.
The first day it was raining
We were received by Clemson staff members. They gave us a whole campus. They stopped using it. There was no gym floors. It's convenient, it's not what we expected and what I liked about Clemson's evacuation was it was so organized and they said that we would stay here for five to six days. That's not a problem, we should be patient for that of course. So they make us busy with a lot of stuff, what, games. A lot of games from all the cultures were there for us to play so we were just like one community playing together and they were tied the tigers portable. I have never seen such a huge portable game like that because the tigers, they are so famous Clemson's tigers.
And of course we were allowed to go in to they have dining halls and one of the best parts in the dining halls is that it is full of Arabs. Arab girls with the veil like me and they come to me and we talk and still now we are friends.
Then of course the staff members who were in the maze that night said uh-o the hurricane will be more, we are not leaving at all, it's flooding. They said that we have good news for you and bad news. We said, what? For the good news, the hurricane is just degree one, number one, but we are still waiting here because it stops and powering and raining and raining and it's flooded and we cannot go so we have to wait a whole week and even our teachers they sent us emails no assignments, no work now, just we want you to be safe, that's the only thing we care about.
So we were just enjoying, so spoiled, no assignments, nothing, everyone is happy and of course during these days, the students find it's very weird that the teacher is with them. They find it very different that I'm a teacher, I'm a primary teacher. They give me like a value within them because I'm a teacher. Yes, I love this. And then like I said we are here just enjoying- let's learn something, let's practice my Arabic teaching so I start to teach them Arabic and they start to write the names in Arabic and they correct it for them and they have a lot of joy in that. We were so happy to get that.
One day, one of them, I was sitting and he bring me whole lunch and this is for you. It's out of love because I'm a teacher. I feel so really great. That's contact with the students, you feel what they feel when they complain or they shout because it's too much for them or the work, you feel them. So even the way how I treat my students changed after coming.
I've never had a hurricane in Morocco. I've never seen or even heard of it in Morocco. didn't want to scare my family to make them really worried. I always give good news, so they contacts me, my mother contacts me, every minute and I say it's okay, great, and I take photos for her to show her how everything is great and good.
So I give a presentation about Moroccan women and politics after the Arab Spring. To my surprise all of the staff members of the language and intercultural studies department they came to attend. Everyone came. Students, their teachers encouraged them because they know me they encourage them, go and you will have extra credits if you come. Of course I talked about our political problems, the journey of the woman and the struggles and I told them how our women changed our destiny otherwise I would not be here now and I talked about the Arab Spring and how its effects on Morocco and what women gained after the Arab Spring and what are the results where are we going in Morocco. Here in class everyone was impressed. I received a lot of emails that night saying that you're great and we liked your, everyone came and took pictures with me so that was really great for me and my department is so proud of me and they gave me email to all the staff members saying to them, "Say congratulations to Selma for her presentation." And I loved that.
Musical Clip: (Music) When you've got friends and neighbors, all the world is a happier place
I really feel proud when I manage for Skype meeting between my American students and my brother who is a teacher of English in Morocco. A public school, students at high school, and my students in a Skype meeting they interacted. The ones of Morocco, they are practicing English so they are asking in English and mine are practicing what they've learned in Arabic, how are you, we're are you from, and I was really happy for my American students. They said, we have something to say, as if they're in Morocco, they are not really different from us. We thought that they were so different. We are not really different, thank you, thank you. And one of them recently, he becomes a friend with one of the Moroccan students and he is so happy for that and proud of that. So this was not hard for me because I succeeded in crossing the bridges between Morocco and America in a way.
Leadership, I've never thought of it because I've been teaching. I have two great teachers that you can not hear enough in how great they are. They inspired me in a way because they taught me how not to be a teacher, but a leader, because a leader is a teacher, a person who guides, a supporter, everything and they always ask us take action plan to be a leader in your classes. So every time I go to my classes, I try to be a leader in any way, like if they need help, I take the initiative to help, if they are stuck in any problem, even if it is out of my class, I take the initiative to do that for them, to listen and so I really want to be a leader like them one day.
After the hurricane, that's when Lauri, she's a teacher there, a leader of course, she has her certificate in leadership as well, she helps us to help all of the schools after the hurricane and we gave money, if we have extra bags, if we have extra clothes, whatever we have we go there and she said, this is leadership. You do something for the community. So I want to be not a teacher, but a leader, and I'm trying to model them and be a leader.
They say that the Americans they are cold emotionally cold so they maybe not have that warmth, have a lot of love that they have in the Arab world. This is the first stereotype. The second stereotype is that they hate Arabs. They say that all Arabs are terrorists, especially the Arabs who are putting the veil, you will find a lot of problems, you will find a lot of problems, you will find a lot of racism, you will even been sometimes, I don't know, you will be attacked. You have to watch the house or take off the veil. These are the stereotypes that I'm coming with. For the stereotype of hating Arabs, this has nothing to do with Americans at all. It's the opposite. Americans, they love different, they love diversity and that's what I noticed.
I just was like one of the times in the mall and an old man stops me and says, "I just want to tell you that you're so beautiful," and he left and I didn't thank him. Some people hug you, people love you and people want to listen. They are so thirsty for information. They say that's why we are fed up with media, fed up with a lot of propaganda about the Arabs. It's not that. Some people, really highly educated and high understanding.
The Arab stereotypes are being called, it's a little bit true because if an American says this is the difference between Morocco and America, if an American says. "Hi, how are you?" A Moroccan say, "Hi how are you? So well, I was there. I just came from Morocco and I was in the hurricane and..." He is not waiting for me to tell all of my story. It's just a piece of the culture to say how are you and go. So I'm talking and he leaves and it was a shock for me, what, but still it has to do with high cultural context and low cultural context. People are direct, they don't have time, the notion of time. In the Arab world, they have a lot of warm thanking and you have to tell your story because that means I love you if I tell you my story. You have to tell me yours and I have to support you. We spend one hour just talking, but here, time is money. This is so true about Americans, yes.
We have a kid with us with his parents. I love this kid and we need to go to Wal Mart and I bought a teddy bear. I bought it for him. That's what happens with me. I love kids. When I brought the teddy bear to that little kid, I did not expect such really great gratitude from his parents. They were really so grateful to me and they said that he never accepts teddy bears, but this one, he never takes it out of his place and they said that they will name the teddy bear Selma and it's going to grow with him, yes. And from that time, she came to coastal Carolina and she talks with them about me and they meet with me and interview and they write with me a journal about my hurricane experience and all of the journal is about me. I have it here too, yes. The journal asks me about the hurricane, but it all says Selma and the teddy bear and everything. Such gratitude, so here I felt as a Muslim woman, I give a good picture of us, our culture, our religion too, and who we are, yes.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative with the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.
This week, Salma Oubkkou shared her stories about her current role as a Fulbright foreign language teacher teaching Arabic to college students in South Carolina. For more about Fulbright foreign language and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov.
We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do that wherever you can find your podcast and hey give us a positive rating while you're at it. We'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's email@example.com. You can also check us out on eca.state.gov/22.33.
Special thanks this week to Salma for her stories and infectious enthusiasm. Ana-Maria did the interview, I edited this episode.
Featured music was "Towdella", "Theme", "Floating Whist", and "Gallena" all by Blue Dot Sessions, and "Friends and Neighbors" by Tommy Prisco with Jugo Perretti and his Orchestra. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How the Night Came and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
Wise beyond his years, high school junior Luke Tyson took advantage of a year abroad in India not only to learn Hindi, but to dive deeply into foreign cultural traditions, religion, and the practice of mindfulness—with a little Bollywood thrown in for good measure. Luke visited India as part of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program. For more information about NSLI-Y please visit: https://www.nsliforyouth.org/.
Chris: Instead of taking part in your regular high school routines, you flip everything on its head, traveling halfway across the world to study Hindi of all things. As you immerse yourself within a culture full of ancient rituals and wisdom, you, yourself gradually become wise beyond your years.
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Luke: When I look back at Indore, when I really, really try to visualize it, I see my street. I lived in a neighborhood called South Tukoganj, which was right smack dab in the middle of the city. Everything I wanted to access was within walking distance. I see my host family's apartment complex. I see the elevator I rode up every day as I was coming back from school. I see walking in, the couch, the bedroom, where I spent my time, a place that was really, really foreign to me on my first day there, but faster than I ever could have imagined became a second home to me.
Chris: This week, when the only language is Rummy, Bollywood without subtitles, and a large dose of mindfulness. Join us on a journey from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Indore, India on a journey of immeasurable growth.
Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: (Music) When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves..
Luke: My name is Luke Tyson. I'm 17 years old from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and I'm a junior in high school at Sewickley Academy. During the summer of 2018, I spent about eight weeks in Indore, India intensively studying.
When I first came into the program, as I think is natural for any exchange student, I was really, really conscious of not trying to disrupt the day-to-day lifestyle there. I think for the first week or two, I was overly polite and I think that's an acclimation period that I imagine a lot of host students can relate to. I think I really started to hit my stride with my host family around a week and a half, two weeks in, in the sense where we found little ways to bond.
One of my most fond memories is with my host mom where she and my host grandparents really liked Rummy, the card game Rummy. We would spend hours and hours, especially with my host grandparents who didn't speak as much English, we would spend hours and hours playing Rummy and that became a non-communication oriented way for me to bond with my host family in a way that may not have been possible otherwise. I think finding those unique little ways to connect with people who come from drastically different cultures, speak different languages, is really what exchange is all about.
I had gone into India with this really big conception that I think is prevalent in the United States about this idea of the Indian family, that they are these big, booming families all living under one roof. To some degree, I did find that was true, how my host family was extended in the sense that there were up to four generations living under the same roof. That was a preconception I had back in the United States that did end up, in fact, being true.
It was also an experience that really defined my stay in India in the sense where my host family would not have been the same without my [Hindi 00:04:05], which is host parents. All four generations living under the same roof really characterized my time in India and I wouldn't have had it any other way.
During my first week, there's a trait in Indian parenthood that I became very quickly, I suppose, comfortable with but at the beginning, less comfortable with, was that the degree of privacy that exists there is very, very different, just perceptions of what personal space and personal belongings look like. I remember coming into the room that I shared with my host brother and seeing my host mother go through my things. Of course, it was my first week there, so I wasn't too comfortable yet to be like, "Hey, ma, whatcha doing?"
To a degree I was like, "Whoa, is there anything I can help you find?" She was like, "No, No, [Hindi 00:04:54]," and she was just going through my things. I think one of the things that I had to become comfortable with and really was not good, not bad, just different, was this varying definitions of what personal space and personal privacy are like in India.
Another example of that, when I was walking through Sarafa, one of Indore's famous street markets, people would often reach over and touch my hair just because it was different. It was something that they hadn't experienced before. Just the degree to which permission was never really a part of that dynamic was something that I had to get used to and something that really was not good, what not bad, just different and took some acclimation.
I think what I encountered was definitely a mix of both stereotype and curiosity in the sense that for ... I'd even contend that the majority of people I interacted with, if not the very first, I was one of the first and only Americans they'd had the opportunity to interact with in their life. I got a lot of questions. I actually kept a running tally of the three top questions I was asked. The first one was about my opinion on politics. Obviously, American politics has become a focal point for the rest of the world as well. People asked me a lot about my experience with Hindi, why I had come to India.
My number one question was actually, is high school in the United States like High School Musical? I think it's really interesting to be able to contrast. Of course, being an American high school student growing up in that culture to be able to understand when media puts that comedic exaggeration on certain aspects of American life. To talk to people who didn't necessarily have that focal point, it was really about breaking down that ... In some ways, it is kind of like American high school. Here's some ways in which the depictions you've seen of American life on TV or in music may not necessarily be accurate. I'd say I definitely encountered a mix of both and it was really interesting to take those on.
Bollywood is a huge part of Indian culture. I think that's something I had theorized before I went on exchange and something that I found to be true throughout my time in India. I did go to see Bollywood movies with my host family. That became a really good way not just to practice my Hindi, but also to soak in the culture on another level because I think ... I was taking intensive Hindi lessons all day in a school that also had local Indian high school students as well. I think part of my goals upon arriving to that school was how can I actually bridge this gap and build genuine cross-cultural connections beyond the novelty of a new exchange student being in the school.
I thought, when a new Bollywood movie came out and I went to go see it in the theaters with my host family, I loved being able to go into school in the next day and talk to people and be like, "Hey, did you see this Bollywood movie? Hey, I saw it too," to just build relationships that extend beyond the typical, "Oh, he's an exchange student. I'm going to say hi to him," dynamic. I did have numerous opportunities to experience that side of Indian culture and I really enjoyed being able to take that and use it to foster other relationships.
Being on a language intensive program, a lot of my time was spent in the classroom. The most valuable language experience was for me when I was able to use what I was learning in the classroom in day-to-day life. I specifically remember it was around three weeks into my program and my host mom and I went to Chappan Dukan, which is this really vague, this big food market in Indore. She was like, "Luke, it's time you are going to get something in Hindi I have a list of things that I want you to get. You're going to go on your own from store to store and you're going to get those things."
I remember being really, really nervous. It was one of my first experiences using Hindi without that safety net. It's one thing to speak it when you know there's somebody behind you that can translate if the communication goes awry, it's another thing to take those on as your own. The first shop that I went to, I was really, really daunted. I remember pulling up. I was actually supposed to get pav, which is this type of Indian bread for pav bhaji, which is the meal that was being made that night.
I remember walking up and placing my order in Hindi and just this big smile coming and the man's face. It's this really raw moment because I think it reminded me of why I was so compelled to go abroad and learn another language in the first place. It was about being able to form those types of connections in the sense that he asked me, like so many people do, when I started to speak Hindi, what I was doing in India, why I was learning Hindi, and it was a neat moment where I was able to develop this authentic relationship with somebody I probably wouldn't have if that shared language experience hadn't brought us together. That was a really proud moment for me.
In Indore, there's this very, very, famous, or, I guess, some might even call it infamous street market called Sarafa, which is the Hindi or the word for silver. It takes place in another part of town from where my host family lived and it actually only starts at 8:00 PM. It's like this huge, amazing ... This feat in Indore where people will show up. It's an accumulation of bazaars or food shops on the street and they will just eat from 8:00 PM to 2:00 AM straight.
I'd remembered my program trying to ease us into the food in India, told my host family explicitly, "Don't take him to Sarafa until around four weeks into the program." I, of course, was super duper excited to try this street market that everybody had been talking about. I remembered showing up, smelling everything, that the sounds all around me, it was this beautiful chaos that I think defines India so well and just trying thing after thing and having plate after plate put in front of me, not knowing what I was tasting but loving every single bit of it. That's a memory I look on really fondly in hindsight.
I was raised in a Protestant household, so in many ways, spirituality and religion had been a very, very, big part of my life growing up. I was really, really interested and intrigued to explore the ways in which spirituality is different in India and in Eastern cultures than based on my own experience in the United States. I remember even not being a practicing Hindu, even having very little experience with that religion.
I still remember the first time I went into a temple. It was with my host family. My host mom took me so it was a landmark temple in Indore. I just remember walking in and feeling what was really just a raw energy. I think even going into a place of worship for a religion that one isn't necessarily a member of, I think when people, exchange students, in particular, take the time to learn about other cultures and religions, it's easy to feel the spiritual energy of others in places like that.
Even though I don't identify as Hindu, I was not brought up with that upbringing, I think still being able to feel the respect for that type of spirituality and feel the energy of that practice was something that really affected my perception of religion not just in the United States, not just in India, but across the globe.
I think when Americans think of India, one of the first things that comes to our mind is the idea of meditation, yoga, mindfulness. To some degree, I think part of that is hyperbolized, but to some degree, I think it is true in the sense that spirituality and mindfulness play a much larger role in Indian day-to-day life based on my experience than one might experience here in the United States. That was one of the things I wanted to explore during my time abroad.
I went of my way to find opportunities to participate in yoga and meditation, those sort of mindfulness exercises. My host mom was actually a really, really big resource for me in that front. Coming back, I actually had the opportunity to do yoga every day while I was India with my host mom and she was teaching me different poses, different breathing methods. I fell in love with it in the sense that especially in a period that was so tumultuous in my life, when I was experiencing so much change, it was nice to have that moment of reflection and introspection I would say.
That's definitely something I've made a conscious effort to continue, to incorporate into my life back here in the United States. Even if I may not have the same time to do yoga or meditate that I made an effort to do in India, that sort of reflectiveness and remembering maybe it's time for me to take a step back and take a look at the bigger picture. It was a habit I think I developed abroad that has continued to affect my life here in the States.
I think a mindset that I tried to be really, really, cognizant of throughout my time in India was that it was my role to be an ambassador and not an advocate in the sense that I was there to experience issues, but also not to place judgment on anything I experience. It was definitely always in the back of my mind as I took a school bus every day from my home to one of the nicest schools in Indore and on the way there, I would pass families sleeping of mattresses on the side of the road.
I did my best to not make sweeping generalizations about India because I think part of the beauty of being to go to a place in and of itself is to experience the vast diversity that exists in a place like India or really any country around the world that many countries aren't given the benefit of the doubt of here in the United States. I think to experience India is in part to experience the poverty that exists there, but I think that it is also to be able to have the frame of reference to put that poverty in contrast with the multitude of other identities and experiences that exist there. It was important to me to be able to experience that. It was also important to me to build up the perspective to know that while that is an Indian experience, it is not the Indian experience.
What I experienced upon returning from India was that there were many things that I learned and experienced there that carried over into my life here at home. There were many things that did stay separate. I think to some degree I changed as a person. Exchange really is a life-changing experience, and I don't think there's anybody who would attest to the contrary, but to some degree, there is still an America Luke and an India Luke, some fundamental dichotomies in the way that I conduct myself here and the way that I conduct myself there.
I think that that's what culture shock is. It's recognizing that you changed as a person while you were abroad. Coming back, you almost have to go through that again, re-acclimate yourself to the type of person, the type of environment you were in before you left. Just as I got used to things like different definitions of privacy, it also took some re-acclimation to American definitions of privacy.
I'm looking at different options for my senior year. I definitely caught the abroad bug during my six-weeks abroad. I realized it really wasn't enough and quickly got home and submitted applications for different programs to spend my senior year abroad, so we'll see how that goes. Beyond that, as the college search starts, I've really started honing in on opportunities that are going to enable me to continue to explore in college and beyond, not just in the context of India, not just in the context of continuing my Hindi studies, but going abroad really made me realize that there is so much more out there then we tend to think of just as Americans and the traditional career path that we have.
I think it was definitely a priority-altering experience in the sense that now things that I do have become a medium for how I can continue to explore, grow, and learn. That's cognizant as I begin the dreaded university search here in the States.
I think there's this disconnect, kind of like I was talking about before, that there's this disconnect when exchange students come back and there's just this pressure to be able to explain such a life-changing experience in what is really a 30-second elevator pitch. There were multiple moments throughout my exchange that I was almost cognizant of in that moment. When I go back, there's going to be no way that I can portray this.
As I took in the Taj Mahal, as I went to different religious sites, as I interacted with people in their native language on the streets of the bazaars, there were moments in which I wished my friends and family can see me now in the sense that I wish they could experience this because there's no way that I'm going to be able to truly capture it when I go back. I think I continue to be cognizant of that throughout my time here.
This is the exchange student dilemma. When you come back and all of your friends are so inherently curious about what your time was like on the other side of the world, so you get that question, what was India like? I remember my first couple weeks back, my brain would just freeze 'cause my mind would immediately flash back to all these life-changing incredible experiences I had, and I had this dilemma where it was how do I boil that down into a 30-second elevator pitch? How do I respond to this question, how was India?
I think for my first couple of weeks back, I used a little cop-out. It was amazing. It was incredible. I want to go back as soon as I can. I think as I had more time to reflect, I honed that answer a little bit more and more. If somebody asks me today how was India, I think that the first thing I like to say is, "You have to go and experience it for yourself." I just think all of the lessons that I learned, all of the challenges I faced and then the accomplishments that were born out of those challenges, I would never want to deter somebody else from going.
Whether it's India, whether it's in any other country, any other culture, I would never want to deter somebody else from going out and seeking those types of experiences for themselves. That's been my big goal.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.
This week, Luke Tyson told us about his time as part of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, or NSLI-Y, program in India. For more about NSLI-Y and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov.
We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do that wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y at state.gov.
Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found on our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233.
Special thanks this week to Luke for sharing his story. I did the interview and edited this episode.
Featured music was "Haratanaya Sree" by Veena Kinha, "Budgerigar Vishnu" and "Raag" both by Vinod Prasanna, Okey Szoke, Pompey. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How the Night Came and the end-credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
The concept was simple: Award-winning American chef Lenny Russo would go to a small country he knew little about, meet farmers and food producers and transform their ingredients using traditional American techniques. However, what happened when the cameras started rolling was a surreal series of events—and it was Chef Russo who was ultimately transformed. Chef Russo visited Slovenia as part of the ECA Arts Envoy program. For more information about American Arts Envoys serving abroad please visit: https://exchanges.state.gov/us/program/arts-envoy.
Chris: You accept an odd request to go halfway across the world to star in a television series cooking for people in Slovenia, a country that had previously barely scratched your consciousness. Weeks later when you leave, this beautiful country has gotten completely under your skin. You have, so to speak, been seasoned by Slovenians.
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Lenny: There was one point in which these two old grandmas on the border of Austria and Italy, up in the Julian Alps, gave me a goat. They gave me a baby goat that had been born earlier in the day. I'm holding this goat and I'm thinking, [inaudible 00:00:50] people I grew up with and if they could see me now holding this goat they just wouldn't really know ... They're like, "Who is that guy?" You don't come from an Italian ghetto in Hoboken, New Jersey and find yourself finding a baby goat in the Alps and have a couple of pockets full of dog bags and beans.
Chris: This week, Gina, the celebrity truffle dog, catching a steelhead trout in the Adriatic, tumbling down a mountain, and learning that the best ingredient is love. Join us around the dinner table during a journey from Saint Paul, Minnesota to Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Intro Clip 1: [Music] We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them, they are people, very much like ourselves, and ... [Music]
Lenny: My name is Lenny Russo and I'm a chef. I live in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and I was an ECA Arts Envoy in 2013. That was Slovenia. I was there to engage the Slovenian people in an intimate way regarding food and culture and beverage. There was lots of beverage.
This came about in a very odd way. I got an email from the Embassy in Ljubljana that said, "Greetings from Slovenia." So, I thought for sure this was going to be somebody saying that he had been mugged by a [Serb 00:03:00] and was in jail and needed my money. But as it turned out, it was for real. I did pull a sous chef into my office and say, "Hey, does this look like some kind of a con job?" And he said, "Oh, yeah. Yeah, it does."
The television show was called Seasoned by Americans. So really what it was was it was about Slovenian ingredients encountered, appreciated, and then transformed by an American chef in American palette, American creativity. I think that for people in Slovenia who may be hadn't really encountered very many Americans, and back then I don't know that that many Americans actually went to Slovenia, I think that maybe when they thought of America they thought of McDonald's and fast food, and maybe they came to understand that we're as diverse a nation as maybe there has ever been.
I think also they came to see that we're not ... that many of us are open, that we're an open people, that we're anxious to learn and connect and appreciate other people. That we're kind, we're a kind nation, we care about others. I think that sometimes that gets lost. I think that maybe is something they took away from that, at least I hope it is. At least I hope it was from the segments that I filmed.
We were filming for Slovenia television for Pop TV, which I think has the largest viewership in the country. The show was split into two portions of, I think, four episodes each. One was the eastern part of the country, and one was the western part of the country. There was a chef from North Carolina, she was doing the eastern part, and then I did the western part of the country. We had a lot of great stories.
We would go out and probably visit three different locations and film them over the course of three days, and then gather all of the people from each segment and meet at a [gostilna 00:05:19], which for those who don't know what that is it's sort of like a tavern. Rustic locations with a relatively rustic cooking facilities and pretty rustic population. It was always interesting. I never really knew what to anticipate until I showed up.
Then they would come together and I would have ingredients that I'd gathered at each of these locations, and then I would host everyone and I would combine those ingredients to create a meal and put my own take on it. It was all meant to look like it happened in one day ... through the magic of television.
I remember one time we went out on a truffle hunt, speaking of the magic of television, with Gina, the truffle dog, and so of course we buried a truffle so that Gina could find it and pick it up because we wanted to make sure we got a good shot. We didn't want to walk around with the truffle dog for six hours. Later that evening we were back in Ljubljana having dinner, my wife and I, we were talking about Gina and the truffles and the fact that there is at least one type of truffle that's ripe every month of the year in Slovenia, which is kind of remarkable.
The waiter heard us talking, asked me what I was doing there, and I told him I was a chef and what I was engaged in, and he asked me what we had done that day. I said, "We went on a truffle hunt." And he said, "With Gina?" It's like, "You know who the dog is?" He says, "Oh, yeah. She's a celebrity." So that's the kind of place it is where a truffle dog is a top celebrity. If they had their own currency, she probably would end up on it.
There were a number of days where we did some really cool stuff. We went down to Piran on the Adriatic coast. Slovenia's like New Hampshire, it's got this little tiny, I don't know what it is, it's 30 miles of coastline perhaps. We went down there and we were supposed to get some fish. I was supposed to engage some fishermen and do some fishing myself, well actually it was fake fishing. I had a pole that didn't have any bait on it that I had dropped in the water and I was yelling at fishermen as they went out and wishing them good luck.
At any rate, there was all this commotion at one point. It turned out that a fisherman had brought in a salmonoid, which they said, "He caught a salmon. No one has ... There hasn't been a salmon caught in these waters," I think he said seven years it had been since one was caught. So, they wanted to show it to me, so I looked at it. I said, "It's a steelhead trout," and they had no idea what I was talking about. But we took the fish, so we invited the fishermen and I fileted the fish, and it was steelhead trout, which apparently had come down the river to spawn, got into the Adriatic, and turned the wrong way, I guess, and there it was. And this guy just caught it, by serendipity, pure serendipity, there it was.
So, yeah, we did something with that and with some really beautiful [rodikio 00:09:02] from the market in Ljubljana and I pureed some potato from another farm and added the truffles. I finished it with this beautiful olive oil from Morgan, and I know that this particular producer won the gold in Milan in competition, but prior to winning the gold that I was there and I remember saying to him that much to my chagrin being of Italian descent and particularly from Puglia where a lot of olive oil is produced that that was the finest olive oil I had ever tasted. I used the lemon-infused oil to top that particular dish. I believe that we enjoyed it with a rosé from another vineyard that we saw was perched above Trieste. You could see Trieste from the vineyard.
One of the things that really impressed me in Ljubljana was the marketplace, just the incredible diversity of the food that was being produced and offered for sale. The fish coming in from the Adriatic, the fresh cheeses, and the cream coming from the dairies, the meat, the sausage making, and then the just enormous diversity in the produce and the way that everything was being used, every piece of every animal, every vegetable scrap, every piece of grain, everything. There was just a reverence, I think, for the land, for the people who farm it. I think what really impressed me was the fact that it was so bountiful and that for the people who live there that was not by any stretch of the imagination always the case. And we're not just talking about lean years when it was part of Yugoslavia, but we're talking about lean years for hundreds of years when maybe the only thing that you could survive on was a local pear.
When Yugoslavia fell apart and Slovenia finally gained its independence and there was ... almost a sort of renaissance, as if they were reborn, and you can still feel it when you go there. I think they're still discovering their potential as a people.
One of the things that I tried to communicate to them was how wonderful they really, truly are, how magnificent that country is, and how incredible the people are in their resources. I think when you're a very small country in a very big world and there are superpowers that dwarf you that maybe you don't fully appreciate how really truly wonderful you are. And I wanted them to know that's how I felt, so I took a lot of opportunities to say that. The country made an enormous impression upon me and I'm a lot richer and a lot happier for having been there and having done it.
This is about connecting and understanding their culture, and then watching it as it's transformed by someone from another culture so that we can come together and create something different and beautiful and marvelous, and that's what we did.
I got to meet a lot of fascinating people on that journey. Not just in the city, but in the countryside. Actually I think the people in the countryside were a little more fascinating than the people I met in the city. And then just realizing how incredibly beautiful and rich their culture was and the country itself, and the people were so warm and welcoming.
[Inaudible 00:13:25] from Movia vineyard, we were in Movia twice. The first time was like a Fellini movie, the insanity of it all. Then the second time I came and cooked dinner, this wine cellar was the most remarkable place where there was no electricity. He believes that it ruins the wine. We were down there in this catacomb basically. At one point he said to me, "What's your vintage?" I told him, "1958." And he said, "No, no. The year you were born in." I said, "1958." So, he took me to this corner of the wine cellar, pulled back some cobwebs, and pulled out a 1958 Merlot, back from when Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia. It was in a 700 milliliter bottle and we opened it up and it was so incredibly fresh and bright and beautiful, I couldn't believe it. So, of course, he's like, "Yeah, that's why there's no electricity down here." I'm not sure if that's true or not, but whatever the case was, it was remarkable wine.
We went to this gostilna where there was a guy who had won the award for making the best sausage, the best kielbasa. He also made his own schnapps, as does everyone. Apparently everybody makes schnapps. They wanted me to taste his schnapps and say how well ... toast each other, as if it was the middle of the afternoon or late evening or something, with the schnapps and eat some sausage.
Now, it's probably about eight, nine o'clock in the morning, I'm guessing. We set the thing up, I do this [inaudible 00:15:28] schnapps, we toast each other, blah, blah, slap each other on the back, and then the director says, "Nope. A bird flew into the frame. We got to shoot that again. All right. Tee up another shot of schnapps. Here we go. Boom. Nope. Plane flew overhead. No, that's not going to work." So, now it's time for the third shot of schnapps and it's maybe going on 9:30, 10:00 in the morning. So, here I go again, and he didn't like a shadow. And I said, "Well, unless you want me to pass out, this is it. That's your last take." Sausage was pretty remarkable as well.
I ate a lot of great food while I was there. I ate a lot of horse, that was fun. I used to eat horse when I was a kid because it was legal in New Jersey and we were poor. My mother used to serve it to us and tell us it was beef, but we knew she was lying.
Then there was the time I almost got killed. So, the plan was that in the morning I would tour this abandoned mercury mine and then I would get into a rally car, a suped-up rally, which was a [Yugo 00:17:05], and we were supposed to race it up this mountain in the Julian Alps. Then I was supposed to read from For Whom the Bell Tolls from where Hemingway wrote it or supposedly wrote it. And then we were supposed to go to [Hiša Franko 00:17:18] where I was supposed to cook with the top Slovenian chef who was a couple years later named the top female chef in the world, so I was greatly looking forward to that remarkable day.
I get in the rally car. There was six-point restraints and a roll bar and there's a helmet. Got my shades on, I had my Ray-Bans on. They're telling the driver, in Slovenian, there's a camera on the dash and one on the side of the car and then there are camera people at each hairpin turn, and that he's supposed to drive past all three of them and turn around and come back, and they're going to shoot it three times. Except I don't speak Slovenian, so I have no idea what they're saying to him.
So, I'm sitting in the car and giving him the thumbs up like it's Top Gun. I've never seen Top Gun, but I just imagine that that's what they did. They probably gave each other the thumbs up a lot when they were getting ready to do something stupid.
So, here we go. We race up the mountain, he gets past the last [cameraperson 00:18:30] and he just keeps going. We come around this hairpin turn, and it's early spring and there's still snow and mud, and he hits this patch of mud and there's no guardrails. We're above a ravine and he can't hold the road, and so we teeter for a moment on the edge of this cliff, and then we roll the car and flip it. We land about 200 meters down in a couple meters of snow, remarkably not hitting any trees on the way down.
It was weird because when I later saw it on film it happened so fast, but when it happened it seemed to take forever, like I had plenty of time to consider the ramifications of what was about to happen. I see we're going to go over this cliff, I know we're going over. So, I'm figuring I'm probably going to die, so over we go and I'm keeping my eyes open 'cause I want to see my demise. And it's just like you see in the movies when a car rolls over and all the glass shatters, and it all seemed like it was happening in slow motion.
We get to the bottom and, of course, I'm intact and so was the driver. He's trying to get out the door. The doors are all smashed, we have to climb through the windshield. Getting down was the easy part, it was getting up the cliff face was hard. It was muddy, I'm grabbing rocks and tree limbs, and I get myself up on the roadbed and all I have is a walkie-talkie to communicate with the base camp. It was full of mud.
I shake all the mud out of it, I get it to work, and I get the director, Peter, on the phone and on the horn, and he's like, "Where are you?" So I tell him, "We wrecked the car. It's totaled. It's at the bottom of a ravine." He said, "No, really." And then I'd repeat myself. Then he said, "No, just where are you?" And I said, "I don't know, Peter. Just get in your car, drive up the side of mountain." I said, "We're the only Yugo in the bottom of a ravine. You can't miss us. It's red."
So, up he comes and he's already really white, but now he's like super white 'cause he's so freaked out. He's like practically see-through he's so pale. He gives me a hug like I should be dead, and I'm like, "No, I'm good." I said, "Don't tell my wife. She'll be freaked out. Wait 'til I get down there." He said, "We didn't say anything to her, we were pretty sure you were dead." I said, "You're talking to me on the walkie, so you knew I wasn't dead." He said, "I wasn't counting on the fact that you were going to survive after you talked to me."
So, we get down there and they take me to the clinic, 'cause there's no hospital, it's this little town. It turned out that the first camera operator, his sister was a nurse there, and there's a doctor in there, a big fat guy smoking a cigarette. My blood pressure's like 220 or something and he's all freaked out. He said, "Yeah, I can hear your heart valve clicking in there, you better have that checked out." I'm like, "Yeah." My pulse is racing. Anyway, they eventually got me to the hospital in Ljubljana where I think I ended up seeing three doctors and I had a series of x-rays done and was given a prescription. I was freaked out about how much money it was going to cost and was the Embassy picking up the tab, which turned out to be like $150.
I didn't get to go to Hiša Franko. Everyone blamed it on me. It wasn't my fault, I didn't drive over the cliff. I want to say that now for the record. So, I'd want to go back there and it's another thing left undone in my life that I need to complete. So, I'm coming for you, Hiša Franko.
They gave me a bunch of heirloom beans. I brought them back, I still have a lot of them. I gave some to a bean farmer who grows heirloom beans for me here in the States. She grows them. They gave me duck eggs and I made a large stew. Kielbasa and heirloom beans with poached duck eggs. That was an interesting one with a kids show character who ... the [Mountain Man 00:23:07]. That was something. With, what was it? A whistle? What did he have? A kazoo? It was like, I don't remember what it was.
I was shocked, one, with how good all the ingredients were and how remarkable all the food was. I was particularly amazed at, like I said earlier about, Morgan and the quality of their olive oil. But all of wines, we visited a bunch of wineries and they were remarkable. Their charcuterie was outstanding. Incredible cellars filled with prosciutti being cured by the [Mistral 00:23:59], or [inaudible 00:24:02] as they call it in Slovenia. It was just remarkable. I met a bunch of Slovenian chefs who were enormously creative, like cutting-edge, just remarkably adept and remarkably creative, and all within close proximity of each other. I don't have that here. Unless you go to New York or Chicago where there's a bunch of people who are super creative within walking distant of each other, you don't actually see that level of creativity and enthusiasm for their craft ... The pursuit of excellence was remarkable and everybody was so, so anxious to show it, to communicate it. That was impactful for me to see it. Inspiring.
We're a giant agricultural state, the heartland of the country, which was the name of my restaurant. Heartland. My wife and I had a restaurant for 14 years called Heartland. What we did was we bought directly from local farmers and artisans who practiced sustainable agriculture, humane agriculture. But more than just sustaining the land and the air and the water, we want to sustain the people who live on the land, so we strive to engage our local people as much as possible. I feel like we're sitting on some of the best ingredients in the entire world, and we didn't have to reach far to find what we could celebrate. And Heartland, much like this project, was apolitical and secular, and for us it was all about finding ground through food and beverage and sitting around a table. And realizing that while we all have differences, we have way more things in common, and way more things to agree upon, and way more things that we would like to celebrate together. So, I took the spirit of that with me when I went to Slovenia.
I found it really refreshing to see that ... it's sort of a weird dichotomy when I talk about how incredibly strict they were when it came to whether or not you went one kilometer over the speed limit or crossed at a red light when there was nobody present. They were so incredibly open and progressive and liberal when it came to the way that they view their environment and the way that they ... the things that they chose to enrich their lives and the things they found to be important. When I came back to Saint Paul, which is kind of European stylistically, it's small, it's not built on a grid, it celebrates the old world in a way that more cosmopolitan U.S. cities don't, so I wanted to make sure that I helped preserve that spirit that exists in Saint Paul and I wanted to think really hard about the environmental issues and just sort of fantasize to an extent, I guess, on how our city could be more sustainable.
So, I did do a lot of work with the Mayor's Office in Saint Paul on those issues when I came back because there's really nothing more critical in our lifetime, I think, than what we're facing, the challenges we're facing in the environment right now. So, whatever we could do on a local level I felt would be really important. Seeing such a small country like Slovenia, basically the size of New Jersey, doing things that were impactful led me to believe that it doesn't have to happen in Washington, that it can happen on a local level and be impactful.
I have a set of values that I try and live my life by. The pursuit of lots of money is not really on the top of my list, never has been. Things that are really important to me and how I like to think that my country, my tax dollars, my government, my people do, is forging ties, appreciating our differences, and understanding how those differences come together to create something really beautiful. People too often look at those who are different and perceive a threat. I'm not that type of person. I see someone different and I perceive an opportunity to grow and to learn.
When I went to college, my goal wasn't to achieve a degree, I was there in the pursuit of knowledge. I think that my whole life has been kind of the same way. I really want to know as much as I possibly can. I want to fill my life with as many different experiences and enrich it in as many ways as I can because I believe in humanity that's to be celebrated, and I think that our country needs to do more of that. I think that there are all those lofty reasons, but then there are practical reasons.
There are practical reasons to make friends with other nations and to forge lasting ties and bonds because there's strength in numbers, and we need as many friends as we possibly can in a very dangerous world. I think that reaching out across the ocean, across the world, across the planet to join hands with those that we maybe have never met reaps benefits and rewards beyond probably what we can truly measure or imagine.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name is Christopher Wurst, I'm the Director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of a U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.
This week, well-known American chef, Lenny Russo, talked about his time as an ECA Arts Envoy, practicing culinary diplomacy and becoming a TV star in Slovenia. For more about cultural programs, including the Arts Envoy and other ECA exchange programs, check out ECA.state.gov.
You can subscribe to 22.33 wherever you find your podcast. We encourage you to do so. And hey, why not leave us a review while you're at it? We'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ECACollaboratory@state.gov. That's ECACollaboratory@state.gov.
Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found on our webpage at ECA.state.gov/22.33.
Very special thanks this week to my friend, Lenny, for sharing his story. May he yet dine at Hiša Franko. I did the interview and edited this episode.
Featured music was "Let's Go Around" by Lobo Loco, "Devil's Holiday" by Benny Carter and His Orchestra, "Jordu" by Clifford Brown and Max Roach, and "Stardust" by Oscar Pettiford. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came. The end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
In addition, there were five songs from the soundtrack of the TV show that Lenny describes. "Elemental Pie", "The Frim-Fram Sauce", [Slovene 00:33:17], oh man, my Slovene, [Slovene 00:33:23], my [Slovene 00:33:26] friends are going to hate me, and both the English and Slovene versions of the TV show's theme song, "I Like Pie, I Like Cake".
Until next time, here is the Slovene version, [Slovene 00:33:38].
Season 01, Episode 19 - [Bonus] The Food We Eat, Part 3
Another selection of unique, scary, strange, and sometimes delicious food stories from around the world.
Chris: That's right. You know this music, this music means only one thing. It's the march edition of 22.33's The Food We Eat bonus podcast, wherein we learn about the odd and adventurous dietary implications of traveling the globe.
It's 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Speaker 1: Alcohol was a very interesting concept over there. There's just so many different and random traditions around alcohol and how it's ... who's supposed to serve it, how much you're supposed to drink at what kind of event. Kyrgyzstan is a majority Muslim country, but the Islam that they practice is definitely influenced by Soviet ideology, so they're still very collectivist. I think alcohol consumption was big during the Soviet times, but they still do it, especially the older generation. Even though they may not eat pork, they still are going to drink alcohol. I found that very interesting. At the weddings, especially, you're not supposed to leave any empty vodka bottles, you have to finish the whole thing or else you'll have bad luck. Here are people just scrambling to find someone to drink it. Of course they're going to give it to the foreigners because the foreigners are just going to take everything in that they can. Those were some crazy wedding nights in Kyrgyzstan.
Chris: This week, no bottle shall remain unemptied, sampling snake meat, and apparently it's allowed to bring canned horse through US customs. Who knew? Join us on a journey to the far edges of your taste buds.
Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all...
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shape to who I am...
Intro Clip 3: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them, they are people very much like ourselves, and ... (Music)
Speaker 2: I'm such a chocolate snob, I think. One time we went back to visit a few years afterwards and we were at the Zurich airport and I told my husband, I'm like, "We have to go get this kind of chocolate," and he was like, "You're crazy." I'm like, "Nope, this is the kind," I even had a picture of it on my phone. It was kind of strange, we had to exit the airport. In the Zurich airport, they had a grocery store. So we had to exit and then we came back in and one of the security people were questioning us like, "Why did you just leave 15 minutes and come back?" And then I told them the story about the chocolate and they're like, "Oh, we totally understand." So ...
Speaker 3: So I am terrified of snakes. So I would just ... I would love these stories that she would tell it. I'd probably ask her to tell them over and over again. She mentioned to me that her husband cooked snake, cooked snake in a Crock-Pot, cooks python. And, of course, my eyes lit up when I heard this and I said to them, "I really ... I want to try python." And it's almost like an old boys club of eating this python. So at the end of the trip she hosted a party and for me specifically, her husband decided to cook some python in the Crock-Pot. They called me back into the kitchen and they're like, "Joe, you got to come back," like, "We got some python for you." So I wander back into the kitchen and there it was, this massive python cooked in tomato sauce and spices and just chopped up.
Despite my fear for snakes, I felt like this was me overcoming my fear of snake, is getting to eat one. I took a bite and I really liked it. It tasted like chicken. But the best part about it was of course I had to take pictures of it and I put it on my Instagram and people were flipping out that I ate python. But my mom was convinced that I was going to die that night after I ate the python. I guess back in America, she didn't sleep all night long, assuming that I was getting medevacked to the hospital because I ate this python. I woke up to about eight different messages from my mother freaking out. So I told her, I said, "Mom, I'm fine." I plan, hopefully ... I spoke to Liz, the CAO and I'm hoping to go back to Ghana in 2019 where she's now ... is working. I said, "Get that Crock-Pot ready because I want some python." So yeah, to be continued. We'll have a python part two story for when I come back from that trip.
Chris: That's awesome.
Speaker 3: I definitely loved horse meat. Horse meat is great. My friends and family have often heard me say that. Horse meat to me ... so a horse steak tastes like grass-fed beef a little bit and all the different ways you can make it, as a steak, [inaudible 00:05:37], have a big flat noodle and a mess of a stew of vegetables and meat and stuff. If I could count the ways that you could eat horse, they're all good. I remember that I brought back, from Kazakhstan, a couple cans of horse meat. I wasn't sure if I was going to get that through customs or not. Fun fact though, you can't bring most types of meat through customs. You can't bring beef, you can't ... probably not chicken, whatever. And unless things have changed, you can in fact bring horse. I brought a couple of cans of horse meat.
It was in a nice little cylinder like this. It had horses on the can, so the customs guy looking at it, he's like, "Yes, that is an indeed horse." He's looking through his list of things that are forbidden through US customs, expecting to find something, and he didn't. So well, I guess, you're good to go. Yeah, so one of these cans of horse meat, eventually ... this is like a year later. I had a Christmas gathering with some of my friends and we were trying to figure out something to ... a dish to bring, something to make. I volunteered my can of horse and we ended up making nachos out of it. Horse nachos and it ... I think a lot of people put down these like food mashups, like Korean tacos or whatever. But now, horse nachos, I'd recommend it. You mean, what was the consistency?
Chris: Yeah, what was it like?
Speaker 3: Dog food, that's how I would described it. It was almost flaky in the can. One of my friends got inventive and he actually made gravy out of the juice too, which was good. Went on the nachos sort of like a ... instead of cheese. Anyway, yeah. No, it wasn't the most appetizing consistency, but once you cooked it, it was all right.
Speaker 1: I am definitely a very adventurous eater. I can handle all kinds of spice and because of my being raised in a Korean household, it was like I eat like crazy. I was very confused sometimes with what was inside the food in Kyrgyzstan because they eat a lot of meat and a lot of carbs. And they also eat a lot of body parts that I ... or not body parts, I should say animal parts, sorry. Parts of animals that aren't usually eaten by the majority people in America, I would say. I remember, I think I ate lungs, sheep's lungs and I didn't know. I remember they were trying to tell me, "Oh no, don't worry, it's like cheese." I was like, "What? Okay." I tried it and I was like, "This is not cheese." It may be white like cheese, but it's something meat, like meaty.
That wasn't, in my opinion, delicious. They are known for their fermented mare's milk. It's called [Kyrgyz 00:08:44]. Sorry, "Kumis". Yeah, Kumis. [Kyrgyz 00:08:47] is actually the guitar, sorry. But yeah, Kumis is, yeah, fermented horse milk. And if you drink enough of it, you can be tipsy, which I've learned. And they give it to babies. It's like very normal. And I remember thinking, I hated it in the beginning, but over time it's definitely an acquired taste. I kind of started to like it and now I can safely say I do kind of miss Kumis. The times I've been back, I have actively looked for it so that I could ... because you don't get it really anywhere else. I recently was in Chicago where the biggest Kyrgyz Diaspora in America is. And I went to two Kyrgyz restaurants just because I was curious, and yeah they had it. So I had it.
Speaker 4: I think what struck me largely about the food, of course, is very different and often what seems to us as Americans, very exotic foods. Some, I probably wouldn't try it again. Fried sand crabs, and things like that. I think what was notable, perhaps, about the food culture was that if you thought about it a little bit, there was obviously things that we were eating, animals and plants that we were eating, that were very different from how we would eat, but you also kind of get a sense of how these are somewhat arbitrary boundaries. And on the one hand it would be unthinkable for us to eat some of the foods that are eaten there. But on the other hand, you think, well, what is it exactly that differentiates, say, a dog from a pig in our culture? And why those distinctions are drawn.
So I think it really reinforced that ... Excuse me, it really reinforced that there were, perhaps, some boundaries that we draw that are culturally very salient and matter quite a lot to people. But also the fact that at the end of the day, these are somewhat arbitrary lines that we put in the sand. And that for people who live in that culture all the time, these are the most normal things you could possibly come across. And so it was an excellent experience in getting to see a different way of eating and cooking, but also to sort of step back and check my assumptions a little bit.
Speaker 5: We had a dinner in Des Moines, the last day in Des Moines. It's two days that I had. It's the last night, and we would have free time. So everyone supposed to bring one dish from their own countries. So I made Chinese food, and some made Vietnamese food, some made [Vietnamese 00:11:47] And then we ... and James and B, they are American. They tried our Asian food, very, very spicy. And you can see the first time [Vietnamese 00:11:58] and they're trying to be, "Okay, it's good. Okay, it's good. Do you want more? Okay, okay, fine." And you can see their face is all red because it's really, really spicy for him. And this spicy add a lots of humor to James and he start to tell about her private ... their private life. I mean we are so professional most of time. Yeah, just talking about our work and the challenges and this and that.
We [Vietnamese 00:12:27] share our love story. Then that night, because the spicy food, and then people start talking and we laugh all night. I still have .. we become a family at that moment. I feel, oh my God, this is family, how you fell. You bring your dish and then you share your story with why and with this [inaudible 00:12:45] everyone's so happy. We had a early, very early, flight to catch in the morning, six. So but we still enjoy that a lot that night, so I ... Wow, that's the moment I feel like, oh, this is family. It become family.
Chris: So spicy food and wine?
Speaker 5: Yeah. Spicy food and wine. Yeah, that'd be nice.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, we heard from six ECA exchange participants, Amanda Trabulsi, Sutton Mayer, Joanna Lohman, Peter Oster, Josh Glasser, and Sophia Huang, and we're grateful for all of their stories.
For more about ECA exchanges, checkout eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, you can do that where ever you find your podcasts. And we'd love to hear from you.
You can write to us at email@example.com, that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov, or you can leave a review on your favorite podcast platform. We would love that.
Special thanks this week to everybody for sharing their stories, delicious, scary, or otherwise. I did the interviews with them and edited this episode.
Featured music during this segment was Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble by Don Redman and His Orchestra. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came, and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
Season 01, Episode 18 - Trash Truck Tunes & Hip Hop Grooves with Lillygol Sedaghat
A life-long love of milk tea, lead Lillygol to consider her environmental footprint, leading to a fellowship in Taiwan to study waste management, all the while practicing hip hop diplomacy. Lillygol visited Taiwan as part of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. For more information about the program please visit: https://us.fulbrightonline.org/fulbright-nat-geo-fellowship.
Chris: Imagine finding out that one of the things you are most passionate about is actually harming something you care even more about, but not willing to compromise, you decide instead to travel halfway across the world to the heart of the conflict to find solutions that are both healthy and delicious.
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
This week, chasing down the weekly trash trucks, dancing one's problems away once and for all, and I promise you, you'll never hear Fur Elise the same way again. Join us on a journey from California to Taiwan, and preserving the planet one milk tea refill at a time.
Intro Clip 1: [Music] We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them, they are people, very much like ourselves, and ...
Intro Clip 4: (music)
Lilly: My name is Lillygol, or Lillygol Sedaghat. My Chinese name is [Mandarin 00:01:40], which means like competitive flower, flower. I'm originally from San Diego, California, and I went to Taiwan on a Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. I went to study Taiwan's incredible waste management system and their plastics recycling initiatives as well as the plastic supply chain.
I joke that I come to Taiwan, I came to Taiwan because I really love Taiwanese milk tea, and that's a fact. I grew up in San Diego, California. There was a Taiwanese tea house right down the street from my father's apartment. I would go there regularly, became a VIP, every time ordering a large, iced milk tea with half sugar and no boba. No boba because each one of those balls I think is like 30 calories, and after a while, I was like, "I don't think I can do this." And I went there, and pretty much grew up in that tea house, and wrote my first love letter there, studied for my SATs there. And when I graduated from UC Berkeley, I came back to that tea house and sat in the same orange chair, facing the same window, ordered the same drink and I asked myself that post-graduation quintessential question, which is, you know, "What the hell am I going to do with my life?"
And as I reached for my milk tea, it was the first time that I'd actually saw the plastic cup it was in, and I saw the colorful plastic straw poking up through the top, and mind you, I'd had like probably thousands of milk teas up until that point, where I would always drink it, and chuck it away, and drink it and chuck it away. That was the first time that I really thought about like, "Oh my god. Every time that I'm drinking a drink that I love, I'm harming the environment that I love." And the trash that I was throwing away doesn't just disappear, it goes into a landfill, into incinerator, it ends up in our marine ecosystems. And the ocean was just five minutes away from where I was. So it was this huge realization to have, and I was like, "I need to do something."
As a Fulbright Nat Geo Storyteller, one of the most important things you have to remember is the ethics of storytelling. So I was very cognizant of the fact that Taiwan is an island that's been colonized by four different groups of people. So I was very, very familiar knowing that I was a foreigner. The hardest part every day, about being in Taiwanese society, and living there full time for nine months on my own, and that means finding Airbnb's, and apartments, and going local grocery shopping, opening bank accounts, which we'll get to in a little bit, was trying to prove to everyone that I was just another person of society. It's very easy if you speak English to kind of hang out with your English speaking friends, and not necessarily understand the complexities of Taiwanese society, which is rooted in both Taiwanese and Mandarin. So I took Chinese classes every day to try and improve my Chinese terminology and to learn how to say not only my name, but what I was doing there.
So, [Mandarin 00:04:38]. And then even the idea of saying, "I'm an environmental journalist," was a little controversial. So then I was like, "Oh, [Chinese 00:04:46]." So I threw in the, "I'm a National Geographic environmental journalist." In the hopes that would be less partisan. But I think one of the most difficult thing about being in that space was again, trying to prove that I was just someone that wanted to listen and learn, and how do you do that when you have a camera, which is an invasive object, and you are a foreigner, which is technically an invasive person in a place where people are familiar with each other, but they're not familiar with you.
So I remember, you know, regularly, going on the subway and having these old women stare at me. An old woman with her eyes really wide, and have like a really grim look on her face, as if she wanted to say something to me, but she was confused as to why I was there. And mind you, I have very dark eyelashes, very dark, thick eyebrows, and very dark, thick hair, and don't really look either indigenous Taiwanese or Han Chinese. And I would always smile at them and go, "Ni hao, no hao." And they'd be very confused. Or like, why I would do that. And I remember the, in that moment of confusion, and in using Mandarin in Taipei for instance, that that was an opportunity for me to demonstrate that I'm trying to learn your language and I'm trying to understand who you are, as a people, as a society, in your own generational narratives.
But I remember that being very emotionally exhausting, is constantly trying to prove your humanity, but to demonstrate that I was doing it, because this is a different time in world history. That here was a young, Iranian American, who loved Bobadi, and Taiwanese [Mandarin 00:06:21], which is like the most amazing thing ever, coming to Taiwan to learn about waste management and plastic recycling, because of that love and that interest.
I grew up in San Diego, California, very multi-cultural place. My best friends were Japanese-American, Korean-American, Dutch-American, and white American and I was a Middle Eastern American, but those terms never meant anything. We were just friends, and it wasn't until I went to Taiwan that I finally became aware of the fact that I looked different. And in that was this like, intensity to want to demonstrate that we're more similar than we're different, but also to demonstrate to them that I wanted to share their stories, because their stories were valuable, and their stories were wonderful, and they were complex, and rich with tension, and we could learn from them in the western world.
Wrapped up in that realization was this like fervent desire to try and understand the connectivity that an Iranian-American girl who loved milk tea in San Diego, California had to an island thousands of miles away across the Pacific. So I applied for a National Geographic Storytelling Grant through Fulbright program, in a very funny way. I was in the Bay Area, working for a non-profit organization. And it was my first real job out of college, so you know, I really wanted to do really, really well. And I didn't. I really didn't and I got an email at the end of one day where my boss pretty much told me in the way emails do that, "You suck at life. Like, just really, really suck, and you're making a lot of terrible mistakes." And I remember coming home that day, crossing the bay under the Bart, and thought to myself, "Man, do I suck this much?"
I was really discouraged, and on my way back, in the jostling noises of the Bart, I was thinking to myself, and I was like, "Is there nothing that I'm good at?" I remember my parents, my mom and my dad, used to read me stories to bed every night, and I grew up reading these fantasy novels about these kick ass women who would like, go into battle, riding on the backs of polar bears, and like saving their kingdom. And I was really, really, I loved those things. And I said, "Well I really like stories." And so I stopped in the library on the way home, and typed storytelling fellowship into Google, and the Fulbright National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship was the first thing that popped up. In that moment, I was like, "All right, this is it. It's over. I'm quitting my job and applying for this."
So I asked my parents to support me for a month, I quit my job, and I spent the month working on that application. Next thing you know, six months later, I say, "Bye, mom. Bye, dad. Bye, Lara." That's my sister, and went over to Taiwan with three pieces of black luggage and a backpack and a camera. I pulled up in hostel, Green World Hostel, and it's located in Shemen, which is like the super popular, bustling neighborhood full of youth, and urban culture, and like video games, and anime, and milk tea, and like lots of lights. I dropped off my luggage and I pulled out my camera and was like, "Let's go." And the first thing I did is I got a milk tea. I was in Taiwan, which is the kingdom of milk teas, it's like where it originated. Got one of those, and then realized after I had gotten one of those that it was in a plastic cup, and I had to use a plastic straw, and I was like, "This is not a great way to start my environmentalism research." I determined that the first thing I was going to learn how to say was, "Can you please put my milk tea in my reusable cup?" [Mandarin 00:09:57]
And the first time I did that, I was so nervous. I was sweating under my arm pits, and it was actually a Fulbright water bottle, it was one that I received in my orientation, it was big, it was blue. I was foreign, and I was bringing a foreign object, and I didn't know ... and I was like, "I got to do this." And when I told my friends that it worked out, and they were like, "Yeah, no problem." And they even gave me a discount for it. I got like three NT dollars off. My friend's like, "Are you serious?" I was like, "Yeah, I'm living that environmental life!" They were like, "They did it for you, and they give you a discount?" I was like, "Yeah." So I proved to them and the next day, I went to another milk tea shop, because there are like hundreds of small milk tea shops, like [Mandarin 00:10:40] everywhere, everywhere you go.
And I did the same thing. My Taiwanese friends also were like, "Yeah, we heard about it, but we've never done it before. You did it?" I was like, "Yeah, of course!"
The things that I dealt with were waste management and plastic recycling and of course environmentalism, in terms of sustainability so I went in there with really no leads, aside from knowing from the Wall Street Journal that they had considered one of the worlds' geniuses of garbage disposal. So on the second day that I was there, I took the train to Taipei City Hall, walked straight into the public building, looked at the directory, saw that the Environmental Protection Department was on the seventh floor, walked straight into their offices, and I was like, "Hello?" Like, in the middle of this office. And everyone was talking like, "What?"
Like, "Hi, I'm Lilly Sediga, I'm from America." I was saying that in Chinese, you know. "I'm here to study your waste management system, can anybody help me?" I was literally like a ping pong, like ... going to all these different desks, and finally, I sat down with this woman who was Secretary of one of Taipei's City Commissioners for Waste. And she was like, "Yeah, just email us your questions, and we'll get back to you."
And several weeks later, I was in a café, and I got a phone call. [Mandarin 00:12:00] Like, "Is this Ms. Lilly?" I was like, "Yeah." And I was like, "Okay, great." I was like, "Okay, great. 100% comprehension at this point, this is awesome." I had picked up pieces, that he was like, "We want to invite you to an international conference on food waste management." I didn't understand most of what was said, but I got that. And I was like, "Great, yeah. Count me in. Can you please email me, so I can do a Google Translate if I need ... and sign up?" So he emails me, and I show up at the super fancy hotel, like the next day where I met the Commissioner, and she was the one who connected me on a tour of the incinerator for Taipei.
And the public waste stream, the way it works is, in Taipei City, you have to pay for your weight in garbage. So, you have to go to a 7/11, or like grocery store, and you have to pay for government mandated trash bags, and the idea is that for everything you have to throw away that's not recyclable or compost, you have to pay for it. So you kind of like have a financial incentive to minimize your waste. They also have like 13 categories and 33 different sub categories of recyclables that are picked up on different days, and then compost which is separated into wet waste and dry waste that goes to work for fertilizer for pig farms, and feed for pigs, because pork is a really big industry there.
You have to separate this all within your home, and in Taipei every night, you hear this song. (singing)
And as soon as you hear that song, you grab all of your trash bags, and you rush down to the neighborhood corner that you have, because that's when all the trash trucks come, and it's like America's version of the ice cream truck song, but for trash. It's amazing. And depending on what city you go, you have your own little style sometimes, it's Fur Elise. So (singing). So everyone's either at the corner, like ready to go, or like, someone like me who's like, "Oh, oh man, ah, cool." Like, I was like, "I'm so excited, I'm so excited, let me get my bags." And then I take my bags like down 12 flights of stairs, because I'm on the twelfth floor, and then rush out to this corner, and they have yellow trash trucks where you dump your waste, which is in the government mandated blue bags, and you throw it in there, and they crush it, and then behind them is a white truck for recycling. So like on like Mondays, I think Mondays and Wednesdays, they recycle the PET plastic bottles, so I'd hand it to them. And I'd always like be really excited and really smiling.
And because I was usually the only foreigner who lives in this neighborhood, they're like, "Hey, how's it going?" I was like, "I'm so excited to throw my trash today." And they were like, "Yeah, great." There's even one time I asked the, one of the guys who was operating these trucks, "Can you please press the button for the trash song truck? Please, just one time? I really like it." And he was like, "Okay." So he pushes the button and the song goes off, and I was like, "Yeah! This is so cool. I think I'm the only one who gets excited over trash."
It's a pretty like unique system. And it was a system that was designed by a group of housewives actually. Taiwan, in 1987, transitioned from four decades of Marshal law, where they weren't allowed to, there was no political freedom of speech, or association, or petitioning, and there were curfews. Well it transitioned into a democracy in the late 1980s, and in that transition, there were a group of housewives who were kind of sick and tired of their kids walking through trash to get to school and like, pollution coming into their homes. They got together and they started this group called the Homemakers' United Foundation, or HUF. And they were the ones who were the architects of the system I just described to you. The song choice they say, was the EPA minister at the time, was grappling of this idea of doing trash pickups at these designated locations.
And he had come home to his child playing Fur Elise on the piano. And he was like, "All right. That's it. That's the trash truck song." Legend has it, urban legend has it, which is really, really cool.
For me, because I was going back to the idea of, what is truth? What can you and can you not see, was really important to me, because I realized that I had a responsibility as a storyteller, both ethically, but also as an American. And as someone who had two big brands on her shoulders. I had the Fulbright brand and I had the National Geographic brand, that I knew whatever I would produce needed to be thoroughly researched, authentic to those people's narratives. So I was constantly thinking, "What am I not seeing? What have I not heard?"
Because up until that point, the government was very nice in terms of introducing me to literally follow their trash trucks and to go to the incinerator. I did a tour of it, I saw the vault where things burned, I saw that they also had like a trash mountain they transformed into a park. They had an animal rescue center on that park. They had like a composting facility, where people could come and get free liquid nitrogen. They even had like a public pool with hot water, that they'd use to heat from the process of burning, they would reuse it into heating that pool. And then like, tennis facilities, and basketball courts, and playgrounds for kids. Because in a sense, they were trying to show that they were trying to make amends for the public who had to live nearby, because the smell was just horrendous.
And I learned that if any materials, so for instance, night markets in Taiwan are super popular, every night there's a market. And you can get food, and it's usually like, lots of hot liquids, and like fried foods, and they put them in these plastic bags, so you can like walk, hang out with your friends, and go from vendor to vendor. Well those plastic baggies that are now tainted with soups and like oils and stuff cannot be recycled, because they're tainted from food residuals. So the people at the incinerator would tell me, like the biggest problem they have, is that even though they've been able to minimize the amount of waste that's generated on the island, they can't recycle those things and they have to be burned. And the residual, which is burned to a tenth of the size, is this black sludge they're trying to re-use in like construction materials, but it's a lot of environmental concerns surrounding that, because well, you'd have to landfill it, and it seeps into ground water which is very toxic for people who are trying to drink natural water.
That was a realization that I had, that you can't recycle plastics that have any sort of food residuals, and coming back to America, we love yogurt, we love Starbucks. Those are things that we do, and we think that when we finish drinking our Starbucks or eating our yogurt, we can just chuck it in the recycling bin. And then there's faith that will be recycled, well it's not.
I met with three plastics engineers who essentially gave me a tour of their facility. I asked them, "Well, I've seen all these incredible government facilities, and the public waste streams, but I want to know, do you guys believe that Taiwan is doing a good job?" And I asked them, "What am I not seeing?" Because on the way there, I met a taxi cab driver, who when I introduced myself and what I was researching, he was like, "Taiwan is such a dirty place. The government's deceiving you, and telling you that we're doing a great job. Because we're not." And he was very angry, very like passionate about his opinion. And I was like, "Am I missing something?" I remember asking them like, "Well what do you guys think? You're the ones creating these products." And he said, "Well first, a lot of people have no idea the health effects and the true effects of plastic on their bodies and the environment. But two, while we do believe that the government system now is a lot better than it was 15 years ago, there's still a lot of anger that exists."
So I said, "Well then, what is the truth?" And I remember one guy who was sitting across from me, his arms were folded across his chest, he must have been like in late 30s. He looked at me, and said, "Well you're the truth. Because you're part of National Geographic. And we'll believe you, whatever you write, we'll believe you. People don't believe our government, people don't know if it's true or false. But whatever you produce, we'll believe you."
And that was like one of the most outstanding realizations that I had had, and due to the seriousness of what I was doing, I wasn't just there for a study abroad program, or was there to drink milk tea. I was there to research, and I was there to share these narratives with not only the people around the world, but the people on the island, who had a very complicated historical relationship with their government. So it was a huge responsibility, and one that I took very, very seriously. And there were days when I made a lot of mistakes.
My Chinese wasn't fluent, but I was trying really hard to pretend like I was fluent to show them that I was really trying to meet them halfway. I remember I had a chance to interview the environmental protection minister, the EPA minister, and I thought it was a one-on-one interview, and it was my first real interview with somebody, like very, you know, very high-level in this thing. And I thought, you know, he spoke English, like, I'll probably use English. Well, he invited me into his office in the headquarters, and there were six other people there, who I came to find out were his top waste management staff members in the bureau. And I was like, "Oh, man. What did I just get into?" And I had my camera, it was a Fuji film TX, like around my neck, and I didn't want to be obvious and like put it in his face while we were talking.
I still was very new to this whole interviewing thing. So I kind of like, I was sitting on the couch, and he was sitting on the table, kind of put it on the couch, like where you rest your hand, and kind of tilted it up a little bit. So I was trying to like, not be obvious about it. When he was talking to me, we had half an hour. And he was using both English and Chinese, and I was trying to use just Chinese, and I remember him asking me a question in Chinese. And I had no idea what he had said, and everyone was waiting for me, and then what I thought he said was like, "Why did you come to Taiwan and do this work?" So I launched into the story of what I thought he asked me. And halfway through telling the story in my broken Chinese, I turned around and I see the people around me, I clearly made a mistake. Like you know, and they were being very polite about it.
Because I was trying, but I remember feeling so thoroughly embarrassed, that I just embarrassed myself in front of the EPA minister and his top level officials. And when I reviewed the footage afterwards, when I thought that I was getting some good footage, well low and behold, the place where you rest your arm, like got his chest, and only his chest, and like maybe his knees, so I got no footage of him, and then the footage stopped after seven and a half minutes, and I was in his office for an hour and a half.
And I remember like walking out, I'm there, it was kind of like, "Yeah. [Mandarin 00:23:33]. There there." And I was like, "I just embarrassed myself." It was starting to rain, and I was like, "Oh, this is appropriate." What I would do at the end of each day when I was in Taiwan, was I'd go to [Mandarin 00:23:43], which is the Sun Yat Sen Memorial, a very practice spot among young people who are trying to practice house dancing and break dancing and hip-hop dancing, a lot of high schoolers come there after school to practice. Taiwan's got an incredibly vibrant hip hop community, like, oh my goodness. It's amazing. And I remember I went there and I forgot my speakers of course, and I forgot my actual practice shoes, but I just needed to like be outside, like wallow in my shame, and just dance out all the ickiness that I felt.
It's always so popular there at night time. Like from 7 PM until 11:00 and even afterwards, you have like groups of older women who are dancing, and then there are like young people playing American hip-hop, like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." And like old school hip-hop, like 90s hip-hop, some of them are listening to like classical Taiwanese music doing like ballroom dancing, it's just like a melody and mix of all these people, like literally, within feet of each other. There's like 30 different speakers blaring music, surrounding this pavilion. I just wanted to like be by myself, and like shake my head, and like move around, but I had forgotten my speakers. So I like walked around until I heard songs that I liked the most, and then I went up to that group of guys, they were young men, must have been in their like, late teens, early 20s.
I was like, "Hey, can I just like listen to your music and dance." In Chinese. They were like, "Yeah, yeah. Sure." I was like, "Yeah, I'm just going to stand here, and let me just ... just want this corner to myself, but I just want to listen to your music." "Yeah, yeah. No problem."
I've done hip-hop dance, I've done Persian dance, I'm a B girl, but that day I just wanted to be by myself and just wiggle out as it was raining. So I started moving, it was like heavy bass, you know, and like shaking around and everything, and my eyes were glued to the floor, because I was like, "Please, nobody look at me. No one engage with me. I just feel really terrible about myself. Just please, let me dance." And one of the guys came over and was like, "Hey, you want to dance with us." I'm like, "Thank you so much. I'm okay." And then the next song turns on and within like moments, the entire group, like seven or eight guys, they come towards me, and they circle around me, so I'm in the center of the circle and they're like shaking their hands and like moving their feet to the music.
And they're like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah."
Even though I wanted to be by myself in that moment, I realized that that was one of those things that fate does to you, where like when you feel really bad about yourself, it's other people who can help you get out of that. And these people who didn't know who I was, who I just met five minutes ago had saw that I had like a dark rain cloud, like darker than what was raining outside, surrounding me. And they just wanted to dance. They just wanted to exchange. And they just wanted to bug out and have a good time to like hip-hop music. And so, we did that.
Two hours afterwards, we were walking to the train station together to get home before it closed, and I was, I felt so, like a cathartic moment. Like, here was these random people, who I'd never seen in my life, who had never even known, and it wasn't like one of those weird things, like, "Oh, you're a foreigner, we're Taiwanese." Like what I explained in the beginning of this, like, "You're cool, we're cool. Let's just dance and bug out and have a good time." And I was so elated and just so thankful that after struggling by myself for so long, like sound like an idiot in Chinese, making a fool out of myself in front of some big people. Grappling with these questions of truth, and identity, and like foreignness, and trying to prove my common humanity, that this group of kids, these young men would just come and do something like that, and make me feel included, and that's all I needed, was someone to show me that they cared.
But I didn't realize that's what I needed until I walked away from that experience, and I cried. And I was like, this is the power of being human. This is the power of making connection. This is the power of dancing and hip-hop and just being with other people at the right place, at the right time, and I felt like I had finally built a life in a place thousands of miles away from home.
And over the course of nine months, I put out like maybe 12 different stories, in addition to a YouTube video series, and series of Instagram stories and photos, and maps that I had done, graphics I had made. A music video I made out of Taipei City's trash sounds. So the song itself was, I collected sounds from Taipei City's waste management system, and also me crushing plastic bottles, and like drinking out of the juice cartons and my friend, Francis Tompelade, he's an aspiring producer in the Bay Area, he took those sounds and he made the track, almost 100% out of these trash sounds. And you would think it's like, (singing) it's not. It's the silkiest, smoothest, jazz, hip-hop track you ever heard in your life.
For each one of those projects in themself tells a sliver of the story. That's why I want to go back and learn more.
You know, if I don't make environmentalism a norm for myself, if I can't convince myself, how on earth could I convince other people? It's a lifestyle choice. People have to be willing to make a change. People have to be willing to think about where their trash goes, and why it matters to them, and how their everyday decisions as a consumer, or an individual, or a policy maker, or an industry leader can make a difference. You just have to have the energy to put behind that. And that's what I'm trying to do with my work, is to like reshape trash, make it interesting, make it cool. Can you hear it? Can you see it? Can you smell it? To get Americans to think that, it's not just like buying things that makes you cool, or sounding like you don't have any time in your life to do something meaningful outside of yourself. It's like, no, like every single decision that you make has an impact on someone, somewhere, or something. Everything. And there's no right answer.
People need to realize that there are some things that they can do. Right? You can use your own bag. You can use your own utensils. You can use your own cup. Takes a little bit of courage, a little resilience to something different, but you can do that. And if you're sick and tired of not having any plastic recycling in your neighborhood, write to your city counselor, write to your congresswoman, write to your assembly member, ask them to focus on this. Because only if we have the energy and drive within our policy makers, within our community members, that people can feel like they can do something, they have the power to do something, and then as a result of that, something will happen. But it takes a lot of people to realize that they have not only the energy, but the capability to be able to do that. And I think this country allows us to be able to do that, so we should.
And I'm so thankful, so thankful for the opportunity and for the experience and for all the people that I met there. From the matcha green tea baristas who became really good friends of mine, because I went there almost every day to do my work, to the many Chinese teachers that I had who taught me all the environmental protection vocabulary, who realized that we have a lot more in common than we do, than she thought we did. There are cultural concepts, like filial piety, and Confucian cultures that are also reflected in Persian cultures. There were moments where I felt like I was completely alone, and I was making a fool out of myself. But every time I felt like that, there was some, even if it was some random Taiwanese person, who was like, "No, you're cool. It's fine." Sure, it's some shaved ice under the hot sun. Cut had an old woman who became a friend of mine, who would cut watermelon cubes for me, sitting under the Tainan sun, in a pink plastic chair and sharing cut cut fruit with this lady, or this older woman who recycles for a living, and she let me follow her on my bike as she bikes around town picking up recyclables.
And using it to feed into a machine that gave her store credit that she could go to like a Costco equivalent and provide for her and her mother. But she let me enter her home and we shared food together.
Going abroad is one of the most amazing and scariest things you could ever do. Because in America, if you grow up here, you're familiar with the cultural nuances, you're familiar with the language, you kind of take those things for granted until you're thrust into a completely different realm, where your literacy becomes illiteracy, where you articulateness becomes inarticulate. Where your intelligence becomes moot and all you can rely on is sign language and picking up pieces of local dialects and if you try to build a life there, and try to prove that you're just somebody else trying to learn and listen for other people. And I think that goes a long way. And what I learned from my experience is, the world is much bigger than me and I'm just one person in it.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name is Christopher Werst, I'm the Director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.
This week, Lillygol Sedaghat shared stories from her time as a Fulbright National Geographic Fellow, studying waste management practices in Taiwan. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out ECA.state.gov.
We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, you can do that wherever you find your podcasts, and leave us a nice review while you're at it. We'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's email@example.com. Just so you know, photos of each interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our web page at eca.state.gov/22.33.
Very special thanks this week to Lillygol and her stories and her passion to make this world a better place. My colleague Ana-Maria Sinitean and I did the interview, I edited it.
Featured music was "Filing Away," by Blue Dot Sessions, "Sun Spots," "Tight," and "Floating," by Pottington Bear. "Fur Elise," which totally gets my vote as the best trash truck tune ever. And "Dan Shuey," the song created out of Lillygol's recycling sounds by her friend and DJ, Francis Tompelade. Thank you so much for letting us share that. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian," by How the Night Came. And the end credit music is "Two Pianos," by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
As more opportunities for women open up in Saudi Arabia, previously unattainable pursuits become not only possible but essential. This week, we interview three groundbreaking Saudi women soccer coaches and players, whose love for the sport is benefitting countless young girls—and whose imaginations were changed forever after an intense tour to U.S. women’s soccer programs. This episode's special guests visited the United States as part of ECA's Sports Visitor Program; for more information visit: https://sportsvisitorenvoy.org.
Chris: Imagine your greatest passion is a sport, let's say soccer. What happens when you're told you cannot play this sport in your country just because of your gender?
But you persist and after many years your country slowly begins to become more liberal. Girls are now allowed to play soccer and suddenly you are a part of the vanguard of women inspiring a new generation of girls.
This is exactly the situation today in Saudi Arabia. But through programs, like the one you'll hear about in today's episode, it might not take them long to catch up to the rest of the world.
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Guest 1: We believe sports are for all, and they should not be designed or dominated by a specific gender, and that's the case with soccer for females. When I was young, I can recall so many people around me, saying telling me that I should stop playing soccer. It's not for you, it's not for girls, this is a boy game, and just be out of it.
And actually I believed it for a while when I was young. But then with life experience and as I grew up, I realized that, that's not the case, and whether I'm a boy or a girl, everyone can play. Disabled, not disabled. If you're from the refugee or if you are 50 years old, it does not matter. If you like something, you can just do it.
Chris: This week girls playing a quote, unquote, "boy's sport," seeing it in order to strive for it, and becoming trailblazers. On this episode, a journey from Saudi Arabia to Kansas City to Washington D.C. and a glimpse into the future of women's soccer.
Intro Clip 1: We operate under a Presidential mandate which says that we report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: (Music & Singing) That's what we call cultural exchange.
Intro Clip 4: When you get to know these people they're not quite like you, you read about them, they are people, they are much like ourselves and it is responsible to create...
Intro Clip 5: (Music & Singing) That's what you call cultural exchange, ooooh yeahhh!
Guest 1: My name [Arabic 00:03:01] I'm from Jeddah, the west coast of Saudi Arabia. I currently live in the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. I am 26 years old. I am a soccer player and recently got introduced to soccer coaching.
Guest 2: My name is [Arabic 00:03:19] I am 20 years old and a coach and a player for football or soccer.
Guest 3: I am [Arabic 00:03:31], financial analyst working in Saudi Aramco. I joined the Women Coaching/Sports Visitors Program that lasted about two weeks. And today's our last day.
Guest 1: During the program, we had so many visits to soccer related entities, such as the US National Development Center. Also, we watched a soccer game in the Kansas City Soccer club. Other than that, we had so many training sessions. Combination between theoretical and practical, and also we had on the field in-action practice. We got the chance to also observe real coaching sessions, training their own teams, which was really cool.
We had so many meet ups with inspirational soccer players, coaches. We had a visit to an athletic gym, where we learned all about the athletes workout, nutrition, off-season.
Guest 3: I'm the managing director of the Eastern Teams sports club. Where I have three different teams. A football team, a basketball team, and a soccer team. I started playing soccer six years ago. I'm a center mid-fielder. A year ago, I started coaching. I wanted to coach my daughter. A group of 12 kids, all at the age of eight, all excited and having fun. But before doing that, I wanted to get skilled. I wanted to have more knowledge about how to coach. I joined many programs. And this one was the most exciting, met with so many inspirational ladies who trail blazed their way through. As a Saudi young female, I wanted to look forward, to go back and implement everything I learned.
Carla Thompson is someone who will play a huge role in my life. I can see myself through her. She was standing there, very powerful, with deep voice. Sometimes strong, and sometimes so soft. She was teaching us so many lessons. She said so many things. But one thing that I would take back home, was if you cannot see it, you can't strive to be it. That made me thing, what do I want to be? What are my goals? How can I allow my daughter to look forward, or up to me?
Every time I had a member coach Carla Thompson, I'd remember her talking about pushing others. Empowering other girls, becoming good in sports. That opening opportunities for others very important. And this is something that I will take back home. I'll make sure that I will unlock all the potential opportunities, and push other girls, young ladies to join sports and reach to their potential.
Guest 1: So I started playing soccer when I was eight years old. I did not join an official club or anything. Instead, I was just playing in the back yard of our house. In our family, we had this weekly family gatherings, where I used to play soccer with my extended family. So my cousins, uncles, they were all boys, but that was okay with me.
And then as I grew up, the love of football, or soccer, continued with me. However, with some cultural restrictions, I was pulled out from the soccer field. When I joined University, I found a club that trains soccer. So I was like, all my childhood passions came back. And I joined the club. I found that that's a really passionate about soccer. I did not forget about it.
Recently, I was offered a chance to coach little kids from the age range eight to 12. And I found that I really liked it.
Chris: So now you're going to hear from Athera, and I feel like this is a good time to make an interjection.
There's a story about how the coach said that even though she wore Number 55, she was number one in his heart. And that was because she shone so brightly on and off the field. She's a competitor. She's a bright spirit. And even though she may not have the same English skills as her teammates who were there coaching her along, she insisted on doing this interview in English, with the same fire and spirit that she showed on the soccer field.
So let's hear from Athera now:
Guest 2: [Arabic 00:09:28]
When I was 15, I know about a soccer club called the [inaudible 00:09:35]. So I joined since then. Through them, I started coaching kids. Now my dream is create and academy A55, because my name is Athera, A, and my 55 is my number.
In order to achieve it, I started developing myself and coaching. The certificate I gained through the program and the coaches I have met, motivated me to continue in soccer. I felt special when Coach Ian said the girl's number is 55, but she is number one in my heart.
[Arabic 00:10:32] I also want to be as a known skilled Saudi player, and prove to the world that Saudi can do it. In 10 years, I want to coach female special needs player, and play, and win the World Cup with them. I also remember all the coaches, because whenever I feel like I am giving up, I all remember them pushing me to continue my dream in soccer.
Guest 3: I can recall this moment as if it was now. Her standing, talking to us. You can see in her eyes that she went back to 19 in the 1980's. She saw herself in us. Because that's us right now. That's what we're going through. We're trailblazing as females in sports in Saudi.
Another person that plays a huge role in my life, or will play a huge role, is Ian. Coach Ian Parker. He showed me football from his eyes. Well, not football. It's soccer here. How to get the kids, the players motivated. How to look at them as people, before we look at them as players.
I learned another thing from my visit here. The more you personalize it, the more you care. The more you look into the details of each person, the more you get out of them. I lived here, I understand the country. I know how to go around it, and make it work for me. But I understand our culture even more. This is the first time I have a roommate. For so many different reasons, we don't have back home. Now I have 12 sisters. I got to know them, although I fought so much not to have a roommate. But now, I would definitely implement that back home.
Guest 1: In addition to all the technical expertise that we had from the training sessions, there was something that happened in this program that really opened my eyes to new things. As we had this visit to the refugee camp, where we were asked to develop a coaching session to the kids from the refugee camp. This was not expected for me, personally. I was not ready for an experience like this. In the beginning, I was a little bit hesitant, as I did not know how to deal with the girls, or what soccer level they are, how to build relationship with them.
But as we met and talked and interacted with them, we found that the really good kids, they also learn fast, and they really like soccer. This experience actually opened my eyes to maybe new opportunities. When we go back home, maybe we can reach out to refugee camps, or the orphanage, and say, "Hey, we can coach you guys. We can do these sessions for you, for fun."
In that session, when we were training the refugees, I was talking to them in English. And then by mistake, I said an Arabic word. And then one of them was like, "Do you speak Arabic?" And I said, "Yeah, do you speak Arabic?" And she's like, "Yeah, I'm from Egypt." I was like, "Interesting. Tell me more about you, tell me more about you." I told her about Saudi Arabia. She told me about Egypt. We had this ... We talked a little bit in Arabic. We had this sweet relationship, our relationship.
Guest 3: Through sports, you can do a lot. We were empowering them. Yes, we were teaching them some skills. But along the way, we were teaching them way, much more. So at that point, while taking the selfie with them and cheering and screaming, yeah for women in sports. I wish that moment would stop, and everyone would look at me. I was so proud. I was so happy. That's a moment that I'll never forget.
I learned about each and every one of us. What she likes, and what she doesn't like. And how to empower each other. What we learned from this program, is that it's all upon us. We're the one that will take that knowledge and make something out of it. We can bury it, or take it up there. It's our choice. And life choices always matter.
I promise myself, and I promised my teammates that I'll always support, and I'll try my best to spread the knowledge that I gained from here.
Guest 1: Right. So during this program, we had some time to think of projects that we will bring back to the community. Either as individual, or in groups. What was really amazing in this program, is that the 12 of us all united together and thought of one project, big project which we really want to implement in Saudi Arabia. It was to officialize a Saudi Arabia female soccer league. So we want this to happen annually, with the support of the soccer united entity in Saudi Arabia. In addition to that, we want to this annual premier league, where we can, it's an opportunity for us to share some awareness in soccer. And also create job opportunities, such as referees. Female referees and coaches.
And we presented the project to coach Katie, and heard her feedback. When I was presenting about the project, I was feeling really proud about myself. In fact, I had this video recording I wanted to share with my family, because I was talking about something I'm really, really passionate about. And I was feeling that we can actually make this change. And we can make soccer happen in Saudi Arabia.
Guest 3: We are equipped, fully skilled right now. 12 powerful young ladies. Each one of us has her own goals, but we all share the same love for sports, love for soccer. Love for football.
Chris: I'm Christopher Wurst, Director of the Collaboratory. An initiative within the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. 22.33 gets its name from Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code. The statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of US Government funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, [Arabic 00:20:45], [Arabic 00:20:49] and [Arabic 00:20:51] shared their recent experiences as part of ECA's Sports Diplomacy's Sports Visitors program. Where young athletes and coaches are chosen by US overseas missions, for two-week exchange programs. Allowing them the opportunity to interact with Americans and experience America firsthand.
For more about ECA Exchange programs, check out ECA.State.Gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, wherever you find your podcasts.
And we'd love to hear from you. Write to us at ECACollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y, yes it's a mouthful, at state dot gov.
Special thanks this week to [Arabic 00:21:36] for sharing their stories, their passions, and their dreams. I did the interview with them, along with Manny Pereira, and edited this episode.
Featured music during this episode was "It Isn't Time to Get Up Yet" by Julie Maxwell's Piano Music; "The Light Garden" by Boom Boom Beckett; and "Ever Now" by Evgeny Teilor.
And until next time, we'll leave you with this:
Soccer Clip: [GOOOOAAAAAAAALLLLLL!!!!]
Season 01, Episode 16 - [Bonus] Getting The Picture
Ever wonder how an iconic image comes to be? In this bonus episode, American cowboy, writer, photographer Ryan Bell talks about the challenge of representing Kazakhstan's ancient horse culture with a single image, how he managed it, and how many ways it almost didn't happen. Ryan visited Central Asia as part of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. For more amazing photos and stories from Ryan's Fulbright-NatGeo fellowship visit his website: https://www.ryantbell.com/.
Chris: This week, a special bonus episode. Last week we heard from Ryan T. Bell, a modern American cowboy. His stories about traveling halfway across the world to train Russian cowboys were provocative and inspiring. In this special bonus episode, Ryan talks about a single image that he captured while in Kazakhstan.
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of Exchange Stories.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: And when you get to know these people they're quite like you and me. You read about them, they are people, they're much like ourselves....
Intro Clip 4: (Music)
Ryan: One of the photos on my shot list was some way to communicate this idea that the horse was domesticated on the Kazakh Steppe. And to do that, I wanted to capture a photo of some herdsmen with a setting sun, kind of the Ford, the iconic Western photo but caught in a Kazakh landscape.
And I had a helper, a fixer, a guy, I'd been staying with his family. I'd been staying with this family in Eastern Kazakhstan, in the city of Pavlodar. And he knew of a farming community, or a ranching community, out in the countryside.
So, we drive for an hour out there and we land in this one, kind of small town, at kind of a town leader's house. And whenever you stop somewhere they're going to feed you a lot, so you have to stop and eat. I had been coaching my fixer that, "Look, I have to be at the place that we're going to be ahead of time so that I can plan and make this photo happen. I can't just show up and go snap and we're done. I want to frame it, I want to create a rapport." Just helping him understand how to do this. And so he was like, "Okay, okay, we can do that, we can do that. We're going to get there ahead of time.
So, we get to this house and of course you got to eat, and so we're eating and I notice he's taking forever to ask, "Can you take us out to a farming family." Finally, she does, or he does, and the woman's like, "Absolutely we can, I've been meaning to go visit them. So, let's all go."
Okay. So, we get into the car and we just look like a clown car 'cause there's just a ton of us packed in there. And we're driving through the town, and every person we stop along the way, the town leader's like, "This is the American, and he wants to take a photograph, and we're going to go see so and so." "Oh, I haven't seen them forever. Let's go." So, we stop and pick up and before long we're a caravan of like five cars.
And the sun is just setting and these clouds are setting in, and it's just going gray and it's going flat and it was my real last moment to try to get this photo. And I'm just watching this opportunity feel like it's just slipping away.
And these people are feeling like it's the greatest adventure of their life, and so I'm thinking, "Well, I'll go through the motions. I'll help. We'll take this photo, this will be a fun opportunity for us."
So, we finally get out and we find these herders. It's peak bug season. It's so bad, you step outside and you're just in a cloud of bugs. These herdsmen had done the craziest thing, they'd taken piles of manure, like cow patties, and lit fire to it so it would smoke, and they're just riding their horses back and forth through this smoke just to keep the bugs off. They're covering me, but I start to see a glimmer of a sunset in the sky. It's getting stronger and stronger.
And I'm thinking, "This sunset might just come through yet." The clouds had really shifted dramatically in about an hour's time. And yet the pasture family's like, "Oh yes, we can take your photo, we can take your photo, let's stop and eat." I'm like, "No, let's not stop and eat." This sunset is going quick.>
And all of a sudden it's really up, it's turned, it's just orange, it's blazing. The sky's just absolutely on fire. And they're like, "Well, can we stop for family portraits?" I'm like, "We cannot stop for family portraits." And I'm talking to my fixer like, "Can they herd the cattle?" They're like, "Sure," and so they start herding away from the sunset.
The sun, it's actually now starting to lose color. I just recall, I have got this big long 400 millimeter lens. I call it my bazooka, it's enormous. I'm in my cowboy boots. People are like, "Stop, let's take family pictures." I'm like, "No, hold on one second, hold that thought." Running at full speed to get around in front of this herd so that the sunset will be behind them. And I finally get around in front of them, and I drop to one knee, and I train my lens on it, and the sunset's just on fire and this herd of cattle is just like a blob, none of it looks good.
I just remember, and my camera looking into the sun, it couldn't measure. It couldn't get its readings right and I'm messing with the settings and taking ... Anyways, it's just utter mayhem. So finally I get my settings and I just set it on auto fire and I'm just praying that something would emerge. They go by, the sun goes down, and I immediately start flipping through my camera and it's like no, it's just like a sunset with just all black cows. You can't even see anything.
Then all of a sudden, there's this one picture. The herd had split and there was a gap, and right in the middle of the gap there's a herdsman silhouetted against the sun and in front of him is a baby horse. And the sun rays are shooting like fire around its mane. Then the next photo, it's gone. They're hidden by the herd again.
One of the best photos I took all year. And sunset photos never work, right? Like, "I'm going to take a picture of this sunset and show it to my friends," and we're all like, "Don't show me your sunset photo, it doesn't mean anything to me." That photo was a finalist for Travel Photographer of the Year that year.
And it's become like a calling card whenever I talk about what Fulbright means to me, that moment, the mayhem of that moment and the magic. At that point it was just magic. There's no reason I should have been able to get that photograph.
I came to D.C. to meet with Senators and Congressmen to just tell them about my experience with Fulbright and I printed out that picture and handed it to each one of them that I met with. I like to think it made a difference, but at least they've got a pretty picture to put on, I don't know, their wall.
But in it, I see, is it a sunrise, is it a sunset, I don't know, but you've got that baby horse, and I wanted an image that just said, "This is the birthplace of the horse, an animal that means so much to so many people."
Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative in within U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory.
22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, Ryan T. Bell shared a story of a single image captured on the Steppe in Kazakhstan. Ryan's amazing work can be seen at ryantbell.com. And to see the picture that Ryan describes in this episode, check out our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233.
For more about the Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do that wherever you find your podcasts, and hey, why don't you leave us a review while you're at it? And we'd love to hear from you, you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov.
Huge special thanks to Ryan for his passion, his stories, and for that image. My colleague, Ana-Maria Sinitean, and I, did the interview, I edited it.
Featured music was "King Thumbscrew The Third" by Doctor Turtle. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came. And the end credit is "Two Pianos" by Targirljus.
Until next time.
Season 01, Episode 15 - Born Again Cowboy on the Steppe with Ryan T. Bell
American cowboy Ryan Bell never imagined that he would find himself riding on the steppe, teaching Russians the art of cattle-wrangling, but once he was there it seemed perfectly natural. Later, when he discovered the ancient horse culture in Kazakhstan he realized that “people of the grass” are kinfolk around the world. Ryan visited Central Asia as part of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. For more information about the program please visit: https://us.fulbrightonline.org/fulbright-nat-geo-fellowship.
Chris: You consider yourself to be a person of the grass, which is to say a modern day cowboy. Your assignment? To travel halfway across the world to teach cowboy skills to people in Russia and Kazakhstan. It might sound like a surreal and foreign quest, but as you immerse yourself in life on the steppe, you find yourself among absolute kindred spirits.
You're listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.
Ryan: He didn't miss a beat, he didn't bat an eyelash that I was an American. He just saw me as a traveling horseman and he himself as one. Having migrated across the country from the South into the middle part of the steppe where he could find land where it was cheap. He too knew what it was like to be a traveler. Then once we got horseback it was just synergy. We could just ride and ride. I just kind of blinked my eyes and sometimes I had to remind myself I wasn't just riding across Montana with another buddy.
Chris: This week, a calf named Ryan, horse wrestling, and a train journey the length of the globe. Join us on a journey from the plains of the American West to the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan and the making of Cowboy Comrades.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shape to who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people they're not quite like you, you read about them, they are people, very much like ourselves, and (singing).
Ryan: My name is Ryan Bell, I'm from Washington state. I was a Fulbright National Geographic Storytelling Fellow in 2015 and 2016. That grant took me to Russia and Kazakhstan for a reporting project that I've really been working on since 2010.
I call my project Comrade Cowboys. It's a reported story about the interaction between American ranchers and cowboys who are helping rebuild agriculture in the post-Soviet nations of Russia and Kazakhstan. I began in 2010 as a cowboy journalist traveling with one of the first herds of cattle that were taken from the United States to a de-funked collective farm in Russia. I was part of a team of, well all total about 10 cowboys who went over and back periodically for the period of a year. Our job was to see the cattle transplanted onto the Russian steppes to help build the ranch, fencing, and all, and to train a group of local villagers in the cowboy trade.
The reason to go to all that trouble was because after the collapse of the Soviet Union, collective farming just went caput and meat production ground to a halt. The cattle population in Russia alone, oh gosh it dropped by almost 50%. So the Russian federation launched a program called the Food Security Doctrine with the aim of becoming food secure. A real admiral effort. This came during a period of time that was interesting between the US and Russia, it was the reset. Vibes were good. The idea of plane loads of cattle and ship loads of cattle, and cowboys showing up, it felt really warm. It was neat.
I reported on that for a cowboy magazine back in the US. It was a series called Comrade Cowboys, it was ... The ranchers and cowboys I knew in Montana, in Colorado, and Wyoming they just ate it up. They loved it, this idea of almost time travel back to a time when the range was unfenced and things felt wild, and more that the cow is native to the steppe. The Russian cossack is a revered figure in the West. They're cowboy brothers and sisters, and you just feel a kinship. To get to travel over there and play cowboy with the Russians, everybody wanted to go do that. These were tough jobs to get.
As a year or two went by after I had come home, I kept thinking about that ranch, and the baby cattle that we helped calve that Winter and Spring. Wondering how they were doing. How were the villagers that we taught how to cowboy, how were they holding up, it's not an easy job. For context, I'm a born again cowboy. My grandpas were cowboys, but I was raised by baby boomers in the city. When I had my chance after graduating from college with a history degree, I ended up working as a cowboy in Argentina. That was my first taste of the saddle. It was the first time I realized that there's cowboys all over the world, they go by different names, but there's a kinship of the people of the grass. That experience proved to be great training for traveling to a place like Russia where we did face serious hardships and significant cultural clashes.
Still, what happened to the cattle? How did that ranch do? As a journalist, I really wanted ... I needed to answer that question. This was a grand experiment. As I was looking at the different programs that was the second year they were offering the Fulbright National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship. I thought, well I can go back as a journalist. Through this fellowship the National Geographic editors instantaneously recognized this for this stunning moment in history that it was and fully embraced my reporting. I got the fellowship, one of five people out of several hundred candidates. When I told my wife I got it, she goes "Now why didn't you apply to go somewhere warm?"
As I was getting ready to go, we got some pre-training from the National Geographic editors, and I was working with a photo editor, and she was asking, "What does this look like? What do the Russians look like? I'm picturing big furry hats and long robes." And having been there already knowing that actually they all dress in camouflage. They all dress in camouflage and black combat boots. That's a question I never asked, why are you guys all dressed in camo, do you just miss your military days? There's a little-bit of that, but there was more. Military clothing, it's a cheap way to clothe yourself, and these are individuals for whom they haven't had paying jobs for who knows how long. I spoke to one man who, an older man, who hasn't had a paying job since the collective farm shut down.
I also found through my research as a historian, as a history major, I couldn't help but dig into what the interaction has been like between Americans and Russians in agriculture for this whole time. I found some stunning, stunning connections where there's been a transfer of customs between Russians and Americans going back 150 years. Even some recent examples in the height of the Cold War, the one that makes me laugh is rhinestones, rhinestone fashion. It was designed by a Russian immigrant who came to the United States, and he was hired to make costumes that would be able to show off movement in black and white television. John Wayne, his favorite composer was a Russian immigrant. Many of the most famous iconic Western songs Red river, Bonanza ... Bonanza, draws on musical traditions of Slavic cultures. We think of that as cowboy. Cowboy as it gets.
As I got to know some of these Russians, and they would talk to me about my clothing, I would bring that up. This all kind of comes from here, which they loved. That gave them a great sense of pride. It broke down that barrier of, oh you're a cowboy, you got a hat on, you've got jeans with curly cue embroidery on it, you've got ... I don't wear rhinestones, but if I were wearing rhinestones, you've got all of this otherness. In those discussions to realize that no in fact that was a handoff, but it makes you realize that this interaction is one that goes back a long time. Somewhat timeless.
There I was, flying back to Russia five years later. I had a quest, I wanted to find the first baby calf that was born that Winter in 2010. The veterinarian had nicknamed it Ryan. I had a name sake calf somewhere in Russia, and darn it I wanted to find that calf. (singing).
I knew that there was a good chance that perhaps this calf had entered the food change, and had long since become a hamburger because that is the reality of what this was about. This was about feeding people, in fact, no it didn't become a hamburger it probably became meatballs inside of beef borscht or something of the local cuisine. Still, I wanted to know what path it had traveled. (singing).
I landed back at the old ranch where a lot of the guys I had worked with were no longer there. There had been significant turnover. The work is hard and it's not uncommon on American ranches to see turnover. That alone didn't surprise me. What was a little surprising was that because of that turnover, the new generation of workers on that farm, on that ranch didn't practice the cowboy trades, the riding horses to gather the cattle, the things that we had taught that first class of Russian cowboy. Instead they had resorted to simple methods of doing their job. They were using tractors to round up the cattle. Driving these big huge tractors all over muddy pastures with grain inside the tractor because the cattle would follow it. We spent a day rounding up 250 head, two cowboys could do that with two horses and you'd be done. I felt let down. That was hard to realize. (singing).
It made me want to go find those guys I trained. I wanted to go find them. Why did you leave? What led you to leave? Is there any hope that you'll come back because this place needs you. Without you around they're using tractors to round up cattle. My goodness.
I went and found one of the guys I had worked with, a really talented young man, his story was interesting. Our first Winter he was a security guard because the ranch had to be gated, they were paranoid somebody would come steal these cattle. This young man and his dad were the security guards. He kept leaving his post. In the middle of the night we'd be at the barn because cattle tend to give birth just as the sun is going down because they know it's going be difficult for you. No, not because of that, it's actually, it's biological. During calving season you kind of have to stay up all night long.
We'd be in the barn with just rows of baby calves just cute as can be. Slick, being licked off by their moms and just real nice moment. It's cold, it's snowing outside, but warm and steamy in the barn, and you can smell the hay. It just feels like you're inside of a cow nursery. This security guard, he kept coming, he would leave his post, and his little head it would pop into the barn. The cowboys would be like, "Who's guarding the gate?" We were joking because nobody needed to guard the gate, who are we kidding, the rancher joke, good luck whoever's going try to steal these cattle. We can make a reality show out of that. These are not going be easy for you to steal. Like you can just run in and steal a cow.
He'd leave his post and he'd come hangout with us, and the Russian farm manager, he considered this guy as just a terrible problem. We're like this guy wants to be around these cattle. He's got a real fondness for it. The thing about cowboys is we love our job. There's a disconnect among cowboys, you know you're raising food, we all eat steak, we all eat hamburger. But you're caring for the life and the well-being of a animal. A beautiful one at that with a lot of personality. You develop a real sweetness for it. You have to apply that to the job because they're frustrating buggers they're going to make you mad. It's kind of like a child, you've got to have love for it to see yourself through that otherwise they'll just drive you crazy, and that's one reasons I found out a lot of those first cowboys ended up quitting.
But Victor was the first time we saw a guy whose heart quickened when he was around the cattle. He wanted nothing more to do that. We lobbied, us cowboys lobbied the farm manger to assign him as a cowboy, as a cowboy in training, and we did. He proved pretty darn talented at the job. We had to teach hi how to ride a horse, we had to teach him how to use a gate. The idea of a gate in a country where there's no fences.
In the West, you grow up around them. You grow up understanding the customs around a fence. There's cardinal rules. When you come to a gate, you leave it however you found it because somebody has it set a specific way. If it's open it's because maybe there's cattle you don't see way far off that they want to slowly, but surely trickle their way through that gate into a new pasture on their own without you needing to do a thing. Maybe that's why the gate is open. Or if it's closed, it's closed for a darn good reason. If you don't know those things, how do you know what to do with a gate?
A lot of these workers would just shoot themselves in the foot with leaving gates open when they shouldn't. We'd be moving cattle from out of the barn and we'd go into this pasture, and I'd think, oh they finally did it right. They were herding the cattle from behind. Because their first instinct was hysterical, they jump in front of the cow, in front of the face ... [Russian 00:17:45].
I'm like, no, no, no. My first Russian word I learned was [Russian 00:17:50] quiet. [Russian 00:17:52]. Which we later found out some guys thought we were basically telling them to shut up. Like, we don't want you to talk. Bad moment of translation. No, quiet yourself, and move them from behind. Get behind them and move them forward. We had foremen in the West who yell and shout, and are jumpy. Their cattle are flighty, jumpy, and hard to work with. Whereas if you work with a foreman who's got smoothness and a calmness, the cattle show that same behavior.
We're teaching them to get behind the cattle, be quiet, [Russian 00:18:43]. They finally get the idea and we move them into a pasture and then we'd watch as the cows go through the pasture to the other side and right out of the gate somebody had left open into a part of the ranch that wasn't fenced from there to the Ukraine. The workers would just be demoralized. Just demoralize and we'd have to go get them again spend the rest of the days fixing that mistake.
Victor was one of these days we had taught to do all of that and more he could lead other Russians, other villagers to do all of these because they listen to him. They esteem to him. It was no longer an American telling them, "Hey this is the way we do it. [Russian language 00:19:38]" No, it's Victor saying no we doing to this way and no we don't do it like it's a dairy farm we do it this new way. He was really effective at transmitting that knowledge across his peer group. When I left after that first year I was asking our veterinarian, she was bilingual she was Russian and I asked her why Victor why was he so much better than the others? She said well his last name translates as cattleman. [Russian language 00:20:07]. Yet he doesn't know why he's listening with cuddling man. He doesn't know his family history like most people don't. He can't look further back than 1917. His dad, I talked to his dad. He doesn't know, he doesn't even know what his grandfather's history was. They just don't know. This region is the region of the don cossack, the great historical cossack of the Russian empire.
They ruled the steppes, they're fantastic cowboys and Bolshevik Revolutions did not go well for them. It's possible that Victor's family descends from that and they just don't know what that lineage is. It seems to me he's just got it coded inside of his DNA. An instinct for this work, and a passion for it that just came back to life and he was good at it. In going to find Victor I was hoping to bring the Russian cowboy back to the Russian ranch. I found him and he was living with his family and he had new wife and they had a baby child I think they might have had two and life had just gotten really busy for them. It was easier for him to just work in the village. Those are the same forces we deal with in the west. This is universal.
On the upside, there's a new farm manager and he wanted to learn how to do all things cowboy. He was embarrassed that they used tractors. He says, "Yes finally someone ... You could teach us to rope, teach me how to do a cowboy." He wanted to be number one. I would teach him, he would teach the others and we would spend the days. I taught him everything because the horses were still there, they hadn't been used in a year or two so they had a grown half wild, so I had to do some retraining. That was a little bit western and then teach him along the way and he picked it up. By the time my visit there ended he was doing well. He was riding, he had some other people riding with him, they were doing it the cowboy cossack way.
Ryan the calf wasn't there. Ryan the calf got sold. That was kind of the plan. This ranch, the plan wasn't to raise all these cows to slaughter for meat because that would be kind of pointless. Spend all this money bringing all these cattle over to Russia and then just slaughter them right away. These were breeding animals so Ryan was sold as a breeding bull in a group of cattle that's as far as I can tell were shipped to a buyer in Kazakhstan. The same situation in Russia occurred in Kazakhstan with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Farms shutdown cattle herds, sheep herds all meat producing animals, all their populations diminished, so they were also importing livestock. I'd wanted to go to Kazakhstan, Ryan proved to be a fantastic excuse to bridge and go over and see how this same thing had played out in Kazakhstan.
Through this journey I saw for the first time how diverse the Soviet Union must have been. How intermixed. Growing up, I grew up in Colorado Springs, which is like a military town, and it was rumored amongst us classmates in elementary school that we're the first person that gets nuked by the communist. The first missile is coming here to blow up the bases or something. We just grew up with this fear of the huge ubiquitous Russia Soviet Union USSR. It hadn't occurred to me that these were autonomous people and countries previous to the Russian revolution. To cross this boundary into Kazakhstan and see how quickly the culture shifted, how quickly the landscape shifted.
I also knew that thanks to some recent archeology discoveries in Kazakhstan some of the original domesticated horses were in Kazakhstan. Pastoral traditions go way, way back in Kazakhstan, so is a cultural cowboy. It was like traveling back to the wellspring of my traditions. I wasn't able to locate exactly where Ryan was sold but I got guess. I just knew that a bunch of cattle had been sold to a specific ranch in the central steppe of Kazakhstan. I followed the trail to where they had also sold some more cattle to another rancher. Kind of lily padding between startup ranch to start up ranch. I landed at this one ranch called Kings Gate Ranch. It was a ranch that was started under the Soviet Union. It was a big old sheep farm and it was now being run by a young man. A young rancher named Dalit. Dalit was a young man who was just cowboy crazy. He had a smartphone, he'd flip through, you'd see pictures. He knew all about this. He travel to the US, had visited ranches.
He had a passion to build this ranch from the viewpoint of being a young ranching owner. Something that could last for a really long time. Something that was immediately different in Kazakhstan, once I was among people who are in that far removed from their nomadic traditions is a level of hospitality. I had seen in Argentina, I've seen in Mexico, I've seen wherever you have people of the grass. Because when you travel for long distances on a frontier it's a pre-requisite of just human dignity that you welcome a traveler. There's even rules in Kazakhstan, cultural rules that you have to give food and shelter to even your enemy if they come to your door. They would willingly seek refuge in somebody of a different tribe if they needed to because you can't be caught out in the steppes you will die. It was a human dignity they afforded to even somebody they were at war with. I think that's at the root of why Dalit was so welcoming to me.
In all my travels I had a never come into contact with a muslim culture. What exposure I have had has been through television, sensationalized. On the front morning on Dalit's ranch I was in the bank house where almost all of his cowboys, all of his herdsmen were sleeping and I heard somebody doing prayers at like 5:00 in the morning, it woke me up. I had a panic reflex. I didn't like that. It was just a knee jerk reaction and it made me realize how conditions I have been to this idea that that should be alarming. Which is ridiculous. I grew up in a church. I have many pastors and ministers in my family. I sang in church choir. I've been raised in such a way that faith is never something to be taken as alarming. So that that was my response to this man praying with a sign that I had a blind spot. Also I'm on a ranch in the absolute middle of nowhere. When you're that far out there you have to learn to get along with anybody that you are around.
I got to know this man and he was an Uzbek worker who had come to Kazakhstan and in Kazakhstan they're muslim. They're a little bit more lifestyle muslim than full on a practicing and it was really only this one Uzbek individual who would pray. He was super faithful about it and he was so kind and gentle. I asked Dalit who was my interpreter of all things Kazak and he considered himself culturally muslim. I asked him some of my biggest fears. What's it like with the conflict in Syria for you guys? What's it like with the rise of Islamic state? What's this like? We ended up having a conversation like you'll have on a lot of ranches in the west where people are christian and many of them are quite faithful, many of them are not. I worked on a ranch where all the cowboys Mormon and we would spend Sundays after they would come from their church and we would spend ... We'd have barbecues together and discussions of faith whenever far behind.
Here we were having one of those discussions of faith. I asked them how do you remedy these different things and he told me something I had never known. He told me that to a muslim they consider Jesus Christ a prophet. I didn't know that. I didn't know that he was recognized as a prophet, that created a feeling of a bridge. If you can identify a spiritual individual who is important to me as a prophet of your own, there's no reason I can't see your prophets as prophets of my own. De-stigmatized it and it felt freeing.
A lot of the guys had asked me about rodeo. They all were fascinated by rodeo but they also wanted to show me their equestrian games because the Kazaks have a ton of them. They're pretty good horseman. They're born on these horses and they've handed down some games, some sports that are just fascinating. They wanted to teach me one of these games. I was quite interested in this game called Kokpar. which I can only describe as it's like rugby but with a body of a dead goat. It's incredibly brutal. They served a purpose back in who knows when as a way to train warriors. This one man in the south wanted to make this sport accessible to visitors from out of the country. He's like I think people might enjoy watching this game. I'm like, good luck with that.
But to that end, he had helped devise a new league with players, with teams, with uniforms and instead of a carcass of a dead goat they were ... They had created a leather bag filled with sand where you would have arms and legs of a goat they had these knotted ropes. The appearances is a whole lot nicer watching this game. He wanted me to play. Come on let's play, we'll put on a match. Well, this is still no matter what even though it's just this big heavy 70 pound leather bag. It's full on ... I grew up playing ice hockey and this is like checking, hitting, just bur on a horse. You are in a fight for your life and it is not easy. The gameplay there's set moves. You throw pics like you do in basketball. Even though I could ride just fine, I was useless out there on this field. They stopped the game part way through it and it was fun, it was a good taste and we would apply again several days later but they're like, "Let's do something maybe you can do."
We'd like to have you play horse wrestling. What this is two horseman holding each other, basically trying to reap the other person off their horse. That's the entire game. They handicap it. They put you with somebody of your own ability. They looked at me then they looked at this 60 year old guy with gold teeth and they're like, "I think you're probably his level." I'm squaring off against grandpa and we lock arms and the horses get ... Because you're sitting there trying to yank the person off of the horse and at the same time you're having to control your own horse. He's got techniques from doubling his horse back so that next thing I know he's got my arm wrapped around behind me and his yanking me out of the saddle. My feet are getting caught in the stirrups and I'm about to go and they keep telling me fight back, fight back. I'm like this feels like it's over. Someone hand me a white towel I got to throw it in.
The old man with gold teeth mercilessly just lets me gently fall to the ground. Everybody claps, they applauded, they were very kind to not utterly humiliate me. It was a humbling experience. Thinking that here us cowboys are coming to show these guys a thing or two. Let's show you how to cowboy. Okay, let's teach you how to horse wrestle. Put me in my place so fast.
They all ask you, do you play the guitar? They've got it in their mind what a cowboy looks like. It's the singing cowboy and that's a Hollywood portrayal. Not that cowboys don't play the guitar but we don't lope long, don't judge ride our pony across the desert where no grass grows. Why is a cowboy in the desert that makes no sense. But he's singing a song and he's not sweating. Just don't get me started on the Hollywood cowboy, but that that's their impression and I do, I play the guitar and I sing because we do. There's something about the cowboy life that lends itself to a cadence.
Just the lonesome experience of the life you entertain yourself. A cowboy tradition took route a long time ago has taken shape into cowboy western music. I'm a musical person, so I wanted to find out about their music too, so we do song swaps. They would play ... They had these really cool two string guitars called a dombra and I became obsessed with it. It's a real rhythmic strumming type of music.
There's all these set tunes and it's all based on rhythm. They will sing with some of the tunes but the story I was told is that the dombra, the music form was born one time when a performer was playing a musical representation of a deer hunt, of the act of hunting a deer. Then also the horses running and the rhythm and the beat. It struck me just so similar to the finger style guitar I had learnt in Argentina where they have a little bit of a ... Well a lot of the Spanish influence. Seeing them strumming and striking this little two string guitar, it just instantaneously felt like I was in Argentina again and they'd handed it to me, highly doubting my ability to play this thing. I didn't know how to really fret the thing but I could get the strumming down. They were delighted, they were absolutely delighted that I could at least imitate a little bit what they were performing with that music. When I was getting ready to leave Kazakhstan at the end of my grant, I was with Dalit's family and they're a gift giving culture.
You can't out gift Kazak, they are going to out gift you. I'm in travel I didn't have a whole lot with me but I wanted to leave something meaningful especially for Dalit. Though I had also become close with the rest of his family and I've been carrying along with me a cowboy hat, a black felt cowboy hat that I've worn on reporting trips to Mongolia, to Argentina. This cowboy hat has been with me for a long, long time. I thought I think I can give up this hat, I'll give this hat to Dalit. I gave it and it was a pretty powerful moment. Big hugs and the whole bit. He said, "How old are you Ryan?" I told him my age at the time and he said okay well that doesn't matter. He said we have a custom that at certain ages, at certain birthdays you're to shed your most meaningful belongings to hand them, to give them to people who are important to you as a sign as a signifier of entering a new phase of your life, so that you can acquire new things very important to you.
He said you didn't even realize you're being as Kazak as can be right now. I appreciated that. About a year later he was featured on a TV show. Vice had made a TV show about Kazakhstan ranching and there was Dalit galloping across his ranch wearing that black felt hat. It was pretty cool.
When I went on this trip, my wife and my daughter stayed in Washington state and my wife just was terrified that I would die in a plane crash. I made a promise to her that in all my travels, I would never take an airplane. I stayed true to that and at the end of the trip I added up all the mileage that I traveled by train and it equaled 25000 miles which is the exact circumference of the earth. It's like riding a train around the earth and seeing the countryside by train, how romantic is that? The train holds a fascinating spot in pretty much any culture because it just revolutionized their way of life. I'm a big, big Russian literature fan and so it brings to mind Anna Karenina and just these journeys people would make by train and by rail. You see a side of Russia, holy cow that is just so authentic. These birch tree forests that are just ... They're haunting and hallowed and all of a sudden in a gray landscape you'll see a house painted orange.
Some little old lady with a wool shaw around her neck shoveling out her front porch or somebody's skiing through the woods to go do who knows what. Those were in the winter time and then in summertime you'd see people emerging from their bonyas, their sauna houses. Then you'd come to these cities that appear out of nowhere in clear-cut forest that have rundown power plants around them. It's exactly what you would think a post soviet industrial city would like. Then you cruise through a city that's been around for 800 years and see these gorgeous churches and these walls and seeing that country by rail felt like a good standing for what it would be like to see it by a horse. Then with the rhythm of a rail car passing over the trucks just lulled me to sleep.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name is Christopher Wurst, I'm the Director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is name for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of a U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.
This week Ryan T Bell shared stories from his time as a Fulbright National Geographic fellow, teaching cowboy skills to eager people of the grass in Russia and Kazakhstan. Ryan's amazing work can be seen at ryantbell.com. For more about the Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, you can do so wherever you find your podcast and hey while you're there why not leave us a nice review. We'd love to hear from you. You can write to us from email@example.com. That's E-C-A C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov.
Did you know that photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found on our webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33.
Huge very special thanks this week to Ryan for his passion and stories. My colleague Ana-Maria Sinitean did the interview. I edited it.
Featured music was "No No No No's" and "Lullaby For Democracy" by Dr. Turtle; "Riders in The Sky, The Cowboy Legend" by Vaughn Monroe and his Orchestra; "The Filesharer's Lament" by Blanket Music; "The Dreamer's Instrumental" by Josh Woodward; and a huge special thanks to Ryan for two actual field recordings of his Kazak Cowboy Comrades playing the dombra. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
Season 01, Episode 14 - Crusader in a Conflict Zone with Fatima Askira
Tired of watching women and girls targeted, kidnapped, and killed in a region of Nigeria controlled by Boko Haram terrorists, Fatima Askira has fearlessly dedicated her life to creating opportunities to educate, train, and empower the females in her community. She has created a network where women can better protect themselves and look to the future with optimism. Fatima visited the U.S. as part of the International Leadersip Visitors Program. For more information on IVLP please visit https://www.globaltiesus.org/our-work/the-international-visitor-leadership-program-ivlp.
Chris: You come from Nigeria and live in a part of the country that has been hijacked by violent extremists. Life is difficult for all, but hellish for women and girls, so you have made it your life's work to give them not only a better present, but also a hopeful future, and the more you succeed, the bigger your ambitions become.
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Fatima: I've always been this person that sits and think of new ideas because I think all those organizations that are coming ... Big organizations started small, and they always have their ways by turning around the points and coming up with beautiful ideas because sometimes it's not about a competition, but is "What do we do with the situation to make it better or to move forward?" So it's always in the tradition of organization to sit down together, brainstorm an ideas, brainstorm a project, and then most of what we have now is donors calling for proposal to say, "This is what we want. This is what we want," but we've had certain liberties where donors will have this, but then we would put out own ideas and say, "But this would work better at the local level," and we get the grant.
Chris: This week mobilizing young people, hashtag feed someone. In a tireless effort to save people from Boko Haram. Join us on a journey from Nigeria to the United States, fearlessly fighting for women and girls.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about 'em. They are people very much like ourselves, and-
Fatima: My name is Fatima Askira. I am from Nigeria. I founded an organization, Borno Women Development Initiative, which is a national organization based in Maiduguri. I got a nomination to participate in the IVLP program, which is the International Visitor Leadership Program with the United State Department, so this was really kind of great opportunity for me.
Maiduguri's the capital of Borno state in Nigeria, and most people would be familiar that that is where Boko Haram started. And we've been within the situation for a couple of years now, and we are basically supporting women and children with rehabilitation, reintegration of abducted victims, especially young women, and supporting with livelihood and also educational access to children.
Yeah, well, also part of the program I can say in Nigeria, it's due to violent extremism because a certain group of individual does not agree with what is happening or what the government doing or an ideology that they believe in. So what they do is try as much as possible to recruit a lot of young people to join the movement, which is not a very peaceful movement, and this is not particularly to my context, but also across the African region and particularly the Lake Chad, which have caused a lot of problem. And in several exchanges, this has been something that keeps occurring into different continents, Middle East and a lot of places. So violence is something that travels really fast now, and then extremism is something to do with individuals and ideology of either religion, political movement, or any other thing that might be of interest to many of them. So this was one of it.
And then when we say we encountering violent extremism, it has different pieces of what we do. So firstly, we can actually do it through a peace building processes because usually when they say, "Counter," it also sounds more like forcefully doing something in the military way or police way, but also we could have soft approaches to how we engage people in the community to avoid recruitment, and then also to build coalitions and networks for particularly young people to participate, and then of course, denounce what is being sold as truth or reality, which is not necessarily, but then it has to be a grass root initiative, and people pushing this for themselves.
So this is part of what I do as peace building with young people to mobilize them, educate them, train them, or particularly, understanding the conflict dynamics, and then what is happening, but also supporting them with startups for businesses, entrepreneurship, which in some of my research across that region where I come from, the Lake Chad, shows that young people are recruited because of economic benefits, they're being paid, or their family gets benefit in one way or the other. So it'll be something interesting to make them dependent upon themselves rather than having them recruit just in small pennies to cause chaos, so this is something to do with prevention and all peace building within communities.
I can say back there in my country I wear many hearts because I also collaborate and partner with government, and I work with them as a consultant or in different activities, especially relating to internally displaced persons issues. And in my organization, which is very young ... Around six years now ... But we've managed to do a lot of different pieces of work with partnership through international donors, international organizations, but also community mobilized resources, so we are very active on social media, and then we sometimes mobilize resources in many through campaigns, using hashtags and stuff like that.
And then I gotten also an opportunity to work with international organizations like Search for Common Ground, so I managed a youth program with Search for Common Ground as a youth coordinator, where we worked on countering violent extremism in the Lake Chad region, bringing about five countries together to work with young people. So that was also another opportunity that exposed me a little bit to peace building in conflict areas, and also how young people were doing a lot at the grass root level. So to me, I can say I became a role model to many of these young people in my community and even across the region, so it might be one of the points where I was nominated or selected to participate.
Currently, we have a lot of opportunities through international funding. They fund many different activities back there in Abuja, Nigeria especially, so we have USID. We have the DFED. We have many others that are really coming too to support us, so it's very easy when we go to communities and find out what these young people are particularly interested in doing, and then design our programming on maybe skill trainings or already those with skills, but without capital, and then we can support them with a startup, either equipment or money.
Through my different projects on the community mobilized resource where I particularly think of hashtags that are really very catchy and very interesting to people like, for instance, in 2017, we had this project we said. Even though it wasn't much of an empowerment, but it was much of something for the community to feel part and also responsible to support each other. It was hashtag "feed someone", so it's a opportunity for people who really want to help, but do not have much to do that, also be able to feel part of a contribution they've made, so this was a hashtag, and we sat down as a team and discussed, and we launched it. So with videos, with audios, we were able to reach a high number of people, and then we give them an account number, telling them that no amount is too small for you to donate. So it was really interesting because you find people who do not really have much, really contributing something little for another person to eat food. So we had a budget, and what we are able to give those people in that community.
And it was really a turning point for me because we did one in 2016, and then we reproduce it again in 2017. So we could see a lot of allies coming in without knowing who are those people. And then one thing we do and really respect is accountability and transparency for people to know what they are putting in and how it's been spent. So we usually post out the bank statement and account of what is coming in and what is there, and then how it's been spent. And also when we go to this field to give out this food, we make live coverage and Facebook live for people to know, "These are the category of people benefiting", and then also, "This is where your money is going." So it's also some initiatives that makes young people really, really want to be part of the movement themselves and also want to contribute at least to say, "We are doing something at that level." So yeah.
Women and children, we can say, have always in conflict situation been majorly affected. Men, of course, have been affected, but women, they're mostly the ones left behind with the children, and then for instance, in my situation, our context is it's heart breaking because we have a lot of orphans. We have a lot of women with their children, and they have to take care of these children because some of the men were either killed or have joined one movement or the other, especially from the rural communities. So it's very difficult, but we are happy that the situation had dropped a little bit, even though with the recent here and there attacks, which we've been following up, but it has reduced a little bit, and people are no more being displaced, and we are working on resettling people back into their communities.
But the majority of those people who have been relocated, of course, and resettled are women and their children, so in some way, it has really, really demean, and because those women now do not have anything to fall back on, but with the different support and programs we have, we have been in different locations. For instance, my organization are currently working in many deep locations where resettlement have recently occurred, and we are working on livelihood support, and what we are making sure is that we are not doing something new to these people that would not be of marketable value, where they're settling because, of course, it's one thing to empower a person, and it's another to empower him with the wrong skill, where he would have the skill, and he makes the things, but no one buys it, or he can't do anything with that. So we are really very careful, and we are almost trying to tell or whatever it is to what these people to do and also what is marketable within the community.
And also, because I work on advocacy, I try to as much as possible to bring this at every meeting or every gathering, where there are international organization, government, or any other person who is really a game player in this to understand that we have to make it a community based intervention. We cannot program things from the top and assume they are working for people, so we have to go to these communities and find out from them what is working. And then one task for all of us is also to open the market and link them up and make sure that they are not just doing these things for themselves or consuming it alone, but also how we can now make them more marketable to even other people outside their space to buy. So it's difficult.
Coming here, then I find out that it was a much diverse group because we also have entrepreneurs, we have pilots, we have mayors, we have political women, so it was a little bit of everyone represented. And I was really happy and glad it had this bits and pieces of different women because now it has opened a lot of my perspective towards how all these different women could complement and support the peace and security agenda and how we can well reposition some of this program because to me, it's also an opportunity for young women or women we are working with back on the field to now have access and connections and linkages to right education, to professional entrepreneurs that could open more doors with their connection and their knowledge, their trainings, and not only limited to that, but also based on education because we have a lot of education programming for children at local level. So now it's also an opportunity to link them up with other women who are in this educational space. They might have contacts on scholarships and how better these women and children could get involved, so it was really overwhelming to see this diverse group, but it was worth it because I love the whole connections.
We met with this organization that I'm working with prison women, and this is one angle I have never thought of working with, even though I've seen a lot of programming around them, but it hasn't occurred to me that we can actually do something with these women to also support their rehabilitation and stuff like that. So it really opened my head, and right there in the meeting, I started thinking wow we could link the rehabilitation we are doing on ground to also women in prisons to benefit 'cause I'm sure they would existing back there, but I haven't heard of a strong initiative or anything that have been really targeted towards those women that are imprisoned, and most likely some of them are not there for life imprisonment, but they are there for only a while, so how do you now instill back the hopes that they have lost being in prisons and dealing with stigmatization in the communities? This could be something that once they are out of the prison, they wouldn't be able to integrate back into the community very well because of some of these issues. It really has been one of the things that really took a turn in my head to do.
And we also met another group in Atlanta, the Atlanta Women Foundation. Even though in my organization, I have been working with philanthropies and also working with community mobilized resource, but I understood that the organization is even established based on those, the philanthropies and also their own fundraising activities, and this has even made a way for them to had bigger connections, even getting funding directly from corporate organizations, companies, and other things. I was thinking we don't have to depend on international donor agents as completely to fund our project, but we can also look at our closest connections within the communities and then tap from that resources and make our work more sustainable or reach out to more groups.
So at that point, I was really thinking of how I could just get back to home and start connecting the dots between what they are doing because from a small organization with just 10,000 USD they started, and now they are millions and even funding other organization, and now they are even at a point where they don't implement directly, but look for organizations for implementation. So that motivates me a lot, and I've been projecting my organization in the next years to be something like that, support other women organizations, support other women groups, but also as a resource to mobilizing funding from within.
It was amazing when I went to New Mexico. I haven't ever thought I would be somewhere there, and everything around there looks so much like places in Africa that I've known, and right there on our arrival to Albuquerque for a meeting, I was video calling my family, my best, "Can you see this? It's in the U.S. It's not Africa, and it's not somewhere you know." This does exist in a lot of places, and yeah, of course, it's so warm in New Mexico. They people there, I believe, are diverse. They also have the little bit of this connection with everyone, so they were so warm, and it just felt like home. And I felt everyone should've been there to see the change, and it's not just the U.S. you see on TV, but also there is another side of the U.S. that most of us don't get to see unless you're this lucky. That was an exciting moment and really great.
Most people in Africa and around the world are seeing the U.S. as a bed of roses, where we only get to see the beautiful part of it in movies. In the news, it's always the flashy part of it, and you don't get to see the deep side of their problems because with the mindset I came here, it's like, "The U.S. is always trying to portray itself as the best, and "We have the best of this. We do best of this,"" but I really appreciate the honesty when the U.S. Department did not restrict us from actually going to see the core problem that exist. So to me, this was really a perception changer, and I've got to know a clear understanding of the U.S. has it's own problems internally that it deals with on a daily basis, be it about racism, be it about homelessness, be it about people coming in, immigration, and other things. So there is a lot of these issues going on, but also, there is a lot of organizations and people trying to make this better for the people.
So it's brave that they let us see all these things. For instance, on arrival to San Francisco, a lot of people on the streets, homeless, and why is it like that? So we asked a lot questions in the different meetings we had, and we understood that that was a challenge because there is also high expenses of living, medical care, and other things, but also the U.S. has also been on the forefront, supporting other countries with aid and other things with taxpayer's money. So it's like other countries, my country can also be in these shoes. We can deal with these problems we have in our countries internally, and then the world must not even know about it because we are doing what we are doing to support it and make sure it works out for everyone. So why do we always have to wait for foreign aid, for U.S. aid to do for us when we can also do it ourselves because they are also doing it in their own and still being brave to also support other countries?
So this changed a lot of things to be particularly because I've been in other places. I've seen how it is, but also I've never thought that the U.S. has its own end of problems in that manner. So it was really great to get to know that these challenges, but still we are supporting what we are supporting in our own capacity to do that. It's also one thing I would want to use as awareness creating platform and mechanism for especially young people from Africa who are always with the mindset of, "Let's go to the U.S. Let's go to" ... You might come to the U.S., and you don't even have food.
And then this had really made me appreciate Africa in a way because to be honest, we have our problems, but we also look out for each other. In African homes, you can go to one house where you find the whole generation living on the one person without a problem. So you can come into any neighborhood and have food and sleep and do stuff like that, and it was okay to do that, but here in this part of the world, it's more like a small family living on its own. It was really, really ringing in my head since from when I went there and saw a lot of things and was like, "The world would've been a better place if all of us would embrace our problems and understand that we are not the only ones dealing with that situation."
So for me, it's one point of awareness to many young people that things just live in your country. You're just coming to be assimilated because sometimes you can come without any skill, without any thing, then you don't have the job, and you end up on the streets. So it's also of no benefit to yourself and to your family as you come, but a lot of causes do have the expertise and could easily get assimilated, but it's not all the same. We have to really, really be careful of what choices we make. So for me, this was also really strong, and I like it.
Sitting here today and looking out to the future, I feel like a lot is being done to pave the ways for us young women, and initially, it was more darker because we hardly find these opportunities to connect, but what I've been seeing over the years is a shift between the normal rivalry of age differences between older and younger women, men and women. Now we are seeing it patch up. We are seeing the collaborations. We are seeing many policies, many laws being changed to absorb more women, to also give hopes to people who are really optimistic and willing to join this movement. So I've really seen shift. It is not something you could measure by numbers, but it's something you could see from the conversations that are arising at UN level, at local level, at state level. It's just this conversations that is burning.
And I think I'm optimistic because I know when we start talking about it, we can start doing it. And what we are after is not just to talk, but looking to talk all together. That makes me more optimistic because even recognizing that there is a problem is one step to solving that problem. So that's it.
Chris: Where do you want to be in 10 years?
Fatima: Well, I would say President of Nigeria.
Chris: Why not?
Fatima: Yeah, I know it's really a difficult work down there and sounds unrealistic too, but who knows? In 10 years actually, I would see myself as mentor to many young girls back there at home, especially my city where a lot of young girls have been brutally abused, have been sexually assaulted, and have lost hope. So what I'm looking at doing is actually building more connections around what I do and see how we could have opportunities for scholarships and support to young women, especially girls back there that could really advance in their education and studies because I think it's one of the tools that would support that community to grow further and drop all the ideology because I don't know if you know this, but Boko Haram translates to "Western education is Haram," which doesn't really connect well with what today's world is, but also have abducted a lot school girls, have violated a lot of rules in schools, and this have left a lot of wounds and fears in the hearts of many. So it will be an interesting point for me to see how I connect all those dots back to those girls and give them a brighter future of opportunities.
Second, it's a vision for my organization because I wouldn't want to be the turning point of everything, but also try and get more young people involved and see how they're able to push the organization forward, not just where I am, but also expanding it to other places that might be relevant and a benefit to women and girls. And because I've been also part of different networks of women in peace and security at the AU level, at my country Nigeria, at the global level with the WPS agenda, I would work on seeing that more young women are actually absorbed into such networks, and we are not just building a generation of women that would just be celebrated after, and then no continuity, but also given it a sustainable pathway for young women to actually continue to push the work, even if we are not here personally, but then there are people who are working to talk and also living up to that expectation.
So really in 10 years, I'm seeing myself to be like ... If they say, "It's Fatima Askira." Then you be like, "Yes, I know her. Yes, she's the one because she's done so much to touch the lives of many," so that would be a dream.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of The Collaboratory.
22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international programs.
In this episode, Fatima Askira shared her story and moments from her recent U.S. IVLP program on peace and security. For more about the IVLP and other ECA exchange programs, check out ECA.state.gov.
Also, we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ECAcollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y at state.gov, and of course, we strongly encourage you to subscribe to our podcast, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like it, leave us a review.
Special thanks this week to Fatima for her story and her example. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music was "Bitter Truth" by Steve Klink, "Brown" by Nocturne, and "Salome" by Youssoupha Sidibe. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How the Night Came, and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
Season 01, Episode 13 - [Bonus] The Food We Eat, Part 2
Another selection of unique, scary, strange, and sometimes delicious food stories from around the world.
Chris: Oh, yeah. That music can have but one meaning. It's February's bonus episode of 22.33, "All About Food." We wanted to host another little bonus banquet for you this week. Six stories of how people came together over food, for better or for worse, or at least for weirder perhaps. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories and this is, "The Food We Eat, Part Two."
Speaker 1: Germans always say, [German language 00:00:38] before you eat a meal. It's one thing that we don't have something similar in English, so I often sit down with friends and have to remind myself, "Okay, wait until everybody is seated and make sure you say, [German language 00:00:56] before you pick up that fork and get ready to eat the great meal in front of you."
Chris: This week, being asked to do the unthinkable: eating with someone else's hands ... sort of. Even tattoo artists have to eat sometimes. Join us on a journey to the outer reaches of your taste buds. It's 22.33.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves an it is ...
Intro Clip 4: [Singing] Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange. Yesss. [Music]
Speaker 2: I was living up in Arunachal Pradesh near Tibetan Myanmar, way in the far northeast. I'm a vegetarian. I have been for seven years now. I got into this very rural community and they asked me to kill their pig. They asked me to be the person that slices the pig's throat. I was so taken aback. It felt like a situation I couldn't get out of. I actually ended up slaughtering a pig in northeast India. I still didn't eat it. I found a way out of that one. I told them that I was fasting, which was always my trick. They never asked why I was fasting. I did actually slaughter a pig that was then used in a big ceremony. I don't think it was a wedding, but we had a big community celebration, everyone got together, we cooked this pig that I had killed, and yeah ... Any others? I got more.
Speaker 2: I remember one day, I was at my normal base, which is the Kabir Chaura Math in Varanasi. There were some pilgrims who came from Rajasthan, which is a state northwest from the one that I was based in. These pilgrims invited me back to their Ashram, back to their Dharamshala where they were staying. They invited me for a meal, so I'm never one to pass up a free meal, so I get there and I'm really excited. I really love Rajasthani food.
They put the plate in front of me, I'm really ecstatic, about to eat, and then a guy comes up, and I've never experienced this before in my life; but this guy comes up, he takes my hands, there's dirt in his fingernails, and he takes the rice, the dahl, the lentils, the vegetable, which was [foreign language 00:04:03] or chickpeas, and the roti which is the bread, and he mixes it all together. His hands, the dirt under his fingernails, his hands, I don't know the last time he washed it ... and it's very taboo to touch other people's food in that way.
It's different to hand it out, but he's all in there really getting up in there, mixing it, mixing it, mixing it. I can hear of it kind of sloshing as the dahl is mixing with the rice and the roti. I'm just horrified. In this moment, I had a choice: I could either sort of go with my gut in the sense of, not eating this and protecting my gut, or I could go against my gut and not protect my gut and eat this. I decided to not with my gut and I ate this food.
I was fine. I don't know if it was good karma from just going in the spirit of hospitality and generosity, and accepting this, but I accepted it and it went really well. I didn't really feel sick. I felt a little nervous, because I ate the food so fast that I wasn't trying to think about it, so that was a factor. Nothing really bad came of it and I just had a good conversation with them after. The food, I would have enjoyed it, if he hadn't come up and done that, but it was what it was.
Speaker 3: One of my friends, she lost a really important family member when she was in India. She lost two of them, actually. She wanted to get a tattoo to represent them, and you know everyone's like, "Don't get tattoos in India. You can't do that," but we went to an amazing tattoo parlor, and really made connections with everyone. It was awesome. We're sitting there and this tattoo took hours, like four hours. I'm sitting there starving, like starving. I didn't want to leave my friend, but I'm like, "My stomach is going to eat itself," and in walks our saving grace, one of the moms of one of the tattoo artists, she had brought homemade pani puri, and invited every single person in the tattoo shop, she demanded them to stop what they were doing and come eat her pani puri.
We all go back in the back of this tattoo parlor; people who are getting tattooed, people that are wanting to get tattoos, the tattoo artists. They always say, "Don't eat pani puri when you're in India. You probably shouldn't that, because it's made with maybe unfiltered water, or this or that," but pani puri is like this hard ball that they put a ... not hard, it's like ... the crust. A sphere with an empty center. They poke a hole in it and then they pour this mixture of water and masala inside the pani puri. Then you have to plop it in your mouth really quickly and just bite down, so you have like this explosion of flavor from the crust on the outside to the wet masala mix on the inside. Best way I can describe it is, it's like a fruit gusher, but crispier and more masala flavored. It is one of India's favorite, favorite street foods to eat. It is now one of my favorites to eat.
We're all sitting there getting her homemade pani puri, and they're just talking about life, and about the tattoos that everyone's getting. Just the experience was like ... a really solid representation of Indian family. It extends so much further than just you. It extends to relatives, friends, people they have just met two seconds ago. Indian family structure is massive. The way they show that is through love of food, and just eating homemade pani puri in the back of this tattoo parlor seems like the most sketchy thing to do, but it was one of the most beautiful moments of family that I ever felt in India.
Speaker 4: I also really like, there's one food I really like. If I talked about my passion, my passion is chicken wings. I love chicken wings and I have a photo series of me eating chicken wings every place I went. I have like 12 or 13 photos of me eating chicken wings in different places in different states. Buffalo sauce, that's my favorite. We don't have buffalo sauce in Parma. That's the thing I'm just like ... that's my only concern when I go home, I would miss the chicken wings.
On my Facebook, on my bio, I said like, "I am a dedicated buffalo chicken wings eater." That's me. Those are the things I would bring home.
Chris: The spicier the better?
Speaker 4: Yeah, like the buffalo, but sometimes some of the buffalo wings, there's the sauce, they don't do it really well. It's too sour. I don't like it. My favorite one is the one in Philadelphia. It's called Moriarty, that's my favorite one. I have a photos of the chicken wings and people find it hilarious, but I love it. I really love it.
Speaker 5: There's an expression in Spanish, which I will tell you in Spanish and then translate it. It's [Spanish language 00:10:25], which is, "If it won't kill you it'll fatten you." I happen to be from the school of adventuresome eaters. I've eaten cuy, which is guinea pig in Peru. I've eaten all sorts of other exotic things. I'm known at home as fruit monster, because I eat all sorts of fruit. I saw fruit in Peru that I have never seen since, and that are just amazing, like something called pacay. Pacay is a long bean-like fruit, that when you open it up, there's a white sweet flesh surrounded by black beans. I actually have a piece of Chimú pottery, which is an example of them taking the natural world and making things of pottery to resemble those things.
I got to eat things like guinea pig. I had not eaten much raw fish other than herring in New York, but Peru is known for ceviche. The city of Lima today has over 3,000 cevicherias, and I ate ceviche from all sorts of things. The most exotic of which, one of the few that I don't like is ceviche from sea urchin. I've eaten ceviche fro mall sorts of exotic things: Octopus, bay scallops, regular fish, and other things. There's several Amazonian fish, which you occasionally will see in Whole Foods here called paiche, so I've eaten a lot of exotic things.
Another exotic fruit ... two exotic fruits that I particularly remember, one is called pomarosa. It looks like a delicious apple. It's got a white fruit on the inside and smells like a delicious apple. The other thing, which Mark Twain characterized as the most delicious fruit in the world is something called cherimoya. It's a fabulous fruit. You can see it in the grocery stores in the States. It's a pricey fruit, but absolutely delicious.
Speaker 6: One of the running jokes that I had with my family, I learned pretty early on in this exchange that the dairy products in Tajikistan did not sit well with my stomach. From the second or third week on, I kind of avoided dairy at all costs. My host family wanted to feed me. They wanted to let me try their stuff, from their breakfast porridge type thing to ice cream at the end of the night, to ... just other types of cheese or something. They just didn't understand why I didn't want to eat it. The only way that I could communicate it that they would go with is I would say, "I'm scared. I'm scared of milk." They just thought that was the funniest thing. Maybe what I was saying wasn't exactly what I thought I was saying, but that was kind of a running joke that we had with my family.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of The Collaboratory.
22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, we met ECA exchange participants Melissa Jane Taylor, Kylie Adams, Ben Simington, Patty Esh, Barry Haman, and Kevin Greer; grateful to them for sharing their stories.
For more about ECA exchange programs, including both of those, check out ECA.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do that wherever you find your podcasts. And of course we'd love to hear from you. Write to us at ECACollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y at state dot gov.
Huge special thanks this week to everybody for sharing their food stories, delicious or otherwise. I did the interview with them and edited this episode. Featured music during this segment was "Indian Summer" by Candido Camero. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How the Night Came. The end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time.
Season 01, Episode 12 - Following in My Father’s Footsteps with Alaa Mahmooud
When Alaa Mahmooud was 8 years old he saw a picture of his father in front of the U.S. Capital building. He didn’t know what it was at the time, but he knew he wanted to go there someday as well. He did— and his journey to get there— and the path his life has taken— from the shadows of the Egyptian Pyramids to an amusement park in New Jersey— is unforgettable. Alaa visited the United States as part of the J-1 Visa Summer Work Travel program. More information on J-1 Visas can be found at https://j1visa.state.gov/programs.
Chris: You are eight years old when you stumble across a photo of your father. He's standing in a strange place, in front of a giant white building with a huge dome. It's unlike anything you've ever seen. He tells you that it's the United States Capitol Building. You don't even know what that means, but you know that some day, you want to go there too.
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Alaa: Actually it all started when I was eight years old when my father started traveling to represent my country in many conferences, and one of these conferences was here in Washington D.C. So he took a great picture in front of the Capitol Hill. Well, I grow up. I looked at this picture five years later, and I was like, "Dad, I want to go this place," and he was like, "Okay, one day you will do it, but you just have to focus now on school." I was like, "Okay." So I started working on my school until I joined the medical university, and then I was like, "Dad, I want to go to that place." He told me, "Okay, I can help you search for a program to help you go there, but you have to promise me to keep focusing also on medicine." I was like, "That's cool."
I found opportunity produced by the U.S. Embassy and CIEE to participate in work and travel program in the summer to spend three months in the United States working, making money, having fun, and shaping your personality. So I was totally in. I went there. Actually, this opportunity was very unique for me because it was like achieving a dream of making the picture of my father in my mind become into reality. So I went to the same place my father took the picture in, and I took the same picture.
Chris: This week following in your father's footsteps, operating the Moby Dick boat ride, and falling in love with deep fried Oreos. Join us on a journey from Cairo, Egypt to Wildwood, New Jersey, and becoming the change maker you were meant to be.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the Unites States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves, and-
Alaa: Hello. I'm Alaa Mahmoud. I'm from Egypt, 22 years old, and just finished my fourth year as a medical student. I've participated in summer work and travel program in 2016. It was my first opportunity to work in the United States of America. I was working as a ride operator in Morey's Piers in New Jersey.
It was really surprising for me to know that American people are so friendly starting from the policemen in the airport until the bus driver in Wildwood. He kept telling me, "Where are you from? And what do you do? And what are you doing here?" It was like the first conversation for me, and that gave me a lot of confidence to start my summer.
I still remember my first day going to the States. I was really so nervous, but I was super excited for a new adventure. What actually helped with me to get a little bit confident is everyone was trying to help me. My English was not so good on the first day, so I kept saying, "What? Can you repeat again?" But people wasn't mad at me, and they kept repeating until I listened to them and until I tried to explain to them what I want, and they were so friendly. And actually, that taught me a lot and improved my English and made me feel confident to ask the people and not to be shy and try to take the first step always and go to make new friends.
On the first day I arrived to Wildwood, in the beginning I was so nervous, but super excited for a new adventure. I was like, "Okay, I'm going to do it. I'm going to learn a lot of skills here. I shouldn't be afraid." So I started feeling confident about what I'm doing. It was actually exciting to work in Moby Dick. Moby Dick was my favorite ride. It was taking the children and the youth from right to left. It was amazing. I also loved the food there in the Piers. I loved to try tacos for the first time in the United States. I loved to try the American pizza.
One of the unforgettable memories I have had during my job is after finishing my job at 6 P.M., I remember the manager coming to me and saying, "Hey, Alaa, please come in." I was like, "Did I do something wrong?" And when I went inside, he was like, "Congratulations. You are the associate of the week." I was like, "Wow. That's really exciting," and he gave me a badge to put on my t-shirt. And I was really in that moment so proud of myself. I felt amazing. I felt that I can do something, and that pushed me to work harder and smarter and to feel that I really can do something even if it was my first job, but I handled it correctly.
What made this opportunity beautiful and great is that we were from a lot of countries working in Morey's Piers, not only Americans or Egyptians. We were from many countries all over the world. So every time we go on break or every time we finish work, we sit together to speak about our countries. I love to tell the people about my culture and my country, and it's in Africa, guys, not in Europe, neither Asia. I always got the question of "Hey, did you see the pyramids?" I was like, "Absolutely, yes."
This opportunity in going to the States made me make new friends from all over the world. Actually, one of the first persons I've ever met was my friend and my roommate. He's called Oscar from Venezuela. This guy was really awesome. We spent a lot of nights talking together about our countries and about our experience in the United States. And I found out that we have a lot of similarities, maybe in problems, maybe in solutions, maybe in conversations, maybe in our culture. Oscar was really a good guy to get inspired from because he always wanted to go back and try to help his country to make it a better place, and actually, this is what I also have been dreaming of. So I felt that we have a connection of doing something for our communities when we go back, and all of this was a result of participating in this work and travel program.
Actually, I was lucky to get selected in one of the best programs ever. I got selected to participate in the Civic Leadership Summit Program. In this program we go to Washington D.C. for three days. I have met a lot of people. We were like 44 fellows from more than 30 countries in one place. This is amazing. The Civic Leadership Summit was all about how to be change makers and how to leave this place and go back to our community to make a change. So I have learned a lot in this conference. I have learned a lot in this summit, and I have got many skills and tools to start thinking about an idea to establish it in my community.
And actually, one of the first persons I've ever met and I got inspired by him was a mentor from Ashoka. This guy was really awesome, and he managed to teach us how to be change makers. He managed to reach our hearts and to leave an impact on us to really go back home with a message to deliver, which is to tell our friends and more people to be change makers because the world is changing so fast, and we do need more change makers to leave a good impact.
Since I came back after the program, I have been looking for an idea to serve my community. So I gathered with my friends trying to find what's really going to help my community, and we figured out that society is everything. It's why we started and whom we would like to affect.
I have volunteered for three years with different NGOs in my country before I travel, and that, of course, enriched me a lot, but I always wanted to do something creative and something from my own knowledge and from my own idea and my own perspectives. So I kept looking for something help me in this until I participated in the Civic Leadership Summit. This place was a great environment to activate my potentials and to look for new ideas and new solutions for a lot of problems, not only in my community but all over the world. It was really amazing to sit with people who share the same passion of making a great impact in their communities.
Me and my friends one day decided to go to Philadelphia, and this trip changed me a lot not only because I have visited a new place, and I took a lot of pictures, but also while walking in the streets of Philadelphia, I found a quote that really influenced me a lot, and that quote stayed with me until I came back to Egypt and did what I had been dreaming of. It was a quote for Barack Obama, the former president. It was saying, "Change will not come, if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."
So that quote actually got into my heart directly, and I was like, "Okay. I think I'm that person who is going to change something." That's why when I uploaded my first picture on the social media on Facebook, I wrote that quote on it, and I left that picture for one year as my cover photo until I did my initiative in my country.
Actually one of the unforgettable memories I have had in my summer was the moment of saying good bye. It wasn't actually good bye. It was like saying to ourself, "Okay. We're going to meet again when we make a change." So it was really emotional and touching, but in the same time, it was full of energy and motivation to do something that brings us together again somewhere on the planet. So I will never forget my friends, and I will never forget the time we spent together. I will never forget the conversations we had, and I will never forget how they expressed their love to me, and how they really wanted to leave a good impact about their countries.
One of the best things, and it was actually crazy for me, is to find Oreos, but fried. One day I was walking in the boardwalk after my job, and I kept looking in the shops, and suddenly I find a shop called Fried Oreos. I was like, "Guys, do you fry Oreos here?" But I went to try it for sure, and it was really, very, very, very delicious, one of the best sweets I have ever had in my life. But we don't actually have fried Oreos in Egypt, so I'm trying to get this to Egypt. Actually, I will try to work on a project of fried Oreos in Egypt. Sounds delicious.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of The Collaboratory.
22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, Alaa Mahmoud told us about his experiences as part of ECA's Summer Work Travel program. For more about this and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. You can also write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y at state.gov. And you can subscribe to 22.33 wherever you find your podcasts.
Special thanks this week to Alaa for taking time from his packed schedule to tell us his stories. Manny Pereira did the interview with him, and I edited this episode.
Featured music during this segment was "G of the Bang" by Doctor Turtle and "Circles" by Greg Atkinson. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came, and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
Season 01, Episode 11 - Pop Stars and Marriage Proposals with Amanda Trabulsi
Though she grew up in New York City, Amanda Trabulsi never actually felt like she fit in until she landed in Kyrgyzstan, a faraway place that she knew little about. But then, as she looked like the locals, learned the local language, and taught local pop stars, she learned just how American she had been all along. Amanda visited the Kyrgyz Republic as part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program. More information on Fulbright ETA can be found at https://us.fulbrightonline.org/about/types-of-awards/english-teaching-assistant-awards.
Chris: Imagine that growing up you always felt a little out of place in your own country, and then as a young adult you move to an obscure country half way across the world, let's say the Kyrgyz Republic and instead of feeling like a foreigner, you actually fit in like you've been there all your life. How can this be? You're listening 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Amanda: I memorized a lot of saying in Kyrgyz and that always got brownie points, especially from the older generation. One that's like my favorite that most Kyrgyz people don't actually know is [Kyrgyz language 00:00:39] which you say after you have a meal, especially if someone prepared it for you. That has gotten me like marriage proposals. You have no idea how many marriage proposals I've received and either they're serious or not serious, it's just from that expression.
Chris: This week, marriage proposals galore, hanging out with Kyrgyz pop stars, and learning to keep one's voice down. Join us on a journey from New York City to Bishkek and Osh, and learning you are an American after all.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves and ...
Intro Clip 4: (music)
Amanda: My name is Amanda Trabulsi I'm from New York City. I participated in the Fulbright Student Program from 2016 to 2017 in the Kyrgyz Republic. I was based in Bishkek, but also spent some time in Osh. Now, I am a project assistant at the National Democratic Institute in Washington D.C., working for the Asia Regional Team.
The first story that I wanted to share is basically about the diversity of Central Asia and how the region has been influenced by so many different cultures since they've been under the rule of Mongols, the Persians, the Soviets, and how that all kind of ties into the culture today. As a mixed person myself, my mom is Korean and my father is Arab, it was very comfortable for me to adjust right away in Central Asia. This was actually the first time in my life where people actually kind of assumed that I was local. I thought that was a really cool feeling, 'cause every time I would visit my parents' families in South Korea or in Saudi Arabia, it was always like, "You look kind of different. You're not one of us." They would never say that, but it always kind of felt like I wasn't really fully part of the culture. Whereas in Kyrgyzstan, I always felt like I was part of it and that was really special.
I really tried my best to make friends with local people, just to integrate myself into the culture and I felt like I was a chameleon the whole time. I was able to blend in. I would buy local clothing, I would try to just not stand out too much. I could feel myself kind of almost losing an identity almost. It was nice to be able to adapt to different cultures and not have this barrier up all the time.
When I was living in Osh, which the majority of people living in Osh are Kyrgyz, but there's also a very big Uzbek population that lives there. I would go to the bazaars and bargain in Kyrgyz, because my Russian is good, but in Osh people speak Kyrgyz much more or Uzbek. One of the vendors was Uzbek and he was confused why I was bargaining in Kyrgyz, because I look Uzbek. I don't look Kyrgyz. It was this whole ... there was just so much drama. All these people like coming all of a sudden being like, "What? You're not Uzbek?" I just thought that was really funny. No matter where I went people kind of just assumed I was like them. I don't know. I thought that was very special.
People would always be surprised to find out I was American and it was usually always positive reaction whenever they found out I was American. Rarely did I ever encounter negative instances.
Maybe this experience did kind of solidify and I guess confirm what I had questioned before about my own identity. I knew that I was always kind of unsure as to how to identify and I felt more comfortable saying I was American in Kyrgyzstan. I guess in the U.S., growing up, especially where I did, I grew up in New York City, but I grew up in the Upper East Side specifically, and I had gone to a school that was pretty homogenous. It was a private school and I was one of the few people of color in my class. I felt like people didn't really see me as an American. I thought I saw myself as a different kind of American, but whereas when I went to Kyrgyzstan it kind of confirmed my doubts in myself and of course I'm an American. I'm here through an American program and everything about the way I think is American.
One big that I was kind of surprised about in my experience there was how popular I got just by being American, but not a white American. I guess because based on Hollywood films people are just used to seeing only people with blonde hair and blue eyes. When I would open my mouth and speak as a native English speaker, it would always just surprised them. "Wow, she kind of looks like us, but she's American. That's so cool. Maybe we can be American one day." It was nice to be able to kind of represent other people from the States. I think because of that, I became very popular.
I gained a lot of followers on Instagram while I was there, because I would run these talking clubs every week, it was open to the public. It didn't matter how old you were or if you were a student. It was at the local library called [Kyrgyz language 00:07:33] in Bishkek. Every single session we got new listeners. Each time they would come up to us, me and David, David Dry was the other Fulbright scholar. They would ask us all these questions about our personal lives and it was just interesting to get so much attention, because no one was really interested in my life before.
Then suddenly in Kyrgyzstan I was featured on different news outlets. I was written about by [Kyrgyz language 00:08:01], and 24.kg, all these big news sites. They're kind of the equivalent of Buzzfeed for Kyrgyzstan, so each time a new article was published, I'd just like get another 200 followers. Right now, I think I have close to 2,000 followers on Instagram and the majority of them are from Kyrgyzstan.
I had one talking club, this one guy Mider, at the end of the talking club, he came up to me and David and asked if he could get more practice besides just through the talking club, because sometimes you'd have talking clubs with 120 people. Obviously we couldn't give everyone our attention, so I talked to him one-on-one afterwards a little bit, and I was asking him like, what does he do, and he said he's a singer. I was like, "Okay, I mean, I like to sing too. What do you sing?" It turns out he's actually a famous Kyrgyz pop star. I didn't believe him until he showed me his Instagram page and he had like 250 thousand followers, all my students were already following him. I had never heard of him before, but as soon as I became friends with him he started introducing me to all his friends and they're all famous. Suddenly, I'm friends with all these famous people in Kyrgyzstan, like most Kyrgyz pop stars.
Amanda: I definitely was forced out of my comfort zone many times. The biggest one that I can remember that has stuck with me is when I went to a wedding in Jalal-Abad, which is in the south. It was the wedding of a student of a fellow Fulbrighter who was based in Jalal-Abad and he invited all the Fulbright teachers of that year to attend the wedding. It was the best wedding I've ever attended. It was a full day and a half. It started at 6:00 a.m., I got ready with the bride's family and the men got ready with the groom's family. Everything was so chaotic, but also really entertaining for someone who's never been to a Kyrgyz wedding before. They really wanted me to make a speech, so I had the whole day to kind of prepare for it, but they wanted me to do it in Kyrgyz. While my Russian is good, my Kyrgyz was still kind of, I'm still at like the beginner's low-intermediate level, but I knew that this would be the most fulfilling and rewarding challenge if I actually got to do it.
Amanda: I kept messing up throughout the day. I couldn't even focus on what was happening, because I just wanted to perfect this speech in perfect Kyrgyz. It was such a challenge, but it was so worth it because the words in the speech could be used for almost all toasts. After I did it, and it was on camera and everything in front of like a thousand guests or something crazy like that. I could still use the same words in that speech for anything else, parties after that, and during New Year's I used the same one and everyone was just so shocked. They're like, "How does she knows such words? I don't even know that," because a lot of Kyrgyz people don't speak Kyrgyz, a lot of them, especially the ones from Bishkek only know Russian. I felt like that was a really great challenge for me and I overcame it and I still remember it.
Chris: Do you remember some of it? Do you want to say some of it?
Amanda: Yeah. [Kyrgyz language 00:12:33] It's like one of the things you can say at the end. That is the one I remember. I also memorized a lot of sayings.
Chris: How does it translate?
Amanda: It's like, "I wish you success, good health, and happiness in your wedded life," or whatever.
Amanda: I remember thinking that a lot when I was roaming around bazaars and just pretending like I've been doing it my whole life, and I felt like really cool just being able to bargain in the native language of Kyrgyz people, in Kyrgyz. It was definitely one of the most important goals I wanted to achieve in the beginning, just because I felt like that could really connect me to the culture more. I remember my parents visited me and I felt so proud being able to take them around and buy whatever they needed without any problems in communication. I feel like I sound like I'm showing off, but it was all genuine, I swear. Amanda: Just like being able to point different directions to people who didn't know the city well from the country, people from Osh coming to Bishkek not knowing where to go, and I felt like a real local, just being able to point out the direction. Yeah, there were times where I was like, "I wish my friends at home could see me right now. They probably would have never imagined me here.
Definitely, no shoes in the house, even living on my own here in D.C., I still try to do that. That's something that really has stuck with me. Also, my tea consumption has increased. I don't rely on coffee and I don't think I ever did, but I'm definitely more dependent on tea and it makes me feel good and warm inside. I also always give up my seat for elderly people, which especially New York City, I never really thought about that even though it's only human, I'm definitely more conscious and aware of that and ... whenever I'm in the metro I always ... or someone who looks like they really need a seat, I just give it up.
I feel like I'm much more aware of my surroundings and the volume of my voice as well. I never was a loud speaker at restaurants or anything, but once I was in Kyrgyzstan I realized, "Oh my gosh. Americans really are loud." Especially the other Americans I met, I would find myself adapting the local mentality and being like, "Why are they so loud?" I definitely found myself kind of adapting local ... I don't know if mentality's the right word, but habits in thought and in practice.
It was just a really great experience. I would definitely say that my year in Kyrgyzstan was probably one of the best years of my life, but it was long enough for me to realize I want to come back. Kyrgyzstan is a very ... and I guess Central Asia in general is very special to me. I kept wanting to go back and I've been back three times since my Fulbright has ended, but much of that was due to the fact that my studies, I just finished my master's and I was studying Central Asian Civil Society, so I returned for those reasons as well. I definitely see myself returning and finding work there. I would like to work in the field.
I didn't necessarily see something, but I feel it. I feel relaxed and I feel calm, because I think there's something really unique about the mentality of, I guess not just Kyrgyz people, but of Central Asian in general and how people really know how to live in the moment. The pace of life is so different over there. Here, especially in metropolitan areas, I feel like I always have to think about the next step. What am I going to do tomorrow? What am I going to do next week? What I'm going to do next year or five years from now, I have to have a plan laid out. Whereas over there I knew I didn't need to worry about what was going to happen in two minutes. I just was able to really enjoy the moment and I don't know what it is; if it's the air, if it's the food. I don't know.
The people are just ... I just felt very comfortable and that's just how I feel when I think of Kyrgyzstan and I really miss it. I always have this longing to return and share Kyrgyzstani citizens ore about my perspectives and gain more from their experiences and bring that back to the U.S. I would like more people to know about Central Asian and more about the culture, because I think they have so much to offer the world. I wish that there was way to do that.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christoper Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, Amanda Trulbasi told us about her time as a Fulbright scholar in the Kyrgyz Republic. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and you can do that wherever you get your podcasts. We'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at email@example.com.
Special thanks this week to Amanda for sharing her experiences. I did the interview and edited this episode.
Featured music was "Blue in E Flat" by Red Norvo and his Swing Octet; "Knowing the Truth" by Lee Rosevere; "Blunted Sesh 7" by the Silent Partner; "Cold Feet" by Steve Klink and "Jeraie" by none other than Amanda's pop star pal, Bageesh. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How the Night Came and credit music always, is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
A special Valentine's Day story: When Collin Walsh went to Bangladesh to learn the Bengali language, he had several goals in mind, including securing his future career. But of much greater concern was learning the language and culture enough to secure the woman he loved. Collin traveled abroad as part of the Critical Language Scholarship program; more information on CLS can be found at https://www.clscholarship.org/.
Chris: You're listening to 22.33 a podcast ... Wait, wait. This is a bonus episode. No, not that kind of bonus episode. This is a Valentine's Day ... This is a love episode. There we go. Nice.
You went halfway across the world, let's say to Bangladesh, to learn a difficult language. Let's say Bengali. You have several goals in mind, including securing a future career, but of greater concern is learning the language and culture enough to win over the woman you love.
On this bonus mini episode of 22.33, a nod to Valentine's Day. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Colin: There was this infamous elephant that would walk around the street and this is Dhaka. I think at one point, Dhaka may have been the most densely populated city in the world. Trust me, it is absolutely packed with people everywhere. People, people, people. On a road, you might have bicycles, motorcycles, huge trucks, cars, rickshaws, auto rickshaws. And then there might just be an elephant.
Chris: This week, immersion in Bangla, a surprise visit by your future father in law in how to learn the word love in a new language. Join us on a journey from the United States to Bangladesh for Valentine's Day affirmation that love knows no borders.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shape to who I am.
Intro Clip 3: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves.
Intro Clip 4: (Singing) That's what we call cultural exchange. Oh yes.
Colin: My Name is Collin Walsh. I participated in the Critical Language Scholarship program in 2013 that was, at the time, in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
At the time that I studied abroad in India, I was also a law student during my, what they call the two summer year. That's when September 11th and 12th of 2012 happened in Benghazi, Libya. At that time, it was clear to me that I wanted to make a career out of protecting American interests abroad while serving in the foreign service. So I did everything I could to become a diplomatic security special agent, and that's exactly the path that I followed.
Because I already had this overseas experience in India studying law, I wanted to somehow parlay that into a foreign service stepping stone and to me CLS was the ideal option. It was speaking to a foreign language, which I was already interested in from colleagues I had met overseas and it was in a part of the world that I was naturally fascinated with and for me it was something that I knew would bring me to the next level. Sure enough, mind you, that's exactly what happened.
Part of the reason why I gained a love with the Bengali language and culture is because I found the love in a Bengali woman. We met in India. I knew that I wanted to learn the language and make it not only a part of my professional development but also a part of my personal life. To love another is also to love their culture and when you're talking about a Bengali woman, it absolutely means to love her language too.
I would say that I was always a bit conscious due to the fact that every time I opened my mouth people would smile and it's because Bengalis have a love affair with their language. You know, it's said that their war of independence was fought based upon the fact that their language was trying to get stripped away and replaced. Bangla, the language is inescapable. It's everywhere. It's in the culture, it's in the people. The script is written everywhere. It is about as dense as the fog in Delhi is. As a result of that, you're completely absorbed all the time.
However, because people love the language so much, the moment someone who doesn't speak it naturally opens their mouth, it's as if you're just paying people compliments. People would smile and laugh and just walk me through it. And it was a perfect learning environment.
We had met before in India. I was a law student and that's where I met his daughter and that's when we started speaking a little Bengali and learning and I went to visit him in Calcutta. Of course as a friend. I was introduced as a friend, as an American tourist who wants to see the city because it would be way too bold to just come out with that as an Indian woman, as an Indian girl you don't really have those abrupt conversations with your father right away. In our case, it did take a couple of years. Learning Bengali certainly did help and him observing the impromptu with no warning upon my initial arrival to the country certainly helped too.
When I did go to Dhaka with CLS, the answer from the family at that point was not yet yes. May have even been no. However, everybody knew who I was and that I was there and that we were in love with one another.
The first night that we arrived, my now father in law knew that I would be arriving and he showed up at our living quarters and it was midnight and I think that was like literally our first or second night and there was no warning and I think he drove quite a ways to get there because I was being evaluated. I was on his turf now, I was in his country. We of course had met before. However, this was really his chance to catch me off guard to see if is this man a good eligible candidate for my daughter, of course, who he loves very much.
By catching me off guard, I was of course surprised. I of course, invited him in and he wanted you to just see how do Americans do things? Where are the men and the women on different floors? Are they in separate rooms? Does everything look okay? Without being pre scripted, am I going to see any surprises?
He was of course pleasantly surprised by what he observed and speaking to me and seeing where I had come through with the language. So that was probably my greatest surprise. Seeing my now father in law show up at my doorstep at midnight, wanting to not only greet me but also we evaluate me in person. I think I remember it so well because I know that I must have passed the test 'cause now we are happily married.
By the way that kind of meetup happened many times after that. Of course, it was always planned and we spent a lot of time together and practiced Bengali together. So that the two things, the personal meets professional, actually complemented each other quite well because I think I was a better speaker as a result of it.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the Director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22 Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of the U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.
This week, Collin Walsh talked about his time as a Critical Languages Scholar or CLS in Bangladesh. For more about CLS and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22 33. You can do that wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And also photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233.
Special thanks this week to Colin for sharing his personal stories with us. Ana-Maria Sinitean did the interview and I edited this segment.
And let's see if you can pick up on a theme among this episode's featured songs. "Easy to Love" by Lionel Hampton and his Sextet; "The Gentle Art of Love" by Oscar Pettiford and His Orchestra; "Let's Fall in Love" by the Dave Brubeck Trio. "Lovers Serenade" by Ralph Marterie and His Orchestra. And "Our Love Is Here to Stay" by Teddy Wilson. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How the Night Came and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
Musician Seth Glier traveled to three countries, connecting with foreign artists and audiences, learning to appreciate new cultural traditions, and learning more about his own country in the process. He performs a couple of songs in the Collaboratory's Little Nook studio.This episode also feature the world premiere of a song Seth put together using sounds sampled during his trip. The Seth Glier Trio visited Mongolia, China, and Ukraine as part of the American Music Abroad program.
Chris: We sent you to three countries half-way around the world with different cultures and languages, but you had your guitar, and your music, and an open heart. What the trip reconfirmed to you the most, was your very own lyric, "Love is a language we hold onto."
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Seth: On a long bus trip, I had about three months before going on this trip, I had gotten engaged. I was just kind of getting used to incorporating the word fiancee into my vocabulary. As I'm referring to my fiancee, this Chinese member our delegation turns to me and he goes, "What is this word?" We don't totally have a great grasp on each other's languages. He goes, "What's this word you keep using?" I say, "Well, it's the name of the person I'm getting married to." Then this other Chinese woman from the front seat of the bus turns around, she goes, "Oh my god, you're getting married to Beyonce?" It was just one of these moments where there was laughter on both sides. It took a little while to explain what we were all laughing at collectively.
Let me tune that up.
Chris: This week it starts when it ends. Love knows how to find you and a very special preview of a brand new song recorded over three continents by Seth Glier. Join us in a journey from Massachusetts to Mongolia, and beyond to prove that you don't need words to make connections. It's 22.33.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them, they are people very much like ourselves and ...
Intro Clip 4: (singing)
Seth: My name is Seth Glier. I'm from western Massachusetts. I'm a musician and I make my living as a songwriter, traveling across the country. Last year I was lucky enough to participate in an ECA program, American Music Abroad, that sent me to Mongolia, to China, and to the Ukraine.
It was an interesting time for me personally, to be called into foreign service work. I think as a songwriter, I've always been really aware that how you tell a story has the power to change a story. I also knew this was a time that I was heading over there, right after the 2016 election, where there were different perceptions of America that was not the America that I have come to experience and know. I really was focused on going over there with an open heart, and listening, and celebrating. I think that people always connect over two things. They either connect over celebration or over pain, and I wanted to be really conscious that we were connecting over celebration. Music is a great vessel for that.
There's a Chinese proverb, "Music is what happens when people can't speak." It's singing that just kind of happens. I also think that there's something quite biological around what happens when people are in a room sharing a common value and experience it. There's an energy field to that, I personally believe in. You know, for instance, in Mongolia, which was the first place that I went to ... it's amazing. The program I found, the expression I kept saying is that, "It starts when it ends." Right after the workshop that we would do and we'd ask them some questions, they'd ask us some questions. There'd be a shared kind of performance, but once the ritual of that as over, there was real exchange.
It was ... it's hard to codify that from place to place, but it would look something like this kid coming up who's playing a horse head fiddle, which is essentially like a two-string ... you'd play it like a cello. It has two strings, but it sounds almost like a fiddle that you would tune down. It has the ... of a fiddle. He's playing a few notes and he's showing me the tuning of it. Then all of a sudden I'm holding this instrument and he's showing me and he's got my guitar. There was no language. There's no, "Hey, can I play that?" or "Hey can you try this?" Once he said, "It's a D and it's an A." "Okay, well I'm in A minor. All right." There was a language there and I kept stumbling on it. That was the other thing that was interesting for me. I don't think the universality of music as a form of language was a deep ingrained in me until this trip. I now realize this is a really really powerful language as opposed to just a tool.
In China, again it was a pretty large show, about 15 hundred people. It was a pretty bad, as I mentioned, it was a pretty bad time for the economic relations. There was this band that came to the workshop, they were street buskers. They came out and they knew all these incredible traditional songs, some of them were actually Mongolian songs, some of them were Chinese songs. They kind of mixed a handful of different Chinese cultures into very traditional Chinese folk music. We all performed together and that was the encore, just this jam for about 20 minutes. There was language, there was communication. No one could speak a single word to each other, but there was hugs and tears after the show. I mean, it was really wonderful.
Seth: I didn't and maybe this was, for me more personal, but I didn't feel particularly foreign. I think a lot of that had to do with my own upbringing. I was raised in a household with someone with special needs and he was also non-verbal, so there was this whole new culture that I was exposed to on a pretty daily basis of learning how to communicate to him without words. I found that in a kind of beautiful way, the trip I was firing on cylinders in a different way than sometimes life lets you fire. In my case, I think I was more curious and inquisitive than I was intimidated or even feeling indifferent, or different. I don't know. I feel like people are people. There's always ways of getting in.
It was one of the last days of the trips and we were playing this jazz festival. The day before we played this school, again there was a lot of sort of formality. I did a short workshop and then there was this very kind of instructed performance oriented thing where the local students performed. There as this kid who was 14-years old who came up and played classical guitar with his other friend who was a little older than him and it was beautiful. It was a Bach prelude that they were playing. I was so taken, I asked them to basically have 10 minutes of my jazz set during the middle of the show to just be showcased. One of the things that I take away with is at the end of their performance, they're standing with their classical guitars in their hand, there's about three thousand people and the look on their face is just the ultimate joy. It is just the ultimate joy and that was just a ... it's sort of etched in my mind as the stars just kind of aligning in a great way.
I always found that it was the times when the expectation was not there that was the real magic. I think that artists have a unique ability to take the essence of a lot of things and meld them in and put them out as new. When that happens there's a boundary-less-ness. I don't know if that is a word, but there is an expression in that that is without walls. I think more acts of that are courageous and I think the world is good for those kinds of acts of art.
Well, this is a song that I ended up playing a lot overseas, just 'cause it kind of got people up immediately. It's a song that has always kind of anchored me, kind of like a mantra or something. I wrote it about my older brother, growing up with him, but it's one of those songs that kind of kept changing meanings and opening up to something much more universal. This is called, "Love is a Language."
I think I was connecting with people in really deep way in Ukraine. When I was there I felt like in everything was this metaphor. I mean everything. As a songwriter it was quite rich. This is a civilization that has war, and poverty, and corruption, and in all the cracks of that there is art. There is the most just brilliant forms activists' expression. As a people they have been looking west while their leaders have looked east. I think as an American musician, they were most curious about the value of my expression as a songwriter, in a different way than in China, they might be really interested in learning about the blues, or really interested in a particular guitar riff. There was something, not deeper, but different about Ukraine, where they were really interested in the story that we were telling as people outside of just musicians.
When I found out we were going to Ukraine, I really dove into the history that's there. Walking through Independence Square, years after Independence Square was a war zone, and walking through this Independence Square and people are buying flowers, and people are selling trinkets and Russian dolls. There is such a strength and resilience there that I think was important to remember as I've been ... I was joking earlier this weekend about my wife is someone who, she has a cardboard sign for every oppressed minority in the trunk of her car. That's where we've been putting a lot of our energy in solidarity of others as a white person. To go there and realize that this strength, there are ties that bind us as people. There's strength in democracy. There's strength in community.
In Mongolia, a member of my band is sightless, so one of the focuses that we had a lot on the trip in addition to youth empowerment and female empowerment, is also disability rights and advocating for ... at a lot of these places there's not ramp. It's incredibly inaccessible if you have mobility issues, so using these performances to kind of spotlight some of that. In Mongolia we went to play the Federation for the Blind and at the end of the performance, I had asked, I had done a little bit throat singing, but it wasn't very good. All the people I would throat sing for who are Mongolian, would just kind of laugh and walk the other direction.
Seth: I finally just kind of leaned into it. I asked this individual that was sightless and leading a folk group if he could teach it to me. Through a translator we talked and he agreed. As soon as he agree, he just put both of his hands hard around my neck, pushing deep into my Adam's apple and then telling me what sound to make. There's this ... back and forth and his hands are on my neck so it's like, ... Finally I got what he was trying to say, which was putting my air underneath my diaphragm and I was able to produce the sound. It was like a light bulb going off. Yeah, those kind of exchanges, they're priceless.
Another experience in China, again I think that this kind of comes out of a very formal culture, that it starts when it ends. This one particular night we were in Dongwang and they just have the most incredible noodles in the world. It's a religious experience. We went out and we're having noodles and one of the folks at the State Department, XT, who I became very very close with. He was a Chinese man, works at the Embassy in Beijing and there's just so much thoughtfulness, there's so much heart, and he's so incredibly proud of his country. He shines so much magic that is China. When we were over there, we were right in the start of a crazy trade war, so diplomatically times were very tense and we felt that in the program.
But it was almost like living in this different world, because outside of the news, XT and I are walking around the Yellow River, and telling stories with each other about our belief systems, our dreams, our joys, neither one of us were fathers yet. We were sharing some of what those fears are going to look like and we have completely different cultures, so there were very different answers. It just was amazing to me that even on the other side of the world, there's a thread that ties, so coming back here to realize how easy it is to write someone off because they disagree with you, I've really found that to be unacceptable now as a person interacting with the world. That's hard. It's not easy, but I really believe that there's always love is there.
I want to give you an example how I will use samples from the AMA trip to inspire new song writing ideas. I'm going to start with this sample from Mongolia, which is of a horse head fiddle. I have this on a tape machine, so I'm going to slow down the tape machine as we de-tune it. I'm going to cut this first end of the sample, which I like. I'm going to add a kick drum. That flute sound is something that I sampled from a whistle in Ukraine that will now become the pad. Then I'm going to add these marimba parts, which I sampled at a university in China. They come in here. I had my friend, Kelly play violin. I added some bass and a few other instruments and we got a song.
Though at least the lyric behind it is very much about this walk with XT in China and this just very quiet exchange, trying to write about that feeling.
I had this experience pretty quickly in Mongolia, where take all the, let's say, throat singing. You tell me the difference between what they're doing in Mongolia and what Ralph Stanley is doing with his glottal stops or yodeling in this Swiss Alps. Mountain music is the same every where. Sometimes the geography is more in charge than the human being. In the same way that bluegrass music as we know has the train beat, because that was the sound of it. In Mongolia, the only difference between bluegrass music and the mountain music of Mongolia is it's this more gallop, because it's on horses. It's just a slight change in the rhythm, because of the landscape, but it's literally just bluegrass music tuned down about a fifth.
I felt like, yes, it was always well received, but it was also sort of surprising, because sometimes I would contextualize a song by saying a short story in front, but because that has to be translated the traditional momentum of a show is lost when everything is being defined in those foreign performances. Yeah, there's something much more elusive to what is happening with the audience. Music is doing a lot of the speaking. This song is one that on a number of occasions it kept sort of coming into my life on that trip. I wrote it from a very sort of personal side of losing my brother and wondering what these signs were that I was being greeted by. They were almost like souvenirs of him. I wouldn't say this, but I would just play the song and I remember these two little girls who were just crying in the front row of the audience. There was something, I don't know what that's all about, but boy it's cool. [crosstalk 00:29:31] It was in Lanzhou. Yeah, yeah.
One of the things I understand in China that is something that I've continued to understand is that freedom isn't entirely important thing to the human condition. Growing up in America, there's a huge value, I put a lot of value on my freedom of expression and all of that kind of stuff, but when you're in a society where there isn't a ton of freedom, realizing that the main things ... they just want to be okay. The middle class economy does allow them to be okay, so terminal events aren't that important and just how fragile this whole thing is. That was one of the things I walked away with and I'm still thinking a lot about.
I think I've become a little bit more active in using my music and my platform to speak to issues that are not just about entertainment. I always did that a little bit before, but again realizing the fragility of it, things like loving your neighbor. Things like school shootings in schools. There are a couple of things that when I look at the world, they are uniquely American issues. That's part of what I'm more focused than ever on, trying to tackle and bring light to. Speak truth to power.
There's just a feeling to this and that. There's something ... nothing's quite resolved ... and still ... we're home. There's a journey that's just woven into the fabric of harmony.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the Director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute the created ECA. Our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs.
This week, Seth Glier talked about his experiences as an ECA arts envoy, a cultural program implemented by American Music Abroad. For more about ECA cultural programs and other exchanges, check out eca.state.gov.
We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do so wherever you find your podcasts and while you're at it, "Hey, leave us a nice review, huh?" Write to us at ECAcollaboratory@state.gov. I should tell you that photos of each weeks' interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at: eca.state.gov/2233.
Huge very special thanks to Seth Glier for taking the time to come in and talk to us and even play us a few songs live. All of the songs that you heard on this week's episode were by Seth, including instrumental tracks, "I'm Still Looking," "Birds, "Water on Fire," and "Sunshine," which all come from his most recent, and I might add amazing, album "Birds." Seth also performed two songs right here in our little nook. "Love is a Language" and "I'm Still Looking." Finally, we are indebted to him for sharing "Love Knows How to Find You," a song he partially recorded during his exchange. All songs are courtesy of Impress Records and we thank them. For more check out sethglier.com. That's S-E-T-H-G-L-I-E-R dot com.
Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came. The end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
Season 01, Episode 08 - Call Me Teacher with Will Langford
Will Langford knew that Kenya would be very different than Detroit, but as an African American he never expected to be called a “white man” simply because of his American accent. His memorable enlightenment about race, wealth, and language led others not only to rethink their idea of America, but to help Will find himself as well. Will visited the Kenya as part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program. More information on Fulbright ETA can be found at https://us.fulbrightonline.org/about/types-of-awards/english-teaching-assistant-awards.
Chris: As an African American who grew up in Detroit, you understand that it's impossible to fully prepare for your first trip to Africa, but you could not have expected just how different the locals' perceptions of you would be. When you began to see through their eyes, you began to find yourself. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Will: In my pursuit of learning Swahili, I have never come across people who were more supportive, helpful, and complimentary during that process of learning the language. People would introduce me. They'd say, "This is William." [Swahili 00:00:43] "He knows all of key Swahili." And I'm like, oh my god. Oh my god, don't say that. They were so just proud of me for the effort that I've put in and impressed by the work.
Like everybody was willing to teach me. I can't remember of just thousands and thousands of interactions I've had where anybody ever made me feel bad for the way I was pronouncing something or a mistake that I made. I left meetings where later a buddy was like, "You were talking about cows, and I think you were supposed to be talking about classroom materials. So people were confused, but they appreciated you." And not a look, not a side glance, nothing. Not a whisper in someone's ear. People never did anything that would've made me feel bad about the effort I was making to learn the language.
Chris: This week, don't call me Mzungu. Call me teacher. Learning from someone because they're not you, and bonding in darkness during a deafening thunderstorm. Join us on a journey from Detroit, Michigan to Nairobi, Kenya to answer the $1 million question.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped to who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people, very much like ourselves, and...
Intro Clip 4: [Singing] Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange. Oh, yeaaaah.
Will: My name is Will Langford. I am a native Detroiter. I'm a poet and a teaching artist. I'm a doctoral student at Michigan State University in the College of Education as well. I served as a Fulbright ETA, English teaching assistant in Kenya.
One of the larger projects that I worked on at my school, Salvation Army Kolanya Girls School, which is in the Western province of Kenya. Very, very close to Uganda. It was a postal exchange, and this postal exchange was set to take place between my high school, here in Detroit, Cass Tech, and my school in Kenya. So the objective here was to give both our Kenyan and American students an opportunity to interact with a person from a divergent, different culture.
Salvation Army Kolanya Girls School, as the name might imply, is an all girls institution, so some of the girls, of course were excited to have international correspondence with maybe a boy. But one of the interesting things once we got the postcards from the US, was in the way that it was difficult to figure out whether these American names were boys or girls. So I had a lot of fun sort of introducing the postcard to the whole class. So I'd hold it up, and maybe there'd be a picture of the spirit of Detroit, or an old English deed that a Detroit kid had decorated the postcard with. I'd say, "Well this is the symbol of the city of Detroit. This postcard is from Jawan Clark," and the girls would be silent. One of the girls would say, "Mister, is this a boy or a girl?" And I'd say, "Jawan is a boy." And the girls would go, "Oh!" Just like American kids.
My students in Kenya were fascinated by the idea of prom, of the fancy dresses and the rented cars and the amount of money that people spent during prom. The students from Cass Technical High School actually sent us some prom photos, and everyone marveled over the suits, the dresses, the heels. Also, the many colors of the students. That amazed them. So Cass Tech is relatively diverse in terms of Detroit high schools, so there are students who are of Middle Eastern descent, African Americans, Hispanic students, so on and so forth. It was incredibly difficult to sort of explain that all of these kids, despite the fact that they don't look very much alike, were Americans. So they would point to a picture of a kid, and they'd say, "This one. Is he black?" I'd say, "Well, yeah, yeah. This guy's black." They said, "Well, what about this guy?" I'd say, "Yeah, he's black too." "But they look nothing alike." I'd say, "Yeah, that's kind of the American thing. Different and similar."
There were a lot of interesting misconceptions that we spoke about in class and that came up in the postcards. One of those was the idea that Americans eat snakes. Yeah, there was some belief that I encountered multiple times, and not just in the postal exchange, that Americans ate snakes and rather enjoyed them. And I don't want to place any blame on anyone for that, but I think that a handful of reality television shows have made their way into the market there. So you've got things like Fear Factor and Incomparable shows that do show Americans eating lots of unusual things.
Another popular myth that I heard that they really surprised me that I heard from teachers, students, people more widely was that every American, when they are born, has a bank account. The moment where this first came to my attention was when a fellow teacher asked me. He said, "William, you must have many houses back home." I was like, "No. No, I don't even have one house, actually." He said, "Well, what did you do with the money?" I was like, "Oh, what money do you mean?" And he said, "Tell me if this is true. When you are born, every American, they have a bank account, and in that bank account, there's $1 million." I was like, "Oh ... no. I don't think that's true of most Americans." And it really blew people's mind. Because this idea was so pervasive, I could then see how a lot of the previous interactions I had might've been colored by the belief that I came from extreme wealth as an American.
But one of the projects that I sort of engaged in in my teaching them was sort of explaining poverty in the United States. Classes, working class, middle class, upper class, so on and so forth to kind of give people a sense that life in America is not uniform. People don't enjoy the same quality of life. There are some features, of course, that we all get to partake in to some degree, right? If you have transportation, you get to travel on a road that's fairly smooth. There's illumination on many highways, and there are large buildings and cities that you can ogle, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you have business there, or that you are treated as though you belong in those spaces. So I mean, this was a large undertaking, but it felt really essential to sort of explaining how multifaceted Americanness is.
Will: People were really dismayed, oftentimes. Adults were often really dismayed at my choice ... I don't see it as a choice. Were often dismayed that I see myself as black, and oftentimes among adults, my identifying as a person of color seemed laughable. Some people could not quite imagine why I would want to be seen as black when being white affords you so many privileges. If I could pass for white, why wouldn't I? Now, of course, this is mediated by my experience as an American, right? I'm an African American in here, in the United States, and in most places I go. I am definitively black. There's no gray area there, but for them, because of my complexion and also because I speak with an American accent, it was difficult for them to see and agree to this idea that there could be gradations of blackness. That unsettled me. It was difficult to be definitively black in America and probably white in Africa.
Here, my complexion affords me no different treatment, whereas in Africa, it could. My accent might gain me something. My Americanness was something I could feel in Kenya in a way that I never feel it in the United States. It really, really surprised people, so much that they would laugh or ask to see pictures of my parents to prove that I was black, or my family to prove that I was black.
I rode a motorcycle to and from many of the places that I traveled to. It was simpler than navigating a car because of some rocky terrain. So people could see certain parts of my body. They could see a bit of my face, depending upon what I wore. Maybe they could see my hands or parts of my arms, and it was pretty commonplace for people to call from the side of the road. They'd say, "[Swahili 00:12:49]." "God, look at that white man." Or just, "[Swahili 00:12:53]." I know that for the most part, people really were pretty surprised to see what was presumably a white man riding over or past Mount [Cacapell 00:13:08]. Really, really deep into the country. What is this white man doing here, and why do we see him every day at the same time?
Sometimes I would actually stop and pull over. People would come to greet me. People by and large were always very, very, very friendly, and though from my perspective, I feel like I'm being heckled emotionally, like being called a white man, doesn't really sit well with me. But I also knew that these people weren't heckling me. They were genuinely surprised to see a white man. So I would stop, I would pull over, and they would say, "[Swahili 00:13:58]." "How are you, white man? How are you, white guy?" Very friendly, and I'd say, "Ah, [Swahili 00:14:05]." "Don't call me a white man." "[Swahili 00:14:09]." "I have a name." "[Swahili 00:14:12]." "My name is William." "[Swahili 00:14:15]," or "My name is teacher." And sometimes, that would be enough to say, "Ah, [Swahili 00:14:22]." And they would just call me teacher. If I would happen to see them at the same place at the same time, they'd say, "[Swahili 00:14:27]."
I tell people that I was a black American, and like really try to get into some of the details of who I am and why I'm there, but of course, as one man among so many people explaining my identity became sometimes something that I was to exhausted to do. With little children, sometimes I engaged in a bit of subterfuge, honestly. If they were really small, they'd say "[Swahili 00:15:10]." Whatever the case may be, and I'd say, "[Swahili 00:15:15]." "You know," "[Swahili 00:15:18]." "You know, I know Swahili, so I must be a Kenyan, right?" And they'd say, "Hmm." Faces would scrunch up a bit, and they'd say, "Yeah. Yeah." Because I knew that for a really little kid, it would be difficult to work out the logic of why I knew Swahili if I were a white man.
So sometimes that was enough, and it was like the quick version, so I imagine that there are probably some now slightly older children in Kenya who are like, "You know, one day I met this white man on a motorcycle, and he told me he was a Kenyan. And he must've been crazy." They may or may not have believed a word I was saying.
I couldn't rightly assume or would never assume that people would be unfriendly, but I had no idea how giving that people would be. I was often a guest, or always a guest, right? Because I'm so far from home, and people with one chicken that they planned to kill for Christmas would kill that chicken in June because I arrived. Oftentimes, if I complimented someone on something, like their nice watch or a cool vest, they would move to give me that thing, whether it was a shirt, a jersey, some object that they had that I was genuinely appreciating. It just blew my mind that people were so willing to give without really knowing me, and a lot of the places I traveled, of course, I went there once and maybe I didn't get the chance to return.
Unlike in the United States where my credentials must precede me in order to be treated in a certain way in certain spaces. That was not necessary in Kenya at all. In the United States on an airplane, someone asks me what I do and I say, "Oh, I'm a doctoral student and a writer. I teach at Michigan State University." "Really? How did you get into that? Who helped you? Who made a way for you?" In Kenya, that did not exist. There was no sense of surprise given the color of my skin that I've achieved what I've achieved. My god, that is the best feeling ever. I get to be me, and not just the me that's black. Not just the me that's a scholar or a poet or, I get to enjoy what I enjoy and be who I am and I don't have to worry so much about whether people will think I'm a good person or a bad person. No one ever crossed the street to avoid me in Kenya. That's happened multiple times this week in my hometown.
Say, "Hi, I'm Will. I'm a teacher." Or "Hi, I'm Will. I'm visiting this place with my friend, Leonard." And that was enough for the warmest reception. I never could've expected that. I never could've imagined living in a society where it doesn't matter so much what I look like. People will sit down and listen to your story because you're human, because you've got a story to tell, because I am not you, and because of that simple piece of logic you've got something to tell me that I don't know, that I can learn from, that I can change and grow with.
Will: There's a lot that I learned about myself through my experience with Kiswahili. One of the popular sayings in Kenya, "[Swahili 00:19:58]." "Going slow took the turtle very far." In America, an average working person is doing so much in a day. The number of tasks, if you counted them that you complete in a day in America is massive. In Kenya though, there is an appreciation for doing one thing or two things, doing them well and still feeling accomplished.
There's a meme circulating among graduate students and people at universities and teachers. There's a cat resting on a rug, and it says, "You are not measured by your productivity." The cat looks especially calm. I think in hearing people say that, "[Swahili 00:20:57]," "Slowly," "[Swahili 00:20:59]." "Go slowly." It reminded me that if I can't do all the things, at least I can put my heart and my energy and my effort and my focus into one thing that I am doing, and that's something to feel good about.
Similarly, Leonard, my good friend, he'd say, "[Swahili 00:21:33]." Which means, "If you go slowly, you won't knock things over."
I raced back home from school every day, because there were often torrential rainstorms. If I didn't make it home in time on the motorcycle, oftentimes with Leonard, we would take shelter wherever we could find it. In a small shop, in an abandoned church. At one point, we actually did shelter in an abandoned church and lots of other kids got caught in the rainstorm from three or four different schools. Everybody kind of sat there in silence and waited for the storm to pass, but when the sun went down, hours before we were set to go to sleep at home, the rain would fall on our corrugated steel roof so loudly that you couldn't hear a thing inside of the house.
A lot of the times, these rainstorms would black out all the lights. So now you've got no electricity, it's 8 PM, it's dark outside, and you can't hear a thing. But you're not sleepy. So Leonard and I on nights like these which were relatively frequent in the rainy season, we would sit together, this long table that we had. But we'd open a drink, we'd light a candle right in the middle of the table so that we could see each other. We couldn't talk. It was so loud even inside the house that even if you were yelling, you would not be able to hear the sound of your voice or anyone else's. So the only entertainment we could really muster was to light a candle at that table, maybe eat a bite of food, and kind of just sit there together. No conversation. No particular activity because there's not enough light from that candle to do anything.
I don't know, those moments really gave me peace. I felt safer somehow with that one candle and that little bit of company. I felt less alone, and I'm grateful for that, because when was the last time you sat in stillness, by yourself or with somebody else? Especially with somebody else. When was the last time you just sat there?
Chris: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name is Christopher Wurst. I'm the Director of The Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the US Code, the statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, Will Langford told us about his experiences as part of the Fulbright English language teaching assistant program, or ETA. We sent ETAs out around the world to help assist with English classes. For more about ECA exchange programs, including the ETA program, check out ECA.state.gov.
We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do that wherever you find your podcasts, and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ECACollaboratory@state.gov.
Special thanks this week to Will for sharing his experiences. I did the interview with Will in an empty classroom at Wayne State University in Detroit and edited this episode.
Featured music during this segment was "Cradle Rock" by Blue Dot Sessions, [Swahili 00:26:09] in Western Africa both by John Bertman, "Promise you" by Lobo Loco, "Lope and Shimmer" by Podington Bear, and "Springtime in Africa" by Duke Ellington. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came, and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
22.33’s first monthly mash-up of unique, scary, strange, and sometimes delicious food stories from around the world.TRANSCRIPT:
Chris: Welcome to the first bonus episode of 22.33. For a bonus episode, this music is pretty serious. That's much better. Thank you. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Dear 22.33 team. We love what you're doing. We love your podcast. We especially love the fact that every single Friday for the entire year of 2019 you will release a brand new episode, but isn't it a little bit early for a bonus episode?" The answer, dear listener, is no. There is no time like the present to tickle your taste buds with our first all food 22.33. It's called The Food We Eat. So with no further ado, this week silkworm larva as an appetizer, the taste of clouds, and getting stuck to a piece of fruit. Join us for a journey to the far side of your taste buds.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about 'em. They are people very much like ourselves, and-
Speaker 1: The weirdest food that I ate in Korea was ... I think a lot of people who are familiar with Korea are going to think that it was sannakji, which is live octopus, but living on that island, seafood was everywhere, and seafood is seafood. What was really weird was beondegi, which is silkworm larva, and these come in yellow cans, and Koreans will eat 'em as snacks, but I remember my host family came home with a bunch of them in a plastic bag. And I think they were trying to get a reaction out of me, and I was very determined not to give it to them. So I was just eating them, and that really impressed a lot of people 'cause I think they assume foreigners don't eat silkworm larva, but this one does.
Speaker 2: There's a fruit called guanabana, and it's massive, bright green, has these soft spikes all around it, and it looks like a big dinosaur egg, and when you cut it open, inside is this fluffy, juicy, white fruit with black, really bitter, sour seeds in it, and you can just pick the white fluff, the white fruit meat with your hands, and it kind of gels in your hand, and then you put it in your mouth, and it has the texture of clouds. And if you can imagine what clouds taste like, it tastes amazing. It's so sweet and so flavorful and juicy. And I have never tasted anything like that in the United States.
Speaker 3: One of the strangest foods I've eaten is probably the jackfruit. A jackfruit is oblong in shape, a bit spiky on the outside, about maybe a foot and a half sometimes long, and inside of them are these, we could call them, seeds. They're pale yellow in color, and they have the taste that is a combination of pineapples and bananas, so delicious, if unusual. The tricky part about jackfruits is that you can't open them without them gluing your hands together. The sap is so thick that you cannot remove it from your hands without oil. So if you make the mistake of cracking open a jack fruit ... You're just really, really excited to get to the meat of the thing ... There's a good chance you'll have jackfruit glued to your hands or worse, your hands glued to each other. And I learned that lesson the hard way. I guess I could say that that was one of my other embarrassing moments.
Speaker 4: I was eating a bowl of soup one day at a neighbor's house, had no idea what it was. My Indonesian wasn't that great, and I ended up eating cow hoof, something super random. Yeah, it wasn't super great.
Chris: Did you enjoy it though?
Speaker 4: Not really. Most Indonesian food I loved, but that was definitely one that I was like, "Eh."
Speaker 5: So Manchester is famous for having this street colloquially known as the curry mile, and the curry mile is called that because in the past in was the sort of main street for the South Asian community in Manchester, and now it's more North African and Arab, but the smells on that street were fantastic. There was all kinds of kebob houses. There were these great dessert shops. There are a lot of curry houses still. I loved living on the curry mile. So many sweets from all these different countries.
Speaker 6: I ate a lot of sugar, but the thing that I'll talk about is this thing called paan, which is a Pakistani and South Asian broadly sort of treat, and it's a leaf with some kind of tobacco that's kind of glowing red and some sprinkles and some mint and a few other spices, and they roll it up, and you just eat it. And you have an effect from it. I would always take American friends who were visiting me. I would just start taking them to this place to just see how they reacted to it, and most of the time, it was negative. They were not feeling it, but I kind of got used to it, and it was a sort of way to show, "Welcome to my turf."
Speaker 7: I have dietary restrictions. I have to go for halal food, so here I turn out to be a vegetarian. So it's always I have to for salads, and I used to laugh at times how I can eat this, this thing someone plucked from the garden and gave it to me on a plate, but now I'm pretty used to it. I started liking it, and this morning breakfast especially with this sugar syrup and ... What's the name of that? I forgot that one.
Chris: Waffle? Pancakes?
Speaker 7: Pancakes. I really like pancakes. I'm planning to bring it back to Pakistan. Somehow I'll start this thing.
Speaker 8: Indonesian has some seriously amazing food. They're consistently rated as one of the best cuisines in the world, which was so special and something I totally indulged in. My favorite food is probably a dish called rendang, and it's typically beef, and it's stewed for hours and hours and hours, and typically in the U.S., that's not really my thing, but they use coconut milk and all these really lovely spices, and it's had over rice, and it's just super delicious and lovely.
Speaker 9: I had a very good friend in high school that was Indian, so I thought I had a good understanding on Indian food. And I had tikka masala in the United States, and it was very good. And our first night there, we landed very late, and my family took me through the drive thru at McDonald's to get food before I probably fell asleep for like thirteen hours. And I was looking at the menu, and of course, I did not know anything on the menu, and I saw the word masala. And I was like, "Oh, I've had tikka masala in the United States. It's going to be fine." I ordered it, and they asked if I was sure, and I was like, "Yes, I'll get it." And I bit into the sandwich, and it was the spiciest thing I'd ever eaten. It burned my mouth off.
And then two days later, in school we're going over basic vocabulary, and I find out that masala is the word for spice in Hindi. And I texted my friends in the U.S. who'd been asking for updates on my trip and recommending places that I should go, and I was like, "Did you make the tikka masala you made us not spicy?" And she's like, "Oh, yeah. Whenever I cook for non-Indian people, I always make it not spicy. Sorry."
Speaker 10: I lived very close to the Nile River, about an hour from a place called Jinga where the mouth of Nile is. So for that reason, I was able to get the world's best tilapia. I haven't eaten a tilapia since I've come back to the United States because I've been spoiled for choice. In western Kenya and in Uganda, a tilapia is as wide as person's shoulders, and they're delicious, and the mamas fry them on the side of the road just in basic oil. It's not especially healthy, but they sure are delicious.
Speaker 11: Oh, my gosh. All food is amazing in Turkey. Okay, the weirdest was probably ... Not a food. If you go into Turkey, everyone's obsessed with Turk kahvesi, which is Turkish coffee, and in Turkish coffee is in my mind dirt. It's just literally tastes like dirt, and they love it. It's a part of their history. It's almost mystical. Their coffee is in a little tiny, tiny play tea cup, so small and very dense, and the grinds sink to the bottom, so once you're done drinking the grit ... Hopefully, you don't get too much of the grinds in your teeth ... You take the cup with grinds in the bottom, and you flip it over on the teacup plate, I guess whatever it was sitting on, and you let the grinds kind of flip down and dry, and then someone reads your fortune out of the coffee. And there's actually special fortune tellers you can go to, to specifically read your coffee grinds, or there's someone in your family, like your mom, who's extra spiritual and is just good at reading your future through the grinds.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of The Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs.
I hope you enjoyed our first bonus episode of 22.33, and that it made you hungry for more, shall we say. For more about ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, and now that you know that we have bonus episodes, why would you not? We'd also love to hear from you. You can write to us at email@example.com. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y at state.gov.
Special thanks this week to all of the ECA participants willing to share their crazy and unique food stories, and that includes Alicia Nelson, Jerry Howell, Will Langford, Mary McEwan, Nathan Touger, Rabia Hanif, Gretchen Sanders, and Madeline Fritch.
Gabby Bugge, our ex-former intern who we miss did most of the interviews. I did a few as well. I edited the segment.
Featured music was "Travel On" by the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came, and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
Eaint Thiri Thu never set out to be a human rights activist. She did not like what was happening to minority populations in her country, but it was only when the government pushed to silence her that her anger and stubbornness not to be quieted emerged, along with courage and the sense that what she is meant to do is speak for those without a voice. Thiri visited the United States as part of the Fulbright Visiting Scholar program. More information on Fulbright Scholars can be found at https://www.cies.org/program/core-fulbright-visiting-scholar-program.
Chris: IYou didn't set out to be an activist, but when your government confronted you with more and more restrictions, your natural stubbornness took over. Far from letting people push you around, you instead became a voice for the powerless in your country. It might have been an accident, but it is an accident with powerful repercussions. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Thiri: And it was kind of funny, I didn't want to be a political activist. We have a group talking, discuss about politics at the American Center and I am the only one. I was a young girl and I was the only one said, "I don't like the bean curry," because in the jail, we said that they give you bean curry, so I'm the one keep saying, "I don't want. I don't like it, I'm not going to do the politics at all." But in the end, after ten years, it was me who was on that political prep and other people are not there anymore. It's a lot of changes in my life.
Chris: This week, dancing for the generals, fighting for the underdogs, and becoming a voice for the oppressed. Join us on a journey from Yangon, Burma to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to become an accidental human rights activist. It's 22.33.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about 'em, they are people, they're much like ourselves. And it's-
Intro Clip 4: (music)
Thiri: My name is Eaint Thiri Thu, but my friends call me Thiri, like scientific theory, and I'm from Burma / Myanmar. I'm the second years in the Master of Human Rights program at the University of Minnesota, coming with the Fulbright program.
I was a political activist before, when I was 17. And then I started working with the international media and the human rights organization over the past seven years, mostly since I was 20. And I've been working in the human rights and I've been traveling across the country and documenting about the human rights abuses and the political news and that kind of thing.
I spent most of my time at the American center when I was a teen. My late teenage were at the American center, which is a American school, arranged by the American Embassy. So I knew about Fulbright program since then, and I applied for that, and I got, and I am here.
I was born in 1990, which is two years after the biggest nationwide protest in the country. A few months before I was born, there was an election, but then the military refused to give the power to the political party who won the landslide victory there. But then since then, there was a military dictatorship. And so growing up in Burma in '90s, it's all about propaganda. You will see at the book or any newspaper. We only have two newspaper, which is run by the state, and we have TV program which is all controlled by the government, and we have a big, big poster by the road and on the ... It would say like, "Tatmadaw" which is a name for the military. Military is the father, military is the mother. So people make jokes that, "Oh, yeah, I want to be an orphan," because they don't like the military dictatorship.
In the textbooks and everything, we didn't really have an education, unfortunately, because everyday, we have to memorize, we have to digest. And the military government made that 30 years education plan, which is designed to systematically destroy the educated population off the country, because if students are very educated, they protest. So the government don't want another protest. So what they desire to do, reform the education system, which is more us to be a good follower rather than thinker or the leader. So this is how my generation looks like.
It's so much embedded into our life. When the leaders of the country pass by, us as school kids, we have to wake up 5:00 am in the morning and stand by on the roadside just to wave at those leaders pass by. By myself, I used to dance for the military generals since I was three years old. And it was funny. I've been dancing for them for ... Until I finished my high school. Until that one general, specifically, until he was fired from the office. But over 10 years, I've been dancing for the general.
The first time, I don't remember that much, but my parents said I was very interested in dancing since I was two. I was ... One traditional dance, when there's a dance show on the TV, I was dancing. When I was five, that was my first time I had a dinner with the general as part of the UN anniversary. I got third prize in the dance competition, so I was dancing there. My family was proud, too, because it was at the general's, and I appear in those dances and they know me, they hug me, and sometimes they kiss me, which is weird to think about it, now, but they were pretty proud of it because as ordinary citizens, because this is more like a specific class and some kind of privilege, meeting with the leaders. And so they feel like, and I also feel like I was really great. And a lot of my classmate wouldn't have this kind of chance, and for me, I was known by these people and I was kind of proud. And I didn't know anything about this military things.
I even won for this kind of essay competition. There was some slogan, and we have to prove that military is great, protecting our country, or everybody's living peacefully, and that kind of thing. I just ... I wasn't really aware that, until I finished my high school.
It was just after I finished my high school, there was another protest happen in 2007. This is when I started seeing that there were monks, and the people, and military started shooting them. And two years before I was born, even though I heard that there was a protest and a lot of people died, I never feel like I am connected to it, because I have never seen that. But this thing in 2007, even though it's not as big as the previous one, it is something that is happening in front of me, and my uncle got arrested as part of the protest, and so this is when people started talking about the military. My family, they would never say that before. Mainly my mom and dad, even though my uncle who got arrested talks about politics with me since I was little, but my mom and other people, it's always been a taboo talkings about the politics in the family. But this is a time everybody in the family starting talking about the bad things about the military, and I started aware that. And a year later, it was Cyclone Nagis hit the country and a lot of people died. This is where the turning point of the country, because international assistance came in and the international NGO came in and this is when the civil society started in Burma.
So that time, I just wanted to volunteer. In 2007, I saw people got killed by the military. And in 2008, I saw people die and military didn't take responsibility. And also, they keep talking about the numbers, they reduce a number of the people who have been killed by the natural disaster. And then when we started doing this, actively providing aid in something, the government keep an eye on us.
I would say my activism was accidental because I didn't mean to be a political activist. I just wanted to be a social worker. I just wanted to work for the Cyclone Nagis thing. But then military and the government at that time, keep an eye on anybody who is NGO or anything. So I became one of them that we watched, because we went to the American center and we actively involved in this kind of student clubs and everything there. So it was the military government, I would say, who turned me into the political activist. I wasn't really meaning to, I was just want to be a social worker.
Those days, we couldn't even openly study the political science, or even the social science. We cannot really take the book or the handouts out of our classroom at the American center. So what happened was, I feel like I just want to study. Why don't you just let me study? There was a point that me and the others, some other friends started the school, and then the military intelligence, the special branch, they started following us, and they keep pressuring our landlord to push us out of that apartment so that we cannot providing this kind of education. We have a training center, sort of, giving the social science training to the people. It's a really small thing. But then they keep pushing us and we have to move from one place to another.
And I feel like this is bullying, and they are like ... That's the turning point, I would say. I couldn't turn back, because even if I go back, things would be worse, because I will be under watch no matter what I do. I will never be the same as before. They will see me as a threat. And also, another thing that's my personal thing, I have this kind of stubborn that I like to do when people tell me that I can't ... Why not? So I just want to go for it. If they would ... I think if they had let me go that time, I wouldn't be a political activist these days, I would just go back to normal. But now, because they pushed me too hard and I'm just like, "Okay. You do it? Okay, I'm going to go for it just to ... I don't want to listen to you. I just want to go for it."
I feel like I'm very much on the ground and dreaming of the study abroad, going abroad, it's like the sky. So I'm on the ground, and I'm just looking at the sky, that's it. Because my understanding of studying abroad, going abroad is that studying abroad is only for the rich people or only for the children of the leaders, not for me, because I have never been part of it. And so even dream what you want to be when you grow old, we only have three choices. Either medical doctors or engineer or teacher. So when I was 15, when people asked me what did I want to be, I said I wanted to be a diplomat. And I said I wanted to be the Secretary General of the United Nations. And people laughed, my teachers and students, and they just made fun of me because this is something we shouldn't dream of, because that will never be true. It wasn't until my high school, I feel I wanted to study abroad. I just feel like I don't want to be here, but I don't know how to escape.
But then after I finished my high school, before I went to the American center, I have a private tutor, the English teacher, and he asked me what I wanted to be. And I said I wanted to be a diplomat. And I thought I was expecting some kind of laugh from him, because this is how I grew up, even my family, my parents, they would laugh at me. "Ha-ha. Yeah, funny, cute." So he was just like, "It's amazing." He said like, "That's great." He find me as a unique person, because nobody at my age would say that kind of thing in those day. That was in 2007, before the country opened, and we couldn't really dream about a lot of the things. And this is when he told my mom that, "Your daughter deserves more than this. She shouldn't be here, because this education's going to destroy her, and this society's going to destroy her way of thinking. So don't send her to the Myanmar University, because she will be ruined and she will be one of them."
I like the program because my program is a interdisciplinary, so ... I can never pronounce that. And so I think that in the policy war, we need more creativities and innovation. So in term of this school, because they offer me this kind of social sciences knowledge of the human right, I am hoping to bring those knowledge together, policy sector. I feel like policy think what we learn is more about the success story and trying to solve the issues, but at the same time, social science is more like, "Hold on. Hey, things are not that simple. Here's a loophole and here's a limitation of the law. Here's a limitation of this concept and the policy in something." So by combining those things, I find it really valuable for me, because I am just going back and forth and trying to balance this kind of knowledge and experience. So I hope when I go home, and if I talks about the human rights policy, human rights movement, human rights advocacy, I wouldn't just say about the conventional way of the advocacy or the policy. I would like to put a lot of the multidimensional way of thinking in approaching the human rights situation of my country.
Here, a lot of international students, they have Humphrey fellows, and also the migrants community here and also the American community here, they are very supportive, at least to my program. I'm really grateful to be part of it. I really like family. They are always there, behind me, and supporting me for a lot of the things. So this kind of network is important, but that network is not just networking event. It is personal basis and personal trust. And I am hoping to bring it throughout my career life, out of the school.
We have three best friends. One of them is Somali and the other is Puerto Rican. So the Puerto Rican one love to cook, and he is a great chef. The other best friend, [Fatima 00:17:54] from Somali, she has a car, so she drive for us when we go for the grocery. And [Ivan 00:18:01] from Puerto Rico, and he cook for us. And I pay for the grocery. So this is how I solve. And we are always together, study together. And a lot of people at Humphrey School would be jealous of us because we are always together. Really, we're the coolest group at the Humphrey School.
I cannot drive, but one day last year, during the blizzard, my friend's car got stuck, so me and the other ... We are three people, a group. Right? So one of them car got stuck, and we're trying to push the car out of the snow, but then I'm the smallest one, so they think that, "You shouldn't push it, because you won't put any effort. Why don't you get in the car and try to move the steering?" So I'm just like, "Okay, I'm going to do that even though I cannot drive," so that was pretty dangerous. And they think that it wouldn't move anyway, so I was doing it and I almost ran over my friends. So that was a crazy thing. I'm just like, "I'm not going to drive again." And my mom told me, "Don't kill anybody in the foreign land. That's not cool."
Yeah, I've never seen the fall of the snow in my life before. This is my first time. And it's really amazing. This color, the leaf, the yellow and the red, it's just so beautiful. And plus, I have yellow shoes. I have yellow shoes and red shoes so that I can take the photos with the leaves. I like it. I don't really feel ... I don't really miss home. I just feel like here is home, too.
To be honest, I am having some kind of threat. You might have heard, there's dangerous crisis happening in the country, and that is, the whole country, pretty much, they are denying or defending the government or the military, that this is not happening as it is, or this international media is lying, international human rights organization are lying, and the Rohingya are lying about their suffering. So there's a pushback from the whole country for the general human rights work. So I'm one of the very few people who was focal on this issue.
Since I came here, I happened to talks in the U.S. policy sectors and University, in talkings about my knowledge on the Rohingya issues, a lot of people are not happy with what I've been saying. So I don't know what it will look like, the fact that my degree will be Master of Human Rights. It's the degree itself, is a threat to my society. And in term of the work, I don't know how it will be like there, but it's really challenging, because I didn't know these things would happen, even though I have seen the Rohingya crisis, but the crisis has been reaching to this level ,to reaching to that international level while I am here. I didn't know that, so I happen to choose human rights, and this crisis happened, and I happened to speak out against this injustice, so it's challenging for me.
I don't know how should I bring it not to be against the Burmese community, because in the end, this is my country, this is my people, and this is the place where I need to work. So I'm thinking, it's just like ... I've been thinking everyday, and human rights, it's not a subject or the character for me. It's just personal to me, and so I need to tell my friends before I ... I've been thinking, strategizing, how to go to this kind of challenges that I want my friends, my family, and my relative to know that what does it mean for me, why I chose to be human rights.
I've been thinking a lot how to get away with that and how to tell them the passion that I have, because there, there are a lot of class and other things, because in the country, as I said, the income gap is really high in this kind of third-world country. People like me, working in human rights organization or the international media, we got a lot more than other people, than my friends. So I think my friends and my relative, when they see is that how much money I could spend when I got out with them, how much money I could ... The scholarship, the talks, award, all those kind of things that they see, and they might see that I want to get those debtors, I want to be rich, and that's why I did that. So they ... I think this is my failure, I fail to show them my passion and why did I chose to be, because it's a really thing ... I can always step into it. Or, I don't know, you can be killed or something, never know.
But I never talked to them about this, because I want to let then, only the success story, and I only want to inspire them, a good story. So I think because of that, I'm getting the pushback from my friends and family. and even my best friend, on the other day, they called me. My best friend has been tell me that, of course, she's talking for Rohingyas, because she got ... She wants dollar. And it's crazy, but it's happening. So emotionally, it's really difficult position, not only about career wise, also emotionally. One, my best friends cannot see me as who I am, and cannot see my passion, it's challenging. Because when they see me as a money making person, or the career seeking person, or the award seeking, scholarship seeking person, it's hurt me a lot. This is not who I am, this is not why I have been doing ... These things are getting, as part of what I'm been doing. And I'm not here doing this kind of thing. It's just like ... I'm doing it ... Another reason is just not only about the passion, it's also about the interest.
As for those injustice and human rights violation are in place, I could be one of the victims one day, and my family, my friends, they could be one of the victims. So that's a reason I chose the human rights. It's not because I believe in them. I have higher moral, or other thing, or money, or scholarship or anything. It's more about, it's interest, because if you let it go, we, one after another, in the end, it will be my day. I will be the victim. I will be ... My rights will be violated. This is why I'm doing ... But I really want to tell them, but I just couldn't tell them so far, yeah.
Before going really far, I want to talk to my close friends. I just want to have a conversation, why they are having this kind of racism view, why do they hate Rohingyas? And I just want to talk to them. And then I'm hoping to ... Maybe I will go for the research in something, but my main goal is to write something, in Burmese, more in a narrative way, storytelling, sort of. I want people to tell the story of people here. So I'm bringing this personal story, and I want to make a conversation with my friends before I talks about the human rights policy or anything. I think our society at home needs to be fixed. But without this society, we can pressure the government in something, but it's a society that needs to understand about what human rights and other things.
I don't want to be treated by bad by the state, because I can never trust the government, and I can never trust the military. This is a threat. So as far that, as a human rights violation, and things are ... If we let it happen, let's say, today, Rohingya, yeah we have been silenced because this is not about us. And the next day, they will be Kachin another group. There will be Kachin, there would be another group, another group. Injustice, if we ... It's not about one group. We are silent, and we silence ourselves, and we didn't speak up against the injustice. So we are growing the injustice, and we let it grow. And I cannot let it happen, because in the end, I will be the one, I can be one of them, as far as those things that exist. And there will be nobody who will be speaking for me, because we let it happen, and we became normalizing this kind of injustice, part of our life, which I cannot really accept it. This is not really okay.
So many of my friends here, they told me, which I really appreciated, because they love me and they don't want me to burn out, and they told me, "Thiri, can you please stop thinking or talking about human rights a day? Take a break. Just continue your drawing, and don't do anything. Don't think about it, just break yourself." And I find that ... I feel like I'm really uncomfortable when people tell me this because I understand they love me and they don't want me to burnout, but at the same time, it's a life of me, and it's my interest. Just like a mom cooking in the kitchens every day. You cannot really ... It's just daily work, daily life. And I'm doing it. And at least I'm privileged. When I say that, take a break, I can take a break, because I'm privileged. But why don't you go and talk to the ... If we go and talk to the refugees in the camp like, "Can you take a break? Take a break being a refugees a day?" Which, is not possible. So it's ... Because I'm not doing for the passion, or the career, I'm doing for my own interest. If I don't do it, who would do it? Who would protect me? So I'm not just doing this thing, I'm just protecting myself.
So these kind of award and scholarship, when I got it, I got it and I really appreciate it. But at the same time, I feel like I don't need it, because, do you give award to a mom who cook everyday, the meal for their children? They don't do that. So giving award to the human rights, or giving award, scholarship to me, it should be based on my skill, it shouldn't be based on what I have done great, because I haven't done anything great yet. I'm just doing my daily life works.
A lot of the time, I'm losing hope and I even cry many times, it's crazy. And people would say that, "Why are you just taking this thing," and I'm just like ... I take a lot of things personal, and it's exhausting. I'm not very optimistic, but at the same time, I have to work. I cannot just sat aside just because I don't have an optimistic view about the future. But there is some hope left in the country, there are a few people who continue working on it, they still have their own value, they don't betray their own value, a lot of young people in Burma. When I mean a lot, which means 20 or so people, but it's a lot given the country's situation. But speaking with those people, knowing that these people are there, they give me hope. And I feel like, yes, we need time, but we still have a few people left. It's not zero.
And also I happen to connect with a Burmese American, they also give me hope. We tell each other that there's a mirror of hope. We see hope in each other. So I was telling them that they were my hope, but they were telling that I was their hope. So it's really fascinating that every time that I find the dark around me in my world, and I feel like my country, I have no hope in my country, and I feel like, no, this is the end, it's different from the old days, political activists, because they were friends who were stand with you, because they believe in the same value. But these day, when we talks about human rights after Rohingya, it's not like that. My friend, they were no friends who would back me up. They were defend for their government, which is really ... I still don't understand that. They define injustice in really complicated way.
So those day, at some point, I was really ... I find it really dark around my world, and I feel like I have no hope at all. But then, I happened to talks at Cornell, that video file was online, and the Burmese American and other Burmese students study abroad, they started contacting me, and they send me thank you. And it was just ... That was a moment, because I was almost giving up on everything, and they was just saying, "Thank you." It was not a big word. A lot of them just say, "Thank you for standing up, and we've been hoping ... " They need somebody to start, that they were just waiting, they were all scared, we all were scared. And then I started speaking, and so they contacted. So this is aa lesson learned, from me. Every time you feel dark or hopeless, you don't give up, you make a voice, then the echos, they're going to come back to you. And those are the hope. And I see the hope in them, and they see the hope in me.
22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the Director of The Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S Code, the statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, Eaint Thiri Thu, or Thiri, shared her story and moments from her current Fulbright scholarship, working towards a Masters of Human Rights at the University of Minnesota. For more about the Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, you can check out eca.state.gov.
We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, and you can do so wherever you find your podcasts. And we'd love to hear from you. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov.
Special thanks this week to Thiri for her story, and her commitment to human rights in Burma. I did the interview and edited this episode.
Featured music was "Gamas Olden" by Mike del Ferro, "Rose Baba" by Yan Terrien, "Kathy's Waltz" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and "Búsquedas Exploratorias #003, #007, #009" by Circus Marcus. And finally, "Up, Up, Up" by Podington Bear. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by how the night came. And the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
Season 01, Episode 05 - Practice, Practice, Practice with Grace Benton
Because she was required to do a project during her exchange program in Jordan, Grace Benton volunteered to teach English to Sudanese refugees. What started as a lark (and with her literally falling on her face when she first met her students) led to the creation of a school program that still exists, and a passion for the plight of refugees that continues to color Grace’s life. Grace visited the Jordan as part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program. More information on Fulbright ETA can be found at https://us.fulbrightonline.org/about/types-of-awards/english-teaching-assistant-awards.
Chris: What started as an extra-curricular activity, a volunteer effort to help refugees in your new country, grew exponentially. Your after-school language class became a viable education program, and your time helping refugees altered the trajectory of your life. You started something you cannot stop.
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Grace: I remember, I was trying really hard to find a taxi to take me home after one evening of teaching the Sudanese men, and I was by myself that night. And so I was trying to find a taxi and I just could not find a taxi, and I finally found this one guy who refused to take me for less than four times what it was supposed to be. And I was like, "Absolutely not. That's ridiculous." And this was fairly late in the evening. It was probably, like, 11:00 pm, and there weren't a lot of other people around. And he kept insisting on gouging the price of this taxi. And I was just like, "On principle, no. I've been here long enough, I know how much this is supposed to cost. Don't exploit me because I'm an outsider." And he just insisted. And I used a word that I had learned in class for "Rude", which basically means "You are short on morals" or "You are short on manners." So I said to him, "You're rude. You are short on manners." "You are deficient in manners" I guess is the way you'd translate it. And oh my gosh, this guy lost his mind with me. He was so angry. He was like, "Deficient in manners? How could you ever say that? That is unbelievable."
And I did not ... because you know, in the U.S., when you're like, "You're being rude," that's what I had meant to convey, but the guy was so angry with me, and explained to me how I should never ... We kind of went into this language lesson. It was so bizarre. We're standing on the side of the road, 11:00 pm, at this impasse. I'm not paying him, he's not taking me, but yet he's explaining to me why what I said was wrong. And so it actually ended up being a really positive interaction. I agreed to ... I finally was like, "I feel so bad about saying what was really mean thing to you." And he lowered the price some. And so we ... which is ... The only moral to this story is that I probably shouldn't call people names in any language.
Chris: This week, a deficiency in manners, a school for Sudanese refugees, and finding one's calling on the far side of the world. Join us on a journey from Mobile, Alabama to Amman, Jordan to learn that practice might just make perfect.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you read about them. They are people very much like ourselves and...
Grace: My name is Grace Benton. I did a Fulbright english teaching assistantship in Amman, Jordan from 2011 to 2012. I am from Mobile, Alabama. I am currently a law student at Georgetown Law School.
As a Fulbright ETA, you are expected to teach about 20 hours a week. In the Jordan context, we taught primarily in colleges, but I got placed in a high school. So I was expected to teach or help other teachers in the classroom about 20 hours a week. Most of the students spoke pretty good English, but I wanted to give an introduction in Arabic, just to kind of show folks that, if you feel uncomfortable speaking only English, you will be able to be move back to Arabic. And just that it was a safe space, linguistically. And so I gave this intro in Arabic, and I was talking about the value of practicing English and I said, "The way to learn a language is practice. Practice, practice, practice. You need to practice at school. You need to practice at home." And my students are smirking, some of them are kind of laughing under their breath, and I'm like, "Okay, maybe it's just my accent. Maybe they're not used to hearing somebody speak ... You know, this American woman speaking Arabic."
And so I pressed on. I'm like, "Look. You know what? You're going to practice with me. You're going to practice with your family, practice with your mother, with your father. Practice while watching TV." By this point, everybody's just uproariously laughing. And one of the teachers, one of the Jordanian teachers is sitting in the back like, "Stop. Stop that. Stop talking." And I was like, "What am I saying?" And later I came to find out that the standard Arabic word that I was using for practice, in colloquial Jordanian means to have sex. So, I mean, it was my first day. I'm really killing it on the first day of teaching game. I was like, "I can't believe ... " I was so mortified. And everybody knew what I meant. They knew. And they knew that I was using this modern, standard word, that it is not my mother telling me. It was so mortifying.
And then, for the remainder of the work week, you are expected to develop some sort of extracurricular project. It can be at the school where you're based or it can be in the community at large. So the extracurricular project that I got involved with, I really got involved with it in this totally fluky way. The Sudanese refugee community, at the time, fewer families. It was mostly young men who had come to work or to access medical care or simply to seek asylum. Most of the people who were there were from Darfur. And so this group of people, for the most part, were day laborers. And so really worked from sun up to sun down and had no way to access any educational opportunities. And many of them were in their late teens, early 20s, sort of at prime age to be continuing their education. And they just simply have the resources or the time to do so, so they approached this NGO and asked if they would consider starting a night program. And the NGO said, "Well, you know, we really don't have the resources to do this, but we have these energetic, young, Fulbright ETAs, who are kind of raring for work. They really wanted something ... These ETAs really want to do something. They just don't know what. And they want to do something that's needed."
So the NGO connected a couple of us with this community and so we kind of just developed this relationship in this way that was not mediated through an organization or an institution or anything like that. And so we agreed to come teach English classes for the Sudanese community in their homes, because we didn't really have a place to go. And so we would traipse from our very ... our nicer parts of town, over to more run-down parts of town, which is where most of the Sudanese lived and just generally where the refugee communities ended up, just because rents were more affordable and generally things were cheaper and there was sometimes more work there too.
And I remember the first time I went. Amman is a super hilly city, and so the way that the city is set up is, there are these staircases just crisscrossing the city and crisscrossing these neighborhoods. And so most of the way, as a pedestrian, the way that you would access different buildings or things like that is not to walk on the street, but rather just to use these staircases and they're very steep. They're very old. They're broken stones, a lot of times on them. Safe to say they're pretty treacherous. And so ... and not lit at all. And so we were teaching night classes and so it was completely dark and so a Fulbright colleague and I were feeling our way down this very steep staircase, following these very convoluted directions that we'd been given for how to get to this place. And another thing about Amman is that, while there are officially street addresses, they're not really used by anybody. And at the time, this was in 2011, Google Maps was not very responsive to if you did put the street address in. And so, being a millennial, this was very challenging for me, but so we managed to find our way.
And so we're feeling our way down this dark, broken staircase and it's just ... I remember it being such a vivid, intense experience. The neighborhood that we were going to is very crowded and the walls in most of the houses are really thin, so you can hear people's conversations from inside as you're walking down the staircase past their houses. And falafel is ubiquitous. So there's the smell of falafel being cooked on the street. So we finally find where we were going. I was relieved. I'd been told that this part of town that we were in was really dangerous for foreigners, and particularly for women, and so I was a little tense and on edge. My Fulbright colleague who was with me was thankfully a very tall man and so that kind of put some of my fears at ease, but all the same, I remember just not knowing what to expect.
I think too, as Americans, we hear so much about the things that refugees go through. We hear a lot of narratives about refugees, both positive and negative. And so to meet a group of refugees for the first time, having all of these tropes and narratives running through my brain, this was a big deal for me at age 22. And being from Alabama, I'd never met a refugee before.
So we finally got to the place where the Sudanese community lived or where, rather, a large group of Sudanese men were living, where we'd agreed to teach these classes. And we opened the door and there's this really big step into the main ... like, the courtyard of their house. And just without missing a beat, I just promptly missed the step and fell on my face on the ... Just, in front of 25 men who would become my students, but I think they too were a little bit nervous. They didn't know what to expect of us. I don't think they'd met many Americans before either. And so my tumbling on my face as I met everybody for the first time, I think really broke the tension. Everybody just started laughing. I started laughing. They started laughing. I was fine. I didn't get hurt.
I'm in touch with some of my former students from this class and they still make reference to Teacher Grace's big first night.
I think, as all Americans, when we hear about refugees and think about refugees, one of the first things that we search for is "How can I help? How can I do something?" And being in this place where I ... In this position where I could do something, this was a posture I'd never really been in before. And at age 22, with sort of ... fresh out of college, I didn't have a whole lot of skills to offer, but one thing that I could do was speak English fluently. And so I think being able to share this, however small it was, was something that I was really ... a real pleasure to do while I was part of this. And so this arrangement that we had with the Sudanese community got more and more popular and people started hearing about it from other neighborhoods, and so would come from across town. Sometimes they'd even come from outside of the city to come and study with us. We were by no means super professional teachers, but you receive language training, as well as some pedagogical training before you start the ETA. And it was really neat to be able to feel like I was getting better as a teacher, as an instructor, and really doing something to assist this community that, really, otherwise didn't have access to a whole lot.
This arrangement that we had with the Sudanese community grew and grew and eventually it just was not tenable to hold it in these guys' living rooms anymore. We were jamming 40 people into sort of a matchbox-sized room. And so we managed to negotiate with the headmaster of a local school and said, "Look, we've got this night school program and you're not using your school at night. You're only using it during the day. Would you let us do this?" And so it took some cajoling and some negotiation, but eventually we were able to convince the school to let us use the space in the evenings. And it was fantastic. But then there became the problem of how to get people to school. And so we then had to convince a bus company to run buses for us, pro bono.
For me, this was such an incredible view into just what it takes to get a project like this off the ground and I am delighted to say that the program is still going to this day. And in NGO, the original NGO that didn't have the original resources to create the program in the first place, once we laid the groundwork for it, ended up picking it up and that was fantastic and it grew. By the time I left Jordan in 2012, there were over 350 people attending this and it was amazing. We had over five levels. And one thing that I think was really cool to come out of this is that once we got it in a place where it was in a proper school, the women started coming. And so when the women started coming, the kids started coming. And so I ended up being put in charge of the kids' class and it was such an incredible experience.
We had Sudanese, we had Somalese, we had Yemenese, we had Iraqis. I think, at this time, a few Syrians had started coming to Jordan. For somebody from Alabama, rural Alabama at that, getting this kind of exposure to different nationalities was just transformative for me. One thing that really came out of this, too, was that in the course of getting to know my students, I started hearing about what their lives were like. And this is really my first exposure to what the challenges are for refugees and particularly the challenges for refugees in a country where they don't look like the people of that country. It was really hard to be in a place where you were so ostensibly not part of the community. You were so ostensibly an outsider. And so it was interesting, too, to think about my experience of foreignness in Jordan as a white American woman, versus the experience of many of my students, most of whom were black refugee children.
When I first met the members of the Sudanese community, a lot of the guys in the class, before I started teaching the kids' class, a lot of the guys in the class were my age. And so to meet people, they were my age, but they had such radically life experiences. People talked about their experiences fleeing Darfur and a lot of people fled on foot. The stories that my students told me were tragic and heartbreaking, but also full of resilience and strength and just perseverance. And it was incredible to hear what people had gone through, and yet how they persevered on. A lot of my adult students, they'd work for 12 to 14 hours a day and then come to our class with this energy and intellectual curiosity that I don't think many of even have ... Many of us here in America even have when we're in prime condition, let alone after a really grueling work day. And this is just ... This was the daily reality for people. And so the exposure to people's resilience and strength and perseverance was really, again, transformative for me.
I think, in seeing how strong and committed my students were, made me want to be stronger and more committed to the things I was doing and the things I was working on. It was at this point in my life that I was like, "I want to pursue a career working with refugees, doing what I can to help alleviate the refugee problem that we have." And when I say refugee problem, I don't mean that refugees are the problem. The problem, I think ... it offered me this insight into this world that I'd just never been exposed to before, where conflict and persecution goes on unabated and there's a real human cost. And so watching this human cost, which plays out in the lives of real humans, I became really convinced that if people ... So, on the other side of the pond, so people in America could see what I was seeing and experience what I was experiencing, surely we would want to take action about this.
I learned more about what my role could be in alleviating this and in bringing these stories back to my community in Alabama. It was really amazing, my parents came to visit over the holidays and so I took them with me to one of our nightly classes, and they loved it. They made so many great connections there. And wildly enough, I didn't even know this, but Mobile, Alabama has a refugee resettlement program, as do ... There are many refugee resettlement sites in Alabama, unbeknownst to me. But fast forward five years, I think it was, one of my former students who my parents met when they came to visit for the holidays got resettled to Mobile, Alabama. And so we're ... It's like 30 minutes down the road from my parents or something like that, and it was just this total convergence of worlds for me, and for my parents as well, and also for the young man who was in my class who got resettled. It was so amazing for him to know somebody in Alabama. And the stereotypes about Alabama are pervasive throughout the world and so even refugees from Darfur are like, "Ooh, I don't know if I want to go there." "Oh, but you do. You know, you know the ... " It's human connection. Humans are the same everywhere. And so ... And they really are. I think being able to connect on that level is so powerful and cool.
And so it was great, my parents are farmers and so they supplied this young man and his family with things from their garden when they first moved. Our church brought furniture for them. It was just really ... It was really amazing how this connection from Amman, Jordan, five years prior persisted in this way.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of The Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. code, the statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, Grace Benton traced her time as a Fulbright ETA in Jordan and what has become a life dedicated to refugee rights. For more about the Fulbright and there ECA exchange programs, check out ECA.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and you can do that wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at email@example.com.
Special thanks this week to Grace for her stories and her work to make the world a better place. I did the interview and edited this episode.
Featured music was "Billy's Bounds" by Shelly Mann, "Cast your Fate to the Wind" by the Vince Guraldi Trio, "Eleve Pe la Luar" by Lostana David, and "La Chica de los Grande Oros Negros" by Adrian Berenger. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How the Night Came. And the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.
Until next time.
Season 01, Episode 04 - The ABC Song in St. Petersburg with Eric Swinn
Eric Swinn found himself in St. Petersburg, Russia, tasked with teaching English to marginalized students who sometimes didn’t even speak Russian. Describing his regular trips from the city center to the end of the metro line in a barely inhabited village—firmly in the present, but always conscious of Russia’s deep and heavy past. Eric visited the Russia as part of the Critical Language Scholarship program; more information on CLS can be found at https://www.clscholarship.org/.
Chris: Imagine you're in a foreign country learning a very difficult language. Let's say Russian. You have the opportunity to teach underprivileged children, but it turns out that they barely speak the language either. What do you do? Where do you start? And what might you learn about yourself? Thousands of people participate in exchange programs every year, creating experiences that change their lives and touch the people they encounter along the way. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Eric: I was with a friend, and I was walking with him and with the woman who is now my wife, who was on the exchange program with me, and we were outside of St. Petersburg walking through this swamp area that's what I thought was pockmarked by a variety of lots of little pools and ponds. But actually, they're pools and ponds made from the holes from shells when St Petersburg was under siege, and they're all over the place. As we're walking across fallen birch trees across these ponds, making our way through the woods ... And this environment that is such an embodiment of the living history of Russia.
Chris: This week, the last stop on the metro line, hanging out with the Baron, and a hip hop history lesson in Moscow. On this episode, a journey from Roseburg, Oregon to St. Petersburg, Russia, to discover the ABCs of living history. It's 2233.
Intro Clip 1: We operate under a presidential mandate, which says that we report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves, and it is responsible to create-
Eric: My name is Eric Swinn. I'm originally from Roseburg, Oregon. I'm currently a foreign service officer working as a refugee officer in the Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration. I participated in the exchanges as a Fulbright ETA in South Korea, and then later I did a program focusing on Russian language acquisition in St. Petersburg, Russia.
One particular experience I had in Russia that I think is quite unique was when the woman who's now my wife and I were traveling to the small village of Peri, which is about 25, 30 minutes by elektrichka, or electric train, outside of St. Petersburg where we were volunteering with a Roma community. This Roma community is one that is settled there. They're no longer itinerant, and we would travel there to teach English and also Russian actually to the young children there who oftentimes weren't able to go to school, whether because the teachers would not want to teach to the Roma children or they didn't have the ability to access that school by transportation. And we were hosted in the baron's house. The baron of this village and his wife and all the children would come and gather. Usually, they would gather around the well, where they get their water and watch us as we walked up the lane and then come join us before we got to the village and we would teach with them.
We did this for about six or seven months, and I remember we started participating on this program or helping out in this village in the dead of winter. It was about -15, -20, and you get out to this train station in the middle of sort of northwest Russia, and there's nothing there apart from the train station. It stops, you're the only ones to get off, and you walk across the snow past, the one lone dog who sits outside the one small store where you would often buy cakes and tea snacks to give to the baron in his house. And before you get on the train, you get on the train on his sort of northernmost metro station in St. Petersburg and there there are a lot of Roma walking around. A lot of Russians as well, and the Russians often depart the train before you actually reach your final destination of Peri where the Roma village is.
After we'd gotten to know the children and worked with them, we were on the train at one point and one of ... Two of the children, actually, two young men, probably about six or eight years old were walking up and down the car. Often they ask for money, but this time they weren't. They were just eating sunflower seeds, walking up and down the car. And the Russian individual, an elderly gentleman who was sitting across from us, yelled at them to essentially get out of there, get off the train, had a few other choice words for them. And I watched the interaction. I didn't want to confront the man, and I didn't want to put myself in between this exchange, which is tense for a variety of reasons. But I did want to show the young children we were working with that, for me, they weren't different and I was also an outsider.
And for this gentleman across from me, I'm not sure if he recognized that I was not Russian, and so I asked the two young men if they wanted to come sit with me. I was listening to my iPod at the time and they sat one on each side of me and I offered them each an earbud from my iPod to listen to some American music or podcasts I was listening to at the time. And there were no words exchanged, but I watched the expression of the man across from me, clearly taken aback by what was happening, not sure how to engage probably at that moment wondering if I was indeed Russian.
For the children, I think it was clear that they were able to use that moment to show for themselves that they are also not necessarily different. They're also human, and they're able to engage with people who don't look like them, who are from other cultures, whether they be American or Slavic in origin. Those types of interactions that we had with these Roman children at the end of our time there, led to a particular poignant memory as we're walking out of the village, I think, for our last time. And we walked past this well, that was covered in ice when we first got there, and it's now surrounded by flowers.
We're walking along that path that used to be a snowy path, an icy path, and is now a dusty road and the children come from all these different houses and they join us at the well and they start singing the ABC song in English, which we taught them over the last six or seven months. And they walk with us, singing the song unexpectedly, as we make our way back to that train station where we'd first gotten off in the dead of winter and walked by ourselves to go meet them at the baron's house.
In Russia, I think, one of the things that has always drawn me to Russia is also the association the Russians have with their deep, living history and the surroundings and the country that are so important to those people in that the history is really visible. But all of these conversations that you have, take place in this environment that is such an embodiment of the living history of Russia. And in particular, I'm thinking of an instance where we have a friend who is an intellectual rap artist, and he had written a song about Anna Akhmatova and her impressions of the city, retold as Anna Akhmatova's ghost. And Anna Akhmatova, as a Russian poet, experienced a lot of the city, whether it's her son being in prison and standing outside the gates of that particular prison or living in her apartment building and watching her colleagues and friends be taken and interrogated. And he's telling this story from the perspective of someone in 2008 who's engaged in the hip hop scene in Russia.
[Russian hip-hop music]
And retelling her story as he walks out across these same bridges that she did, and we walk across these same bridges that she did. I've always felt that Russian's strong connection to their culture is something that any American would be interested in engaging with them on, and I think it shows us a lot about the possibilities of engaging with our own culture and our own history and our own literature more as we walk around the nature that surrounds us in our lives.
[Russian hip-hop music]
I'm Christopher Wurst, worse director of the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of the U.S. Government-funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, Eric Swinn told us about his experiences as part of ECA Critical Language Scholarship Program, an intensive overseas language and cultural immersion program for American post-secondary students. For more about ECA exchange programs, checkout eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 wherever you find your podcasts, and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's E-C-A C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Special thanks this week to Eric Swinn for sharing his stories and passion about his time in Russia.
I did the interview with Eric and edited this episode.
Featured music during Eric's segment "From Russia With Love" by the Jackie Gleason Orchestra, "Russian Lullaby" by the King Cole trio, and special thanks for the use of "Socks" by Yaist Yaist Yaist, from the band themselves, who apparently are still pals with Eric. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came and at the end, every week, "Two Pianos" by Tagear Lioos.
Until next time.
Xatyswa Maqashalala tells her life story, how a tragic misdiagnosis in her youth, combined with poor health care, led to her permanent disability—and how difficult it was to be young and disabled in a place without any special accommodations. Yet, as the result of all she went through, Xatyswa is determined to help others avoid her fate, and to live with dignity. Xatyswa visited the United States as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program; more information on MWF can be found at https://yali.state.gov/mwf/.
Chris: You're born in a place where poverty is rampant, and where things that many of us take for granted, like basic healthcare, simply do not exist. You know you are different, that your body is not like others, but by the time you learn what's wrong, permanent damage has been done. But you never quit your campaign to make sure this won't happen to someone else. How do you keep going? You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Xatyswa: My aunt walks up to this lady whose been sitting next to us in the queue, and says, "We have to come back in two days. Can we please stay over at your house?" And these are the kind of things my aunt had to do. My mother and my grandmother. I was raised in the rural part of South Africa. We didn't have ... Can you please cut that? I didn't introduce myself.
Chris: This week, a tragic misdiagnosis. The perils of being poor and disabled, and advocating for the empowerment of children. Join us on a journey from South Africa to the United States, so that others may live with dignity. It's 22.33.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: And when you get to know these people they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourself and-
Intro Clip 4: (singing) Whoa, that's what we call cultural exchange. Yeah.
Xatyswa: My name is Xatyswa Maqashalala. I'm from The Eastern Cape in South Africa.
I was raised in the rural part of South Africa. There were no hospitals, there were a few clinics. The one closest hospital we had was far from our home. My family had realized that I was different from the other children and they went to the clinic to try and find out what's wrong, and the clinic didn't know what it was. They sent us over to the nearest hospital, which was far from home. And they didn't know what it was because they had a shortage of staff, shortage of doctors, so they sent me to another hospital.
Now we go back home. They have to find money to travel to another town for a hospital. And we get there and the diagnosis is polio, but it was a misdiagnosis. And I don't blame the doctors because they were short staffed. This was during the times of apartheid. So they sent us over to another hospital. Now when we get to the other hospital, which is a travel of five, six hours from home, the doctor is not available.
Then we have to sleep over at somebody's house, a stranger's house. We come back the following day. We are in the queue of a line the whole day and by the time it's our turn to see the doctor there's an emergency. The doctor, who is supposed to be in the family medicine is now rushed to surgery because shortage of staff.
And we are given an appointment for two days later. We have stay at somebody else's house. This went on for a while. Eventually when you see the doctor, the doctor says, "Well, we do not have CT scans here. This is not polio, but we do not have scans. So I'm going to transfer you to another hospital." Now this is in a different province. Have to go back home and my family has to find money and a relative for us to travel to another province in another city.
This goes on until about four years later. When I finally get diagnosed with Kyphoscoliosis. There's nothing they can do, so we go to another province. We go to another province. And yet another province. And yet another province until eventually we get to go to Johannesburg.
At this time my mother had just gotten a job in Johannesburg. Now the process of South African medicine is that you need to start at a clinic before you can go to a hospital because our hospital's overpopulated. And this is post apartheid. So we go to a clinic, we queue the whole day because there's a lot of sick people, very few hospitals, very few nurses, and very few doctors.
Then we finally get to see a nurse who's going to write us a letter. So we stood in a queue just to get a letter that says, "We cannot help her so we're transferring her to a hospital." We get to the local hospital a few days later, we're in the queue the whole day. Then we can't see the doctor so we're given an appointment card. We come back a few days later and the doctor says, "I'll have to transfer you to Johannesburg General Hospital," which is now the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital.
We go there for many days on end. My mother was new at her job, she couldn't afford to not go to work because she'd lose her job and she wouldn't be able to pay for the medical bills. So one of my aunts had to come up to Jo'burg to live with us and take me to those ongoing appointments to the hospital.
So we'd go on a Tuesday. Then we'd go on a Thursday. Because the hospital was so packed they allocate days for children who want to see an orthopedic must come on a certain day. So if you come on a Wednesday you'll be told, "We were dealing with that yesterday, can you come back next week?" And that was the story for a long time.
Eventually I got to see a doctor who could help. And at this time, this medical doctor, who was from Nigeria, tells us that because of how old I am and how many years I've had this they can't really reverse my condition. They can't reverse what I had become.
If I was born in the United States or in Russia or in Europe somewhere I would be able to walk today like other people. By the time of my diagnosis then the only things doctors could do was to try and prevent my body from deteriorating. And all the things they did say was that because of the time and because of my age, over the next few years I might deteriorate, both physically and mentally.
I had the operation. After that I had to be taken to ICU. I had a spinal cord operation. To my surprise, and to my family's surprise, when they came to see me I was in the men's ICU because the ped ICU was packed.
When I was in the ward I would lose my friends. I would have a friend today and tomorrow the mother is packing, and I'd ask my aunt, "Why is she leaving and where is my friend?" My aunt had become a pro at telling me that my friends have gone to heaven.
I had gotten so accustomed to my friends going to heaven that I even thought that when it's my turn to go to surgery I might also go to heaven. And my mom, knowing the medical system in South Africa, she knew that there was a possibility. Signing for a child to go to surgery in a public hospital is a risk. And before I went to surgery my mother explained the idea of heaven and she made it sound so beautiful that I was at peace with going to heaven. I was eight, but I was looking forward to heaven.
When I woke up and I wasn't in heaven there was a bit of a disappointment because heaven was so beautiful that I thought, "Hmm, I'd like to go there." After waking up from surgery I continued to lose friends. Over the next four years I had a series of surgeries all over my body, especially on my right leg. And sometimes the healing process would be three, four months. And now that I'm older and I'm doing research and I'm watching television I see that surgeries that would heal in three months, if I was in a different country or if I was in a private hospital, which my parents couldn't afford, I would have healed in a few weeks or days sometimes.
Then I went to school. The schools I went to ... because they were good schools. My mother wanted me to have a good education, but they didn't have elevators, they just had steps. So sometimes I would get extremely tired and miss classes because my back couldn't take it. Then our government schools ... I was in a government public school. They do not accommodate children with disabilities.
The nature of things in South Africa is that you'd find a 12 year old who doesn't have a wheelchair and every time that they need to go to the bathroom, they have to wait for their sibling. They have to wait for their parent. What does that do to their dignity? If at age 12 you want to just do what people do without having to think ... if you need to go to the bathroom right now you won't think twice. You'd just stand up and you'd go to the bathroom. But there's children in South Africa, and I believe in many parts of Africa, that do not have that liberty.
Parents lose their jobs because they have to take care of a child that could be in school, but can't be in school because the school cannot accommodate them. Our continent, Africa, it's taking disability so lightly, so lightly. I got here and when I was at Kansas State University even the rooms have Braille on the sides. We don't have that in South Africa.
There's ramps if you want to get off the sidewalk into the road, there's a ramp for a wheelchair. In South Africa we don't have that. So when you get to a side ... when you want to get off a sidewalk there has to be somebody to help you off your wheelchair.
It's tough, and there are things that I didn't even know we could do until I got here. Right now at the hotel that we're at they've given me a scooter because they understand that their hotel is so big, so they have a scooter for people who'd like it. We don't have that back at home.
A lot of children with disabilities fail at school. I was a very smart kid in school. I got As and all of that, but I know that it was by the grace of God because imagine you have to lose time off classes because your back can't take walking up to the next class. And that's the fate that most South African children living with disabilities face. Some of them don't even go to school because they don't have a wheelchair, so they have no means of going from home to school.
I've taken it upon myself to do what I can to advocate for people living with disabilities, especially children. Because if your dignity's stripped at the age of 12, really what can we expect from you as an adult? That's my story.
Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better know as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the Director of the Collaboratory.
22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 23 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, Xatyswa told us her life experience and how she was motivated to become an activist for disabled youth, which eventually led to her being nominated for and visiting the United States through ECA's Mandela Washington Fellowship, part of the U.S. Government's Young African Leader's Initiative, or YALI.
For more information about ECA exchange programs like the Mandela Washington Fellowship, check out eca.state.gov. And we encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 wherever you find your podcasts. You can also write to us at email@example.com. That's firstname.lastname@example.org. We are indebted this week to Xatyswa Maqashalala for sharing her very personal story.
Manny Pereira did the interview, I edited it.
Featured music during this segment was "Roof Over My Head" by Steve Klink and "Dark White" by Steven Siebert. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came. And the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagear Lioos.
Until next time.
Husham Al-Thahabi never set out to be a hero. As he saw more and more orphans and homeless people in his community in Iraq, he took it upon himself to create a center where needy community members would be cared for and trained for careers. As time went on and the community flourished, an entire village with the name Al-Thahabi stands as a testament to his legacy. Husham visited the United States as part of the International Vistor Leadership Program; more information on IVLP can be found at https://eca.state.gov/ivlp.
Chris Wurst: This is a hero story, about a man who helps those in need. Young and old alike. About a man who saw a problem in his community and threw himself into its solution. It's a story about how, when you are selfless and dedicate your life to helping others, you can build something bigger than yourself. Where not only does everyone know your name, but where most of the community shares your name.
You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Husham: [foreign language 00:00:33]
Adam (Interpreter): I came out of a bus, which was the bus that was provided for IVLP. And I was aiming to a building, where we supposed to go. And from far away, I see that young lady standing there holding the door open and waiting for me. I didn't really put it together, and I kept going towards the door. And she still holding the door until I get in. And then she close the door after that
And back home, we don't have such a culture, that you hold the door for the next person. And from that moment on, until now, any time I go out of a door, I make sure I hold that door for the person behind me.
Chris Wurst: This week, coming to the rescue of those in need. Learning another side of America. And being the courageous captain on a ship with precious cargo.
Join us on a journey from Iraq to the United States, to discover that sometimes international exchanges open doors. Literally open doors. It's 22.33.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people, very much like ourselves. And ...
Husham: [foreign language 00:02:25]
Adam: My name is Husham Al-Thahabi, I am from Iraq. I am the presidents or the head of the organization called Iraqi Home of Creativity. I came to United State in 2014 in IVLP program. That was mainly focused in special education.
Husham: [foreign language 00:02:44]
Adam: I was a typical kid, that basically like any other kids in Iraq, they just only focus on themself. Focus into a very specific and a personal goal to themself, goal to about their family. About their immediate family member. Very simple goals. And I never, ever thought to really think beyond that, or even that I would be even doing anything outside of my immediate family member.
However, in 2003, things change. And thing change because I find out, there are segment of the society, that they are marginalized. And they are actually disadvantaged, which is mainly, is homeless children. And it was a huge number of homeless children in Iraq. And that's really opened my eyes a little bit.
But what really strikes me and change me totally is when I notice that some of the international organization in Iraq, they are taking care of those kids like they are exactly their kids as well. And I ask myself, I said, "I can do better. I can do more than what other international organization are doing in Iraq, and I can provide things that no one ever provided for those children."
At that time, I find myself, I am automatically involve in that. And I start from that point on, work with them. Love them. Provide service to them. Help them, like exactly I do love my kids, and provide service for my kids, and take care of them as exactly I take care of my kids. And that's where I started.
Husham: [foreign language 00:04:45]
Adam: Basically my work is taking care of orphaned children, homeless children, and children that they actually is a products or they came from broken homes. Our job is to take care of their issues, some of them, they have trauma. Some of them, they do have psychological problems. Some of them, they have medical problems. And social problems.
So this is where our job comes in, is to take to cover all the above area that I just mentioned. And we're trying to elevate the challenges, the problem that they are facing, and the trauma that they went through.
Adam: And we also trying to equip them, in order for them to feel good about themself, is by solving their problem and taking over of their life in a state-of-the art industry to believe into our house.
Husham: [foreign language 00:05:53]
Adam: I am graduated, I have a bachelor degree in psychology. And I use my education into helping the children and instead of they look at themself in a very passive way or they are hopeless, we make sure that we empower them. We make sure that we help them mentally and keep them healthy and provide all the services that we can provide, in order for them to feel good about themself and be active member of the society.
Husham: [foreign language 00:06:46]
Adam: IVLP program, the one I was a part of it in 2014, give me an ample opportunity to get to know the American people in closer. And also to provide opportunities to visit American family at their homes and some of the organization that they work, specifically into the special education field.
I was very happy to visit to many organization, and what I notice over there, that those organization that they are, the workers, they have a great patient to deal with the kids with the special needs. And for specific example, that I visited one of the organization when I was here, and there was a kid, that he can't move anything of his body parts except his head. And I find out that the organization, they trying to come up with a specific program to know how they can help him to communicate, and be able to be a regular student among the other student in the class.
And that strikes me. And that give me the spirit so that when I will go back to Iraq, I will work very closely, and actually that's exactly what happened. I work very closely with two of my kids, that they have special needs. And I work it so hard to make sure to help them and enable them to be in a regular school.
Husham: [foreign language 00:08:18]
Adam: During my visit here, in 2014, with IVLP program, the trip mainly it was a conversation. Both ways conversation, between the American part and for my side. And we used to exchange ideas, and we used to exchange issues that we find difficulties to solve. And we talk about solutions, what the best solution, best practice in both side. I learned a great deal from them. And I shared all my ideas and my solution, and how I see the problem that they are facing.
For me, I learn a great deal. I took a lot of ideas when I went home.
Husham: [foreign language 00:09:09]
Adam: When I close my eyes, I think of United States as different, completely different than the perception prior coming here. Before coming here to United State, the only thing that we know about America is American army. And that's it, and that's ... We, in the East. Not only in Iraq, but everybody in the Middle East think of America as American army.
But for me, when I came here, I interacted with American society. I interacted with American people. I communicated with them. And I find them, that they have ultimate respect to each other. They have ultimate respect to people, regardless of their beliefs, regardless where they come from. They have the humanitarian attitude, and I find it the ultimate human behaviors in United State, and that is something great that I always think of.
Husham: [foreign language 00:10:25]
Adam: As I mention earlier, that we in the Iraqi Home for Creativity, we provide three criteria of services for three different segment of the society. Number one is the homeless children. Number two is orphans or the children that they came from abusive relationship within their own family, or from broken homes. What we provide for them, we provide for them medical services, social services, and education.
And we making sure that they will be able to overcome the challenges and the trauma that they went through. That's basically in general. We also trying to help them with other services that we provide, either we obtain an ID for them. Which is national ID. Some of them, they don't have national ID. And we also provide another services in our center, which we provide trade, to teach them how to do ... To cut hair, like became a barber. Or to be able to sew clothes. And that's in order to produce a revenue or to bring the revenue or consistent revenue to the organization. So we can help them.
Some of the kids, we trying to reallocate them to a different family, or we're trying to do an outreach to their own family member. And sometime when we find out that they came from abusive relationship within their home, then we'll try to find the family that they can actually take care of them. And we keep in touch with them.
Husham: [foreign language 00:12:08]
Adam: Now we also provide services for homeless seniors, and the services and those they provide the services for, homeless senior, those they leave in the street and they can't take care of themself. They have terminally ill disease, or critical diseases. Those that take care of them is the same kids within our facility. They are taking care of them, and now we are having a new logo on the top of our house. It's called The Safe House for Senior.
Husham: [foreign language 00:12:57]
Adam: We always record activities in our facility. And one day, while we are recording some of the activity, a kid just passed by the camera, and we took picture of him. And we didn't put anything together in our mind at the time.
Seven years later, this child, this kid end up coming to our facility looking for help. And we find out that his parents, both his mother and father, they were killed in one of the IED explosive. And he was for seven years in the street. He has no home. He was basically homeless.
And when he came to our facility, he was in a very dire situation. He was very introvert. He was completely isolated. He doesn't want to communicate with anybody, doesn't want to participate in any activity.
So we help him how to overcome that. And we start to ask him to just express his anger, the trauma, all the problem in drawing anything. And then he start to draw in piece of paper, and then we realize that he is very talented to do that type of work. And later on, we provide all the material for him to enable him to be an artist. And we realize, he became very, very successful artist. And he start to send all his work around the world.
And we find out that, sadly, that he can't join his work because he doesn't have an ID. He doesn't have a national ID. So, what we did, we provide a national ID. His work, it came all the way in one of the exhibits here in Washington, D.C. And he was awarded one of the best award for the youngest artist under 15 in the world, here in Washington, D.C. And he's one of our kids.
Husham: [foreign language 00:14:44]
Adam: Most of those kids, when they came to our facility, they was very young. But they stayed there until they were 18 years old. And after 18 years old, we help them to find a job. And after like two years, approximately, we help them also to find a wife for themself, and they get married.
We also have another project that we build a small homes for them, after they leave the facility, which is we call it, The Golden Nest. And they stay at this Golden Nest until they are very independent. Some of them, they actually have children now. And some, they, now we can say we have grandchildren. And most of the grandchildren, their name is Husham, like my name.
Husham: [foreign language 00:16:06]
Adam: The successful, positive, tangible results that I see on a daily basis, in my institution, not only in general but also the positive, and the successful result from the kids that, within the institution. That what's really gives me the motivation and drives me to continue doing the good work. Because I see in front of my eyes. I will not stop doing what I am doing, because we are working now into pressuring the government to pass a law, to protect all the kids in Iraq. So that also keeps me going, to achieve. That's my dream, to achieve such a dream.
Husham: [foreign language 00:17:07]
Adam: I have to be optimistic, because I look at myself. I am a captain of a big ship. And this ship, that's full of those kids, it must go all the way to the end to the shore. If I am negative, I will not be able ... If I am not optimistic and negative, and not positive, I will not be able to take the ship to the shore. And people, the kids, they look at me as a role model. So I have to be positive all the time. They look at me, I am the Superman. I can do everything. So I must maintain this positive attitude all the time, in order for me to be a role model, successful role model for them.
Husham: [foreign language 00:18:01]
Adam: One of the biggest lesson that I learn throughout my life is that basically, I always tell people and I advise them, is that you make sure do what you really makes you feel comfortable. Do what really makes you feel happy. Don't listen to what people are saying, when you do something because if you will keep listening to their critique, their criticism, and all what they are saying, you will never be able to achieve anything.
Adam: So keep going. Keep doing the good thing.
Husham: [foreign language 00:18:37]
Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of The Collaboratory.
22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, Husham Al-Thahabi talked about his experiences as an IVLP participant, on a program about special education. For more about the International Visitor Leadership Program, that's what IVLP stands for, and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov.
We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do so wherever you find your podcasts. And we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at email@example.com.
Special thanks this week to Husham for his time, and his absolute commitment to the needy in Iraq. You heard Adam Salama's voice as Husham's interpreter. I did the interview and edited this episode.
Featured music was "Archipelago" by AA Alto, "Invitation" by Lucky Thompson, "Glimpse of Eternity" by Maiden, and "Chance Encounter" by David Helowitz. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How the Night Came. And the end credit is "Two Pianos" by Tagear Lioos
Until next time.
American professional soccer player Joanne Lohman recounts a trip to Gaborone, Botswana as a sports envoy only to learn that her team didn’t own shoes, despite the fact that turf was burning hot. With stories about girl-power, toughness, and teamwork, Lohman returned feeling she gained at least as much as she gave. More information about the U.S. Sports Envoy Program can be found at https://eca.state.gov/programs-initiatives/initiatives/sports-diplomacy/sports-envoys-and-sports-visitors.
Chris Wurst: You are a professional athlete. You play on soft green grass with the best equipment. But half way across the world, as a tireless sports envoy, you coach girls who have never seen a grass field, who don't even own shoes to play in. But you inspire them. Showing them what girl power means. You change how they see the world. But then, at the end of the day, they do the very same for you. Who leaves the biggest impact on the other? Likely it's a tie. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.
Sports Clip 1: In the box, Lohman comes out. Off the post and across the line. And it's a goal for Washington. And the hand sign substitution of Joanna Lohman a smart one. And it's 2-1, Seattle in front.
Sports Clip 2: And she's just been working so hard this half. She's getting forward. She's making her presence known. And what a great turn, and an excellent finish.
Chris Wurst: This week: no shoes? No problem. Playing with the ambassador, and dance diplomacy. Join us on our journey from Washington D.C. to Gaborone, Botswana to help girls dream big. It's 22.33.
Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: And when you get to know these people they're not quite like you. You read about 'em. They are people, very much like ourselves and...
Intro Clip 4: (singing) That's what we call cultural exchange, ooohhh yeah
Joanna Lohman: My name is Joanna Lohman. I'm a midfielder for the Washington Spirit, and I am a sports envoy for the U.S. Department of State. I've traveled to Asia, South America, Europe and also Africa. This'll be my third year in a row going to Africa.
2016 I went to Botswana, 2017 I went to Côte d'Ivoire, and 2018 I'll be going to Niger.
You know, I remember the story like it was yesterday. I was going to run a program in the capital of Botswana for a group of about 15 young women called Girl Power. And it was my job to lead this program, and to be a role model for these young women, who clearly have way fewer opportunities than I do as a female in America.
We were working with a group of about 15 young women from the local villages. We were given the turf field in their national training ground for this program. So most of these young women I'm sure have never left their village, let alone played soccer on a turf field in the national training center. So this was a very prestigious honor for these young women to be chosen for this program.
I got to the field, and it was you know, it's Africa in November in Botswana. It was at least 100 degrees. The sun was beating down on us, and for anyone who's played on turf, it's hotter on turf. You have black rubber beads that make up the field, and those beads pretty much catch on fire. And it adds at least five degrees to the field. So I would say it was 105 degrees.
When I showed up you know, I was in my fancy U.S. Soccer gear, all the latest Nike attire. My shoes, I was ready for this program. I understood that it was my job to really lead these young women. And when I arrived to the field and the girls got out of their bus, none of them had shoes on. And you know, I thought to myself you know, maybe their shoes are in their bag.
I was just so taken aback. And I thought you know, wow, I'm incredibly naïve to think, to just assume that these girls would have shoes to play soccer in.
Again, it's 105 degrees on this turf. Their feet are going to burn. And you know, I put a little bit more thought into it, and I am sure when they play soccer in the local villages they don't wear shoes. For one reason, they probably don't have them. Two, they probably, if they do have shoes, they don't fit, and three they're just used to playing in their bare feet. This is why soccer is so popular around the world, is you don't need a lot of money to play. All you need really is a ball and your feet. You don't even need shoes.
I, you know, immediately was concerned for their wellbeing because I knew that it was going to be painful. And looking back, I used that day almost as a metaphor of life. I thought to myself, we've two options at this point. We could sit in the shade. And that would take away really the power of what we were doing. And the option two, which was the only option in my mind was, we have to play. We play and we keep our feet moving. And if you stand still, your feet will burn.
So I thought what a great metaphor of life of like let's we have to keep moving, mo matter what happens. No matter what happens in life, it's going to be uncomfortable. It's going to get hot. There's going to be fires, but you have to just keep, you have to keep moving.
So you know, as their leader in this program of Girl Power I made sure that the girls were constantly moving, that they never stood still. Because if you stand still, your feet are going to burn.
And you know, we spent the entire day basically on this turf. And the girls, I mean I think it was a little bit uncomfortable, but they worked through the pain. They had an incredible time, and the ambassador, the US ambassador showed up at the end of our program.
Every one of the programs that I do, I try to get the ambassador to come and all the local delegates, the media, and we all play. I make sure everyone gets out on the field and plays together. Because I think that's a major way of breaking down barriers, is everyone getting out on the same field and playing together.
So the ambassador showed up. He was wearing a pair of Jordans, he was in jeans. And I said to all the girls and the delegates and the ambassador, "We're going to play a scrimmage." So the U.S. Ambassador was my right defender. And credit to him, he came out you know, obviously not in the proper attire, but he worked hard, he was sweating. And the girls just had an absolute blast. Because here they were, playing with the highest ranked people within their local city, and also too, the US ambassador.
And after the program, I think the U.S. Ambassador also was taken aback that the girls did not have shoes. Because of this, the ambassador promised to get every girl on that program a pair of shoes.
You know, that was a very powerful moment for me, because I felt like we changed lives. But it's hard to see. It's almost intangible. It's a feeling you may give someone. It's a bit more hope that someone holds onto because you've come. It's opening people's eyes to what a woman can be, what she can say, what she can do. And I hope that I'm able to expand the definition of what gender can be.
The program was in November. In January the ambassador told me that they were going to have a ceremony to give the shoes to the girls. So I made a video for the young women over in Botswana, and I just you know, I thanked them for the opportunity to run this program. And I also gave them a lot of credit for working through what was a very uncomfortable day, where it was so hot. And their feet were on fire, and they never stopped moving.
And they inspired me, really as the envoy. And typically you expect the opposite, right? You expect the envoy to come and to inspire the young women that they're working with. But I always find that it's a very mutual feeling, and that the young women that I work with truly inspire me.
And they had sent me photos and videos from the day of when the girls were given their cleats. And I remember thinking to myself, this is one of the proudest moments of my entire life. Because the smiles on their faces were just ... I couldn't even put into words how it made me feel. And to see the joy, and to see them in uniforms, and to see these cleats you know, shiny and brand-new. And to see the entire town out celebrating these young women, who are so often you know, feeling empty and ignored and pushed aside. To see them really celebrated and highlighted, was such a beautiful moment for me. And it's a moment that I will never forget.
I think that I understand that none of them are going to grow up and be professional soccer player. That's completely unrealistic, and not why I'm there. I think it's such an honor for me to use the sport of soccer, a game that I love, and that I've played for decades now, to use that sport as vehicle for social change.
And on top of that, for these young women just to see someone like me, someone who has spent their entire life playing sports, who really expands the definition of what a woman can look like, what a woman can say, what a woman can do. I think that resonates a lot.
Yes it does really take steps towards equality. I know that it sounds somewhat silly but, and those countries are very far behind in that aspect, but to you know, give these young women a platform to have these opportunities is so important. To give them a different view on life, to give them a chance to play. And I seldom think that they get the opportunity to just play.
And you know, that's what sports does. It allows you to just have joy. Joy in the motion, joy and working with your team-mates, building relationships with your team-mates. Falling down and picking yourself back up again instills an incredible amount of confidence and self-worth, passion, and I think it teaches a lot of lessons that I know I've learned throughout life.
And as a young woman in a lot of these countries, you're very isolated. Soccer allows you to be part of the team. And when you're a part of the team, people look out for you. And I think that's important for them because they're always, they're typically always alone. And to have a team of people who where you're accountable, and they're accountable for you, gives you a sense of purpose and a sense of value.
I learned that you know, Africans love to dance. And there's always music playing. And I love to dance. So it was the perfect combination for me, where we were having soccer festivals. There was a DJ, there was dancing; it was essentially one big party.
Clearly I look very different from the people in the local villages. So I would amass like you know, crowds that would just follow me everywhere. And I'm never one to not dance to a song, so I think the townspeople really enjoyed me, because I was very uninhibited. I would dance, I would sing, and I made up a handshake that I would do with anyone that was willing to do it with me. And I found that dance and trying to communicate in ways that don't require words, really create bonds quite quickly.
So I think people were very amused with my just my presence in these villages. A lot of time on these trips I feel like a legitimate celebrity. I feel like a rock star.
One of the massive things for me is not only just kick a soccer ball with them, but it's to build those connections, and you know, build bridges between cultures that where people think we're so different. You know, we speak different languages, and we've grown up in different cultures, different classes, different religions. And to see that we're just, we're all human. And we're human and we all deserve the opportunity to feel loved and accepted, and worthwhile.
And if I can go to these countries, and just even for a few days, make them feel like they're more than what they typically think every day of their lives. That's something that's really important to me. And that's why I love these programs, is not because I get to coach soccer, it's because I get to deeply impact the life of another human being.
Sports Clip 1: And Lohman with the bicycle kick. Joanna Lohman has scored a spectacular goal.
Spots Clip 2: Strength of Dunn. What a ball by Dunn. Look at that. Get that ball in.
Chris Wurst: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of The Collaboratory.
22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.
In this episode, Joanna Lohman told us about her experience as part of ECA's sports envoy program, sending U.S. Athletes around the world to inspire kids about sports, and life.
For more about ECA sports envoy programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 wherever you find your podcasts. And we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks this week to the Washington Spirit's own Joanna Lohman for sharing her stories and inspiration.
Josh Shen and I did the interview with her, and I edited it.
Featured music during this segment was "Ese Triste" by David Lostana, and "Moving Day" by Tiny Parham's Four Aces. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came. And the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagear Lioos.
Until next time.