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, Acast, Anchor, Blubrry, Breaker, Bullhorn, Castbox, Castro, Himalaya, iHeartRadio, Listen Notes, Luminary, myTuner Radio, Overcast, OwlTail, Player FM, Pocket Casts, PodBean, Podcast Gang, Podchaser, Podnews, Podparadise, Podtail, Podyssey, RadioPublic, Soundcloud, Spreaker, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube. You can also subscribe via email updates.

Follow and tag us on social media using the hashtag #2233stories.

Latest Episode

2233This week we interview a Fulbright Scholar from Lome, Togo who is conducting research on the deconstruction of ethnicity in African literature at the University of Michigan-Flint. For more information about the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program please visit: https://www.cies.org/program/fulbright-visiting-scholar-program.

Season 02, Episode 07 - Life in an Open Fridge with Hodabalou Anate


A complete transcript for this episode is coming soon...

Previous Episodes

Season 02, Episode 06 - Homemade Wine & Hockey Pads with Annie Erling Gofus

LISTEN HERE - Episode 6


For Annie, life in Slovakia as an English teaching assistant was often similar to what she was used to in the United States, but always just a little different, and often in humorous ways. 

For more information on the Fulbright ETA Program visit: https://us.fulbrightonline.org/about/types-of-awards/english-teaching-assistant-awards.


Chris:  You start by wanting to teach your new students better English skills. You end up teaching them all about American culture and even more about their own culture and themselves. It takes time, but the resulting friendships run deep. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Annie:  On its face, it looks and feels like home, like an American city. And anyone you encounter, you can meet anywhere in the U.S. And then you dig in a little bit deeper and you realize that, "Man, this is a lot different than home." And maybe that's what made it, it's like the uncanny valley where puppets, they look so human that they're not. Where it just this looks like home, but it's not like, it's just a little bit different.

Chris:  This week, the dangers of sitting on the sidewalk, homemade wine among hockey pads, and holding up a mirror for students to look at themselves. Join us on a journey from North Dakota to Slovakia to help put the U.S. In focus, 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, there are people very much like ourselves and...
Intro Clip 4:  [music].

Annie:  My name is Annie Erling Gofus. I am originally from North Dakota, but I've lived on the East coast since 2009, mostly in DC. Currently I am the head of content at TripScout, which is a travel app. I was a Fulbright ETA in Slovakia from 2014 to 2015. I studied history undergrad with no intention to teach. My first job out of college I worked in the Senate for about nine months and then I worked at the Holocaust Museum for about three years. And while at the museum I worked with some Fulbright scholars, and the program sounded amazing, so I had no teaching experience is essentially what I'm getting at. I applied for a Fulbright ETA in Slovakia, got it, with this idea that you are an English teaching assistant, it's what ETA stands for. So I was never worried about lacking teaching skills, I just thought that someone would give me some direction or there would be an actual trained teacher there.

Annie:  So I show up in Bratislava, I'm sent to this school gymnasium Belikova. And I show up and the principal of the school assigns me 114 students where I'm supposed to teach English conversation, which I can do, I'm a native English speaker, American studies, which I felt pretty confident about because I studied American history, British studies, and geography. And I mean I probably could have faked my way through geography, but British studies, I had no idea where to start. They gave me no lesson plan, no textbooks. It was a Monday in classes were starting on a Wednesday, and I had to have lesson plans for these 114 students who ranged in age from 14 to 20 and I was super overwhelmed.

Annie:  So the first day of class I prepare this American history lesson and I thought we'd start at the basics. I had a giant map of America and all these sticky notes with different landmarks, and this was my class of students who were 19 or 20 years old. And this one kid, Philip, who I will never forget, he was so annoyed. He was grumbling under his breath and saying things to me in Slovak, I had no idea what he was saying, but all the other students looked mortified. So I'm, "Uh, this is really bad." And it was really hard standing in front of this classroom of kids to start with, and then all of a sudden realizing that I had given them this task that was beneath them, that they were like, "Why are we doing this?"

Annie:  So class ended, everybody left and I cried at my desk. I was like, "What am I doing here?" So that night I went home and I'm like, "You know what? I'm going to do what I want with this." So every single one of my classes turned into American studies, and it was essentially just conversations for the entire time I was there. We debated everything from country music and jazz to gun control in America. I've never seen kids so excited about the Bill of Rights, it was... it worked out.

Annie:  So it was really easy to pick out the topics that we were going to talk about to begin with, just the really big ones. Right before I came over the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri had happened, so my students had heard about it and were really curious to talk about civil rights in America. It's always amazing how hungry they were to learn more, but also give me an opportunity to learn more about my country, because we talked about topics that I had to research before I presented to the class about it. So there were so many times that we would have these amazing conversations, "Man, I'm so lucky to have been placed at that school." There were, I think 11 other ETAs in Slovakia at the same time as me, everyone else was an English teaching assistant, so they actually got the job that they thought they were going to get. I got lucky that I was at a school where all of my students were fluent, I mean we could have debates and talk about things. So a much different experience that I thought it was going to have.

Annie:  Everything having to do with race, that was something that I learned a lot about in school, but it wasn't anything that I had really thought that deeply about in my professional life. And then I got to Slovakia and that is... not only the students want to talk about it a lot, how it is in America, but also just seeing how in Slovakia, how people approach it. It's just interesting that these kids would look at America one way, they're very critical of race relations in the U.S., and civil rights, and very worked up about Ferguson, Missouri. But they are very suspicious of outsiders, very suspicious of all outsiders.

Annie:  There was a student in one of my classes whose mother was Hungarian, so she looks like everyone else and she has a Slovak last name, but everyone knew she was Hungarian. Man, no one ever let her forget that she's half Hungarian. And I knew that about her, and to me, it seemed like such a small thing. But she was just a little bit more of an outsider because she wasn't fully Slovak. So yeah, I think that I learned a lot about race while living, and being more aware of it, while living in Slovakia.

Annie:  It's just interesting in... here in the... my experience I should say, we learned about the civil rights movement, we learned about racism. And I guess maybe that's something that needs to be taught, but these Slovak students at home they're hearing about how bad the Roma is, at school they're hearing about how bad the Roma is. There is no one who are telling them, "Hey Roma are just people, they need different opportunities for this to change", no one is telling them that. And when we would talk about... we'd be spent in my classroom a lot of time talking about Native Americans, and these kids were just horrified to hear about reservations and what had happened to native people in the U.S. And then at the end of that unit we started talking about Roma and Slovakia, and at first they were, "Wait a second, is that what we're doing?" And then they would always say, "No, no, it's not that. We don't like them because they do this and they do that, not because of who they are, so it's different."

Annie:  In Slovakia, very western, my students who love American culture are... they were raised by their parents who grew up under communism. And I think a lot of that has really trickled in to the culture and personalities in small ways. People in Slovakia are kind, but it's really hard to make friends with people. Once you do make friends you're in and they're the best kind of friends to have, but I like to make conversations with people at cafes and you don't do that. And whenever I walk into the classroom and greet my students and would say, "Hey, how's everyone's day going? What did you do this weekend? You guys do anything fun?" And the answer was always, "Why do you want to know?" They were so suspicious about why I wanted to know more about their personal lives. And once I got to know a handful of my students better, then we could have a relationship, but it was not natural for them to give up information freely, I don't know, maybe that's an American thing. Where we're... I don't mind small talk, I want to, "Hey, how was your weekend? You do anything fun?" It's not a Slovak thing.


Annie:  Slovakia also has a culture of gifting, there's air quotes around gifting, where it's never, "I'll give you 20 Euro if you give me an A", But it's kind of a little nudges towards that. So I had a student who's very, very quiet, and part of my grading was participating. That is the reason I was there, a cultural exchange, but also practicing English. And he knew this, this was in the syllabus, that class participation will be part of the grading. So at the end of the first semester I submitted my grades for all my classes and he, I think overall he got a B, maybe a C, but in class participation he got the Slovak equivalent to an F, which I think was a zero. So he had brought me candy, some chocolate, to my office and that night he must've seen his grade, and he emailed me and said, "My grades were wrong. Check again. How did you like that chocolate? Winky face", little winky emoji.

Annie:  The first week that I was in Bratislava, I went to the street fair with my roommate, she was also a Fulbright ETA, another American girl, and we bought food, I think it was sausages. And there was no place to sit, so we just sat on the curb. It was right on... the street fairs was going on and we sat on the curb, it wasn't dirty, and so many people staring at us. Two separate couples stopped and took photos of us sitting on the curb, people were baffled. And that night we went out with some local Slovak friends and I was telling one of them about, "These people were taking pictures of us today at this street fair." And he's, "Well what were you doing?" "We were sitting on the ground eating." He's, "You were sitting on the ground, don't you know that makes you infertile?" I'm, "What?" He's, "Yeah, women aren't supposed to sit on the ground because it's bad for your fertility." But then I was wondering, if people really believe that and thought that enough to take a photo, why didn't anyone warn us? Why didn't anyone come and tap us on the shoulder and say, "Aren't you worried".

Annie:  When we got to Slovakia you have to get a visa, and Fulbright hired some kind of agency that does these visa, helps you with the visa application process because it's nightmarish and I don't know how people do it without help. There was one day where you need to go to the foreign police, you need to go into the office, and so we went to the foreign police station and it's an entire day ordeal. The agency had hired somebody to sleep there, to sleep in line for us the night before. So we showed up at 7:00, we paid this guy, we got our spot in line and we are there until probably like 4:00 in the afternoon. You take a ticket and the woman who was with us who's Slovak was, "Okay, I think it's good. We have two hours." She's like, "Let's go drink."

Annie:  So we went on the block to this store that sold used hockey equipment. I don't know if... she must've known this guy, but this guy had behind the counter homemade wine, where it is cloudy and it's in the process of making wine but it hasn't quite gotten there but it has lots of carbonation and gas in it. And you can't buy this in the store, people make it in their basements I'm assuming, and it's always stored in old milk jugs or old two liters, it looks super sketchy. This was my first time that I had, had it and this woman was, "All right, let's have a seat and have some drinks." So we're with this woman who I had just met, who's trying to give me this visa to stay in the country, and is feeding me this homemade young wine at this used hockey store in Bratislava.

Annie:  We did end up getting our visas though. When I first got there I was really homesick, it was really hard to adjust. And at about Thanksgiving I feel like I crossed into feeling like I was part of the community. And Christmas in Europe is magical, and it's no different in Bratislava. It is Christmas markets and people are super festive, and the teachers at my school throw this annual Christmas party and they make this massive vat of this Slovak Christmas soup called Kapustnica. And everyone stays after school and we eat this soup and they do a gift exchange and they drink wine and everyone was speaking Slovak, I had no idea of what was going on and I felt, but I felt so cozy. It was, that was really magical, and I think that was kind of the turning point in feeling like, "Okay, I've survived. I've gotten over my culture shock. I'm here. I can do this."

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, Annie Erling Gofus shared her memories from her time as a Fulbright ETA in Bratislava, Slovakia. 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 that wherever you find your podcasts, and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov, that's eca C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov

Chris:  Special thanks this week to Annie for her stories. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music was River Went Dry by Josh Woodward, Freedom by the Lenny Tristano Trio, and Walking Shoes and Spunk Lit both by Blue Dot Sessions. 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 02, Episode 05 - I Was the Foreigner with Gretchen Sanders & Cash on Delivery with Bob Kochersberger

LISTEN HERE - Episode 05


This week's episode features two stories. The first, follows Gretchen Sanders as she travels from Georgia all the way to India to learn Hindi through the NSLI-Y program. She shares how her new life in a completely foreign culture helped her better understand herself as an American. The second story is a slice of surreality and follows Bob Kochersberger teaching in Slovenia through the Fulbright program. He shares what happens when you get what you ask for, literally.


Chris Wurst: You travel far from home to a very foreign country, let's say India, with a small cohort of Americans from all over the United States. You expect the Indians you meet will teach you new and different things and they do. But what you didn't prepare for was just how much you would learn from your American colleagues. You traveled 8,000 miles, only to become a more active U.S. Citizen. And also a short story about money, lots and lots of money. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Gretchen Sander: So, I had a friend named Shahira and they were riding somewhere on the highway, and they saw elephants on the side of the road and that wasn't an uncommon sight. And Shahira was like, "Oh man, I really want to ride an elephant." And her host dad's like, "okay." and pulls over the car and goes and talks to the guy. This is all on the side of the highway as cars zoom past, and pays him some rupees and comes back to the car and says, "Let's go." And Shahira's like, "What?" And he's like, "Get on the elephant."

Chris Wurst: This week, coming to terms with xenophobia, learning to become a better citizen 8,000 miles from home, and cash on delivery. Join us on two journeys, one from Savannah, Georgia to New Delhi, India, the other from North Carolina to then Yugoslavia, to learn that while citizenship is priceless, huge bags of cash aren't bad either. It's 22.33

Intro Clip: 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...
Intro Clip 4: (Singing) That's what we call cultural exchange.

Gretchen Sander: When I view India, I see the Taj Mahal, my friend Shahira in the program riding on an elephant along the highway in India, which was a sight to behold. I see monsoon season and flooded streets, and us enjoying and hating the rain. I see my excitement when I found a Starbucks in New Delhi and being able to get my favorite drink at home. I see burning my tongue off with spicy food repeatedly. It was very loud and very colorful.

Gretchen Sander: Hi all. My name is Gretchen Sanders and I'm from Savannah, Georgia in the United States. I haven't declared a major yet, but I'm very interested in healthcare. I participated in the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, also called NSLI, in 2013. So I went to New Delhi, India with the State Department to study Hindi, a super high needs critical language and to gain more cultural understanding.

Gretchen Sander: So, before going to India, I'd never been out of the deep south. I have vague memories of a field trip to Washington D.C. in elementary school, but that's about it. So I'd never really been out of Georgia. And I met someone at a summer camp who said, "Hey, I went to this program in Turkey and you should apply." And before, I'd never really considered study abroad because it wasn't financially possible for my family. But to hear that there's a full merit based scholarship from the U.S. Department of State, arguably one of the safest organizations in the world to study abroad with, I was very excited. So, I applied, not really knowing what I was getting into, and suddenly got accepted and traveled to India. And looking back, I probably could have found an easier way to leave the deep south, but it was a good headfirst experience.

Gretchen Sander: So besides the obvious language speaking skills that I gained, two things really stuck out to me on my program. One is that I love my home in Georgia, it's beautiful, it's warm, I love the food, but there is a rampant xenophobia, that plagues the south, and that can be really difficult. And before I went to India I was definitely empathetic, but I don't think I was as understanding. So suddenly going to a new country where I was the foreigner, where I didn't speak the language, follow the religion. That really gave me an insight into how difficult it must have been for non-Americans living over here. And it gave me understanding and even courage that when I would hear xenophobic comments from people in the south, I could say, "Hey, I lived with a host family in India and they were gracious and wonderful and they let me into their home and we should do the same here.

Gretchen Sander: And I feel like a lot of people assume that the deep south is just bigoted, and I don't think that's the case. I think most of it down here is just xenophobia, the basic fear of being different. And I had a lot of people in my life be like, "Why do you want to go to India, there's all these other English speaking countries you can go to like England." And I think it really scared them. So me being able to come back and say, "Oh, I had a wonderful time. It was great." I feel like that's given me the courage to stand up to that.

Gretchen Sander: And the other thing was I met wonderful kids from across the U.S. There. My program had 19 students from across the U.S. And we were all studying at Delhi together. While we had individual host families, we all went to Indian high school together and we were all in our classes, taught in English to learn Hindi. So we spent a fair amount of time together and this was my first time really being exposed to people from across the US that again, weren't from Georgia. And Georgia tends to have a uniform way of thinking, whether it be religion, politics, voting, or just pretty stereotypically uniform in their way of thinking. So being exposed to people from across the U.S. That that weren't raised in the religious upbringing that I was, was really inspiring, and it also gave me courage in a way that I could speak out against things. So when every adult in my life, ever, because I was still a child at this point, I was 17 I was in high school, thought a certain way, it can be terrifying to disagree with them.

Gretchen Sander: And to meet kids from across the U.S. Who were active, who emailed their congressmen when they had an issue, who weren't scared to say what they thought, it gave me the courage to do the same thing. And since coming back, not only have I contacted my representative when they've passed legislation that I don't agree with, I've also become an avid voter, and I truly don't know if I would be an avid voter without that experience. So meeting other kids definitely taught me that it's okay to disagree with people in your life and just how to be engaged physically. So it's given me a beautiful understanding and without NSLI it's probable that I still would have never left Georgia. I would have never left the deep south, and now I want to do more. I want to go back to India, I want to go back to other places.

Gretchen Sander: And I think that State Department cultural programs have a huge impact on the world. I was reading something the other day about how when 9-11 happened, there were only a handful of agents in the entire FBI that spoke Arabic, and how we couldn't understand threats to global security, and how to promote world unity without speaking other languages. And you know, a program called called YES was created in response purely to 9-11 and now there's so many State Department programs. Gretchen Sander:  And I think that's really the key to world peace and safety, and it's understanding other people.

Bob Kochersberger: My name is Bob Kochersburger, I have taught journalism at North Carolina State University since 1986 which came after I spent a number of years as a professional reporter and editor. My first Fulbright experience was in 1991 in Yugoslavia, what was then Yugoslavia, followed by other Fulbrights in Egypt, Thailand, Slovenia and Slovakia. I've been very fortunate in the Fulbright program

Bob Kochersberger: I've been teaching in Ljubljana for three or four weeks. Things were settling down, I was getting to know my students. I knew where I was and what was going on. The only problem was that we were running out of money. I had brought return tickets and a certain amount of American cash with me, but was waiting for the transfer of money from the Fulbright commission in Belgrade to our bank account in Ljubljana. I went to a Lubljanska banka shortly after we arrived to open an account. To do that, I had to go to the back of the bank and find the the desk labeled "Desk for Strangers," which in which I thought was kind of kind of funny, but I got our account opened and I transmitted the account number to the Fulbright Commission in Belgrade so that they could transfer the cash. Well, I went back to the bank about every other day, and continuing to check and found that no money had arrived, we did not have the deposit that I was hoping for.

Bob Kochersberger: Finally, I really was literally running out of cash. Now, there would have been some other things to do, but I was eager to make sure that I was getting the money I was owed by the Fulbright Commission. So I called Belgrade and spoke to the contact there, a guy named Boyan and I said, "Boyan, if we don't have our money in the next day or two, I'm going to have to go back to the United States because I have no more resource here. And he said, "Oh no, no Robert, don't do that. Don't panic. We will take care of it." I said, "Well, that's great. I hope I'll have the money soon."

Bob Kochersberger: The next day I was back at the faculty teaching. The classroom door was closed and I heard a banging on the door. This is pretty unusual. So I paused, whatever I was doing with the class, went over to the door and opened it up, and there standing was a messenger from the Yugoslavian postal service. I thought, "Well, this is interesting." And he said, "Are you your professor Kochersberger?" And I said, "Yes." He said, "May I see your passport?" I showed him, and he walked into the front of the room and from his satchel pulled out huge wads of Yugoslavian dinars, 70,000 altogether, and counted it out on the table in front of my goggle eyed students.

Bob Kochersberger: They had never seen that kind of money and of course I was not prepared to carry the thick wads of cash with me, so I was stuffing them into my pockets and the messenger laughed, I turned back to the students and resumed the class.

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 US Code, the statute that created ECA and our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs. In this episode, Gretchen Sanders told us about her experiences as a national security language initiative for youth or NCLSIY fellow, and Bob Kochersberger reminisced about an indelible moment as a Fulbright scholar in what was then Yugoslavia.

Chris Wurst: For more about ECA exchange programs, including both of those, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and 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 @state.gov. Special thanks this week to Gretchen and Bob for sharing their stories. I interviewed both and edited this episode. Featured music during Gretchen's segment was, Thanks for Coming, by Josh Woodward. Bob's episode featured some vintage Serbian folk music, what I imagined to be the perfect soundtrack for the comical episode he described. 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 02, Episode 04 - Finding Help Far From Home with Shahbaz Ahmad

LISTEN HERE - Episode 04


Shahbaz Ahmed, a PhD scholar in medical physics and radiation oncology, came to the United States from Pakistan to study at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Listen as he shares the story of his time in the United States and how many false stereotypes he held about Americans were shattered as he came to better understand his new home. For more information about the Fulbright program visit: https://eca.state.gov/fulbright/fulbright-programs.


Intro Clip: (Music)

Chris Wurst: All your life was spent moving further and further from home, from a village, to a bigger village, to a city, and finally abroad, in your quest for a better education. But, now, living half a world away in Michigan, you find that the sacrifices and distances are taking their toll, that for the first time you are truly struggling. So you do something that is at once the hardest and simplest thing to do, you ask for help. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Shahbaz Ahmed: I have noticed here in the US, people manage their time quite efficiently. Everyone would just go on to Google Calendar or any other type of calendar and add up all the slots on that calendar to help manage their schedule. Back in Pakistan, we don't do like that. We just go with the routine, whatever is going on we would just be with them. If I'm a teacher, back in Pakistan, if I'm a teacher, I would simply plan for my classes only. I would not plan for having a meeting with students, I would not plan for having a time with my family, those basic things. So we just take them as granted. But, here in the US, people would set up time for meeting their parents. Back in Pakistan, we think it is odd that we should have some certain time slot for our parents, because parents, they think that they should always have time for us. So definitely, we have all this time for them. But, to help our schedule, we should have some slots specifically arranged for our parents, for our family, for brother, for sister, for friends, for a specific friend, for students. So I think this is something that I would take away with me.

Chris Wurst: This week, moving further and further from home, a Muslim majority in Michigan, and finding strength by asking for help. Join us on our journey from Islamabad, Pakistan to Detroit, Michigan, and helping yourself to help others. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 2: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 3: These exchanges shape to who I am.
Intro Clip 4: 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 5: (Music)

Shahbaz Ahmed: Hello, this is Shahbaz Ahmed, I'm from Pakistan and I'm a Fulbright PhD scholar at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. I'm doing my PhD in medical physics and specializing in radiation oncology.

Shahbaz Ahmed: My story starts right in my school. I didn't have a very good high school in my village, so I started cycling, like using a bicycle to travel almost 10 kilometers from my home to go to a small town, another small town in which we had a good high school. Then, for my upper high school, I ended up going another 100 kilometers. In my bachelor's, I was again in the similar travel thing, I was away from home. Then, in my master's, I went all the way from one part of Pakistan to the other, from Islamabad to Karachi, 1000 kilometers. Then, I realized, I should go to the other part of the world, because I'm a travel and adventure guy. I wanted to explore how the people in that world would be in terms of their culture, in terms of their food, in terms of how they excel. I wanted to learn a lot about different questions that I had in my mind, and I thought traveling to the other side of the globe, it would always be helpful for me. So this led me to have a decision that I would go to the U.S. for my PhD.

Shahbaz Ahmed: During the process of Fulbright, and even before the Fulbright process, I was always trying to convince my family that I should go out of Pakistan for my PhD. My wife, she didn't want it. The reason was because she wanted to stay closer to her parents. So she was writing her restriction, and I was also right. Sometimes I had bad fights with my family, "No, I'm going, this is my life. You can't dictate me." Things like that. Sometimes I was polite, and the polite thing worked. So with a heavy heart, they allowed me to opt U.S., but then they said, "We still have restrictions that U.S. people might be bad for you."

Shahbaz Ahmed: The moment when there was a political change in the U.S. and there was speculations that U.S. would not grant visa to most of the Muslim countries, the list of six countries it did not come out, but we were fearful that even if we have won the Fulbright Scholarship we still might not get the visa. That was a crazy moment. Most of my friends who got the Fulbright, we all were in contact through Facebook and WhatsApp groups, we were having discussions that what would happen if we don't get the visa, we already had resigned from the jobs. Having another job, it is very difficult in Pakistan. Those were the crazy obstacles that came on my way when I opted the Fulbright. But, with the help of friends, with the help of some teachers, I was able to overcome all those obstacles.

Shahbaz Ahmed: Whenever I go back to Pakistan, or even if I talk to someone on call, they ask me, "How is it in U.S.? We thought that U.S. was not good for Muslims. You have a beard, you dress up like Pakistanis, so would they feel bad if you have a beard or would they feel bad if you have a Pakistani clothing?" I was shocked that people have very, very odd thoughts about U.S. I clarified them that this is not how it works here in the U.S., they allow you in terms of your religion, in terms of your culture, to roam around very freely. I was able to convince my family that U.S. is not bad, then at the next level I was able to convince my relatives, and a third stage now, I'm planning to have some videos shot, videos about U.S. and also this podcast. It would help explain to the people that U.S. is not like you think. Also, the reason tensions among the U.S. President and Pakistani Prime Minister, they had a fight on Twitter. So these are the things that happen with every country, everyone has disagreements and agreements. But, it has nothing to do with an individual like me. So as long as we are doing good, as long as we are fulfilling our requirements for the visa, we are good.

Shahbaz Ahmed: Michigan was never priority, because I didn't know much about U.S. at that time. So this was the time when Fulbright people came, this is a scholarship in which you can go and, not only you can study, but also you can share your culture. I thought it was cool, I should go and the American people they would learn more about us, and we would learn more about them. So when I got the interview call, I did my best on the interview, I got the scholarship. The moment I got the scholarship, that was a changing moment in my life that, "Okay, this is the thing. I have it, I should go."

Shahbaz Ahmed: There was some family issues. I'm a married guy, I have a baby, my family was not very prepared to come to U.S., they had their reservations that, "Okay, U.S. is too far, so what if something happens to my family then I won't be there with them. Like if some family member dies we cannot travel because they have to bury a family member very soon as per our religion." So that was a quite tough situation because my family was not willing to send me even, they were having a heavy heart to send me here. But, I was able to convince ultimately. I had to quit my job to come to U.S., that was also a tough decision to quit that job, but I made it for the sake of being in the U.S. and Fulbright.

Shahbaz Ahmed: When I was applying to Fulbright program and I was ... a part of our application, they required us to name three universities. At that time, you know Pakistan had a very bad impression of Americans, unfortunately, so we think that most of the states are not Muslim friendly, it was a stereotype. But, at that time, I searched that what is the Muslim population and how are the Muslims, are they happy over there? I came to know that there is a small town called Hamtramck in Michigan and it is the Muslim majority town. I was surprised that how come a town in U.S. have Muslim majority, and they have specific laws allowing Muslims to be more free in terms of their religion. Also, I was able to know that anywhere in U.S. you have full religious freedom.

Shahbaz Ahmed: So my stereotyping thing, it got killed during the process of Fulbright. I was not that guy who was believing in those stereotypes, I always knew that Americans are good, but you always have some fear. So Michigan was my preference in terms of community, then when I came to know that Wayne State has accepted me for their medical physics program. Then, I explored a little bit more and I found out that there is another town, Dearborn, in which they have a lot of Middle East people, and I can have Halal food as per my religion, I can have everything for my day-to-day religious activities, as well as my living. So I was happy that this is the best university for me.

Shahbaz Ahmed: Back in Pakistan, whenever I was roaming around in different cities of Pakistan, I always had experiences of being inspected at different entrances of the city and even entrances of different buildings. I had a mindset at that time that whenever I would go to U.S., everyone would question me, everyone would question me, "Who you are and where you came from?" I had beard, I had a cultural grasp, so I thought that whenever I would go from one state to other state, or even from one city to other city people would question me, and that would be a difficult situation for me. But, the moment I landed here in the U.S., I was amazed that people won't bother you unless you bother them. I never have been encountered by someone while you are here.

Shahbaz Ahmed: I recently went to a camping adventure thing with some of my American friends and also some of Asian friends, it was sort of a multi-ethnic group. Part of that adventure, I realized that everyone is a human and everyone has similarities. If we work only on our differences, if we just think of our differences they might be a lot, but if we want to think about our similarities, there are a lot of similarities. I ended up having a good connection with America and having a good grasp on how to deal with American people, how to immerse in that culture. I'm still learning, but I feel that it is always a very easy, if you are entrusted to bridge with people from different cultures. So it has been so good so far.

Shahbaz Ahmed: I would like to just share a little moment when I was in my first month in the U.S. When you're moving in a gallery, people who are moving forward, they would be on their right side, and they would be pretty organized. You would find two lines, one coming and one going. Back in Pakistan, people move haphazardly. I found this thing very interesting. I thought I should share this with everyone in Pakistan. I want to tell this to everyone, that when you are in a gallery and you want to avoid the collisions between people, if you are around a blind corner you want to avoid the collision, the best way is to use the American way. It is not all about you are going to be an American, you would still be Pakistani, but you would just learn a new thing that helps you.

Shahbaz Ahmed: In my first semester here in the U.S., I was pretty much struggling with almost everything, so when I got my visa, I also applied for the visa of my family, and they joined me here in the U.S. right away with me. I was struggling very much with my academics. Then, my family, they could not get adjusted here. My wife, she was feeling very lonely, she's a housewife. So the moment when in the morning I was going for class, she would be left alone in the apartment and in all the apartment buildings she would be probably the only woman in that apartment because everyone would be on job. So she was feeling very depressed. She said that, "Okay, I feel that at this moment I should go back. Later, if I found that I would be able to cope with this culture, then I can come again." At that moment, I could have gone to a psychologist or a counselor to help my wife bridging into this culture, but I was struggling with my own academics. I just decided that, "Okay, you want to go back. You would have a better environment over there, you won't have me but you will have other people over there." So when she left me it was another struggle without family.

Shahbaz Ahmed: I was able to pass all of the exams, but I noticed that I was skipping most of the deadlines of the assignments. The faculty was kind enough to allow me to relax in terms of those deadlines, but I was feeling bad that I should not skip a deadline. At that moment, I decided that I should consult a counselor how to succeed academically as well as professionally. I was lucky enough to get psychological services of Wayne State University. They were kind enough to listen to my story, listen to my problems, and figure out where is the problem. The moment when I entered the CAPS building, before that moment there were a bunch of things going always in my head, "Why am I here in the U.S.? Why am I away from my family?" I quit a job, a decent job, and now I am in a student status. I was having a good professional life, a good salary, so now I'm struggling with my finances. "Why is this thing happening to me? My kid is away from me."

Shahbaz Ahmed: I consulted the counselor on these aspects, and she said, "Okay, look, make a list of what are your problems? Then, prioritize which problem you want to address first." So my counselor, she helped me to get ideas out of my brain, not out of her brain just to help me to solve my problems. At the end of my, I think, 10 sessions with them, I realized that I am now a changed individual. This was an amazing thing. Back in Pakistan, whenever I had a problem, I got support from family, but sometimes family might not be the best venue to consult about some things. Here in the U.S., every university has a counseling department or psychology department for students. I personally think that if you have an issue, discuss with someone, it is beneficial for you only, not about ... don't think about what other people what they would think, they would think you are mad? No. Even if they think that you are mad, keep them thinking and just go away with your life.

Shahbaz Ahmed: After my experience with counseling and psychological services of Wayne State, I realized that my academics are now good. My recent experience at Wisconsin Medicine, a Fulbright Seminar where I was mentored for the first year Fulbright Grantees. Part of that experience, I came to know that I am the happiest PhD student, that was amazing for me, because everyone else they were always complaining about their program, about their city, about their finances, about their supervisor. But, I was not complaining, and the reason because I knew that problems are always there, you just have to either solve them, or wait and see how it goes. I found that counseling and psychological services helped me.

Shahbaz Ahmed: I plan to start this thing first for my family, so I would figure out that the people who are always freaking out in the family, I would just discuss with them. Either I would discuss with them or I would help them indirectly, because it is still bad in Pakistan if you recommend someone to go to a psychologist. They might even slap you, "Why are you recommending us to go to a psychologist? Do you think that we are mad?" So what I have done until now is that I have given full privileges to all the family members and friends that, if you are feeling sad, call me, anytime, even if I'm sleeping, call me. The moment when I would go back to Pakistan, I would implement this thing, this strategy to help other people by providing them privileges in every capacity. If I'm a teacher, I would do this to my students. If I'm a supervisor, I would do this to my subordinates or my colleagues over there. If I'm a family member, I would help my family. In a friend's cohort I would help my friends to better solve their problems. I might not directly counsel them or to direct them to psychological services, but I would definitely help them in their mental health problems. I would share with them my story.

Shahbaz Ahmed: Recently, I had an experience of a Pakistani student here at Wayne State. He came here and he was always complaining. I was worried about him that this guy, he ended up coming in the U.S., and now he's freaking out. So I started it by telling him my story. Then, he said that, "Okay, I think I also should go to counseling and psychological services." So I did not mention him directly that you should go, but he got the point. So this is how I want to do it in Pakistan as well.

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. Our stories come from participants of U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, Shahbaz discussed his experiences as a Fulbright Scholar in Detroit. 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 so wherever you find your podcasts. You know we would love to hear from you, and so you can write to us. 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@state.gov. You can also find photos of each week's interviewee and a complete episode transcript at our webpage, that's at ECA.state.gov/22.33. Special thanks to Shahbaz for sharing his stories and for sharing some delicious sweets when we sat down for the interview at Wayne State University Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Missy Dreamer, A Little Powder, Gullwing Sailor, Petaluma, and Stuffed Monsters, all by Blue Dot Sessions. 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 03 - FLTA Party in the USA (22.33 Live!)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 03

Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant


This week, ECA is releasing a special episode recorded live during the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) conference held in Washington D.C. This was the first live podcasting event that ECA has organized and takes the 22.33 podcast to a whole new level.

You can learn more about the Fulbright FLTA program here: https://foreign.fulbrightonline.org/about/fulbright-flta.


Chris: Hello. It is so great to see everyone and kick off this live 22.33 event. This is only the second time we've done this, and by far the largest audience that we've done this in front of, but we are confident that with the guests like the ones we have today, we cannot go wrong. From Downtown Washington, D.C., you're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories. I'm Christopher Wurst, the director of the Collaboratory, the senior advisor of innovation at the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA.

Ana-Maria: I'm Ana-Maria Sinitean, program designer in the Collaboratory, and frequent contributor to 22.33. This podcast name comes from Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, which is the legal statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs. On TV's unique live episode, we'll hear from three inspiring teachers that participated in the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program. Sponsored by ECA, the Fulbright FLTA program is designed to develop Americans knowledge of foreign cultures and languages by supporting teaching assistantship in over 30 languages at hundreds of U.S. institutions of higher education.

Ana-Maria: The program offers educators from over 50 countries the opportunity to develop their professional skills and to gain firsthand knowledge of the U.S., its culture and its people. Today's guests represent teachers from India, the Philippines and Jordan.

Chris: A quick word about 22.33. We in ECA believe that international exchange programs are transformative in peoples lives, not only for the participants but for those who they meet on their journey. We also believe in the power of human stories. Our goal is to reflect the profound impact of ECA exchanges, one powerful story at a time. Today, we are truly privileged to hear three such stories. 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 3: (Singing)

Ana-Maria: Hello, and welcome. Can you begin by telling us your name, where you're from and where you were place during your Fulbright year?

Madri: My name is Madri. I'm from India, and I was placed at NYU during my cultural exchange, New York University. Ana-Maria:  What were your expectations before you arrived? What did you expect?

Madri: Well it's New York City, you expect what you expect when it's New York City. I expected everything. I expected new friends, new passions, a new understanding of the world, new understanding of myself, new understanding of the language that I was going to teach. I expected to learn more about my culture. I expected to learn more about the U.S. culture, and yeah, all of those dreams did come true.

Ana-Maria: You just answered my next question, which was were your expectations met?

Madri: Yes, they were actually. As far as my teaching is concerned, as far as my subject and the understanding of my subject was concerned. In fact, my exchange met more than my expectations because when I came, I discovered that I had to unlearn a number of things in order to learn what the experience was teaching me. There ere certain things that we are used to doing as teachers, especially as Indian teachers, we are not used to being told that you are wrong in this instance or you're wrong in that instance.

Madri: Personally also, I'm not used to being told that I'm wrong, so yes, the university and the way my course was designed and the way I interacted with my students, the way I interacted with my primary advisor and the secondary advisors, both of them in fact, they made me see the fault in a number of ways in which I was working and I was able to change that for the better, so much so that when I went back home, I could see where I was going wrong, and I made special efforts to change those things, not just in the curriculum, but in the pedagogy that I was following.

Ana-Maria: Did you ever feel particularly foreign, especially at the beginning of the program?

Madri: No, specifically because it's New York City. There's so many people who look like me, who do not look like me, so it's like it's a kaleidoscope of people. It's a group of people so different from each other that together we make more sense than separate. All these foreign elements together, they make more sense than just one element. New York City actually really helped me understand that even though I might look different, I might sound different, I'm not really that much different from anybody else in the world. If I can, if I want to, I can make a space for myself in that big huge crowded city. I still can make a space for myself even though I'm different.

Madri: As far as being foreign is concerned, no I did not because I also lived in an area, I lived in Queens, in Jackson Heights, and everyone, I saw people from everywhere around, and specifically from India. There were a lot of people living in Jackson Heights from India. In fact, there's a very interesting story because the first day, I took the subway and I was walking through the streets of Jackson Heights just getting to know the streets where I'm in. I'm in Roosevelt Avenue, I'm walking, and I suddenly hear this music in the background. I'm walking, and there's music in the background, and it happened completely like a Bollywood film.

Madri: There was winds blowing, and it touched my face, and the music behind me was the music from Veer-Zaara, a movie that is a Shah Rukh Khan movie. Everybody knows Shah Rukh Khan. It was as if Shah Rukh Khan is standing ... the typical image of Shah Rukh Khan is him standing in the middle of a mustard field, and there are yellow flowers everywhere and he has his hands out, and that is what exactly I felt, as if New York City is my shadow and New York City is standing with its hands out because that's what, I'm walking the steps, I'm walking in Roosevelt Avenue, and this is the music behind me. I felt home from day one.

Madri: It never felt as if I stepped outside of India. Somewhere that was good, somewhere that helped me, and somewhere ... maybe, I don't know, I don't see any negative sides to that. Never. I never felt that I was in a foreign land.

Ana-Maria: Did you begin singing and dancing to the soundtrack of your life?

Madri: I wanted to. I wanted to, but it was basically just background music. Yeah, it felt good.

Ana-Maria: You mentioned that there were a lot of things that you had to unlearn, but did you have any assumptions? Did you come to the U.S. with any assumptions that were proved wrong?

Madri: Oh yes. I had this assumption that students in the U.S., they do very little study and a lot of partying because the movies that we see usually give that kind of a vibe and that kind of a picture, that kind of an image. I thought that there would be a lot of partying going and the students won't be much interested in what I'm teaching, and specifically also because it is a language subject, and it's not really ... students won't be really interested in learning Hindi. I was proven very, very wrong because from the day one itself, they were extremely interested in what I was saying, what is being taught and this was an elective, so they had actually chosen to be there.

Madri: Then gradually throughout my exchange program, I realized how hardworking these students were because one of the students was a psychology major, and I think she was a pre-med because that's what psychology majors are. She was already shadowing a psychiatrist and she had 18 hours of our day packed with classes with TAships that she was doing with shadowing this particular doctor and she was coming to my classes, which were three days a week, and then she had tutorials because she was not able to understand some of the things, so she would spend extra time with me.

Madri: It's not just her. I found students like her in every semester. There were law students who came for Hindi classes, and they were people who were doing extra work. They were not getting any credit for that kind of work, but they were still doing it. I was extremely surprised at the amount of hard work that American students have actually ... they actually put in, and how serious they are about everything, about the curriculum, about if something is in the syllabus or not, about their grades and they would come and argue. For us, when we were students, if we get a bad grade, that was the end of the story. There was no way you could argue with the teacher, or you would even tell them that you have made a mistake, you should be giving me more marks.

Madri: Probably that would land us with a letter to our parents that your son or daughter is disrespectful and asking for more marks. I saw that, that was one major assumption which was proven wrong. The second one is time management. I had an assumption that concept of time would be as flexible in America as it is in India. I could tell you a very short story that one of the first days when we joined the university, the department threw a welcome party for us. Me and my Pakistani roommate, she was the Pakistani FLTA for Urdu, both of us were invited. It was not basically for us, but for the new students of the department, the new TAs in the different departments, et cetera, and someone new had joined the administration as well.

Madri: For everyone, it was a welcome party, and it was at 6. We got ready, we got dressed up, and then we took some photos and we reached the venue by 7. By 7, everything was over. Not just the food. People were also gone, so it was almost like we were late to our own party, and my supervisor had stayed back specifically to tell me that this is not done. Day one we had this welcome party, and day one I do that. Yes, I knew on that moment itself that I have to be more conscious about time, and it's not as flexible and not as stretchable as Indian standard time is.

Ana-Maria: Can you tell me about a time when you felt very inspired during your program?

Madri: Oh, during our exchange, I felt inspired in fact from the day from the orientation itself. I feel like I am repeating myself that from day one, from day one, but it is true that that is actually what happened because during our orientation I met a few students, and it was eye opening that some students, situations like that can have happened in lives of people and they have come out of this. For example, I met one of the FLTA's, she was from Mexico, and she had come out of an abusive relationship to be in the program. In fact, her husband had told her that, "If you apply for this, then I'm leaving." She had three kids, and she decided that she's going for this program because it is better for her life, it will be better for her kids, so it was important for her.

Madri: That's why she decided, "No, I'm going." She applied for it." To have come out of such kind of relationships, she inspired me. Then I met Alexandra. Alexandra was from Belgium, and she spoke seven languages. I was astounding by the fact that how can ... and not just seven languages, seven languages of the world. She spoke Russian, she spoke Spanish, she spoke Portuguese, she spoke German and three more ... of course she spoke English. She was speaking to every FLTA she met in their language. I was so surprised, and I was so amazed and impressed. I was like, "Why am I not like her?"

Madri: The inspiration continues. It's just something ... it's a program where you inspire, you find inspiration almost everywhere.

Ana-Maria: What is something that you learned about yourself during your FLTA year?

Madri: That I'm adaptable. I never thought I would be as adaptable as I turned out to be. I have a notion that I am very strict and very single minded. Not single minded, but very adamant about my approach towards life, and I know what I think, and I know what my opinions are about certain things, and I don't want to change them. This program, it made me realize that I have the ability to listen to somebody, to respect somebody else's ... it taught me actually to respect somebody else's opinion because I saw that my opinions were also being respected, despite the fact that they might be different from somebody else's.

Madri: I was able to ... For example, if I would disagree with my primary supervisor about a particular item in the class, about a particular way this particular thing is being taught, I could tell her, and she would respect my opinion and she would see if there was any position or if there was any way we could reach a common ground. That kind of effort to make things possible between people to make communication easier, I never thought that that would be possible for me because for me, it was either my way or the highway, but now it's different. Now I think that's something that I have discovered about myself. I hope it's good.

Ana-Maria: Is there something that you learned about India being outside of India?

Madri: Being outside of India, learning about India? I think, yeah, because when you are outside, you take certain things for granted. You complain a lot about your country, that this is not good, this is not correct, and oh we are so lazy, oh we are so dirty, et cetera, et cetera. Outside you tend to see that there are always silver linings to certain things, and you do miss your country. Not just your people, but you do miss the environment, the culture that you were in, and specifically because we are cultural ambassadors to America, we have to kind of show the best side of our country, and doing that, you realize, oh, this is the best side of my country.

Madri: You understand that there are so many different things about your country that's beautiful. I realize that my people are extremely hospitable. We like having guests and even though I am not much of a social butterfly, but I still liked having people over. I still liked having them introduced to my culture, my food. In fact, I learned cooking in the U.S. I had never been inside a kitchen before that. In the U.S., necessity is the mother of invention. I had to cook because the stipend was not much, so we had to cook our food instead of eating outside every ... No, I'm joking.

Madri: We had to cook our food. We wanted to cook our food, and that's why I had to learn. Yeah, and I could ... Yeah. I hear you guys.

Ana-Maria: I think everyone just congratulated you on learning how to cook your own meals.

Madri: Yes.

Ana-Maria: Can you tell me about a person that really made an impact on you during your exchange and someone that you won't ever forget?

Madri: Oh that's hands down my supervisor. She is Gabriella Nikleava, and she's an exceptionally strong woman. She has a degree in Indology and she studied Indian culture, she's studied in language, and she has excellent language skills. She also knows like nine, ten different languages. She's just amazing. She's like this ball of energy, which his always constantly working. I look at her and I think when I grow up, my level of success would be to be more like her. I would measure my success by thinking how much of Gabriella is in me. How much of Gabriella have I been able to incorporate in my life?

Madri: She would work throughout the day, and I have never seen her ... She was so, not worried, but she was so conscious about the things that she would do in her life as examples that she would set in front of others. For example, she would recycle. She never used coffee cups. She never ate in places that don't recycle. I think her adamance about these things, they made me realize that no, there are certain issues that you do not take lightly. There are certain issues that you have to think about, that you have to take a stand. Her entire worldview and the way she conducted her classes, the way she conducted her life, everything was extremely inspiring to me, and I have learned so much from her.

Madri: I hope to learn so much from her, because we have been in touch for the past five years. In fact, I'm meeting her in two weeks as well. She's coming to India.

Ana-Maria: You've been back for five years now. What have you done since returning to India to keep the momentum of the FLTA program going and to continue to practice what you've learned?

Madri: In the last five years, I have been able to, because of Gabriella and because of my association with her, I have been able to teach online at the University Master's Program in Hindi Pedagogy. I have been able to teach two courses, design two courses and taught one of them for one semester. That was an online thing. I did it from home. Then I have been able to design modules for the STARTALK program. STARTALK is the federal government's program for language teaching initiatives. That I have been able to do.

Madri: I have been able to co-found, not co-found, co-found with my father an organization which specifically helps students, helps children in underprivileged backgrounds to help get the education that they need. Right now we have designed an English language program for students, for kids in that particular underprivileged area, which happens to be my ancestral village. They do not have access to good schools. They do not have access to good English teachers. So I am trying to take it to them. It has been in the process for the past three years. This year we are starting with the English program. For the past three years, we have awarded students who have excelled in their academics and we have helped them find education opportunities outside the village at better institutions.

Ana-Maria: That's great. That's amazing. It sounds like you've made quite an impact at home and in your home community. What do you think is the biggest impact you've had on your U.S. host university?

Madri: Oh, the U.S. host university, I was part of a few ... I don't know. I haven't really thought about it in that way, but I would like to think that I participated in a number of things and probably brought my side, my culture to it. For example, I'm a very big Harry Potter fan. NYU has a Quidditch team, and I made it a point to join the Quidditch team. It's actually very silly. They run around. We ran around with the poles like stuck between our legs, but it was very funny. Yeah. We won a few tournaments. There are people who play Quidditch in other universities as well.

Madri: I also joined their TaeKwonDo team, and I did win two of the tournaments in which I participated. So I have a 2-0, I have an unbeaten record as far as TaeKwonDo is concerned. Thank you. I also won my blue belt in TaeKwonDo at NYU, as I gave my exams, my blue belt exams at NYU and then my black belt exams back, I hope. Yeah, that's the thing. I think that I have contributed to the sports fraternity. Other than that, I also worked with the magazines, a fashion magazine which NYU has and I was also part of the Asian community in NYU and we organized the Bali and we organized fashion shows and Bollywood nights and things like that.

Madri: I would like to think that I have contributed, yes.

Ana-Maria: I know you've been anticipating this question, and we're going to end with this one. What song do you hear that immediately brings you back to your FLTA year and your time in New York?

Madri: The song that brings me back is Taylor Swift's Welcome to New York because it has these beautiful lines in the middle, which go like, "Every real love, it keeps you guessing, like every true love, it's ever changing. Like every great love, it drives you crazy." I think these lines, they encapsulate the essence and passion that New York has and the love that I have for that beautiful, beautiful city.

Ana-Maria: Great. Thank you so much Madri.

Madri: Thank you. Thank you.

Chris: Okay, we're going to start the same way. Can you tell me your name, where you're from and where you were placed on your FLTA?

Anito: Hi Chris, I'm Anito, I am an English teacher in the Philippines and I was assigned at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois.

Chris: You told me that this was the first time that you had been to the United States. I want you to go back to the weeks that were leading up to this exchange and maybe even the airplane ride over to the United States. Tell me what the expectations you had of the United States were.

Anito: Well yeah, it was quite a long flight we had from Manila to Japan, and then of course the long flight from Japan to the USA. I had a lot of expectations actually. One of them really I found very challenging because I'm a high school teacher, and being an FLTA required me to be a teacher for college students. I think I had to make some adjustment and ask people how it works there. The second one is of course it's going to be something that was exciting because I'm going to spend an entire nine months in the USA and something that ... because I thought of really ... of course I have to come back to the Philippines and continue my teaching, so I took that opportunity of being in the USA to really explore and enjoy and have fun, and really find it very exciting.

Chris: What did you think DeKalb, Illinois was going to be like?

Anito: Well it's very different from the Philippines. You would have mountains and then of course you had had the ocean, but there it was all corn and it was all flatland, so that was really a different topography. It's a different experience to be in DeKalb. Interestingly enough, because NIU is a community there, and so it's also like some of our public universities in the Philippines where it's open and there are dorms and there are also housing for faculty, so something like that. There are some similarities to that.

Chris: What were some of the assumptions that you had that were proved wrong?

Anito: I really thought of being alone in the task of being an FLTA and being able to do all of it without help from others because I thought people might not be polite enough to help me. Then I realized that if you just ask or if you are able to email somebody, people are very open and helpful. That was something that I thought that wouldn't happen. Of course, everybody would have that feeling, especially if you don't have your transportation and people would be emailing you.

Anito: This was in 2009, they would be emailing you and then saying, like, "We're going to this place and that place, and would you like to come?" Something about planning, about your day with the help of others is something that I appreciated from there.

Chris: Tell me what it was like to feel, or maybe you didn't, but you came from the Philippines, you landed in DeKalb, Illinois, it was very different than what you were used to. Did you feel foreign?

Anito: Well the concept of space was a bit foreign for me. Of course there were highways that were ... there were no people in the highways. The Philippines, people cross the highways. Then of course, you have of course the buildings and the spaces. It's very different from what we have, and of course there's also that notion of the personal space, the people that you interact with. Of course, in the Philippines we kiss, we hug, we're very sociable with people and we always make sure that everybody's comfortable or okay. Of course, there are different ways in how it is here. I actually learned and appreciated that at the end.

Chris: Can you think of a time when you really confronted your comfort zone and you really kind of crashed through your comfort zone?

Anito: Yeah, I'm not very fond of small talk. I'm more of an introvert I guess. When people approach me, that's the only time I get to talk. That's something that I've also appreciated and learned and something that I also tried to overcome, because here you have to make sure that you're able to also express yourselves and your opinions, and if you don't tell them that, you don't expect them to actually listen to what your head is, and what's on your head. You have to express that. You have to tell people what you feel or tell people what your thoughts are, what your opinions are.

Chris: Was it difficult?

Anito: Yes, it is. Until now, it's still a struggle because it's something that although I am a teacher and I have always been very vocal and approachable to my students in class, but in a very personal level, I keep things to myself. I think that's something that I had to ... it's a struggle that I had to do and really overcome.

Chris: I'm a former teacher and I remember how nervous I used to be every year before the very first day when you get in front of your class, and I imagine it's the same for all teachers, but I can't imagine how difficult it must be to come from a completely different culture, a different place. Tell me about your first day.

Anito: Yes, what I remember was my teacher giving me the numerical keys to our laboratory, and she said, "If something goes wrong with pressing those buttons, the police will come, so make sure you press the right buttons and then you close it and you open. That's how the security is in those laboratories." I've always had that ... I was very anxious in my first time with my students because they would say, "Are you sure you know the numbers to that keypad?" Okay, I think I can do this now.

Anito: Well there was another thing that happened because we had an incident where a student had, I think he collapsed or something. This was my first time to really have paramedics in the classroom, and then they would say, "You have to step out of the classroom," and then all of that. So that was like, wow, this is really happening in your classrooms here.

Chris: That's pretty intense. Can you think of a time in your classroom when you really felt like you were making a connection, that you were getting through to your students?

Anito: Well I think most of us here in FLTAs, we're always prepared for cultural nights, and I think that's just something that I also looked forward to. We did two actually, and the first one was we did a performance. That was like a Christmas lullaby and we presented it to all the southeast Asian participants and the students in the community from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and they really enjoyed that. Although it was just one song with all that instruments, having to train the students to have that smooth seamless performance was something that was a connection with them beyond class hours because we did the practices after class.

Anito: Then on the next semester, we already did the song, so the second semester we did a dance, which was literally a dance on benches. Nobody fell, fortunately nobody fell, and they were all dancing and they were applauded for their dance. That was something that I was really proud of that because they were able to accomplish that. I was also there. I was in the center, so that they would all follow.

Chris: You said the word pride, so I wanted to ask you about that. Can you think of a moment during your exchange when you felt particularly proud of something?

Anito: Well it was actually this conference. I was in my mid year conference, and I was one of the presenters. Of course, the presenters here felt of course butterflies in their stomach, but I really felt very proud to represent no only my country but also our university because we were presenting with what we were doing in our university, what we were teaching. That was something I was really proud of and I wish my parents were able to, my friends were able to see that also because it was also my first time to be in an international conference being part of the FLTA.

Anito: It also helped me be more confident in speaking in front of people and sharing my ideas, and attending and participating in international conferences.

Chris:  When you think back on your time at Northern Illinois, can you think of a specific time when you said to yourself, "I wish my friends or family back home could see me right now"?

Anito: Well aside from the experience from the FLTA, I've always ... Sometimes there are parts where you get to be on your own, so you wish that they were there, and I have felt the love and support of the Filipino community that is in Northern Illinois. We have a lot of Filipinos who are working, who are studying, and I really wish that my family and friends were also there with me because I really enjoyed having dinners. We always had things to take home. Interestingly enough, my fellow FLTAs would always wait for me to come back to the dorm because I always brought food from all of these gatherings, and they enjoyed that food.

Anito: I wish I could have shared that moment also with my family and friends. Interestingly enough, because this is for 2009, and I use social media to post pictures, so my sisters and my family at home were able to see where I was and what I was doing. That was something that was very significant also. Chris:  I want to talk a little bit about the ripple effects of your FLTA. Imagine that you were back in the Philippines and you never participated in this program. What wouldn't exist?

Anito: Yes. I think it's all about the network and the connections that I was able to do. When I was at NIU in 2009, there was a program, which was the Philippine Youth Leadership Program. I think it was still in its seventh year, in its run, and there were young Filipino youth leaders that were flown from Mindanao to NIU and have a leadership training. Back then, I was just a volunteer, so I was able to lead them in their excursions, be in their discussions and being their elder brother because we are Filipinos and they were there. Of course, these are young kids.

Anito: With that, when we came back, I got reunited with them, and these young kids, they were amazing because years after that, I was working with them. I was working with them in creating projects, in coming up with programs from funding from the U.S. Embassy because they're also U.S. grantee alumni, and that sparked an idea for me to really focus of course in helping youth in their leadership because until now, even if I'm older than they are, we work as if we're really professionals, and now they're very successful. Interestingly enough, my professor, after a few years, invited us, me and other FLTAs, if we could be the in country coordinators.

Anito: This time around, we were the ones inviting, screening these young leaders in Mindanao and to give them that opportunity, just like, just like any Fulbright FLTAs to have ... it's actually a shorter course, like it's a six week course, but it has changed them and changed them for the better and made them better leaders for Mindanao and the Philippines, and something that I've considered also as an advocacy.

Chris: It's been a decade since your exchange. Do you feel like you came out of the exchange more optimistic than you were when you looked to the future?

Anito: Yes, definitely. One of my advocacies is really on teacher training, and I've been inspired by a lot of my professors in NIU and until now, I'm working with teachers in making sure that they are able to adapt to new technologies and of course new ways or methodologies in teaching, and being part of the community of FLTAs, I think more and more there's really a need to have more and more FLTAs in order to have that better understanding of our own culture in the Philippines, at the same time being able to share that experience to students in the United States.

Chris: Okay, Anito, this question wasn't, we didn't talk about this before. This is something we do in the studio that we have sometimes. We'll ask somebody that we're interviewing to close their eyes. It's tough to do in front of 400 people, but I will warn you if anyone makes any quick moves. Tell me, when you think of DeKalb, Illinois in 2009, what do you see?

Anito: Well I see a lot of cornfields, and then of course the windmills, or rather the wind turbines. I can see that. Of course there's the welcoming sign right across the highway that says, "Northern Illinois University," and then there's the castle in the campus at the center, and that's a very beautiful NIU campus there. I can see it.

Chris: Beautiful. You can open your eyes. Now you're really, really hungry, it's 2009 and you're in DeKalb, Illinois. What are you going to go eat?

Anito: Before then ... Well there's always Panda Express, and there's Japanese and then of course other restaurants in town. They're very accessible.

Chris: Now we're going to talk about what you hear, but we're going to frame it like this. Imagine you're back in the Philippines now and you're fiddling around on your car radio dial and a song comes on and it takes you right back to that time. What's the song?

Anito: That was 2009, so it's definitely Miley Cyrus, Party in the USA.

Chris: I forget, how does that go?

Anito: I'll try to go for the lyrics. I think everybody can wave their hands, right? Okay, everybody now. "I put my hands up, they're playing my song, the butterflies fly away." Woo. "Nodding my head like, yeah. Moving my hips like, yeah. So I got my hands up, they're playing my song. You know I'm going to be okay. Yeah-a-yeah-a-yeah-a-yeah, it's a party in the USA. Yeah-a-yeah-a-yeah-a-yeah, it's a party in the USA."

Chris: We have our episode title. Thank you so much Anito.

Anito: You're welcome.

Chris: Same question. Can you tell us your name, where you're from and where you were placed during your FLTA?

Hiba: My name is Hiba, and I'm from Jordan, from Amman. I was placed at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Upstate New York.

Chris: Same thing. You are preparing to come to the United States. What are your expectations? What's your vision of what you're coming into before you got here?

Hiba: Well I mean this is a bit difficult because for me, when I applied for the FLTA grant, I already had my PhD and a lot of people were questioning my decision to go abroad to teach Arabic in the U.S. "You're an English teacher. You already have a job at university. What are you doing going over there to teach Arabic?" For me, I knew this would reflect positively on my teaching skills, on my degree because I'm an assistant professor of English literature and I do focus in American literature in my classes. So I knew that being here and living with Americans, experiencing the culture firsthand would give me a new sense of understanding of the text that I'm teaching to my students.

Hiba: I did expect a lot, positively in that sense. I did not know exactly how this would affect me but I knew it would be a very positive experience, and I remember the minute the plane landed and I just walked out and I had this feeling, and it was like this is it. This is when my life is going to turn around. I just didn't know how, but I knew that it was going to be great. So far, it's been the best thing I've ever done. I don't regret it, not a single minute.

Chris: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about some moments when you realized that, "Yes, I'm really in a different culture, people do things differently, maybe they think differently."

Hiba: Well there isn't much that I found strange or like I couldn't understand or I found foreign in that sense, but having said that, I mean I've said this earlier today. I did have problems adjusting to the weather in Geneva. It was super cold for me. The first time I kind of noticed that people were kind of a bit looking at me sideways was when I started wearing my coat and my boots in October, and they were all like, "What are you doing? Where are you from? Now we know that you're not from here."

Hiba: That was an instant or a moment in which I felt that things are different a bit. Otherwise, people were very welcoming and the students were very warm and I felt at home. I mean I didn't really experience any difficulties in that sense. I've enjoyed every minute. I was happy I was here, and I had great friendships with people around me. Even with the FLTAs as well that we were with. It was just great.

Chris: It sounds like you really got into the swing of things right away. Do you think that there was a particular aspect of your personality or your outlook or your willingness to try new things? What was it that you think made you succeed?

Hiba: Well yeah, I think this was the year ... the y ear that I did my FLTA was the year in which I felt like I have to do more and I have to get out of my comfort zone a bit more. I have my roommate, the German FLTA to thank for this because she was so full of life, and she was very passionate about everything around us. She would make a point of dragging me out of my room every single day and be like, "Okay, we're only here for one year. I'm going to do this today. I'm not going to do this alone. You're coming with me, whether you like it or not." She kind of pushed me and gave me that attitude as well, and we did things together.

Hiba: Yes, the willingness to try new things and meet new people and do different things every day was there, and it did definitely impact my experience positively.

Chris: Can you think of a time when you did something that was particularly not something you would do at home, but fit right in in your new culture?

Hiba: I mean I can't really think of ... Oh, yeah, I do remember this thing. I remember when I first came to Geneva, we didn't really know what to expect. We knew it was more like a college town. I did look up some information on the internet, and it said that it's a city but it's like too small. It's like a large town. People are not sure why they call it a city. So we didn't really know what we would do there. Then we also learned that a lot of the elderly retire in Geneva. One night we were just walking out, and we saw these fliers and apparently they had Geneva Night Out, where basically people just hang out by the lake and they dance and they sing and they just share food and they have a good time.

Hiba: ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​We went there, and I was surprised to see these elderly people singing and dancing and there was a moment in which I felt that, okay, these people are living their life to the fullest, and they're like double my age, so I have to do it too. I'm not usually the type of person who would just dance around or be chatting with everyone, so we did that. We actually, I went there and there was this old man who just was like, "You okay?" I said, "Yes, I am." He said, "Why don't you dance with me?" I just got up and I danced with him, and that was something that I would never do back home.

Hiba: ​​​​​​​I never imagined myself doing it, but I enjoyed the moment. I think that's when I learned that you only live once, and you should just try your best to enjoy life when you can.

Chris: I absolutely agree. That's fantastic.

Ana-Maria: Hiba, you mentioned that your roommate often dragged you out the door and forced you to do things with her. Can you think of a time when you took initiative and when you were the one that had an idea and took the lead on doing something during your exchange?

Hiba: ​​​​​​​Well yeah, in terms of these activities, I do remember I'm the one who asked her to plan a trip to New York City. We actually did this on Columbus Day, we went ahead and we went there, we enjoyed the city and we attended the celebrations that were happening in the streets and so on. On other terms, in a different respect, on campus, I was not the first Arabic FLTA, but there was no Arabic department. The Arabic classes were part of the political science department, so when I wanted to start teaching, I did not really find anything that I can use. I did not know what my students learned in earlier classes. There were barely any syllabi available. So I took it upon myself to prepare material that would make it easier for the next FLTA to know what I've been doing and maybe provide resources that they could use on campus.

Hiba: ​​​​​​​I discovered, for example, that there weren't enough resources, not because the campus was not willing to provide it, but I guess people probably never really asked for them. So I did bring in DVDs and CDs for movie nights. I left them at the library. I also bought several books and I left them there for other FLTAs to use and for the students to use as well.

Ana-Maria: Can you think about a time when you felt very proud to represent your country and to be an ambassador for Jordan?

Hiba: ​​​​​​​Well I don't know if a lot of people know that, but Jordan is a very small country in a war torn area with all the political turmoil. It's just, Jordanians suffer a lot, and there were a couple of instances in which I got to talk about Syrian refugees as well as other refugees in Jordan. I felt very proud of my people for being able to provide host communities for war torn countries and people who were running away from struggles. Despite the difficulties that we, ourselves, go through, we manage to share whatever we have and we try to make life easier for other people. I was extremely proud of sharing that about my country, and reminding people that this is not an easy thing to do, but that my country, despite being small and despite not having enough resources, was doing its best and it was paying it forward to the word, kind of in a way.

Ana-Maria: Kind of along that same note, talking about kindness and being received and welcomed into a community, can you think of a particular time when you felt very welcomed and the beneficiary of someone's kindness?

Hiba: ​​​​​​​Well being here, because it's brought to mind ... asking this question brings to mind this answer because we're here today with 400 other FLTAs. Four years ago when we had the mid-year conference, the third day, the last day was my birthday. I was up in my room, and when I went downstairs to have breakfast, the minute I walked in all 400 FLTAs started signing Happy Birthday, and they all came up to me and they gave me hugs and kisses and so on. We kind of in a way celebrated my birthday throughout the day. We went out for lunch on that day, and then we had the farewell dinner and a dance and all of it was people were continuously celebrating my birthday with me that day.

Hiba: ​​​​​​​That was one thing I will never forget. Also, there was a ... one of the employees on campus, her office was next to mine, and she was extremely nice. I would always walk in and talk to her. Her name is Sue Campbell. One day we were just ... I mean this is really funny, but we were just talking about food and candy and chocolate and things like that, and I was complaining. I was like, "You know, I don't understand how I can find flavored tootsie rolls in Jordan, but I can't find them in the U.S." It just didn't make sense to me. A couple of days after that, she brought me a huge bag of flavored tootsie rolls, and then she got me peanut butter cups and she got me everything that she knew that I liked. She always told me that I was the same age as her son, and that whatever she gets her son when he comes home, she brings me some if it too.

Hiba: These are things that I will never forget.

Ana-Maria: Is it your birthday today by any chance?

Hiba: Well it was two days ago.

Chris: Well we can all sing.

Hiba: Thank you.

Chris: I love singing. I want you to now think about kind of post-exchange and life back in Jordan and talk about some of the ripple effects. What have you been able to do because you were on the exchange?

Hiba: Well I mean if I think about this, I think about a lot of things, but it mainly has to do with teaching and my students. I was able to ... I mean when I was at HWS, I was very grateful because it was one of the top ten liberal arts colleges in the U.S. What I saw on campus was completely different. The very untraditional teaching methodologies that I witnessed and that I took back home with me and tried to employ, I mean it's not easy when you go back to a very traditional setting and try to introduce something different, but I tried. I was in charge of the English Department back home, and I managed to get my students involved in a variety of activities that were inspired by the type of activities that I witnessed here from community service to learning outside the classroom.

Hiba:  I saw a lot of students double up and advance their English and become more interested and more focused in their studies because they felt that they can achieve more than just grades and exams and papers and things like that. This is something that I love doing for two years. I also worked with a lot of students because we don't really have an official counseling center on campus. We don't really give big emphasis to mental health support to students, and when I was in the U.S. I really appreciated this, and I thought that this is something that we needed back home. I remembered I thought of myself when I was a student, and I never found anyone to talk to.

Hiba: I became a certified mental health supporter when I was at HWS, and going back home, I made my best to provide that kind of support for my students, and I still have students who contact me on a daily basis despite having graduated and thanking me for the time that I gave them, that I listened to them, that I tried to help them out. These are like a couple of things. The last thing that I always am proud of is that because I did this experience, because I was in this exchange and because I got to experience the benefits or the positives of being in another culture and meeting other people and how it changed me positively, I want my students to experience that.

Hiba: Ever since I got back home, I kept in touch with the Fulbright Commission back home and with the U.S. Embassy, and every year I organize events on campus that would promote these different grants. I would sit with my students and I would explain to them the process and what they have to do, what to expect, how they can maybe increase their chances of getting accepted. I was just telling them this morning that one of my students actually just made it, she was nominated for an FLTA grant next year, and she's very excited, and I'm so happy for her.

Chris: With that, you just kind of answered my next question, but I think you make a really good point about you pick up things that are really impressionable, and then you go back home and you can't just automatically bring all of these new things into a new society.

Hiba: Yes.

Chris: But you can make incremental movements.

Hiba: Yes, it's like gradual change. If you just impact one student, that student is going to try and implement that in other ways and they will try to inspire another person. The change you make with one person is actually a change that continues. I think that everyone should bear that in mind, and even if you manage to create something or leave an impact, don't think of it as little because you don't really know how far it would go along.

Chris: I think that's very well said. Are you hopeful? With that in mind, are you hopeful when you look into the future at home?

Hiba: Yes. I believe that, I mean I try to encourage my students to apply for all sorts of exchange programs because I do believe that getting to meet other people and getting to know more about other cultures and other people would just give you more insight about the world and it would make you a better person. You would become more understanding. You would become more empathetic with other people, and that's when actually things change. It's when you have the ability to talk and you want to listen, it's when people kind of in a way get together and things change for the better hopefully. Thank you.

Chris: If I ask you to close your eyes and think about your time in the United States, what do you see?

Hiba: Oh I see Seneca Lake that's right across from campus and the boathouse, and the purple sunsets. Geneva had the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. I've never seen a sky as beautiful as in Geneva specifically.

Chris: If you turn on the radio back home, what's the song that's going to take you back to the United States?

Hiba: Well the song that would take me back is Cake By the Ocean. I don't know if you guys know it, but there's a funny story to it. Me and Yvonne were driving to Pennsylvania. We were meeting a number of FLTAs over there, and while driving there, it's about a five hours drive, and every time we tried to switch the channels, it's just Cake By the Ocean would come up. It came up 25 times. We just kept kidding about finding the time to eat cake by the ocean. I mean the song was actually telling you to do it. Eventually we settled with burritos by the lake on the last day we were there.

Chris: That was the B side.

Hiba: Yeah, I mean burritos and cake, both are good. Yeah.

Chris: Fantastic. Hiba, thank you so much.

Hiba: Thank you.

Chris: Very, very, very special thanks today to Madri, Anito and Hiba for sharing their stories. We want to thank all of our ECA colleagues and the Fulbright team and the Fulbright team at the Institute for International Education, IIE, for their support in making this event possible today.

Ana-Maria: Thanks for listening to 22.33. For more about the Fulbright Program and other ECA exchanges, check out ECA.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and leave us a nice review please. We'd love to hear from you. Feel free to write to us at the Collaboratory, ECACollaboratory@State.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y at State.gov. Thank you.

Chris: Thank you all very much.


Season 02, Episode 02 - Freedom's Boombox

LISTEN HERE - Episode 02

Freedom's Boombox


After their a cappella quintet "The Exchange" finished as finalists on Season 5 of NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” becoming favorites of America’s a cappella community, core trio Alfredo Austin (Newark, DE), Christopher Diaz (Dayton, OH), and Richard Steighner (Denver, CO) came together to form dynamic vocal pop group Freedom’s Boombox.  The group quickly developed an international following as they took a cappella to all corners of the globe, singing on an American Music Abroad tour through Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in 2016 and touring four continents in under six months with the Backstreet Boys.

You can learn more about ECA's American Music Abroad program here: https://amvoices.org/ama/ensembles-2018/freedoms-boombox/


Chris Wurst: As a vocal trio, working without instruments and often singing in a language foreign to your audience, you're worried about how deeply you could resonate. But years and many foreign tours later, you know that not only were your initial worries unwarranted, if anything, you underestimated the power of music to connect. You're listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.

Chris Diaz: When we were in Georgia, the country, Georgia, not the State. I always say that because a lot of times in the US people are like, "Oh what's the big deal?" So we were in the country, Georgia, and in our set, in that tour, we had the song Georgia on My Mind by Ray Charles, it's an American classic. And Jamal, our baritone in the group at the time was such a beautiful singer and it was a hit no matter where and how we did it. And we thought, "Oh, we're going to Georgia. I mean, this is going to be amazing." Alfredo:  They are going to love this.

Chris Diaz: They're going to freak out when they hear this. And we noticed that it got kind of a... Not a tepid response, but people were clapping politely at the end. Alfredo:  That's nice, that's nice.

Chris Diaz: And we thought, "That's so weird." We thought people would really resonate. And then our interpreter Eka, told us afterwards that Georgians don't call the country Georgia, Georgia. They call it Sakartvelo, which is not at all like the word Georgia.

Alfredo: Not similar.

Chris Diaz: So we kind of... We maybe took for granted that when you're in a new country there's a new language and people typically call their country its name in its native language and not in the language of the visitors. So anyways, so Georgia didn't work in that way, but it was a really fun experience to realize that we had taken that for granted and we got to learn something. We were able to joke about that in future shows on stage, "We're going to sing our next song for you. It's called Georgia." And then there are crickets. Then we'll say, "Oh sorry, it's called Sakartvelo." And people are like, "Oh my gosh, they're going to sing a Georgian folk song." And then we could disappoint them.

Chris Wurst: This week, genuine community engagement. Taking another extra second to truly understand someone. Georgia on One's Mind and two exclusive little nook performances. Join us on our journey from the United States all around the world, searching for and finding sweet harmony. It's 22.33.

Radio Clip: Oh welcome to 96.5 where all the cool kids and cats are at. Spinning the top 40 from the artists you know and love. If the sound is hot, you know we got it. So take your hand off that dial.

Radio Clip: (music)

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: Then when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people much like ourselves and-
Intro Clip: (music)

Alfredo: My name is Alfredo Austin. I am from Delaware and I am a professional musician and producer.

Richard: My name is Richard Stagner. I'm from Denver, Colorado, and I am also a professional musician and I'm the beatboxer in Freedom's Boombox.

Chris Diaz: And I am Christopher Diaz. I'm from Newport News, Virginia. I am not a professional musician. I'm fully an amateur one, but I am a professional school teacher of children at the Mandy Valley school in Dayton, Ohio and I sing base in Freedom's Boombox. We are a vocal trio, meaning that we don't use instruments, we only use our voices to sing acapella music, sometimes original, sometimes covers. We all net about eight years ago on a television show called The Sing Off, which was a competition show on NBC and the none of our groups won and so we weren't under contract to do anything after the show. So we became friends during that experience and The Freedom's Boombox was born and we've carried on for the past several years doing tours through American Music Abroad. We've done three AMA tours which have taken us to Central Asia, to-

Richard: Part of the Middle East.

Chris Diaz: The Middle East.

Richard: Yep.

Alfredo: Africa.

Chris Diaz: And North Africa and to Africa to Madagascar and Uganda. So we've been doing a lot of those. So we also work with Arts Envoy to do one-offs and occasionally we will do performances just with a post who has heard about us or seen one of our many YouTube videos of varying qualities and decided that they wanted to hear more. And so most recently we were in Madagascar and Uganda and in Equatorial Guinea.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Chris Diaz: So we get asked a lot, "what do you do when you go to Africa?" And obviously we're doing a lot of different things. So of course we're performing lots of performances at schools and libraries and kind of wherever there is a need, but also a lot of connection. I think we hear terms like community engagement. And in the context of these tours, what it means is literally going out and around people and talking to them. We do a lot of collaborations, so we'll try to learn a local folk song or pop song and perform it with people from the region. We eat a lot of local food. We also learn about the language. We try to engage with local art and customs and culture. So it really is a full exchange in the sense that we do some performing, we do some working and workshopping, but then we really do try to immerse ourselves in the local culture. Get to know what it's like to live as an Azeri person for a day or a Malagasy person for a day.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Richard: One of my biggest pet peeves is when you speak to somebody in a different language or they're trying to speak your language maybe, and they maybe struggle through something and then you sort of laugh and say, "Ha ha, yeah, yeah, yeah," without really understanding what they said. And I think that that is at its course somewhat insulting if you're not listening to somebody. And it really just takes maybe another second to say like, "I didn't understand that." Or, "Can you say that in a different way?" And just taking an extra minute and saying like, "Okay, I didn't get it the first time. Let me try just a little bit more to understand it." I think that really helps.

Richard: Also we use music which makes it a lot easier so we can sing something from Lady Gaga in English and people understand that. Or one of the things that I use, usually a number or something from a different country to teach beatboxing. Like in Chinese you can say [foreign language 00:07:42] which sounds like a shaker or in Arabic you can count to five which is [foreign language 00:07:44] which is... It kind of get the sounds out. And it just starts to kind of break down a couple of barriers. It's like really little things. It really doesn't take that much.

Richard: (singing)

Alfredo: I think a big thing that a lot of people thought, if you see black people with a backwards cap, they're  gangster. They're surprised that maybe we're not rapping.

Alfredo: (singing)

Alfredo: Or, "Oh, are you a rapper?" It's like, "No," "Are you an athlete?" "No." Because that's the context in which they see African Americans and... Or I would say some of these things are true. We are loud. We are fun. And when we were, I think it was Asia, it's like, "Loud, fun and fat." I think with... So some of the assumptions were true but I think they were surprised by how diverse we were and how many...+ Like especially with our group within the exchange and even this group, we have different sexual orientations. We look different. We come from different backgrounds. I liked that. I liked being able to present ourselves as something different than what they saw.

Alfredo: (singing)

Alfredo: So one time when I remember being kind of surprised, I would say, how much I felt kind of like a unicorn when we were in Kazakhstan. And to the point where people were... We were in a mall on an escalator and people were sneaking pictures because they've never seen a black person before. It was crazy. But it actually presented an opportunity to communicate with some of the locals like, "Hey, did you just want a picture? You don't actually have to sneak the picture." And they were happy. They would ask, "Oh, where are you from? Are you from America?" And yeah, and they spoke the 30 words of English that they knew and we connected in that moment and they probably have a memory that they will remember forever.

Richard: And a photo too.

Alfredo: And a photo as well.

Alfredo: (singing)

Chris Diaz: we are fed kind of images and narratives about places and other places are also fed images and narratives about us. And those aren't inherently bad, but by virtue of their scope can only really scratch the surface. They can only really offer a kind of totems of stories rather than the full experience.

Chris Diaz: And so one of I think the big things that we like to take along with us is this idea that we don't actually think that we are better than anyone. We really want to be present in our tours and in our experiences with people. We really don't want to be on our phones very much. We really want to look people in the face a lot. And I think that that has surprised a lot of people in other countries because I think there may be fed a narrative that in America... And they're not totally wrong, that we're a rather self-absorbed bunch of people. That we're, very individualistic and we really value our autonomy and our sovereignty as people to do what we want, whereas a lot of other cultures are really community-based. They're focused really on how the sum can advance an agenda.

Chris Diaz: And so it's really, I think, surprising to people when we're in conversation and we really try to engage . I mean, I think Richard's one of the best at this maybe I've met ever. Even if you don't understand fully fundamentally what's being said, you stick with it. And I think that that degree of attention to people, it means a lot even when... They can tell like, "You're not really getting me," but we'll stick with it. I think that showing that side of American tenacity is also a really exciting way to kind of, to debunk a myth about a whole people.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Alfredo: I remember when we first were going to Saudi Arabia and I was very worried just because really what you see on the news, you don't see... Like if you live in a like Philadelphia, you see, "Oh they're having like a fun festival." You see a lot of different things, not just the bad. But when something makes global news, usually it's bad news. It's something catastrophic. So a lot of the reports that were coming through were pretty much suicide bombers. And so when we hopped on the flight, I was very worried. And when we landed I was worried. And then when we got there, we met some really incredible people who made us feel at home.

Alfredo: And what I learned personally from that was that most people are the same wherever you go, like most people want, they want safety, they want to have a good time, they want to have a job that is enough to support their family. And it's the 0.00001% that makes the global news that creates this identity for a place that most people will never go in their lives.

Alfredo: So when I went back home, everyone was like, "Oh my goodness, how was it?" I was like, "It's actually great." And I told them that it's not what you see on TV and also they have a perception of Americans as well when we walk in and I think we hopefully took some of those worries away.

Alfredo: (singing)

Richard: I think why we use music and particularly acapella, because the voice is something that really everybody generally has is the ability to speak and somewhat the ability to sing. And through that usually it takes maybe one or two songs of singing something that people understand and get and then we try to incorporate them into the show with some interactivity. And usually after every performance people come up and they get it. They understand and they can communicate with us. They feel like they've connected in some regard.

Richard: (Sining)

Chris Diaz: Our goal almost always end these exchanges is really fundamentally the connection aspect. It's actually not so much to the performing and getting our name out there and making new fans. I mean that's very wonderful and helpful and we're very excited that people want to follow along on our journey after we've left. But really the whole point of going is to show people a little bit of what our country looks like in practice.

Chris Diaz: Food and art and stories you know are the best ways to connect. And music really kind of brings the feeling of all of those things together. It also carries with it a sense of identity. A lot of the music that we perform and that we interact with, it says something about the performer. For instance, we do a lot of jazz and rock and roll and R&B and those are distinctly American art forms which are born of our very peculiar and unique mixture of people and experiences.

Chris Diaz: And so when we perform those things, we are getting to share something about which we are proud and conflicted and, that define us. But we also get to connect with those same sorts of experiences from the places we visit. You know, we make it a point to always try and learn a local song, a folk song or a pop song. Just something that people know and that they connect with so that we can share and their national pride.

Chris Diaz: And so what we have found is that attention to identity through music, it allows us to start talking about things which have nothing to do with music. Using for instance, rock and roll, it's a really great exam. It's a really great opportunity to talk to people about how that music, which maybe the narrative suggest is performed by white guys with guitars, is the fusion of blues and of jazz and of ragtime and of rockabilly and of cowboy songs and of country music and all those things coming together. It gives us a chance to say, "Not only are we singing this thing, which is the result, but look at us. We're a rainbow." You can't see us dear listener, but we're a spectrum of human colors and as Alfredo mentioned, we come from all different places. So music is really one of those ways that creates trust and it allows us to start talking about the things that we write the music about, which is pretty cool.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Alfredo: So when we went to Madagascar, we worked with a group of eight young boys called Zaza Kanto, also known as the Underground Boys of Tana. These kids were... I believe all of them were homeless or at least very impoverished.

Alfredo: (singing)

Alfredo: Seeing these kids sing with so much joy, we put together a show throughout the week. We worked with a lot of different musicians, a lot of different vocal groups, but they were the main focus, at least for us. On the big show it got televised all over the country actually.

Alfredo: And just seeing these eight boys on stage shine like, I mean you should have heard this audience. We had to go on after them. And I was like almost in tears. I had to fight back the tears just to see like them be appreciated because a lot of their videos were them on the streets and they kind of were going viral because they were so incredible. But to actually put them in a position where they could be seen by the whole entire country and have the lights on them and have the microphones and an audience who truly appreciate them.

Alfredo: (singing)

Alfredo: I mean that also has carried on for as far as them performing, given them a lot more performance opportunities. Like I really think that's a group that people around the world need to see. And I think it was awesome to feel like we were a part of the first step towards that. Alfredo:  (singing)

Richard: I think the main theme for all of these has been kids. Basically adults have... We've got our own thing, but kids seem to respond so clearly to music. And just a quick anecdote that I thought of is that my sister has two kids now and one of them was having a crying fit or something like that and she put on one of our videos. And she stopped crying. She just looked at the video and watched it and she emailed me. She's like, "Please make more videos."

Chris Diaz: More colors.

Richard: Yeah, I don't know what it is.

Chris Diaz: More major key songs.

Richard: Exactly. Moving in... yeah. It's... I don't know. It's remarkable. I think kids respond to music so well,  and maybe that's... Maybe that's something we get rid of as grownups and I don't know, I kind of enjoy reconnecting with my adolescent self, yeah.

Richard: (singing)

Alfredo: We were in Swaziland. We went to go see kind of like a tribe do like traditional dances. And this was the first time I had been to another country where everyone looked like me. This is the first time that we had been anywhere like that. And I don't know, it made me very proud. And I know that a lot of African Americans, they don't really have that connection with Africa period.

Alfredo: And I think just the joy in which they danced in their singing and it was so... You could feel like you were together with them even though I'd never seen anything like it in my life. And it felt like I was at one heart with them. And I just wished that my family could have been there to see that because it was very moving. And I told them, I was like, "You guys," when I got back, I was like, "You need to go to Africa. You need to" Because I didn't know it would move me like that. I had no idea, but I have a very strong feeling it would make them feel the same.

Alfredo: (singing)

Chris Diaz: The place that stands out in my mind when I remember thinking, "I wish my people could see this," was when we were in the West Bank. And I think Americans... I think a lot of the world has a lot of ideas about what's happening in the region. But those narratives tend to diminish or ignore really the presence of just everyday people who live through the experiences of geopolitical and social conflict. And when we were in the West Bank and in Jerusalem, I remember walking through the old city and seeing each of the major religious sites and thinking, My family who really have a very singular vision, I think of their religious identity and other cultural identity, I think they would be so stunned to see how maybe the visuals are a little different, but the themes are all the same.

Chris Diaz: And I just remember feeling very very lucky to get to see firsthand kind of the tension in that plurality, which is the thing that we live with in the United States all the time. And I wish that more people could experience the... I think I find that tension in a lot of ways, invigorating because it forces me to think about what I stand for and what I believe and what I want. And I wish that for everyone, not just my family. I wish that everyone could get the chance to confront themselves through the lens of travel.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Alfredo: One time I remember where we were in Georgia and we were going to perform at a school. I mean, usually when we go to a school it's like, "Okay, here's the auditorium, blah, blah, blah." You meet maybe the principal and then you go set up and the kids file in and do their show. But for this particular school, we walk in and it's like all the kids at the school like applauding and they sang for us and they gave us a presentation of their whole school. They made baklava for us, made a bunch of different cookies. And I mean, it just felt like, "Wow, they've never met us, they don't know us, and yet they were this open and warm." And they gave us a tour of the whole school and they were an awesome audience. I mean, it just, it made me feel incredible. It was, I don't know, very heartwarming. And they were very sweet.

Alfredo: (singing)

Chris Diaz: We always lead and end our workshops with... Especially in other countries, "What is something that people in America need to know about you?" We always ask that. And I will share that, when we did our North Africa and Middle Eastern tour, we asked this a lot. We went to Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, and Jerusalem and the West Bank. And we asked all of our work shoppers, "What is something that Americans need to know about you?" And we were working with people of ages eight to 16 mostly. And I think we would all agree that the overwhelming response that we got first in most of those places was, "We want Americans to know that we are not terrorists." And as a cultural diplomat, that is frankly heartbreaking to hear, but it is also my responsibility to convey that information to people.

Chris Diaz: And so I felt like it was important to say that in this venue because that's a thing that sticks with us. And to that end, when we returned, I can't speak for the guys, but when I come back to the United States, I absolutely feel like I have a heightened sense of both empathy and sympathy because I know the feeling of a feeling like what you really are is not being represented to people.

Chris Diaz: But I also just feel bad that that is something that any young person would think at all. You know, at 13 I wasn't thinking really about what Tunisians thought about me. And so I can say that it has really helped me to stop and think a little bit about what people are going through, which I know sounds so cliche, but you know I deal with students every day and I always remember that even though we have our day-to-day struggles, there is a broader narrative which is pushing down on us. You impressions are pushing down on us from all angles and I try to be mindful of the fact that everybody is obviously going through personal trials, but they're are also subject to our broad opinions and our subjective criticisms of what they are. And a lot of times they're wrong. That was a very wordy way to say that I think it makes me more warm to people because we're all going through something

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Richard: What we try to do this everywhere is just to say thank you and express gratitude. There's a lot of people that have brought us in without maybe knowing us or they've taken a chance on us as a group of singers. And so we are grateful for that because without probably a million people around us wouldn't have been able to travel around. So if you've helped us out in the past and you're listening to this, thank you. The moms and dads where we stay at somebody's house or a public affairs officer out there, we remember you and we're grateful for you. That's important to say.

Richard: (singing)

Chris Diaz: I hope that people who listen to this know that even though you might be feeling, especially based on what you see on social media or on the news, you might be feeling like there's really one thing happening in the world or in our government or in the state department. You should know that it is the United States government which sponsors these trips, which sends us out to places to share American culture and to absorb the culture of other places in the world with the express purpose of making our country more diverse and making it more open and more empathetic and more accepting.

Chris Diaz: So I would just encourage people to not lose hope. When things look negative, when stories and narratives are negative, to remember that there are hundreds and thousands of people whose life's work is to connect us all and to make the world a better place. And even though it doesn't feel like that sometimes, even though you're not hearing those stories out loud, hopefully ours are part of that in your mind.

Chris Diaz: And just know that there really are so many amazing, amazing things happening under the auspices of our very own government and State Department, but also out in the world which are really about making the world better for people. That sort of work is happening actively and we're very lucky and fortunate to have been able to see a lot of that. And I just think it's worth saying that sometimes because it can be very easy to get sucked down into kind of the volatility of what you see on the internet.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Richard: We got the chance to tour with the Backstreet boys through Europe with two of our former guys, Aaron and Jamal. And we went as an acapella group. We did all of the old Olympic stadiums that they have there. And that was just sort of answering an earlier question that I felt a little nervous about how well acapella is going to stand up in an arena. And I remember probably two songs in, you could see the people start to move a little bit and get with it. And that was one of the times where I thought, "Okay, what we're doing isn't just like a novelty kind of thing because it's all voices and beatboxing, but it's actually, it can reach people, not just on a person to person level, but in a big huge setting like this." And I remember thinking like, "Yeah, I wish my family could be here for that."

Chris Diaz: That was pretty cool.

Chris Diaz: (singing)

Chris Diaz: We did an American music abroad tour through Central Asia. So we went to Kazakhstan,  Uzbekistan to Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. So long tour, very involved. But I remember we spent about a week in Kazakhstan and we went to an orphanage about two and a half hours North of Nursultan. It was Astana when we were there.

Chris Diaz: And we went to an orphanage, which housed primarily children with developmental disabilities or whose parents had abandoned them or had perished because of their relationship with drugs. And so a lot of these kids weren't able to walk around or even really to sing with us. But we really treated that workshop no differently as we would any of the others. And we went in with the goal of just being friendly and being approachable and sharing some music and some art.

Chris Diaz: And I can say it was really one of the most meaningful experiences of my entire life because a lot of those children, they really just wanted to be touched. They wanted to be seen, they wanted people to look at them in their eyes and to see their inherent humanity. To see that they're real people.

Chris Diaz: And I remember we sang for them and we clapped and we danced as much as we could and we played, we kicked the ball around and we just hung out with them. And I remember thinking, what an odd day that was for a musician, for a singer. I went and I didn't really do a show. I just kind of hung out with kids. But then it occurred to me that that might be the only time that a lot of those kids really get that sort of connection from anyone, much less from a highly privileged American man.

Chris Diaz: That really sticks with me as chance that we had to really connect with people and I may and likely will never see any of those children again, a fact, which to this day I consistently remember and it does give me feelings. But I do also carry around with me the memory of having made an impact in their lives and whether or not they know it, here I am a few years later telling all of you about this. So clearly it made a deep impact on me. It's informed my worldview, it's informed the way that I deal with my children as a school teacher. It's informed the way that I interact with the world broadly, which is quite literally like we can end this here. That's the point of what we're doing is to use our music to see people, to just see them.

Chris Wurst: 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's 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 US government-funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, Alfredo Austin III, Christopher Diaz and Richard Stagner, collectively known as Freedom's Boombox, talked about their overseas experiences with the American Music Abroad and Arts Envoy programs. For more about cultural 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 hey, 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 @state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. And you can check us out on Instagram @2233stories. Special thanks to our team at the collaboratory including our virtual interns, Laurel Stickney, Cynthia Ubah and Kelly Zhang. Special thanks also to Austin, Chris and Richard for their stories, their musical diplomacy and their voices. To learn more about them, check out the freedoms/boombox.com.

Chris Wurst: I did the interview and edited this segment, featured Freedom's Boombox music included One Dance at Last, I Am on My Way, Wild Thoughts and Don't Let Me Down. The band's exclusive little nook performances were, Work from Home and Me Too. Also heard was a song by Zaza Kanto to the incredible boy band from Madagascar. Music at the top of this episode was Sebastian by How the Night Came and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tiger Lee Use. Until next time-

Chris Diaz: That's kind of one of the great things about kindness is that it grows so exponentially and it grabs onto other acts of kindness so that you almost forget what the one act was that started the flood of Goodwill.


Season 02, Episode 01- New Year's Wishes from ECA

LISTEN HERE - Episode 1


Happy New Year from all the staff here at ECA!

As mandated by the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) works to build friendly, peaceful relations between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through academic, cultural, sports, and professional exchanges, as well as public -private partnerships. 

In an effort to reflect the diversity of the United States and global society, ECA programs, funding, and other activities encourage the involvement of American and international participants from traditionally underrepresented groups, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities. Opportunities are open to people regardless of their race, color, national origin, sex, age, religion, geographic location, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. The Bureau is committed to fairness, equity and inclusion. Artists, educators, athletes, students, youth, and rising leaders in the United States and more than 160 countries around the globe participate in academic, cultural, sports, and professional exchanges.


A/S Marie Royce: Happy New Year. I would like to welcome you to our first 22.33 podcast in 2020. I'm Marie Royce, the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, known as ECA. At ECA, we move people to move ideas. I'm pleased that our programs are an integral part of foreign policy. Remember this, you can't spell America without ECA. Thank you for listening.

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. There are people very much like ourselves.
Intro Clip 4: [Music 00:01:14]

BryAna: Hi, my name is BryAna Stearns and I am a Junior Program Officer in the ECA front office. My proudest moment of 2019 was transitioning from an ECA intern to an employee of the Bureau of Educational Cultural Affairs. I remember the day that I got the phone call of getting the job offer. And I was unbelievably happy to continue working for a Bureau whose mission is to truly make the world a better place.

Intro Clip 5: [Music 00:01:56]

Matthew: Hi, my name is Matthew Bartlett and I serve as the Director of Public Affairs and Strategic Communications here at the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. I think I'm probably the luckiest person in this Bureau, because my job is to help reflect all of the good work and amazing people that take part in ECA programs all over the world. It's a true privilege and I think that the work we do together with so many in different countries help make a better world for all, person by person.

Trina: Hi, my name is Trina Bolton. I'm a Program Officer in our Sports Diplomacy Division. This year, I was always excited and proud to receive updates from our alumni in the global sports mentoring program. Whether they're international or American, just learning about promotions that they may have gotten, sports camps that they've organized, or reunions that they've had with other global sports mentoring program alumni, and just feel fortunate to be a part of this sports diplomacy movement.

Trina: But I will also say I was really proud when I was on detail in another Bureau here at the State Department, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, and I was in a meeting briefing up some senior officials and public diplomacy came up and people were talking about the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and then mentioned a soccer exchange that I had worked on, and it just made me homesick. It made me so proud of ECA and the public diplomacy and the people to people work that we do and it was like those are my people. So I was really, really proud of ECA and the work we do.

Gurdit: Hi, my name is Gurdit Singh. I'm a policy officer in the policy office of ECA. I joined ECA last summer, but throughout my career as a foreign service officer, I've used ECA programs and tools to advance US foreign policy priorities. I felt very proud that I could finally be a part of the team that designs and implements all our educational program and professional cultural exchange programs.

Clip: [Music 00:04:18]

Carol: Hello. I'm Carol Bray, Director of the office of American Spaces and my proudest moment really this year was to lead American Spaces to the Education and Cultural Affairs Bureau. And you may not know what American Spaces are but there are 630 of them in the world and these are really wonderful places where you can go and participate in a program, an interesting cultural program or learn how to make something, learn more about new technology.

Carol: We have the latest and greatest technology there, computers, Wi-Fi, all sorts of virtual programming and other aspects that you might find really fun and they're places to meet other people and talk about ideas and we believe that American Spaces should be a place of open exchange of ideas to reflect really our democratic values.

Joe: Hi, I'm Joe Bookbinder, the Director of the Office of English Language Programs and my proudest ECA moment in 2019 occurred quite recently. I just had a three week trip to the Middle East to visit Egypt, Jordan and Israel to see our English language programs in action. And one of the things ECA does, we teach afterschool English classes to bright but disadvantaged children around the world. And in the South of Israel I saw a class of Bedouins students and they were learning about the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the poetry of Langston Hughes.

Joe: They became very knowledgeable about this and created their own poetry, expressing their hopes for the future and the challenges they face. And it was amazing to see how much knowledge they gained about American culture and the optimism that they were expressing about their own futures. I felt very proud that the United States is helping people in this way to improve their lives.

Megan: Hello everyone. My name is Megan Crane. I am a Program Officer in the SUSI Branch, SUSI being study of the U.S. Institutes. My favorite ECA memory from 2019 actually changes on a regular basis because one of my responsibilities is to gather and archive SUSI alumni stories and I get to see the lasting impact the institutes have on these student leaders and scholars. So I'm pretty lucky to be able to do that. We do have quite a few European student leaders who've actually gone on to hold positions in European parliament and even intern for the United Nations, serve as government officials in their home countries. So those are just a few examples that we have.

Clip: [Music 00:07:37]

Caroline: Caroline Casagrande I'm the Deputy Assistant Secretary in charge of academic programs here at ECA. We had such a huge year in the academic family in 2019 that I can't pick one moment. I'm so proud of the English language program celebrating their 50th anniversary of English language fellows teaching English across the world, making sure students can participate in our programs. We rebranded the Fulbright logo, making it fresh, bringing in a more youthful look so we can continue to grow what is a historic program and modernize it into the future. And then of course our ed USA team hit more students than ever. I can't pick just one. I have to say it was a great 2019.

Richie: My name is Richie Matthes II. My title is Program Specialist, I help out in the front office of Professional and Cultural Exchanges. What we do is all about people and memories. And thankfully this year I was able to go to Berlin for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and I saw people that I hadn't seen in over a decade because I'm an alumnus of the Ben Franklin Transatlantic Fellowship and I saw people first time in over a decade. So that was a great memory. I saw one guy, Amal, he's an Afghan refugee, lives in Denmark for the first time in 11 years. I saw him through the window and he came running through a coffee shop, picked me up and hugged me. Literally picked me up and I'm over 200 pounds. So that was something that I'll always remember.

Karen: Hi, I'm Karen Grissette. I'm a career diplomat and I am currently the Director of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. My proudest moment of 2019 was when Fulbright Scholars alumni, the Fulbright Board, Fulbright directors from around the world gathered at the United States Capitol building to celebrate the Fulbright program. Fulbright is one of the most impactful exchange programs on the planet. We unveiled a new Fulbright logo and shared our commitment to increasing diversity among Fulbright grantees. Five Fulbright alumni shared how their Fulbright exchange changed their lives.

Karen: Their message was that anyone who puts their mind to it can become a Fulbright scholar. Both Republican and democratic, U.S. Senators spoke in support of the program. The bipartisan Fulbright board members led the event along with the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. Fulbright is committed to exchanging the most qualified scholars between the United States and the rest of the world. And to creating connections in a complex and changing world. Daria:  My name is Daria Roche and I am a Senior Program Officer in the Office of Academic Exchange Programs working on the Fulbright Program. My proudest ECA moment of 2019 was launching the new refreshed Fulbright brand narrative and logo.

Clip: [Music 00:11:03]

Joshua: Hi, my name is Joshua Shen. I am a Strategic Designer for Interactive Media and Games in ECA. This year I worked also in the Sports Diplomacy Division and proudest moment was to launch our very first e-sports Envoy program to China. We were able to send out MVP of the NBA 2K league and he had a chance to really engage with students, gamers, local influencers and University's about our shared passion for NBA and computer games, video games. So breaking through this new genre of sports Envoy. I think it shows that here in the state department and at ECA, we're always looking to advance to reach people where they are.

Monica: Hi, I'm Monica Boulter with the U.S. Speaker Program and I'm a Foreign Affairs Officer.

Molly: I am Molly Chris with the Office of the U.S. Speaker program and I'm also a Foreign Affairs Officer.

Monica: The U.S. Speaker program sends experts out to our embassies to share on developing our foreign policy.

Molly: And we are happy and proud this year. We've had such a great year with our speakers. Everyone from the Guinness Book of World Records holder for discovering the most volcanoes on Jupiter's moon, IO, 71 volcanoes.

Monica: Right on down to sending out folks to help engage law enforcement on building out programming for underserved communities.

Manny: I'm Manuel Pereria-Colocci. I have worked in two offices in ECA, one the Collaboratory and two, the new unit for the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs. My proudest moment of 2019 was participating in ECAs first ever panel at Comic Con International in San Diego to show close to 500 people in San Diego coming from all corners of the world, how stories can be shared by superheroes.

Manny: Comics, and superhero culture and pop culture and art in the 21st century is the way to reach people. It makes them resonate with challenges, it makes them think creatively about solutions. And it was something that filled me and I think my colleagues with a lot of enthusiasm for what could be next in comics as a part of public diplomacy.

Clip: [Music 00:14:00]

Susan: Hi, my name is Susan Crystal. I'm the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Professional and Cultural Exchanges. My proudest ECA moment in 2019 was my participation in the 60th anniversary of Global Pittsburgh. Global Pittsburgh is the state department's designated partner for the International Visitor Leadership Program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, under the Global Ties Network and they support many other exchange programs as well.

Susan: I was so inspired to meet the many wonderful citizen diplomats who volunteered their time to connect international visitors with counterparts throughout that region in a wide range of professional disciplines. Many of the volunteers have been working with Global Pittsburgh for much of the 60 years. I also had the chance to meet individuals who regularly host our participants in the International Visitor Leadership and other programs like Professional Fellows and the Young Latin American Initiative Fellows. The icing on the cake during my visit was a meeting with a group of Youth Exchange alumni who had participated in programs in India to Tajikistan, China, Russia, and Germany.

Susan: These young people were truly transformed by their exchange programs and happy to tell anybody about it. I'm a proud Pittsburgher myself and I had the good fortune to intern at Global Pittsburgh during college, so it was personally meaningful to me to come full circle and be able to personally experience the continuing focus on international exchange in my home city.

Susan: So, happy New Year's to Global Pittsburgh and all of our wonderful partner organizations and hosts who do so much to ensure that International Exchange participants having meaningful experience in the United States and help maintain these important relationships as we work together to further U.S. Foreign policy goals and grow mutual understanding.

Amy: Hi, my name is Amy Schultz and I'm a program officer in the Office of Citizen Exchanges. I work on the Future Leaders Exchange or FLEX program. The biggest FLEX highlight of 2019 is adding four new countries to the program. We were delighted to welcome FLEX students from the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia. We look forward to 2020 and happy New Year, everyone.

Elizabeth: I'm Elizabeth Latham.

Tova: And I'm Tova Pertman.

Elizabeth: And we are the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange and German American Partnership Program  Program Officers here in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Youth Programs Division.

Tova: One of our biggest accomplishments this year was hosting the first ever Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange Transatlantic Alumni Conference here in Washington D.C.

Elizabeth: And we are also very proud of fostering and strengthening U.S. Germany relations through 350 American scholarship recipients in Germany this year and 360 German participants in the United States this year through the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange and over 10,000 participants in the German American Partnership Program.

Kelly: Happy holidays. This is Kelly Ward in Youth Programs. I'm a branch chief overseeing of tremendous team of dedicated program officers who have done amazing things in the past year, including expanding tech girls into central Asia. Sarah Shields, running a huge youth ambassadors programs, sending over 100 Americans to WHA countries, Stephanie [inaudible 00:17:52] and running a great youth program in most of the countries of Africa as well as expanding our On Demand Youth Leadership Programs. Pam Rasmussen, so I'm very grateful for a wonderful team. 

Clip: [Music 00:18:09]

Ana-Maria: My name is Ana-Maria Sinitean and I'm a Program Designer in the Collaboratory and the highlight of my year has been to work on this podcast, interview incredible people, Cowboys, astronauts, researchers of national parks. At one time I ran up to Paul Bryan and told them about it and the opportunity to always have something to say at a cocktail party or dinner party because there is always a chance to say, "So today I talked to this really great alumni," and that's just been the highlight of my year and for 2020 I can't wait to meet the rest of the alumni network.

J.P.: Well, hello, this is J.P. Jenks. I'm the American Music Abroad Program Manager in the Office of Citizen Exchanges here in Washington. And my proudest moment of 2019 was the result of seeing our team effort at the 2019 American Music Abroad Academy, which was held in Bangkok.

J.P.: Where 32 artists that were nominated from 13 different countries in Central and Southeast Asia came together. None of them knew each other before the Academy, and by the end of the week long event, they put on a huge gala show and it was clear that they had become a new creative community that will endure long after this particular Academy took place. It was a wonderful experience and I had the pleasure of being able to attend.

Stephanie: Hi, my name is Stephanie Reed. I'm a Senior Program Officer in the office that works on Fulbright Programs at ECA. My proudest moment was the opportunity to work with our team on bringing together all of the executive directors of Fulbright Commissions from around the world to Washington D.C. in order to collaborate and improve our programs going forward.

Jill: Hello everyone. My name is Jill Staggs. I'm a Program Officer in the Cultural Programs Division of the Office of Citizen Exchanges and instead of talking about my proudest moment from 2019 I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone at the posts who work on our programs. In particular, the International Writing Program with the University of Iowa and the Next Level Hip Hop and Conflict Resolution Program. Thank you very much and I'm sending you best wishes for 2020.

Clip: [Music 00:20:35]

Aleisha: My name is Aleisha Woodward and I am one of the Deputy Assistant Secretaries here in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. My proudest moment here in ECA in 2019, I was able to work with a team here in ECA to launch a new program called the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs and this is something that we've created to support the white house's initiative called Women's Global Development and Prosperity with the goal of empowering women around the world to participate more in the economy.

Aleisha: We want them to be successful in the workplace, we want them to be the successful entrepreneurs, and we want them to overcome the obstacles, cultural or legal barriers, that make it difficult for women to participate in the economy in their countries. Now this resonates with me personally. My mom had a kitchen goods store. She's sold Bread makers and she was really good at teaching the classes and that kind of thing, but she had no business background, she didn't have any business skills.

Aleisha: And over the course of about three or four years, she ran the business into the ground. And so I know from personal experience that knowing how to do something is not the same thing as knowing how to make a business of it. And so to be able to create this Academy or AWE, as we call it, to help women who have these great ideas who have these great skills to marry those up with the business skills that they need to be successful, has been really fulfilling for me both personally and professionally.

Kate: My name is Kate Furby, I'm the AAAS Science Technology Policy Fellow at the Collaboratory in ECA. I had a lunch with the Chilean Delegation for IVLP and I'm a marine biologist so I have a coral reef background and it was a delegation of Chilean marine biologists and we were having this conversation about coral reefs and all these things. And secretly I am obsessed with moss, like the green carpet thing that grows on the sidewalk. I think it's super cool and I'm obsessed with it and my friends make fun of me for it.

Kate: Now, I'm at this lunch and we're talking about coral reefs and it's all being done through translation. And the Chilean marine biologist starts to tell me a story and it sounds like he's saying lichen and moss, but he can't think of what the American word is for it.

Kate: And I'm like, I'm just imagining that he's saying this thing that I secretly want to talk about. And then it comes out through the translation that he's like lichen like outside. And I'm like, yes. That's it, I also love that. And so we have this like great moment where we talk about how lichen and moss are like coral, but on land. That was a really wonderful translation cross cultural moment for me.

Matt: My name is Matt Lussenhop, and I am the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary here in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. And then I guess the moment I'd be proud of in 2019 is July 29th when I started this position and have been having a great time ever since. Meeting all of the participants, American and overseas, who are benefiting and enjoying, and helping with our cultural and educational exchange programs. 

Clip: [Singing 00:24:20]

Amy: Everybody knows, we're very excited about Youth Exchange Programs. This is Amy Forest on the FLEX program. So happy to tell you, happy New Year from us.

Chris: We're rolling. So anytime you want to start.

Chris: Okay. All right. Here we go.

Clip: [Music 00:25:59] [Singing 00:25:27]

Matt: And I guess the wish for 2020 is that everyone who either has or will be participating in ECA exchanges has a successful and prosperous personal and professional life and that they contribute in small ways, in big ways to their communities. So thanks and happy 2020.

BryAna: My ECA New Year's wish is to ask everyone in 2020 to learn something new about another culture to get outside of your comfort zone.

Megan: I want to wish listeners a happy 2020 and may the goals you set in 2019 come to fruition in 2020.

Joe: I hope that all our listeners can continue to improve their English language skills and use those skills to better their own lives and improve the societies that they live in. And I also wish that the New York Mets can win the 2020 World Series.

Carol: So I hope you all will visit your local American space. That's my holiday wish for next year is for even greater engagement with all of you around the world in American spaces.

Joshua: My wishes for New Year is that we can roll out a whole bunch of cool, interesting programs for people around the world to engage with the State Department, playing video games with each other or learning about game design or getting mentorship and advice, how to develop a career in the gaming industry.

J.P.: Now I want to wish everybody out there in the American Music Abroad and Cultural Diplomacy World, a very healthy, happy, harmonious, melodious, rhythmic, lyrical, horn filled, and polyphonic, authentic New Year. Happy New Year everybody.

Trina: And looking forward 2020 I hope that we can all continue to keep the ball rolling to promote democratic values and really especially in 2020 celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Daria: My goal for 2020 is that everyone have a peaceful and prosperous year and gets at least like one third of the things they want at the beginning of the year done by 2021.

Stephanie: May this year. Give you the opportunity to follow your dreams.

Matthew: As we look forward to 2020 a new decade, I think it comes as a challenge to all of us to forget about the past and look towards the future and to dream up and take action to create a better world for everyone.

Gurdit: Happy holidays and a very happy New Year.

Manny: My wish for 2020 for 22.33 podcastees and listeners is to keep going with what you're doing. I'm sure that people that are tuning in also have their own inspiring stories and want to change the world in a positive way, in their own right. I wish you the most success. I wish you an immense amount of energy and enthusiasm and a great start to 2020.

Richie: Yeah. I hope everyone listens to the podcast more and makes their own international journeys and exchange experiences.

Molly: Happy Holidays.

Monica: Wunderbar together.

Molly: Wait, I wanted to see it with her. Can we save Wunderbar together, together? Wunderbar together.

Kelly: And my wish for the New Year would be that more youth around the world have the opportunity to experience Youth Leadership Programs. Happy New Year.

Karen: My wish for 2020 is that American students and scholars from all 50 States and from all backgrounds will apply to represent the United States overseas as Fulbright Scholars. At the same time, I hope that individuals from throughout the world will also apply to represent their home countries in the United States. One connection at a time by helping the nations of the world understand one another better. These international exchange participants will help create a more peaceful world.

Aleisha: My wish is that all of us, both here in ECA, all of the participants of ECA programs and everyone who's listening to this podcast will take a moment and think about the change that they want to see in their community and that they will go out and do something to effect that change. Each of us making a little effort combined can make a huge difference.

Elizabeth: My wish for all 22.33 listeners is that each one meets and makes a connection with someone from  another country and has at least a 10 minute conversation.

Tova: We wish all the listeners a happy holidays and to bring in the New Year with big goals and big aspirations. We wish everyone a great 2020.

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.

Clip: [Music 00:32:16]

Chris: Lots of gratitude to my colleagues for taking the time out to reflect on their year and for doing the amazing work that they do to create life changing exchange stories every single day. What am I thankful for, for you, dear listener, we are so lucky to be able to create 22.33 and so lucky to have so many life changing stories of exchange to share with you. We really appreciate your listening and we look forward to creating many, many more inspiring, kind, empathetic stories, throughout 2020 have a great New Year.

Manny: Hi. Hi.

Ana-Maria: I know my name. I know my program, but-

Kate: [Singing 00:33:09]

Chris: Start again. Three, two, one. Give me a three, two, one.

Kate: For the record that I do not have -

Kate: Do not have a New Years wish for our listeners. I don't... Oh, okay. That's awkward.

Ana-Maria: Maybe it could be meta and I work on this podcast and my highlight is being able to tell everybody all the cool stories

Kate: Hahahahaha! We're audio professionals.


Season 01, Episode 88 - The Food We Eat, Part 12

LISTEN HERE - Episode 88


Our 12th bonus episode of crazy food stories from around the world.  It's been an amazing first season of 22.33 and we thank all our fans and loyal subscribers for supporting us!  Happy New Year  and see you in 2020.


Dimitri Wurst: Hey Elena, would you ever try froglets?

Elena Wurst: No, that sounds gross. What about you, Dimitri? Would you ever try a sheep's head?

Dimitri Wurst: Never say never. What about eating pistachios in space?

Elena Wurst: "How did that I to space?" Is what I'm thinking but I like pistachios. Would you try a new fruit?

Dimitri Wurst: Probably.

Elena Wurst: What if it smelled like diapers and gasoline?

Dimitri Wurst: So are you talking about durian?

Elena Wurst: Does it taste good and smell bad or does it taste bad and smell bad?

Dimitri Wurst: To find out, you'll have to keep listening. This is 22.33, a podcast of exchange-

Elena Wurst: ... and food-

Dimitri Wurst: ... stories.

Chris Wurst: I would say Asia, though, had lots of adventurous foods. We ate lots of crickets, cow tongue, the durian.

Speaker 4: Froglets. Baby frogs.

Chris Wurst: Fertilized duck eggs. That was not maybe the best decision. That was a late-night decision. Speaker 4:  Yeah. That was a late-night decision.

Chris Wurst: Yeah.

Speaker 4: We were all fighting some.

Chris Wurst: [laughter and crosstalk 00:01:07]

Speaker 4: Stomach things and we're like-

Chris Wurst: Be selective about what you eat after midnight. It was good though. Yeah. Lots of great stuff.

Dimitri Wurst: This week: pistachios in space.

Elena Wurst: The dangers of Chinese menus. Another trip to Kazakhstan, another sheep's head.

Dimitri Wurst: And the awful funkiness of durian fruit. Join us on another journey around the world to tickle our taste buds.

Elena Wurst: It's 22.33.

Speaker 5: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Speaker 6: These exchanges shaped who I am.

Speaker 7: 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-

Speaker 4: (singing)

Speaker 8: All space food looks bad but tastes perfectly fine, and some of it, terrific. But I will say it all looks kind of ugly and that half of our food is freeze dried, half is stuff that you warm up in what looks like a briefcase that has heated sides and a heated middle and you strap your food in. And you'd rehydrate the food, put those envelopes on there. And so we call it picking our food. You'd pick your food or someone else would say, "Can I pick your food for you?" And after a while, I liked comfort foods. I liked scrambled eggs. I liked beef stew. I liked Thai food. I liked the challenge of mixing my Thai food with rice, one spoonful at a time. But mostly it almost didn't matter what you ate. Food was delightful up there.

Speaker 8: Just because life was different... If you're going to make a tortilla, that's the kind of bread that we can have and stays okay. And you can put peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla. You can put cheese and chicken. And then you can actually carefully send that tortilla to somebody else. You can make food for someone and send it to them. But the delightful aspect of food is also what is terrifying about it. And that is because if you are not careful, even in compacting your food trash, I'd be rolling up barbecue beef was treasured and barbecue beef and steak were treasured by, especially, some guys on our crew and our Russian friends.

Speaker 8: And so I would always just give mine away almost always. And yet when I did have barbecue beef and you're rolling it up carefully to really minimize your trash cause you make everything really small like that and you do that final little zip right across the top, and then a fire hydrant of barbecue sauce shoots across the space station and it will not land somewhere harmless. It will land on one of your crew mates and it will be on a new shirt, one of their only six shirts for six months. So the danger and the delight of food in space.

Speaker 8: The food people sent us pistachios in the shell. Okay. Just think about trying to eat that. There's all those, I mean crumbs in space are a no-no. Okay? And it is possible and we do have bags of chips. A few that kind of thing in the snack box and what you do is you eat them next to a vent that has the air is being pulled through it that has a screen on it. And so you eat your potato chips or your giant bag of pistachios next to the vent and all the little crumbs and shells and things like that land on the vent, and then you vacuum them up. Right, again. But we just thought, "What were they thinking?"

Speaker 9: I do remember us once going to a restaurant and we ordered, I want to say the menu said french fries or something like that, something pretty American, you know? We were looking for the basics and we're like, "Oh, they have french fries. And we were like, "Okay." We'd been to this restaurant before. We're like, "Oh, we didn't even know they had that." That's what it read, translated on the menu. We, being really lazy, did not read the characters. We got clams and not at all what we were expecting but we were like, "Oh." We didn't even try to communicate or we're like, "This is what we got. We'll just live with it." Which is funny. I think notoriously in China, menus are translated pretty horribly. And we always joked, we were like, "Oh, we could make a whole business of just translating menus properly because they're just not.

Speaker 10: We were presented a full traditional meal. It was in Semey.

Speaker 11: In Kazakhstan.

Speaker 10: In Kazakhstan. And it is tradition to present a full sheep's head to the guests of honor, which we found out is the eldest of the visiting group. And I think it roughly translated to was it "white beard?"

Speaker 11: White beard.

Speaker 10: White beard. So we called Nathan, White Beard Walman for a long time after that. Still  occasionally reference it but Nathan was basically served the sheep's head and we were all amazed and-

Speaker 11: to eat it.

Speaker 10: ... when it came out. Yeah. Well we thought we'd be rude to not eat it. We weren't really sure how this was going to go down. So we're all cracking up getting ready to watch Nathan go to town on this sheep's head, that looked like it was probably going to be good. Honestly. Yes. It's very different than what we're used to being served but I'm sure it was going to be delicious.

Speaker 10: So we're all sitting there waiting to see what's going to happen and then we find out that Nathan, although he's served it, he's actually the one that gets to cut whatever he wants from the sheep's head and serve it to whoever he wants. And I happened to be laughing the hardest at the time at Nathan. So I was chosen as the recipient of the ear of the sheep, which as I alluded to earlier, is actually quite delicious. Didn't see that happening but no, that was such a monumental meal for us. We were showered in kindness that whole evening. We were serenaded by one of our hosts playing dombra and singing these amazing songs that we were lucky enough to capture a little voice memo recording of. We might have to throw that in the podcast.

Chris Wurst: (singing)

Speaker 10: I felt really connected to the people when they were sharing that meal with us. It was like they were so excited to bring out every single course. It was almost a never ending marathon. We were really into the Kazakhstan, the cognac that they have, which is just called Kazakhstan, I think-

Speaker 11: Yeah.

Speaker 10: ... the cognac itself. The bottle just says that. And they would not let our glasses even go down an inch. It was like you take a sip and a guy comes behind and he's topping it off again, so we found that very comical. And the last thing I guess I remember from that meal too, of course was being served the-

Speaker 10: ... kumus. Yes. The kumus was incredible actually. It was interesting. It tasted to me like yogurt and champagne together in a kind of... Yeah. There were some things floating in it, which I found a little strange but it was good.

Speaker 12: Things that you absolutely have to try if you're in Germany. The Currywurst, of course, is a very famous Berlin tradition. Literally just a sausage with kind of a curry ketchup sauce that goes over the top, usually served with fries and mayo. There's two different styles to this. The Berlin sausage seems to be a little bit not so finely ground, I would say. It's very coarse. Usually served with potato wedges and in Hamburg they do like this very fine-ground, very thin sausage with french fries. Depending on who you talk to, there's fans of both. I lived in Hamburg but I'm a Berlin Currywurst fan, so everybody at home hated me. I actually had a discussion with my host dad that I thought Berlin Currywurst was better and he locked me out of the house for a little while, and we didn't eat Currywurst for a long time, so that we avoided that discussion. But we got along okay.

Speaker 12: I think the craziest food experience that I've had this year in Europe in general actually came through a mistranslation and I was in Greece, so of course I couldn't read anything that was on the menu I was ordering. The kind of strange situation that I came across when I was traveling in Crete on the Island is that there's a lot of German tourists there. So I was able to use my German better than I could use my English, and I asked for a German menu. And after looking through everything, I decided that I was going to order what would have translated to black noodles. I was kind of curious as to what was in this stuff and I saw that it was kind of under sea food. And I'm like, "Okay. I'll give that a try." My friend Jessica, who was traveling with me, she's like, "You know, you're going out on a limb. I don't know what that means. Be careful." I'm like, "No. This'll be fine. This is lunch. I can eat something later if it's too horrific.

Speaker 12: So we waited a while and the waiter brought out this plate of black noodles. Definitely some sort of very thin sauce that was laid over the top with cuttlefish, then cut up inside, which has got kind of like this really rubbery texture. Feels like you're eating a kitchen sponge but absolutely doesn't taste that way. It tastes absolutely amazing and if you're a seafood fan, I can absolutely recommend cuddle fish but I was halfway through my meal before I even considered the idea that this black sauce could possibly be cuttlefish ink. I realized that up until that thought, not only did I not have a problem with it, I liked it. And when Jessica had suggested that to me, like, "Do you think it's ink?" I looked up at her and I took a big spoonful of noodles and I just put them in my mouth and I smiled like a kindergartner. From that point, I think I can stomach pretty much anything that I order. It's certainly not always the most pleasant thing but I end up finding lots of weird tastes and things that I end up liking.

Speaker 13: One was when I was in Lithuania, they had this soup and I can't pronounce it correctly so I'm not even going to try but the soup was actually the color of Pepto-Bismol. When it arrived, then they warned us, but when it arrived you were like, "This really looks like Pepto-Bismol." So you already... Yeah. You know what it is? Okay. And so already your mouth is like.. Because you're just like, "I know what this is going to taste like but it didn't taste anything like that. You know? And it was actually a cold soup and you can eat it with a some bread and it could have potatoes in it and everything as well. But I loved it. It ended up being one of my favorite dishes in Lithuania but if you go off appearance alone, you're just like... It doesn't look that good.

Speaker 13: In Azerbaijan, I love soups when I go overseas for some reason, but they had this soup called Dushbara and it's a soup that comes but you have to add all these ingredients. They give you these different ingredients to add to it that makes it Dushbara the correct way. And it was a soup that I loved and my first night there, my embassy rep, his name was Ferghani. Took us to this restaurant inn. He showed us how to add all these different ingredients. We was like "Man, this tastes so good." You know what I mean? But it was something traditional to their country that he's like, "You got to add X and X ingredients for it to have the proper taste." And then I think another time when I was in Africa, we ate outside. And it wasn't even a restaurant, it was probably just this little setup this guy had. And I remember I was really hungry late at night and my translator Rashid, who I brought up earlier, he was like, "You want to go get some chicken?" I'm like, "Yeah. I'm starving."

Speaker 13: So again, this is Africa. You're not going to KFC, you're not going to a restaurant. He literally took us to this open area where this guy had this little setup and we ordered some chicken and he literally had to kill the chicken, scan it, and I'm telling you is the best chicken I had in my life. I mean my life. We all were at the table, faces all greasy. Hands all greasy. Even the embassy people was like, "Oh my gosh, this chicken is so good." We started calling it crack chicken at the table because it was just so good. I think it was just so good because it was just natural. It was like it got killed, cooked. "Here you go." Best seasoned chicken I ever had. I remember the tomatoes, the onions and peppers that they cooked with it was so flavorful because it was fresh and you're just like, "America, we got to do better. Come on. We got to do better with the fresh foods." And that's something I would just tell you in general.

Speaker 13: When you go overseas, I always lose about five to eight pounds just from eating their food because it doesn't have all these preservatives, all this fat all this sugar when you get a juice, it's normally fresh-squeezed juice you're getting. They eat way better than us. I'm just telling you right now. Lot of great food I've eaten.

Speaker 14: At first I was like, "Oh I don't like this food. It's missing some of the flavor." But I kept on trying new things and I think it was the last two months of my fellowship there. I found arroz con coco y guandu and it tastes amazing. I wanted to eat it all the time. Yes.

Speaker 15: What is it?

Speaker 14: It's rice. Right? Its rice flavor has coconut and it has this bean called guandu. But we also use it in Puerto Rico but we call it gandules. So in Puerto Rico we have arroz con gandules and then they have arroz con coco y guandu. So I guess I liked it a lot because it remind me of Puerto Rico.

Speaker 16: I'd freshly arrived and actually I lived in a small hamlet called Hatsapok, so not even anywhere near the city in a sense. I was really in a tiny village and she said, "Let's go get ice cream." I said, "Okay. That sounds great. We're going to eat ice cream." And we arrive at this place, and first of all it was Italian. I thought, "Oh, that's interesting. Why do they have an Italian ice cream place? Yeah. Okay. All right. All right. Your Italian ice cream. And she goes, "You need to try spaghetti ice." And I thought, "Okay, that's just going a bridge too far." Up until that point, I had been eating everything that I never liked as a child, which I have to say, I now came to love a lot of those things, but eating spaghetti ice, I thought, "No. No. It can't be."

Speaker 16: She shows me the menu and my German wasn't quite there, and she goes, "Well, I'm going to order it anyway." And I'm like, oh okay, okay." They bring this spaghetti ice? Well sure enough. Spaghetti ice was just ice cream and a strawberry sauce that looked like spaghetti sauce. And then the ice cream had been run through, so it was just one of those funny things that I thought, "I'm willing to try everything but tomato sauce and ice cream. You know what? If I have an opportunity and I don't have to do that to be super polite, I'm not going to do it. But, I think as an exchange student, that's one of the things is you just have to learn to say "yes."

Speaker 17: The food. Of course, we've all heard of couscous there were so many different tagines. Lamb tagines, chicken tagines. This was food I wasn't typically familiar with but I adjusted, adapted and grew to love it. So a tagine is a dish. You'll have a lamb tagine or a chicken tagine but also a tagine is the form of a cookware. I would describe it as almost like a serving plate or a pot. So the food goes in the tagine and also it's the name of the dish.

Speaker 7: The mint tea? The mint tea came with actual mint inside of it, not like the teabags that we get in America. So it's like legit mint tea.

Speaker 18: Another thing I really like, the meals that they had were really healthy. They really cared about their health. They would have some cheap meals once maybe a week but most of the time, they ate a lot of vegetables, a lot of whole-wheat things and it was just fun to adapt to what they ate, how they lived their lives. When I make my new family, I want to add all these things that I learnt to my new family and also a combination of what I'm used to and my actual family back home. So back home, something Arabs or Palestinians are known for is their hospitality. So I just really wanted to represent that. So sometimes I made them traditional food from back home and showed them how we would treat our guests and I did the same thing for my cooking classes in my high school because I had really fun classes.

Speaker 18: One of them was cooking so I cooked them my traditional food and showed them how we would serve our traditional food. I loved of course tacos, burgers, the normal stuff, but I think this is a mid western dish. It was called chili. Do you know it?

Speaker 19: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Speaker 18: Yeah. So my host family cooked that a lot and I loved it. They had a lot of stews and big pots of things which I didn't expect. I just thought they would eat fast food. They had a lot of soups and healthy stuff, like I said, but chili was definitely my favorite. It was just really cozy and all nice. We'd sit together and just eat.

Speaker 23: I ate everything.

Speaker 21: Yeah. He was like a garbage disposal.

Speaker 22: Alex is the skinniest of all of us and we don't know where it goes. The guy does not stop eating.

Speaker 23: I do a lot of running-

Speaker 21: Yeah.

Speaker 23: ... so that helps. Yeah

Speaker 21: That explains it.

Speaker 21: Exercise.

Speaker 22: First of all, we've had the opportunity to try lots of delicious food. Just coming off of Georgia, we just had something called khachapuri, which is basically a hollowed out long loaf of bread that's filled with melty, delicious cheese and then a cracked runny egg on top and you eat it. And what we didn't realize is they said this is a special treat. This was at the end of the week. They're like, "Oh yeah, we only eat that like once a year. It's like everybody's favorite food but they only have it like one time." We had it, I think, five times in a week.

Speaker 21: How about durian?

Speaker 22: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. That was something. We kept hearing, we kept seeing the signs in the elevator. "No smelly foods. No smelly food." And a picture of a durian fruit, with all the points sticking out of it. And we're like, "Okay, we have to try this." And we finally did in Malaysia and oh my, it's good and it's terrible. And it's like a custard on top of, I don't know, that smells like-

Speaker 21: It smells really bad. It smells like a diaper and gasoline.

Speaker 9: Gasoline. Gasoline and diaper that tastes kind of like vanilla. Yeah.

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.

Dimitri Wurst: In this episode, our taste buds were, at times, tickled and at times traumatized by Cady Coleman, Abena Amoakuh, Graeme Gross, Wordsmith, Jenny Gill, Jane Malosh, Antonio Battle, members of the Tony Memmel Band and members of Humming House. We thank them for their stories and willingness to try new things.

Elena Wurst: For more about ECA exchanges, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and we'd love to hear from you. Write us at: ecacollaboratory@state.gov that's ecacollaboratory@state.gov. Dang it, I said "gub." Do I have to re-spell it?

Chris Wurst: No.

Elena Wurst: @state.gov. Complete episode transcripts can be found at our web page at eca.state.gov/2233. And check us out on Instagram at 2233_stories.

Elena Wurst: Special thanks this week to everyone for sharing their unique food stories. The various interviews were done by Ana-Maria Sinitean, and our dad, Christopher Wurst, who also edited this episode.

Elena Wurst: I'm Elena Wurst.

Dimitri Wurst: And I'm Dimitri Wurst.

Elena Wurst: And this week, we are giving our dad a break from spelling out the word collaboratory.

Dimitri Wurst: Again, that's collaboratory. Featured music during this segment was Off Minor by Thelonious  Monk.

Elena Wurst: Music at the top of each food episode is Monkeys Spinning Monkeys by Kevin MacLeod and credit music is Two Pianos by Tigerlios.

Elena Wurst: Until next time, and food-

Chris Wurst: Say it again, a little bit further away. Tiny bit further away.

Elena Wurst: And food-

Chris Wurst: No. Little bit closer.

Elena Wurst: And food.

Chris Wurst: Yep. Now without laughing.

Elena Wurst: And food.  


Season 01, Episode 87 - Crying Out for Kindness with the Tony Memmel Band

LISTEN HERE - Episode 87

Tony Memmel

DESCRIPTION Tony Memmel has never let anyone impose limits on his dreams and he followed his passion to become a successful guitarist, despite the fact that he was born with only one hand. Now he travels the world with his band serving as a source of hope for countless others. This episode features two exclusive “Little Nook” acoustic performances. For more information on the American Music Abroad program, visit: https://amvoices.org/ama/ensembles-2015/tony-memmel-and-his-band


Chris Wurst:  You were born with only one hand, but if anyone tried to impose limits on you, you must not have been listening. Instead, you followed a dream to become a guitarist and that led to a successful career in music. Now, as you travel around the world, what started as a dream for you has become a source of hope for countless others. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Alex Nixon:  We visited a rehabilitation center. Not only did we get to perform for the children, students there, we got to really exchange music and art. It was a lot of fun. We were invited to participate and get up and dance and I'm not shy. I'll do that. At first, I don't think I was moving in the right way, but then I was shown the proper masculine dance movements.

Joey Wingard:  Don't put your hands like this. The men do this.

Alex Nixon:  Yes, yes, yes. Strong, assertive-

Joey Wingard:  Yes.

Alex Nixon:  ... for the women. Moments like that, you aren't quite sure what's going to happen, but you just go with the flow and just live in the present. Those are the moments I'm definitely going to hold dear and really remember.

Chris Wurst:  This week touching the heads of children, playing ring around Alex and the generosity of people's time. Join us on a journey from Nashville all around the world, inspiring multitudes along the way. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1:  We report what happens in the United States, wars 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.

Tony Memmel:  My name is Tony Memmel. I'm originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but six years ago, moved to Nashville, Tennessee to pursue music. I've been on several tours with the Department of State working with American Music Abroad and Arts Envoy. Actually, this tour that we're leaving for this week will actually be our 13th and 14th countries working with these programs. So it's been such a joy. This is my absolute favorite kind of work to do.

Joey Wingard:  I am Joey Wingard. I've been in Nashville 13 years now. Oh my gosh. I play electric guitar and acoustic guitar. I've been touring with Tony for about two and a half years now. This will be my ninth and 10th country going around with Tony and being part of his band.

Alex Nixon:  I'm Alex Nixon. I'm originally from Jonesborough, Arkansas and I've been living in Nashville, Tennessee now for, it's coming on 14 years in August. I'm, by trade, a freelance musician. I play drums and percussion and do some singing as well.

Tony Memmel:  I really enjoy these programs for a lot of reasons. I feel when I have the opportunity to be traveling to these countries and to be working with especially youth, there's just all these amazing opportunities for impact. I feel like my life is always impacted. I'm a totally different person than before I started doing these tours. I also know from feedback from people I meet that we're also making impact as we go.

Joey Wingard:  It's kind of cliche to say that it's a universal language, but there's something about the way music makes you move, feel, think that transcends any kind of culture, any kind of language barrier. You could play a chord and people know what that means. I think that's as specific as I can get because it really, it is, it's one of those ethereal things, realizing that while we have different cultures, we're very much the same.

Tony Memmel:  A big thing that I've try and practice and learn is that I feel like music is an opportunity to look beyond myself and look more and at it as a service or as an opportunity to share, and just to kind of get out of your own mind a little bit and be looking for opportunities just to connect with people. So once you start to move beyond worrying about how you sound or how you're coming across and just be in it, I think that that is liberating and actually ends up being the opportunity to make the biggest connections.

Tony Memmel:  I remember before our last tour when we were going to be traveling to Asia, we were told in our briefing over and over we're going to be working with kids a lot and they said, "Don't touch children on the head," which is like, I don't generally go around touching people on the head, but once you're told that you can't do that or something like, "Oh, you little rascal come here," it makes you feel like a little bit aware of that. But we went to a school, it was a specifically... We work a lot with children with differences. I was born without a left hand and taught myself to play the guitar and as we travel around we, this particular day we were working with children who were in school, but working through dyslexia and other learning differences.

Tony Memmel:  I remember going into the school, the children were very polite, all just waiting for us to come in and do our concert. We did the show and then afterwards, we'd had so much fun. A little girl came up to me and she took my hand and touched it to her head and then the whole class came up and did that one after the other. We were told that when we left, that that's a sign of great respect, and that was a really touching moment for me. Yeah, touches me to this day when I think about it, gives me goosebumps.

Joey Wingard:  We were in Battambang, Cambodia and we're playing this school, this arts school that trains kids and some adults in the arts and how to find jobs and work. One day, we get to play this big show in Battambang at this school and just the people that came out and their enthusiasm and these kids. We were kind of in the jungle and they brought in a bunch of spotlights and that also brought in every bug from the jungle, a biblical plague of bugs. That was something I've never experienced ever. You had to keep your mouth closed for most of the thing. It'd be Tony who had to sing the whole time, but it was so sweet. Everyone was so supportive and there was a group of students there that they started a fire and put leaves on it to make smoke and were wafting smoke onto the stage to keep the bugs away from us. It was just one of those moments that was like, "This is so beyond anything I've ever done."

Tony Memmel:  One time on this previous tour where I felt particularly proud of my American upbringing and heritage was, I mentioned earlier that we have the opportunity to do lots of different types of work on these tours. So our first day in Georgia was public concerts, but our second day we were asked to lead a forum, a conversation with local activists and people in the non government organizations working, especially with people who have physical differences and disabilities, and asked to actually lead this conversation with them. We were told that they're actually looking to the United States for ways to model their own law system and their own type of inclusion that the United States does a good job with in this regard in my estimation. One thing that really struck me in our meeting, one man said that just 15 years ago in Georgia, if you were somebody who had a significant physical difference, a significant physical disability, that you were carried as long as you could be carried until you were too heavy to be carried, and then you would be laid in the bed that you would spend the rest of your life in.

Tony Memmel:  So they're working tirelessly on just improving infrastructure and making it so that you can take an elevator in a building or you can get around the city and just up and down stairs and things. They said that it gave him great courage to meet us because of the physical difference that I have. Because one other thing they're also trying to encourage is local role models and people to just demonstrate that you have a purpose, that you're wonderfully made, that you can go out and do things with your life with your special unique gifts, talents, and abilities. Just to have been told that by that group of people, and just to felt that like-mindedness a world away was just a really beautiful moment for me on this previous tour in Georgia.

Tony Memmel:  I think a lot of it comes down to the individual. I think a lot of it comes down to culture. In some places we've been, people have come up to me and said they've been shamed by their parents. From the time they're very little, they're not mainstreamed in schools, they're kept private. I think if that's something you're told your whole life, maybe that's something you start to believe about yourself. But there's also a lot of resilience and I believe that it's part of my own personal mission to have the opportunity to share music and the upbringing that I had, and just the music that I do, and the cast that I make to play the guitar and I find in especially teaching people adaptive music, like helping somebody who's never played guitar before to make their first few chords, even if they have a significant physical difference, that if you can get past that initial challenge where there's a will, there's a way.

Tony Memmel:  There's a lot of heart in these people and a lot of courage and a lot of hope. So that's something that I love having the opportunity to just speak right into and live right into when we have these chances to tour.

Tony Memmel:  Almost every meal, if I'm carrying a plate or a tray, somebody will come up and ask if I need help. I almost always just dismiss it, but then if they're persistent, especially something that I try and just be aware of and just friendly about is I think that we live in a society and a world where people are like crying out for kindness. I think one way that people demonstrate kindness is by offering a hand and trying to lend it. So I don't try and let my own pride get in the way of what another person's offer to do something nice for me. First of all, I know I can do that thing. I know I can carry my plate from this table to that table, but if it's something they're trying to be nice about, I also try and just let that happen sometimes too.

Joey Wingard:  One very profound act of kindness happened really recently a couple of weeks ago when we were in Jordan. We played at a disability center, one of the most amazing shows I've been a part of and just the reaction and the strength in these people. They were all touched. It was just a great exchange and they made handmade gifts. One guy made a handmade mosaic, really heavy, beautiful piece that says, "Tony Memmel, we are here," and it was just profound. Then this really sweet guy was just trying to... We're in a rush to get to the next show at the mall and it's just one of those things that it's like we'd spend here all day if we could, but we just have to go. But he's trying to get our attention, and it's like, "Okay, okay, we'll see you at the mall. I'll come to the mall."

Joey Wingard:  Then he showed up and we played this really amazing show at the mall and it was streamed on Facebook and the reception was amazing. Then his name was Jamil and he showed up at the mall and came up and he goes, "Can I borrow you for a second?" But he wanted a private moment and he expressed to each of us how much that day meant to him. In the time between that show and the show at the mall, he had went out and bought us all gifts, tokens from Jordan tokens, from his home town that really meant something to him and he presented us each. It was so nice that he wanted a one on one moment. Jamil, that was really special.

Tony Memmel:  I would build on what Joey said in terms of just the generosity of people that we have met in every place that I've had the chance to travel to. On this previous tour, somebody came up to me, a woman who had a son who had been born with down syndrome and she was so excited to meet me that she had spent weeks making a handmade carpet for me to take home. Those types of things are just, you know, just saying it right now, it just really touches me. Then I would also say that people amazingly generous with their time and just their attention and interest.

Tony Memmel:  For a band traveling to a place like Cambodia for the first time to show up there and to be doing soundcheck two hours before our performance and have like a half full theater already, just people can't wait to meet us and hear us. They're going to be sitting there a long time. There's not much in between the soundtrack and when we start. Then playing a concert in a park in Taiwan when it's pouring rain, raining cats and dogs, cold and people are just sitting out there in their ponchos listening to every note and stayed the entire concert. Moments like that make you, in whatever way you can, just sing a little harder that night and just bring it and return in any way I can, the gifts that have already been given to me.

Joey Wingard:  Well, this song is called, "I Am Never, never, never Going to Give Up," and this is a song that's actually brand new. I wrote it not that long ago, but we just started sharing it on our previous tour and it's been so fun to share with audiences because the repetition and it's not particularly difficult language that audiences by the end of the song, are just screaming it out with us. This is one that we're really excited to share with you.

Band:  (playing music)

Tony Memmel:  One time that sticks out in my mind that was really powerful and special was we were in Medan, Indonesia visiting a children's hospital and we are specifically in a pediatric bone cancer unit, so a lot of children who had recently had amputations and differences. We started the concert with them, but then throughout the concert, people from all throughout the hospital came and this is another opportunity where the room started with everyone sitting quietly, but by the end they were on the stage and some of them had personal nurse attendance with them who were dancing with their IVs and adjusting it as they go. Man, just to be there in that moment singing, "Can't Stop the Feeling," by Justin Timberlake and have those kids dancing, That's something I want the whole world to know about.

Alex Nixon:  It was pretty intense. When we were in Azerbaijan, there was a guy. He's well known musician in the country and he also teaches at the national conservatory. He plays a native Azerbaijani instrument called the tar, which is a string guitar like instrument. I just felt super proud because we all learned a Azerbaijani folk song called [foreign language]. That was really, super cool and then it just ramped up to this very kind of euphoric state when this tarp layer got up and jammed on one of Tony's songs. That was just an amazing moment and the communication was palpable between us.

Tony Memmel:  I would say the emotional range of our songs tends much more toward like almost everything is really uptempo and positive. So actually, it tends to be more like you walk into a room and everyone is very politely seated, but by the end, they're all crowded to the stage dancing and singing and throwing their hands in the air and sweating. I think just that change of temperament and position and just elevation is what I really would take from it.

Joey Wingard:  There was a moment in Malaysia, in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and we were playing this gymnasium and the same thing. We showed up to do soundcheck two and a half hours early and the place was half full already and there were there just with excitement. Then there was this shy kid that kept to himself, but he brought his guitar. He brought it and was so eager to show it to me. He was following, I guess on what we were doing online because he knew what kind of songs we were playing and he was trying to pick up on some of the stuff I was doing.

Joey Wingard:  So just for 15 minutes, sat down in front of him, just listened to him pluck away and I was like, "This is cool." You'd like to think so much that your music, what you do touches people. Then to have them be so eager and so ready to show that and be himself, be proud of what he was doing, yeah that was like, "Okay, this is cool." Then at the end of the show, Tony brought him on stage and he came up stage and plugged in and we played, "Stand By Me," together and that was a really cool moment.

Joey Wingard:  This is Alex's first trip with us and we were in Georgia and this was kind of a tacked on event. They just wanted to stop by the center for children with down syndrome and cerebral palsy. They were just loving it and we didn't have any amplification. There were, I don't know, 50 kids just loving every moment of it and just having a ball. But there was no personal space. So there was no stage. We were just in this room. Everyone was running around and trying our instruments while we were playing. It was so fun, but I just look back and at one moment they were doing ring around Alex because Alex sits on a cajon and they were all running around him in a circle and Alex just has the biggest smile on his face playing. That's what I got the biggest kick out of, ring around-

Tony Memmel:  One thing that always happens is that no matter where we go in the world, people have a hard time with Joey's name. He has been called Joyce-

Joey Wingard:  Joyce, yes.

Tony Memmel:  ... Bob-

Joey Wingard:  Oh, yeah.

Tony Memmel:  His last name is Wingard, but people have called him Wilkie.

Joey Wingard:  Wilkie, yeah.

Tony Memmel:  So it's a lot of fun just to... He responds to all of these names now within our band personal dynamics. You can call him Joyce Wilkie and he'll know exactly who you're talking to.

Joey Wingard:  Bob.

Tony Memmel:  In that same vein, we showed up at an American corner in Khachmaz, Azerbaijan and the kids were all waiting for us. They'd all made signs with our names on it and one that we kept nice and close in the guitar case so we could see it every time we opened it and remember this very special moment, it was, "We love you, Tony and Alex."

Joey Wingard:  In beautiful English letters, "We love you, Tony and Alex."

Tony Memmel:  No, Joey

Joey Wingard:  No, Joey. It's hard not to take that personally.

Band:  (playing music)

Joey Wingard:  All right. Got a sing along for you. I'll start it off. Join in anytime.

Band:  (playing music).

Band:  (clapping and crosstalk)

Tony Memmel:  When we are in Surabaya, Indonesia, we were asked one day to lead a workshop for adaptive musicians, people who had any number of differences, and we're trying to make music a part of their life. I learned that day that one child who had come to the event had actually traveled seven hours to be there because he had heard that we were there and that we might have an opportunity to help him. I felt this is exactly where I'm supposed to be and it's not playing to 35,000 people, it's touching one heart, one soul, right now. I felt like this is my purpose, this is why I'm alive, is to do this.

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 of The Collaboratory.

Chris Wurst:  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 US government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst:  This week, we were lucky to hear stories and songs from the Tony Memmel Band, featuring Tony Memmel, Joey Wingard and Alex Nixon. The band are veteran performers with American Music Abroad. For more about the band, check out TonyMemmel.com. For more about ECA cultural programs and other exchanges check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and leave us a nice review while you're at it, and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us as always at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's ECA C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at ECA.state.gov/2233. You can check us out and follow us on Instagram now @2233Stories.

Chris Wurst:  Very special thanks to Tony, Joey and Alex for their time and talent. Ana-Maria Sinitean and I did the interview, and I edited this segment. She and I also provided some backup handclaps and vocals for the Epic Little Nook exclusive performances. You've heard of, "I Am Never, Never, Never Going to Give Up, and, "Baby." All of the other music was courtesy of Tony, instrumental versions of, "Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes," "Best Week Ever," "Try to Trade," and, "Old McDonald Had A Farm." 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 86 - The Same Earth Everywhere with Munif Khan

LISTEN HERE - Episode 86

Amy Avellano in snow


When Munif Khan touched the soil in rural Iowa, it didn't seem much different than the soil in his hometown of Bangladesh. Yet, the fact that there were nearly 157 million fewer people on the same size piece of land meant making some big adjustments.


Chris Wurst: When you touch the soil in rural Iowa, you realized it wasn't much different from that in Bangladesh. But on top of that soil, life in Altoona was a whole lot quieter, which I guess is to be expected when you have 157 million less people on the same size piece of land. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Munif Khan: I can see streets with corn fields on both sides. The street is like disappearing. I mean, it's like flowing like a river and disappearing into the horizon. I smell mashed potatoes and corn and butter. I can taste hamburger. And I can hear a silence, a silence. A peaceful silence with dogs barking in the background, birds chirping, but still a peaceful silence.

Chris Wurst: This week, talking to yourself in a strange language. The earth itself knows no borders and proud to be made in Bangladesh. Join us on a journey from Bangladesh to Iowa to confirm that there is no higher calling than helping other people. 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 much like ourselves and-
Intro Clip 4: (music)

Munif Khan: My name is Munif Khan. I'm from Bangladesh. Right now I'm working for a non government organization that deals with vocational education in Bangladesh. The program that I went on is called Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study program. I went to Iowa to study in a high school for one academic year.

Munif Khan: When I was in high school, right after finishing my O Level exams, I thought that I want to volunteer because I had some time left. So I actually went to an organization called Center for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed. I went there and I worked. And the work that I did there were very simple work but it was for a greater cause. On top of the building it was written that service to people is service to God, and that kind of like moved me. At that point I was looking for more opportunities to volunteer and give back to the community.

Munif Khan: I found out about the YES program. I applied for it and I got in. And within a year I found myself in Altoona, Iowa. So when I landed in Iowa, it was the airport in de Moines, all I could see was cornfields. Miles after miles cornfields that disappeared into the horizon. And my host dad was telling me Iowa was actually a little bigger than the size of Bangladesh. When I asked him about the population, I think Iowa had 3 million people in it, when in Bangladesh at that time, had more than 160 million people. That kind of like blew my mind and I kind of felt like I'm in another Bangladesh with just less people, and there is no place you can go where you cannot find people in Bangladesh.

Munif Khan: I come from a family where both my parents, they're very, I would say liberal. Liberal as in, you know in high school we had some rules in the house in the U.S. We had a curfew. Back in Bangladesh, I did not have that. I could come at like 12:00 AM at night. I could come back home and my mom wouldn't care that much about that. My dad wouldn't care much about that. If they knew where I was or if they knew that there was a valid reason I was out. In the U.S., I could not skip school unless I was very, very sick. In Bangladesh, you can skip school easily. I remember after one or two periods I used to go by the riverside and have cup of tea with my other friends who actually skipped school. So that was kind of like a regular thing when we were in high school level. In the U.S., what I found out, that that was not possible.

Munif Khan: I was never one of those brilliant students, but I always thought there is much to learn outside the classrooms. So my favorite song is Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall. So you can imagine what my philosophy about institutions are.

Munif Khan: I thought, before going to the U.S., I could, I mean people wouldn't care much about whether I'm going to school or not. I thought that families are going to be more liberal than my parents, because I thought that my parents are not that liberal at that point. But after going to the U.S., I found out my U.S. family, my host family, was pretty conservative and I don't say that in a negative sense. There was a curfew and I had to abide by that rule. I did not have my own phone. I had to use a family phone, which I shared with two other siblings, host siblings of mine. I could not skip school and I had to do the household chores, which I could skip in my own family, my natural family. Those are the assumptions that I had that was proven wrong, once I went to the U.S. and experienced the family, the school, and the culture.

Munif Khan: My host mom went to another city to do some shopping. She went there, did some shopping, bought some shirts for me, nice shirts for me. When she came back and I tried them out, they were excellent. I loved them. And when I saw the tag, the tag said made in Bangladesh. And at that point it actually made me very, very proud that my mom would give me something from America and it would say that it was made in Bangladesh.

Munif Khan: In Bangladesh I used, I lived in Mymensingh for a long time, and Mymensingh is a small town but still a million people in it almost. So I never ever had like a quiet environment. It was always crowded, and cars honking their horns, and people shouting, arguing. So when I went there, and there was like so much nature and the silence. That was something, that was an experience I will never forget.

Munif Khan: Language is a very integral and I would say a very core of any culture. And that's because when I was in Iowa, I did not find a single person who could speak Bangla. I was going insane. Insane in the sense that I would go to the bathroom, I would look in the mirror, and all of a sudden I would realize that I'm thinking in English. That would be at the same time kind of like amazing and horrifying. And I would try to speak in Bangla forcibly with me, with myself, with my reflection on the mirror. And I think, at that point I was thinking that, "Am I going crazy or like what is this?"

Munif Khan: As I thought about it more and more, I figured out that my mother tongue, Bangla, was the language which I used first to get to know about myself. So it's a part of my entity. This is the language in which I kind of define myself. So not being able to speak this language for so long taught me a lesson, that language is very, very important. And that's what I missed the most when I was away, when I was away from Bangladesh.

Munif Khan: If I was in my home country and I never knew about YES program, and I never participated in any exchange program, I think I would be a completely different person than who I am now. I would not understand why diversity is important. I would never understand why Americans think the way they think. Why an Arab student would think the way they think. I would never understand the core values of a different culture. And that would, I would say, cripple me in many ways in my thoughts, in my perception about the world. The windows off my heart will always stay, would have stayed closed. I would not have been able to question things like why do they do this this way?

Munif Khan: I think the exchange program taught me to ask that why question and for which I have learned so much in past few years. I now try to, if I see somebody doing something differently, before judging I ask why is that person doing it this way? I try to understand their perspective, sympathize with that person. And I think that's the quality that exchange program gives you. Kind of like opens your eyes, takes all the shades away from your eyes, and you can see. And you try to understand, try to see what what people actually are, and why people actually do things their way.

Munif Khan: Bangladesh is majorly a patriarchal country. Growing up in a patriarchal society molds your personality and your character. I never knew that. I never knew that I had those qualities. So I often times I would say like, "Yeah, I'm very liberal." But when I went to the U.S., quite often I would do something and then realize that whatever I just did was something that was inspired by the patriarchal society of Bangladesh where I grew up. I think at one point my host mother was a little upset with me, because she was thinking that the way I was interacting with my host dad and the way I was interacting with my host mom, there was a difference. And she was talking to me about it. And then I was in a total denial, and that kind of made her more upset, which is understandable. And I didn't realize that I was actually wrong. And I said sorry to her afterwards.

Munif Khan: So last time when I came to Kolkata, India, and at the airport I was stuck for some time, and I met this woman who is a sex worker. And I chatted with this woman for about like three, four hours that night, as I was stuck with her. And we really, really talked about a lot of things about women, about culture, about religion. And we had, although that person was not very well educated from institutions, when she talked with me, I figured that she had probably received other sort of education, the education that you get from life. She had experience and from that experience she could talk about all these things, these social stigma, and how society portrays certain things. And after that discussion I realized and I thought to myself that if I did not go for this exchange program, I would probably judge this woman before engaging into a conversation. That, I would say, is an example. The exchange program has actually brought a major, a drastic change in me.

Munif Khan: I never thought I could work that hard. My host parents had a porch and then a backyard. And in the backyard, my host dad once a chopped down a tree because it was dead. And we had to go and collect all the branches, and doing all those things that I have seen my grandfathers do in the field back in the villages of Bangladesh. When I could touch the soil, and I could feel that the soil that I touched in Bangladesh and the soil I touched in the U.S., they felt all the same. And I realized that it's just borders and the borders are just manmade. The Earth, it's just one thing without borders. So I kind of felt like I'm a global citizen at that point. I really, really wish that in this world, in this earth, there were no borders and we could go anywhere, share our culture with anybody, and had that freedom.

Munif Khan: During my high school graduation, when I was wearing the cap and the gown, I was walking there and with everybody, and then I threw my cap in the air. I really, really wished that my friends and family back home could see me. That was a proud moment for me.

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 a U.S. government funded international exchange program.

Chris Wurst: This week, Munif Khan from Bangladesh, talked about his time here on a Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study, or YES, program. For more about YES 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 leave us a nice review while you're at it, hey. And we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. You can find photos of each week's interviewee and a complete episode transcript at our webpage that's at eca.state.gov/2233.

Chris Wurst: Very special thanks to Munif for his stories and for being such a positive force for good in the world. The interview was conducted in Kolkata, India by Amy Hill, who in her day job works for the wonderful organization StoryCenter. And I edited it. Featured music was Filing Away, Heliotrope, and In Paler Skies by Blue Dot Sessions and Fu-Up Jump by Spectacular Sound Productions. 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 85 - Beautiful Sounds in the Sky with Edward Nassor

LISTEN HERE - Episode 85


What started as a curiosity about a unique sounding instrument ultimately led Edward Nassor to the top of the United State's capital city, Washington D.C. Specifically, to the top of the Washington National Cathedral (where this episode was actually recorded) as the man behind the music in the bell tower. Watch a video clip of Edward playing here: https://www.instagram.com/p/B6IO9mxpLEJ/


Chris Wurst: What started as a curiosity about a unique sounding instrument has led you to the top of our nation's capitol city, specifically to the top of the Washington National Cathedral. And a reminder that behind the ubiquitous is ringing bells, there's a man who has traveled far and wide and that his initial curiosity led to a lifetime of music. As Oscar Hammerstein once said, "A bell is not a bell until you ring it." You are listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Edward Nassor: Whenever I play at the Netherlands Carillon, or Washington National Cathedral, one has to be ready to play solemn music at a moment's notice. When Ted Kennedy was being buried at Arlington Cemetery, next to his brother, the funeral cortege happened to come over Memorial Bridge during the time of an evening, Carillon recital. So I noticed all these people were walking through the park and I said, "Well, they're not all coming to hear the Carillon recital. There's thousands of people here. They're heading down to Memorial Bridge to pay their respects and watch the funeral procession." So I switched over and played, when Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

Edward Nassor: At Washington Cathedral, we often play solemn music, but we can have an element of whimsy if the occasion demands it. I've played for some events where it, might be a corporate evening event for some lawyers, and I was told that, "This is a young crowd, they like music of the 70s." So Stairway to Heaven. Works for me. Sounded good on the bells too.

Chris Wurst: This week; listening to your music blanketing Amsterdam, hearing Stairway to Heaven from the top of the National Cathedral, and playing a very special funeral service for Senator J. William Fulbright. Join us, and journey from Virginia to Amsterdam, and hitting all the right notes. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: 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...
Speaker 6: Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange. Ooh, yes.

Edward Nassor: My name is Edward Nassor. I'm from Fairfax, Virginia. I am the carillonneur of Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The carillon is a unique musical instrument of tower bells that are played from a keyboard resembling an organ keyboard. There's keys you can play with your hands and there's pedals that you play with your feet. The carillon at Washington Cathedral has 53 bells and that makes it a grand carillon.

Edward Nassor: I became interested in carillon when I was a music student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. I wanted to study all the keyboard instruments and I took the opportunity to take some carillon lessons. I didn't know the Carillon was a keyboard instrument when I first read about it, but I was trying to imagine in my mind what large bells and a tower would sound like, and how you would play them from the keyboard. Well, once I was introduced to the carillon, I was hooked.

Edward Nassor: It felt like playing a giant piano in the sky. You're 200 feet above the ground, playing an instrument that can be heard for miles around. The bells are big enough to stand in. Some weigh 10 tons, others weigh 17 pounds, as big as a hand bell you might hold. I studied the carillon for three years. And then, when I left and graduated, I sought further carillon lessons.

Edward Nassor: I started attending local carillon recitals. One of them, a weekly recital, was at the Netherlands Carillon, in Arlington, Virginia. I met the carillonneur there. I soon began studying with the carillonneur there. Eventually, I was appointed the carillonneur at the Netherlands Carillon after my teacher had passed away, and I learned that there was a Dutch Carillon school.

Edward Nassor: As I was finishing my masters, I applied for a Fulbright Grant to study in Holland. While I was in the application process, a vacancy opened at Washington National Cathedral, several months after I was appointed the Cathedral carillonneur. Then, the Fulbright grant came through.

Edward Nassor: Fantastic. I have a year study grant, but I just got the best job you'll ever get in the United States playing the carillon. Fortunately, I'm probably the only person who received a sabbatical their first year. I was not the first Fulbrighter to study carillon in Europe, but I was the first Fulbrighter to study carillon at the Dutch Carillon School. After that, many people followed in my path and I consulted and mentored a few of them to get started and now it's not too unusual to do that.

Edward Nassor: One assumption I had about the Dutch culture was totally wrong. I knew that it was a fairly liberal society and certain things were legal in how and that we're not in the United States, so I figured, "Oh, the Dutch students, especially music students, they're probably party animals." No, they're very serious. They practiced, practiced, practiced. Their drug of choice was caffeine and nicotine.

Edward Nassor: But that was an important year. The study I had at the Netherlands carillon School gave me the repertoire and the tools I needed to build the repertoire that I would need both at the Netherlands carillon and Washington National Cathedral, where you have to change your program every week. When I first arrived in the Netherlands, my ears were on fire. It felt like I had been transported through a window back in time to the 17th century, because there are many historical carillons made anywhere from the late 1500s to the early 1700s.

Edward Nassor: Here, you heard the actual instruments with the same tuning that they've had for 300 years sitting in the towers. And they play on the hour. It was just a such a treat. It really felt like I had stepped into another world.

Edward Nassor: I was fortunate that I went to a modern European country. I saw a lot of similarities with our culture, in America. Not a lot of differences. The Dutch are such a warm and open, friendly people, that it was easy to acclimate myself there. When I would develop programs for the carillon, I would do it often in the same format that I would in the United States.

Edward Nassor: I would play folk songs, although these would now be Dutch folk songs. I would play light classical music, that would be familiar, say Beethoven, Verdi, Dvorak, what have you, and then I would also play original music written for carillon. I got to learn much of the current and recent Dutch carillon style, which was really fascinating. I couldn't wait to bring it back to the United States to play in the Netherlands carillon.

Edward Nassor: One of the times I felt particularly proud was when I passed my recital exam. This was like your bachelor's degree music recital. It was given in the tower and broadcast on the radio, and the public was out there, and invited to hear it. Of course, it was graded and it was not only music and arrangements you made, it was also improvisations where the professors would give you a melody as you walked up the tower and you had that long to figure out how to play it.

Edward Nassor: A big surprise for me was the day I was visiting my teacher in Amsterdam. He was the carillonneur of the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in Amsterdam. As I was walking up to the house, the hour strike was playing and there's a melody that plays before the hour strike and I was thinking, "Boy, that's really familiar. I like that tune." And then I realized, "Oh, that's my arrangement of a guitar piece."

Edward Nassor: My teacher had taken the time to change the 17th century pin drum, with hundreds of pins, to put that melody on the automatic bells. That was a real treat, to hear my music played over Amsterdam.

Edward Nassor: When I close my eyes and think about my exchange to the Netherlands, I can almost hear the early tuning from the 16th century, the mean tone tuning. I can smell the marketplace smells of herring, and coffee, and Stroopwafels. A lot of this is, because, as a large part of my studies, I would play market recitals. So the carillon, typically, in Holland, played before, during and after the closing of the open air markets. And so there was no better time to find the culture of the place, but in between playings, to go down and just take in the sights and smells of the marketplace.

Edward Nassor: I feel really fortunate that I had the opportunity to study in the Netherlands and to see the European carillon culture. While I was there, I traveled to Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France. Played many different places and saw the culture and what the different communities did with their bells, how they use them, which events the bells were made to play for.

Edward Nassor: There's an American carillon culture and there's a European carillon culture. Had I stayed in America, I would not really feel as if I could be a carillonneur of the world, because I would know my folk songs. I would know the American repertoire that was built for the American instruments. The American instruments are quite different.

Edward Nassor: Many of them are grand carillons, with an extended range. This leads to larger bells, wider towers, and when it comes to the music itself, the arrangements also have wider intervals and more space between the notes. Because these large bells resonate so much more fully, that they take up the space. A lot of the European music was like filigree. It was just so beautiful to match the two styles and come up with a style that works for me.

Edward Nassor: There's a huge ripple effect, from my studies at the Netherlands. To get my degree in camp analogy from the Dutch carillon School, my thesis was: The Ideal Way to Restore the Netherlands Carillon. The Carillon was given to the United States in the 1950s, based on historic Dutch instruments. So my plan was to add three bells, switch the keyboard, so C sounded C, and then we'd have a completely modern instrument.

Edward Nassor: About three years ago, when the Dutch technicians were working on the Netherlands Carillon, the technician in charge said, "Oh, by the way, Ed, we found your plan from the 90s for the Carillon and we're going to propose it to the embassy." Well, we're in process now. We expect the bells will be removed during the fall of '19 and come back some time with three additional bells and we should have a brand new, completely modern instrument, in concert pitch, a grand carillon, worthy of the best of the Dutch carillons.

Edward Nassor: I'm not sure that the instrument would have been changed at all, or updated, had it not been for my study in the Netherlands. Because the idea was, what's the ideal of this instrument? What could it become? Most historic instruments, people try to preserve what is. And if that's very old fashioned or outdated, so be it, because that's a window on the culture of the 1950s.

Edward Nassor: But the Dutch carillon culture continues to improve. We have active exchanges where Dutch carillonneurs come over and play here, and Americans go over and play there. So it's kind of an a happy open market where we share a lot with each other, and also what would be the best dispositions of these instruments. So I am so pleased, and I think this can only happen when the carillonneur is completely for it and works tirelessly towards it, and you have a receptive country and embassy.

Edward Nassor: And the staff of the Royal Dutch Embassy has been a fantastic support for this. The National Park Service has been supporting this. It's really a dream come true. Most carillonneurs are lucky if they can have one restoration in their lifetime, and this would be the second in my career here. I hope this restoration will be one that will last for generations.

Edward Nassor: The Dutch gave the United States the Netherlands Carillon in appreciation for aid and assistance during and after World War II. The first bell was presented by Queen Juliana to President Truman as a token of the carillon to come. The Carillon first came in 1954.

Edward Nassor: The permanent tower is in Arlington, Virginia, in Arlington Ridge Park, in a direct access with the monumental corridor of the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial. And the Netherlands carillon is the final part of that corridor. It's quite an honor to be in such a location.

Edward Nassor: When you play the bells there, you have the entire vista of Washington, DC in front of you. It's an extraordinary view, and an extraordinary feeling to be up there, and such a gift to be able to play music on that instrument in this location with people from all around the world as your audience.

Edward Nassor: Here at the National Cathedral, many people think that we're extremely serious. But in fact, we're quite flexible. We can go anywhere from a state funeral, with all the due respect and pomp that is necessary, to a pancake race, with clergy flipping pancakes and the nave on Shrove Tuesday. For example, I'll play a program this afternoon where I'll start with a very serious Lenten hymn, because we are in the liturgical season of Lent. But it's also the peak time of the cherry blossom festival in Washington, DC, so I'll play some variations on the Japanese Cherry Blossom song, Sakura Sakura.

Edward Nassor: Interestingly enough, I got these arrangements of Japanese music from students I studied with. Japanese students who were also attending the Netherlands Carillon School at the same time I was. So we have this exchange, where they play American folk songs over there, I play their songs here. This became really special when the cathedral did a solemn anniversary service for the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Edward Nassor: One of the students I studied with was a child of a man who was a Hiroshima survivor when he was six years old. I played her ring arrangement at this commemorative service. I think it touched a lot of hearts in a couple of continents when I was able to play that music. Thank you, Yuko, for your beautiful music.

Edward Nassor: Then again, years later, we did a commemorative service in support of the Japanese flood victims after Fukushima. I played a program of Japanese folk songs, and the famous Spring Sea piece, which is a well known light classical piece in Japan. The cathedral received letters, which were directed to my music director, who informed me that people in the audience were very moved and crying because they heard the music of their childhood when they came to the cathedral to remember their home country. So to me, that's the Fulbright difference.

Edward Nassor: Flexibility is a key to being a carillonneur in a city where things are constantly changing. Dave Brubeck was in town, giving a choral concert at Washington Cathedral of his religious works. And I said to the director of The Choral Society, "Oh, I could play his music on the bells." And he said, "Oh, you could not. He'd never recognize it."

Edward Nassor: I said, "What time are you going to lunch?" So when they left the Cathedral, I played Take Five on the Carillon. And the next week, I received a lovely signed concert poster. Hey Ed, thanks for Take Five on the Carillon. Dave Brubeck.

Edward Nassor: One of the highlights that I'll always remember was the two concerts I had played with Ravi Shankar. This was in the early 1990s, when he was doing benefit concerts for victims in the Yugoslavian Wars, also Bangladesh, and all the proceeds went to these children's charities. He came, his daughter, Anoushka, was disciple, at that point, studying with him, and his wife also played with them and a famous percussionist who sang.

Edward Nassor: One of the things he asked was, "You have bells here, I remember, when I played here a long time ago?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Are they in tune?" I said, "Of course." He said, "No, I mean, are they in A440 tuning?" And I said, "Yes." And he sends up his aide to go up there with a tuner and confirmed that they were.

Edward Nassor: Well, once he was satisfied that they were in tune, he said, "Good. I'd like you to play in my finale piece." And it was A Prayer of Peace, and it has a little bell motif that comes in the middle and at the end of the piece. And I was... Ravi Shankar is performing in the nave of the cathedral, but we had an audio hookup to the tower, so I could hear them. And then what I played was broadcast into the cathedral. So that's how I got to perform two nights with Ravi Shankar for a children's benefit.

Edward Nassor: In my role, as carillonneur at Washington National Cathedral, I've had the occasion to play for many a solemn service. I've played for state funerals of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. One of the most memorable, and personally satisfying ones for me, was to play for the funeral of J. William Fulbright, in 1995. Being a Fulbright Scholar, I felt like I owed the family and the program a lot.

Edward Nassor: I was so pleased that I was in a position to provide a dignified carillon prelude for him. In planning the service, many people call the cathedral and said, "Well, I'm a Fulbright Scholar in music. May I perform at the service?" And the cathedral had to say, "I'm sorry, but we already have a Fulbright musician on staff, but thank you for your interest."

Edward Nassor: I played a patriotic program with a lot of heroic music, and based between classical and American music. And Aaron Copland, Fanfare for the Common Man. And other standard pieces that would be very recognizable and some of the best music that our country had to offer.

Chris Wurst: 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'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.

Chris Wurst: This week carillonneur, Edward Nassar, shared stories from his Fulbright Exchange to the Netherlands, and from his time as the longest serving carillonneur at the Washington National Cathedral. 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 it wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you.

Chris Wurst: 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@state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. And you can check us out on Instagram at 2233stories.

Chris Wurst: Huge special thanks to Edward, not only for sharing his stories, but for taking me to the very top of the Washington National Cathedral to watch and record him playing. I did the interview and edited this segment. All of the music you heard featured Edward playing the National Cathedral's carillon. I recorded the longer excerpt, which was the traditional Japanese song Edward referred to in the story.

Chris Wurst: Music at the top of this episode was Quatrefoil by Podington Bear and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.  


Season 01, Episode 84 - And Justice For All with Amy Avellano

LISTEN HERE - Episode 84

Amy Avellano in snow


Every step of Amy Avello's journey, from student activist to family court judge in the Philippines, she has had to confront and overcome stereotypes and obstacles. It wasn't easy but she did so gladly and with determination because those for whom she was fighting did not have a voice of their own.


Chris Wurst: Every step of your journey, from student activist to family court judge, you have had to confront and overcome stereotypes and obstacles. It wasn't easy, but you did so gladly and with determination, because those for whom you were fighting did not have a voice of their own. You are listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Amy Avellano: I went to the Supreme Court, I queued up at 6:30 in the morning hoping I could get into the session hall and watch an oral argument. Unfortunately I wasn't early enough, only the first 50 people made it inside the session hall. But I finally made it inside at 10:15 in the morning for a three minute observation. And there she was, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the icon. And I was breathing the same air that she's breathing. Asking me do I feel optimistic about the future. I should be. Because at the time when RBG became a lawyer, the environment wasn't as embracing and as inclusive of women as it is now. And that's also the same in the Philippines. So for all I know, the next ... The RBG in the Philippines might already be appearing in my court.

Chris Wurst: This week an activist goes to law school, blazing a path for women and running a tight courtroomship. Join us on her journey from the Philippines to Minnesota, searching for justice for the most vulnerable among us. 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. There are people very much like ourselves and-
Intro Clip 4: (music)

Amy Avellano: I am Amy Avellano. I'm a family court judge in the Philippines. I was first here in 2008 as a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow and I was posted at the University of Minnesota Law School where I studied trafficking in persons, policy and prevention. I came from a family where the parents were both government officials. And my parents always told us to study very well, because the only thing that they could give us as inheritance is our education.

Amy Avellano: I never really thought that I would become a lawyer, because I've always been an activist. That was the background I was coming from. I grew up during the time when the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted and president Corazon Aquino came into power after the EDSA Revolution. We're enjoying this democracy and yet, do we really understand the things that people fought for so that we could enjoy it.

Amy Avellano: You know, as an activist you want to go out in the street, organize people. But my parents did not want that for me, because they're government officials, okay? And they thought, "Come on Amy, you are enjoying this education because the government is supporting us, supporting your education." And I said, Papi and Mami, that's daddy and mommy. "But Papi and Mami, you are earning, because you are serving the government. You're public servants, you're earning every cent that the government is paying you. It's not as if we owe the government."

Amy Avellano: I wanted to continue with my mobilizing work and the only way I could do that was to agree to go to law school. So I ended up in law school, not really thinking that I would become a lawyer. But eventually I made it to fourth year and made it to the bar exams and there was I, already a lawyer. And I had to do something and I had to choose what kind of field I wanted to be in.

Amy Avellano: I came from a generation of L.A. Law and Ally McBeal, and I thought I would die arguing my last case in court. That was the kind of lawyer I wanted to be and to remain. As a litigator, not thinking that I would become a judge one day or a family court judge.

Amy Avellano: I work in a law firm as a legal researcher and the senior partner was sending me to court to argue cases. So I was writing briefs, I was researching briefs for him that he was signing. Those briefs were related to cases of paying clients, and then one day there was this father and daughter who walked into the office and sought pro bono representation. The daughter was raped by a neighbor, but the law office did not want to accept the case, because they would be non-paying clients and I talk to the law partner, "Please accept this case. I will do everything. I'll research all the pleadings. I would write the pleadings for you, just accept the case." But I think not all law offices would want to run an office that way. So they went home very frustrated because their request for legal representation was not accepted, and it was then when I said, "When I become a lawyer I will help people like her."

Amy Avellano: When I became a lawyer, it was a medium size law firm in the business district. I was the only female lawyer hired by that law firm and the other female lawyer was the daughter of the managing partner. All the rest were male lawyers. But you see when you are in a medium size law firm, you couldn't do much. They would dictate on you. They would send you to court to ask for postponements and I did not want to be that kind of lawyer. So I transferred to a very small sized law firm and still the same, the law partners sent me to court, sent me to the office of the prosecutor, telling me, "Oh, when you go there you wear miniskirts."

Amy Avellano: So I realize whether you are either medium sized firm or a small size firm, you really cannot choose the types of cases that you would be handling. So I decided to volunteer in an NGO. It's called Children's Legal Bureau, until now it's still existing. They are representing children who are abused, sexually abused, neglected, trafficed children. And that was when I realized I found my niche. I want to be a children's and human rights lawyer.

Amy Avellano: When I was starting my legal career, there weren't many women inside the courtroom. In fact, one day I saw myself appearing in this court where the judge was presiding over his sala and he was not wearing the judicial robe. He was smoking. There were four other male lawyers inside the courtroom and all of them were smoking. I was the lone female lawyer in that courtroom and the judge jokingly said, "Hee ha," okay. "What are you doing here? Did your mom sent you to buy vinegar, and you found yourself inside the courtroom? Are you sure you really pass the bar examinations? Where is your admission to the bar certificate?"

Amy Avellano: That was the environment when I commenced my legal practice. But now as a family court judge I'm seeing an equal balance of men and women lawyers inside the courtroom. And of course I would not subject anyone to that kind of treatment. Whenever a very young lawyer would appear in front of me, I would ask that lawyer, "What kind of lawyer do you want to be? Do you know how important it is to become a lawyer in this country that you could actually use your license to protect the rule of law, to not just be a lawyer for self-interest to advance your career? It's good to earn money, but it's equally good or even more important and significant to help people so that they could protect their rights or assert their rights in court."

Amy Avellano: From Children's Legal Bureau, I transitioned to another NGO. This time it's called the Women's Legal Bureau. I started representing children in court and then I transitioned to representing victims of domestic violence in court. Then I returned to prosecution of child abuse cases with child justice league.

Amy Avellano: Being inside the courtroom was not enough for me. I knew that I had to go out and teach people how they could better protect their children, how they could teach children to assert their rights, not just as children, but even as human beings. So I joined the Child Protection Unit at the Philippine General Hospital and that was where I was able to work with a multidisciplinary team composed of doctors, child psychologist, child psychiatry, social workers, police officers who are investigating child abuse cases. And from them I learned how to render holistic case management and treatment to all this victims of child abuse cases.

Amy Avellano: Back then we did not have much the new to discuss and learn much about trafficking in persons. And we had the very new law back then. The National Law on Trafficking in Persons was passed in 2003, and I did my fellowship in 2008. So it was a five year old law. So we did not know how to effectively investigate trafficking cases. We did not know how to effectively present cases in court so that the traffickers could be pinned down and convicted. And I thought this would be an opportunity for me to know more about the subject so that when I could return, I could help improve the investigation, the prosecution side of this issue.

Amy Avellano: I did the professional obligation at Corner House. It's the best facility here in United States on doing forensic interview of victims, and I thought this is something I could replicate in the Philippines. You see, under our national law against trafficking in persons, the lack of consent of the victim is not an element of the crime. And yet courts and other justice actors are still grappling with the conflicting issue of consent, visiting vulnerability. And that's understandable because they're coming from a privileged position of very few people. Most of the time victims disappear in the middle of trial. So when you do not have the victim anymore, it would be extremely difficult to prove the case. And I thought, "If we could just preserve on video the testimony of the traffic victims, then these can be presented in court after properly authenticating and this could help pin down the accused and still secure conviction." So that's what I did.

Amy Avellano: I like the collaboration of multidisciplinary team. When they investigate the crime, the prosecutor, the police officer, and the mental health professionals are there. Often it's the prosecutor and the police investigator with the social worker conducting the interview. That to me is a best practice that should be replicated. Before I left for the United States, we were already doing that, but when I returned to the Philippines, I was able to develop a manual on how to conduct forensic videotape interview of traffic minors. The interview is either done by a medical doctor who doesn't have any background in the law, or a police officer, with the social worker recording.

Amy Avellano: We went through the Minnesota Supreme Court and there I met Justice Paul Anderson, and he taught us this very valuable lesson. He said, "Whenever you're invited always show up, because you'll never know what opportunity you might miss by not showing up." Eventually he became my teacher in law school. There were many justices and judges that I met during my Humphrey year, but there was another member of the bench that left a significant mark on my life. And I'm talking about judge Lloyd Zimmerman, a family court judge. I shadowed him. I went to score it and I saw how he humanize the court environment. It was the first time that I actually saw a judge addressed a litigant in court and said, "Good morning Mr. So and so. What can the court do for you today?" Watching judge Lloyd Zimmerman I thought, "I could be a family court judge just like him and help humanize the court process."

Amy Avellano: Fortunately for me, I have a court docket of less than 150 cases and in a family court environment, you cannot be hostile. You should be this face of compassion, voice of wisdom, but sometimes when you are in front of these feuding couple who could not see the bigger picture, which is the best interest of the child that they are fighting over, it's difficult to humanize the court process. You get so agitated and angry. "Why are you so selfish? Why can't you see the child?"

Amy Avellano: You just being a Humphrey Fellow is already a source of pride for somebody coming from a family where my father doesn't even have a passport coming here to the United States, which is a big deal. It was a source of pride. But seeing myself in the middle of all those Humphrey Fellows coming from all parts of the globe was a great source of joy and pride.

Amy Avellano: My father never really saw me. Whenever I would do a presentation a small part to me was hoping, I wish my father could see me giving this presentation in front of this huge crowd. My father has Parkinson's disease, so when I became a lawyer, he was still very active. Now that I am on the bench, he is wheelchair bound and he never saw me inside the courtroom. He never watched me give a presentation.

Amy Avellano: My mother visited me one time in court and that was the only time she saw me in action, but both of them never had a chance to watch me give a presentation in front of a huge crowd. And whenever I had to do a presentation during the Humphrey Fellowship Program, you know I was wishing, "I hope this could be recorded so I could show this to my parents so they could also be proud of what their daughter is doing here in the United States."

Amy Avellano: You see, I was doing my Humphrey Fellowship when they called me and asked me to join the Child Protection Network on a full-time basis and I said, "In what capacity?" They said, "Well you would still do legal advising, but you would be doing also resource mobilization work." And what exactly would you want me to do? Help raise funds so that we could establish more women and child protection units across the country. So that when a child is abused, there would be a health facility where he or she could access services ranging from medical treatment to assistance in filing a case in court, psychosocial intervention through the help of social workers and other mental health professional.

Amy Avellano: So when I joined the Child Protection Network, it had very small percentage of local funding. But when I joined them and I applied what I learned from the Humphrey Fellowship about networking, talking to people, raising funds and resources, we were able to increase funding from the local people. So now I think it's on a 50/50 percentage.

Amy Avellano: When I returned to the Philippines and joined the Child Protection Network, I was doing primarily fundraising, resource mobilization work. Litigation work took a back seat. For somebody who thrives being inside the courtroom, enjoying how it is to cross-examine a witness. I really miss the courtroom and I thought a part of me will always yearn for the courtroom. So that was when I decided I should already apply to the bench and I decided to become a family court judge, just like judge Lloyd Zimmerman.

Amy Avellano: It was 8:15 in the morning. I was a very new judge then. It was my first hearing day and I put on my robe and walk into the courtroom and there I was, tiny judge, a new face in the community. I think they were curious about me. They knew I wasn't from the area. I came from Manila.

Amy Avellano: Now I do not need to announce anymore that session starts at 8:30. Now I don't need to remind lawyers that you should not come to court unprepared, because when they come to court unprepared and ask for continuance with an excuse that, "I'm sorry your honor, I was not able to prepare the judicial affidavit of the witness." They know that they will be humiliated and I would tell them in open court, "Okay, I will entertain this continuance just once. But you have to pay the postponement fee and you cannot charge this against your client, because it is your fault why we are postponing the case. So why should your client suffer for you not being prepared for today's hearing?"

Amy Avellano: I just want them to be prepared. I do not want them to short change their clients. I want them to know the ins and outs of their cases. I do not want to have that feeling that, "Come on, I can do better than that. And I just read your case file yesterday." I do not want to say, "Let us switch places. Let me argue your case." Because that to me would be very, very embarrassing.

Amy Avellano: You see, one day I was conducting a training in a nearby city where Mayisela is located, and there is this female who approached me and said, "Good morning judge, my husband speaks highly of you." And I said, "Why? Was your husband a litigate in my court?" And she said, "He actually, he was there in your court in a marriage nullity case." And I asked her, "So which wife are you? The first wife or the second wife?" And she said, "No, no judge am actually the wife of the lawyer who appeared before your court. And he said he's always excited whenever he would appear before you and he looks up to you with respect. He said he wants to be like you someday." So I'm thinking, "Maybe I'm being effective as a family court judge because I'm inspiring people." I do not know. Perhaps.

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 name 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.

Chris Wurst: This week, judge Amy Avellano discussed her road to becoming a judge and the inspiration she found as a Humphrey Fellow researching human trafficking at the University of Minnesota. Go Gophers. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs.Check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and leave us a nice review while you're at it. And 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@state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. Now you can check us out on Instagram at 2233 stories. Special thanks to our team in the Collaboratory, including our virtual interns, Laurel Stickney, Cynthia Ubah and Kelly Zhang, and special thanks to Amy Avellano for her stories and her passion for equal justice.

Chris Wurst: I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Aruro, Asterisk, Tartaruga and Thirteens, all by the Blue Dot Sessions, Morning Too Soon by Ketsa, and Pretty Bill by Paddington Bear. Music at the top of this episode was Sebastian by How The Night Came. And the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 83 - Keeping the Lights On with Alyssa Meyers

LISTEN HERE - Episode 83

Alyssa Meyers in front of river


A harrowing experience while hospitalized abroad leads to an insight that changes the course of Alyssa Meyers' life and work—and all this while living overseas with a disability.


Chris Wurst: So you landed in Central Asia for professional and intellectual reasons, but then you get sick and the very thing you went to study went from being abstract to very real. And when that happened your work started to take on truly lifesaving implications. You defied expectations, but then you've done that your entire life. You're listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.

Alyssa Meyers: There are a lot of monuments where you have to go up a bunch of stairs to get to the statues. And going upstairs is fine for me but going down I need to hang on to someone. And there were a lot of times that men would want to lift me and carry me down. I would be like, "No, I'm not fragile I just need to hold onto someone. You don't have to carry me all the way down." Or the same thing that if I was walking down the street and carrying something heavy, men would always want to take it for me and carry it for me.

Alyssa Meyers: There's this perception, I guess, a lot of people saw me as breakable and there are people in the U.S. That see that too. But I felt that it was my duty to convince them that I'm not as fragile as you think and I'm a human being. Which is tough because my parents also treated me with kid gloves. I have a twin sister who doesn't have a disability and then there's me between the two of us, my parents definitely treated me with kid gloves. And I think they just didn't want to see me get hurt. I can understand that as a parent that you do anything to save your kid from pain. But when you watch everyone treat you like that, what opportunities do you have to grow if people or confining you in a box?

Chris Wurst: This week, smashing through expectations and limitations. Thoughts on what democracy means and how a hospital stay in Central Asia may end up benefiting the world. Join us on a journey from Michigan to the Kyrgyz Republic to look at energy for all, 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. There are people very much like ourselves.
Intro Clip 4: (music)

Alyssa Meyers: My name is Alyssa Meyer. I'm originally from Houghton Lake, Michigan. I am currently an energy industry analyst. I was a 2012/2013 Fulbright scholar in energy. I was in the capital in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and I also went on the Critical Language Scholarship program to Azerbaijan and I was also a Boren Fellow in Kyrgyzstan.

Alyssa Meyers: It's pretty well understood why and how Kyrgyzstan is energy insecure, which means that there's no dependable, cost-effective, continuous source of energy. And I understood the political dynamic behind why the energy insecurity exists. And knowing that I proposed to look at ways that small scale renewable such as solar panels on roofs might eventually help bridge the gaps to shortages.

Alyssa Meyers: And I realized pretty quickly, once I got to the ground and started doing that work, that it was interesting to work with locals who were also interested in small scale solar, hydro or geothermal. But it was hard to do a true benefit cost analysis of how effective this would be in a solution because I didn't have good data about how it impacted people on a household level to live in energy insecurity. If you interviewed people or if you watch the news, people would tell you in this city approximately this number of houses lost power or lost heat or whatever it is. But there was really no coverage on what that meant on the individual level.

Alyssa Meyers: And I was aware of that on a subconscious level, but it hit me in the face in the middle of my Fulbright grant when I became sick and I had gallstones, but I didn't know it. At the time, I just knew that I had very severe abdominal pain and they went through a range of thinking that it was my ovaries or thinking it was my kidneys and I just kept getting worse. And so eventually I ended up in the hospital. And while I was in the hospital I was still reading and going through interviews and thinking about my work and I started to wonder what if you're on kidney dialysis? What if you're on a ventilator? What if you're on an operating table and the lights go out?

Alyssa Meyers: Shortly after I started thinking about all those things, they figured out that I had gallstones and pretty much told us that I had to have surgery immediately. And that day in itself was pretty terrifying. In that, when you learn Russian, they teach you general medical terms. So I learned I have strep throat, I have a headache, but no one teaches you the word for gallbladder. The doctors come over and tell us, you have stones in this word that I don't know, you need surgery immediately. And I watched Nasiva go sheet white and I was just like, okay, what's wrong with me? And so then we looked it up in Google translate and then I understood, okay it's my gallbladder, that's happened to people in my family. Yes it is an emergency.

Alyssa Meyers: The U.S. Embassy was very kind during that time and was able to help coordinate medical leave for me to go back to the U.S. and have surgery with my mom. And the surgery itself is pretty easy and I was back on a plane two weeks later and fine. But I spent a lot of time thinking about what if I'd had surgery there and what if I hadn't been so lucky? Those thoughts never really went away. And I started poking at those sorts of questions towards the end of my Fulbright. But by that point it was April and I was going home and starting grad school in August. And so I sketched out a plan for what I would need to do if I was going to answer this question. And then I went to grad school and the more time went on, the more I realize that I really want to go back and collect data on a household level. This question is not going to leave me alone. I want to write my master's thesis on it.

Alyssa Meyers: There was a lot of push back. A lot of people said you already have a year of data from your Fulbright, what are you doing? But long story short, with a dual masters I needed three years of coursework and I completed two of them and then one at Boren, went back to Kyrgyzstan to collect household level data and answer this exact question. It's really a realization that I wouldn't have come to if I was just sitting in a library in the U.S. trying to figure out the cost benefits of using small scale renewables in central Asia. It was a realization that I had to be on the ground to see. And now for work, especially amongst the younger crowd, the work that I've done in the perspective that I have on why energy regulation is important is really unique and not something that I wouldn't have if it weren't for programs like Fulbright.

Alyssa Meyers: So when I was applying for foreign and getting ready to submit my application, some of the opposition I had in terms of me going back to Kyrgyzstan was from my family. And even when I was on Fulbright and took medical leave and made the decision to go back in two weeks to finish my work, my mom really fought me on it. And I kept saying to her, "Mom, I could step off a sidewalk and get hit by a bus tomorrow in the U.S. I'm going to go. This work is important." And as I was applying for Boren in the winter of 2014 a story broke internationally about a cardiovascular center in the capital Bishkek. Where a woman was an open heart surgery on the table and the lights went out. Supposedly they had a backup generator but they couldn't afford the fuel to put in it. So they finished the surgery through the light of staff's cell phones.

Alyssa Meyers: And from what I've read, the woman is okay. and is alive and well. But I wouldn't say that my parents follow current events the way that I do. But this story went far enough that my mom saw it and was like, what are you doing? And for me, I was like, look mom, this is why my work is important. And she was like, are you sure that you have to be the one to do this? But yeah, for me, I felt like it had to be me.

Alyssa Meyers: I have cerebral palsy and a lot of people look at me and look at my limp and think that people with physical disabilities can't move abroad on their own. And even in university study abroad offices, the number of times I've heard someone say, are you sure you want to go abroad? I don't think you can do it.

Alyssa Meyers: You can still go abroad and represent your country. And that's not to say that there weren't challenges. In central Asia, there are a lot of steps in places that there wouldn't be steps in the U.S. To go to an ATM, there's usually two or three really narrow steps. And to get up I'm fine, but to come down them I worry about falling. And I had to come to terms with the fact that if no one's with me to hold onto, I might fall. And thankfully I never took a bad fall. But it's not to say that people like me can't spend time abroad.

Alyssa Meyers: Even now, when I was on the job market, some of the jobs that I looked at had a lot of international travel involved and a lot of people looked at me and said, "You can't do that physically. You don't have the stamina for it." And I looked at them and said, "Have you seen my resume? Have you seen how long I've been abroad alone?"`

Alyssa Meyers: 10 year old me, 15 year old me may have believed those people who told me I couldn't. But now 29 year old me wants to encourage everyone that can to do it.

Alyssa Meyers: I had several conversations related to groups going on hikes where people would say to me, "Well we didn't invite you because we didn't want you to get hurt and we thought we were protecting you." And I would say, "You don't get to decide what I'm capable of. I get to decide that and I need you to understand that if you don't invite me, that's exclusion based on your perception of what my body can do." And I get it. In that part of the world, I encountered a lot of people who basically said that people with disabilities like mine sometimes don't finish school, sometimes don't work full time. Not because they can't but because society isn't really set up in a way to help accommodate them.

Alyssa Meyers: And I did once see, walking down the street, someone who I'm sure had cerebral palsy because the gate is very distinctive if you know what it looks like. And when I saw him, I didn't say anything to him. I couldn't think of a way to broach the topic in a polite way. But I thought a lot about the surgeries that I've had and the opportunities I've had medically. A lot of them occurred probably precisely because I was in the U.S. and the major surgeries I had when they happened in 1997 were new procedures. I'm not sure that those kids there, like if I had been born in central Asia, that I would have had the same opportunity.

Alyssa Meyers: My parents were both teachers and when I was growing up, before I started having surgeries, my balance was really bad. And my mom advocated very heavily to put bars on one of the bathrooms stalls so that I could use it by myself and not worry about falling down. And it was possible, she was a known entity and they had to comply with ADA. But I don't think the same thing would have happened there. And I think a lot of the accessibility, not just for me but in terms of people me who happened to be born there.

Alyssa Meyers: The other thing is there are a lot of stereotypes in their culture about what women should or shouldn't be or how they should act and so I also got a lot of reaction to your body isn't pretty enough for men. Because you have a limp, because you have scars and those are demons that I've carried around much of my life. But it put me in a position where I had to respond and say, "Do you realize how dangerous it is to teach young girls that?" I had the opportunity to be that person to say that precisely because I'd come from a different space,` from America. Yeah, I agree. It's forward thinking here. It's not perfect, but it's definitely a lot further ahead than a lot of Eurasia.

Alyssa Meyers: One of the things that I'll never forget is when I was on Fulbright, the Newtown shooting happened. So the news happened and then we woke up in the morning in Kyrgyzstan and people knew that elementary school kids had been killed in their classroom. And for whatever reason I had to go to the U.S. Embassy that day and the U.S. Embassy is out in the middle of nowhere. So the easiest way to get there is to get in a taxi. So I called a taxi and I sat down and the driver asked me where it was going and I asked to go the American embassy and he went on a tirade about, is this what democracy means? That you kiss your kids and they go off to school and you never see them again?

Alyssa Meyers: I was so shocked because I knew where he was coming from, in their country, coming from Soviet times into independence, more freedom and independence has meant the two major revolutions, two presidents being overthrown and a lot of instability. So I'd seen firsthand why freedom compared to Soviet times might have made him nervous.

Alyssa Meyers: But as a political theorist you go through so many debates in early classes about the trade off between liberty and security. That you have to give up some liberty to keep yourself safe and all of these things. And in this conversation those thoughts came to mind. And then I realized that's not how to answer these types of comments. He's not looking for a philosophical debate and I stopped and just showed him my humanity and told him I agree it is horrible. I would never wish that upon anyone.

Alyssa Meyers: The thing I'll never forget is how shocked he was that I was also upset that kids had been killed. I think he expected me to defend the fact that the shooter had a right to carry a gun. I don't know, I wasn't in his head. But I don't think he expected me to be upset about it as well. But I explained to him that I was a daughter of two teachers and it made me nervous to think about that my parents could go to work and not come home.

Alyssa Meyers: And when I got out of the car he wished me well and I just stopped and realized there are a lot of stereotypes about Americans. But one of the privileges of being an exchange is this is that you're forced to confront what people think about your country and that's not something that everyone is ready for. Sometimes the conversations are really hard, but I learned that day that first and foremost your job is to show them that you're also human. That Americans are also human.

Alyssa Meyers: A lot of the discussions I had then in a lot of the discussions I had after Newtown and the reactions that I got in Kyrgyzstan to that were about the fact, yeah, democracy wasn't about having perfect governance and having laws or situations that your citizens were always 100% happy with. But that it was more about giving citizens an avenue or a process by which to change what they didn't like. Or a way to speak to those representing them. And I think that was something that resonated with a lot of people. I think there's a big misconception, we advocate for democratic values internationally because we think democracy is perfect. And for me it was about explaining to people that we have avenues to communicate with the government and tell them that we don't agree and I think that's the keystone of democracy and democratic values.

Alyssa Meyers: I lost my father to brain cancer when I was eight, so he's never really seen this chapter of my life and all my time abroad. But often when I am abroad, I think about him and there was one instance when I went on a field trip into the mountains with a group of students. We went to a national park, Ala Archa. And we cooked lunch out over a fire and then we were playing cards and I learned how to play Durak, which is a Russian game that's called fools. And then I taught people in Russian how to play poker. And at the time I was thinking about my dad because he taught me when I was growing up, I know how to play because of him. And I had a moment that I was explaining the rules in Russian and laughed to myself and thought, I wonder if my dad can see this. I wonder what he thinks.

Alyssa Meyers: At the time I didn't really think much of it and then had a couple other Americans with us and one of them pulled me aside and said, "I'm really impressed that you're able to explain all of that." And I thought to myself, okay, my dad is paying attention now.

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 the U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: In this episode, Alyssa Meyer shared her stories from her time as a Fulbright researcher in the Kyrgyz Republic. 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 we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov that's E-C-A-C-O-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y-@ state.gov.

Chris Wurst: Special thanks this week to Alyssa for her stories and her work to make the world a better place. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music was the The Night Is Blue by Red Norvo Sextet. L'Etoile danse and Glimpse of Eternity, both by Meydän. And Garden Number One by Union Mushimora. 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 82 - One Leg, But Two Feet on the Ground with Kathy Pico

LISTEN HERE - Episode 82

Kathy Pico at New York Marathon


Many people dream of finishing a marathon, but few actually do it. Incredibly, Kathy Pico's decision to start racing began on the day that her leg was amputated. Kathy Pico also talks about her experience as a mentor for ECA's Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) part of the White House-led Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) Initiative. As the only amputee marathon runner in Ecuador, she has built an enterprise showcasing local women owned businesses while competing in New York and Boston. From sharing her stories on TedX and a documentary on REI’s the Range of Motion Project (ROMP), this episode of 22.33 is a must listen! Plus as a special bonus, we are also releasing the original Spanish language version of the interview.


Chris Wurst: Many people dream of finishing a marathon, but few actually do it. You did, in Chicago and New York. But unlike everyone else, even those who made it to the end, your decision to enter the race started on the day that your leg was amputated.

Chris Wurst: You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Kathy Pico: [Spanish 00:00:36]

Translator: When did I decide to run marathons? As soon as my leg was amputated. I needed a plan, something worthy. No leg, no problem, I'll run a marathon. I was no longer in pain and the cancer was gone. There was nothing holding me back.

Chris Wurst: This week, losing a leg in order to have two feet on the ground. Inspired by awe and awe-inspiring and realizing a dream by crossing the finish line. Join us on a journey from Quito, Ecuador to New York City and becoming an inspiration to many along the way. 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 the people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves and...
Intro Clip 4: (music)

Translator: Hello, my name is Kathy Pico. I am from Quito, Ecuador. I am an accountant, but I'm also a sports motivator. The program that I work with is AWE, the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs.

Translator: For 17 years of my life I was dedicated to being a success. I did all the right things. I studied, I worked hard. I thought that being successful in life meant having a good job, and I did everything I could to achieve these things. I studied for my MBA and then one day the pain in my toe, in my left toe, became unbearable. I had this pain for years, but I finally went to the doctor and I got the devastating news that it was cancer. And just like that, all my plans and all of my hard work came to the end, because now it's fighting for my life.

Translator: During this time, everything became an illusion. I wasn't happy, and I realized I only had one opportunity to make sense of my life after cancer. I lost my leg, but I gained a vision and I decided to take my new life to talk about cancer and what happens after, because I found out that people don't really talk about this. They talk about fighting for it, they talk about what you go through, but nobody talks about what happens after and what you do with your life after. So I decided to write and I wrote about my experience. And through these writings, my project was born.

Translator: Being an accountant and a numbers person, I knew that the odds were not in my favor, but I didn't care, and this is something that would make me happy. I had to console my family and in doing so, I found the strength inside of me that I didn't know I had. When you're told that you have cancer, you have two days to make all these decisions. You have two days to be depressed. You have two days to figure out your life plan. You have two days to make all these decisions. During that time, it was the hardest time, but now when I look back on it, I see it as a blessing.

Translator: It helped me reorganize the thoughts I had, my life, and the things that I needed stayed with me. The things that worked stayed with me and everything else just became noise and I learned to let it go. Since then, I've decided to take this experience and use it as motivation for women. I've since ran marathons. I am so incredibly amazed that I was able to get a prosthetic leg that works and has allowed me to run marathons. This is how I found the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs, this academy of women just helping each other and inspiring each other. I can tell you now that I am happy.

Translator: The Academy of Women Entrepreneurs, also known as AWE, in Ecuador we call it AWE, the goal is to introduce women to the world. Women with skills in marketing and finance, et cetera. It's basically the message to all women saying, what you do is good. Just being selected makes every woman a winner. Being a part of AWE, backed by the department of state, lends authority and respect to the program, to the program recipients and to all the women that are a part of it. All the women feel incredibly proud being a part of this program.

Translator: Through AWE, I have come in contact with a variety of projects and women in Ecuador. One of my close friends, Doris Marroquín, is the founder of Linkeados Ecuador, which is a business that pays immigrants to promote Ecuador. If you use her company, you'll get a percentage. Another great friend, Giovanna Arcos, is a nutritionist, which helped me a lot getting all the nutrients that I needed post cancer. There is another friend who founded Tatia Hats.

Kathy Pico: Taita.

Translator: Taita, Taita Hats. These hats are made out of straw and we can customize them however you want. I also know a woman who was a mechanic, a mechanic. She works on cars and she is one of the pioneers in her business. Ecuador can be a masochist country and I want to bring about that change. We are not defined by our gender. I am now a disabled person. In Ecuador, we don't have a voice. I want to change that mentality. I want people to know that you can be happy with a disability and, not only that, but you will find hidden talents.

Translator: My dream is to stop the victimization of living with a disability. I want the youth to see me and my dreams, not just my disability. I want to inspire all. I hope AWE will help me reach women all over the world. Prior to this, I was never an athlete, but now I run marathons. I climb mountains. I want people to know that living with disabilities can be joyful. Find what it is that you love to do and do it, and not let anything get in your way. How can I motivate you if I don't do inspirational things? This is why I climb mountains, this is why I run marathons. I do all this with a prosthetic leg to show you that life goes on.

Translator: The defining moment for me when all of my dreams started to come together was while I was fighting for my life. If somebody tells you that you will die tomorrow, you reflect on what is missing from your life and at that moment I realized I was missing everything. Everything. Though I'd done everything that society expected of me, I realized I was not happy. I decided then I needed to learn what it was that made me happy. My mother's death when I was a child possibly had an effect on how I lived my life, checking all the boxes and working as hard as I did and excelling.

Translator: Throughout my fights, I remember praying and saying, "Oh God, give me a chance. Just one chance, and I promise I will not waste it." The worst-case scenario was death. That was inevitable, but if I could live, I would live. My body started to get stronger and the cancer began to die. I could literally see it on my toe, get smaller. The oncologist was amazed. I remember thinking, "If I can continue being strong, I could live a whole new life." I'm lucky I got that chance.

Translator: When I decided to run a marathon, I chose New York. When my leg was amputated, I'd never been to the U.S., but when I thought of the U.S., I thought of New York. It is the classic city. I'd seen it in all the movies and I'd heard all the songs. It took me 10 years, but I earned that marathon. I earned it. When I heard the marathon was happening in New York, I emailed the organizers in Spanish, and they responded. I was chosen. I would learn this magical city through running. I would see the tall buildings.

Translator: Wow, what more motivation could I need then? Then the organizers learned of my story and wanted to highlight my achievements. I was selected to represent my country, Ecuador, in the parade of nations at the opening ceremony. What an honor. There I am holding the flag of my country, representing the hopes and wishes of my people. Then the fireworks exploded in the sky, and blaring from the speaker I hear ... [foreign language 00:13:40], (singing) Wow. This was spectacular. The perfect ending. I cannot believe that I was in New York representing my country, listening to Frank Sinatra with the fireworks in the background and all the buildings. I had read that the New York route is very difficult because of the bridges. They were not lying.

Translator: 22 kilometers is plenty of time to get lost in your thoughts, and it was a great time to think about everything that had gone on in my life. My good friend, Kristin Liebl, was my guide. She ran with me in my first marathon in Chicago and she took care of me in New York. I felt her love. She shielded me from other runners. She gave me encouragement when I needed it. She showed me true human kindness. While running, I often thought of my country. It's a beautiful country too.

Translator: When people would see me and my leg, they would clap and they would shout encouragement and I felt so proud to be an Ecuadorian. My good friend, Edith Tinta, has been there for me and she accompanied me to New York. She followed me along the route and shouted encouragement. "Ecuador [inaudible 00:15:30]," she would yell at me. That's when I began to get tired. I was only 60% through, but I thought, "I can't give up now. Who comes all the way to New York and gives up on their dreams?"

Translator: I smelled all the flavors. I remember, fried pork, onion, food, savory. I saw all the sites, all the buildings, all the families, friends, crying, hugging, and I thought, "Ecuador is here too." But I still didn't see the end, and I learned that Central Park is huge. I knew a lot of people were not going to make it, but I knew that I would. My friend Edith asked me, "Why do you run and suffer?" And I tell her, "I run because I suffer, but I am happy. I am grateful to be able to run." This has truly been a dream come true. I can't express my gratitude and my happiness.

Translator: When the finish line was in sight, I reflected on all the years, all the pain, everything that has happened in my life and it was worth it all. 200 meters away, I gained strength and I thought, "I did it. I did it. Dreams come true."

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.

Chris Wurst: This week, Kathy Pico talked about her experiences as part of the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs that are known as AWE. For more about AWE 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, hey, leave us a nice review while you're at it. Oh, we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's ECA, C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov.

Chris Wurst: Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. Now you can check us out on Instagram at 22.33 Stories. Very special thanks to Kathy for sharing her inspirational personal stories, so good that we couldn't pass up the opportunity to publish this episode in Spanish and in English. I did the interview and edited this segment. Huge special thanks to Maria Garcia for all her help on this episode, including the translation and voiceover for this episode.

Chris Wurst: The Spanish version features the voice of Manny Perreira Colocci, my colleague. Featured music was Elle avait pas les yeux noirs by Lohstana David, and three songs by Blue Dot Sessions, Juare, Hundred Mile and Tar and Spackle. Music at the top of this episode was Quatrefoil by Paddington Bear and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.

Speaker 3: That's it.

Chris Wurst: That's it.

Speaker 3: Great. Is it recording?  


Season 01, Episode 81 - Dos Pies En La Tierra con Kathy Pico

LISTEN HERE - Episode 81

Kathy Pico with racer


Muchas personas sueñan con terminar un maratón, pero pocas lo hacen. Increíblemente, Kathy Pico decidió competir en maratones el día en que le amputaron la pierna. (Este es un episodio especial de 22.33 en que les presentamos la versión original de la entrevista en español.)


Spanish language transcript coming soon..
Transcripción en español muy pronto..


Season 01, Episode 80 - Revenge of the Dung Beetles with Jen Guyton

LISTEN HERE - Episode 80


Ever wonder how an iconic image or video comes to be? In this bonus episode, Jen Guyton explains how she got her favorite footage, taken in Mozambique during her Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.


Chris Wurst: And now a special bonus 22.33 episode dedicated to poop. Last week we heard from Jen Guyton a Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow about her photography and ecology work, focusing on wildlife conservation. Her stories about life in a national park, and her firsthand account of witnessing the rebirth of an ecological system left us feeling hopeful and inspired. In this special bonus episode, Jen talks about how she got her favorite picture taken during this fellowship in Mozambique. You are listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.

Jen Guyton: My favorite picture from my time as a Fulbrighter was a composite image that I made of a pile of wart hog poop. Poop actually has a pretty interesting life on the savanna. It's funny because we don't really think about what happens to poop in the wilderness, but all of those animals that are out there are pooping every day, usually several times a day. And so, that poop all has to go somewhere. And in Africa where it normally goes is into the mouths of dung beetles

Jen Guyton: So, my goal was to capture all of the diversity of dung beetles that would come to a pile of poop, as well as all the other species that would come to the poop, like flies and the predators, like birds and lizards that might come to eat the insects. And it's a really actually a very lively scene once the dung beetles arrive and start rolling away the dung. It becomes really competitive, the beetles kind of go at each other and will try to flip each other over and steal balls of dung from one another and it gets really exciting.

Jen Guyton: And so, I wanted to be able to sort of show that diversity and show that action in a single image. Well, first of all, I had to get the poop. So I started off thinking that I wanted to use elephant poop because it's big. It's size of a volleyball. I thought it would make a really interesting image to kind of see how big volleyball size poop gets kind of broken down. So, I spent a lot of time looking for elephants out in the bush. But the problem with elephants is that you can't go near them because they're dangerous. And our elephants in Gorongosa are especially dangerous because they remember the war. We actually have elephants that still have bullet holes in their ears from 50 years ago. I would have to go find elephants and then just kind of watch them from a distance and wait for them to poop. But then it always took them forever to move away from the poop. And by the time I got there, the dung beetles were already there and it was just too late.

Jen Guyton: And so, eventually I gave up on the elephants and decided to just work with the wart hogs in the camp because they're pretty safe. They can still tear you up if they want to, but they're used to having us around. So, I spent a number of days just following the wart hogs around camp with a shovel on my shoulder, looking like a crazy person just waiting for them to poop. So I would just watch them for hours and hours. When they pooped I would either leave the dung there, or if they'd pooped on a road or something I would move it off the road, and then set up my camera on that poop.

Jen Guyton: I set the camera to take a photo every five seconds and then just left it alone. And when I came back a few hours later, the dung was gone and my camera was full of cool pictures of dung beetles. It took me about 15 tries to get it right, probably with 15 different piles of dung over the course of a week or two. The lighting would change or the dung beetles wouldn't come or something else would come and kick the dung away or whatever. Finally, when I got it right, I took all of the images from about three hours from when the poop was so fresh it was warm to when the dung beetles had taken it all the way and I stack them on top of one another. And so, it's compressing three hours of time into a single photograph. It's a time lapse movie compressed into one frame.

Jen Guyton: The reason that I love that photograph so much is first of all, because I think dung beetles are just really fascinating, but also because it turned out to be so remarkably beautiful. The photo shows a big pile of poop, but then there are all of these iridescent green dung beetles on it. They look like little jewels just covering this pile of dung. They're these beautiful blue flies on it. Some of them are covered in pollen, so they had these amazing blue and yellow and red colors. We even got a bird that came into the frame and a lizard that came to hunt the insects. And so, you have this really cool looking bird and these beautiful dung beetles and this beautiful lizard, and I think it just represents this really lovely but totally underappreciated part of the ecosystem.

Jen Guyton: One of the things I love about doing photography, especially of these smaller and underappreciated things, is that it gives me insight into the natural world that I wouldn't have otherwise. Or when I make pictures like this composite of the dung, I appreciate these small things in a way that I didn't before. So I've seen these jewel green dung beetles millions of times, but usually from standing height. They're down on the ground, my head is up here and I never really look at them. And then when I create this composite image, I'm sitting there with them zoomed to a hundred times size on my computer screen. And I appreciate just details about them. Just the exact emerald green color of their shells or the weird anatomy of their little flat snouts that they use to push the dung around.

Jen Guyton: And so, it helps me to see nature in a new way and to appreciate its beauty and its complexity in a way that I might not otherwise. And as a conservationist, I already love nature and I love... and I think it's beautiful and I think it's important, but it definitely gives me sort of a new perspective and a new angle. And I hope that, that comes through in my photos and that the people who see them also get to see nature from a new perspective and appreciate it from a new angle.

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 the U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: In this episode, Jen Guyton shared a story of a single image captured in Gorongosa National Park. Jen's amazing work can be seen at jenguyton.com, and to see the picture that Jen describes in this episode, check out our webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33. 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 favorite podcasts. And hey, why don't you leave us a nice review while you're at it. And 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 @state.gov. Huge special thanks to Jen for her passion, her stories, and for that image. My colleague Anna Maria [Sinatine 00:09:22], did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Picadillo by Cal Tjader and Eddie Palmieri. Music at the top of this episode was Quatrefoil by Paddington Bear, and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirligua. Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 79 - Living on the Set of the Lion King with Jen Guyton

LISTEN HERE - Episode 79


An ecologist and photographer, Jen Guyton is passionate about wildlife conservation and nature. She has worked as a biologist in three continents, including five years in Africa working on wildlife and conservation projects. 10 months a year, she spent living in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where she studied mammal ecology and conservation.


Chris Wurst: When you travel to Mozambique to document the rebirth of a national park, you never thought you would end up documenting humanitarian relief efforts in the aftermath of a deadly cyclone. Along the way, you discovered not only the resilience of an ecosystem, but the resilience of an entire country. You are listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.

Jen Guyton: Life in a national park is a completely surreal experience and it's easy to forget how weird things are. I'll frequently wake up in the morning and have a baboon a staring in my window just watching me sleep

Chris Wurst: This week, near misses with elephants, releasing the zebras, and the power of a single image to change policy. Join us on a journey from Princeton University to Gorongosa National Park. It's 22.33.

Show Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Show Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Show Intro Clip 3: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people, they're much like ourselves and-
Show Intro Clip 4: (music & singing)

Jen Guyton: My name is Jen Guyton and I am a Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. I am from California. During my Fulbright fellowship, I went to Mozambique. I've been a photographer since I was about 12 years old and I always dreamed of working with National Geographic. The Fulbright National Geographic Fellowship gave me this opportunity to follow up on my PhD work and actually tell all of those stories that I had been seeing and observing as an ecologist. I work in a place called Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique and it's an incredibly interesting national park because it has such a unique history.

Jen Guyton: Mozambique went through a really terrible civil war after it gained independence from Portugal in 1975. That civil war lasted about 15 years and during that time, most of the wildlife in Gorongosa was wiped out. About 90% of the large mammals were killed for their meat or their ivory. Over the past 15 years, an American entrepreneur has been working to restore that national park in conjunction with the Mozambican Government, with a lot of support actually from the American government through USAID especially. That restoration effort has brought back most of the wildlife that was in the park before the war.

Jen Guyton: It's a really interesting place for ecologists because we don't really understand very well how ecosystems assemble themselves. Ecosystems have a lot of moving parts, they're very complicated and scientists actually just don't understand everything about how they work. And so, a system like this is a really great place for scientists to start to understand how ecosystems come together, because after a major disturbance like this, certain plants will come back first, certain animals will come back first, the interactions between the species will change over time and ecologists can observe the way that this ecosystem sort of heals itself, and it becomes almost a natural experiment.

Jen Guyton: I got to watch the park management release zebras back into the park. There's been sort of the odd zebra seen here or there in the far reaches of the park since the war, but there really hasn't been a zebra population that has come back since the war. There used to be about 3,500 now they're just a handful. And so, just being there and watching these zebras just tear out of the enclosure as soon as the doors were open and then become just part of the savanna landscape was a really beautiful thing. And it was... it felt like sort of witnessing the rebirth of an ecosystem.

Jen Guyton: Probably the most common scary encounter I have is with elephants. Tend to be really aggressive to cars because they remember the war and they really don't like people. So, it's gotten better over the past few years, even since I started there six years ago. The elephants have gotten way more calm around cars and now safari vehicles can actually stop and watch them, which is really nice. I think they're kind of starting to trust us again. Before that, sort of several years ago, I had a number of scary encounters with elephants on a pretty regular basis. You turn a corner in your car and you would suddenly find yourself in the middle of a herd of elephants, because they are really good at kind of just obscuring themselves on the landscape, they might be in some bushes or whatever. They're very quiet, shockingly quiet. Their footsteps are almost completely silent. It's an amazing thing.

Jen Guyton: The only thing really that indicates to you that there are elephants on the landscape is if you hear trees cracking as they're pulling down entire tree trunks, or you can sometimes you view this and really closely you can hear they're really low pitched rumbling sounds that they use to communicate with one another, but otherwise it's easy to miss them on the landscape. So, you'll be driving and you'll turn a corner and you'll suddenly realize that you're in the middle of a herd of elephants. And maybe one steps out on the road in front of you and then maybe one steps out on the road behind you and you're, "Oh shoot, I don't know where to go".

Jen Guyton: I had one instance where the matriarch of the herd didn't like having me there. I had turned a corner on the road and just as I did that, she just immediately charged me. Full on angry charge and I threw the car into reverse and I just reversed for about a kilometer at full speed. I was terrified, I was, "I'm going to either die from an elephant or from running into a tree". She was just cutting all the corners. I had to follow the curves of the road, right? But she was just cutting all the corners and she was getting closer and closer and closer and I was, "Oh no, this is definitely the end". But then after I got a suitable distance away, she's just, "Okay, we're safe now the threat is gone". And she just went back to her heard.

Jen Guyton: I think the thing that makes me laugh the most where I live in Mozambique is watching the monkeys. They're so much like us it's almost scary. You can watch them interact with each other and you can almost come up with this sort of soap opera dialogue of what's happening in their little society and who's mad at who and who's in love with who and whose baby is that? I remember one day sitting outside and a young baboon had jumped up onto my neighbor's deck and stolen her sports bra, which was out to dry on her chair. I have no idea what was going through his head, but he put it over his head and put his arms through the bra and was just struggling with it. And it was the weirdest thing. One of the other baboons came over and started to chase him and then the other one kind of grabbed it off him and they were playing tug of war for a minute. And then I was, "Oh, maybe I should intervene and save my friend's sports bra".

Jen Guyton: I was in country when cyclone Idai hit central Mozambique. And the cyclone made landfall pretty much right on top of Beira city. It's just a hundred miles southeast of Gorongosa on the coast and it's the fourth largest city in Mozambique with about half a million people. Cyclone Idai came in, made landfall on March 15th of this year 2019, and ended up being the most intense cyclone that had ever struck in this part of the world. It ended up killing 1,200 people in and around Beira.

Jen Guyton: The biggest problem was the flooding. There was just this huge inland lake that formed, it was about 900 square miles, the size of New York and Los Angeles combined and that was all just water where it used to be people's houses and farms. We knew about nine days ahead of time that a cyclone was coming, but none of us had any concept of how bad it would be. We all just thought, "Okay, it's going to be some wind and some rain", so a lot of us didn't... chose not to evacuate. And then about six or eight hours before the cyclone was due to make landfall, the park management came around and they were, "Everyone has to evacuate right now". We had 30 minutes to pack our bags and they sent us to a city further inland.

Jen Guyton: We suddenly had completely lost contact with Beira. There were absolutely... there was no communication in or out of Beira. All the cell towers were dead, all the radio was dead, the roads had been flooded or broken and so, there was no traffic and in or out of the city. It was just complete silence from Beira and we were absolutely terrified. We had colleagues there, we had friends there, we had family of friends there. And so, we kind of sat around really anxious for a couple of days. I was obsessively checking Twitter just for any little dribble of news coming out of Beira. And there were bits and pieces and the occasional photo that made it out, but we really didn't know what was going on. Over those couple of days I started feeling this urgent need to help And then after a few days, once we started to understand exactly what the situation was, I realized that we weren't getting very many images out to the world.

Jen Guyton: There were people I was talking to in the U.S. and Europe who had no idea of the cyclone and had even happened. They hadn't even heard of it. It wasn't on the news, it wasn't on social media, it wasn't anywhere. And so, people just had no idea what was going on. And I realized that something that I could do is take photos and get them out there. I started working with Gorongosa's relief team. They put together sort of a grassroots effort to get food out to the communities in the parks buffer zone. So I was able to go with them and take photos of both the relief effort, which was just this inspiring thing. A lot of the park rangers dropped everything they were doing, and they do important work protecting endangered species and keeping the park safe, and they dropped everything they were doing to instead get out into the communities and hand out food. I passed those images onto the park and the park was able to use them on their platforms to raise money for the relief effort and also to get them to various international media outlets.

Jen Guyton: I was happy to be able to contribute in some way in the wake of that disaster because I felt that as a Fulbrighter, I was a guest in that country and it was important for me to try to give back to the community. I was one of the fortunate ones that wasn't affected heavily by the cyclone and there were so many people around me who were suffering, and so many people who had welcomed me as a guest into their country with open arms. So, I felt like I had to give back.

Jen Guyton: My photos have been ambassadors for a certain little known species like pangolins, which are my favorite animals. That's pangolins not penguins. And pangolins are these really funny sort of ant eaters that are covered in scales, but they're actually mammals. So, their scales are made of hair just like ours. So, they're these really weird, almost reptile looking mammals that are actually really beautiful and really unique. There is nothing that is closely related to them in the world, and they are highly endangered because people in Asia use them for their meat and their scales. And a lot of people just don't know about them. And so, I've been really lucky in Gorongosa to see a number of pangolins because they get rescued from poachers fairly often there. So, I've been able to photograph pangolins and I love just when I take photos of them, I love just littering social media with these photos because inevitably I get messages from people that are, "Wow, that is such a cool animal. I have never heard of it before. I am so glad I saw your photo", because they're really just magical.

Jen Guyton: And it's actually thought that pangolins were probably the origin of the dragon myth. They just look like these little dragons. They're really a magical creature and I'm glad that my photos can be ambassadors for them and sort of educate people about their coolness. As a conservation photographer, I have two main goals and the most important one is to make people fall in love with nature. I want them to see my photos and think, "Wow, this is an amazing place or an amazing animal and it's worth having on this planet". I think that unless people love nature and love the wilderness, we're not going to have it around much longer. I hope that by inspiring a love for nature in people, I can also inspire them to take action in their own life to protect nature, whether that's voting to protect nature or whether that's spending their money in a certain way, whether that's biking to work instead of driving to work, or supporting conservation organizations. I hope that my images in some way inspire people to take action to protect nature.

Jen Guyton: One of the stories I love is that Yellowstone National Park was actually created because of images, because of paintings and photos that congress saw of Yellowstone. Most of them had... back then mid-1800's people didn't go from D.C. to Montana on a regular basis. And so, congresspeople hadn't seen Yellowstone. They didn't know was there. They didn't know what a rich treasure they had. And through imagery, people were actually able to lobby them to protect Yellowstone as the first national park. I think images still have that power today. I think they have the power to effect policy and they have the power to make sure that people know what's out there and what is worth saving. One thing that makes me really optimistic is seeing this national park come back from the brink. There's no... it's impossible to be in Gorongosa and not feel hopeful, because you're looking at this place that was almost empty of large wildlife just 15, 20 years ago. Gorongosa is proof that ecosystems can be resilient and that we can restore our wildernesses if we intervene early enough and with enough hope and with enough dedication.

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 the U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: This week, Jen Guyton discussed her time in Mozambique as part of the Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. 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 so wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33. Now you can check us out on Instagram at 22.33 stories. Huge special thanks to Jen Guyton for her stories. Her images can be seen at jenguyton.com. Ana-Maria Sinitean did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Kaleidoscope by Podington Bear and three songs by Blue Dot Sessions, Hidden Tiles, Anamaratae , and an Introduction to Beetles. Music at the top of this episode is Sebastian by How the Night Came and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.  


Season 01, Episode 78 - [Bonus] The Food We Eat, Part 11 (Thanksgiving)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 78


In this thankful holiday episode, international exchange participants talk about celebrating Thanksgiving abroad and holiday traditions that have impacted their experiences while in America.


Speaker 1: We should just be thankful for being together. I think that's what they mean by Thanksgiving.

Speaker 2: Good manners make people happy and a good table manners make eating together a happy time.

Speaker 2: Flavorful golden brown turkey is the crowning glory of your holiday dinner table and real butter helps you serve a butter-baked masterpiece.

Speaker 2: We are thankful for our home and our happy meal. We are glad we have good table manner and know what to do with the napkin.

Speaker 3: A golden brown, plump and juicy bird in the best of American tradition, the family headliner as it comes to the table in all its glory. Truly, a dish that adds grace to every table. A dish to be thankful for.

Chris Wurst: You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange and food. This week, Thanksgiving stories.

Speaker 5: During the program, there was a short period. Everything was new, but today everything is part of my culture. Every occasion and custom is part of my culture right now that I've lived here in the U.S. for quite a while. Thanksgiving is part of my culture now. I can't live with not having family gathered and having a turkey as well.

Chris Wurst: This week, join us on a journey around the world to give thanks on Thanksgiving. It's 22.33.

Show Intro 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Show Intro 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Show Intro 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... (singing)

Speaker 8: My wife is Italian and Australian, does not live here in the U.S. and we spend most of our time in Melbourne and she has picked up the Thanksgiving tradition. She does the thing where everybody goes around the table and says they're thankful for this and that. Her family at first thought, "Okay, what is this?" I don't know if you've ever done this with your family, but you'd be like sitting there waiting. If there's like 10 people at the table, you're like, "Okay, he took mine, so I can't... I got to come up with something good."

Speaker 8: But they do it now. They just do their own Thanksgiving. It's like spreading, it's contagious and, obviously, it's a little different out there. They didn't have the same reason to celebrate Thanksgiving, but the purpose is continued. Also, it's hard to find turkey in Australia as well.

Speaker 7: When I made Thanksgiving, I roasted this turkey. There's a whole story about the turkey. My site-mate, who is from an urban area, had to go get the turkey because I had to go to the Syrian embassy to get my visa. She's, like, "All right, I'm in a taxi with a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy that had a turkey on his farm is what we were told, so, like, okay, let's go get the turkey." She's like, "So the turkey is alive. How do I pick a turkey?" "This is not going to end well," is what I'm thinking. Like, "Well, pick the biggest bird that looks healthy," and she goes, "Okay. Well, they're bringing me up turkeys and wanting me to squeeze it." I'm, like, "Make sure you don't feel a lot of bones, that there's flesh there." "Okay, I can do that." Hang up.

Speaker 7: Twenty minutes later, "Um, the turkey is now dead." Like, "Yeah, that was going to happen." "And they processed it." I'm, like, "Okay." She's, like, "Now, it's in a plastic bag. What do I do with it?" Processing it, apparently, was also very traumatic for her and, like, "Well, just put it in the fridge and I'll deal with it when I get home," because I'm still in Cairo at the Syrian embassy doing this visa thing, so she puts it in the fridge.

Speaker 7: I get home, it's midnight. We go out for dinner with our friends, it's now 2 AM. This is normal because everything in the Middle East happens after the sun goes down because it's tolerable outside. The turkey is in the fridge and I can tell that this is the first time that she has seen this happen, I'm not going to push too hard.

Speaker 7: So I take the turkey out, I'm getting the turkey ready to go in the oven because I'm going to have to wake up at [inaudible 00:05:54] 30 and put the stupid thing in the oven. Get my Clicker lighter out, light my oven because it's a gas oven, put my turkey and go back to bed. I lift the wing and the turkey is looking at me. They hadn't taken the head off because she hadn't asked them to and it gave me quite the fright. I probably jumped five feet because I'm, like, "Oh, my goodness. The turkey is looking at me, got to deal with this." I'm not used to that. Even coming from a ranch, I'm used to dealing with meat. Just take the head off, take the feet off because I don't do that, either. Make it look more like meat to me and like turkey and put it in the oven.

Speaker 7: So we had this roast turkey, the stuffing. Egyptians didn't like stuffing so well. It wasn't their thing, which is cool. Stuffing is not everybody's thing. Pie, they'd never had pumpkin pie before, green bean casserole and corn and I made fresh bread. They get their plates and we help them load it up because you do Thanksgiving in a special way. Let's be honest here. You got to have the right mix of meat and gravy and everything going on. They're sitting there looking at it and I'm, like, "Just dig in. Just do it." So they eat it and they're, like, "This is so God. Why don't we make this here?" I'm, like, "I don't know. I mean, it's mashed potatoes and gravy. Isn't that what everybody eats?"

Speaker 7: So, they eat it. I send home leftovers because I'm, like, "I don't need half a turkey. Please take some home." They took home everything, but the stuffing. I mean, stuffing is stuffing. They really appreciated that because that was us really showing quintessential American culture. Although it's also hard to explain Thanksgiving to people who don't understand, we celebrate our times of lean by eating this giant feast, which hearkens back to the pilgrims and the Indians and being thankful for everything you have, so we're going to be gluttons for a day to celebrate. We're thankful for everything that we have.

Speaker 9: Oh, on Thanksgiving I went to one of the professor's houses. She invited me. She's from Ukraine and she gave me a really big plate that had different types of food that I didn't even know their names, but they tasted really good. I only knew the mashed potato and it was really good. Well, I'm speaking of mashed potatoes. I really didn't like mashed potatoes before, but the way they make them here is really different, it's really delicious. I started to like them and it's become one of my favorite food.

Speaker 9: Yeah. They don't use butter where I'm from. They only just boil it and then put it on the... fry it or whatever they do to it and it didn't really taste that good to me before. But here, then, I was like, "Oh, how do you eat mashed potatoes?" I was like, "Oh, that's different. That's delicious mashed potatoes."

Speaker 10: I was in Germany for pretty much all the major holidays. But luckily there were some people who were American there and we decided, okay, we're going to kind of have a feast and we're going to invite all the other performers that we had or that we had met through our times there.

Speaker 10: They didn't have turkey, so we made a lot of chicken, made a lot of chicken. We made macaroni and cheese and we made... They did have sweet potatoes, so we were able to make sweet potatoes. I mean, it was awesome to have other people share a part of our culture. Because usually when you're in another country, you're just kind of taking, taking and not giving as much. But, yeah, it wasn't anything crazy, but it was just a nice moment to share, to share something that is American with other people who had never experienced it before. And the food was excellent.

Speaker 11: The Thanksgiving dinner, we had a traditional dinner with one of the local families. They had turkey, they had lots of traditional lamb dishes. So that was also one of the unique experiences that I really enjoyed a lot.

Speaker 12: I get to know thanks to Lebanese teacher at [inaudible 00:10:52] University. I get to know an old lady, very nice one, who's taken extra courses on the Middle East with the... It's in an [inaudible 00:11:02] Center. That's what they call it. She's just like she loved me and she insists on spending the Thanksgiving with her and her retired friends. They are so alone and I was really happy for that. This is my first Thanksgiving. My first experience I've... I just heard of it in my life. I've never explained Thanksgiving.

Speaker 12: Of course, her welcoming just like Moroccan one. I was just, like, we would come to the house and we answer, "Hello. How are you?" But she was shouting from the door and that's Moroccan, too. That's how my mom acts when someone comes and there was wow. Then, of course, a lot of food. You can't imagine how much food she prepared for us. A lot of gifts. She brings even Moroccan food specially for me. We were sitting, we are sitting together with our plates, is only Moroccan gathering. Then at the end, we finish and they helped her in the dishes because she's an old lady. Then I said to her there are lots of difference. She said we are not because that's the gathering, it's making me feel that we have no borders. Borders are only political.

Speaker 13: We have an excellent host family program at the University of Minnesota Law School. My host sisters were Liz Reiser and Patty Stollman and all throughout the year they took care of me. They brought me to the grocery. They took me to wherever I needed to be.

Speaker 13: But Thanksgiving, I realized, is such a big thing here in the United States and I found it very touching when Patty invited me to the Thanksgiving dinner because I felt like I was part of the family. And after the Thanksgiving lunch hosted by Patty, my other host sister, Liz Reiser also prepared something for Thanksgiving for me. So it was a question of with whom should I go? Then I would just have to divide my time and myself so I could be with them both because these are two women, okay, wanting me to become part of their family in this very important day of the Americans.

Speaker 13: I'm not too much into mashed potato, but Patty prepares the best mashed potato. The turkey, the scent of her kitchen, the colorful array of food on the table and the vibrancy of the people surrounding the Thanksgiving table, it's just too much. I felt like my heart was bursting with joy. It felt like Christmas dinner in the Philippines, except that we did it at lunchtime.

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 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. And our stories come from participants of the U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

Chris Wurst: In this episode our taste buds gave thanks to Ahmed Alfotihi, Richard Steighner, Alfredo Austin III, Kristen Erthum, Omar Atatfa, Dareen Tadros, Salma Oubkkou, and Amy Avellano. We thank them for their stories and their willingness to try new things, especially mashed potatoes, apparently.

Chris Wurst: We give things today for all of the ECA programs and you can find out more about them at eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. We'd be thankful for that, too, and 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@state.gov.

Chris Wurst: Complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. Now you can check us out on Instagram at 22.33 Stories.

Chris Wurst: Special thanks this week to everybody for sharing their Thanksgiving memories. The various interviews were done by Ana-Maria Sinitean and I, and I edited this episode. Featured music during this segment was Kentucky Oysters by George Russell. Music at the top of each food episode is Spinning Monkeys by Kevin MacLeod and the end credit music is Two pianos by Tagirljus.

Chris Wurst: No turkeys were harmed in the actual making of this podcast, or very few, anyway. Until next time, Happy Thanksgiving.  


Season 01, Episode 77 - Tea in Taxis with Tajiks with Chane Corp

LISTEN HERE - Episode 77


From learning to teach on the fly, to learning absolute obedience to Tajik grandmothers, to learning to adapt to ten-hour taxi rides, Chane Corp kept his wits, his sense of humor, and his love of Central Asia.


Christopher W.: You traveled to a little known country halfway across the world, let's say Tajikistan. And even though you've never taught a class in English before, let alone Tajik or Russian, you think to yourself, how hard can it be? Seriously, you think that. A year goes by and by the time it's time for you to leave, you understand how hard it can be, but you also had no idea how much fun it would be.

Christopher W.: You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Chane Corp: The other thing is I'm a real big fan of Diet Coke. A fiend, a fiend for Diet Coke, if you will. And first of all, there was no Diet Coke in the country. It was called Cola Light, which is not the same thing. But, it was also absurdly expensive. And really, if you walking around with a Diet Coke, people knew you were an American there. There was no question about it.

Chane Corp: So I started drinking a lot more tea. And what I really learned in Tajikistan is that there's a culture around tea. You don't grab a tea to go. There's not a Starbucks where you get it in a cup and you're walking to work. You sit down and you enjoy the tea with other people, and that's not something I really have been able to replicate here in America. When you invite people over, you're not usually inviting them over for tea to talk. You're usually going someplace. But it was always really kind of an amazing experience to me when somebody invites you into their home, when they put the tea on the kettle, and you know what's going to be a good conversation when they put the tea on.

Christopher W.: This week, tea in conversation, 20-hour taxi rides and the dangers of wearing shorts in the winter. Join us on a journey from the US to Dushanbe, Tajikistan and learning that enthusiasm is 90% of the battle. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happened in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people who are very much like ourselves and [inaudible 00:02:28].
Speaker 6: [Music 00:02:30].

Chane Corp: So my name is Chane Corp and I am a program officer in ECA, where I'm contracted to work on the Fulbright Program. So my exchange took place in Tajikistan. I was a Fulbright English teaching assistant and I worked at an American Corner in Dushanbe from 2014-2015.

Chane Corp: When I was looking at what I want to do when I graduate, I had an interest in Central Asia, and I thought to myself, how do I get back to Central Asia? There's not a whole lot of avenues to travel to the region. So being an English teaching assistant was one of the few ways to really get back to Central Asia and broaden my experience in the region. I don't have any experience teaching. I didn't study education, but I thought to myself, I can do this. This will work.

Chane Corp: So arriving in Tajikistan, you're in the classroom and you really think to yourself, "I have 10 months. What kind of impact am I going to make?" And when you first arrive, you think you're going to have this profound impact on their language abilities. You really think that a year is enough time to go from no English to all of the English, to fluency, and it's not. It was a little hard coming at first and being exposed to these students who thought that I was the expert, when I wasn't the expert. I was learning along with them. But over the course of 10 months, I really realized that as important as training is in education, it's also important to just have enthusiasm and to help students understand that learning can be fun.

Chane Corp: And then doing this, you really do kind of captivate their interest and make them know that learning English is fun and that's 90% of the battle. And once you've kind of placed those seeds and started watering that plant, it's going to grow into lifelong interest in learning.

Chane Corp: At the American Corner, you don't have one class. It's a library. So you're really working with whoever comes in. So that can be elementary students, that can be secondary students, university students, young professionals. But one of my favorite classes was actually the kids for English class. So these were elementary-age students, probably five to eight, and they're really excited to learn English. So it was really interesting to kind of see these children and their enthusiasm, and even though I didn't speak any Tajik and very little Russian, it was actually pretty easy to communicate because you have a picture in front of you. You have a picture of a pumpkin and it's pretty easy to say, "This is a pumpkin and it's orange."

Chane Corp: And you kind of understand that communication transcends language at some point. That it's pretty easy to describe something in front of you and to learn from each other. Part of that was me teaching them English, but when I told them the English word, they would always say the Russian or the Tajik word. So you really understand that teaching goes both ways. As much as you're going to kind of inform your students and connect that knowledge, you're also going to gain from them and really expand your own understanding.

Chane Corp: When I was at the American Corner, it really surprised me being in country because you really are the only American that most people have ever met. And so thinking about your life in the United States, you're not an expert on most things when you're a recent graduate. No one's coming to you for specialized advice. But living in Tajikistan, people really do come to see you as an expert, and mistakenly so in my opinion. Because you're the only American that they have met, they really take your opinion and the add weight to it. So sometimes I had to be a little bit careful about making comments because you really are reflecting on more than just yourself. And I think that's a really vital part of educational exchange and cultural exchange is that when you go to a country like Tajikistan, where so few other Americans have been, you're not just speaking for yourself, you really are representing your country.

Chane Corp: And so politics especially, I had to be careful about how the conversation was veering. But more so just in terms of everyday life, people would ask me, what's better wrestling or football? And you think in your head, "Well, football obviously. Okay, What kind of question is this?" But then because they look at you as representing your culture, they start to think that all Americans think football is better than wrestling. So throughout my time there, it was really important for me to remind my students that this is my opinion. Just like you have opinions, how I feel is not how all Americans feel.

Chane Corp: I've definitely never been as popular as I was in Tajikistan. That kind of social peak hit me when I was an exchange student because you really are wanted everywhere. People want to invite you to weddings, people want to invite you to births. I remember this time that I went to one of my students, their mother had just had a baby, so her sister. And it wasn't a birthday party, it was two weeks after the birth. It was a celebration of the birth. And I went, thinking, "I don't know why this person wants a stranger at their party." But when I got there, I was the guest of honor. So I was seated right next to the grandmother. When the meals came around, I had the biggest hunk of fatty goat meat that they had, which was a sign of respect. And, everybody kind of just wanted me to participate. They were singing. So after the family had sung, I always expected to sing a song. There was dancing, so much dancing all over the time.

Chane Corp: And you realize wherever you go, you're the guest. And so being the guest, you kind of have this esteemed position. Everybody wants you to kind of participate to be there. And it's something that is odd to me coming back to the United States, you go back to your regular life and you're not quite as popular as you used to be. So actually I think about my time in Tajikistan as being this time when I was so popular and everybody wanted to hang out with me and to invite me to things. Then you come back to America and you're just a regular person again, so you really have to kind of adjust. People say culture shock. I don't know if I had culture shock going to Tajikistan, but coming back you really realize like, "Oh, it's back to regular life now. I'm just the average Joe."

Chane Corp: One of the really interesting things about being in Tajikistan is that you always feel a part of this larger community. And so when I lived in the country I lived at by the Green Bazaar, and I would often walk out of my house when it was a little bit cold outside. And being an American, I love to wear gym shorts. So I would be preparing to go to the grocery store and sometimes it's snowing outside, but I have a high cold tolerance and I would wear shorts to the grocery store.

Chane Corp: But one day this woman across the street saw me wearing shorts and she comes running up to me and hits me on the shoulder and says, "What are you doing? You're going to catch a cold. Go back inside." And at this point I had made it to the corner of my street, not very far. So I went back inside and I was like, "I have to change because if she sees me again, I'm never going to get to the grocery store."

Chane Corp: And so it's just one of those moments when you realize if this was America, I might be a little offended. I might be a little stranged out that this random stranger had come up to me and told me to go back inside and change my clothing. But in Tajikistan, you really realize that she saw me, a young man, and was thinking to herself, "Who let this person outside?" And she really had my best interest at heart. And so, you know, part of living in a country is recognizing that and ensuring that you're kind of following those societal norms. And in Tajikistan when the babushka, when the grandmothers tell you to do something, you do it.

Chane Corp: The most memorable times I have of Tajikistan were often spent in taxis. So they're good because they're obviously getting you from one place to another, but they really, in another sense expose you to these different situations. And the thing about a taxis you can't leave. So if you walk into a grocery store and you meet a strange person, you walk away. But when you're in a taxi, you can leave, but there's an opportunity cost involved. How long have you been in a taxi and how far are you to your destination? I met the most interesting people and I think the people in taxes really taught me sometimes the most about Tajikistan because you get in and it's a time to practice your language skills.

Chane Corp: I got in a taxi going to Khorugh, which is between... This sounds ridiculous, 14 to 20 hours away from the capital, so it's a long kind of range there because of the roads. Was there a snow storm, was there sheep traffic? Just all of this stuff that could really cause variables. But I get in this taxi and I know it's going to be a long ride. And I say to myself, "This is a time to practice my Russian. I'm going to make some real progress by the end of this 20 hours." And the first thing I do is I look at the man next to me and I ask him, "Do you like American cars?" Well, the word for car in Russian is awfully close to the word "man". So I had asked this old Tajik man, whether or not he liked American men. It was obviously not the best way to start a 20-hour drive.

Chane Corp: But 10 hours in, you've really bonded with your fellow passengers. And so I just remember we were about probably 10, 13 hours in, and the guy behind me pulls out his handle of vodka, his liter of vodka, and that's when the fun really started. I didn't partake, but being able to kind of see this group of strangers, you've started not knowing each other with very little conversation, and then all of a sudden, you're on the Pamir Highway and people are taking vodka shots. And that's what cultural exchanges is. You're a part of that situation, whether you like it or not, make the most of it.

Chane Corp: But taxis, they get you outside of your comfort zone because you're in this car with strangers. But throughout the trip, you become much more than strangers. You really do form these connections. You start talking about one another's family, where you live, where you're from. So of course they were interested in where I was from in America, but then I learned a lot from them because not all of them were from Dushanbe. Many of them had moved from other cities to live in the capitol, and they all had a story. And by the end of the taxi ride, you pretty much learn everyone's story, and I think that's a really powerful way to get outside of your comfort zone.

[Music 00:15:07]

Chane Corp: I think if I was to really define my experience in Tajikistan, I would say uncomfortable. And I think that's an important part of a cultural and educational exchange is that you're going to this country, and you have these kind of preconceived notions of what you're going to do and the impact that you're going to have. And you've just kind of envisioned this life that you'll be living for the next 10 months. And two things really come from that. And one is you realize that wasn't realistic. You realize, that's not going to happen. The story I thought I was going to have didn't necessarily work out how I wanted it to or how I expected it. Not how I want it to, how I expected it to. You just envision yourself in this classroom with these perfect children learning so much English, and then you leave and you're waving goodbye. And they're all saying, "Thank you. Thank you for teaching us English." Well, it doesn't always work out that way. You come to realize that flexibility and being adaptable are really much more nuanced skills.

Chane Corp: I remember as I was leaving, my last day, one of my students said to me, "I've learned so much from you. I can understand native speakers now." And I thought to myself, "Wow, that's so nice." And then he continued and said, "You speak so fast that now I don't have trouble with anyone because I understand you and you're just so fast in talking." So it was kind of a double-edged sword there if you will. But then you also realize that it's had an impact on you.

Chane Corp: And I think coming out of Tajikistan, I was much more flexible and I was able to really... For example, at my current job, kind of take things that were imperfect and realize that they might not be perfect. That life and work, and studying even is about moving, but not necessarily always in a straight or a linear line. Life isn't straightforward and it's not a straight line. And really being able to adapt to situations like when you're in taxis, and being able to remain flexible like when your classroom loses electricity, are really skills that are going to empower you for the rest of your career. And that's something I walked away with from Tajikistan, was really realizing that core concept.

[Music 00:18:18]

Christopher W.: 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.

Christopher W.: In this episode, Chane Corp told us about his experience as a Fulbright English language teaching assistant or ETA. For more about ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov and we encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can find us wherever you find your podcasts, and we'd also love to hear from you. You can write to ecacacollaboratory@state.gov. That's ecacacollaboratory@state.gov.

Christopher W.: A special thanks this week to Chane for sharing his stories. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music during the segment was "I'm Coming Virginia" by Ruby Braff & His Men, "Cold Feet" by Steve Klink, "I Heard a Song in a Taxi" by Henry Hall's BBC Orchestra, and "I'll Be a Friend With Pleasure" by the Billy Butterfield Jazz Band. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came. The end credit music, as always, is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time.  


Season 01, Episode 76 - It's a Great Day to be Alive with Ahmad Shaju Jamal

LISTEN HERE - Episode 76

Ahmad Shaju Jamal


Fulbright recipient Ahmad Shaju Jamal talks about his family and life in Afghanistan, and cultural experiences he noticed as an exchange student in rural Kentucky.


Christopher Wurst: As an Afghan refugee living in Pakistan, you were able to land a scholarship and pursue an education in the United States, specifically rural Kentucky, where surprisingly you found common ground. You learned that with safety and security one can truly reach their potential. And so you dream about going back and improving the lives of Afghans at home. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: A friend of mine was driving me, I didn't have a car, an undergrad, and the first song that popped up on the radio was, It's a Great Day to Be Alive by Travis Tritt, and I thought, "This is fantastic. What an upbeat, good song." I think the line goes, "There's some tough times in the neighborhood, but it's a great day to be alive."  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: A person does acknowledge that there are difficulties, but he's got rice cooking in the microwave and he has a three-day beard that he doesn't plan to shave and it's a great day to be alive. That's how I was hooked on country because although people have certain opinions about country music, I think the poetry and the emotion that it seeks to evoke speaks to a lot more artless, guideless, and more fundamental aspects of human existence where it's the man, the truck, the bottle of beer and that's about that.  

Christopher Wurst: This week, learning to love country music, reading the signs in America, and VIP status at the Empire State Building. Join us on a journey from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Kentucky to Washington DC on a path of understanding. It's 22.33.  

Show Intro Clip 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Show Intro Clip 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Show 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-
Show Intro Clip 4: (music)  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: My name is Ahmad Shaju Jamal. My friends called me Shaju. That's what I'd like to go by. I am a second year of public policy graduate student at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown. I'm also the editor in chief of The Georgetown Public Policy Review. I am from Afghanistan, I'm on a Fulbright.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: I was about six when my family left Afghanistan because of the on coming Taliban taking over the country. A lot of people were displaced and we moved over to Pakistan, over the border, and I lived in the City of Quetta, and I lived there until about when I was 19. I graduated from high school and I started looking around for opportunities to study outside of that particular context because refugee life can limit your options in many, many different ways.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And one of the things that I found out was that you could actually Google for opportunities. I searched around and I looked at opportunities, and I found that there's a school in Kentucky, United States, that offers full scholarships to students from around the world, and they had an Afghan student, they had Zimbabwean students, and other students from other parts of the world.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: At first, I thought, "This is probably too good to be true, maybe it's a scam, maybe it's not." But I decided to apply anyway, and when I received an acceptance letter, it wasn't really an acceptance letter. It was an acceptance email and I thought this couldn't really be... How do you know this is real? They also require for you to send a deposit before they can send you the I-20, and I thought, "This is it. They've taken my money and that's that."  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: But I sent the deposit anyway because I read through their entire website, page by page. I was really excited, A, that I got into a scholarship program in the U.S., and B that this was going to be my ticket outside of this refugee life that had a lot of dead ends, that really limited your prospects as a person.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: One of the things that you learn about America is, at least in the developing world, among people who are in the refugee community like I was, who don't have natural cultural ties with the U.S. such as Europe and the U.S. for example, where cross border travel is easy. You can come in and go out for work and for Christmas break, for holidays, things like that. If you don't have those kinds of natural connections and you live half a world away, you have a sense that America is really this shining city upon a hill that everybody is just as well off as the rich people you see on the soap operas and on the movies.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: But I think one of the things that I realized when I came to the U.S. is that there's a range of people who live different kinds of lives in the U.S., and that there is a diversity not only of ethnicities and races, but also diversity of socioeconomic statuses.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: I arrived here in 2007, which was near the tail end of the Bush administration and his tenure. And I thought, "This is the most powerful nation in the world. The people must actually love their president and that here is a people that should be proud of the country that they have." I realized that the opinion on my college campus about the president was, in my experience, overwhelmingly negative.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And this really took me aback because I thought, "The best country in the world, people should be proud of their president," but then it took me awhile to realize that there is a diversity of opinion and that people do criticize their public leaders and that that criticism is not just tolerated, it's actually mandated or it is a right under the law, under the freedom of expression second amendment, I suppose, and people really do take that seriously.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Whenever I tell somebody that I went to undergrad in Kentucky, they have this sense of, "Wow, Kentucky. Really?" And I always tell them, "Yes, really. Kentucky." And I tell them it was actually a great experience because the college I went to accepted a lot of international students, but also it was in a town that was in a dry county, dry town, dry campus. And so somebody like me who came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, who wasn't really exposed to the same level of college life with fraternities and sororities in Kentucky than somebody elsewhere would have.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And there was limitations to visiting dorms that were female versus then visiting male dorms. A lot of that was different. But the one thing that really did struck out for me was, unlike the bureaucratic dysfunction where I had grown up and used to, everything on this college campus worked. You would go to an office for some paperwork and you were pleasantly surprised that they actually approached it from making it work for you, as opposed to making you work for it. Wow. The bureaucracy actually can be responsive and can be helpful.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Growing up abroad, you come to the U.S. and you have this particular sense of what the U.S. is like, which has everybody's rich, everybody's well-off and everything. But then you realize that this particular college that I went to, Berea College, takes in primarily... primarily takes in students from the Appalachian region, low income students from the Appalachian region.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: When I came to the U.S. I thought, "Well, I grew up as a refugee from Afghanistan and grew up in Pakistan. I probably have had a difficult life," but then some of the students at this college really, that I met, that I got to know their life stories, it really opened up my eyes to the many different ways people exist in the U.S.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: One particular student actually lived out of his car in the last six months of his high school and he went to Berea, graduated and ended up working at a very prestigious business consulting firm. Effectively, this college took a homeless person, gave them an education and set them on a path towards the middle-class or higher life. And the same thing it did to me. It took me out of a refugee existence, forced me to get a passport and then a visa to the U.S. and now I have been able to contribute to my own country, but also hopefully to the broader international community as well.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: One of the people I met in Kentucky was a student, a female student, whose father was a trucker, but also had a problem of alcohol abuse every once in a while. The student had started college in the fall, but she had a couple of bunnies still at home from high school. And one day she came up to me and she was crying. She was distraught. She was clearly very, very upset. And I asked her, "Why are you so distressed?" And she said, "Well, my father took us shotgun and he shot my bunnies."  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And my first reaction, in retrospect, I feel terrible about that, was to laugh at this because, "You're crying because your father shot your bunnies? Your bunnies? Are you serious? Worst things happen to people. Why are you crying?" But then, you have to understand that in this particular context, she has very strong emotional attachments to her bunnies, and that in an otherwise turbulent family life, her bunnies and her pets were a source of warmth and solace, and that her father, her own father had violently taken away the bunnies.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: What that illustrated to me was that in my country, which had seen multiple decades of violence, what distresses people is very different from what in the U.S., in Kentucky, distresses somebody. Although the problems people face, "first world problems," people face in the U.S. are really not anywhere close to what people in some parts of the developing world face sometimes. But they are nonetheless real problems that really affect these people's lives in real ways. And I think that's one thing that I learned early on in my time in Kentucky.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: You can read a lot about American culture, you can read a lot about how it's different from your culture. But I had eaten out with a friend my first few weeks at Berea, and I offered to spot him and I paid about $15 or so for lunch for him. And then he promised to pay me back. Those were the days when Venmo didn't exist. A few days later, when he offered to pay back the $15 I said, "No," out of politeness, which is how we do in my culture. "No, you don't really have to pay me. Keep it."  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And he said, "Are you sure?" And I said, "Yes, yes. You can certainly keep the money." Because that's the polite way to do it in my culture. You're expected to receive it in turn as the other person says, "No," out of politeness, "take this money, please." That didn't happen in this context. And so what I did was I actually didn't get that $15, which was not a lot of money, but it was one of those experiences where you're like, "Okay, this culture really is different." And what you've read about on the blogs and advice columns, it really happens.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: One of the first days I arrived in Kentucky at the college, my dorm room didn't have a fan. Another Afghan student who had been there a few years ahead of me, he took me out to the Walmart for us to buy a fan. I enter what was a massive, massive row, upon row, upon row of things. And this was around 1:00 AM, but there were still shoppers who had massive stacks of Coca-Cola filled their shopping carts. It was unreal to me. Because back home, if you need a Coca-Cola, you go to the corner store, you get one Coca-Cola can or bottle and you come home.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Here, this person had 24, 36. I forget how many. And for some reason, my friend was able to take us in this really massive multiple football field store to the precise place where we would find a fan. I had to later ask him, "How did you know that the fan was in this particular place in a place as large as this?" And he said, "Well, you just look at the signs." Where I come from, the vast majority of people are illiterate and so people don't really, even if you're literate, you don't really think to look at the signs, but that was one thing for me, was to in the U.S. just look at the signs.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: I come from Afghanistan. It's been in conflict for longer than my lifetime, and it continues to be in conflict, sadly. And so social services and just social life in general is very much affected by the conflict that's going on. If you're eating out with your friends or you're congregating outside of your house, you have to maintain a situational awareness of something might happen at any moment in this particular place that you're in.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: When you are in the U.S. there's sort of a carefree disregard for that kind of situation or awareness. You don't care about what might happen at any moment. Your mind is a lot more free to engage socially, to mindlessly scroll through your Facebook, to do any number of other things. Whereas in my country, you have to maintain situational awareness all the time. That hyper vigilance basically eats up a lot of your bandwidth that you could focus on other things, and I think that's one of the things that a lot of us would like to take back with us.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: But also, it's generally easier to come from a place of fewer freedoms to a place of many more freedoms. The ability to hang out, the ability to use or not things such as alcohol for example, which is forbidden in Afghanistan, and it's harder to go from a place of greater freedoms like this to a place of fewer freedoms because we have to now constrict a lot of things.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: The one thing that has been indispensable to me in the U.S. particularly into my grad program, has really been the friendships that I've made because as Afghanistan is going through really difficult times because of the escalating violence and the conflict, and you know that your friends and your family are going through difficult times and that you're helpless and distant from that. I think the friendships you form here really helped me cope with some of that sense of helpless isolation that you have.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: As long as I can get some Afghan food every once in a while I'm okay, but I think I listen to music from that part of the world a lot more often, and I think that's something a lot more indispensable than food to me. I read poetry from that part of the world and that's a lot more indispensable to me than certain other aspects of our culture. And I think those two things, the poetry in Afghanistan is how you reason with people, "As the poet says," is a legitimate form of argumentation. It's a legitimate form of social interaction. You talk about, you cite poetry, you cite all kinds of these things.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Whereas in the U.S. I think it's not really like that. In the U.S. it's a lot more, A therefore B, therefore C argumentation happens a lot more along those lines. And so people don't put poetry on their statuses in Facebook. In Afghanistan, they do it all the time and I think that's the one aspect that I keep carrying with myself, which is the poetry from that region and the music from that region.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Having grown up in Pakistan and not in my own country of Afghanistan, and having spent a number of formative years in the U.S., I think the term you learn in the U.S. is that you're a third culture kid, so you belong to a number of different places because of experiences and social connections to those different places. You have multiple homes. At the same time, you're not as deeply rooted as somebody who's only spent time in one place. Having said that, I think I do connect the idea of home with where my family is, which is my mother and my grandmother, and right now they are in Kabul, Afghanistan.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: I think everybody realizes that if you're in your own country, if you're in Mexico, if you're in the U.S., you identify everybody else. You identify, "I'm from Kentucky," versus Tennessee versus New York versus Minnesota. The same thing was with me that when you grow up in the community where you are, where everybody's like you, you're not really... your first identity is not Afghan, but when you come to the U.S. one of the first things that happens at the port of entry is at a check of your passport and that immediately connects you with your fundamental aspect of our identity in a different country, which is Afghan.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: I'm a lot more Afghan in the U.S. than I am in Afghanistan where I don't have to be Afghan. I don't have to assert that identity, and nobody's really asking me about that identity, unless I'm at the airport and somebody at the check-in counters is mistakenly identifying me as a foreigner, which doesn't happen all the time. But it does. I've also been really fortunate that in the U.S. I haven't really felt questioned. I think certain friends have had some experiences that they would classify as a phobic. I've never had any of those experiences.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: On the contrary, I was working in the U.S. a few years ago. This was 2012, I believe. I just walked out of my office suit and tie, everything, and I walked into a sushi restaurant and I was ordering and the person started speaking to me in Japanese because I am from the Hazara ethnic community in Afghanistan and we kind of look, "Asian," East Asian. That was the only time when somebody assumed anything about my identity in the U.S. Generally, they don't do that.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: I think what I learned after coming to the U.S. was that I'm a lot more independent than I thought I was at living apart from your family in the tail end of your teenage years in the U.S. It becomes part of your formative experience and you begin to behave like they do in the U.S. and you begin to take certain modes of behavior for granted and as natural when you're in the U.S. And I never really experienced any kind of, "Oh, you're not an American," any sort of otherizing or any sort of being put in a category of non-American.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: In fact, when I went back to my country after about six years, in certain places in Afghanistan, people assumed I was a foreigner and not an Afghan because I had started carrying myself differently. And in official context I had started speaking English with an accent that's closer to American, so they assumed I was an American. And in certain places like airports where you do expect a lot of foreigners in Kabul to be present, people waiting at the check in line started assuming on more than one occasion that I'm not an Afghan.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: In some ways, my time in the U.S. spent a very, very formative number of years, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, really changed the way I carry myself, the way I behave and the way I speak to the extent that in certain places like the airport started identifying me as a non-Afghan.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Certain times it's actually very awkward. I was waiting this one time at the airport and it was a really long line at the check-in counter and it was not moving fast. Somebody, an Afghan standing behind me, tapped on my shoulder and I looked back and he said in English, not in Farsi or Pashto, as we speak in Afghanistan, saying, "I can't believe how slow this is." And I didn't know if I should respond in English, which is not the language we speak, or I should respond in Farsi or Pashto, which would then embarrass him. So all I did was I just smiled and I looked forward and I kept keeping myself busy with my own things.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: It's not a pleasant experience. The community I come from, it's a minority community and it's always had some really rough experiences in the hands of the regimes that have been in power. And so otherizing in that way is very unpleasant because it connects with that historic political experience of the community at large, that makes it very unpleasant.  

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Growing up, you learn about some of the landmarks in the U.S. especially if you're studying English as a second language. You learn about the golden gate bridge and you learn about the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. So I learned about all of these things, and when I landed in New York in August of 2007, I stayed there for about three or four days. I was living in a friend's apartment.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And every day I would walk out of that apartment, and because I didn't have enough money to take the train, I actually walked all the way from near Columbia, which is Uptown Manhattan, all the way to the rest of the town downtown. So I made my way and I went to a part of the town that had what really surprised me, which was the Empire State Building. And outside of it, I saw a really long line of people waiting to go in and I thought, "Well, this must be free. A free trip tour of the Empire State Building." And I wait for about 15 minutes until my turn arrives. There's somebody in the window that's saying, "That would be $20, sir."

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And it took me aback and I thought, "$20 for what?" But it was a ticket to see the building. And I thought to myself, "I've spent 15 minutes waiting for this thing. I've don't have enough money to even take the train to come downtown." But it would be probably very, A, impolite to say, "I don't have the money," and walk away. And B, this is your chance to see the Empire State Building. So I actually showed that $20, went upstairs, took some photos, saw the observation deck and came down.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: And A, felt very, very stupid because I hadn't realized that something that iconic with those many people waiting in line isn't necessarily free, even though there's 50 people waiting in line. It's actually a paid thing. But many, many years after when I graduated and I went home and I was working for an NGO in Afghanistan, a human rights NGO, that NGO was headquartered in the Empire State Building and I had the privilege of working out of the Empire State Building approximately 10 years after that, so that became my office building.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: When you work there, you can actually have a VIP pass to the observation deck. You can go there without paying anything or waiting in line. You just go there and enjoy the view.

Christopher Wurst: Twenty dollars?

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: Absolutely. More than that. Nobody in our family had graduated from college before and here I was graduating from a college in the U.S. This was for the family and for me a pretty big deal, but my parents were not able to join me for a number of reasons, including visa restrictions. But a friend, an American friend that I had met back in 2001 in Quetta when I was a refugee, and he was a reporter covering the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but we'd kept in touch, and his family came down from New York to Kentucky.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal: With his then three-year-old son that gave me a lot of solace. I thought, "This is fantastic." I met him when I was 13, he was a reporter and now we're friends and I'm graduating and he's here visiting me on my big day. I thought that was a very pleasant experience. It was really good to have them around.

Christopher 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 the U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

Christopher Wurst: This week, Ahmad Shaju Jamal told us about his journey that ultimately led to his current Fulbright scholarship at Georgetown University. 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 podcasts. And of course, 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@state.gov, or check us out at eca.state.gov/2233.

Christopher Wurst: Special thanks this week to Shaju for sharing his story. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music was three songs by Paddington Bear, Bad Scene, Tralala and Twilight Grandeur, and Kentucky by Sammy Kaye 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 75 - Berlin Ghosts with David Marks

LISTEN HERE - Episode 75


A retired foreign service officer, David Marks recalls his memories of being a foreign student in Berlin. Seeing and feeling the effects of the Cold War actually changed Marks' direction in life.


Chris: You begin your international career during the heart of the Cold War and by the time the USSR collapses, you're a US diplomat working in a newly democratic Eastern Europe. But your lasting impressions were created during a time when Berlin was divided and when, as an exchange student, you learn firsthand lessons about America's role in the world.

Chris: You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

David: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks only one language? An American.

Chris: This week, the ghost subway stations of East Berlin, May Day, with angry communists, and lunching with Iranian friends during the Iranian hostage crisis. Join us on a journey from the past to the present and back, and life as an American student in a divided Berlin. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: 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 ...
Speaker 5: (singing)

David: My name is David Marks. I'm a retired foreign service officer. I retired from the State Department in 2013 after 30 years. I first became aware of the exchange programs long before I knew that there was a State Department connection. I went to a graduate school in Russian literature at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. And at that time, Indiana had an exchange program with the Free University of Berlin and each school, every year, sent one student to the other school. I was lucky enough to be awarded that fellowship for the 1979-1980 academic year. I was advised to apply for a Fulbright travel grant, which I did, and which I received. And so that was my introduction to the exchange programs that the State Department sponsors.

David: Berlin, in those days, was of course a divided city, divided by the Berlin Wall. While I was there during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and after the US reacted to that by, among other things, canceling participation in the Moscow Olympics in 1980. You could see very clearly the concrete manifestations of the hostility between the Soviet Union and the West.

David: It was a peculiarity that the West German subways, two lines of the West German subway, ran through, or under, a part of East Berlin that jutted out into West Berlin and there were stations, train stations, there that hadn't been used since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. So you would go through these stations and there'd be this deep layer of dust and then, very occasionally, in the dim light of the subway station you could see some East German guard lurking in case anybody had somehow managed to get down there and was trying to hop onto the West German subways.

David: Berlin really is a city where history is in front of you almost everywhere you turn. Whether it is the bullet holes you can still see in some of the buildings, or the fact that you would be walking through a section of old buildings and all of a sudden there would be a large area of quite new construction, because what had been there was of course bombed out during the war. And it was also a city, particularly when I was there in 1979 and 1980, where you could feel the Cold War. There were examples literally everywhere you looked. From the Berlin Wall to, as I said, the various military personnel you could see walking around town to trying to get through the Berlin Wall to the other side.

David: One of the most interesting experiences I had was going from West Berlin to East Berlin on the first of May 1980, to watch the May Day parade. And this occurred very shortly after President Carter decided that because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States was not going to take part in the Moscow Olympics. And so there were quite a few banners carried by the various East German student and worker delegations in the parade denouncing the US policy. So it was an opportunity for me to see the very concrete effects of certain US policies. And that was helpful for me after I joined the State Department.

David: I lived in a large apartment that was subdivided into rooms and my German landlord was a fairly tolerant fellow and we had a number of students from a variety of places. There were two Greek students when I was there, two Iranians. And these two Iranians, after the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun and the diplomats were taken hostage, they invited me to lunch and apologized for what their country had done. I thought that was quite an interesting experience.

David: My wife, who was not my wife at the time, but she came to visit me in Berlin and we went over to East Berlin and I had gotten tickets for Bertolt Brecht production in the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, which is the most famous theater in East Berlin. And it was in the winter and we were looking to kill some time before the play started. And we were in one of the East German, the East Berlin, museums and in Russia and in and East Germany, many of the museum staff are elderly women, who are very suspicious of anybody and they keep a close eye on you to make sure you don't try to touch anything. And one of these women came up to my wife and me and said, "Look, everybody else has left, you're the last visitors here. We want to go home. Why don't you get out of here?" And I thought that was a great lesson in socialist mores.

David: Seeing the enormous influence, I had seen it in West Germany when I was a soldier, but seeing the enormous influence in Berlin of the United States and how the United States had really assisted in the development of democracy in post-war Germany, or the reestablishment of democracy in post-war Germany, was for me, an inspiring experience in how much the Germans still looked to the United States. This was after all, the city where President Kennedy had said, "Ich bin ein Berliner." And in fact, the Berlin Rathaus where he said that was just about a half mile down the street from where I lived in Berlin and the bus went past it every day when I took the bus down to the big library in central West Berlin.

David: There really is a friendship connecting Germans and Americans that is based on a certain shared history. Some of it bad, but much of it good. And that I think this shared history has it been a great benefit to both of our countries.

David: And in fact, the experiences I gained while I was on this fellowship, completely changed the direction of my life. I had gone to Germany with the intention of returning to Bloomington, Indiana to complete my doctorate in Russian literature. But instead, I was also given eight weeks of intensive German at the Goethe-Institut, which is a German cultural exchange program. And while I was there, I was in the same class with a young woman from Japan and we got to know each other and fell in love and got married. And we're still married.

David: I would credit my 30 year career in the State Department to that experience because when I was in Berlin and got to see what the Cold War really meant in terms of concrete things, not just the concrete in the Berlin Wall, but how it affected the lives of people in Berlin, and the importance of an American role in the world. I think that was the real profound experience that I brought with me from that exchange.

David: In fact, when I was on my second tour at our embassy in Bonn, that was when President Reagan made his visit where he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." And of course that was a reminder of the significance of Berlin and of my time there.

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's 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 the US government-funded international exchange programs.

Chris: In this episode, David Marks told us about his experiences as a Fulbright scholar in then West Berlin. For more about ECA exchanges including Fulbright programs, check out eca.state.gov. You can also subscribe to 22.33 wherever you find your podcasts and we strongly encourage you to do so. And you can write to us. We love to hear from you. Find us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov.

Chris: Special thanks this week to David for sharing the memories of his beloved Berlin. I did the interview and edited this episode. Featured music during the segment was Summertime by Shelly Mann. 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 74 - Julia Roberts and German Culture with Julia Follick

LISTEN HERE - Episode 74


From Oakland, California to Rostock, Germany, Julia Follick remembers her pleasant and also intense conversations with her German students. She also recalls fun cultural activities that opened her perspective on cultural differences.


Christopher: Socrates is often quoted as saying something to the effect of, "I know I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing." If you agree with this famous observation, which in other variation goes, "Why is this, does he who knows how much he does not know?" Then you have to admit that living in foreign places definitely must make people more intelligent.

Christopher: What happens when you leave your comfort zone, travel to another country, interact with different cultures, new languages, and unique ways of life? Well, for one thing, you begin to learn that assumptions and reality can greatly differ. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Julia: I responded to an ad in the newspaper when I was living in Germany. They were looking for English speakers to do the voiceover for a German cartoon. So I said, "I'm an English speaker. I have those skills." I went and auditioned. They wanted me to read the part of a cross eyed cat. I read it once and they said, "Okay, good. Now read it more cross-eyed." I just had no idea what it meant. I was not asked back. I was not given the job. I realized that my foreignness only got me so far. Did not make up for real talent.

Christopher: This week, cross eyed cat, surfing to class, getting lost in post-communist architecture, and who is Julia Roberts anyway? On this episode, a journey from Oakland, California to Rostock, Germany, and lesson about the limits of one's preconceptions. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We operate under a Presidential mandate, which says that we report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: (singing).
Speaker 6: 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 then it was possible to...
Speaker 5: (singing.)

Julia: Hi, I'm Julia Follick. I'm originally from Oakland, California and I now work in the State Department in the Bureau of Consular Affairs. My exchange program was the English Teacher Exchange Program in Germany, I was there from 2005 to 2006. I was placed in Rostock, which is in the Northeast of Germany, state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Julia: I think before I went to Germany and lived with Germans, I was much more ready to, I guess, make generalizations about cultures, about the Germans, about Americans, and once I probably regularly made generalizations about what Germans were like until I actually went and met so many of them and knew so many, heard so many different stories, I realized how foolish it is to paint whole cultures with broad strokes like that.

Julia: I had a lot of nights out meeting people where I'd start off with, "I'm American." A lot of people had never met an American and had lots of questions and were really interested in hearing more about my experiences and where I came from.

Julia: I think that's the easiest conversation starter that I've ever had. I was really disappointed when I came back to the United States and I had to come up with interesting conversation topics again.

Julia: One misconception that really stuck with me. Someone, a younger student, heard that I grew up in California and asked, "Did you surf to school every day?"

Julia: I had studied Germany, German language, and German culture in college, but when I arrived there, I realized I had a lot to learn. I just moved into a house with a number of 20 somethings and they were asking me how much I knew about Germany, asking me about famous German saying, "Do you know this person? Do you know Michael Schumacher? Do you know Franz Beckenbauer?" Listing off all of the people that were their cultural heroes that every person on the street was familiar with those names. I hadn't heard of any of them. They were all unfamiliar to me despite all my classes in German culture.

Julia: As they kept going one by one, I realized just how much I had to learn that you could never learn in a classroom. They kept going on this list of names, and finally they got to one that sounded familiar. They said, "Do you know Julia Roberts?"

Julia: I said no initially, and I realized they were saying Julia Roberts. Did I know Julia Roberts, because they thought I was just so ignorant that I hadn't heard of anyone. I realized that I had some understanding gaps to overcome as well.

Julia: I was surprised that the Germans were very interested in what America thought about them. I was asked a lot of questions about, "Do you think we're all Nazis? You must think XYZ." Of which I tried my best to dispel notions about what all Americans think about Germans and I realized just how multifaceted it is, how impossible it is to paint with broad strokes about what all Germans are like. Just like it's impossible to say what all Americans are like.

Julia: The town that I was in, Rostock, was the site of the annual gathering of the Neo-Nazis, and they'd plan this parade through the town. The police presence there was unbelievable. I have never seen so many police officers on duty at one time. All of the streets were blocked off all along. You had to show your identification to get into the houses along the parade route.

Julia: I was amazed that so many Neo-Nazis were in existence and also willing to go out and march proudly. But I was even more amazed by the counter protests just that dwarfed the actual parade. There were thousands of people from all across Germany protesting and both really coexisting with all of the police, all of these three antagonistic groups, and there was no violence at all. But it was really a spectacle to behold.

Julia: I was wary of bringing up the issues of the Nazi past. So I let them, I guess, lead the way, but they were very anxious to talk about it and say what they felt. What was, I guess, more eyeopening for me, I of course, had learned all about the Nazi history and things like that. I was mentally prepared to go in and talk to people about that. But the communist history that is still so prevalent in Eastern Germany really blew me away.

Julia: The people that I was meeting who are my age had been born in a communist country and their parents had lived their whole lives pretty much in a communist country. I remember I went home for Christmas with one of my friends to this complex of concrete apartment buildings that had been built shortly after the communists came to power really to house the workers and they told me that I was not allowed to go outside of the apartment by myself because I would get hopelessly lost and I would never be able to find the right apartment again, because they all looked exactly the same. It was just one after another after another.

Julia: Someone was telling me this story about how their grandfather had been a prisoner of war during World War II and their grandmother had taken the kids and walked all across what is now Poland to get to what is now Germany, where they thought they'd be safer. It had taken weeks, it was this long walk on foot. They almost starved. The grandfather almost didn't make it out of the POW camp. And I just said, whoa, that's what you see in movies. I had never talked to anyone who had a story like that.

Julia: And then every single other German at the table had a similar story. Every person, their grandparents lives had been affected like that. Just the impact of living in a place that had had a war like that has... Of course the impact on Americans was huge as well, but it was so much more on the Germans. That was really impactful.

Julia: One thing that was really amazing to me was when I celebrated New Years in Germany. New Year's seems like such a straightforward holiday that it's really similar throughout the world, and in a lot of ways it was similar, but they set off rockets out of bottles. You drink the beer, put the bottle in the snow, put a rocket in it and then shoot it off.

Julia: The effect was just this cacophonous blast going off everywhere. The sky was lit up so brightly with every single person in the town lighting off their own rockets. I had never seen anything like it. The smell of smoke was everywhere. I was used to having little New Year's parties with just my friends or watching carefully orchestrated professional fireworks displays. I had never seen that combination of so many people doing similar things in such a crazy way.

Julia: I also had a lot of fun trying all of the different beers in Germany, particularly every little town that I went to, they all have their one brewery that has the one local beer and there's so much local pride around that brewery and that beer. You really feel like you hadn't visited a town until you had tried their specific beer, even though they all started to taste the same.

Julia: We got a team of I think four people together and we carried... You have to carry a case of beer bottles, huge German beer bottles, and you had to go, I think it was three miles or something like that. You could either carry the heavy case and drink them at the end, or you could drink them all at the beginning so your case was lighter, but then you were drunker. So, it was hundreds of people drinking and racing, carrying huge cases of beer. That really felt so typically German, but also so fun.

Julia: We drank most of the beer towards the beginning, which put us at pretty close to the front in the beginning, but then definitely slowed us down on the back end. We did not win either.

Julia: I knew I would meet lots of Germans and experience a lot of German culture, but it also really highlighted the parts that I liked best about American culture, both because it was things that I was missing and really because of the things that I wanted to share with the people I was meeting.

Julia: When I first got there I hosted a big Thanksgiving celebration because I could imagine that there are people who had never had pumpkin pie. How could you live your life like that? That's something that needed to be shared.

Julia: Things like the holidays, I really enjoyed sharing with other people because I really like how American's celebrate a lot of the holidays. I also formed really close friendships with the other Americans who were there in Germany on the same program. Being foreign and there being so few Americans there really brought us together and I still keep in touch with a lot of the people, particularly the people who were in the same rural state where I was.

Christopher: I'm Christopher Wurst, 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.

Christopher: Our stories come from participants of U.S. government funded international exchange programs. In this episode, Julia Follick shared her experiences as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, or ETA. Fulbright ETAs are placed in classrooms overseas to provide assistance to the local English teachers. These assignments can range from kindergarten all the way up to university level.

Christopher: For more about ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 wherever you get your podcasts.

Christopher: We'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov. That mouthful is E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov.

Christopher: Special thanks this week to Julia for sharing her insights, stories, and tips on how not to run a beer bottle race. I did the interview with Julia and edited this episode. Featured music during this segment was Before You Leave and Mourning Too Soon, both by Catsa, and the Liechtensteiner Polka by Dick Contino and His Orchestra. Until next time...


Season 01, Episode 73 - Paying it Forward with Aleksandra Gren

LISTEN HERE - Episode 73


Aleksandra Gren teaches us the value of human interaction. Through interacting with others we can find inspiration, mentorship, and friendship that can be relayed to any person you meet from any country. For Gren, her experience in the United States had given her greater exposure to American values that she was able to share back in Poland, specifically for women.


Christopher: As a business leader, you were chosen to take part in the Fortune Most Powerful Women Program to learn about mentoring from an American business leader, but the learning went two ways. In fact, this is what Fortune Magazine had to say about it. "Mentors are supposed to motivate and embolden mentees, but sometimes in a mentoring relationship, the teacher becomes the student." You, then, or the teacher. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Aleksandra: I was very lucky to have parents and especially my mom who told me a lot of incredible stories about my family. She definitely inspired me to do great and big scale things. I have to say honestly, that I always thought that I would be doing incredible things. I don't know what that belief was based on, but that's what my mother filled me with, those dreams and those stories of greatness.

Christopher: This week, stories of inspiration from a young age, delivering STEM education to those in need and becoming a mentor to your mentors. Join us on a journey from Poland to the United States to discover the power of paying things forward. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. There are people very much like ourselves.

Aleksandra: My name is Aleksandra Grin. I'm from Poland. I work in the financial services technology field for a US-based computer company that works with banks around the world. I'm based in Warsaw. In 2015, I was nominated to come to the United States to the Fortune US State Department Global Mentoring Women's Program, a program which connects emerging women leaders around the world with CEOs, women CEOs in the United States, members of the fortune most powerful women's list. It focuses on sharing of experiences, skillset building, knowledge sharing and just inspiring in terms of creating new leadership skills so that the women from around the world can go back to their and their communities and be agents of change. It was an amazing experience where I got paired up with an incredible woman, the CEO of Fidelity Personal Investing, Kathleen Murphy. And I just love working with people from different cultures, countries, from different backgrounds because I know where diversity exists, magic happens.

Aleksandra: I was born in Poland in 1972 in a world that doesn't exist anymore during the Cold War, which divided Europe and some of the parts of the world and in two halfs between the two superpowers, and when I was five six, seven, going into the 1980s, nobody ever would have predicted that the Berlin Wall would collapse, that Europe would be reunited, that Germany would be reunited and that the Soviet Union, the way we knew it until 1989, would cease to exist.

Aleksandra: In my childhood, the stories that my mom gave me despite grim surroundings in central and eastern Europe at that time, filled me with hope and big dreams. Now, what helped those dreams was my father, who was an engineer and he was active in the energy field and he worked around the world. Along with those professionals, there came the families. They would come back to Poland after a few years, changed in terms of cultural outlook, openness, and I was part of that world.

Aleksandra: When the Berlin Wall was about to collapse, and again, we didn't know that this would happen until it actually occurred in 1989, there was a lot of commotion in the air. There was a lot of unease. There were just moves of people from central and eastern Europe because I think there was so much anxiety as to what would the Soviet Union do actually when confronted by the United States. And my mom had to make the difficult choice of, are we staying with the hope that things will turn out okay or actually leaving the world, the world, the city we live in and moving to a different country? So this happened when I was 15. Through those challenges, I grew and I developed a different sense of understanding of the world, understanding of what people go through, different cultures, and this definitely made me the person I am today.

Aleksandra: It's a simple realization that people are the same around the world. It's a simple truth that a lot of decision makers are trying to hide from their people, to the detriment of these people, because it's much easier to divide and rule. I mean, all of the organized movements' ideas are based on giving people a certain identity and telling them that anything outside of that framework of identity is foreign and that we should be afraid of the foreign. And that mechanism of dividing and ruling has been used forever. That's why large segments of societies around the world are being programmed from the very early beginning to say, "This is us. We are special. We are unique, and the the rest is enemies or something we need to fight." And it's done purposely, very often by very smart people who don't believe this themselves. For the purposes of holding onto power, they will feed anything to their people.

Aleksandra: Fear is a basic instinct and a number one sentiment that people feel which can paralyze, stop and disable people's critical thinking and emotions. Luckily, the region I come from, central and eastern Europe, has gone through an amazingly transformative period of time over the last 30 years where democracy flourished. This shouldn't allow us to forget other regions of the world where change hasn't happened, where democracy is non-existent, where repression and violence are the everyday practice, and that's why coming from that region, I feel very inspired and motivated not to just be happy with what we've accomplished in Poland and in Europe, but also to look at other regions of the world to empower others, to tell them that transformation can happen, that it should be guided and governed in a good and sustainable way. People should keep up hope and work towards better outcomes.

Aleksandra: The idea of mentorship is a very powerful one. Going back to what I said about being told many stories when I was growing up, when I think about it today, I think that this was sort of like an introduction to mentoring where my mother was telling me stories about role models from my family and they were inspiring me, and this is how she was transferring some teachings or some lessons to me through those stories. Fast forward many, many years later, I came to experience programs where it wasn't stories and characters that I never met before. It was real people, real role models, successful individuals who wanted to pay it forward, share it back with others and as mentors participated in those mentoring programs.

Aleksandra: I believe that whether someone has access to a mentor or not, there are ways for the environment, for the parents, for the people around to still inspire. Humans learn from watching others. We copy, we imitate, we learn, we build upon it. That's how progress has always happened. To me, it's so important to respect the past, to respect people who have been there before us, because even if today's generation may be thinking critically of some of those individuals or maybe accomplishments, every situation had its own constraints. I'm a strong believer of believing that people did the best they could, but learning from other people through having access to role models and mentoring experiences, coaching is a crucial development tool, which often is free of charge, often is based on our proactiveness, not being afraid to ask, not being afraid to share. And once that happens, mentoring has been proven to work and transform lives.

Aleksandra: So a mentee of mine probably would or should have most of the day a smile on her face, say hello to everybody, be proactive, always believe in good intentions, but it's a mixture. So it's a mixture of having big dreams, having positive mindset, having a smile on one's face, but also being a realist and being prepared to put in the hard work, to strategize, to create new partnerships, to be prepared to do the homework. Once those two areas are addressed, I think people should be bound to succeed.

Aleksandra: My first thought when I learned about the program and the institution I was going to, it was a traditional financial services company, I didn't know how much this group would have known about Poland. We think as every country thinks of themselves, we're unique and big and everybody should know our history. It's not the case. So I thought, "Okay, how can I contribute to this experience by actually offering something from me? I'm a mentee. I'm being taken to incredible places. I'm being given an amazing mentor and other experiences, but what could I give back in return?"

Aleksandra: And maybe inspired by what I learned as a child, I told a lot of stories to my mentor and my mentoring organization about my country. I told them about a few themes around my country, which I thought were important, where we really had some amazing accomplishments such as technology, where again, the background on my father, knowing so many engineers when I was a child and what incredible work they were doing in the Middle East and Africa, the accomplishments in the area of mathematics with some amazing mathematicians coming out of the [inaudible 00:13:14] Mathematical School, who are now featured in this Smithsonian Museum today because they had an amazing contribution to technology work in the states here, and not to mention the enigma back in World War II. Then, there's this area of design and filmmaking.

Aleksandra: So I gave back to my mentoring company all those stories and the impact was, and that's what surprised me so much, that within three months, my mentor and her whole senior team of 15 people were on a plane to Poland trying to validate all the stories I told them. At the beginning, they said, "We'll come and visit you maybe next year," and then they said, "Well, maybe in a few months," and then I get a call in July and I hear, "Well, we'd like to visit you at the end of September and there's many of us."

Aleksandra: This was the most amazing and empowering experience for me because I realized that people can change so much through telling stories. Very often, it feels like when people come to the states, and it's the right thing that they should feel that they are going to receive a lot, because for these programs to be enabled, to be sponsored, we need to appreciate them. Not so many countries do that and dedicate resources to educate the world and that's admirable. But also, everybody who comes here should think, "How can I contribute?" You don't have to have much. I mean even if you have stories, even if you want to talk about your tradition, even if you want to talk about something you're proud of, it's incredibly enriching for the folks here in the states to learn anything that you can share. The more we give, the better we feel, the more empowered we feel, the more self-confident we feel. Anything is possible, and people should believe that because it's true.

Aleksandra: What I admire about the United States is its openness to new cultures. People have been exposed to migrations of various nations into this country. Very often, they themselves are descendants of migrants. I always felt that America was such an accepting country, giving opportunities to all based on merit. And even if you look at the Silicon Valley today and the number of CEOs who are first generation born, people outside of the United States, and the fact that the United States and the corporate world has accepted them, elevated them, tapped into their knowledge and energy, I mean, that type of acceptance and shrewd sort of management of the resources in the country, whether they're inborn or from outside, doesn't happen in any other country. I think from that perspective, America is unique in terms of how it elevates people of foreign descend or birth who can contribute. And that contribution piece and what people bring to the table is the key deciding factors in a lot of that decision making.

Aleksandra: The four week program, I think every day was such a day. Every mentee felt very touched, and it's incredible how such programs make people emotional because it's probably one of the few moments in one's life that people stop, leave their work for a few weeks and go through this incredible initiative of self-discovery, talking to other people, learning more about their potential and their lessons learned, areas of improvements, sharing of information. So the kindness that was here given to us through the mentors, the educators, the incredible people we met at the US State Department, the corporate world, the Fortune Most Powerful Women, this was all very humbling for every mentee.

Aleksandra: It is this precision, this combined with big dreams, but also this attention to detail. I think in every country people try to do their best, so it's not about criticizing them, but it's about just sometimes being exposed to an amazing experience and saying to oneself, "Well, I want to create these experiences somewhere else," and I think it's part of the program to inspire people to do amazing things in their own communities and countries. And I think that goal is being accomplished.

Aleksandra: Since I came back from the Fortune Most Powerful Women Program, I wanted to set up a similar program in Poland. And one of the programs that was directly inspired by the Fortune US State Department program is something that we coined as Leaders In, and it's a mentoring program that brings together senior managers at the board level from various companies, and it matches those mentors with mentees who are from companies as well. And it's all about bringing more women onto boards and into leadership positions.

Aleksandra: So we started the first year with 14 companies that were the first edition of the leaders in program. We're into a third year and have over 20 companies participating and they are exposing their best talent on the senior management level, but also from a best talent that is coming up through the ranks, and it's a nine month program where we provide one-on-one mentoring, but also a lot of networking events and a lot of other facilitations so that people network, exchange best ideas, create new initiatives, but all around building up that female talent in the management structures of companies.

Aleksandra: This program would have not happened had we not had the experiences from the Fortune Program, the wonderful guidance from Vital Voices, from the US State Department, so I'm very, very happy that Vital Voices Poland chapter was able to be the driving force for this program and that we managed to work with other partners who believed in us, actually, a lot of the US companies that are operating in Poland in central and eastern Europe who realized that mentoring is such a powerful tool. These days, everywhere we turn, there's some mentoring going on and it's being talked about and it's become such a powerful tool for companies internally but also engaging externally. So I think this is a direct contribution and outcome of the program I participated in.

Aleksandra: We need to combat any elements that want to incite hatred and misconceptions amongst people because we need peace. We need progress. One of the things I was inspired to do as am outcome of the Fortune Program and the award I got last year, the Goldman Sachs Fortune Global Woman Leaders Award that was awarded to me in October, 2018, this was to enable me to create a STEM educational program for refugee kids in Greece and to recognize also the advocacy that I have undertaken since the Fortune Program in the area of women in tech and STEM education. But specifically, now what I would like to do is focus on delivering STEM education to those who are in need and specifically children around the world, and I'm going to start with Greece and STEM-focused education for youths and kids in refugee camps and the unaccompanied kids so they can be better integrated and have better skillsets to integrate into the European society.

Aleksandra: I'm very optimistic about the future, maybe because I've seen my life transform, the life of so many of my compatriots transform, of my peers, when I look at the professional scene in Warsaw today and of my my peers and when we were growing up and being 9, 10, 12, again, in the Cold War era, and we never thought that our country would look so amazingly as it does today. I really believe anything is possible and it's all down to us and our dreams and our beliefs in goodness and progress, our own battles with our own fears. I mean, we have to fight our fears. We have to take control of fears. They are there because given the advancements technology and how the civilization has evolved in general, there's more loneliness out there today. People are connected, they seem connected, but they're not connected to other humans the way they used to be connected and that's impacting people as well.

Aleksandra: There are many challenges and fears that we need to combat, but I think there's so much light and opportunity in front of us, but it does come down to people who have gone through transformation to be able to go out to those other regions of the world now and share hope and share positive learnings and inspire people, because we as humans have a responsibility not to only think about our own plot, about our own city or a country. We are all interconnected. We are facing big challenges on a global scale such as climate change, such as refugee crises, the role of technology in our lives. These are challenges that cannot be tackled by any one single country, and that's why I feel very positive about the future. I think people in general are good.

Aleksandra: I think that everybody who's experienced and benefited one of the US State Department programs or Fortune programs or other global programs should feel responsible for contributing back to the world. It is to the world at a global stage. Of course, we need to remember and empower our communities and we ought to be starting at grass root levels, but some of the challenges that are facing the world today need global and concerted efforts, and it is down to people that have been exposed to diversity, to the power of different thinking, to the talent that can be found in the United States and Europe and the middle East in Asia and Latin America.

Aleksandra: We need to think of the world as a great source of talent for ideas to transition into this new world that's going to be so filled with technology, the rise of artificial intelligence, and the new empowerment of technology, vis-a-vis humans, I think creates new fields of studies, new challenges that we need to tackle together. That's why we ought to focus on education and just combat any fear-mongering around the world, because the more we limit ourselves as nations and as societies, the more handicapped we'll be to actually contribute to the new world and to the new design of how technology should fit with the human component in the future. That's why we ought to think positively about the future and really harness all the resources around us to positively impact the future.

Christopher: 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's 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 the US government-funded international exchange programs.

Christopher: This week, Aleksandra Grin spoke about coming to the United States as part of the Fortune Women's Program and how that led to a lifetime dedicated to mentorship. For more about that 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 while you're doing so, leave us a review. And 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. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage, eca.state.gov/2233. You can check us out and follow us on Instagram now @2233stories.

Christopher: Very special thanks to Alex for her stories and inspiring work. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Last Bar Guest by Lobo Loco, Song for a Pea by Poddington bear, and three songs by Blue Dot Sessions, Lamp List, La [inaudible 00:29:03] and Lesser Gods of Metal. 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 72 - [Bonus] Scenes From the Umbrella Revolution

LISTEN HERE - Episode 72


As a Critical Languages Scholar in Hong Kong, your lessons included not only how to speak Chinese, but how the society worked from the ground up and some of the skills you learned and applied back home were learned under a sea of umbrellas.


Christopher W: Freshman year, you have a roommate from China. You'd never met anybody from China before. He gives you a Chinese name, you learn a couple of Chinese words. Now flash forward a few years. Suddenly, you're in Hong Kong. You're speaking Chinese, holding an umbrella, and speaking Chinese. You are listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Kamaal T: The first day I was in Hong Kong, on my quest for food, I came across this older gentleman, bald head, pretty old. You could definitely tell he's living in an impoverished area, probably unemployed. Then he approached me and was asking me, where are you from? Where are you from?, in Cantonese, and I didn't understand that at all. And so I was quite flustered, and so I tell him like I'm from America, I didn't know how to say that in Cantonese. And so, we just go through this exchange where he wants to talk to me, but I don't have any words to say. And so I'm kind of using my hands like in a game of charades to try to explain things, without a doubt I was unsuccessful. It's like, how do you explain America with your hands? He definitely insisted that I was from Africa, which I wasn't, but I think just the interaction was very bizarre and very strange.

Christopher W:  This week, learning to love lukewarm water, nailing the cyber vocabulary in Chinese, and living through the Umbrella Revolution. Join us on our journey from California to Hong Kong, in learning to be a leader through organized protests. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 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-

Kamaal T: My name is Kamaal Thomas. I am a cyber policy researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is a international affairs think tank out here in D.C. During 2014, I did study abroad at the University of Hong Kong, during my junior year at the University of California, Davis. It was through the University of California Education Abroad Program, where I received funding through the Gilman Scholarship to participate in the one year exchange program.

Kamaal T:  Starting my freshman year at UC Davis, one of the 10 roommates I had was an international student from Southern China. It was my first time actually meeting someone that was actually abroad, and first time meeting a Chinese person. Throughout our interactions, I was starting to become more interested in Chinese culture, and some of the foods he would introduce me to, some of the words he would give me. He actually gave me my first Chinese name, which was [Wangi 00:03:41]. He encouraged me to start taking Chinese classes, and so I wanted to go abroad for a year, I'd never done it in my life. I decided to go to Hong Kong, since it was a little easier transition from what I've understood.

Kamaal T: My roommates were all Chinese. I think I was one of two or three non-local students that was in that building, and so, it was definitely a huge transition, especially being not only the only American, but also the only black person there. So I think I went a couple of weeks before I saw another black person, so it was kind of strange at first.

Kamaal T: The first morning was brutal. One, the building I was in was extremely old, about 200 years old or so, and it was extremely humid. There was a lot of bugs, and a lot of cobwebs, and a lot of spiders, and even lizards inside the apartment. It was extremely dusty, and I think it was around noon on the first day, and I was extremely hungry. I had no idea where to go, so I just decided to go on a stroll, found an ATM, withdrew some Hong Kong dollars, and then eventually walked past some sign that I thought meant food in Mandarin, so I figured it was where food was, and eventually found a McDonald's, so. But, first meal in Hong Kong was a Big Mac.

Kamaal T: You initially feel ostracized, you're so different. The only images of black people they've probably ever seen were on movies, and so there's a lot of presumptions and stereotypes that I had to fight on a daily basis, where people would ask me ridiculous questions like, "Oh, can you rap for us," or "Do you play basketball?" Which I do. "Do you love fried chicken and watermelon?" and so many other things. It was just tough, and kind of a struggle trying to deal with that on a regular basis, and during that same time, we had several international news coverages of major shootings in the U.S. of predominantly young black men. And so, I was essentially the spokesperson on all things black issues in America. It was a struggle and a little frustrating at times, I easily became homesick, just because I felt like there was no one I can talk to about what was going on and how I felt about it, and having to explain constantly what was going on from my perspective.

Kamaal T: In Hong Kong, people don't have guns. So it was very different, a lot of the cops didn't even have guns, so I knew growing in Southern California was, always be mindful of your interactions with the police, and there's people that may be caring, and so, you have to be cautious. There's always a concern about your safety at night, just roaming the streets, it could be dangerous living there. I didn't experience that at all. Several times, I would go out with my friends and we would just decide to spend the night in the park, and that was kind of a very regular thing for international students who were studying in Hong Kong to do. So I don't think I've ever felt as safe in my life as I did living in Hong Kong.

Kamaal T: Throughout time, I definitely felt more comfortable. I mean, it was like two steps forward, and one step back. One of the things I found very helpful was actually trying to learn Cantonese. Just small things, ordering food, knowing how to say your address to the taxi driver, interacting with some of the students that I lived with in the dorm, playing basketball with them, going on jogs to the hilltop every single day, that definitely allowed me to build a stronger tie and connections with a lot of the other students.

Kamaal T: I remember one of my teammates on the basketball team invited me to his home, and he lived in the outskirts, in the more impoverished areas of Hong Kong. And so, he took me in one of these huge skyscraper buildings, probably about 15 stories high, very small living quarters. And so he took me there, and I remember I was up there and I turned the corner, and this lady just shrieks [inaudible 00:08:40] like, "Who is this 6'2" black guy doing in my living room?" And I don't think he told his mom who he was bringing home, but eventually we talked a bit with the limited Chinese that I knew, and some of the English she knew, we were able to get along a lot better. She taught me how to make dumplings, make rice noodles. So definitely at that moment, I felt like I was starting to get the hang of things, and being able to build stronger ties with some of my teammates and people living in my dorms and classmates was definitely very helpful moving on.

Kamaal T: While I was living in Hong Kong, I decided to get into cybersecurity, which is my profession now, and decided to do a whole presentation in Mandarin, which was extremely difficult. I practiced for weeks. I actually used to get a lot of anxiety speaking in Chinese, generally, and it was an extreme struggle for me for years and years, and even to this day. I think I didn't get over it until maybe about a year ago. And so, it was in front of the class giving a presentation on a cybersecurity topic, and it went very well. I was able to respond to questions, I knew all my terms, and so I think that was one of the most proud moments, and probably one of the biggest accomplishments was being able to overcome my fear of speaking a foreign language, and feeling like I was stupid, just because I didn't know what to say and how to articulate myself. So I wish everyone could've saw, I mean, next time I'll record it.

Kamaal T: A lot of the street wear I wear now outside of professional clothes is mostly Chinese-influenced. A lot of the t-shirts, a lot of the pants, some of the other things, so I kind of mix-match myself based off of being exposed to traditional Chinese clothing. Definitely started drinking lukewarm or warm water, I don't drink cold water at all. That's one thing they don't do, is drink cold water, I think they believe it's bad for you, part of Chinese medicine, and so that's one thing that I've picked up. Love eating with chopsticks, always saying that American Chinese food is not Chinese food, because this it's not, it's a huge difference, even though both do taste good. Putting a lot of spices on my food, eating a lot more noodles, I cook noodles at home very, very often now. I think definitely my eating styles and what I eat more frequently is definitely influenced from living in Hong Kong.

Kamaal T: The Umbrella Revolution. The beginning of the school year, about mid-September, students were planning a protest against the National People's Congress, in regards to the selection of a chief executive who is the head of the Hong Kong government. Starting in about 1997, when the UK agreed to give Hong Kong back to China, there was an agreement outlining that the Hong Kong government would be relatively independent, except for international affairs and military, and they would be able to have some sort of a democratic process. Throughout that process, the Chinese government essentially agreed to gradually allow more democratic processes and institutions to take hold, and so during the 2015 elections, which was coming up soon, there was a goal to stop China from selecting three or four candidates that the people could vote on, so they wouldn't be able to have full suffrage.

Kamaal T: So students decided to protest. I was simply just curious. All the professors agreed to not penalize students for not showing up to class. This was something that a lot of the faculty supported and even participated in, and were the organizers of. I remember distinctly, it was probably in the middle of the week where there was an oath taking ceremony, where eight students read a oath, pretty much agreeing to protest using civil disobedience, and discourse and nonviolence.

Kamaal T: The following day, there was a huge protest at a different campus, where there was probably about two to 3000 students that were there, and then the next day, it was in front of the central government building, and there was about maybe 7,000 students, and then there was probably about 15,000 students and other people that were there during the weekend. While the protest was going on, there was people speaking and explaining what was going on, and teaching the students about why they were protesting and everything of that nature, and it seemed very much like a cultural event. However, it was probably right after sunset, you started hearing everyone scream. I was confused, I couldn't speak the language, so I really didn't know what was going on. People were running, and then eventually, I noticed that there was canisters of tear gas being thrown from the cops into the crowds. I didn't know where to go, I didn't know what to do. I knew I was on a student visa, I didn't want to get arrested. And so, I immediately ran down to the bottom level, close to the street and ran inside a KFC, and just stayed there until everything just blew down.

Kamaal T: The following day, the protest grew to over 50,000 students, and other protestors living in different parts of the city, and so, there was about three protest locations, and the protest went on for about 80 days. It was called the Umbrella Revolution, because on the first night where we had over 50,000 protesters and the pepper spray and the tear gas were thrown, people used umbrellas to shield themselves. And so after that, all the protesters decided to bring out a yellow umbrella symbolizing their opposition to what was going on.

Kamaal T:  I distinctly remember one of the nights where I was sleeping out on the street, because all the streets were blocked off, and there was counter-protesters that showed up. And so, I remember it was probably around 4 AM, people were on the megaphone, I couldn't really understand what was being said, but another person that was there started explaining and was like, "We think there's counter-protesters here. We don't know who they're with, but they're pretending to represent one of us, and they're bashing windows, they're breaking things and they're trying to make us look bad." And so, we're trying to call the police to have them removed, and so that was one of the interesting aspects of it. Even though there was a lot of contention between the police officers and the protesters, there was still an agreement on, have a common decency and understanding that we should work with the police to have these people removed, because they're not taking part in what we're supporting.

Kamaal T: It was so much like a cultural event. I remember, it was actually the anniversary of China, I think was the 65th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. And so, there was tons of people coming out in protest, we're talking about over 100,000 people in one location, just a sea of people. They were extremely organized, you had people handing out water bottles, people handing out food, people handing out masks, there were people teaching English classes and math classes. I actually went out and taught a few math classes and English classes as well. There were PowerPoint presentations on basic law and the reason for the protest. There were people singing and people coloring in chalk on the street side, and different art shows and gymnastics presentations that were all going on in the middle of the city. And so, it was a very bizarre scene since people were protesting, but it was actually a very positive vibe that was going on. And unknown to a lot of us, a lot of these pictures were being taken showing the event, and to people in the mainland China, it was being explained as a celebration of the anniversary of China, rather than an actual protest in defiance of it.

Kamaal T: I felt compelled from a lot of the lessons I've learned while I was in Hong Kong, to get involved in student government. I actually led a few protests on the campus after a series of hate crimes started happening against black students. There was protests that actually led to the removal of our chancellor, and a few other things that happened during my senior year. So it was quite a exciting, high energy, I guess, time that was going on back in the U.S., across all of the universities, so.

Kamaal T: So I was in student government, and this was right after President's Day. There was two hate crimes that happened within a two day period, and there were debates going on regarding students who were running for office, for the student Senate. And so, there was a moment where I spoke with all the other black students, I was like, "Why is this issue not being addressed?" So I decided to go inside where the debate was going on for the candidates for the Senate, and stole the mic, had all the black students to block all the nominees for the Senate, and I just asked them, I was like, "We've seen several hate crimes happen in the span of a couple of days against black students, and none of you said anything, except one of you all." I think one of our goals as student leaders, is ensuring that students feel very, at a basic level, comfortable and safe on their campus.

Kamaal T: And so, rather than talking about getting new IDs, or how we're going to introduce Tex-Mex to the cafeteria, I think it's more important that we ensure we have very simple measures to ensure that students are very safe, that they have protection, especially at night, ensuring that they have a ride home if they live off campus, or just ensuring that the campus is lit and has emergency stations, just in case anything happens. And so, that happened and then few days later, we launched a huge protest, had tons of media out there. Myself, as well as a few other black student leaders spoke on the student's behalf, and outlined a list of demands for the chancellor and administration to improve the security and safety of black students on campus. And so, most of the stipulations that we outlined were agreed to, and we began working with the facilities managers to start implementing them, and making sure that the school campus was lit up, and that there were support services and mental health opportunities as well. So I think everything that I went through in Hong Kong definitely informed my actions Returning to UC Davis.

Kamaal T: While I was in Hong Kong, I had the pleasure of meeting another student that was also interested in cybersecurity, who's from Estonia, and I actually met him two years later in Beijing, and he just completed some work at NATO, and we're working together to establish our cybersecurity team, and through that cybersecurity team, I became even more interested in it and was able to land an internship in Beijing, where I was working for the Carnegie Endowment's Beijing office. And so, that led to the job I have now working in Carnegie's D.C. office doing cyber policy. I think definitely meeting that one student and deciding to go to Hong Kong, created this huge ripple effect where I'm currently working in cyber and U.S. China relations, All from some of those initial interactions that I had.

Kamaal T: Sitting on a rooftop, and on top of one of the restaurants, they have tons of skyscrapers there and rooftop bars, to sitting there with a couple of friends late at night, looking into the ocean and seeing some of the other islands across, and seeing the fireworks going through the air during New Year, and seeing everyone celebrate and just enjoying the company that I was around, so. Christopher W:                   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.

Christopher W: This week, Kamaal Thomas told us about his time in Hong Kong as a Gilman scholar. For more about Gilman and other ECA programs, check out eca.state.gov.

Christopher W: We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, and leave us a nice review while you're at it, and 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 @state.gov.

Christopher W: Photos from each week's interviewee, and complete episode transcripts can be found at our web page, at eca.state.gov/2233.

Christopher W: Special thanks to Kamaal for sharing his insights and his love of Chinese culture. I did the interview and edited the segment. Featured music was Taxi War Dance by Count Basie and his orchestra, Elmore Heights by Blue Dot Sessions, Golden Horn by Dave Brubeck Quartet, and Parenti Blues by Art Hodes & His All Star Stompers.

Christopher W: 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 71 - The Needs of the Living with Katie Thornton

LISTEN HERE - Episode 71


A special All Saints Day episode featuring Fulbright NatGeo Digital Storytelling Fellow, Katie Thornton, whose quest to look at cemeteries and death rituals has given her a greater appreciation of the kindness and needs of the living. Katie traveled to the United Kingdom and Singapore to produce “Death in the Digital Age,” a podcast exploring the relevance of cemeteries in an era when land is strained, communities are physically distant, and digital documentation is pervasive. She used writing, visuals and social media to share the stories of those working at the intersection of land use, public memory and technology. You read more about her Fulbright program here: https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2018/07/18/2018-19-fulbright-national-geographic-digital-storytelling-fellows-announced..


Christopher: You traveled the globe closely studying how people honor the dead, especially in today's crowded and increasingly digital world. What you found was neither depressing or macabre, but rather an uplifting series of deep connections and vivid lessons about the living. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Katie: When people depict cemeteries and memorial practices in a place like New Orleans is they talk about the second line parade, which is an incredibly beautiful public claiming of space. There's music, there's dancing, there's excitement, there's joy being shared about the person who has passed away. It's a public parade and it's a pretty profound space, grieving space, but it's the second line because it comes after the first line, which is the procession into the cemetery, which is mournful and sorrowful and there are tears and it is not joyous. And so I think that being able to give joy where it does exist and not deny it, but also recognizing that there is of course a sense of solemnity in every grieving process. It's a mixed bag of emotions. And to be able to acknowledge that that happens worldwide and across cultures is important for understanding our kind of shared humanity.

Christopher: This week, learning the complexity of history through the lens of cemeteries, making space to create deep conversations and the overwhelming kindness of strangers. Join us on an All Saints Day Journey from Minneapolis, Minnesota to London and Singapore in honoring the living by honoring those no longer with us. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves.

Katie: My name is Katie Thornton and I'm from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I've just returned from a Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. I was in England and Singapore. What I do is I study cemeteries and death spaces and death rituals and specifically I look at how they're changing, so especially in a world that's increasingly urbanized and transient, our cities are multicultural and we're so digitally connected, we have so many ways to digitally document and preserve the memories of the dead. So I asked how and where do we remember the dead in that context.

Katie: I have a personal interest in cemeteries and I have sort of an academic interest in cemeteries. My mom and I both at the same time came into pretty serious illness and I was kind of going through my days grappling with this reality of mortality, and it was kind of like a lens through which I viewed everything in my daily life. But I found it really isolating because I would go and take walks around Minneapolis, my home city where I've grown up my whole life and I didn't see this thing that was shaping my everyday experience reflected back in the built environment in any way.

Katie: It's like, humans need to eat. We see grocery stores or we see gardens. We see our needs and our realities reflected back in our physical space, but then there was this reality of death that felt impending to me in many ways and I didn't see it reflected back at me, and so I felt really alone, even though I knew it wasn't a solitary experience. I didn't feel like I knew how to find community or where to go. The only spot that I saw this reality of mortality reflected back at me was in a cemetery and I found it really comforting. So I started to take an interest in those spaces for personal reasons.

Katie: I studied history in college, but I really didn't like history when I was in middle school and high school. I thought that it was over-simplified. I thought that it was whitewashed, didn't look like the city and the population that I knew when we learned about something like our local history, so I never connected to history. It never felt very relevant or engaging to me. But as I learned more and more about local history in my home city, I started to see that it was much more engaging, much more interesting, and much more diverse and representative than we ever learned. And so I wanted to kind of tease out, what is this disconnect that history can be so fascinating and so meaningful, but the way we learn about it as often so dry and so irrelevant?

Katie: And I thought that cemetery spaces were interesting sites to kind of tease out a more complex history and a more interesting history. They're certainly not without exclusions. Absolutely people have been prohibited from cemetery landscapes implicitly or explicitly due to race, religion, inability to pay, any number of things. So they're certainly not without exclusions, but within that space you can begin to critically look at, okay, who is represented here and how? Who is not represented here? Why not? And it's just a sort of artistically and ecologically beautiful place to look at the complexity of history.

Katie: So with my Fulbright, the thing that I really appreciate about the Fulbright is that it gave me the opportunity to do this research. I hesitate to call it research because it was really based in conversation. It gave me the time to have those conversations in a meaningful way, in a way that felt honest, and to talk with people for long enough that I was certain that I could relay their stories in a way that felt honest to them as well.

Katie: I set out to learn what a cemetery looks like and where we go and how we remember the dead in this changing world, in this urbanized, digitally documented multicultural world. And I did that through doing some archival research and learning about the history of cemeteries in the places that I was going, but also primarily just through conversation. People let me in on some of the most intimate personal spaces, brought me into new memorial landscapes, let me in on new rituals.

Katie: And the reason that I chose England and Singapore is because to me, they offer sort of glimpse into the future of where I think a lot of our world is going. So they're both small islands, so they're inherently land-limited and very urbanized. They're both very multicultural and also really digitally documented. And so they're kind of ahead of the curve of where the US might be pretty soon. And those realities have already had pretty profound impacts on the memorial spaces. They're changing very rapidly.

Katie: When I got on the plane to start the project, that was definitely not the beginning of the project. So much work has to be done ahead of time. And something that I really value is the opportunity to research the hell out of where you're going, the topics that you're interested in learning about, thinking that you have a thorough understanding of it and then getting to your destination, having conversations and just being prepared to have that completely go to hell in a hand basket because you recognize that you are not the expert in these spaces and that people are an expert of their own experiences and you're there to learn from them. So I love having a well-laid plan, being very well-informed in terms of my research and then being completely surprised.

Katie: Some of the things that surprised me the most are one, how willing people were to speak with me and to bring me into really personal spaces, and something that I took away from this year was that death is a universal experience, but we don't really have space where we're encouraged to talk about it and be honest about it and I found that if you give people space to have those conversations, a lot of them will be pretty eager to do so.

Katie: In Singapore, two weeks into my time there, I had been in touch over email and on WhatsApp with somebody who a couple of people had recommended I talk to. He'd never met me before, but he immediately invited me to join him and his wife to visit a columbarium, where they hold ashes of the deceased, on his wife's mother's death anniversary. We've never met and they were just willing to bring me along because these spaces are changing so rapidly that in places like Singapore, they are often at risk of going away. The practices are at risk of being lost, and so they were willing to bring me in because I expressed an interest, a genuine interest to learn from them and to document some of what was going on.

Katie: One of the things that was a big takeaway from my time in England was a perspective that I gained on the US. In the US, we have a really persistent and ubiquitous idea of ownership of property. In the UK, in England, the majority of grave spaces are leased. No burial plots in London are owned at this point because there just isn't enough land to guarantee that people have this space forever. And then also, it makes burial space really prohibitively expensive if you're guaranteeing it supposedly forever. I know from working in cemeteries and funeral industry that nothing is forever anywhere. You cannot guarantee that. But in the US, I think we've become so attached to this idea of private property and private ownership forever and it's just not practical. It's not ecologically sustainable. It doesn't work when you have growing and changing populations.

Katie: I was really surprised that in the UK and in England where I was doing my research, people were very understanding of that. And in Singapore, even more so because there's such limited land. Burial in Singapore is only permitted for 15 years. And then if your religion allows, you have to be cremated after that time. And if your religion requires full body burial, then you have to actually consolidate and share a grave with seven other people after your 15 years in the ground. And it's not an easy thing to address. People aren't enthusiastic about this necessarily, but there's a lot of understanding because there's a kind of recognition.

Katie: Something that I heard repeatedly reiterated in England was, "We want to be sure that we're allocating space for the dead. We want to be sure that we're allocating space for cultural practice for the dead, but we also have a housing shortage for the living." And when we think about how we're going to allocate space, we need to take into account the needs of the living and ultimately the space to do death rituals and to honor the dead is also a need for a living, but how much space is going to be allocated to the physical remains of the dead rather than for the living?

Katie: I mean, I think cemeteries have almost never been places for the dead. How we honor the dead is for the living. For those who believe in a certain type of afterlife, there is a sense of making sure that needs are met, especially within Singapore. I saw that offerings are made so that needs are met in the afterlife, but so much of grief and memorialization and going to a physical space to memorialize is for the living, is to meet the needs of the living. And you look at this, you see this in cemetery imagery all the time. There's a photo that I took of a grave in a suburban London cemetery where there is a statue of a woman just draped over the tombstone, just clearly despondent. And that's really addressing, what is this person leaving behind? The focus is on the mourners, on the bereaved.

Katie: Being able to go to a physical space, it's not for the person who is no longer with us and is in the ground. It's to be able to find a way to tangibly connect with that loss and start to make sense of that loss. Sometimes that happens in a cemetery, sometimes that happens by taking a detour and going by somebody who's home on your way back from work or increasingly it happens by visiting their Facebook page. There are many different ways that this takes place, but memorial practice does incorporate the needs of the dead in some cultures and some traditions, but so often it's a space that meets the needs of the living at a time of enormous stress.

Katie: I think it's really easy for people to say, "Oh, the Victorian era cemeteries are beautiful. They have these beautiful monuments and they're public parks," but to just make that statement is to completely ignore the context in which they came up and who is represented there. It was absolutely a show of wealth. It was a space that was accessible by the wealthy, often by carriage, which it would cost more and take longer to take a carriage ride within London, for example, within Victorian era London, than to take a train to the cemetery 25 miles outside of this city that was where a lot of people were buried and their coffins were brought by train and to be able to recognize that those spaces are beautiful as well and they're incredibly, incredibly valuable to our store of record.

Katie: Yeah, so for a cemetery that is all flat markers, you can take a lawn mower over it, I don't necessarily think it is the most beautiful space. However, I do think having some sort of physical space to remember the dead is important and if that feels relevant and meaningful, I think we need that space. I also think, once again, cemeteries are always contextual, and even if I don't necessarily think that that flat marker, manicured grass cemetery is particularly beautiful, I also think it tells us a lot about the living. It tells us a lot about our history.

Katie: That style of cemetery emerged very much in the west coast of the US in the 1950s or so when values of efficiency were really important within US culture, and basically it's like we want to be able to mow this. We want to be able to clear this. And so that to me is like, maybe it's not the most aesthetically pleasing at first, but there's always more than meets the eye and you can always use them as a way to not just understand that people who are buried there and their lives, but to understand the context in which these cemeteries emerged to me makes them all the more fascinating. So I don't think there's a bad cemetery.

Katie: I think to be a foreigner doing such sensitive work takes a lot of humility and it takes a lot of willingness to be surprised. In Singapore, it's an English-speaking country, and I also have a background in Mandarin Chinese. The ethnic majority in Singapore is Chinese, and so this kind of enabled me to have conversations in a language that also felt comfortable in addition to English. I had a lot of really interesting interactions based on the fact that I could speak Chinese.

Katie: At least once a week, I'd be engaging in conversation in Chinese with somebody in a food court and somebody would be walking past, somebody who was Chinese, Singaporean, they would just stop dead in their tracks and then backtrack and throw a glance my way and then they would nod their head at me and be like, in Chinese, "You speak Chinese?" And I was just like, "Uh, yeah," and then I would continue the conversation and they would just watch and listen and then oftentimes it would be like, "Your pronunciation's not bad," and they'd walk away. And to me, it was a cool thing to be able to know that we had an inherently different relationship because I had made an effort and I think that's especially important no matter what kind of conversations you're hoping to have. But if you are asking people and giving people an opportunity to be vulnerable, I think it's important to show some deference.

Katie: Being on the Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship allows you to become friends with the people that you're working with and give that time that it takes to have those relationships be more than just an academic or interviewer, interviewee relationship. And so in that way, I felt that I was surrounded by friends at many times. My goal is to be a conduit for stories that people were willing to share with me throughout the year.

Katie: I met a gravedigger who had worked in an office, gone to work in a suit for 10 years and then was like, "You know what? I got to get out of this," and now he works in the cemetery and he loves his job. It's the first job he's ever loved. He talked to me for a long time about how the cemetery's the most beautiful place that you can go to work.

Katie: I think to deny the fact that there is humor and awkwardness at the time of death just robs everybody of our humanity. It robs the humanity of the person who's passed away. I mean, how often have you attended a funeral or visited a grave and just thought, "This is nothing like what this person was like"? Some of my favorite things that I ever see are really funny epitaphs or just memorials that feel accurate to people's experience.

Katie: I think I expected to find that older people would feel a specific way, would want to be remembered in a certain way and that younger people would want to be remembered in a different way. And that was totally not the case. There was not correlation across generation. I had a conversation with a woman, a 71 year old gardening volunteer in a cemetery in Bristol, England. She was very eagerly telling me about the new green burial plot that she had just purchased where she would go after she would die and she had become a part of the woodlands.

Katie: She said, "It doesn't matter if I drop here because I've got my plot there and they can just plunk me straight in," and she was just laughing about it and she loves going to the cemetery and she knew she was just going to be there forever sometime. And then she told me, "I'm not bothered if you don't come and stand by where I've been put in a hole. People that love you, it won't take a headstone for them to remember you." And it's so poignant across so many generations. There is just such a variety of opinion.

Katie: I had a similar experience producing a radio piece for National Public Radio about a family who worked with a local football club in London to have the ashes of their father placed beneath the field and how meaningful it was for them, and it was a really fun story to produce, which is something that a lot of people find surprising about the work is that it doesn't have to be somber all the time, and they were so happy with that piece as well. To me, there's no better feedback than that and that's why I do what I do.

Katie: I did fall and split my chin open while I was in Singapore and somebody told me it was because I was studying [inaudible 00:23:21] too much, which is the side of life that has to do with death within the young. I thought it was kind of funny. He said it as a bit of a joke, but it was like, "Okay, noted. Maybe I should be especially careful if I'm studying in this area." Also, something that I really loved about being in Singapore was how much there was a comfort with the idea that the dead were always with us.

Katie: Somebody told me about a cemetery pavilion. After the rest of the cemetery was cleared for development, this one pavilion stood and remained. It was the one remnant, physical remnant of the cemetery on the landscape after the cemetery had been cleared and then a bunch of residents in the housing that had gone up nearby after the cemetery was cleared called into the government that runs the housing and just said, "We keep seeing shadows in this pavilion." And apparently many people called and complained about shadows, so the government was like, "Okay, we'll take it down." And I was like, "Do ghosts influence infrastructure often?" And he was like, "Oh yeah, of course. Of course they do." And to me it was like, yeah, obviously the dead are just in some ways with us at all times, and I just loved the familiarity and the comfort that people spoke with.

Katie: I was out in a cemetery in England. I was visiting a place where six years ago, some technologists did a bit of an experiment where they did augmented reality over headstones and I met with these technologists and academics who wanted to try this project out as a way to say, "What sort of digital interpretation can we do in these spaces to complicate history?" We're going to use actors in this instance, but in theory people could pre-record their own and then you don't interfere with the historic landscape, but you can scan over and learn more. It's a really interesting concept.

Katie: And they did it as a sort of trial run in the cemetery with actors. And we went out six years later after it had been produced to view the augmented reality, and some of them worked, but others of them totally didn't work, and it was only six years later, but they didn't work because augmented reality relies on a visual trigger and the phone has to be able to recognize that it knows this image. And so at one grave, we scanned over it and it couldn't pick it up because the grave had weathered so much over the course of six years. When we used a picture of the grave from six years ago, it picked it up right away. And so it just made me realize that once again, this concept of permanence and this concept of immortality doesn't exist in our physical memorials. It doesn't exist in our virtual memorials, and in the same way that you have to upkeep a physical graveyard, you have to upkeep virtual memorials, too.

Katie: I think I was the beneficiary of extraordinary acts of kindness every day. It sits with me very heavily in a way because I feel like I don't know what I can possibly do to thank people. My hope and what I've found to be true thus far is that people find the work and the ways that I curate and present stories that they share with me, I hope that that can express my gratitude because I hope it's accurate and reflective and representative for them. And that's the feedback I've gotten thus far. And coming back to the US, one of the things that I'm so excited to do is to be a good host and to be generous in letting people into my life.

Katie: Every time I was welcomed into somebody's home felt so powerful to me. There was an instance where it was tomb sweeping day, which is a celebration in China and the Chinese diaspora where you go and you tend to the graves of the deceased. You make offerings. Traditionally in a cemetery space, you would bring food to the grave and you would share it with the ancestors, give time to let them enjoy it and then the whole family would have a feast at the grave site, and I think it's a really beautiful tradition. Increasingly in Singapore, there's only one cemetery that accepts burial because there isn't space, and so these traditions are changing a little bit. The food is brought to often where the ashes are stored, but then oftentimes the feast takes place at home.

Katie: This holiday, Qingming, is one of the only times in the year that somebody who I met through my work, his entire extended family gets together, and he invited me along to visit the remains of their family members, and then he invited me back to his brother's house to enjoy this feast. And it was a feast that had been given first to the ancestors and then we were able to enjoy it. And his mother told me how she spent hours and hours and hours preparing the tripe. And for me, that was just one of the most generous and kind moments in my whole year.

Katie: I am absolutely inspired to be a better host and to be generous in sharing and also to continue asking questions of people because I got a lot of feedback that many people were grateful to have an opportunity to share about some of these things that we're not encouraged to talk about. But one of the things that I did not expect to take away for many reasons was specifically around grief and mourning. So while I was in Singapore, my grandmother passed away and it was a completely new grieving experience for me for many reasons. One, I was not in a familiar place. I wasn't with her. I couldn't go see her. I couldn't go by her house and reflect. I couldn't go to the grave site.

Katie: But while I was in Singapore, people were so generously sharing with me traditions that make sense to them, and one of the things, even before I had lost my grandmother, my last grandparent, I was really struck by this idea that people would just go to the grave and pour someone a cup of coffee and be like, "You like coffee. We're here. We're drinking coffee. You get one too." And I just loved that so much. My grandma loved tea, and so being able to think creatively about, "Well, maybe I pour a cup of tea for her," and it felt at a distance, being removed from my family and my home, really comforting and I'm happy to have had an opportunity to see that.

Katie: When I am at home, I feel pretty comfortable being the only person in a cemetery because it's something I can relate to. It's something I'm familiar with. When I'm overseas, I don't always feel the most comfortable being the only person in the cemetery. I think they're really ... They're intended to be public spaces. That is the point for a lot of cemeteries, but I still feel that they're such important personal and cultural spaces that it is important for me to be invited in. There was only one instance in Singapore where I went to a memorial space alone and it didn't feel right. I knew that I had friends who had ancestors buried there, but I wasn't with any of those friends. I think it's important to be invited.

Katie: To me, the best feedback I can ever possibly get is hearing from somebody who I interviewed and worked with that they felt accurately represented, that the way I told the story was powerful and moving and relevant to them. There was an instance when I created a short audio feature that was featuring the voices of a group of artists in Bristol, England. It's a midsize city, like 500,000 people, 90 miles west of London, and at a cemetery there in this basement crypt every year this group of artists, three from Mexico, one from the UK and one from the US, come together to make an offer for Dia de Muertos, a shrine to the dead and altar to the dead. And then the community brings in their own photos and leaves offerings and it's a really big community event and it's really powerful.

Katie: It grows and grows every year, and I produced this audio piece and interviewed each of the artists and I had to bring it down to total of two and a half minutes, so everybody had very short features. I remember sending it out to them. It was one of the first pieces I made this year and just thinking, "Please, please, please let this be accurate." And I got really positive feedback, people telling me that they cried when they listened to it. They didn't know that it was going to be that powerful, that emotional, and I remember the first email that I got back from one of the artists, I just fell on my bed and I just sobbed. I was so grateful to be able to do that.

Katie: I got to see and visit and hear and feel so many different memorial spaces this year, but one of the ones that's coming to mind immediately when I close my eyes is the multisensory experience of going to the columbarium, the building that holds the ashes of the dead during Tomb Sweeping Day Festival within Singapore. It was so busy. It was so lively. Everybody was chatting. People were on their phones. People were taking photos. There were announcements going on in the background about where you could and could not burn incense because of environmental considerations, how you can access the new eco-friendly burner to burn offerings and just the heat from the fires and the cool air from the fans, the smells of the food that people were leaving out that their ancestors had loved so much and just the way it felt so alive. To me, I think we feel so confused at a time of loss because we're not permitted to feel alive, but life goes on even when it changes because of a death.

Christopher: 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's 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 ECA, and our stories come from participants of the US government-funded international exchange programs.

Christopher: This week, Katie Thornton shared stories from her time as a Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling fellow in London and Singapore. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 20.33. Leave us a nice review while you're at it, and 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. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. And check us out on Instagram @2233stories.

Christopher: Very special thanks to Katie this week for taking the time to tell us her stories. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Canada lo Rez by Pictures of the Floating World, Bloom by Jahzzar, [inaudible 00:36:48] by Podington Bear, Angels Garden by Lobo Loco, and five songs by Blue Dot Sessions, Delamine, Slim Heart, Bliss, A Simple Blur and Four Point Path. 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 70 - [Bonus] The Food We Eat, Part 10

LISTEN HERE - Episode 70


In this installment of food stories, we bring you tales from the United States, India, Portugal, El Salvador, China, and Egypt.


Chris Wurst: You're feeling hungry. You're feeling very, very hungry, perhaps a little thirsty too, and that music can mean only one thing. It must be the last 22.33 episode of the month dedicated to the food we eat.
Speaker 2: I remember once I decided to cook in the dorms, I made fajitas and I said, "Okay, let me cook like one, two kilograms of chicken, so I'll eat tomorrow and the day after as well and we share." But because people were smelling it in the dormitory, everyone ended up being in our dorms and like 16, 17 people eating altogether. Then the food wasn't even enough after all.
Chris Wurst: You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange and food stories. This week mangoes aplenty, ketchup to the rescue and just what the heck is this vegetarian hotdog made from? Join us on a journey around the world to tickle your taste buds. It's 22.33.
Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shape to who I am.
Speaker 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 [inaudible 00:01:54] (singing).
Speaker 5: One of the biggest things I'm going to miss are the mangoes. You can buy a mango here in the U.S., but I promise you it is not as good as the ones in India. We import them from all over India here, but honestly the ones that are the best are the ones you can get in India. The reason I can say that for a fact, is because the ones that you get in the grocery store, I would buy them and okay, maybe it's just my mind saying that these mangoes aren't as good.
Speaker 5: When I went to an Indian grocery store here in the U.S., there was a basket of mangoes sitting there. I said, "Okay, are these American mangoes or are these Indian mangoes?" I said, "You know what, I'll buy one, we'll see." I kid you not, exactly the same as in India, and so I said, "Okay, there's something, they know which ones are the best ones."
Speaker 5: You can buy mangoes for the price of apples here. It's just so, they're so abundant. There's a peak season in May where it's just, they're almost paying you to take these mangoes because there's so many of them.
Speaker 2: We like our food spicy. We like a lot of chillies, a lot of other spices, herbs in our biryani or in our beef curry or chicken curry. Our food is basically masala and oil. When I first went to the U.S., I was kind of like thinking, "Hey, I'm going to have like a McDonald's all the time, those are good," because we don't have fast food in our country. We always fancied burgers when I was in Bangladesh.
Speaker 2: When I went to the States, and all of a sudden I ended up in Iowa, or in the Southern part, where you can have some sort of like Mexican influence. The food was basically bland and having bland food, making me sick. I don't mean physical sickness, I mean it's more of a psychological because I was not getting any taste. My taste buds were basically getting lazy.
Speaker 2: What I used to do is, I used to love French fries and, and I used to enjoy hamburger and other things. The reason I enjoyed those is because I used to put ketchup in everything, so tomato ketchup was my savior. I used to use ketchup on hotdogs. I used to use ketchup on hamburgers. I used to use ketchup on everything that you can think of, even with rice. At one point my host mom was like, "Oh how are you doing that? That's eew!" I was telling her that, "Well how can you eat this like tasteless food?" I now look at myself and I see that, after coming back now, I am trying to get rid of all these spicy and oily food. I'm kind of like missing those bland food that I used to have when I was in the U.S..
Speaker 2: One morning I miss my breakfast because I woke up late. My host mom was out there in the garage, the car, the engine running, and I had to just run, get into the car. She was kind of upset that I was being lazy, and then I ended up in school and no breakfast. I was a little sad, not because I was hungry, because I don't care about food that much. I was kind of sad because, I let my host mom down. My friend, David, he came and he was a janitor who already helped me with my SAT test. David came and David is like, "Hey, why are you sad?" Then I tell him the whole story and then David is like, "Hey, you know what? Come on in. I got a corn dog, I'll get you a corn dog."
Speaker 2: He gets me to his office and hands me over a corn dog, and I'm like halfway through this corn dog and all of a sudden I realized that the meat does not taste like beef, does not taste like chicken, it tastes like something else. I asked David, "Is there meat in this corn dog?" David looks at me with disbelief and he says, "You never had a corn dog? Of course, corn dog has meat in it." I'm like, "What kind of meat is it?" He says, "Yeah, it's pork." As a Muslim, I'm not allowed to eat pork. I've never had pork, so having that, I mean, I'm a halfway through that corn dog. Also, being a Muslim, I never ever waste my food. I knew that this half eaten corn dog, nobody's going to eat it. I didn't say anything to David. David was asking me, "Why? Anything wrong?" I said, "No, no, it's all good."
Speaker 2: I finished that corn dog and as I was getting up, I thanked David. Then I told him that, "You know David, I'm a Muslim?" He's like, "Yeah, I know you're a Muslim." "Did you know that Muslims cannot have pork?" Then David just realized what he did and he was so apologetic, and he was just saying, sorry. I said, "You helped me, you helped me. You knew that I was hungry, you gave me food. In my religion if you're in dire need, you can eat anything, so that's okay. I just didn't want to waste the food, because it was your food if I wasted it, I would feel bad. You would feel bad, so I didn't want to do that, but thank you for sharing that food with me." After that, I actually made some jokes with, whenever I talked with David, I made jokes about that day. Yeah. It embarrasses him a little bit.
Speaker 6: I love, love, love Chinese food, and I think what was interesting was, I was very much used to the U.S. standard of Chinese food. Granted I grew up, sorry, I was born in California, so my mom loves different of Asian cuisine. I've grown up eating different types of Asian cuisine, but it's hard to find, especially Chinese food, it's hard to find authentic Chinese food in the States. I think what's very fascinating was that there's so many different types of Chinese food in China. There's Sichuan food, there's Uyghur food, which is like Muslim Chinese food. There is, Hunan food and there's like Hong Kong food is like completely different.
Speaker 6: One, the place that we love to go is like, there are a lot of Muslim noodle restaurants in China, all over. I don't eat pork, so those are usually like my go to places. I did eat pork while I was there just because I didn't want to limit myself from trying things. I didn't even know that there'd be an opportunity for me to have something that catered specifically to my diet.
Speaker 6: I would say a Uyghur restaurant and lamb, their lamb's like impeccably spiced. Some type of la mian, some type of hot noodle, freshly pulled noodle, but that's spicy. A fish, breads and yogurts are really good too and then rice obviously. Then you know the chopsticks. Also, yeah, I had to become, I was already good at chopsticks, but to become much better at using chopsticks. I love, everything in Chinese is family style. Nobody orders their own dish, you always order to share, which I wish we did in the States more. I'm such an indecisive person that it's great, because literally everybody orders one thing, but we're all sharing so you get like six different things.
Speaker 7: When I was with my host family, I wanted to try this vegan hotdog and everyone was saying it's not so good. I try it, and the sausage was really weird, because when I did the first bite, the taste was not so bad, it was okay. When I saw the sausage was a little bit green and I didn't know if it was bad meat or real vegan, and I had to ask and it was real vegan. It was something with vegetables.
Speaker 8: I really love burgers and I really love the burgers that you make here. The best burger you can get actually, I mean because we only have like a fast food brands and that sticking shake was kind of more traditional burgers. You can feel the taste that is not like too much, because everything is artificial in some way. It was like more natural, and you feel like a really good taste.
Speaker 8: Then like a really weird experience that we had is because we actually, a lot of us had [inaudible 00:12:03] so that is called root no, root something, root beer? A root beer, so we never taste that before. When we try it, we said that it was like toothpaste. It tastes like toothpaste for us because we are like, "Oh we're drinking toothpaste," we say, because it stays like the toothpaste that we use.
Speaker 9: We had one dinner on a sailboat, on one of the traditional sailboats, I forget the name of what it was. One of the ones that's been sailing, no, that style's been sailing the Nile for centuries. That was just an amazing food moment. Another one, one of my favorites that really comes to mind is, when we were in one of those just regular working class parts of Cairo, Zaineb took me to lunch. It was a koshari place. They have this food called koshari, which is a combination of rice and pasta and tomatoes and garlic and lime and vinegar and garbanzos. It's kind of a funny melange of things that's really, really popular. It's like fast food in Egypt.
Speaker 9: We went to this koshari place looking out on this little neighborhood square. I was the only one in anywhere near there who was from anywhere other than that part of Cairo. I don't know, there was something about that experience that eating koshari there for lunch, that just made me feel like I really was being welcomed in to Cairo as if I lived there. I have winged it making koshari on my own at home, but it's not the same as sitting in that spot there.
Speaker 5: I didn't realize how present the Irish, the great famine and also the legacy of poverty and oppression in Ireland, how present that is today in 2019. I love food. I have a history supporting small, diversified farms. I love farmer's markets, local ingredients, all that stuff, so I was really curious about learning more about Irish food culture and how the bogs may intersect.
Speaker 5: I was talking to this food historian in Ireland. I said like, "Sometimes when I come over and go back to the U.S. people want to know like, "What's the most like quintessential Irish meal? If I go, what should I try?"" Okay, you have like bacon and cabbage and stuff, but there isn't like a long list of amazing Irish dishes that you can share. I was kind of like asking him, "What am I missing? I must be like out of the loop or something." He said, "Well, what you're missing is the fact that Irish food culture is based in survival, not in celebration."
Speaker 5: If you think about Spanish or Italian food culture in these like gorgeous, sometimes delicate things or things that take time to prepare or that you only eat a little bit of them. Irish food culture has been about getting enough and surviving, because they were oppressed for hundreds of years. They suffered a famine, but that famine was so devastating because they were already on the brink of poverty because of the oppression.
Speaker 5: Yeah, some of my inquiries took me down this road of like exploring poverty and oppression in Ireland in a way, in moments I wasn't expecting. When you ask like, "What dish should I make?" It's like, "Well potatoes, because we were surviving for so long."
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. Our stories come from participants of the U.S. government funded international exchange programs.
Chris Wurst: In this episode, our taste buds were attempted by Ahmed Afotihi, Keller Hummer, Munaf Khan, Abena Amoako, Victor Ayala, Steve Coleman and Emily Toner. We thank them for their stories and their willingness to try new things.
Chris Wurst: Fore buddy ECA exchanges. Check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, you can do so wherever you find your podcasts. We'd love to hear from you. You can write to us @ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-T-O-R-Y. It's dave.gov. Did you know that complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33. Now you can follow us on Instagram @22.33_stories.
Chris Wurst: Special thanks this week to everybody for sharing their food stories, delicious or otherwise. I did the interviews and edited this segment. Featured music during this segment was Rio Pakistan by Dizzy Gillespie and Stuff Smith. Music at the top of each food episode is Monkeys Spinning Monkeys by Kevin McCloud, and the end credit music as always, is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus, until next time.

Season 01, Episode 69 - Prison Prayers with Yasin Dwyer

LISTEN HERE - Episode 69


Yasin Dwyer has lectured extensively on topics such as spirituality and the arts, Black Canadian culture and the history of Muslims in the West. He visited the United States as part of an IVLP group for Canadian leaders learning about American programs that work to support the developmental aspirations of youth, and as part of an interfaith relations IVLP group that included leaders from 17 different countries.    

Yasin was born in Winnipeg, Canada to Jamaican parents. Before joining the chaplaincy team at Ryerson University, in Toronto, he was a member of the multi-faith chaplaincy team at Queen’s University. Along with working alongside many non-profit organizations in North America and the Caribbean, Yasin was the first Muslim chaplain to work with the Correctional Service of Canada, a position he held for 12 years. He is also a board member of the Montreal-based Silk Road Institute, which is dedicated to expressing Muslim narratives through the visual, auditory and performing arts.


Christopher W.: You attend to matters of faith for people who have committed serious crimes. They trust you and you believe in them and their path of improvement. You are neither prisoner nor policeman but a spiritual guide walking a path between both, a true man of peace. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Yasin D.: I called for an Uber in Atlanta. The Uber driver pulled up and it was a lady. And when I heard her speak, a Southern lady, she had a very Southern accent. We were chit chatting and, "So where are you from?" I said, "Oh, I'm from Canada and I am from Manitoba." And then she began saying, "Oh, there's a lot of first nations up in Canada, right?" I said, "Yeah. The [inaudible 00:01:04], the Prairie provinces, the Dakota," all of these. And then she said to me, "I'm actually part Indian." She began and she started telling me her story. And I said, this is great, we're having a nice conversation, I have Uber driver. This is the natural. So then, the conversation got kind of strange because it kind of entered into a spiritual space. She started saying, "You know what? I'm really into really native Indian spirituality." I said, "Oh, yeah?" She said, "Yeah, so much so that I believe I have a gift. I can speak to animals." That's what she said to me.

Yasin D.: I'm in this... and again, when she said that, I thought to myself, okay, now this is going to be a really interesting ride and I started looking at the route I was supposed to take and I'm thinking, where is she taking me? Am I going to the mall? Where am I going? But anyway, she started speaking about this and talking about her gift. And when I felt a bit more settled, I said, "Well, everyone has a particular gift." We're all born with the gift, it's just that people have to actually... they have to discover, they have to mine that gift. And I said, "Well, your gift is that you're able to communicate with animals," I said, "like prophet, Solomon." In the Islamic tradition, we're taught that prophet Solomon was able to communicate with animals.

Yasin D.: And she said, "Oh, yeah? Really?" I said, "Yeah, you're like prophet, Solomon." So finally, we arrived to the mall and she said, "Look, I want to tell you something." I said, "This is the best Uber ride I've ever had." "I want to thank you, son. Thank you so much. And God bless." I said, "God bless you too, ma'am." I will always remember the Uber driver who can speak to animals. Yeah.

Yasin D.: Maybe she can.
Yasin D.: Maybe she can. No, I believed her.
Yasin D.: Yeah.
Yasin D.: I believed her.

Christopher W.: This week, finding common ground in difficult conversations, finding faith behind bars and a very special first visit to a mosque. Join us and journey from Canada across the border to the United States and reflecting on fighting violence with love. It's 22.33.

Speaker 4: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 5: These exchanges shape to who I am.
Speaker 6: 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 [inaudible 00:04:01]...
Speaker 7: (singing).

Yasin D.: My name is Yasin Dwyer, and I am from Canda. I work for an organization called Muslim Chaplaincy of Toronto based at Emmanuel College on the campus of the University of Toronto. So professionally, I am a chaplain and I visited the United States through the IVLP program in 2016 as part of a Canadian delegation to speak about issues that revolved around youth violence and the response of religious communities to this phenomenon.

Yasin D.: Well, I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My mother and father are from Jamaica. I was the first of four siblings who were actually born in Canada. The rest of my brothers and sisters were born in Jamaica. In my late teen years, I began to explore religion. Growing up in a Methodist household, we always had religious values, but I went through a few changes and I actually became Muslim and I was always interested in Islamic education, working and contributing within the Muslim community. It took me overseas to actually study the Arabic language, study Islamic sacred law. And eventually, when I returned I found myself really by accident in a position of mentorship within the Muslim community. And it eventually got me involved in work with prisoners in our federal prison system and our provincial prison system as a volunteer providing support. And because of my experience as a volunteer working with this particular population, I was asked to apply and eventually hired as Canada's first full time Muslim chaplain.

Yasin D.:So I was responsible for programming, for mentorship, for educational programming, advising the administration about religious and spiritual accommodation in a prison context. And that is actually what brought me to the IVLP program. It was through my work, working with inmates that were convicted of violence related offenses.

Yasin D.: The exchange was in the summer of 2016 and we immediately got into a series of sessions in order to be educated about how America actually works politically, which actually was really interesting to me because I think we sometimes take for granted the political system in America. And actually, it's very interesting. There are so many checks and balances that I wasn't really aware of even as a Canadian. Sometimes, there's this stereotype that Americans know very little about the rest of the world, in some cases, it's very true, but Canadians are not usually accused of not knowing a lot about America or the rest of the world. But actually, I realized that we really don't know a lot about how the political system in the U.S. Actually works, and that was a really exciting part of the Washington DC portion of the trip. We were able to get a really, really good lesson on how America works politically. And we had some really open and candid conversations about what could be better and what works. So that was really exciting.

Yasin D.: And comparing it to the Canadian system. We had a lot of really exciting conversations about that. And as well, it was 2016, the summer, so it was during a very exciting time in the U.S. So along with getting educated about the political system, we would oftentimes meet the morning after one or a few of the debates that happen. It was such a polarizing time and there were a lot of unorthodox things being said and thrown around in the name of politics. I personally found that really exciting to be here, especially in Washington DC during that time, and just to kind of feel the energy and to feel the excitement and in some cases, feel the concern about what the future held for America.

Yasin D.: We eventually moved on to Riverside, California. We moved on to Atlanta, Georgia, or as we discovered, they say, Lana. My first thought was to find some shrimp and grits and we also met with a lot of political leaders, some leaders of some nonprofit organizations in Atlanta. And then we moved on to Chicago.

Yasin D.: The trip was an exchange between Americans and Canadians. I was always very proud when I mentioned that I was a Canadian and I would receive such a warm welcome because Canadians have the stereotype, the positive stereotype of being generally friendly, very folksy, right? So I was very happy to receive greetings and welcome to our Canadian brothers and sisters. Again, also proud of the fact that we were able to project the best of our country in a very difficult discussion about violence and how to address youth violence. I was proud of the fact that as Canadians, we do have some very creative ways of approaching the phenomenon of youth violence and I was proud that we could make those contributions and that we were listened to and taken seriously.

Yasin D.: We had a lot of discussions about this phenomenon called CVE, countering violent extremism. Now I personally have some concerns with the trajectory of the discussion and I felt that coming here to have those discussions would give legitimacy to some of the assumptions that are made about CVE. The concern that I had was that CVE was a discussion that focused primarily on Muslims, at least that was how it was projected. But I was pleasantly surprised when I came and spoke with a lot of representatives. They were aware of some of the contradictions in the language that is used around CVE.

Yasin D.: So what I did take back was an understanding that perhaps, the stereotypes that we have of the discussion of CVE happening in political circles in the U.S., those discussions were not as nearsighted as I thought, that there actually was a very open and vigorous discussion happening about the nature of violence and why certain people are motivated to use violence in order to solve their particular political grievance or issue.

Yasin D.: And now, even three, four years later, I realized that, okay, the openness to that discussion of CVE and where it can apply actually does not only apply to Muslims because even in Canada, our intelligence agencies have admitted that actually, their number one concern concerning politically motivated violence comes from right wing extremist circles. This is not a discussion that focuses on only the Muslims, right? So that was a pleasant surprise for me because I came into this with a lot of assumptions about what do these folks really want to talk to us about? It was actually an opportunity to share really, because it wasn't a one-sided discussion. As Canadians, we were able to offer our own experience to certain representatives with the government to say that, well, actually, this is our experience. What I found positive about it and what I took back from it is that, okay, there was actually a two-way discussion going on and I found that really refreshing.

Yasin D.: I worked with the correctional service of Canada and I worked with many offenders who were convicted of violence related offenses and also offenses that related to terrorism. Now as a chaplain, I'm really interested to understand who I'm working with, to understand what motivated this particular offender to commit the offense that they committed. If someone enters into a prison and they're convicted of a violence offense, they're convicted of an offense that relates to sexual violence, you want to understand why. And also, they're given a correctional plan that speaks to that particular offense. With many of the offenders that I worked with who were convicted of these types of crimes, ideologically motivated violence, there wasn't really a discussion concerning why they did what they did. I want to know why.

Yasin D.: Because of the polarizing nature of the discussion, a lot of people don't want to know why, throw these folks in prison and throw away the key and just forget about them. Well, as a chaplain, no, I'm in this sacred space and I have to offer the inmates I work with something that will give them life.

Yasin D.: I came across a book by Steven Pinker's. It's called The Better Angels of our Nature. Steven Pinker's is a psychology professor at Harvard, I believe, and I believe he actually may be Canadian, big up Canada. And he came to this conclusion, and I'm not sure why we needed a doctor from Harvard to tell us this, but he says the reason people are motivated to violence is this overwhelming feeling of being wronged and not having an outlet to grieve or not having anyone to listen to them or not having the sense of being wronged addressed. And when you look at a lot of those that are caught up in religiously motivated violence, you can see that this is a common theme, there's some grievance that they have and they were not able to do what? To address that grievance in a way that they felt satisfied.

Yasin D.: This is not to justify religiously motivated violence, but it's to understand why. We have to be tough on crime, but we also have to be tough on the causes of crime too, right? It's a really awkward and difficult conversation and coming from Canada, coming to Washington DC and talking about politics and its relationship with religiously motivated violence, and it seems like many of those whom we interacted with were actually listening.

Yasin D.: Prison is, by its very nature, a very polarizing environment and there are a lot of trust issues, a lot of credibility issues. So of course, you have to earn that trust and earn that credibility. And as a chaplain, you're kind of in this safe, sacred space. You're not an inmate and you're not the cops, right? You're in this neutral space. In fact, the slogan outside of our chapel was Enter in Peace. So it is safe, neutral, sacred territory. So we had the advantage of accepting inmates as they were, that this space was a space where they didn't have to, as they say, front, they didn't have to be overwhelmed or consumed with the psychology of prison. But they could just be themselves, and they could search and they could try their best to find meaning to their incarceration through spirituality, through my visible presence, through my consistency and through showing that indeed, I am here to help, to facilitate your spiritual growth. My credibility increased. I was trusted. And then, the inmates could then begin to walk comfortably upon the spiritual path that they chose.

Yasin D.: Prison is more or less a microcosm of the outside, that who you see in prison is who you see outside of prison. When it comes to religion in prison, inmates are trying to do their time without the time doing them. So they oftentimes find themselves coming to the chapel to bring meaning to their life as a prisoner. And in the Islamic tradition, we have this idea of [inaudible 00:00:20:00], which means retreat. And I always remind the prisoners that I work with that they need to look at their incarceration as an extended [inaudible 00:00:20:11], an extended retreat where they learn how to speak to themselves. And I noticed that when it's too quiet, sometimes, people get a little agitated. And I have a theory about that. My theory is that most of us kind of have a monster inside of us that we don't like to listen to.

Yasin D.: Well, prison is an opportunity to actually learn how to speak to that monster and learn how to control it, regardless of the religious tradition that you follow, especially in a prison, you have to actually go through this process of learning how to speak to yourself and connect, connect to the sacred.

Yasin D.: One thing I did is I tried my best to deal with people exactly as they are. One of the problems that we have is we make a lot of assumptions about people and we expect people to fit into a very neat box and we do this thing called spiritual bypassing. If someone is dealing with difficulty or trouble, we'll offer them some very clever spiritual saying and think that it's all good. But no, people are carrying a lot of pain, they're carrying a lot of trauma. We have to be willing to improvise and willing to allow people to be who they want to be. If you don't provide people that safe, spiritual space, we'll then, you're not actually helping them arrive to where they need to arrive. You're actually acting as an impediment towards that.

Yasin D.: Well, I entered this work thinking that I was going to serve the inmates, but what I discovered after a long period of time is that they were actually helping me. I could, at the end of every day, walk out of this prison. I could actually walk out and go back to my family, go back to my loved ones, and I was able to be thankful and not take for granted my own freedom, my own access to my family. It really was an eyeopener for me. And as well, I was able to take my own spirituality much more seriously because there are many inmates that I worked with who had discovered religion and discovered spirituality in prison. And many of the inmates that I worked with, specifically Muslim inmates, they had never actually practiced Islam outside of prison.

Yasin D.: I was approached by one particular inmate who was a lifer. He accepted Islam maybe in year 11 of his incarceration. He approached me and said that he was given permission to go on an ETA, an extended temporary absence, to visit his mother. He had done well in his sentence and he had earned the right to leave the prison to visit his mother. So he asked if I would accompany him. I said, "Yeah, of course." So we booked a vehicle and we began our journey. And you know when you travel with people, you get to talk and you enter into certain areas that you would never enter into if you weren't traveling. So we travel, travel, travel. But of course, as Muslims, there are certain times a day where we pray. It was the early afternoon, and we have a prayer called Zhuhr, it's the early afternoon prayer. And we had to stop at a mosque, and there's a mosque that I always stop at on my way from the prison to my home.

Yasin D.: I pulled in to the mosque and I said, "Oh, yeah, we have to make our prayer." And I noticed that he was somewhat hesitant to come out of the car. And then it dawned on me that he's never actually been to a mosque before. I slipped for a moment because I'm so used to just going into the mosque, knocking out my prayer, and then I bounced, right? But I realized, oh, he's never actually been to a mosque. So we walk into the mosque and he said, "Well, do you have to make your ablution? Do you have to wash before prayer?" I said, "Yeah." So he went to wash before the prayer and our ablution involves washing certain parts of your body and it usually takes no more than a few minutes. But he was very, very meticulous about washing every part of the body that he had to wash.

Yasin D.: And he finally finished and we had to walk up the stairs to the prayer area of the mosque. As we walked up the mosque, we heard children reciting the Qur'an. So you can imagine the visual, we're walking up a long flight of stairs and as we get closer and closer and closer to the door to the prayer area, we're hearing the sound of children reading the Qur'an louder and louder and louder. He said, "What's going on?" I said, "No, it's a Qur'an school and the kids are learning the Qur'an, which is our holy scripture." He said, "Wow, that's really nice." So finally, we open the door and you hear this symphony of sound coming out. And he's like, he's just looking around and it's a beautiful mosque too, a nice chandelier, beautiful carpet, a long way away from a prison cell, right?

Yasin D.: So I said, "Okay, let's go to a corner," because we couldn't wait for the congregational prayer. We had to pray on our own because we had a very tight schedule. So we went to a corner of the mosque. We began our prayer, and we begin our prayer saying, " [foreign language 00:25:52]," which means God is the greatest, God is greater than anything, and I began the prayer. And as I begin the prayer, which at that time of day, is a silent prayer, all I could hear beside me to my right was this man who had been incarcerated for all of these years crying. He was just sobbing. Okay.

Yasin D.: So we finally finish our prayer, we get our shoes, we walked back downstairs and walked back to the car and we sit in the car and I say, "Okay," I have to put my chaplain hat on. "Okay, we have to unpack this now, okay?" Tears, tears are some sort of breakthrough. And I said, "Okay. All right, do you want to talk about that?" And so he said to me, "All the years I've been in prison, all the years I've been locked up, all I've ever thought about or dreamed about was praying in a mosque." That's all he said, then he went to his mom's.

Yasin D.: That obviously was an opening for him, a spiritual opening for him. But the way I felt? I passed by this mosque all the time. I don't think anything of it. So I learned from him and from a lot of the inmates that I work with to really appreciate the moments that I have that I own, that God has gifted me, to be free, to have access to my family, my children, my friends, my loved ones, and to have access to my sacred spaces, I'm able to have a deeper appreciation for all of that and just be a thankful servant.

Yasin D.: Well, it starts with young people and I think I would make sure that young people have a greater understanding of what empathy is all about, that we need to cultivate more empathy. And I think our elders play a great role in that because knowledge is one thing, but wisdom and insight are another thing. And wisdom and insight can only be discovered through experience. The reason we have to take lessons from our elders is not because they're always right, but because they have more experience in being wrong. So I think young people need to learn empathy because I think the failings of many of us as elders relates to a lack of empathy for people suffering, their pain, the trauma that they've gone through, the hurt that they feel.

Yasin D.: So I would encourage young people to be empathetic and do their best not to harm anyone. Don't be responsible for putting people through pain. Try to bring people the good news in whatever situation that you can, think the best of people because then, your vision will be transformed. We have to teach our young people that they have to have an eye to always see the best in people and to always extract something good. And if someone is hurt or traumatized or in pain, we should have enough social intelligence to be able to address it and to be able to provide a platform for people to heal. At least as a chaplain, that's how I'm looking at things.

Yasin D.: My slogan is, keep your heart busy with God and keep your hands busy with the people.

Christopher W.: 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.

Christopher W.: This week, Yasin Dwyer talked about visiting the United States as a participant in the International Visitor Leadership Program, better known as IVLP. For more about IVLP and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, and leave us a nice review while you're at it, and 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 dot gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. And you can check us out and follow us on Instagram at 22.33 stories.

Christopher W.: Special thanks to Yasin for his work and amazing stories. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was The Yards, White Filament and Wind in the West by Blue Dot Sessions, Where It Goes by Jahzzar and Will I Ever See Another Sunrise by Kai Engel. Music at the top of this episode was "Sebastian" by How The Night Came, and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. Until next time.

Yasin D.: We did it?
Yasin D.: Yeah. Great story.


Season 01, Episode 68 - [Bonus] The Art of Life

LISTEN HERE - Episode 68


From a high school exchange student in to a museum expert creating her own high-level exchange, Jane Milosch recounts the path that led to her love of Germany and bringing together some of the top art museums in the world.


Christopher Wurst: When you first traveled to Germany as an exchange student almost 40 years ago you could not have known then that you were embarking on an international experience that would span decades and lead to the creation of your most unique exchange between some of the most famous museums in the world. You are listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Jane Malash: One thing that really sort of defines me I think now is Art Is Life and beauty was integrated into all aspects of life there in a way that I'd never seen in the United States. Whether it was the house that was being built, the table that was being laid, the clothing that was being put on, every individual object had meaning and it was an expression of who you were and who you are or what you like. And just because one person liked one thing and someone else didn't like it didn't denigrate it. That's how I ended up in the arts, I have to say, was I had a whole another definition of what was art. I learned the art of life.

Christopher Wurst: This week, tracing the stories of objects of art, jumping between East and West Berlin and creating the conditions for museums to do the right thing. Join us on a journey from Iowa in Michigan to Germany and back again and again, and again to learn the art of life. Its 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.

Jane Malash: These exchanges shaped who I am.

Speaker 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 ...

Speaker 4: (singing)

Jane Malash: My name is Jane Malash, I'm currently the director the Smithsonian Provenance Research Exchange Program, which is nested within the Office of International Relations at the Smithsonian. It's a program that started about three years ago and I am delighted to be leading it into it's final event this fall.

Jane Malash: My first exchange student experience was as a rotary exchange student and I was in Gudeslao in Northern Germany. The second program was the Fulbright--Hayes Fellowship program which they have for people who are done with your undergraduate, heading into graduate school. You can apply for a year to study overseas and I did that at the Ludwig Maximilian Universitat in Munich for a year and also worked at the Munich Art Academy as well.

Jane Malash: I was assigned to oversee the Smithsonian's Holocaust Era Provenance Research Project. 20 years ago we were mandated to look at our collections and see and make sure we didn't have anything that had passed through hands illegally during the Holocaust.

Jane Malash: Looting has happened throughout all time, history and culture. It's when objects are removed from their original origin of context through either natural disaster, through wars, for a variety of reasons things are removed. And so these objects are dispersed around the world and when you are the head of a museum and you have a public collection it's your duty to know where these objects came from and your job is to tell the story of those objects. And Provenance Research is about object biographies in a sense, telling about that work of art from the time of it's creation, or cultural object, from the time of it's creation to tracing the history to the present. The hands that it passed through, the places that it traveled, the documents, where it documents it's travels.

Jane Malash: t's a very fascinating story and for art museums I believe this is very important and exciting because it's what connects us to the art. I mean that's what makes the art matter, is that it's of deeper importance than the substance from what ... it's a ceramic object, it's a silver object. No, it has a story. Somebody made it, somebody gave it to someone or someone sold it and someone exhibited it, traveled a variety of places. Why did they do it? Was it a great piece of art? Was it something that just had a great pedigree because of who chose to own it and share it or not share it? Kept it hidden? It's really tracing the history of ownership from the time of creation to the present and more importantly connecting human beings with those objects and those cultural stories.

Jane Malash: The thing that makes the Holocaust Era our provenance research so complicated are a variety of things, but the looting to the scale at which it was done was so enormous and the destructions of human lives was so enormous so that it makes piecing back the stories of the history of the looting that occurred during the Nazi Era extremely difficult. Thankfully, some people were able to leave Germany, escape from Germany and many of these were artists, writers, composers, collectors, dealers and they started their lives anew in the United States. Some of them just they had to leave everything behind, some are still trying to get things back and then some people lost their lives. That's the most tragic thing and I think that's the thing that everyone felt immediately after the war. I think they were happy to be alive, but then there's this attempt to really right the wrongs of the past as much as we can.

Jane Malash: We can't right them all, but we certainly try to address it through our study of the past and when it comes to museums what we own, we should be telling these stories. What can we learn from it today? What does this mean? And that's really powerful stuff, it's very powerful stuff and so it contextualizes the object and the people and the facts.

Jane Malash: And now as a administrative program director I had this opportunity to create something. I had a great mentor, Dr Richard Kurran, who is the ambassador at large at the Smithsonian. He encouraged me to pursue whatever I needed that I thought would improve our Holocaust Era Provenance Research work at the Smithsonian and I had a senior advisor named Laurie Stein who had had a lot of German-American exchange experience as well. So I went to Germany with her and it made me think about my German-American exchange experience that we needed to be working together and talking about the idea of this exchange. And she kept saying, "What's the scholarly purview here? What's the research topic?" I'm like, "There is no topic. It's just about the people." And I said, "Look, there's so much work getting done in Germany on the Holocaust Era. People here are doing it, but they want to do more, but they don't know how. They don't know who to turn to, how do we share this confidential information. But we don't have any money, we need big money."

Jane Malash: And so Bertram Fulmuncker I think he was the cultural attache at the time said, "Oh, I know just the fund." And he sits down to his computer and he types something in and he goes, "The German Program For Transatlantic Encounters." And I said, "I have never heard of that." And he goes, "I know, because it's only available in German and they don't have a website."

Jane Malash: This was an offshoot of money from the Marshall Plan that was there to promote exchange around things involving World War Two, post-war and about promoting good stories, media, impacting the public, engaging students. And so that began the journey and I was so amazed because, I'll just say this being in Washington, I was told when I arrived in Washington, "Don't tell people your ideas too soon because they'll shut it down before it happens."

Jane Malash: Well, luckily I wasn't that jaded at that point, or maybe I just didn't care. We just started telling people our idea and then my colleague said it's got to be Berlin. It's the Berlin State Museums, the Prussian Cultural Foundation are the two largest cultural institutions in the world. So we formed a partnership with them, so we got the seven partners together, which now include the Metropolitan Museum Of Art New York, the Getty Research Institute in LA, the Berlin State Museums, the Dresden Art Galleries as well as Munich, the Institute for [german 00:09:22] which is the preeminent place for art history. And we launched it in 2017 at the Met.

Jane Malash: What it does is bring colleagues together to meet once a week in Germany and once a week in the U.S and discuss these issues around Holocaust Era Provenance Research.

Jane Malash: What I thought that I would get going over there, as a Rotary Exchange student, I definitely got what I thought I was going to get over there, which was I wanted to speak German fluently and without an accent. So by the time I left that was pretty closely true. But I had no idea the education I would get to another culture, to human beings that were kind to me that didn't have to be kind to me, families. So I got to be a part of four different people's families and that's a really amazing thing. Nobody has to invite you into your home and the seriousness in which all of this was taken. This wasn't anything light, this was not a light decision like, "Oh, let's just have an American come." It was, "Let's invite someone into our home. Let's learn more about America." So it was a very unbelievably intimate experience, the patience with which they answered all of my questions, but hearing their side of what happened during World War Two, how it impacted their lives, their families. Far more complex than I had ever could've imagined. They changed my life.

Jane Malash: If I can do small percentage of what they gave me, in fact I had the pleasure of telling them that recently when I started this German-American exchange for museum professionals that, "My experience with you opened up my world." I think that what always astonished me in what I do now at the Smithsonian all the time is that I deal with philanthropy in a sense. We have these cultural institutions that benefit many other people because some individuals who have been blessed with a lot of things decide that they want to share them with other people. Feels good to share and that's exactly what happened there as an exchange student, 1982 to '83.

Jane Malash: The second host family I lived with, as I said, they didn't have any children. Well, they did, they were gone. And so I just kind of became an only child which was kind of fun because I grew up with four kids, we were all a year apart. So suddenly all of their attention was on me, it was great. And I walked into their house for the first time and I looked to the right and I saw this big photograph of a huge sailboat. Essentially a yacht, a big boat. And I said, "Wow, that's a beautiful picture." Thinking it was a photograph of someone's boat and they went, "Oh, that's our, are you seaworthy?" And I just said, "Yes."

Jane Malash: Of course I'd never been on a sailboat. As it turns out they were big sailors and they had a sailboat on the northern island of [Feman 00:12:32] in Germany and so through the summer we sailed the Baltic Sea and I'll never forget when we sailed into Stockholm, Sweden and I thought, "No one would believe that not only did I sail into Stockholm, Sweden on this beautiful boat with all these Germans, we docked right near the art museum." I got out of the boat, walked into the art museum, stepped into the museum and I think that, "Gosh, I wonder whatever happened to our high school Swedish exchange student Arnee who lived with Julie?" I look up and there is Arnee. How is that possible?

Jane Malash: That very moment, I mean and that's the lesson, anything can happen at any moment. But the chances of me ever meeting him, I wasn't supposed to have this family, how would I be on a sailboat? We had a storm, we were delayed getting into the harbor and I hadn't communicated with Arnee in a long time, but he was one of the reasons we had a lot of exchange students in our high school. And so there he was and then my host parents said, "Would he like to sail with us?" And I thought ... he said, "Sure." So I just thought, "If my friends back home knew that I was sailing in this boat into Sweden, into Stockholm, hanging out with Arnee, nobody would believe anything."

Jane Malash: For the Fulbright I stayed with Frau and Herr Kortseuz. They began to refer to me as their daughter and then they met my other Fulbrighter and she was a daughter. They also had a summer winter house in MIttenwald and so they said, "Well, you have to come to MIttenwald with us." I'm like, "Okay." Where I learned to mountain climb, to cross country ski. They literally within a month took me into their family.

Jane Malash: Because we were in Bavaria there was also along tradition of a partnership between the art history and the forestry department. And so they would have an [german 00:14:42] a little exchange in which the art historians would go to some area of Bavaria and talk about the baroque churches in that town. Sort of deconstruct them and talk about them. And then the forestry students would take us into the forest and tell us about the history of the woods.

Jane Malash: It was absolutely fascinating. But again, if you look at the origins of Gothic architecture and also even the Bavarian baroque, it comes from the place. From the architecture of the place, which is the landscape and it's the trees and it's the nature. So only the Germans, only in Bavaria does this thing still exist. And I'll never forget because they had one of those huge Bavarian Yak horns and it was huge, long and they all decided that I was going to be the spokesperson for the art historians. I think they just got such a kick out of that, that this American was along, so I actually had to thank the forestry students on behalf of all the art historians and then I got to play the pipe, I mean blow the Yak horn. It was amazing, standing in this remote area of Bavaria and I'm the only American for mile.

Jane Malash: I mean it's just so surreal, surreal. I mean really, those guys have deep lungs, but if you're climbing up and down all those mountains all the time, you build up a lot of lung power.

Jane Malash: I had to make a choice to continue on in studio art or embrace art history and we were having our art history classes for the first time in museums. And I remember thinking, "Oh my gosh, I never thought about who put those paintings on the wall or put those objects there." And I just fell in love with art history standing in front of the object with other people. A great art exhibition, actually if it's done well, brings those objects and stories so much to life that you forget, in a sense, where you are because you're walking through a visual story. All of these objects have relation in scale to human beings and who we are.

Jane Malash: The first thing that I felt very proud about being a Fulbrighter studying art history was when we actually had to give our first presentation in front of a Paul Clay painting in the museum. And it was in a color theory class, so the idea was sort of to deconstruct the color that Paul Clay used in the painting and then what was the artist trying to achieve, what was the impact. And I was really nervous because I'd never done that in front of my fellow students.

Jane Malash: I'll never forget standing in front of that painting and giving my talk and then leading a conversation about it and it went like twice the length and nobody made me feel uncomfortable. It was just such a powerful feeling that I had the command of the language, not only in the sense of just being able to speak it and talk it and read it, but to actually communicate another thing. Something beyond what the impact of Paul Clay's artwork and why. So there was the analytical and the intuitive and that to me was a real triumph, to be able to communicate that. And I would say that continues to also drive my work in the arts as I have a great love of art and design.

Jane Malash: While I had art history in Munich, our Fulbright meeting was in Berlin and it was still East and West and I was in one the museums in Dalem waiting for a phone and there was a long line as there often was. And there was some woman ahead that was just discourteous towards everybody and so she just stayed on forever. So I finally got on and I thought, "Okay, I'm calling my German host sister." And we spoke German and English back and forth, and so I explained, "Well, there's a lot of people behind all of us, it's not ..." And then the next person came up, she goes, "Are you German or American?" I said, "I'm American." She goes, "Are you an art historian? You're in a museum." I said, "Well, as a matter of fact I'm studying art history, I'm in Munich." She goes, "Do you need a job?" I said, "Well, we can't really work but we have a break coming up." She goes, "Well, the State Department needs German or American art historians to tour people through this new exhibit in East Berlin." And she goes, "Do you want me to see if they still need people?" I said, "Yes."

Jane Malash: The next day I interviewed with the State Department representative. Then it turns out I was able to stay in someone's apartment in Berlin and so I went over everyday for a month between East and West Berlin. And it was amazing because my German host family had a family that they were friends with in East Berlin so I got to hang out with them because I had a special passport through the State Department.

Jane Malash: So it was a rare thing, while I didn't have any money to travel in Eastern Europe like all my other friends who were Fulbrighters, I ended up working in East Berlin for a month and actually spending time with a family. When we went back to Berlin to start this German-American foundation I was in buildings that I could remember from the East, the whole thing. So it's really, for me, the fact that we ended up partnering with Berlin is a full circle. Through my Fulbright it was working with the Fulbright director there to help form and shape this thing, but the Rotary Exchange student taught me this. The important thing of being also being able to laugh together and just be together, not always intensely. And the Holocaust's a horrible thing, a horror, how do you even start with that?

Jane Malash: But when you meet other human beings you can start to share stories of other kind and then you develop trust and then you can share things through that trust.

Jane Malash: It was very gray. Everything was very gray, but people were moving anyways. I didn't think people were suffering but I didn't understand why, I mean I couldn't imagine what it would be like standing in line. Everything felt frozen in time and at the same time, if I didn't work with these individuals and I just did my job and left I wouldn't have gotten to know the joy of music, playing with the children. It sounds all very simple, but still, Berlin was such a great city. Remnants of these buildings, the museum, still existed but it was just a strange place. You didn't feel safe, you didn't feel free, every time you went over the border you didn't know what was going to happen.

Jane Malash: The Friedrich Strasse is where I went over every day and it just so happens that's next to one of the main administration buildings, so I spent so much time at that exact same location and that was surreal. Because now it's totally hustling, bustling, that part of East Berlin looks like New York in certain ways because they've built it all new based on a whole new model. I just sometimes can't believe I'm in East Berlin until I look up at that train station, I realize, "Oh my gosh. That's where the German dog, German shepherd was sniffing through and all the different things." And the streetcar is still there, that's the other thing.

Jane Malash: Oh, Munich was all sunshine. Munich was big, blue skies, music, music all the time, markets, flowers. They have an amazing outdoor market every time. Beautiful churches. I've done a lot of architectural tours, given architectural tours of Munich churches, the whole integration of faith and art and life. And because Ludwig the First really laid out Munich to be like the new Athens, the new Greece, but not in a classical way, in a very baroque classical way as it turns out. Yeah, it's like an outdoor museum. I fell in love with Munich.

Jane Malash: After those intense years it almost takes a year to unpack what happened. I just knew that I didn't want to just do what everybody told me I was supposed to do. I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do next. I took a job in the art history department at the University of Michigan, part time, and it was actually someone there said, actually said to me, she said, "You've had so many German-American experiences, you'd be a great museum person." And I said, "I've always wanted to work in museums." I still didn't know how do you bring that about. I didn't have any connections in that way. And so she called the DIA and she said, "You know what? They have a job for a curatorial assistant." And I said, "Okay. Well, I'll go down."

Jane Malash: And lo and behold I met two mentors, who really guided me, put me on the path of museums. One was Jan Vendermark, he was Dutch. I'll never forget my interview because he looked at my CV and he saw, "Fluent in German." And he started laughing and going, "You Americans, you always exaggerate everything." And so he just started speaking to me in German and I just started back, he goes, "My god, you're hired."

Jane Malash: I just fell in love with that work, it was amazing. I felt so lucky to do it, they felt lucky to do it. Everyone felt lucky to do it. I still feel lucky of all the things that I've done because it's not about me, it's about these cultural objects.

Jane Malash: Well, we do our Provenance Research Exchange Programs, we have these public programs and we really want to integrate survivor families who are trying to find their collection. But in Dresden there was a Jewish family that had been the major collectors of mice and porcelain. And they were a large family of nine and everything was confiscated from them. Luckily, they, amazingly, they all got out with their lives, the family, the immediate family. But of course they left the collection behind and some of the family emigrated to Australia.

Jane Malash: Well, after the reunification they were able to contact the family and say, "We have your property at the porcelain museum. What would you like us to do with this?" And they said, "We want you to hold onto it, only if you promise to tell the story." They gave their entire porcelain collection back to the Dresden State Art Museum, the very place that took it from them. The very spot. That is so unbelievably moving. And then, years later, they found that there were some broken shards that had been left over that came out that they found. They called the family again and said, "We found these shards." And they said, "Well, go ahead, send us the shards." And a young woman in South Africa, where the family had also emigrated to, got these shards and it started a whole journey for her to reconnect with her family that was dispersed. And this is all over porcelain.

Jane Malash: And I should say what's amazing was this family lived with their porcelain collection in their house. This wasn't like something you stored, in America we think of collectors as hoarders in a sense. I'm just being exaggerating to a bit, but no, people collected these beautiful things to live with them, to look at them, to use them. Maybe not necessarily to use them because they became so valuable, that's why I'm saying it was art.

Jane Malash: The fact that they gave it back, so Dresden did a whole exhibition around the time we had our Provenance Research Exchange Program, invited this granddaughter to be a part of our program. And it was just so moving to see so much reconciliation and commitment and love of the object and the importance of the stories.

Jane Malash: What I think is so important about this Provenance Research Exchange Program, it's not just the people that are directly participating in it as exchange professionals or the guest speakers or the locations. But the public programs that we have, other places, is educating people to the complexity of this work. Because there's this presumption now that museums are hiding things and that the Germans are trying not to give things back. And that's simply not the case.

Jane Malash: When the Washington principals came out, museums very intensely searched their collections and put up online what they could. But it's ongoing work and it needs to be supported. There are so many people in Germany earnestly working on this, they are so excited to meet Americans who can help them piece those two sides of the story back together. And that connects with the public as well.

Jane Malash: Provenance researchers are very clever in that they meet more dead ends than not and the persistence to keep going forward. So often you're putting together a portfolio of knowledge that might not in the end prove the ownership of the object, but it might tell you the context.

Christopher Wurst: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S State Departments 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, that statute that created ECA. And our stories come from participants of U.S government funded international exchange programs.

Christopher Wurst: This week, Jane Malash talked about the profound impact of exchanges in her life, including her Fulbright Exchange in Germany. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, leave us a nice review while you're at it and 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@state.gov.

Christopher Wurst: Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage, eca.stage.gov/22.33. And check us out and follow us on Instagram, @22.33stories. Special thanks this week to Jane for sharing her stories. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Saying Goodbye In the Rain by Jelsonic, Minutes by Blue.Sessions, Long Ago And Far Away by The Chett Baker Quartet, Liebestraum by Ike Quebec and I'll Be Right Behind You, Josephine Instrumental Version by Josh Woodward. Music at the top of this episode was Quatrofoil by Pavington Bear and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 67 - Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window with Andrew Hevia

LISTEN HERE - Episode 67


Recorded at SXSW the day of his film’s premiere, Oscar-winning film producer and director Andrew Hevia recounts his Fulbright grant in Hong Kong—and how a series of near-failures, bold decisions, and artistic risk-taking led to his amazing debut film.


Christopher Wurst: To paraphrase Socrates, true knowledge exists in knowing you know nothing. By this standard you are a genius because almost immediately upon landing in a place you knew virtually nothing about, to make a film about a subject you knew virtually nothing about, you somehow use your self awareness — your true knowledge, if you will — to create a real piece of art. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Andrew Hevia: Moonlight was set to begin production in September and the Fulbright was going to send me in September. I couldn't figure out how I was going to solve this problem because if I left the movie, it was going to do what it did and I wasn't going to be on it, and if I passed on the Fulbright, I wasn't going to ... like, why would you make me make this choice?

Andrew Hevia: Then the doctor found a kidney stone and the first thing he said is, "Hey, you've got a kidney stone, that sucks," and I said, "Doctor's note!"

Christopher Wurst: This week, a well-timed doctor's note, Columbus saying not allowed, and making sure not to pin the butterfly. Join us on a journey from the United States to Hong Kong to create a film like no one's ever seen before. It's 22.33.

Introduction: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Introduction: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Introduction: 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 ...
Introduction: (singing)

Andrew Hevia: My name is Andrew Hevia. I'm a filmmaker from Miami, Florida. I was on a Fulbright US student research grant, to Hong Kong in 2015–2016.

Andrew Hevia: I'd known about the program but knew almost nothing other than that very fancy people got them and figured like, "Well, hell, if they're holding the orientation, maybe I can find a way to sneak into this party." From that point made it a mission to apply where I thought I could do something unique and something that I wanted to do and I really wanted to live abroad and the opportunity to apply for a grant in Hong Kong that allowed me to make a documentary about contemporary art fair called Art Basel and its impact on Hong Kong's art community was my elevator pitch.

Andrew Hevia: What's significant is that in 2011, I'd made a documentary for public television in Miami about Art Basel and its impact on Miami's art community, because Art Basel is the largest, the most prestigious contemporary art fair in the world. So I'd made a fairly conventional documentary about Art Basel Miami Beach. I followed a certain number of artists, I looked at an artist who was, putting on their own show, I looked at an artist who is being feted by the Miami Art Museum, the establishment. I looked at some of the people collecting and what it was for an artist to be in this space. I tried to make a documentary about art that was from the bottom up. Instead of the collectors and the moneyed and the powered interest, talking about what they liked, I tried to find the artists on what their lives were like. Proud of the movie, but it's a form fitting template. It's what a movie for public television looks like.

Andrew Hevia: So here I am applying for the Fulbright and I see that Hong Kong has just launched their Art Basel. So I proposed the sequel to this documentary I had made saying that, "Well I've done this movie about Miami. I'm very interested in seeing what is going on in Hong Kong and I think I could compare and contrast." So I wrote a grant and then you know, you have to spend all summer finding your sponsor in a foreign country at the university that you need to sign off on the grant. I found every Fulbrighter in Hong Kong and was rejected by every one of them. It was losing hope because the application was due and you had to have this letter.

Andrew Hevia: Then I find a woman at Hong Kong Baptist University, an economic art historian studying specifically the impact of international art markets on local art communities. I write her a letter, she responds almost ... an email, she responds almost immediately and says, "This sounds amazing. Where do I sign?"

Andrew Hevia: A lot of stuff happens. So I get the grant, some life stuff happens. Independent from making independent documentaries, I also produce movies. In this period, the most challenging part was that I got the grant and I was also, I'd spent the last several years setting up a movie called Moonlight and Moonlight was set to begin production in September and the Fulbright was going to send me in September. I couldn't figure out how I was going to solve this problem because if I left the movie, it was going to do what it did and I wasn't going to be on it, and if I passed it on the Fulbright, I wasn't going to ... like, why would you make me make this choice? Then the doctor found a kidney stone and the first thing he said is, "Hey, you got a kidney stone, that sucks," and I said, "Doctor's note!"

Andrew Hevia: So I was able to push to December, so Moonlight wraps production and like two weeks later I moved to Hong Kong. But because of those three months that I shifted, I missed the cohort, like I didn't show up when everyone else did. I missed some of the, you know, the primary orientation stuff and also set my research back three months. So the time I had, I spent having to learn how to live in a space, get my apartment settled, figure out what I was doing, I was already rushing to catch up because the art fair was happening happening in March. There is no moving that so I had to be ready. I had to identify who my subjects, the artists I was going to follow, but I also had to filter them. In Miami, I knew who I wanted to follow because I had grown up in that city; I'd known those artists for years. In Hong Kong. I had none of that so I had to very quickly learn it.

Andrew Hevia: I realized I was not going to be positioned to make the movie that I had proposed in the way it deserved. Like there's a good version of the movie and then there's a terrible version of the movie. The terrible version of that movie, where as a filmmaker I assert some sort of authority and I'll make a movie that misrepresents ... I mean who do I know is credible, who is the actual expert? The idea of Columbusing, the idea of being a white Western person going to a foreign culture and then proclaiming like, "I discovered all this," is something I was very aware of and I was like, I don't want to be that guy because all of my privileges show up in that space. Like I am able to be that guy. I've won this grant, I have the authority to do it, I have a camera, and you know, I'm an American, dammit. That was something I was just very aware of, so not eager to make that movie.

Andrew Hevia: I realized as the movie that I was trying to make was falling away from me, the another movie presented itself, which is the movie that I ultimately that I made.

Andrew Hevia: The great thing about Fulbright is there's an incredible amount of freedom with the project that you make, right? You propose a certain thing, but it's not like I'm being checked on by my grant advisor [inaudible 00:07:05] saying that the consulate in Hong Kong wasn't watching my footage and making sure I was staying on task. I knew going in that I would have an extraordinary amount of rope. So I'd already been percolating on this idea of like, well, how do I tell this story in a way that's going to be fun for me? Because I've made that documentary before and having made the documentary, the one I made in 2011 had done well, but nobody heard of this movie and no one's going to watch it. Having just explained it to you, you're not running to go download it. So I wanted to make a movie that would make more of a splash. I wanted to make a movie that I thought could play festivals. What that movie would look like, I didn't know.

Andrew Hevia: While I was shooting, I was also assembling an edit. I was taking my footage and I was trying to build it and I was experimenting so the scenes were all different ideas that I was trying. Collectively the movie was a disaster. It wasn't meant to be, but it was a very unfinished experiment.

Andrew Hevia: I had gone to an art show in North Point in Hong Kong and the idea was that the curators were going to be the performers. So instead of taking a background role, they were going to be front and center and they were going to be artists who had created the work. It was a really fun idea for a show and at some point in the middle of the show, a disco ball drops from the ceiling and it became a like a discotheque. It became a party. All these artists are dancing and celebrating and it was a really fun moment. I was trying to figure out how I could communicate the fun of that moment without pinning the butterfly.

Andrew Hevia: Let me explain that metaphor for a second. I think the thing about art, specifically making films about art, the challenges, how do you express what makes the art interesting without overexplaining it? The minute you talk about why the art is good is the minute you break the spell, but it is very hard to convey the power of great art through lecture. It's like comedy. You can't, like as an engineer, you can understand why the joke works and really appreciate that but then you have to be an engineer. If you are not an engineer, you just want to laugh.

Andrew Hevia: So when you pin the butterfly, you've collected it and you've killed it. It's a very fine line. So I was trying to figure out how to explain this art show as something that was fun to participate in. I had just gone to an actual nightclub in my social private life outside of the documentary, but was filming because I'd started obsessively filming all of the things that I was doing, thinking I would find a way to make a movie here. This friend of mine was leaving Hong Kong and we went to this party and I started cutting together the actual dance footage with the art dance footage and in that moment, I realized there might be a way for me to show how my private life dovetails with the art experience. Therefore, whatever I'm experiencing privately could illuminate the, there's a more public art experience.

Andrew Hevia: So if I saw an art piece that made me think of the windswept mountainscape of Hong Kong, I could cut to a shot of the windswept mountainscape in Hong Kong. Using montage and editing and you know the techniques of film, I could break the mode of a documentary, which was you explain a thing and then you put footage on top and you call it B roll. So if I say I looked at a fountain and I show you a fountain, then you see the fountain and you go, "Ah, that's a fountain." The level of repetition and the level of monotony in that was something I was interested in exploring.

Andrew Hevia: That moment ... I remember that moment because I had been committed to going to a barbecue and the guy I hadn't met, he didn't, maybe we'd hung out like once and he invited me to this barbecue. He texted like, "Hey, are you coming?" And I said, "No, sorry, I'm stuck at work," and he got really mad because he bought a plate of vegetables for me and I was like, "I'll pay you the six bucks. I'm in the middle of a thing, like I don't know what you want." Very weird experience, but I will happily trade someone who got really angry over a plate of asparagus for the epiphany that was like, I don't know how the movie fits this moment, but I understand that there's a movie here and if I can figure it out, we'll unlock the puzzle.

Andrew Hevia: So once I got that moment, I understood there was a movie here, I did not know how to get there and I spent the rest of my trip editing this, what I think is fair to call an assembly. But I knew that moment I want to protect that moment. So then I came back from Hong Kong on October 1st and immediately shipped a hard drive to a friend of mine who ended up becoming the producer and editor on the film, Carlos Rivera, because he and I had ... we'd done a screening with a couple of friends and everyone else was like, "Oh yeah, good movie." Like if you submitted that to a festival and I saw it, I'd be happy, like, mission accomplished. And Carlos came up afterward and said, "Listen, I like what you're trying to do, but I think there's a ... I think we can push this." I just kind of loved the audacity of that. I loved the like, "All right, listen. C minus, but over here, A plus. Come on."

Andrew Hevia: We spent the next two and a half years. Together we figured out how to make the movie look the way it was. The movie reflects my experience in Hong Kong and Carlos was able to position himself as part editor, part therapist. He insisted like, "Watching you look at a painting is only interesting if I understand why you're looking at that painting and what is going on in your life." Making the movie about me was not necessarily my first instinct, but sort of the way a music producer guides a musician is like, "Hey, I liked that riff. Try it again. Go in that direction." Pushing in that way over two and half years, the movie evolved into what it is.

Andrew Hevia: The rule was that having made the documentary as the way you're supposed to make them, I was actively trying to make the opposite of that movie. Carlos, outside of this film, works in a very high level of television where you have to make things a certain way, you have a certain timeframe. The way he and I would talk about it, because we did the project over two and half years, we do a thing the way you're supposed to do and come back energized and say, "Well I don't want to do it that way. What if we didn't cut to the moment? What if we found a way to cut to that?" So the ... I don't want to say sloppiness, but the unexpected nature of the movie was our hardcore reaction, like our visceral reaction and response to the other work we were doing.

Andrew Hevia: And then again, the rule was like, I wanted to make a film that allowed us to do the thing you're not supposed to do. So you're not supposed to a robot narrator, like that's a rule. Everyone's like, "You're going to make that a person, right?" I said, "No, I'm keeping the robot." You know, in a documentary about art, you're supposed to interview the people you're talking about. We didn't interview anybody. Partly because Fulbright, while wonderful in so many ways, is not exactly like deeply pocketed production grant. It's not like I had half a million dollars to make a documentary. I had the money I didn't spend on eating and I, for better or worse, eat three times a day. So the amount of money that was available was enough to do the thing with what I had and not a penny more. I couldn't bring in lights and do a proper interview, I couldn't do those things. So I leaned into that and tried to shoot things that I thought would be interesting and we tried to cut them in a way that like when you're stuck with those pieces, how do you put them together? You're going to get a different puzzle simply because they're so oddly shaped.

Andrew Hevia: One of the things I was so fascinated by Hong Kong is that it has such a well well-established expat community. It's very easy to live in that bubble. Partly because of the language. Like if I wanted to stick to places that only had English menus for food, I could do that. I'd spend 20 American dollars every meal and I'd be surrounded by Westerners. That life exists and plenty of people live it. Then if I want to like go on the wild side and try more local place, there are places that have a split menu, English and Chinese. You know, those are half the price, you know, $10, $12 American. But if you don't speak any Cantonese, you're not going to a fully local place that has no English menus, where no one speaks English, and the price is four bucks.

Andrew Hevia: Because of the documentary, I was privileged that I got to break that bubble. I had reason to hang out with locals who were working on a thing. All of whom, you know, spoke English, were highly educated, were artists. It's not like I was in an unfamiliar environment but I was invited into spaces that if not for the camera and the purpose of the documentary, I would not have been invited. I made friends outside of the expat universe and that was one of the one ... Frankly, one of the great things about Fulbright is that it gave me a purpose. You can travel and do a thing and then you're a tourist, but the fact that I had a project that I was intent to accomplish, the fact that I had a reason to be there, man, I was able to transcend sort of the expat bubble.

Andrew Hevia: This is my first time living abroad. That was frankly one of my reasons for applying for the Fulbright in first place. It helped me understand the thing ... it's a little bit like a fish can't see water. The advantage to being out of it allowed me to understand how many basic assumptions I have just as an American.

Andrew Hevia: Living in Hong Kong and on the Fulbright gave me the framework to understand what I bring with me. I think, frankly, the movie is an attempt to discuss sort of that idea and realizing while I don't have it, it doesn't mean I'm worse. It just means I'm different.

Andrew Hevia: If there's a lesson I'll take away from this Fulbright and from this film, it's this idea that there is no rule book and there is no plan. The opportunity I think that we all have is to figure out how to navigate within the system that exists to achieve the results we want. I think the opportunity there is that everything is malleable. The way it works is the way it works now or the way it's supposed to work, it's not the way it has to work.

Andrew Hevia: A lot of times what I saw in this specifically, the idea that like "Look, there's a grant, they gave me a thing." No one told me I had the freedom to do it, but I realized I did so I took it and was able to make something that was an extraordinary creative experience but so far has been a wonderful ... the film has been well received so far, we're playing at South by Southwest. We're doing these things that indicate I'm on the right path. In life things are ... other professional choices I've made, instead of moving to LA to make films, I moved to Miami because I believed in a cause about telling stories in Miami, led to Moonlight, which did very well for itself and has made my life very different than it was before. The idea that going against conventional wisdom to try the thing that isn't supposed to work — if you do it right, maybe it could.

Andrew Hevia: The reason conventionalism is that way is because it's easier to do the things that you're supposed to do the way you're supposed to do, the way people have always done it. It doesn't mean the harder road isn't, doesn't also get you there. In fact, it might get you there and be an incredible journey in the process. My appreciation for that is I understand that if that message gets out more, if ... that's optimistic to me. It might be harder, but it'll be worth it. Frankly, that's when it gets exciting. I think the conventional wisdom is just kind of boring.

Christopher Wurst: 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's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory.

Christopher Wurst: 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the US code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of US government-funded international exchange programs.

Christopher Wurst: This week, Andrew told the story of how he used his Fulbright grant to create his recently released documentary, Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window, which made its public premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival the day before our interview. For more about this wonderful film, check out leavethebusfilm.com.

Christopher Wurst: 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 so wherever you find your podcasts. You can also leave us a nice review while you're at it. 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-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov.

Christopher Wurst: Photos of each week's interviewee and a complete episode transcript can be found at our webpage. That's at eca.state.gov/2233.

Christopher Wurst: Special thanks this week to Andrew for taking time from his busy screening schedule at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. I did the interview with Andrew at Austin's famous Driscoll hotel and edited this segment. Featured music was Spunk Lit, Spring Cleaning, and Sunday Lights by Blue Dot Sessions and Something Elated by Broke for Free. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How Che Night Game and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.

Andrew Hevia: You enjoyed it, so I'm going it-  


Season 01, Episode 66 - Bringing Smiles, One Raindrop at a Time with Biplab Paul

LISTEN HERE - Episode 66


Coming from an arid part of India, Biplab Paul vividly understood the importance of water.  His simple idea about collecting and preserving rainwater—told with passion and humor—has gone on to save countless lives all around the world.


Christopher W: You live in a very harsh climate, let's say Gujarat, India, where there is a dangerous shortage of water in the dry season and an equally dangerous excess of water in monsoon times, but you literally solve this problem. You employ a simple scientific principle and literally solve this problem. That doesn't mean it's easy to convince traditional farmers or government officials or people who profit from the scarcity of water, but slowly and surely you are chipping away at all of them too. Your legacy is the gift of clean, pure water, which in many cases is literally the gift of life. You're listening 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Biplab Paul: My mom is a very important lady in my life. She was earlier in Bangladesh, which was that time is Pakistan, so she came as a refugee to India and struggled a lot and studied a lot and became a very good, successful person in her life. She always tells me, "You can be a very good student, you can be brilliant student, but that is useless if you cannot bring smiles to someone else face. I have gone through sheer difficulties in my life, but I never lost hope because I had good people to help me and that's the way I am blessed. So being my son, you should be trying to help others and be blessed."

Christopher W: This week, winning over the adults by winning over the children, saving the rain and doing things for humanity, not for the money. Join us on a journey from India to the United States to save lives, one precious rain drop at a time. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. There are people very much like ourselves.
Speaker 6: (singing).

Biplab Paul: My name is Biplab Paul. I'm from India. I'm working in a social enterprise called Naireeta Services. We are enabling ultra poor small holder to enable them to have better irrigation in drought time or summer and dry period time and also get rid of excess water during monsoon time. Thereby ensuring their food security as well as doubling up the agriculture income. We started with one village in Gujarat State of India in Western India bordering Pakistan in the desert area I'm coming from. Now we're working in the 11 States of India. We have also expanded and working in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Ghana and now Rwanda.

Biplab Paul: There is an earthquake in India. It was a very difficult earthquake in Gujarat. Many people died so that time all the money and people are doing all the charities work. And then after one month when all the hoopla and all the charity is gone and people are back to square one because they don't have any house, there is no water tank available because all are demolished. There is no water supply pipe system. So a girl maybe three or four years old girl of two or three feet height, she was put in the ... They dig a hole into the soil up to a depth at one and a half feet and they put the small girl inside because she can only go. And in the digging part that is more dark water, very clumsy water. That girl take that water in a aluminum port and giving back on the top so people can drink that water. I have a daughter, I was just slapping myself what the hell I'm doing. So I thought something has to be done, something has to be done.

Biplab Paul: I found that Eastern India where I'm coming from, Bengal where I was born, that is bordering Bangladesh, that is excess water is a challenge. Every year you have a flood and then for higher studies, when I came to Gujarat, the Western part of India, Western most part of India bordering Bangla, Pakistan and in the desert area, I found drought is a recurring phenomenon. So you see that water has an amazing role. When it's excess, it's destroys you. When it is zero it is destroys you also. But without that, people cannot survive. We cannot survive. Everything, every life form needs water and that water is very precious but we need it at right time, right place, right quantity. So from that perspective, so I started working with a rural community.

Biplab Paul: So initially, the biggest challenge was the drinking water because underground water was contaminated. People not able to getting drinking water, irrigation water, any of the purpose of the water. Women, there, they were not listened to because we have a very difficult cost structure and fragmentation in the society. So vulnerability of the women increases with the less of water because they have to take care of the cooking as well as some agriculture work and have children, which they are unable to. Sometimes they have to travel more than five to seven kilometer to carry the water back to the home. And many times, their water was getting looted. Irrigation water was the biggest, biggest crisis. And people are fighting and sometimes farmers were demonstrating in front of our state government. So those are the challenges I can say when I started in 2004.

Biplab Paul: When I started the work, people thought I'll be eloping every girl from the village because I'm a bachelor, I'm a non-vegetarian, I'm working in a community where they cannot speak the language, where the food of it is vegetarian. They told I am the nastiest guy in the world and I am going to elope every girl and get them married with me. So that was the biggest challenge. So nobody was accepting me, nobody was allowing me to go inside the home, nobody was allowing me to talk with any girl or ladies. And I was not able to understand that thing because language I didn't know because I'm coming from a different language.

Biplab Paul: But I understood that if that is the fear that I have to win it. So I tried to work with the children. And then when they found I'm a very good teacher and teaching children in the local languages because I learned from them children actually the language also so children's loved me. So nearly 32 villages, children nearly, I can say more than 20,000 to 30,000 students, they approached me. They were so gaga bought me. So all the school teachers became very cooperative with me because they found that I can add to their education system very well. And as soon as children started praising me, the parents become very positive.

Biplab Paul: Then 2004, I got this whole training from the IVLP. I have to do that. This can be done. So that is a salt water below the ground. You have salt water below the ground. You are taking the sweet water from the ground, we have sweet water above the ground. So the saltwater and sweet water, different density. So take the sweat water, float it up on the saltwater below my ground, I can give them good water. That's it. Simple.

Biplab Paul: Recognition and always give you acceptance at the top level. But in India, people I work with, they haven't gone to school. They cannot read anything. They cannot understand many things in the other languages. For them, acceptance is the result on the ground. Whatever that word I get, whatever the recognition I get to, it doesn't matter to them. Their simple bottom line is that am I getting my water when I need? Am I getting my crops survived in excess water? Am I getting my crops survive in scorching sun or chilling winter? If yes, you are successful.

Biplab Paul: Water level, yes, I had a big challenge. The technology I have created it was look like miracle, especially for the poor people and the other people who are not so scientifically technically qualified. So they think I am talking nonsense. So they never accepted my technology, never, never. I failed, failed, failed to convince them. But then I found instead of going and convincing them, let's do the demonstration, then it'll be easier. So I work with one widow lady and did the whole demonstration on her plot. She didn't have anything to lose so she said, "Okay, do whatever you like to do. I don't have any problem." So then she got the success. The people got mad and then I tried to do it, the male farmers to do the work, then also I failed. They was very stubborn, they were not ready to accept the technology. That they were thinking they know everything and I'm talking nonsense. So I then changed my strategy.

Biplab Paul: Instead of going to the male farmer, I went to women farmer. So guys, if the thing that is a failure, they don't like to be part of that failure. So they have very ego, high ego. So women don't have that high ego. They are facing failure every day in their life so they told me if there is a failure, no problem, learn from it, go to the next step. We have done so many times, so we make roti roti, it become burned or we get to slap from our husband and the next time we make a good roti. So if that happens, if she get a slap from her husband, still she's ready to give the roti to her husband. This is nothing for me so I should be very kind enough or I should be very grateful to them they're kind of kind enough to me to give that learning. So I worked with a women farmer, so I got the success part.

Biplab Paul: Third case was stubbornness or the challenges came from the rich people. I'm not only giving water, I'm giving duty to the poor. Water is a very small thing currently in our whole world. It is the people who are managing their own resources and they are not getting death trapped. That is the biggest game. So you are actually antagonizing 5% of the rural population who are controlling all the rural resources. So that was the biggest challenge. I was not able to handle that because they're politically connected. Administration connection is very high and they can buy all government officials or they can control government officials. So in that context, I found if I fight alone I'll be killed or rather they tried also two times. So what I did, instead of fighting alone, I created women group. And each of my Bhungroo is not owned by 1 person, it is group of five to seven women. They're owning each Bhungroo. they can kill me alone, but they cannot kill five women together. So that was the biggest success I should say.

Biplab Paul: So I was trying to convince government for a better drinking water management but I failed because A, I was not having proper knowledge, B, I was not able to understand how to talk to government. So failing, failing, failing. So learning, learning, learning. So then I changed my whole strategy. I came from top down approach, I went towards the bottom up approach. I started working with the schoolchildren at training them different aspects of water and then involving their parents and to take that issue to the right audience. And that was a remarkable success.

Biplab Paul: Our chief minister in the state or the head of the state got zapped when she saw the children's are sending the painting where they're saying, "This is my problem, this is my village problem. This is my village problem." So they found these children can be a critical factor. They're viewed as a critical factor. So I was in the backend, I was promoting others and that was very cleanly observe the U.S. Department of State for last two to three years how I'm working. I think that time they found I can be or we can be a good leader in the water program, management program and then they selected us.

Biplab Paul: If I was not in 2004 IVLP or I might not have thought of creating a water's defined technology A, B, even if I've thought, I might not have thought so early. Even if I have thought early, I might not have thought so strategically. So it is not only the technology but also making it integrated in. Then I came in 2004, that whole learning, I adapted to my local condition.

Biplab Paul: In Washington, I saw how you are doing the interdepartmental coordination. They showed us how different departments of Washington federal government accorded with each other for water management. That is amazing learning for me. So macro level solution I saw, but being a small person, I don't have a macro level impact, but I can saw that was the challenges and that is the solution that you people are doing. In the micro level, I saw Arizona State University, how they're managing the irrigation of water in the most efficient way. Do you guys not only drip, you have gone to the origin of the crop and identifying how much water does it need and metering the drip into that part. That is the fairy tale for us that time. So that is the biggest learning and that actually I shared with my government after going back.

Biplab Paul: Then come back to the Portland and you can see a single dam can do so many services. It can ensure the irrigation water, it can ensure the entertainment services, it can ensure the food security, it can do the inclusion of the native Indians. It can also ensure the ecological sustainability of the salmon fishes. And you are creating a whole channel for maintaining the salmon fish. So that is amazing taught. So that's an interesting learning. But yes, being a part of U.S. India Smart City program, I was able to voice that thing. But that learning came from 2004 but I was able to was in 2011 which got into the policy system 2015. So you can see that same thing.

Biplab Paul: In the Arizona State University I was telling you, they have identified a root hunger for water. They are defining how the root needs water at what timeframe, at what quantity. So even in the drip, you can actually ensure how much water droplets the root need. That's amazing. Wow. This is a dream if we can do that thing. So then I'm telling the next part of the story is that I was able to go back to India and talk to the government then it became a very national level, a state level, and then federal level drip irrigation program.

Biplab Paul: And in the deep irrigation program, I was fortunate to be on the stakeholders meeting and I was able to voice the way the drip can go up to the root level and can ensure the droplets of the water management for the root and that they really liked. So that was really aha moment because it can actually imply more than five million farmers benefit in India. And that can go to millions of gallons of water saving every day. So that can be a real game changer and that is a real game changer for us in our country.

Biplab Paul: I was in Arizona SRP Salt River Project. We met one farmer always having huge plot of land and another farmer who is having very small plot of land but both of them told we are here to share the resources because land is important and besides that human beings are important. So that was very, very, very, very, very, very proud moment because you are finding a situation where different economic background, different social background, different need background, different experience level background, different ethnicity background but they value both natural resources and human being as a key factor and not the money as a key factor. That's the big thing.

Biplab Paul: People are very enthusiastic to learn the nitty gritty of our civilized, our old civilization, how we are taking it ahead. Another thing they were very keen to learn how we're able to make it multi-lingual. So many language we have in our country and multicultural and multi idealism. Like we have so many religion in our country. We have a very open heart to heart communication or exchange of ideas. What is happening in USA and how India is faring and where U.S. can improve a lot. So those discussion has taken place.

Biplab Paul: After coming over here I found, wow, I haven't met anyone who is not starting the discussion with please. I haven't met anyone who is meeting you the first time is not wishing you good morning. He may be a Afro-Asian, he may be Asian origin, he may be African origin, he maybe Caucasian origin, whatever. Irrespective of color, irrespective of religion. He can be any religion. Irrespective economic level, irrespective affluence level, irrespective his position, irrespective of governance, irrespective of everything, the best part I find the hand is extended to you with a shaking hand, very good handshake you'll get with everyone. A warm handshake even though the chilling outside and good morning and have a nice day or how is the weather. So that pleasantries, which I was thinking [inaudible 00:19:04] but actually is the pleasantries I got from all over the U.S.. So that is an excellent feeling for me.

Biplab Paul: When I was telling please, she looked at me what I'm talking. Is there something wrong? So I look can you please give me the glass or please give me the space I can go? She said, "Why are you asking please, just go. Just take it." So it was so funny. And I told her, "Wow, now I know why U.S. people are so ahead." Yes. Now, we are able to ... My wife is also in Fulbright scholar and she's also an IVLP scholar. She's a big name compared to me. Everybody knows me as Trupti's husband than my name. So now we understand and both of us are now able to cultivate that learning to our daughter. We have a one daughter, we have Naireeta. Her name is Naireeta. So we are able to cultivate that thing and then I'm finding the next generation is able to pick it up quite well. And also in the office also, we are maintaining that thing that honesty as well as the warmness, as well as the feelings for others, we are able to cultivate and we are gradually following it.

Biplab Paul: Initially, I was little bit confused how it can be that a culture ... We are from India, the Southeast Asia, our religion, our background is quite different from whom we met in USA. But then I just realized that all of us are human being and there is no negativity of the human, everybody has positiveness. It is the perception how we see the person in front of me whether negative or positive. Everybody has some positiveness. Maybe he is not as per my mold so I feel he is negative or he is not acceptable or he is not like me. It isn't like me or like you, it is all a great gift of almighty. If you believe in God, if you believe in mother nature, we're all gifted by mother. Because at the end of the day, all we'll be like a piece of soil or some soil.

Biplab Paul: So best part is that let us understand each other positiveness, each other qualities and and build up on it. And so initially I was really surprised at how this can be, but later on it raised to my mind or a thought came to my mind. I think I was wrong, I was immature. Actually, we're all human being and coming from the same background and with a positive attitude to the life. So this is bound to happen, the positiveness.

Biplab Paul: We always believe everyone is a form of God that I always shared with everyone. That you sitting in front of me is actually not you alone, God is sitting with you. So I don't have any right to disobey or misbehave or belittle you in any or diminishing value any way. So that I shared with them, they liked it very much. Second, I was also sharing with them in our culture that if anyone comes to home, we give first a glass of water. So that is that you are giving the most precious thing of your life to the person who is coming as your guest and guest is like God. So those things I shared and people really appreciated it. And I surprisingly came to know you people also having this sort of culture. You also feel that God is guest and you also go your way ahead to give the best hospitality to the people who are coming. And that I also observed in the home hospitality like in different places. Even last time or even this time, people are extremely, extremely polite and extremely affectionate in the home hospitality.

Biplab Paul: We went to a ceremony in a multiethnic church coming from a different background, people of different colors and different ethnicity. And then they also allowed us to sing our song of our God in our religion. I felt so proud. This I never asked anything more because in the same platform, the people who are Christian, they're singing the choir and this Christianity and the people who are not Christian, they are singing their God or invoking their God within their language and their songs. Maybe different language. I wasn't able to under some language also because some of the native American language was there. And then they also allowed us, we are Hindu to pray. Involve the song or involve the rhymes, whatever you say, we have the songs also too, in the same platform. So I felt so proud. This is the best moment of humanity is coming out of everything. There is not we and them, not we and them, it is the human to human, heart to heart, people to people, irrespective of Gods, decreed, religion, color. It is only hearts speaks.

Biplab Paul: (singing). I can translate it. Oh my beloved God, if you love me and like to bless me, just give me a sweet voice and heart full of compassion so that I can always pray for you and pray for others.

Biplab Paul: We were invited to Senate and then there is a coffee counter for the senators. And there, they organized this impromptu session for me, for the Senate members. Few Senate members were there and all the state department officials and for me only. And so I didn't know how I talked but everybody clapped me. I don't know whether they understood or not, I don't know. But that was the moment 2004, and that photograph is still with me. And I wherever I go, I show, this is what I have done, this is what I have done. And so that was a very pride moment. I thought, my mom was here, I would have been very happy.

Biplab Paul: I met a lady called Erin Bansal in Arizona. She is a single mother and she's quite elderly and she is economically not so well at that time. But she was so kind, she hosted all seven of our fellows and she prepared the food what I like. She made it meticulously perfect. I cannot imagine anywhere in the world this sort of love, affection and feelings and acceptance and compassion and empathy from anyone. And that is also within half an hour because she never met us, she never thought of us, anything. But she went ahead to do whatever she can do and that is also within limited resources. I think I always prayed to God that she should be blessed every day.

Biplab Paul: Whatever it is, it's my God, her God, I don't care. God is male or female, I don't care. My point is that she should be blessed by days, by minutes, by seconds because she is a great human being and till my life I remember her and even going back to home, I told my daughter that this is the learning of the life that it is not the money, it's not the resources, it's not the position, it is not your marital status. It is how best you are a human being and how best you are offering your human qualities to others that matters in life.

Christopher W: 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 name 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.

Christopher W: This week, Biplab Paul talked about his time in the United States as a participant in the International Visitor Leadership Program or IVLP. For more about the IVLP and other ECA exchange programs, you can check out eca.state.gov. 22.33 exists wherever you find your podcasts and we encourage you to subscribe. And heck while you're subscribing, you might as well leave us a review while you're at it. We'd also 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@state.gov. Also, photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233.

Christopher W: Huge special thanks to Biplab for taking the time to share his miracle work saving the rain water in India. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was A Rush of Clearwater and Promesa by Blue Dot Sessions, Bags of Water, the instrumental version by Josh Woodward. Cool Water by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Bufflehead by Chad crouch, Ice Pack by Paddington Bear and The Comedy of Errors, I to the world I'm like a drop of water by How The Night Came. 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.

Biplab Paul: A very funny story. Don't take it otherwise. Okay? It's a very funny story. I'll tell you. What actually happened


Season 01, Episode 65 - [Bonus] Full Circle at the L.A. Film Festival

LISTEN HERE - Episode 65


A Lebanese student at Loyola Marymont University, Lucien Bourjeily used the experiences that he learned in Los Angeles to create a film that tackles tough subjects about family, culture, and human instinct.


Chris: As a student in the United States, from the ease of travel to the empowerment of students in the classroom. When you go back home, and prepare to create your first feature film, you hold on to the ideals of these freedoms. And while your film is firmly about events in your country, its messages are universal.  

Chris: You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.  

Lucien: Yes, actually about the Los Angeles film festival, that was very peculiar for me because I was very fond of going to this festival and watching films there when I was at university and highly regarded the way this independent filmmakers really, against all odds, were doing films, and very courageous films. So I always thought like a dream, that to me to be there and present a film one day. And I remember when I got the acceptance letter from them, that this was my first response. That really I was dreaming about this and now you are making it true, and I'm very excited to actually be on the other side for this first time.   


Chris: This week, learning how to find the story. Conflict in the family, conflict in the country and the universal language of film. Join us, on a journey from Lebanon to Los Angeles and using art to break down barriers. It's 22.33 [music]  

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am. [music]
Speaker 5: When you get to know these people, they are not quite like you, you read about them, they are people, they are much like ourselves, and...[Inaudible] [music]  

Lucien: So my name is Lucien Bourjeily. I'm from Lebanon. I've done the Fulbright Program, the scholarship program. And my studies, I did them at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. It was in 2010 until 2013 in Filmmaking. [music]  

Lucien: Well, the first thing I remember now, for a weird reason, is my bicycle. I used to go every day by bicycle and enjoy the fact that I can ride my bicycle in a safe way and use it as a mode of transportation, really. It was nice because I haven't had this experience with the bike before. Like you cannot really ride the bike in Beirut. You would be maybe crushed after five minutes by a car, but I loved this fact that I am not driving a car. I'm just free. You know the, the weather is very nice in Los Angeles. I was enjoying going. One of the reasons was because I'm going on my bike there. I'm not taking a car and trying to find a place to park and all these things. It was a freeing experience in that sense. I was just parking directly in front of the building and then going down and at the same time enjoying the scenery and the greenery and the weather. [music]  

Lucien: It seems small, but it's very important that your travel, how you go there, gets you in the mood of learning. Like I was getting there. You know, actually it's scientifically known that exercise actually releases something that makes your mind, like directly afterwards, more prone to learning and more prone to more interactions. So yeah, when I was getting into class, I always felt like I'm refreshed. It wasn't a burden. Learning wasn't a burden. Unlike so many years I spent in school, where I always felt like it's such a burden to be sitting hours and hours with a teacher saying stuff and we sometimes don't want to hear or are bored about it and all these things.  

Lucien: For 15 years during my school years, we never watched the film in class or we never did the play, we never did the things that I ended up working on and passionate about and doing. So of course doing first thing I love to do, which is going to study filmmaking, and the way I'm going there is already very freeing. And that's something that I remember and I always think about. [music]  

Lucien: The way that things are taught in class, is something that I would have loved other people to know about, or to share with my Lebanese friends or family, which is how the relationship is between the student and the professor or the teacher. It wasn't only in my own university because I wouldn't sit also in a school, a primary school, where I went there by total chance, but I went into the class and I saw a bit how the teacher was talking with the students and how the interaction was between them. It was a two way communication. So there was always dialogue between the teacher and the student and this created, and this felt very important to enhance the, the critical thinking of the student and to help him at his own thoughts. Like, not following only whatever the teacher says is true.  

Lucien: So he can question even the teacher, even a book or even any kind of-, until he's really confident that he had as many sources or as much research possible until he can have his own or form his own opinion. So nothing is really forced. It's more suggested. And you as a student, you are given a pass where you find your way and it empowers you in that sense. And you've not only a student anymore, you become part of the teaching process as well. Your thoughts are important. You're not only there to receive, you are there also to give opinions and also encourage the theoretical, or encourage the whole process to become better. And even the teacher sometimes learns from you in way or another and he's in that mindset. He comes to the class, which is great and that is something I think we miss.  

Lucien: I missed at least in my previous education and that's what I tried to do in my workshops. This is the attitude I have with the students and this is something they, at first, are surprised of, but then they appreciate it, after a while.  

Lucien: At first, they asked me, 'Why aren't you doing this? Why aren't you just saying, "this is how it is and this is how you should be?"' And whatever, because this is what, unfortunately, they have been accustomed to. 'Why are you so, as if you're giving us too much freedom to find our own path?' But, I think I tell them, I said, 'this is exactly the purpose, and I'm not teaching you to become mini me. I'm teaching you for you, maybe to come become better than me, then to to find something even that I haven't thought about. But to release your creative potential, I have to give you, of course, the the techniques and the insights that you need. But then from that moment on you might even suppress me. So that's why I cannot hold you back with some preconceived ways of doing things. You might find another way. So you have to have this freedom. And this is, at first, troubling because you might prefer one path to take other than just giving you options and you choose the best best for. Because you might have your own best way of doing it.' [music]  

Lucien: Studying here and Loyola Marymount university was a really eye opener for me, especially in terms of scriptwriting and cinematography. Of course, I couldn't just take a camera and go film something. I could have done it, but it would have been very limiting and I would have, now thinking about it, I wouldn't have all the right methodology to reach a point where I feel confident enough to finish a feature film and, get it to the best possible form. To be able to do that, I had to do all these things, all these classes. And at the same time have all these discussions with the professors, which are as important as a book. I mean their own experiences, things where they mentor the projects that you are doing, and you can ask them for advice. So all these things really, slowly but surely, helped in forming this assurance that yes, it can be done, and I can do it and this is why I actually did it.  

Lucien: If I didn't have this experience, and this mentorship, and these great interactions with professors, and students as well. Because also the students who were with me in the class, were very enriching opinions about the scripts that are, most of my scripts were related to Lebanon, when I wrote them. So they had a different perspective a bit further away, which gave me something that I didn't think about. It wasn't about changing the script as per what they wanted, but it's sometimes just insights about how they felt about the script, which gave me a lot of ideas on how to change it. And it stayed with me afterwards, meaning I always felt when I'm writing as if somebody is giving me an advice even though they were not at this specific stage, but it stayed with me afterwards.  

Lucien: For example, one of my friends that I met at Loyola Marymount was one of the first who watched the film. I sent him the link, got his advice. Of course this stays, maybe for all your life. These friendships that you form and these people that you meet that if chum, when I come to LA, I am so happy that I get to meet with them and now even when it showed in the LA film festival, some of them came and watched it. [music]  

Lucien: Today I work in both theater and cinema. Lately I've done a feature film cinema, and at the same time I do give acting workshops and sometimes I do workshops for universities. Like I have one now. Next week directing actors at Alba University, and the Program Director, the Dean of the school, he thought that it would be good if I intervene and do this, especially in the film that I did, the recent one, my debut feature film, there's a lot of work on actors and this was noticed in many ways that the acting in the film was different. It was fresh, spontaneous. In a way that is not used to in Lebanese cinema. So, that was the reason why he wanted me to give that workshop, at the university. [music]  

Lucien: I think the films that made the most impression where the Stanley Kubrick films, and of course John Cassavetes as well, is one of my favorite filmmakers. John Cassavetes in specific because he used a very new approach to filmmaking and doing low budget filmmaking, and he used a lot of improvisation in his work. He used to love that. I always feel connected with him in specific because he wanted to challenge the studio system. Meaning you have the system of how you do a film, how you present, how you fund, how you cast, who you would cast and how you market and everything. And he did something totally revolutionary at the time, and did this new kind of films that got a lot of attention. But at the same time they were freer and more courageous than what was being seen in the cinema at the same time.  

Lucien: But, mostly it was more the way he did it. Like of course, the content is amazing and of course it's not only me, I mean his films went worldwide and everybody appreciated them. But the way he managed to do them was fascinating for me, because at the end you can think about so many stories, but they die at the birth before they get made because you're always thinking about how am I going to do this or that story. [music]  

Lucien: Yeah, the film, it's a feature length film. It needed a lot of time to write at the beginning. Of course, it's always hard to find the right idea to create the story that you want to tell and that you're passionate enough to give it time and perseverance to finish it. Because, at the end we can have a lot of ideas that come to our mind during the day, that it would be a good idea for a film. I guess everybody has that. An idea for a book, an idea for it. But then, which idea stays with you, is the idea that you find passion about.  

Lucien: And then this took a lot of time, like six months to write, and afterwards we did a lot of castings to find the actors because we didn't want the actors to be a famous actors in Lebanon. For the reason that, this family that is getting together, it would be nice for an audience, when they look at it, not to recognize anybody that is already famous. So we found a lot of people who worked either in theater or that has never done acting before. And because I used to teaching acting and what I did is I started in the process to do workshops for them, acting workshops. Before, even going to rehearsals. And then we did the rehearsals, and then we got to the shooting. So an overall, if I want to add up the time that we spent in editing the film and finishing it, it took almost two years to do. [music].  

Lucien: When I think about it really, why I chose this story about a family getting together on Easter Lunch, one week before elections in Lebanon. It's mostly because I wanted to understand better Lebanon. I, until now, I could say I don't still understand Lebanon. Or The vicious circle why it's still, from time to time, going into armed conflict or being blocked. The government being blocked of actually changing the current state of affairs. I wanted to understand this, and to understand it, I thought to go to the first institution in this country, which is the family. And from this family to try to understand society and society, the country as a whole. [music]  

Lucien: But while doing this, it wasn't only about Lebanon I was thinking about. I was thinking more about the human element in general. Humanity in how are we organized? Why is there disfunction in communication? Why do we get to conflict and armed conflict at some point, not only in Lebanon, all over the world. Because we know even today, while I'm talking to you, there's many places in the world where there's armed conflict. Why can't we resolve these things in dialogue or even heated debates, but at least in words, not in actual physical action against each other.  

Lucien: So this has fascinated me in a way I want to understand, why are we getting there every time? And this is why I got kind of obsessed with the idea of seeing the birth of it. Where does it start? And I started in the family, to understand this, and I think I understand a bit better of course, but I still don't have the full picture. But I hope that the film will be thought provoking enough for people who watch it. And for myself, that was the case, for them to think about, 'Why are we here? What's happening? Why our society becoming dysfunctional? Is it related to our families, to ourselves psychologically or is it anthropology, is it historical? Why are we here?' And in case we want to answer these questions, we have to do our own research, and try to find the answers. Of course the answers are not in the film, but the questions are. [music] Lucien:  What I took from it, is that you have to find the way. Whatever it is, but you have to find a way to make the story happen without using too much resources from sources that might bind you into a very mainstream kind of artistic form. And that happened, we managed to do it, which is very exceptional to be able to have a film with a very small budget, but at the same time have a good quality and make it really appeal to a lot of people. It's a challenge, but at the same time, this is something that I love to do, because it challenges the whole system of how do you do art. And nowadays and I feel that there's so many limitations because when you're asking for people for money and for funds and stuff like that, all these things change your story, change what you are saying and sometimes it's for the good.  

Lucien: Sometimes they might give you a good advice. I'm not saying that always it's for the bad, but you might lose some of the integrity of the work you're trying to do while doing that. It's a risk and I just think that it's possible to do it without. Anyway, all filmmakers at the beginning, most of them, because the first film is usually like less budget or less people involved in it. It's usually very peculiar as an experience in general. But in my case, I'm feeling, even now after the whole thing, that this methodology that was used, I want to repeat it in a way or another because this is what made the film give it its special flavor. And gave it this more courageous tone for Lebanon and at some point, because of it, was censored. [music]  

Lucien: Yeah, it was censored. And the problem with censorship, it wasn't about what they wanted to censor. It was more about the idea of subduing an artist to the whims of the Bureau. That we want this to be like that, and you have to agree on it. And then afterwards, the biggest issue I had is that they didn't want me to talk about it while the film was playing in cinemas. So now people who were watching the film didn't know that this cut, whatever they are seeing, is actually not my cut. It's somebody else's cut.  

Lucien: Especially that in the film, you have a very long shot, for example, at some point and they want to cut it. So if you cut it, it becomes like a jump cut, a technical issue kind of. If you are watching the film, you feel there's something a bit wrong in how it's cut and it's, yeah, it's very annoying that you cannot say to people, 'Look, this is not my work. This is somebody else's work'. But I didn't want the whole film to be banned, because that was the alternative, if we don't accept the cut and censorship. Because it would be devastating for the whole crew, for the actors, for everybody who worked on it, to just not show the film at all. I had to just accept and be a subdued to this censorship, as I was before. For two plays I did before, they were banned. And I hope that within this work or within this art, that is sometimes engaged or thought-provoking, that it helps, in a way or another, with the public opinion to raise awareness about censorship and about how dangerous it is for the progress of society. [music]  

Lucien: I was surprised how much the American audience related with the film. The film in general goes into very specific topics inside the Lebanese society, and the history and politics, and even cultural references. So sometimes you feel that somebody from outside of Lebanon, or outside the Arab world, might not have this directly be affected by these things. But what happens is that a lot of the audiences came afterwards in the U.S. Whether yesterday in Washington or before in Miami or Los Angeles. They told me about how similar it felt for their own families and lives. And they only felt that with a small adaptation of names and situations it would become like them. And it was fascinating for them because like 10,000 kilometers away, there's a family very similar to their own, doing and saying almost the same things. But if you change just the names and the situation. So it was a fascinating thing to watch these details and interactions and interpersonal relationships, how they evolved in the film from their perspective. [music]  

Lucien: And until now we can consider that it's kind of part of the film this year, of going to festivals and reaching out to audiences. And like yesterday in Washington D.C. At the Arabian Sites organized by a FilmfestDC. That was great because it was curated also by the Fulbright Program and this is why I actually am here today because it was supported by the program and supported by this exchange, which is great because being here is totally different than just showing the film and not being here to talk about it with the audience afterwards, which happened, and was very engaging. [music]  

Lucien: And I'm very happy, that next week it's going to play at, actually, on Friday it's going to play at Loyola Marymount University. And this was an initiative of one of the professors. He insisted, that we have to play it and you have to come, and we will do a Q&A afterwards. And they invited me to come and the Fulbright Association and Los Angeles is hosting also the reception afterwards, so they are also inviting Fulbrighters in Los Angeles to come and be there. So it's really great. I'm very excited about this because, and I was telling the professor, Professor Gebhard, that I'm very happy that this is happening because it's great to show people, students, I mean, at Loyola Marymount university, show them that a good film, can be done was less than a 100,000 dollars.  

Lucien: This film, for example, won until now, six awards, it went up to 20 international film festivals, the major ones. So it really did very good world tour, and a successful one. So and still with very limited budget. So if this could be done, if they have an idea, and they don't have a lot of budget, that they think also that it is possible. With some small tricks or some small things, that can be done. I'm very happy that I will be able to transmit that to them and in a way or another I would feel totally like I felt in being in that room when they were bringing other people. When I was at the university speaking to us, telling us how they did their films, what challenges they faced. And this experience is so important because you feel, yes, I can do it. Why not? I can try at least and see where it takes me. [music].  

Lucien: I hope, to keep doing films that have a certain thought-provoking impact on the audience, which is not only for entertainment, but also for thinking about the world, about us, about the society, where we live. And using art in a way that helps society to understand itself better and for individuals to create a certain lasting impact on them. For sure, this is my objective. This first film of course made some kind of impact, but I'm surely hoping for another film, or films that make even more impact, and initiate discussion on a different level.  

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. [music]  

Chris: This week, Lucien Bourjeily shared stories about his time as a Fulbright scholar studying film at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. Lucien's critically acclaimed first feature film, which he references in this podcast is called Heaven Without People, and it's been screened at film festivals around the world, and has won a number of awards.  

Chris: For more about 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, if you like us, leave us a rating and 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 @ state.gov or check us out at eca.state.gov/2233.  

Chris: Special thanks this week to Lucien, for taking the time to share his stories. He was actually in Washington, D.C. to screen his film at the Arabian Sights Film Festival, and wouldn't you know that, Heaven Without People won the Grand Jury Award at that festival. Ana Maria San Etienne and I did the interview, and I edited this episode. Featured music was 88 by Paddington Bear, I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart by Thelonious Monk, Dryness by Ketsa, and two songs from Blue Dot Sessions, Vernouillet and Hundred Mile. 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 64 - Spaceship Earth: The Ultimate Exchange (with Cady Coleman)

LISTEN HERE - Episode 64


A veteran of three space missions, including a six-month stay on the International Space Station, astronaut Cady Coleman talks about life in space, living in close quarters with people from different parts of the world, and the importance of sharing her story around the world.


Christopher Wurst: Space: The Final Frontier Captain's Log 22.33. This week, the ultimate exchange between earth and space and a reminder that no matter how far we travel, we still have a lot to learn from each other. You were listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories. 

Cady Coleman: A friend of mine who I got to fly with, he was also from Massachusetts and the first time on the shuttle, on our first space shuttle mission we looked out the window. We looked down and we got to see Massachusetts where we're both from, from space, and it's a geographically very distinct with Cape Cod and my friend Al Sacco has a very distinctive Massachusetts accent, and Al looked down and he goes, "Oh my gosh, it looks just like the map."

Christopher Wurst: This week, a typical day in space the dangers of pistachios in zero gravity and the importance of sharing your story back on earth. Join us, I had an amazing journey to the International Space Station and a reminder that if earth is a spaceship we are all crew members. It's 22.33. 

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all. 
Speaker 4: These exchanges shape to who I am.
Speaker 5: When you get to know these people they're not quite like you. You read about them, they're people very much like ourselves. 

Cady Coleman: My name is Cady Coleman. I'm an Astronaut, I retired from NASA about two and a half years ago and while I was there I flew twice on the Space Shuttle Columbia and then spent almost six months on the International Space Station. I've had the pleasure of doing several sharing kinds of programs with the State Department speakers program and it's the most wonderful way to share an experience that I really just don't consider that it's just mine. I think going to space is so special, we really should share it with everyone.

As astronauts of course, we lived to be on missions and I got to go on three of them twice on the space shuttle. The first one was like a precursor to living and working on the space station, figuring out how to do all those experiments and at the time it was the longest space shuttle mission. Then the second one was to try to deploy the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which is part of the family of telescopes that NASA has. It's like the sister of the Hubble Space Telescope. They all look at different wavelengths and Chandra looks at X-rays, which are the really high energy particles that are given off when galaxies collide, when stars explode and when things are being sucked into black holes, they're also being spewed out and that's where we're going to find those x-rays. It's really special to me to know that a mission that I helped with 20 years ago that was only supposed to work until 2004 is still working today and to be part of discovering literally everything we know about black holes to be part of that team meant a lot to me. 

I spent almost six months up on the International Space Station as I explained it to my son, who was 10 at the time, I launched just before Christmas and I came home at the end of the school year. He did actually ask me if maybe I could wait until after Christmas to go, but I explained that I didn't really get to choose that. Truthfully, I really loved living up there. It felt like being a colonist in a new place, on a new planet practically. I would have spent another six months in a minute if I'd had a chance. 

What was fascinating to me about living on the space station was in a way how quickly it felt like home and it didn't feel foreign, which to me says there's a lot of ways that we do things down here on earth that we just accept that this is the only way to do them. Then when you go someplace else and they do them differently, you realize, "Wow, there's a different way in it. It might just be better. It might be more fun." In the case of the space station, I will tell you it's almost always more fun. Well, there's a few things that are not fun up there. First of all, is not being able to be with your family is the hardest thing. A friend of mine, a fellow astronaut and Don Pettit likes to say that if he could take his family with him, he would never have come home. It just wouldn't have occurred to him. 

It's a very special place but it does actually challenge everything that you think of as normal. Just the fact that everything floats around, you have to transfer things back and forth differently. You learn actually that we naturally from Earth with gravity, we're used to gravity. When I want to throw something, I actually aim high in the hopes and in my case desperate hopes that, that ball will curve and end up in the glove of the person it was meant for. On the space station you have to start aiming directly at people's chest because you have to throw things straight and your vocabulary changes. "Can you send the duct tape to me." It's just really interesting this idea that everything can float around.

Now for someone like me who can lose the remote to the TV at least twice in one night, let alone my phone, it is easier to lose things partly because we had to learn how to look for them differently. When you lose something here on earth, if you drop it, if you drop your watch, it's going to be somewhere below you and it really takes work to start looking in a different dimension in a different direction.

One of my favorite examples that I think is easy to understand here on earth as well is if you look at a picture where maybe people are in space or where you see the people that are upside down. When we take a crew photo and when everybody is in a ring and some people are on the top upside down, their heads are upside down and some people are in the bottom. You never want to be one of those people on the top because who are upside down because no one will see you every time people look at that picture, they're used to looking at things in the uptown dimension. Yet if you turn that picture upside down, now you see different people.

You have to learn to look at people differently and I think, sometimes just physically thinking, "I'm not going to look at people the same, I'm not going to use the same standards that I use down here." I think it's important to just change your mindset and change what you're using as how should this work? I mean, it's easy to think in space like, "Okay, I'm going to do this. I want to pour something into a glass. How should this work?" If I use that same phrase, how should this work? For when I go to Norway where I lived as an exchange student and I think how should grocery shopping work? How should getting a ride in the car work? How should visiting someone else's house work? Well, when I use that kind of phrase, it reminds me that there're different ways for that to happen that are meaningful to other people.

Up on the space station, we are from up to really about 17 different countries. I mean, it's actually more than that when we're really count the European Space Agency has about 14 different countries that are members. There's the Japanese Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency plus the U.S.. We divide that space station just in terms of geography into the Russian segment and then what we call the U.S. operating segment. That's made up of Japanese, Canadian and all those countries in Europe. Usually we are about three Russians and three people from everywhere else. Myself was up there with an Italian and two Americans. Then after the three people that were already up there an American and two Russians, after they landed, another American and two Russians came up.

We had the same mix of countries, but boy, a very different chemistry because it's not like one American is like another American or one Russian is like another Russian. We're all people. I think if you focus on the fact that we're people, you want to think about what is meaningful and I think questions asking questions in a way that implies you'd like to understand their world and it acknowledges that worlds are different. I find that, I like that when people ask me about space. 

I would say that something that really dominates the entire equation of living in space and working in space is the mission itself. There's just no question in your mind, in everyone's mind that the mission is more important than whether you like each other as a crew. Whether you feel like doing that of the mission, whether you wish you were assigned a different part of the mission or whether you wish that this wasn't what was on the schedule for today. It's really clear that all those things are bigger than you. It gives us the luxury of having to join together as a crew because there's just no place for you as an individual to stop that train.

I think part of that is that when you're in your living in a spaceship and you know your way of going to bed is floating or flying over to the module where we have windows and looking out at earth and saying hello to some of the places that you love and looking at it space and realizing that it's a huge, vast place and our planet is a spaceship in space. I mean it is the spaceship earth and many people feel like we're often space, but really what I feel like is that it just makes me realize how big earth is. I mean, earth is part of space and space is part of earth. When you see those things that are so big and so profound, deep down inside you all the other petty things just get left by the wayside. The mission is what really joins us together.

On earth, I usually wake up early, try to get some things done actually before my kid wakes up and then I rush off to work. In space, the way our time works, we work on GMT. Noon in London is noon on the space station. We're between Russia and the U.S. and it makes it so neither country has to have people who work in mission control away from their families for the main shift of the operations at night and that works out pretty well. For me, what it means is that just about the time that I should be going to bed is when my family is home from school and home from work. I chose to skew my day to getting up right before I really needed to be awake. 

It would have already read the introduction to today, the daily message that we get and I'd already understand what was on my plate, looked at the schedule. I am ready to work as soon as I am dressed and ready to go. In my pajamas, which are long sleeved pants and a long sleeve shirt because it's cold than the cabins. I would open the door in my pajamas, fly down the module which is about the of a school bus and then I hook a right to go to the next school bus size module, which is where we have the exercise equipment and the all important bathroom. We all take turns there pretty quickly and I would say a good four minutes after I have left my cabin. I am on the radio with mission control in the daily planning conference. 

We talk about some things they've already told us but they want to make sure we really, really understand. They give us any news from overnight about the earth, about the experiments, about what's going on. Then we are off to the races looking at a timeline. If you look at it, it's got six people's names and a timeline going across in literally every five minutes is scheduled and none of those are for bathroom breaks. There's about 30 minutes for lunch. Pretty much work no matter what a 12 hour day. I would say sometimes even longer, but you're scheduled pretty much for a 10 hour day that also includes exercise, which we do to stay healthy. You're going from one thing to the other. You look on the timeline, "I'm doing that experiment, I've done that before. I remember I have to get that stuff out early. Some of it has to fall." You go off and maybe get that thing off out early while you're having a little break. While another thing is like you turn it on and it's spinning up and you're waiting to see if it's calibrated. You're always thinking about two or three experiments ahead.

I would say the biggest struggle is to manage all those things and also communicate to the folks on the earth who are really running those experiments to what's going on the space station. In one of the big discoveries that we had was leaving the cameras on for the people on Earth so that even though you don't always know what you're doing. They can see that I have gotten out this bag and I have both hands in there unpacking something. I am holding something under one elbow, something between both feet and I'm like in something in my teeth and they realize this is not the time to call me on the radio and ask whether I like the temperature or not.

It really just by sharing that insight, the more they know about our world, the more they can blend. I actually liked the idea of having a camera on mission control that shows us that these are real people, not just voices that sometimes voice up things that we just think, "Really? Do you think we really don't know that." It's often, I think the biggest challenge in our world is the communication between the earth and the ground. We work hard at that all day long. 

I was the most proud of basically being part of a start of what I knew would be something so important to every space station mission and going forward. That was being the second person to capture a supply ship using the Canadian robotic arm. The recent, it's really challenging in a big deal to do that on a space station is because the space station is as big as a factory. It is actually as big as a football field and we live along the 50 yard line. In about 10 modules that are like the size of train cars, but all the seats are out of them. It's not small and tiny and nasty, it's spacious and big and amazing and wonderful but it is huge. It is that size like football field size. When a supply ship comes, a supply ship is like the size of a train car. When it comes up, we don't have time to move the factory. It's very dangerous. We have to really do our best to make sure that we've made sure that everything is going to happen right.

For me, that was being the person on the controls of the robotic arm with Paolo Nespoli from Italy as my copilot and together as a very integrated team. We made that capture and grab that supply ship where at a time when both vehicles are going 17,500 miles/hour, but more importantly I'm there. There's five different control centers down on the ground. There's a Japanese Control Center that it's their supply ship and they own the communication box between the supply ship and the space station. There're all these people involved who all have their own little worlds. Basically, as the astronauts on the space station our job was to integrate all these people with their own mission, their own way of life and realize that together we had one mission. I was very proud of being a part of basically making the fabric for all of those people in control centers to relate to each other for the many, many supply ships to come and now it's something that happens a couple times a month. 

Figuring out when you're working in when you're not on the space station is much like earth except that I would say that the mission seems just imperative all the time and yet if you actually work 18 hours a day every day, I mean this is a marathon. You're up there for at least six months. You're not going to be able to bring your whole self to the table if you work like that all the time. I used to think that, "I would work every weekend." All that, but you're really tired in partly because you were multitasking for a good, good 12 hour day. If everything is going well in your lane, so to speak with your experiments, with your activities, then you need to be listening to how everybody else is doing. 

If anybody needs help, no matter which part of the space station or what country they come from, you're going to go and offer that help or even more ideally you're going to understand what that help is and you're just going to show up with it. That help just might be lunch, it might just be, "Hey, I'll watch that while there's five minutes here. If you want to run to the bathroom." Then if nobody else needs help, you should be taking a picture or a video of them at work and it should be a good one. That is a whole bunch of challenges that makes every day, every day, really busy and at the same time you have to take some time for yourself.

Partly to do the things that make you human. For me that would be things like music. It would be lessons for kids. It would be telling my girlfriends back home that I would... I often would have virtual coffee with my sister's girlfriends and I wanted to be able to be, to show up for virtual coffee and sometimes I would just make a little recording for that. The things that make you a human, a person, it's really so important to do those things. If I went back, I would stop my day exactly at the end of the day, no matter how important I thought it was to keep going and I would make sure that I did more of those things that were my humanity or help someone else bring theirs. 

Weekends do exist on Friday night is often our night for group dinner because it's just by with the time we get to Friday, most of us are freely out of gas and we're people that are pretty good at working pretty hard and being pretty busy. That's the night that we maybe sit around and watch a movie or do our own thing because you're just mentally exhausted. Saturday morning for the first half of the day is housecleaning and everybody has their chores. It's just really a lot more fun to basically fly around with a vacuum. I felt like a witch or something, you have the vacuum canister and you can even hold it between your feet and then you're just using your hands to pull yourself along. We vacuum all the events that the air gets recycled through and that's where things are stuck in sticky. That's also where you find the things that you have lost all week. 

I would say I spend at least half of Sunday getting ready for Monday and getting ready for the week. I mean, if you did everything exactly on the timeline, you'd always be behind. Being prepared, understanding what things are easy and what things are hard with your week coming up. The best thing is Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning, once a week when I was on the space station, we would get to have a video conference with our family and NASA puts a computer with a Webcam in our family's home or these days I think they actually have laptops and they're a little more mobile. For my family what this meant was it was open house at Cady's house on Sunday mornings. People would come through and I would end up giving tours with the flying around with the laptop and the Webcam. 

I would say, "This is where I sleep and this is where this experiment is, and do you want to look out the window?" They can look on the map and see that the space station is going over South America. I can say and see there's chilly. Every part of the world has a different texture and you can see the mountains feel sharp here. Weekends are times that we get to do some of these things that we brought up at sort of as private citizens to do play music, talk about things that we think are special that people would like to understand about space. 

We're allowed to bring things in different capacities in a personal capacity our stuff fits in a sandwich bag, but then there's some official capacities because NASA really respects sharing and discovery. It was in that way that I was allowed to bring a flute for the chieftains, actually a flute and a pending whistle for this renowned Irish band and a flute for Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, who I respected very much for bringing the flute to rock music and making it so somebody like me could express themselves, not just sitting in an orchestra. I got to actually play these up in space. It was my thing that I would do actually after that hour of the night when I was supposed to be sleeping and I wouldn't go to the cupola and just float there looking at the earth and playing music often listening to my band that I played with down on earth made up of several astronauts, Ben Della. 

I would often listen to them in the background and play along. That was my way of practicing and having my friends in that feeling of doing something special together. I also brought things that I thought would be meaningful to different people to sit to say thank you. I brought a t-shirt for Doctors Without Borders. I brought a t-shirt for Folk Alley because that was the music that I listened to. You get to pick what you listened to up there and I was the first person to request NPR, which was just the way I get my news. It was nice to have that, and of course for my kid that you get to bring some books. I brought books that my kid like to read and that was one way that we really got to stay together as a family. 

You can only say hello and I think this applies to many of the people deployed around the world that are separate from their families. You can say, "Hello? How are you? How's your day?" After a while that gets a little bit old and my son was 10 and we were reading a book called Peter and the Starcatchers. Where it's got smart boys and smart girls and fairy dust and sword fighting and everything. I just say, "Hey, I thought I'd read a little of the book, will that be okay?" By reading aloud, even though he couldn't see me, just gave us a way to be together. 

A moment that was right, I guess I'll say a time that was a very special time for all of us on the space station was actually a hard moment, which was that, Paolo's mom passed away unexpectedly. As a crew, everyone deals with those things differently and Paolo was generous enough to basically share that time, allow us to understand how he was doing, what he wanted, what would make him feel better. Of course, on the ground everyone really wants to make that happen as well. 

Part of our job as a crew was to shelter him from all the different possibilities, give him the set of possibilities and say, "Paulo, what do you want to do?" It was agreed that we would be present at his mom's funeral and we would all gather in the cupola and just be together. It turned out, and I was the person that actually figured this out when I just thought we should see where we're going to be at that exact moment and we were over Italy. The kindness was really something that Paolo shared for us was that he was willing to share that moment with us and make... everyone was sad for him. Everyone wish they could do something and he allowed us to.

I think we all crave texture in that manifested itself. I think thanks to Paolo, our Italian into pizza and we really, really, really wanted pizza. It was a real discovery for me. I mean, Paolo is from Italy and if I wanted to find out how Palo was, I mean eating on the fly that was not going to be the way to discover how Paolo was. If I was, I'd be working and he'd say, "Hey, you want to eat?" I go, "Hey Paolo, I'm going to be another hour." He goes, "I'll wait." Because it was really an important time to talk together and to digest the day and figure out what the thing is for the next day and complained to somebody that, "This happened again. I hate it when they do that." It's just this really human necessity. 

My favorite thing I have to share about Paolo is that, and I think it shows that everyone brings a different value to the team, is that Paolo sees in a very visual way. In the node one, once this where we would eat and it's the middle of the space station, you have to go through there to get the rest of the segment through there to get to the U.S. segment and that's where the kitchen table is and the kitchen table is horizontal. You might wonder why. I mean, nothing is going to stay on the kitchen table. Horizontal, vertical, diagonal, it doesn't matter unless you tape it down. We would have duct tape down there so you could stick things on there and just temporarily while we ate or Velcro or a bungee cord, right? Everybody had bruises on their hips from going to and coming from, back and forth and you would run into this table. It was right there.

As soon as the first team of three left, now Paolo and Dmitri and I were the grownups. Within the hour, Paolo took down that table, figured out where to put it at a diagonal. I mean vertical, we wouldn't have a place to gather and we really need to do that, but at a diagonal so that we had a place to gather, but it wasn't in the way. I mean, everybody sees things differently and sometimes it's really important to act.

In this world we have a lot of metrics, we have a lot of ways that we measure things and there's testing and there's measuring and are you good at this? Do you know how to do this? Especially in school. Certainly that continues through the astronaut program and we're certainly graded on almost everything we do, where someone's watching or deciding. What I discovered in a place where it's all about living and it's all about accomplishing a mission, is that it's the things that are between the metrics that are really important. 

Then I discovered, for myself that I have skills in really understanding how the team is doing and literally knowing how to touch each person and make sure that they're doing okay for their day and they have what they need. They've asked their questions or that maybe what I need to do for them is to leave them alone. I learned that with somebody that could really be part of the fabric that made the mission work. At the same time that the biggest thing to learn was that if I discovered that about myself, then everybody brought something, found something unexpected that they brought to the mission and that I really needed to understand what they felt like they brought and acknowledge it and embrace it. 

When you're on earth, you're always feeling something, whether you're laying in bed or standing on your feet, but you feel something. When you're floating inside the module and not touching anything, you can actually feel the clothes that you're wearing, but you really can't feel anything else until I have to break it to you. It's just really a matter of time and it's usually less than a minute before you actually run into something and float into something. That idea that you could almost feel physically feel nothing, it's really interesting. It can actually almost be a little scary.

Hearing is loud, it's like being in a place in a commercial airplane, in a place with lots of fans and noise. What's fascinating to me is that our speaking distance, our natural distance to communicate with each other is so much closer. It's much like it is in some foreign countries where there are natural distances just closer. Yet as Americans sometimes we feel like we have to scooch back a little bit and I really noticed this because I flew with each of two identical twins and one I spent four and a half months with and really knew each other very well. It was just, you just float up to each other, be very close and say, "Hey, what about this? Do you want to do that?" Then when his brother came on board for a shorter shuttle mission, it just felt like the same person. I found myself very close to him and I looked at him and I go, "You are not Scott." He goes, "Nope, I'm mark."

Smelling, I have to talk about smelling just because everybody wants to know what space smells like. I say, "Well, it depends on who you're with." I was the new gym clothes police where I would go, "Boys, it is that day, new gym clothes." We wear the same clothes all the time, but gym clothes we have lots of, and actually it really just never smelled badly up there. But then, people want to go deeper than that and understand the smell of space. There is a smell that happens when a new ship arrives and it's like having a front hall. Like in a European or Norwegian house, you always have a door that opens and now there's the place you're going take your shoes off. It's like having that an air lock literally. 

When you open your hatch, because a new ship arrives, there's a little space that was exposed to space until the new ship arrived and then that's the front hall. You open it up and of course you've pressurized it, but it has this little like a taste of the back of your mouth taste. Which is that there's a lot of radiation space in space and it's oxidized a lot of things. You're really just tasting a lot of things that are just like not, I don't know, it's just this kind of taste.

It makes me so curious, there's two ways for me looking down, there's looking straight down and then you want to see more and more and closer like, who lives there? What are they doing? Are there highways? When we can see a lot of those things from space. It's fascinating, I love the world at night. I mean you can look and you can see the Nile and you see that most people are living from at least most power is close to the Nile. In terms of where are the people and what are they doing? Looking down, it's about being curious, but looking out and seeing the curve of the earth, it's very clear that you're in a spaceship and you're sailing around the earth and it's a very special place to be. 

I think I suspected it before I went to the space station, but living on the space station looking down made it very clear that the earth is a spaceship and we all live there and that we are the crew of spaceship earth. I've always been somebody that wanted to make sure that the crew worked together. I loved when I was an exchange student when I was a student, high school student. I've done some experiences with the State Department in Brunei, in Dubai and in New Zealand. I've traveled quite a bit around the world in training and I consider all of these, I consider being an American astronaut deployed to Russia for six weeks at a time, several times a year, training in Japan, training in Canada, training in Europe. 

All of these are exchanges. In every one of them, you're getting a little chance to rediscover yourself in a new environment, realize that you could have different possibilities. That's something that excites me, and learning what those possibilities might be. Often you're learning them from different people that you didn't expect would be your new and closest friends. That's what I think is the most wonderful thing about exchange is that, by the definition in the word, there's some give and there's some take and there's discovery. It's discovery you're not going to be able to make if you stay only in the place you physically live. Even though I will say I think there's a lot we can do when we venture in a virtual way for open-minded to really taking a look at who is behind that camera and what's behind that camera. 

There're perspectives that I gained that I'll never forget. Going and talking at girls schools in Brunei where everyone was wearing avail except for me. Yet just talking to them and answering their questions, they have the same questions that everyone else has and they're just as eager to understand how do they take their place as the explorers that leave our planet and explore further. That was very profound to me to realize that in traveling the world over. That's a very human thing and it's the same for all of us and that's why by definition we explore together. 

Christopher 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 is Christopher Wursturst, 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, former astronaut Cady Coleman shared stories about her three missions to space including her six months stay on the International Space Station. Since retiring, Cady has begun participating in ECA speaker programs, sharing her incredible with audiences around the world. For more about speaker programs and other ECA exchanges check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to @ecacollaboratoryatstate.gov that's E-C-A C-O-L-L-A-B-O-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage that's @eca.state.gov/22.33.

We encourage you to follow us on Instagram @22.33stories. Special thanks to Cady for taking the time to share her amazing stories with us. Ana-Maria Sinitean and I did the interview and I edited this segment. Featured music was Allotted by Gustaf London, Heavenly motion by Brylie Christopher Oxley, Funeral Day by Julian Ollie, Dreams in Blue by Josh Woodward and Entwined Oddity, Gray Lock and Kid Cody all by Blue Dot Sessions. 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 63 - [Bonus] The Food We Eat, Part 9

LISTEN HERE - Episode 63


Our ninth installment of crazy food stories features stories from the United States, Syria, the Dominican Republic, Lithuania, India, Colombia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Christopher W.: Welcome to the 22.33 diner. My name is Chris and I will be your server. Let me tell you about today's specials. The soup of the day is chicken foot. For the entree we have a Syrian stew, for dessert some fresh coconut, and that will be followed by some very, very strong coffee. I'll be back to take your order in just a sec. Oh, and you're listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange and food stories.

Speaker 2: Do I smell? I probably would smell the fried chicken from the across the street. There was a restaurant that was making fried chicken. I had tasted the pizza that we were having at lunch at school every day.

Christopher W.: This week. Don't eat the street vendor's ceviche. Don't let a day go by without some coconut milk and don't let anyone tell you that the world's best food comes from anywhere, but Aleppo. Join us, on a journey around the world to tickle your taste buds. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchange has shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: 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 ... (singing)

Speaker 6: I must say food. Very strange because I found it difficult to actually find something that looked similar in Ghana, at least if not the same. From the beginning I basically did not have anything. I didn't see anything close to what I knew. Hamburger was like a first time for me ever knowing what a hamburger is. Pizza too, it might look surprising but pizza was actually ... That was my first time actually knowing what pizza was.

Speaker 7: The food in Aleppo is spectacular. I'll preface it that it's not by accident. I mean there's friendly rivalries across many cities in the middle East about what city makes the best food, but you know, hands down when you look at this topic across the board objectively, I will say that Aleppo is a special place. It is known as sort of like the Paris culinarily speaking of the middle East. And the reason for that is not by accident. Historically Aleppo was a merchant city. It was located towards the end of the silk road and it had an incredible amount of diversity of people passing through this area. Aleppo has been a central community to Circassians, Armenians, Jews, Christians, Muslims. It had rich cultural, ethnic and religious diversity that I think contributed to the cuisine it has today.

There was this one dish called Kibbeh Safarjaliyeh. Now Kibbeh is the one of the most iconic dishes. It takes on a variety of formats, but the essence is it's very lean meat, usually lamb mixed with bulgur wheat to make a dough and then it's stuffed with either more meat or sometimes butter or sometimes [inaudible 00:03:56], which is lamb fat, but they say, they have a saying in Arabic [foreign language 00:04:01], which means Aleppo is the mother of all forms of kibbeh and hashi, which are stuffed vegetables. And this one particular type of kibbeh is called Kibbeh Safarjaliyeh, and it's quince kibbeh. Quince, if you haven't had it before. It's very popular in the Mediterranean region. It's like a cross between an apple and a pear. It's very astringent, very tart, very sour. But when you cook it down, it's sweet and delicious. In fact, in Spain they make membrillo out of it, which is this a quince paste that they serve with manchego cheese.

But here in Aleppo they make a stew out of it, and they fill it with pomegranate and molasses and pieces of kibbeh that are stewed in there. And the first time I had this dish, I actually didn't like it. My host mom made it for me and she's this older woman who can't have a lot of sour notes because she's ... Her stomach will refuse it. And so I ate it and I thought it was okay. But her daughter is an expert cook. Her name is Tantrena, and she's still in Aleppo today. She taught me many of the recipes I learned during my research project. She invited me over to her house one day and I casually asked her, "Oh, what are you making?" And she said Kibbeh Safarjaliyeh.

And I pause and I was like, "Oh." I didn't say that I didn't like it, but she's like, she sensed it because I was pretty obvious in my reaction. And she's like, "Did you have Kibbeh Safarjaliyeh at my mom's?" And I was like, "I did, and I thought it was ... It was good," I said. I sort of, it was a white lie and she's like, "You need to have it at my place." And she really packed in those sour notes, the pomegranate and molasses that really helps cut the sweetness of the quines and it was phenomenal. It was like when I had it at her house, it was one of my favorite dishes I've ever experienced.

Speaker 8: Maybe you just have to go back to the [inaudible 00:06:04] issue. This time it was my friend, who invited me for Halloween. Most of my friends knew I was Muslim, but like I said, "In that town, if you're not careful, I had to basically ask of everything what ... I mean if there's any food, sometimes I had to ask questions." Because they will seem to be normal. Like they don't really pay attention to this, but I saw it. It was my religion. I didn't have to take pork. So there was this food, I think it was like a soup prepared and you had some meat in it. So actually tasted the food. First I belittled the idea that they could have ... There could possibly be meat in this.

So, it was later that I felt no, there's meat in this, let me quick ask because I'm so used to the town that if I don't ask, it's possible I'm just going to take pork. So basically that was one funny event, and it turned out that there was pork in it and I'd already taken some, but that is fine. With the religion, if you don't intentionally eat it, it's not a problem.

And another thing, I don't take alcohol. I think one time too, there was another event. When there's an event we go, the family and friends meet. The older ones take alcohol and stuff that they mix it with some lemonade. So there was this jar of cup with ... So I never expected alcohol to be in that jar, because that was the lemonade jar. But at that point they had mixed lemonade with alcohol. So I took it and it tasted funny. So I had asked my host mom and she started laughing. She said, "There's alcohol there." You know, that was another funny, I may have just taken a little. So basically this were some of my funny moments that something that you were actually very careful of, you didn't want to aggregate this and sometimes you can just control what comes to you.

Speaker 9: Well the first time I went to the Dominican Republic, which was not with Fulbright, but was in 2007 in college, I got very sick with travelers stomach bug kind of illness. I was working in a clinic with a group of physicians as well as some other undergraduate students and we were doing public health research. So I stayed home the day that I was sick and one of the physicians stayed back to kind of watch over me. And when I returned the next day to clinic, the women who usually would make us lunch felt really terrible that I was sick. And so I told them, "You know, it's okay, I'll just have a little bit of plain rice, don't worry about me." But they made me the soup and it was chicken soup, which is very familiar thing that you eat when you're sick.

And I was really grateful to them for taking the time to do that. And as I started digging the soup, I noticed a chicken's foot reaching out of the soup towards me and I had no idea what to do. I'd never encountered that before. I felt really bad because I didn't want to be rude, so I just ate around the foot, but I wasn't really sure what I was supposed to do with it. And it was clear that they were ... I think that that was something that was kind of like the best, a good part of the chicken that especially if somebody is sick, you give them, but it was really difficult for me.

Speaker 10: We have this traditional food called Ambuyat, which is basically, I don't know how to explain it, but it's like ... It's from this plant, okay, I'm messing this up. But it's this product called sago. I don't know how to explain it, but it's like white and translucent and it was essentially a rice substitute back in the days that became kind of a staple for people when we didn't have access to food because of the World War II, so. And it kind of becomes like a traditional food now and you've got different sides to it, which is like pickled mango. Is really, really different stuff for different people. So it's pretty exciting, yeah.

The first thing that we were actually pretty surprised about where the portions of the food is so different to the portions back home was kind of like this is good for two people. We're like these really small Asians coming down to the restaurant and we're like, "Oh so we probably should have shared it." But yeah, it was really great. We're always subconsciously leaning towards Asian food. So for me it was like, because I love Korean food as well. So I was like, "There wasn't a lot of Malaysian and Indonesian food close to where we were staying in Providence." So I was like Korean food, Chinese food, it's all good. I guess that's for me, because I've traveled quite a bit, because my dad's also a diplomat, so we've kind of moved around the world quite a bit. And the thing that I've always found comfort in and found myself being feeling like I was home was always in food, so yeah.

Speaker 11: I used to go to church, I used to go to a Lutheran church in Des Moines in west De Moines actually. And you know that in churches you have karaffes of coffee that you can have after the service. In Bangladesh we had Nescafe, the instant coffee. And I was used to with that kind of coffee, but I never had real coffee that comes from coffee beans. When I went to the church, I told my host dad that, "Hey, I'm a very good coffee drinker. I like my coffee strong, I want to have coffee here."

So I was just a senior in high school and he was not sure whether I can take it. So he was doubting me. He was like, "Are you sure you drink coffee in Bangladesh?" And I was taking pride like, "Hey, I take like four spoonful of coffee and I make my own coffee and nobody can drink coffee like me." And then he kind of with doubts in his mind he kind of poured a little bit of coffee in my cup. The moment I tried to chug it, and the moment I tasted it, the liquid, it was nothing, nothing like I've ever tasted before. And I immediately ran towards the bathroom. I threw up, I got a headache, I came back and I was like, "What was that?"

And my host dad was, "That was coffee." So I think that was something very shocking to me. But towards the end of my exchange program, I actually became a fan of coffee. That same charge coffee. That's because my host dad gave me a suggestion that, "Hey, you should be taking a little bit of coffee and then pour a little bit of water and then add cream and sugar and then slowly you should be increasing the amount of coffee and decreasing the amount of water. So slowly I think I got addicted to, well, I shouldn't be saying addicted, but I became a fan of coffee. So when I came back there was a reverse culture shock. I could not find original coffee in Bangladesh, so I was in another trouble, you know? But fortunately I found a cafe by an American and I ended up, once I got to know about that place, I ended up working for him just so that I can have coffee.

Speaker 12: I think food was the thing that I probably complained the most about since I came. First thing was I, as a Latino, I'm used to eat a soup for lunch and something else, like another meal, but soup is there. The first thing I would have and I would go to places, I would see those broccoli and cheddar and I'm like, "What is that? That doesn't sound like soup at all." And I actually never had it, maybe I should give it a try before I go.

So I was frustrated to find good soups here. It took me some time, but I finally did. Most hilarious thing I probably saw was a weekend or two ago I was at a party and someone made a Oreo pudding. Not only that I was so pretty shocked that Oreos can be double stuffed and they're way too sweet. But that pudding was Oreos, whipped cream and chocolate mixed in a bowl. And I was saying, "How extra can you be?" It's just like, "No." I did not have that. I tried and I was like, "No."

And yeah, and other thing I'd say is I probably got introduced to more a global cuisine than anywhere. I got to eat a lot of Asian dishes. I learned their names. For the first time I had so many things, and surprisingly these are Asian things like ramen. I never had that before, or bi bim bop, or pate. You know, these things that meant nothing to me back home. Now I kind of can say, "Oh I want this. I am craving for ramen." One day we went to Museum of Natural History, and since they have some real bugs there, insects, you can go and check them out. And we were looking at this insect, I don't remember the name of it. And we were holding in a hand. And then after that we'd go to a Mexican food place and we get tacos, and there was that one taco with insect that we just saw. And they were like, "Do you want to try?" And I was like, "Well, let's go for it." And no, but I just had a bite of that and I was like, "No, I like them alive more than in my mouth."

Speaker 13: And then my next favorite thing is just the frequency of being able to buy coconuts. So every street corner has a guy selling coconuts. He's got a coconut in one hand and machete in the other, and he's cracking these open like nobody's business. You're afraid for his fingers, but he's not at all. And so it's just amazing the ease and that they will just crack these open for you. So, they've just got them stacked up like little bowling pins or something. I don't know how you describe it, but they're just kind of like stacked up and just load, and they've got these carts loaded with them.

And they know based on the color on the outside what the taste and the flavor will be on the inside. So the way a coconut works is when it begins, it's got a green outer husk on the outside and inside the actual round coconut, the kind of inner cavity, the white meat that we're familiar with will slowly develop so you can crack them open and the meat won't be there yet.

And instead it's mostly liquid and it's a very sweet liquid. And then as it begins to develop, the meat will get thicker. And kind of that juice will almost ferment a little bit. So you'll get almost like a little bit of a carbonated feel to the water. And depending on what your preference is, you can say, "Oh, I want it sweet, or I want it like I want more meat in it," or that kind of a thing. And depending on that, he can just look visually at the color of all the coconuts he has stacked and he'll grab one and hack it open for you.

And so the first thing he does is he just slices off the top and he removes that little bit of the outer husk until it gets down to that harder inner cavity. And then with the tip of his machete he'll kind of hack open a little bit of an opening and then either pop a straw in it or you just drink it straight from there. And so then you sit there and at any given time around a coconut stand, he'll have about five to 10 customers just drinking their coconut.

You'll see people pull to the side of the road on their commute to work and their wife on the back was complaining that she's thirsty. So he'll pull over and get her a coconut and kind of all walks of life will be coming together. Auto drivers will pull over, kids on their way to school, all dressed in their uniforms, will grab a coconut and so you drink it, you drink the water that's inside, and then you hand it back to him.

And at that point he will hack it, opened, split it in two, and then carve out the meat that is on the inside and then hand it back to you. And it's nothing more than about 10 to 25 rupees, which is like 20 to 30 cents that you can get a coconut. And here you're buying them for like $6 a piece sometimes in a restaurant. So I recognized I didn't want to take that for granted. I had a coconut every morning. The guy who would sell the coconuts would ask me where I was if I forgot to come one day. He's like, "Where were you yesterday or where were you over the weekend?" Said, "Oh, I traveled, I was in Chennai or so." And he's like, "I was worried about you." So kind of those little relationships that you have on a daily basis is something that yeah, it was a lot of fun and yeah, I didn't take it for granted that I had coconuts in such abundance.

Speaker 14: We're in Colombia, one of my now of course, incredibly favorite countries ever and we're in Cartagena, which if you have not been, go quickly now, it's just, it's so beautiful. One of the things that is fabulous about Cartagena is the seafood. I'm a huge fan of ceviche, and I've eaten ceviche all over Colombia. And mind you never had food poisoning or never had a problem with it. It's so fresh. It's delicious. And oh, so you go to this place, you get to Cartagena and everybody has a favorite place.

Our fixer has this is like the little stand. You don't go to the restaurant, you go a little stand and it's incredibly fresh and you pick your own and you sit there and you eat it out of a cup in the warm summer night and it's beautiful. But one day we fly to Bogota, we fly to Cartagena we get there and the whole crew goes out for lunch. But I've got to prep for this interview and I'm really nervous about it. I want to get it right. We have one crack to get this interview, right. So I'm like, "Nah, I'll just eat some soup in the hotel."

So they go and they come back and they say, "Wow, you missed the best lunch ever." And I was like, "Oh, I'm really jealous. Maybe I shouldn't have prepped, whatever." So our interview, he comes, we start to film and the sky opens and it's raining like crazy. And now I'm thinking the whole time I'm doing the interview, the sound of the rain on this tin roof, this is going to be a disaster, but we don't have another shot. So we'll just go forward. But maybe you know, movie magic, get it in post, which by the way, everybody in post hates when you come back and say, "You can fix this, right?"

So we're going forward, we're going forward. The interview's going like, eh, okay. But I suddenly notice that the camera guy's running back and forth to his room and the sound guy's running back and forth and there's some sort of weird commotion, but nobody wants to say anything. And I'm asking my questions and asking my questions, and then the camera guy comes back and he goes, "Can you just operate the camera?" And I am not a shooter. So I look at him and I say, "Okay, but do you really want to do this?" And he goes, "I'll be right back again."

So we finish up the interview, I'm not convinced. The subject leaves and I turn around to talk to the crew. So what happened? I can't find them. I go into their rooms and they are both hanging over their toilets. For the next 24 hours lunch came and it's leaving and leaving and leaving and leaving. And I of course feel fine and we realize that while the lunch was a disaster and the interview didn't work. At the least, we got it down and I was saved. So never go to lunch, but always have ceviche for dinner.

Christopher W.: 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. 21.33 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.

In this episode, our taste buds were tempted by Twanita Hahn, Noosa [foreign language 00:24:13] Al-Hassan, Irene [00:24:15 Maktu], Moyisa Harun, Monef Khan, [Ruta Ben-a-Rute 00:24:20], Kayla [Huw-Amer 00:24:21] and Leslie Thomas.

We thank them for their stories and for their willingness to try new things. For more about ECA exchanges including Fulbright Programs. You can check us out at eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and we would love to hear from you. You can write to us always at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's ECA, C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov.

Complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33 and now you can follow us on Instagram at 22.33 stories. Special thanks this week to everybody for sharing their food stories, delicious or otherwise. Ana Maria, Sangeet, Dean and I did the various interviews and I edited this segment. Featured music during this segment was Spring Is Sprung by Gerry Mulligan. Music at the top of each food episode is Monkeys Spinning Monkeys by Kevin MacLeod and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.  


Season 01, Episode 62 - Gems of Wisdom with Wordsmith

LISTEN HERE - Episode 62


One of hip hop’s great forces for good, Baltimore native Wordsmith has traveled around the world showing that music inspires in every culture and that, no matter where you travel, if you open your heart and mind, people will embrace you.


Christopher W.: What happens when a ray of positivity is pointed at places that least expect it? Places where poverty and at times, hopelessness have taken hold. Well, joy ensues and new outlooks and as the ambassador of positivity, you thrive on that joy. The possibilities, the new friendships and you know that while you're new fans are feeding on the positive messages you are sending, they are also filling you with love. It's a two way street. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Wordsmith: I'm a teacher of the masses. Malcolm X with the glasses. A lecture in your classes. Blast this, never blasphemous. Shine brighter with no lighters, internal fire, true writer, back in the day call me that type writer. Lyric space, bars I never cut and paste. Word, I'm your saving grace people, now there's no debate. I make it okay. Oh hey, let me get that ear. Diamond in that rougher the toucher, your mom's love and care. A new age, new plague is in a flux. Everything is online. Newspapers drying up. Technology, the universal remedy. We used to read books, now the library's empty.

Christopher W.: This week, the ultimate be yourself culture. Trying to get to normal, and we can do more. Join us on a journey from Baltimore, Maryland around the world to connect over beats and ideas. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: When you get to know these people, they're not quite lie you. You read about them, they are people very much like ourself and-
Speaker 6: That's what we call cultural exchange. Yeah.

Wordsmith: What's going on everybody? My name is Wordsmith, I'm a songwriter performer out of Baltimore, Maryland. Consider myself a motivational hip hop artist, where basically, I want to give you energy, uplift your spirit and your soul. I've chosen a tougher path doing positive music that's also politically driven at times, but it's my path. It's my purpose and it effects and impacts the youth.

Wordsmith: I was blessed enough to get into the auditions in 2016 and when up to New York, and I brought my band with me and it went so well that... I probably shouldn't say this, one of the judges came out of the room and he was like, "Look, I'm not even supposed to be out here, but you're good to go." I may not be an artist that's all over TV and the radio and all of that stuff, but I have... my fans are true fans. They've met me in person. I've had meals with these people. I have genuine connections just like I do with some of my best friends you know, back here in the United States.

Wordsmith: I was a big hip hop fanatic growing up. I used to collect tapes. For people that don't remember what tapes are. I used to collect tapes and I actually still have my tape collection, because it's a part of my history as a person. I just really loved hip hop growing up. How everybody is unique and different, and wore all these crazy different hairstyles and different clothing. I just felt hip hop culture, everybody was being themselves, you know what I mean? It was the ultimate be yourself culture. Be comfortable in your own skin culture. Wear your clothes, wear your hair, wear your shoes anyway you want type of culture.

Wordsmith: I just bit on it onto that as a kid, and I remember Yo! MTV Raps and the box being out and VHS tapes, man I sound old, but I used to tape all that stuff and keep all that stuff in shoe boxes, and it was like my history of hip hop, or when it was becoming big and commercialized and everything. But I didn't think I was going to become a musician during that time, I just knew I loved it. I actually wanted to be more of an actor than anything, and that's what my degree is in college, that's theater arts.

Wordsmith: When I fully transitioned into music, I still bring theater arts into my music with the way I express my music and the way I present my music, and everything is probably been a little bit different because I don't think my dream was always to just be this big time artist. My dream was always to just impact people, more than anything, the youth. So when I found these programs, and I was like, "Man, they fund programs to send artists overseas to impact the youth?" It was just a big moment for me, because I was like, "This is why I make my music."

Wordsmith: Because you know, I would spend a lot times contact people in the U.S., "Hey can I come into your school? Hey, can I come into this place and deliver this lecture, or do this concert?" And then I find these programs here at the State Department, I was like, "These are perfect. These were made for artists like me who want to do this, and this is what I'm about." So I'm just blessed to do this to be honest.

Wordsmith: They're not always going to understand everything I'm saying being from American speaking English, but the thing with music is, you can invoke an emotion. A song can make someone feel a certain way to where, "I don't know everything you're saying, but it's giving me this feeling. It's giving me this emotion, a joy, or it's... I was sad when I came to this concert, and now I feel great." I've literally had kids that... I've done these concerts or these workshops, and I've had kids... and it's sad to hear sometimes that they'll say, "Oh, I've been depressed for months." And they'll be like, "Your concert woke me up."

Wordsmith: I put in parenthesis, this what they say to me, "It woke me up. It made me feel good about myself. I feel reenergized. I feel... you know, not the way I've been feeling the past few months. I feel like I got a lot of work to still do with myself, but I feel better about who I am, being more comfortable in my own skin, and just progressing in life. So I've really seen how my music can touch the youth, and really get them to start thinking differently and give them a better perspective.

Wordsmith: When I went to Africa the first time, it was in Cote d'Ivoire, and when I went there, they speak French there. I was totally unprepared, and I collaborated with some of the musicians. That's when I would say the light went on, because we weren't able to literally hold a conversation with one another, but we were able to go through some of my songs, and then be like, "You know, this is my flavor," or me have my translator say, "Hey, this song is about making a statement in life and standing for you opinion, and standing for what you believe in." Portray that to the artists, he's like, "Oh, I got a verse for this, where I talk exactly about this thing right here."

Wordsmith: You know, and that light goes on. It's like, "Oh, you don't have to sit down and have this deep conversation with people. You can find a common connection." Which was making a statement in life, and we was able to collab on a record with literally this other artist not knowing lick of English, and me not knowing a lick of French and we performed the song together on stage, and it went so well. That was the first time that light bulb went on, I was like, "This experience is so amazing."

Wordsmith: You could see the joy out of both of us on stage while we're doing this record. We're really doing this together. Now it's more second nature to me, and I get out there to this countries, I'm like, "Where the artists at?"

Wordsmith: All artists are a little weird. I mean... we're a little weary at the box, we're quirky. We have our different times where we create music, or when we get a feeling for music, but the thing we all have in common is I think real musicians want to impact people, you know? I think you make music to impact people, and the hip hop genre, I think that's been lost a little bit. Some of the music just kind of... it's out to be out, and the basis of hip hop is storytelling, and a lot of it was... I would say apart of news. You were telling people about a society and the way people lived that a lot of people didn't know back in the day. They didn't know the struggle and poverty stricken communities, or police and justice, police brutality.

Wordsmith: So through hip hop, and through this type of music, and I talk about these things, a lot of these things are going on in... unfortunately, in third world countries all the time. Embezzlement, police corruption, government corruption, so there's your connection right there. You're like, "I'm going through some of that same stuff in my country."

Wordsmith: I think on the music side, the stuff I talk about is very relatable to what's going on in everyday life. Like I have a song Living Life Check to Check. It's about the struggle of just trying to make money everyday, or trying to live everyday. So think about you go to Africa where they're not waking up everyday. "What soccer ball am I going to kick? What sport am I going to play? What playground am I going to go to?" They're waking up everyday and saying, "When's my next meal?" Simple basic stuff, and so someone like me, who I make really blue collar music about everyday people, and the struggles everyday people... it's a little bit easier for me to connect.

Wordsmith: You're supporting a purpose when you send a musician out there. They're not just going out there to just do their music. You're going out there to connect with a different culture. Bring American culture to them, and then bring their culture back to America. That's one thing, when I go out there is I try to show the best of that culture. So I might be in a particular place that... it may not be the most beautiful place, it might be a tough economy, but I don't show any of that. I show the good times, when I'm hanging out with the kids, I show the good times I'm doing concerts, or when I'm just having a special moment talking to somebody.

Wordsmith: I show that, because the news shows enough of the negative stuff unfortunately. So I try to be the news where it's like, "Look at these great things going on here in Namibia, in Angola, in Haiti." In places where as Americans, we probably don't have the greatest perception, because we only see what the news shows us. We're like, "Oh man, all I see about Haiti is they're constantly fighting and protesting over there." But the people out there are so beautiful. Big hearts, willing to give you the last little bit of food, last little bit of anything they have.

Wordsmith: I think that's so powerful, and something that we need to learn more as Americans, and I always try to come back. I'm like, "Man, I met so many people that have next to nothing. I have something, and they're still trying to give me stuff. Take this bread. Take this bracelet." you know what I mean? I don't need it. "Take it." You're almost insulting them when you don't take it. You have nothing, but you want to give so much, and that's something when I come back here, I try to tell people, "Listen, we don't give enough out here. We're the superpower, we're America. We should constantly... not just as this beautiful country, but as individuals we should constantly be giving. We are very privileged.

Wordsmith: I would say even our most poorest communities are very privileged in a lot of ways, because we have government backing, you got food stamps, you know what I mean? You can get temporary cash assistance. There's all these different programs that we have built to where, if you fall on tough times, there's a backup. To whereas when you go to places like Africa, and you fall on tough times, you're on tough times until you can dig your way out of it. Really think about that. There's no government backing that's like, "Hey, I'm going to help pick you up." Or, "Hey, I have this homeless shelter I can put you in until you get on your feet."

Wordsmith: You're living on the land until you can figure it out for yourself. So I come back with that on my heart every time and I almost feel conflicted a lot of times when I come back to America speaking honest. I just feel like we're so privileged, and we can do more.

Wordsmith: I met this kid named Rasheed and this was actually one of my first trips to Africa and it was Cote d'Ivoire actually, and he was my translator, and we just got really close. He was a young kid. He was I think 19 when I met him. During our talks and our travel, because sometimes we'd have long trips to the next region, and he just... you know, he started telling me his life story and he started telling me his dreams and aspirations, and his biggest aspiration was to come to college in the United States.

Wordsmith: He was like, "I just don't see how it's possible. It's something that I want to do." I said, "It's more than possible." I said, "I'm going to help you do this." If people don't know what American corner is when you go to different countries, the embassies have American corner where you can go into there and you can learn about our culture, and it's just... it's really beautiful the way it set up, and it's in all these different countries.

Wordsmith: Rasheed had learned English so fast that he was actually a teacher at American corner, and he was teaching his other colleagues, his friends English. This kid, and he had lost a lot. Two of his houses had burnt down over the course of his life. He had lost some of his brothers and sisters to sicknesses and death, but the blessed thing is, this relationship when I left, it was on my heart heavy too. "We got to get Rasheed here to the U.S."

Wordsmith: So long story short, about a year and a half go, Rasheed got a full scholarship to Endicott College in Massachusetts, and that's where he's been for almost two years now. First person in his family to ever come to America. First person in his family ever to go to college. He's going to be the first person to get a degree.

Wordsmith: Now, this is stuff we take for granted in America a lot of the times. Going to college, simple stuff like this. You got to understand, Rasheed's going to be probably the only kid out of his village in Cote d'Ivoire that's going to have a college education. Imagine the... I don't want to use the word burden, but imagine what he's going to have on his shoulders once he gets that degree, and how many people are going to be tugging at him for help, and knowing too that he's got to go back.

Wordsmith: He's got to take that knowledge. He's got to take this experience of four years in America and he's got to take that back to his home, and try to help other youth coming up behind him, and believe me, he realizes it right now, that he's going to have... somewhat of this burden. A good burden put on there, but this story is so powerful to me, because this Rasheed had nothing a lot of his life. Lost a lot, has such a great heart and then ending thing with him is, he worked hard, he kept faith, he stayed true to his dream. He had a purpose, which I talk to kids a lot, have purpose in your life.

Wordsmith: He had a purpose and sometimes you get blessings where you meet certain people, or god puts certain people in your life at times, and I felt like I was that for Rasheed, and I was there at the time, right person that would actually hear his story, and action and move on, and not hear it and go, "That's a good story, thanks for sharing it with me."

Wordsmith: No, I heard and I was like, "I'm going to be apart of making this happened." And it's something that's happened.

Wordsmith: A lot of them just want your time. Their hardships are so heavy, they just want you to listen. They just want you to sit down next to them, and they want to... I hate to say, they want to feel normal. Again, here, feeling normal is something we can kind of create. This is a normal day for me. Everyday for them, they don't really know what's going to happen.

Wordsmith: You know, yeah, we could say that here, because everyday is kind of like gift. You open it up, and you're like, "Oh, what's going to happen today?" But we can kind of plan our schedule. They don't really have a schedule in some of these other countries, and so I just think them being able to gain some hope and energy from me, someone that's coming in and smiling, and I'm upbeat and I'm like, "Hey, let's have a good time today. Let's do some music. Let's talk about how we can be successful in life."

Wordsmith: And it just instantly brings... gives their spirit something they haven't had, because you got to think, when you're around your regular surroundings everyday, you might just bee seeing the negative everyday. You might be the most positive person in the world, but if it's just negativity day after day after day, can they open your positivity some. Sometimes you need people that are naturally positive, love life, love seeing others be successful into your life and say, "I'm just going to sit down next to you. Tell me about yourself. Don't worry about me, I'm irrelevant right now, all right?

Wordsmith: I'm just an ear for you, and I really take pride in that part. After I talk to kids, we take a couple pictures. I'm probably one of the people who were like, "Hey, you got any brothers and sisters? What's your favorite subject in school? Hey, what do you love to do?" Next thing you know, I'm an hour sitting down talking to kids, you know what I mean? But they love it, and that's all they want is your time.

Wordsmith: I've had a lot of people that have welcomed my band and I into their household. I will say, I know there's one time when one of my tours, literally the first day we got to our country, the first meal we had was in a house. It wasn't in a hotel, it wasn't in a restaurant, it was home cooking. I believe it was in one my Africa tours. It was home cooking we had, and actually hung out... I remember with the family's kids that day and play a couple games with them. We danced in the house with, and that was my first experience.

Wordsmith: My first day coming on the tour, you're talking about warm welcome, that was a warm welcome right there, but I've had a lot of those where I've stepped foot into a place, and within two days, three days I'm having a personal dinner with someone, or I'm going to an event, or I'm going out on the night on the town with people that are from that country, and can take you around and say, "It's fun to go here. It's fun to do this, but they're at a level of comfort with me to where they want you to come out with them, because you don't knowledge me. I don't know you, and if we don't have any bond or connection, you're less likely to be like, "Hey, why don't you come out with us tonight?"

Wordsmith: So that's a way for me to gauge too how people are feeling about me, and our connection is, "Are they asking me to come out once today's work is done.? Or, "Are they interested in me meeting their family once today's work is done," and that happens all the time, so I know I'm doing my job.

Wordsmith: I don't feel like I'm big on judging people, but I do have that part of me sometimes. I meet people and I might judge them, and I talk to kids a lot about them and I tell them, I'll say, "Hey, us adults are probably worse than you guys are sometimes as far as seeing someone and instantly judging them just because of their appearance." I try to continue to work on myself when I go to these different countries and saying, "I'm meeting all these different cultures, all these different people. They look so different than I do and look different than people in America a lot of times."

Wordsmith: It's just best to sit down and talk to people, then make your judgment. You can't really look at skin color, how someone looks or anything like that. You could be missing out on your next best friend, your next best colleague. Someone that could help you in your life. Someone that can help you with a job, you just never know. If you just look at someone and go, "Oh, well they're not someone I'd regularly would hang around." Or, "They don't look like the people I normally hang around."

Wordsmith: So every time I go overseas on these programs, I remind myself, "I'm not here to judge anybody. I'm here to accept everybody. Talk to people, get to know them." Then I reserve my right to be like, "I want to give you more of my time or not." So when I come back to the U.S. I'm even harder on myself, because I feel like we are a big judgemental... just country.

Wordsmith: So when I come back, I'm just... to my kids most of the time, they might say something, I'll be like, "No, no, no, no, we're not judging them." "Oh you right dad, you right." We're not going to judge first, I'm like, "We don't know anything about those people, we could talk to them, they could have the biggest hearts in the world and we sitting over here across the street judging them." You know? So when I come back, I'm like, "No judgment zone. Talk first, then I'll decide."

Wordsmith: Israel and Africa I'd probably say are the most two places that really influenced me as far as when I came back. Israel was surprising to me, and I was really naïve on this. I guess when you go to Israel, you have this, "This is God's place." you know what I mean? So I'm sure everybody's real strict and by the book, and no one has fun. This is how I literally went out to Israel. Everybody just worships God all day, and they don't do anything. Just think about how dumb my thinking was, okay?

Wordsmith: So I get to Israel and I realize, "Man, they party harder than us in America sometimes, are you serious?" So I went to Israel, I mean, my eyes were opened, and I remember I had this conversation with this one young lady and I said, "I'm noticing you guys live pretty free out here." You know? I'm like, "Mount Olives is literally right behind me right here. You could take Jesus walk right here." And this is the way she put it to me, "We all love God. We all know he's right here, but he wouldn't want us to not live our lives. He didn't put us here to strictly just worship every second of the day. He wants us to live our lives and progress in life and have purposes and have goals, and that's what we all know here."

Wordsmith: So he's like, "We get in trouble just like everybody else. You know? Even though God's right here. We still get in trouble. We still make bad decisions." And I'm just like, "Duh." I don't know. You just have this thought of "It's Israel." you know what I mean? So I really got my eyes opened and when I came back, I'm like, "Israel ain't nothing like you guys think." I had such a good time. I went to so many parties, met so many great people that were just so kind and so giving.

Wordsmith: When I was in Israel, they knew so much about our presidential situation, or government. So much about the way we live, and I would say to them, "Y'all got such a beautiful culture here. It just sounds like you're more worried about what we're doing in America and I know we're close allies." But I said, "It sounds like you're so worried about our fashion and how we think and how we talk." I'm just like, "I'm loving what I'm seeing over here, it's so beautiful."

Wordsmith: Or if I'm in different parts of Africa that people might say, "Oh, this isn't the most beautiful place." I can find the beauty in it out of the people, and their culture. The way they live, or there might be musical instruments I've never seen a day in my life that's native to that country, that someone can play and you're like, "Oh, that sounds so beautiful. I've never heard or seen an instrument like that."

Wordsmith: So I would encourage them, like, "Take some stuff from us. I get that, but it's like having an idol. You have an idol or someone you look up to, you want to take bits and pieces of the things you like out of the person, but you don't want to follow them. You don't want to be just like them" that's something I would tell them is, "Be... love your culture. Love what you're about. Take some small stuff from us that maybe we do well." But I was like, "We make dumb decisions too sometimes in America. We don't always know what we're talking about all the time in America. So I don't want you to think that we know all." So I try to tell people that. We don't know everything. We don't, we could learn from you. Just like you can learn from us.

Wordsmith: I was in this place called Ganuwa, Africa. When I was in Ganuwa I was in this small village of... maybe a little over 3000 people, and they'd never had an American artist step foot in their village before. They've never... a lot of people there never even seen a live band before. It was a village that was very, very deep in poverty. So you got to think most American artists would not choose to come there, or a lot of American wouldn't choose to go to Africa in general, which bothers me.

Wordsmith: So when I went there, it was so powerful the experience, because literally the whole town was in front of me. So like I said, I was literally over 3000 people, the whole town was in front of me. The whole town. The experience was so powerful, because when it was all said and done, everybody rushed the stage, and I had so many kids at the front of the stage just saying, "Take me back with you. Take me back to the U.S. Take me back with you." It was a sad moment, but also an uplifting moment, because I knew I connected with the audience. You know? I knew I connected with the people there through my music.

Wordsmith: So many people gave me hugs that day. So many people came up to me, had conversations with me. Whether it was broken English, whether they were talking through my translator, and I remember that moment, I was like, "Man, I wish my family could see this." Because they really could see the impact of my music and why you do this. When you got a whole village out here supporting you. Wanting to be apart of this moment that became a part of... honestly, their history in Ganuwa you know? That's how I looked at it when I left, I was like, "Man, this was history right here."

Wordsmith: You know, my message is very purpose driven. About having purpose in your life, setting goals. I talk to the kids a lot about waking up every morning, and just saying, "Hey, what am I going to accomplish today?" The kids like it. I'll be like, "Don't be a zombie when you wake up and just... go through my regular day doing the same thing like, 'Oh, I got to go to school. I got practice after school.'" I'm like, "Those are great things." But I said, "Hey, I want you to think bigger, and you should start thinking bigger when you're young. What do I want to become? Why did God put me on this Earth?"

Wordsmith: You know, he put us all here to do something special, and I think the beauty of life is you got to figure that out, you know? He doesn't say, "Hey, this is your endgame." He let's you figure it out and through figuring it out, you're going to make mistakes, you're going to take wrong turns sometimes that might slow you down, you know? You might take a right turn that will speed up you getting to your goal, but I think that's the biggest thing is just purpose. Telling the kids early, have purpose.

Wordsmith: Start thinking about what your purpose is now, and it might change over time what you think you want to become now. What you love now could change in five years, but the bottom line is, it's time to start thinking about it now. Don't get up any more mornings and eat that bowl of cereal and just go through the motions, your mind should be turning. I want to get this done today. Who can I help today? Who can I give an opportunity to today? What can I get done to advance myself better today?

Wordsmith: I use... I guess my travel when I talk to kids here in Baltimore about appreciating one another. And like I said earlier about not judging one another, I talk about other cultures and maybe the way they live, and how different there are than us, and their struggles. It helps the kids to me, understand like, "Oh man, yeah, I don't know anything about that struggle you just brought up." I think it makes their mind turn and go, "Man, I'm complaining about stupid stuff a lot of times. I'm complaining about the smallest things, and this guys just told me about this kid, or this situation or this family that everyday they have to X and X just to get water."

Wordsmith: So imagine telling that to kids like, "You know how you can go to your sink and just turn it on and get water? Well imagine someone has to get up at five every morning, and walk up this big hill and walk five miles just to get clean water." Or, "Imagine living in a place where you don't have a sewer system, so all your trash and everything is just all over the streets."

Wordsmith: We're talking about regular trash. We're talking about when you go to the bathroom, everything. It's apart of your society. We don't live that way here. So jut telling these little stories of, "Hey, I've been around people that don't have hardly anything, but they will give you the world." Or, "They don't have this nice bike that you have, but they don't care. They got smiles on their face every morning." And I tell them, "They have the biggest purpose in the world."

Wordsmith: A lot of it is because it's survival everyday in some of these countries, so they have to have a purpose everyday. I think that's important for us to know as Americans is that yeah, we're privileged. So it can make us be a little bit lazy sometimes, but think about people that don't have what we have. That will give you purpose everyday, because I'm serious. They get up and they're like, "My purpose today is, I have to get food for my family. My purpose today is I have to get clean water. My purpose today is I want to try to get a new shirt for my daughter, who hasn't got a new shirt in five months. Has been wearing the same clothes for this whole month."

Wordsmith:        Now that's purpose every day when you have to do stuff that's going to affect your family. That's going to help your family survive every day. So I try to tell those stories to kids, and their eyes be this big all the time.

Wordsmith: I'm a teacher of the masses. Malcolm X with the glasses. A lecture in your classes. Blast this, never blasphemous. Shine brighter with no lighters, internal fire, true writer, back in the day call me that type writer. Knowledge based, bars I never cut and paste. Word, I'm your saving grace people, now there's no debate. I make it okay. Oh hey, let me get that ear. Diamond in that rougher the toucher, your mom's love and care. A new age, new plague is in a flux. Everything is online. Newspapers drying up. Technology, the universal remedy. We used to read books, now the library's emptying.

Wordsmith: I got my mind made up. Talk to the world, I'm a do it straight up. Never act fake and never played up now stop wait up. Stop wait up and rise. Rise, rise. I hope you're ready. Hope you're ready. I'm going to tell it them. I'm going to tell them that.

Wordsmith: So when the lights is on and the mic is on, I'm a hit them. Come on. Come on. When the lights is on and my mic is on, I'm a hit them. Listen. Listen. I see the world the world through a telescope. I tell a hope and let me quote. Fake, let me be the pope. Stress let me stop the stroke. The education, the desperation of learning. Kids become the vermin. The future is so uncertain. Sex since you 15, your low esteem is evident. Your innocence is gone and you baby needing benefits. Jobs, your house, your dreams and your spouse.

Wordsmith: Knowledge could be the key to perceive to work it out. Flip the mic switch. Full clip in my two sense. I'm do the vent when sharing my thoughts, they turn to events. Take the podium pressing this revolution. Blessing your institution with love, you're not refuting so. I got my mind made up. Talk to the world I'm a do it straight up. Never act fake and never played up. Now stop wait up. Stop wait up and rise. Rise, rise. I hope you're ready. Hope you're ready.

Wordsmith: I'm a tell it to them. I'm a tell them that. So when the lights is on and the mic is on, I'm a hit them. Come on. When the lights is on and the mic is on, I'm a hit them. I said you got to believe.

Speaker 7: Awesome. We should do this everyday.

Christopher W.: 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, and our stories come from participants of U.S. government international exchange programs. Christopher W.:        This week, hip hop artist Wordsmith talks about his lessons learned and connections made around the world as an ECA arts envoy. For more about the arts envoy, and other ECA exchange programs. Check out ECA.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 and leave us a nice review while you're at it, and 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@state.gov.

Christopher W.: Photos of each weeks interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33. Special thanks to Wordsmith for his vision and his art. I did the interview and edited this episode. All of the featured music you heard was by Wordsmith including performances of Gems of Wisdom performed live in our little nook. And instrumental versions of Living Check to Check, My Brilliance Shines, Time, The Promise and Made. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How the Night Came, and the end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.

Christopher W.: Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 61 - Something Good to Think About with Elsa Nicolovius

LISTEN HERE - Episode 61


What started as an effort to teach students in her new country (the United States) about life and culture in her old country (Germany) in the 1970’s has now become the longest-running continuous academic exchange between the countries—a program that witnessed the Cold War, the Wall, Reunification, and much more over the years.


Christopher: You were born in a country that no longer exists, then grew up in a Germany that no longer exists, before settling in the United States. But from your very beginnings as a German language teacher in America, deep in the cold war period, you wanted students from both places to better understand each other's countries. That was in 1977. Now flash forward to 2019. 42 annual two-way exchange trips later, you haven't missed a beat. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Elsa: My biggest priority was to give these young Americans the opportunity to look at something beyond the picket fences of their own homes. I think that is something that is in very short supply in the country. Yeah, so that was one thing, and when you get to be 17 or 18 years old, it's time to look around someplace else. And really the overriding wish that I had was to open a little bit of the world to these young people here.

Christopher: This week, Americans as foreigners. Scenes from cold war East Germany, and four decades of life changing stories. Join us on a journey from Canton, Massachusetts to Bocholt, Germany. And making a contribution. And that's an understatement. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: 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-
Speaker 6: (singing)

Elsa: My name is Elsa Nicolovius. I come from Germany, and I was born in East Prussia, which is now part of Poland. And then, I was a small child during the Second World War. After the expulsion from East Prussia, I was in a detention camp in Denmark for two and a half years, and then we were released to go back to West Germany. And my father had been a prisoner of war, and he was then released and was able to get us out of the camp into Wiesbaden, which is my hometown. So, I went to school there, I grew up there, and I married an American from Boston and that's why I'm here. So, it's all my husband's fault, I always tell them.

Elsa: I started teaching in Canton in 1977. They were looking for somebody to teach German, and they contacted the German department at Brown University, and that's how I came to Canton. And then, we had three years of German language instruction, and I was able to build that up to the fourth and fifth year. Then, several of my students wanted to go to Germany on an exchange program, and that's what motivated me to look for a possibility of establishing this exchange.

Elsa: In the 41 years of the exchange, the total number of students, both American and German, is somewhat over 2,000. Every year we have the German group coming to see us for three weeks in October, and they're always 25 students. And then, in April, we make the return visit, and I take around 20 students each year.

Elsa: I understood very early that you have to have people convinced that this is a good idea. People in the community. Because in the end, without the parents, without families involved, you can't do anything. So, I had their support and then I started working on the administration. We had a principal at the time who was not convinced that it was a good idea to send American students anywhere. He wanted the students to be in school, in the four walls. But the parents of the seniors who wanted to go to Germany, they got together and had meetings with him. So, he finally said, "Okay, we'll try it."

Elsa: One thing, the idea that many... not all of course... but many of the young people had about what Germany was like... I mean, they were questions that, in retrospect, now the students themselves would say that they were really stupid questions. You know, they would ask whether people had bathrooms. So, that gives you an indication of how little people knew, and how convinced the young people, and many of the parents of course... At the time, we're talking about 1980, they were absolutely certain that everything here was better and more advanced. And I wanted the students to see that while all societies have problems, all the same problems... whether you're talking about drugs or whatever it is... All societies have to deal with that. And to see that there are different ways of going at these problems. And just the idea, to plant the idea in their head...

Elsa: Society has a problem to solve and what can we do about it? You know, we have this possibility, but there are other possibilities. And I think that's probably one of the most valuable lessons of life. That you don't stick with one solution that you think is the best without checking whether there's anything else that one could do. And I do that to this day. I have been always very sure not to have the three weeks in Germany be a tourist endeavor, but really to get into some societal issues. Like, what is better and would you like this more than that? Would you be willing to try? So, that kind of thing.

Elsa: American students are very grateful. Grateful to have the opportunity to go. Every year you had maybe one student who had been out of the country, and of course student exchange is something very different. The students all believe that they are on their own and independent. They really aren't, but you know, you let them believe that and it's really important for their maturing. That is one thing. They are very polite abroad. They are very helpful. Every year I have excellent comments from the German parents who had hosted the American for three weeks. They thank you all the time, they say, "Thank you," much more often than Germans do, and they recognize that a trip to a foreign country is something very special.

Elsa: That was in the deepest cold war, we were in Berlin. The students had some free time and they wanted to get some souvenirs. That was in West Berlin. They went off by their own, and I gave them maybe two or two and a half hours of free time, and they wanted to buy souvenirs for their parents or whatever. They came back, a whole group of them had gone to some souvenir shops and bought the Berlin bear with a crown on the head and all that. And they went to the cashier... Of course, even though they had studied German, Americans open their mouth in Germany and everybody knows... So, the owners was a woman, did not take any money from them. And the students didn't understand, "Why didn't she want to take the money?" And then she said to them that they had been children when the airlift was going on, and that they remember surviving at that time because of the American help. And that's why she didn't take the money.

Elsa: In the deepest period of the cold war, the one day trip that we always took to East Berlin was really a nerve-wracking experience. I did not go through Checkpoint Charlie, because I wanted the American students to experience what Germans had to go through in order to go from West Berlin to East Berlin. Even though nothing happened to American students. If you had an American passport, nothing would have happened because it would have been a huge international incident. So, the East Germans were always smart enough not to do anything like that. But to the students it didn't seem that way. There were these long corridors, and on a raised level behind this counter and the military sat behind there. So, you were standing up and your head was just above the counter level, and you had to show your passport and all this. And they always took a long time. They would study the passports, study the passport, and sometimes go out of that space and you didn't see where they went.

Elsa: So, American students who are very nervous to have given up their passport, and this person is disappearing, and you couldn't see where they went. And at the time, I was the only teacher going with them. I couldn't be in front and in back. So, I had all the students go through, and then the students had to go through a door. But there was no window in it or anything, the door was only this narrow. You might just as well have fallen down from pit somewhere, and that's what it seemed like to the students. And then, I was the last one to make sure that everybody had gotten through. And then of course, everybody was gathered behind that door waiting for me. So, nothing had happened, but you didn't know that. So, that was really, really a nerve-wracking thing.

Elsa: Some things are more difficult that you do. Especially in... We go to Amsterdam for a whole day, and we always go to the Anne Frank House. And at my school, all students read The Diary of Anne Frank when they are in middle school. And that is a difficult thing. And I make sure that there are certain parts of the exhibit that I point out to them in particular. It's very important, but it's not enjoyable in the sense that we mostly think of... It's a difficult thing. I think it's also, it's more difficult because my people did that. But I'm very, very careful about including the history of the Hitler time. And also, when the German students are in Canton, I always have a visit to the local synagogue and I have a program with a rabbi there teaching about Judaism, which most Germans don't know anything about. So, I always include that in the program.

Elsa: I always try to make them realize that, for the first time, they are the foreigner. Because most Americans never have that experience, that they are the foreigner. I always say, "In Canton, you're responsible and your parents are affected by your conduct. But when you're abroad, it is you, first of all, it's your school, it's your town and it's your country." When a German misbehaves in some way, or done something he or she should not be doing, no person in Canton cares about the name, whether it's Katya or Susanna or whatever. And I always say to them that, "In the end, Germans don't care whether you're a Tom or Peter or whatever, it's, 'The Americans did that.' Your conduct is indicative to the German of what the United States are like."

Elsa: We tried to integrate into the German school with the American students. And one of the really fun times for the American students is to attend classes in the fifth and sixth grade at the [German 00:16:16], in the English classes. And I always work with my German colleagues, so we have groups. You have four German children and two Americans, and they spend the time with each other in class. And that is just wonderful. Every year this never changes. And the Americans are absolutely floored how much English the young... I mean, they're 10 and 11 years old... And then, the German kids want to have autographs of the American students, and all things like that.

Elsa: And that is how exchanges really are built. Because all these students having the Americans... First of all, it's wonderful for them to have these big students here, juniors and seniors. So, I have these big students come and pay attention to them, because the German upper classes don't do that. And to have the attention of the much older students, and to have the Americans... And they go home and you know, can't stop talking about it. So, that of course builds the desire in them for eventually coming to Canton. There are many of them who will tell you, or the parents tell you, that the kids started saving some of their [German 00:17:41], their pocket money, for that trip.

Elsa: Every student mentions their Germans eat together, that has not changed in the 40 years. And the American students running off to get a bite to eat... With their German students, that just doesn't happen in Germany. So, every student writes that down. The other thing that they all comment on is the freedom they have. That German teenagers and children are much less supervised than American youngsters. And in school they all mentioned that they are free, if they have a free [German 00:18:52], they are allowed to go in town and have a Coke with their friends, and then come back to their next class. And for the German students, they could never understand what these little slips of papers are, that an American student shows a teacher. When a student comes in late to your class, he has to have a pass from the previous teacher.

Elsa: So, the American students, even when they pass from one class to another, they are, at least theoretically, always under the supervision of a teacher. Because a teacher is outside of the classroom door during passing time, and so the student goes to the next where the next teacher is in front of his classroom door. So, American students tremendously enjoy the freedom, and that they don't have to ask for permission to go any place. And of course, when they get to be 18, they rebel against that. So, for many, the trip is... in addition to all the cultural things that they learn... It's like a trial for their going away to college. And the parents look at it that way too. So, for three weeks as seniors at the end of the year, they are out from under their supervision. So, they all hope that they're mature.

Elsa: It was important to me personally since I am from Germany. The exchange program has given me an opportunity to kind of knit together the two parts of my life, my personal life... And my husband loved Germany, and he died a few months ago, so it was really for me... apart from all we have said about the students... For me personally, it is something good to think about, that I have been able to introduce so many young people to my home country and vice versa them. I always say, people ask the question of people who were born in a foreign country, always, "Where do you like it better? Where do you like it better? Germany or United States?" And I always say it depends on what day you're asking me. If you ask me on a bad day, I will tell you that I feel as if I'm over the middle of the Atlantic, and I don't belong any place. And on a good day, I am very happy that I'm competent on two continents, and that I can live in Europe and I can live here, and make a contribution.

Christopher: 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.

Christopher: This week, Elsa Nicolovius, founder of the longest running American-German academic exchange, discussed her 42 year involvement with the German-American partnership program, or GAP. For more about GAP and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33... You mean you haven't subscribed to 22.33 yet? Where have you been? And 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. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage, at eca.state.gov/2233. Special thanks to Elsa for four decades of opening the world to students from the United States and Germany. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Onwards, Upwards by Ketsa, and three songs by Blue Dot Sessions. One Little Triumph, Our Name's Engraved, and Peacetime. 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 60 - [Bonus] An Ode to Rick Ruth

LISTEN HERE - Episode 60

A bonus episode glimpse into the career of Rick Ruth, Senior Advisor to ECA for many years, and longtime public diplomacy visionary within the State Department. You can also view his talk on the history of ECA and exchange programs here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-T2037Wa0s.

Chris: This week, a special but bittersweet bonus episode of 22.33, dedicated to a legendary ECA colleague and visionary Rick Ruth. Imagine you're sitting in your office in Washington DC on September 11th, 2001 watching the smoke rising from the Pentagon. Now imagine you have spent your entire career as a US diplomat working to build mutual understanding between the United States and other cultures. How you respond to this tragic event might just end up being your legacy.

Chris: You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories. On this episode, a blind mathematician from Turkey, country music in Nebraska, and yes, yes, 1,000 times, yes. Join us on a journey from San Diego, California, all around the world, with extended stops in Russia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and finally Washington DC, and along the way, literally making the world a better place. It's 22.33.

Speaker 2: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 3: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 4: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves.
Speaker 5: (singing).

Rick: My name is Rick Ruth. My title, I'm the senior advisor at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. What that means, in fact, on any given day, is I do a broad range of things that have to do with how we carry out educational and cultural programs all around the world.

Rick: I'm a very fortunate person to have been able to participate in the creation, or be present at the creation, of a number of different parts of the Bureau, the Office of Alumni Affairs, the Office of Evaluation. In fact, I helped create and name the Office of the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

Rick: But when I look at the range of them, there's one that stands out from all of the others, both because of the nature of the program and because of the origin of the program. That is our high school program known as the YES program. It stands for youth exchange and study. It is now called the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program, because Congress has been very generous in supporting it over the years. It was born directly out of 9/11.

Rick: On that day, that terrible day, I could see from my office in the State Department the black smoke rising from the Pentagon where it had been struck by an airplane. Over the next few months, I was privileged to be able to participate in a small steering committee that Secretary Powell put together to help steer the State Department response in the immediate aftermath to the attack. There was a good deal of discussion about public diplomacy.

Rick: Shortly afterwards, I had a discussion with the then assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, the marvelous Patricia Harrison. We were looking for ways in which ECA could respond, because our reason for being is mutual understanding. Clearly, 9/11 was a brutal reminder about hatred and violence in the world and a fierce lack of understanding. What could we as a Bureau do to respond?

Rick: What we came up with was the US government's first high school exchange program for the Arab and Muslim world, where young men and women would come to the United States, spend an entire year in an American school, living with an American host family. The program has been in existence for 15 years now. It's reached about 10,000 participants. I would say it has exceeded whatever expectations we had for it and what it's been able to accomplish.

Rick: There was a young woman from Turkey who was blind and was consumed with passion for mathematics. In Turkey at that time, she was not able to take the university entrance exams because she was blind. It simply made no sense to the culture at that time that she could have any possibility to do advanced work in that area.

Rick: She came to the United States, went to an academy in Utah where they were accustomed to working with people with various disabilities, and discovered in fact you can pursue mathematics even if you're visually impaired, and was able to go back to Turkey, and convinced Turkish authorities that they should allow her to take the university exam, the first woman and first person with that kind of disability ever to be able to do it.

Rick: The other examples of what YES students have done in the United States that stick in my mind are those young men and women who went to small towns. When I say small, I mean 1,000, 2,000 people, not a mosque in 100 or 500 hundred miles. Yet they were able to completely integrate into that community. They taught soccer. They gave talks about Islam at local churches. They taught headstart in the local schools. There was one young woman I remember in Nebraska, who even started writing country and Western songs about her experience. It's just a fabulous way that people come to know each other and understand the commonalities that we have.

Rick: I was talking to a young man who was of the age where he was planning to get married soon. His mother was making all the arrangements. He was going to have an arranged marriage. Of course this flies in the face of the American notion of the individual, and love at first sight, and lightening striking, and all these sorts of things. I may have had a sort of quizzical expression on my face. He looked at me and he said, "Who loves me more than my mother? Who would do a better job of finding me a partner for life than my own mother?" Well, I certainly had no argument with that. I thought that made eminent sense, although I had certainly never thought of it that way.

Rick: On perhaps a different kind of level, I was talking to a Saudi man at one point in my office, and he got a phone call that he had to take, and looked a little bit agitated. He got up and said, "I'm sorry. I have to excuse ... I have to go. My father's been in a car accident. He's not hurt. He's perfectly fine now. It's just my wife talking, but the other man, who was at fault in the accident, has been taken to jail."

Rick: Now, it happened to be that this was Ramadan, and therefore it was extremely important to every family in Saudi Arabia to be home at the time when the daylight ended so they could break the Ramadan fast together with their family. He said, "I have to go." He was not going to see his father in the first instance. He knew he was fine. He was going to the police station to make sure they let the other driver go so he could be there with his family for Ramadan.

Rick: There's a knife on my desk in the office that I purchased in the town of Yengisar, which is in the Xinjiang province in Western China. It's largely populated by Uyghurs, who are Muslim. Yengisar has been a stop on the Silk Road for centuries, and they have made knives there for centuries. That's their specialty.

Rick: Of course, being a red blooded American, when I'm surrounded by knives, I have to buy a knife. I happened to be there, very fortunately, with my two sons. All three of us had to buy knives, of course. We spent the entire day looking at knife shops and workshops and so forth. What I remember when I see that knife on my desk is that there was the marvelous travel, and the experience, and the humanity of the engagement with the people there. But I remember that I was there with my two boys, and that on the last night we sort of had a toast, not that we were there, but that we all three wanted to be there. For a parent, it doesn't get any better than that.

Rick: Well, my family and my relatives are scattered all around the country. They come from Florida, California. They're in small towns in Tennessee and Kentucky. They cover the political spectrum. They think everything about different questions of the day. But they all have one thing in common when I talk about what I do, and that is why doesn't our government do more of that?

Rick: Because one thing they all share is the belief in how important American values are. They talk about the Declaration of Independence. They talk about the constitution. They talk about freedom, and the values that define why we're a great country and why hopefully we're a good country as well. They just wonder, why don't we lead with that? Values are our greatest strength. Rick:  I think what fascinates them most, quite honestly, at that sort of very human, visceral level, if you will, is all the strange things I've eaten around the world. Fried tarantulas, sheep lung, duck eyeballs. These are the things one does for one's country.

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's 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. Our stories come from participants of US government funded international exchange programs. Chris:  This week, an ode to Rick Ruth, ECA senior advisor for more than a decade. For more about YES and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, leave us a nice review while you're at it. 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 @state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. Finally, you can follow us on Instagram @22.33_stories.

Chris: My former colleague and newly minted US diplomat Usra Ghazi did this interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Daylight Savings by David Hilowitz and Balloons Rising by AA Aalto. 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 59 - Life Hacks and Ultimate Frisbee with Kayla Huemer 

LISTEN HERE - Episode 59

When Kayla Huemer travelled to India as a biomedical researcher, she worried about finding a community in the land of contrasts. However, it didn't take too long for her to find her people, join an ultimate frisbee team, and participate in India's first national frisbee tournament.

Chris: When you traveled to India to conduct biomedical research, you weren't expecting to be as homesick as you were and never could you have imagined that seeing a little plastic Frisbee flying through the sky would not only cure your homesickness, but define your year. One of a multitude of life hacks you learned while experiencing India's vibrancy of life. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Kayla: Definitely, I remember the first few seconds of walking off the plane. A lot of times they won't have you walk off a ramp way. You'll go right down onto the tarmac, right onto the runway, and then I just remember the airplane door opening and just getting hit with this heat of just ... I felt like I'd open an oven door and I had just been hit by this heat. As soon as you get out, the traffic is crazy. It's overstimulating. You've got so many motorbikes, so many people transport themselves by individual motorbikes, so you've got all of that clustering the roadways, and then you've got cows walking across, completely desensitized to the traffic. You've got chickens and goats and pedestrians crossing everywhere.

Chris: This week. Makeshift problem solving in the most frugal and genius ways. A starring role in India's first National Ultimate tournament and diversity in a land of contrasts. Join us on a journey from Madison, Wisconsin to Vellore, India in perhaps the ultimate exchange. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: 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 [crosstalk 00:02:06].
Speaker 5: (singing)

Kayla: My name is Kayla Huemer. I am from Madison, Wisconsin and I was a U.S. Fulbright researcher to India this past year in TMC Vellore, which is a little city down south of India as a biomedical engineer.

Kayla: When I was coming through the customs, the customs officer, he kind of looked at me and he said, looked at my passport and looked at me and you know, it's written there like blonde hair, blue eyes. He kind of questioned me about it, said, "Oh, you have blue eyes?" And I said, "Yeah, I've got blue eyes. "You have blonde hair." "Yeah." Then he looks and written on my visa, it says what I'm doing in the country, and he said, "Oh, science, you're doing science." I said, "Yeah, I'm a researcher." So immediately kind of not only that idea that I'm this foreigner very visually then adding onto it that I'm not here just to be a tourist, that I'm here to actually do work. Those two together sometimes was just kind of this paradox of what are you doing here? Why are you here?

Kayla: What does your dad do? Do you live with your parents? Things like that. Which is how things operate in India, but for us it's a little bit weird. It's a little bit different and you just had to become comfortable with understanding it's not something that they're trying to probe so deeply and it's just some information that we in the U.S. keep a little bit more to ourselves and for them it's something that is a conversation starter.

Kayla: India is a land of so much diversity, for instance, the preconception that everyone celebrates Holi there is not true. A lot of the festivals are very regional. Holi is much more celebrated in the North. Actually in my city I ... it was the day after Holi and someone's like, "Oh yeah, you didn't know it was Holi yesterday?" And I was like, "Ah, we missed." And he's like, "Well yeah, well we don't really celebrate it here." So the first idea that India is one unified all encompassed country when it comes to culture and food and language is completely wrong. It's so regional and that's something that makes it beautiful. At the same time then each region in the country will be dealing with different things in terms of gender issues or just problems that might come with conflicts in religion or problems with literacy. I mean, there's so many different things that they're dealing with, but just because of the diversity and how different each region in the country is, it's hard to really classify it all into one thing.

Kayla: When you feel assimilated or that you feel like you've kind of crossed that step of being a foreigner and not feeling comfortable where you are, for me was when I felt like I had a command of the transportation system in my city really, really well. Knowing where the buses stopped, where they would pick you up, how much it was, but also there's something called auto rickshaws that are just little personal transportation vehicles that will take you anywhere you go. You just go to the side of the road, they're green and yellow and you can just kind of hail one just like a taxi here, but they're small. They're cheap. But the whole thing is is that they will sometimes try to rip you off if they feel like you don't know where you're going or you don't know how much it would be to travel there. They can really charge you whatever they want. There's no standardization, there's no meter that will keep track of how much money you should pay for that trip. Once I could start to identify, I know how much it would cost me to go somewhere and then if somebody came and was asking for double, could use my little Tamil local language understanding to bargain with them and be like, "Hey, I know it's not that much. Don't try to rip me off. I live here."

Kayla: Indians get very creative with how they handle those situations. My first couple of weeks when I was in India, I didn't know how to describe it to someone. I said, "Everyone is just so creative." They don't have a truck to transport their goats to the other side of the city. Well, they're going to put one on their shoulders. They're going to put one on their lap and they're going to go via their bike and you see people transporting insane amounts of materials or livestock or human beings in the same car because that's all that they have and that's all that they can do so they get very creative. I was trying to process all of this. I couldn't quite wrap my head around all of it. Like, what is it that's causing this to be such a fundamental way of how India works? And someone said, "Oh well you know, we have a word for it, it's called jugaad."

Kayla: It's a Hindi word, which we don't really have a word for here in the U.S.. Basically it's like something I think you would define here in the U.S. as being a life hack. So like a makeshift way of solving a problem in like a very creative and witty almost way, but there's this added aspect of frugality. How do I solve problems that I'm facing in a very cost effective way, making use of the resources that I have? One example that I like to explain is let's say that your shower head breaks and the hardware store is fresh out of shower heads and you're not going to have access to Amazon Prime or something like that. So what do you do when the day is until you can find someone who can get you a new shower head. Well, you stick a plastic water bottle on your shower head and you poke holes in it and then you turn on the faucet and you've got a shower head or another time was sitting in a restaurant and they had a mirror perfectly positioned to reflect the TV that was behind me.

Kayla: So now the people sitting in my booth could perfectly see the TV that was going on behind, and other than the captions being backwards, you know, what is it if the TV is flipped mirror image. So this word of jugaad is something that isn't a negative connotation. Indians are very proud of it. Like, look what I was able to fix with a roll of duct tape. Or look what I was able to fix until I could find something better. A lot of times they will balk at the idea of buying something completely new if what you have is already semi functional and just needs a little bit of a fix. This can go and be applied in your life. Other places too, beyond just a materialistic way of solving problems. There's books written about how you can use jugaad in business or in engineering. For instance, in my project, I needed magnets to hold something together and I couldn't find anything anywhere really, but what I found out was that the rupee coin, like our quarter, it is magnetic. So I just needed a magnet on one side and I used rupee coins for other half and immediately I had doubled the number of magnets that I could use for my project.

Kayla: The story goes that the first time that I arrived in India, I got to my institution overwhelmed and the food was unfamiliar. I didn't have any friends yet. I didn't even really know who to approach, just felt really alone. I just had kind of this crisis, even just a few hours in like, am I going to find a home here? Am I going to feel comfortable? Is this going to be a productive summer for me? Not only from my project standpoint, but just personally from a mental health standpoint. I met one of my best friends the first day. He came up to me, he said that he could just identify that I was feeling very overwhelmed in the moment. He just said, "Let's go get lunch." And I said, "Yes, please." He gave me a tour of the campus and I was able to just kind of get my bearings a little bit.

Kayla: He said, "You know what makes you you? What's something that you want to do here?" And I said, "Well, I'm athletic. Like if I can get involved in any athletics, that would be great." And he said, "Oh, well I'll take you over to the gym and you can see if there's anything there." Back home at my university, I'm involved with Ultimate Frisbee. It's a very social thing to do in Madison. The Madison summers, all of the parks are full of teams just playing. It's something that has always been a social thing for me, but also something in my identity as being athletic. As we were walking to the gym, we kind of had to walk over this yellow bridge and as I'm crossing this bridge, I see a Frisbee cut through the air in the distance. The amount of relief that that flying piece of plastic gave me.

Kayla: It just was this wash of relief come over me like there are my people here. There are people that I'm going to connect with and people that I'm going to just get to be myself with and so we walked over, introduced myself to all of them. I was in jeans and a tee shirt so I couldn't play with them at that point, but I said, "I will be here tomorrow." I played with them that summer in India. Just for some context, ultimate Frisbee is a very up and coming sport. It's not that popular. It's not really well known and that's a lot of the apprehension I had going in it. I don't think that there's going to be any Frisbee where I am, but it's catching on. It's about seven to 10 years old at this point. So I was fortunate enough that this year, while I was in India, they held their first ever national tournament.

Kayla: My team entered. They're like, "You have to come play with us. We know you're much farther away, but wherever we travel for the different rounds of the tournament, just fly in, meet us there." So I traveled to Hyderabad, I traveled to Chennai, I traveled to Bangalore for all of the sectional and regional rounds, and it meant the world to me. I knew I was going to be here for nine months and develop other friendships, but to walk in and see like a group of like 15 to 20 people that I knew from the previous time. It was just so much fun.

Kayla: Found out when we were in Chennai that we qualified for the national tournament. As cool as it was, it coincided with the weekend my dad was here, so he'd see me play Ultimate in the U.S. and now he was able to be here for the national tournament as well. He and I, we flew up together to Aminabad and yeah, we were there for a weekend of tournaments. It was amazing. It was humbling for me to get to play at a national level. It also just further expanded the community of Ultimate players that I have. I was chatting with people from all over India and hearing stories about what does Frisbee mean to them? It's brought communities together. People have started nonprofits that unify communities based on sports and Frisbee for whatever reason is one that just clicks with people. It's easy. You just need a piece of plastic.

Kayla: You just need one disk. Because of that, it's really taken off. I just remember this moment as I was flying home from that national tournament because of the timing of the flights. It happened to be that that whole plane was full of Ultimate players and we arrive and we were doing baggage claim and I guess I hadn't really recognized how many Ultimate players were on that plane until they came off one by one. I was standing there and able to converse with all of them. I knew who everyone was and they were like, "Oh, like how are you? How is the tournament for you? Can I call you up? Like we're going to probably need a sub in a couple of weeks for another tournament." Even after I left I was being contacted from all over India asking like if I would come in and play tournaments with different teams.

Kayla: The most exciting call that I got was from a friend from Chennai who said that they were looking to build a team to go to an international tournament in Amsterdam and he said, "Is there any chance that you can make your self available to be in Amsterdam?" As a matter of fact, I have a little bit of a layover between being here and being in Europe for another purpose that I said, "As crazy as it is, yeah, I can come." So here I had been playing at one university Frisbee, which then expanded a little bit nationally when I got to be a part of the national Frisbee tournament.

Kayla: I will be playing in Amsterdam with India's Masala Chai is the name of our team. I think it's going to be really cool to finish off my Indian Ultimate Frisbee career getting to play in Amsterdam. It's really amazing how empowering sports can be for bringing communities together and definitely personally making me feel like I had a home in India.

Kayla: I was in the middle of festivals and carnivals and parades and all of these things where, yeah, my life just looks so different from how it was at home, but I felt comfortable and I felt safe and I felt just so grateful for where I got to be. Though it was those moments where I was sitting around a dinner table with some families that just had really welcomed me and that I felt my parents could have been sitting there. My sister could've been sitting there. The cool thing was is that, yeah, when my dad came, I got to bring him there and I said, "These are the people that have welcomed me in." It brought tears to his eyes because how can you thank someone enough in saying thank you for making my daughter feel safe and at home and like she has people that believe in her, support her, are going to have her best interest. My dad is rarely at a loss for words and rarely have I seen him cry, but I could just hear it in his voice and I could hear in his deliberateness with how grateful he was for those people that I had connected with and really felt like I had a home with.

Kayla: I would say travel places where you know people that are there and don't undervalue how much different your experience can be if you meet a person there rather than just being kind of just someone passing through. My experience in India was just made so much more vibrant, so much more personal, so much more genuine and authentic because I was choosing to prioritize meeting and connecting with people over just going and doing and seeing. You open doors to see really the authentic experiences that are there. Being invited to a wedding instead of just getting a tour of some temple and being invited to sit around the dinner table rather than just going to like the best curry place in town and that just allows you to develop relationships that are going to far surpass the time that you spend in that country. You never know, maybe they'll come to the U.S. and you'll get to play host for them as well.

Kayla: My understanding is that a lot of people have a little bit of a negative connotation when somebody will say, "Oh, I was in India." Immediately, their mind will go to an understanding of like that there's extreme poverty that people say India is a land of contrast. You've got some of the wealthiest people in the world, but you also have some of like the people that are dealing with extreme depths of poverty. That's definitely there and you will definitely experience that, but I think the thing that I brought out of my experience the strongest was that they have this will to live, this drive to live, and to just be very vibrant. Indians regardless of where they are they have this deep running connection to just a vibrancy of life.

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.

Chris: This week, Kayla Huemer discussed her time in India as part of the Fulbright Student Research Program. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. Leave us a nice review while you're at it. I can't believe you haven't subscribed already. Is that true? 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@state.gov. Photos of each week's interview and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233 and check us out on Instagram and follow us @2233stories. Special thanks to Kayla for her stories. Anna Maria [Senateen 00:20:31] did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Palladian and The Yards by Blue Dot Sessions, Wild Ones by Jassar, Flitter Key Backwards Beat by Paddington 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 58 - [Bonus] Lots of Big Talk

LISTEN HERE - Episode 58

On this bonus episode of 22.33, we ask Kalina Silverman, founder of Big Talk, to answer questions from her very own Big Talk card game, designed to help facilitate in-depth conversations with friends, family, coworkers, and strangers. All the questions in the deck are universal, open-ended, and meaningful. We put a twist on the old fortune cookie game and simply had Kalina add the words "...on your exchange" to every question. Guess what? It works!

Chris: Last week you met Kalina Silverman, founder of Big Talk, which includes Big Talk cards containing questions that cut through small talk and take conversations to deeper levels, designed to ask anybody, anytime, in virtually any situation. Today, in this special bonus Big Talk episode, Kalina let us pick random cards and turn the questions on her. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Kalina: In helping to facilitate Big Talk, I created this tiny deck of Big Talk question cards. Each question is designed to be universal, so it doesn't matter who you are and what you do, what you look like. Anyone could answer it. Open ended, so it's not just a yes or no question response. It would elicit a unique personal story, but you could ask anyone in a room anywhere these questions. Chris:  This week, duck, there are low flying planes ahead, Fulbright fairy hopping around, and the perfect day in Singapore. Join us for this special opportunity to ask the founder of Big Talk her very own questions. It's 22.33.

Audio: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all. These exchanges shaped who I am. When you get to know these people that aren't quite like you. You read about them. They are people very much like ourselves. Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange.

Kalina: The question is, have you ever had any near death experiences on my exchange? Luckily, Singapore is considered one of the safest countries in the world. There was a time where I was on the I think 42nd floor of a high rise. As you know, Singapore is known for its high rises and fancy buildings. There were these planes zooming past really loudly. It was the loudest I've ever heard a plane, and I thought there's a plane about to crash in my building. I freaked out. I called my mom who was in America. She couldn't do anything about it. Then I called my friend who lived in Singapore and she started laughing at me because she said they were practicing for the Singapore National Day Parade, which is something they do every year. They put on this big production and have all these fancy planes flying around.

Kalina: I just felt so silly because I thought I was about to be in a near death experience, and it was just they were practicing for a very big, colorful Singapore parade. Next question is, what are the first things you notice when meeting someone on my exchange? This is interesting because I think when you go to a new place to live, you have a lot of preconceived notions and stereotypes about a place. I mean, everything from when you're just reading a Lonely Planet guide or googling, but I actually deliberately before going to Singapore did not read anything about what Singapore is like from those tourist or Pinterest perspectives. I really didn't even know what Singapore looked like. It was kind of ridiculous, but I just navigated every experience day by day and met people and just noticed how open they were.

Kalina: I was able to make a lot of friendships that way by not really judging anything ahead of time because everyone in Singapore is so diverse and so different. I normally just notice people's smiles and if they have kind eyes. When I first walked into the Collab and you all just smiled and left out of your seats. I was like, "Wow. This is such a kind group. I'm excited." I could believe that. What is a common misconception that people may have about you? This is on my exchange. Maybe that I like to make Big Talk all the time. People think, "Oh, so you're against small talk," and that's not... I'm not against small talk at all. Actually, since starting Big Talk, I've really learned how to make small talk about Big Talk. That's the thing I do the most now. Just letting people know, oh, like meeting me, you're not going to have to get into deep conversation.

Kalina: I like pizza and really basic things. I'm very basic at times. What gives you goosebumps on your exchange? There are certain moments where I was just in awe of how different dots connected. Like how I would meet one person randomly at an event and then she asked me to cat sit her cat Confucius. I went to her home and cat sat Confucius and then saw the art on her wall and said, "Oh, you do art?" She said, "Yeah, I'm part of this artist collective". Then I ended up joining the artists collective, and then through that was able to participate in my first art auction and sell a piece to a couple from China. It's like you just never know what's going to happen. As long as you keep your head in the game and keep doing things, things will arise. That gives me goosebumps, just how one opportunity leads to another. It's always the little things. You never know.

Kalina: What were you doing the last time you lost track of time while you're on your exchange? One thing that really helped me lose track of time while I was in Singapore and if I was ever stressed out with research or questions about the future was music. I ended up discovering this yoga studio that had a collection of hang drums or they're called handpans also. They're these very magical mystical drums that you might see it at something like Burning Man that really sound beautiful and resonate. They're very ethereal, and I would go into this yoga studio about once a week. One of the people who worked there, he would give me hang drum lessons. I haven't seen one in the U.S., But it's kind of this niche community all over the world of hang drum players. When I went to Kazakhstan in September, I actually saw a maker selling hang drums in a local market. They're really cool and mysterious.

Kalina: Describe a first in your life while you were on your exchange. In addition to cat sitting, I also turtle sat in a shop house, and shop houses are these really fancy historic homes in Singapore. They're really cool. It was a shop house that used to be owned by a government official. I met a family and they were going out of town. They asked me to sit for their turtle, so I come in and feed their turtle. What does success mean to you on your exchange? I think success means not necessarily going in with what you planned to do and accomplishing it, but being able to adapt from whatever you plan to do and come out with something that feels even better or closer to what you wanted before even knowing what it was. Success also means making relationships that last and positive and meaningful. What do you miss? On my exchange, I miss family, of course.

Kalina: Now, what I miss in Singapore are friends I met there and the freedom I had there to be anyone I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do. At least in the beginning, just responsibilities to myself and my research project. Now, there's a lot of other things to weigh in and responsibilities, but that's cool too. It's a different kind of experience, but I do really miss that freedom. I felt like a little Fulbright fairy just hopping around doing my project and meeting people, which was really cool and very unique experience. I miss that. Where did I find peace on my exchange? There are a couple of places and kind of peaceful zones I had while I was in Singapore. One was the Botanic Gardens. It's kind of where I went on and a lot of friend dates when I was meeting new people in Singapore, and we would meet there in the morning for coffee and walk through.

Kalina: Then another one was this outdoor area called the Esplanade that had free concerts in the evenings. I would make it a routine on Sunday nights to run around the Marina, which has lots of bright lights. It's what you saw probably in Crazy Rich Asians if you saw it and all the movies and postcards of Singapore. But there's this outdoor theater that they would bring in performance from around the world. I would go on a run and then stop and listen to the music. What have you witnessed that has strengthened your faith in humanity? In Singapore, I did a lot of work on the periphery with the migrant worker community. Just seeing how different Singaporeans and ex-pats and people who had just been living there for various amounts of time wanted to start getting involved with it.

Kalina: I think it's a new thing, maybe before the government prevented people from getting too involved in those types of humanitarian efforts. But there was one woman there who's from some small place in America, I wish I remember it, but she's been in Singapore for years and years. She runs this NGO that supports migrant workers tirelessly. That was really cool to see how someone from abroad had taken this issue on as her own and they become like her children. They love her so much. On Sundays, she goes in and they're all playing music and they use the space to... They're so good. I recorded some recordings on my phone because I was like, "This music is amazing. This is what we should be listening to on Spotify". Not the usual pop songs.

Kalina: Describe a perfect day on your exchange. This is a fun one. I'd say a perfect day in Singapore would be waking up early and going for a swim because Singapore is super hot and humid, but almost every building has a swimming pool. Go to swim, then go on the morning to a Hawker center. You might've seen this in Crazy Rich Asians, but almost every block or two has these big food centers where you could get all kinds of Pan-Asian food for under $5. You can pick up some milk tea, some noodles, any kind of food you would imagine. Then probably do something related to research, either through my computer, checking emails, or talking or meeting with my research advisor, and then whatever meetings. I was always meeting with different people to do Big Talk interviews or focus groups, something like that in the late afternoon.

Kalina: Then a cultural activity, whether that was going to a show, or an event, concert, and then dinner. There's tons of food in Singapore, so I don't know what the perfect one would be, but there's this one place called Haidilao, that was a hot pot place where you could also get your nails done while you're waiting there. It just ridiculous. Ridiculous. Something like that. Then I'd probably go back and Skype or FaceTime a friend or family member from home if I could because of the time difference. That'd be a perfect day. What little things in life do you take the time to stop and appreciate while you're on your exchange? Being able to eat such delicious cheap food or have a friend at all times to be able to call by the end. Because in the beginning, I would be calling my family, but by the end I would be calling my friends in Singapore to talk about experiences.

Kalina: Being able to easily walk down the street and feel safe, things like that. What could you do today that you couldn't do a year ago? Well, I can live abroad. I can create a whole world, move somewhere, find friends, find hobbies, find work, research, which is a really cool skill to have and a big one. Now I know I could do this somewhere else, and I would probably do it in the exact same way. I can play the hang drum. Just busk. Always been a childhood dream to busk or like draw portraits of people on the street. When I was a little kid I said, "That's what I'm going to do when I grow up, daddy." What is a new habit you want to form on your exchange? Well, one new habit I want to form in Singapore, I was just so bold. Everyday I kind of made a point to try something new or meet someone new.

Kalina: Even if it felt uncomfortable, I kind of had a rule, the first time is going to be uncomfortable, the second time you'll have some common ground, third time will be great. It really worked. That was how I was able to make lots of relationships, connections, try new things. I would like to get back into that mindset and habit now that I'm back in the States because you just never know what will happen. It's always a pleasant surprise. How are you making a difference in the world? I'd like to say that introducing Big Talk to Singapore helped to make a difference in people's perceptions of each other. Because as I mentioned, I was doing Big Talk workshops with Muslim woman, Jewish woman, ex-pats, locals, migrant workers, students and connecting them through these very simple universal themes.

Kalina: Actually through my research over the course of 10 months, we ended up coming down to five questions. Five Big Talk questions that anyone could relate to. They're just so simple, but this was out of maybe 90 questions or so. They were, what do you miss, what do you find beautiful, what's one of the kindest things someone has ever done for you, what has been your favorite age so far and why, and the last one is, what do you hope for? Those were just simple questions, but those were the ones that it came down to after doing workshops with all these different groups and talking to people. These are ones they could relate to across cultures. What is the kindest thing someone has ever done for you on my exchange?

Kalina: On my birthday, and this was towards the end of my Fulbright, my roommate invited all my friends who I had met throughout the year and they did BDAY Talk instead of Big Talk. He hand wrote questions that were like deep questions about Kalina on her birthday that everyone answered. I just cried. It was so cute, and it was cool to just see all these people I'd met over the year actually have stories to tell about me too.

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 U.S. government funded international exchange programs. This week, Kalina Silverman let us try her very own Big Talk cards on her, to help illustrate her experiences as a Fulbright Scholar in Singapore. For more about Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You mean you haven't subscribed to 22.33 yet? What's wrong with you? 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@state.gov.

Chris: Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our web page at eca.state.gov/2233. Kudos to Kalina for creating Big Talk and then helping to show us its utility. Along with Ana-Maria Sinitean, I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Saunter by Grace, Bit Dripped, Ladee Day, and Window shopping, all by Paddington Bear. The handpan drum recording was made with Kalina's teacher, Gary. 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 57 - No More Small Talk with Kalina Silverman

LISTEN HERE - Episode 57

When Kalina Silverman went to study  journalism at Northwestern University, she was meeting new people each day, yet still felt a sense of loneliness and superficiality that made her feel isolated and disconnected. So, she tried skipping small talk, and immediately noticed she was making more meaningful connections with her peers. Encouraged by this reaction, she made a video, where she approached strangers and asked them the fist Big Talk question: “What do you want to do before you die?”

Chris: We thrive on deeper connection which, you have found, is a universal condition. Yet, so much of our day to day lives are filled so much with superficiality, and yes, small talk. You want to find a way to help people get past this, you think big in order to help others talk big. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Kalina: Well, I actually feel like Big Talk and my research is actually my passport to the world and different environments. I've been able to work with people from broad backgrounds, from Muslim women in Singapore to Jewish women community, to churches to expats and people working in banking and finance to the artist community and students. Because every question I ask or way I get to know someone is something that you can relate to anyone on. So, it's really helped me meet people from a variety of fields and worlds and navigate actually. Yeah, I think Big Talk is a little passport.

Chris: This week, going beneath the surface, what do you want to do before you die? And walking down the street smiling, join us on a journey from California to Singapore and the birth of Big Talk. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shape to who I am.
Speaker 5: When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you read about them. They are people much like ourselves ... (singing).

Kalina: Hi, my name is Kalina Silverman. I'm from Santa Monica, California and I run a program called Big Talk about skipping small talk to make more meaningful connections with people and I was on the Fulbright student research program in Singapore.

Kalina: Big Talk is a communication approach about skipping small talk to ask deeper questions and make more meaningful connections instead. Maybe if you're at a networking event or starting a new school, instead of asking someone, oh, where are you from? What do you do? You might just go one level deeper ask them why do you do what you do? Or what are you ... What was your childhood dream? Did you follow it? Why or why not? Having these conversations and making these more meaningful connections you can build greater empathy for people across different superficial barriers.

Kalina: Big Talk was an idea that I had while I was a college student at Northwestern University because when I first came to school, I moved from California to the Chicago winters which I'm sure played a part in me feeling a bit different or cold or ... I moved to school and as a freshman, I felt so lonely, so disconnected but no one could see that on the outside. I mean, I was going to all these events, joining clubs, joined a sorority, I made tons of friends, had tons of new Facebook friends by a few months in. But there'd be times where I'd just go back to my room and cry and didn't know what was happening to me and didn't know how to explain it. It wasn't until the end of the year I started a club, I was much more connected with people that we all started opening up about our experiences. It seems so obvious now but so many people had similar experiences, they were talking about anxiety, depression or seeing therapists or feeling lonely. Not knowing ... Existential crisis, very common amongst college students trying to figure what to do with their lives.

Kalina: But we didn't talk about this when we started school, we just talked about oh, what's your major? Where you from? What sorority do you want to join? So, it wasn't until the end of the year that I realized that these conversations that they were had in the beginning would have made everyone feel a little bit more connected and less alone. Then I was ... Late at night and having a deep conversation with a friend over Skype and I said, "Wow, I wish more conversations could be like this." And he said, "Yeah, screw small talk." And immediately, the name just ... Big Talk just popped into my mind. That following summer, I did a lot of documentary projects abroad and was having so many serendipitous encounters in Ecuador, in Germany and interviewing people and meeting people of all walks of life. I really didn't want to lose that magic of being abroad when I came home, I wanted to do something about that.

Kalina: My last day in Germany I saw the question, what do you want do before you die? Written on the Berlin wall and immediately I was like, "That's Big Talk, that's what I'm going to do." So, I went home to LA and tried to create this video of Big Talk and asking people that question.

Kalina: I did my Fulbright project on how to build empathy across cultures through Big Talk and Big Talk actually started off as a YouTube video I made while I was in college where I walked up to strangers in Los Angeles and skipped the small talk with them to ask them the deeper question, what do you want to do before you die? I asked a really diverse range of people from a homeless man to a businessman, an elderly woman, teenage boy and it really didn't matter what people did or what they looked like but they all had answers to this one simple question. It went viral on YouTube and I started receiving responses from people all over the world who also wanted to make Big Talk and I noticed quite a disproportionate amount coming from Singapore. So, I really wanted to see on the ground why that was the case because I knew Singapore was a really diverse country and really small but it wasn't very well integrated necessarily despite being so multi-faceted and diverse. So, I wanted to help people connect on the ground in Singapore.

Kalina: Big Talk can ... It can definitely come off as this more emotional fluffy thing that not everyone needs but I've noticed everyone does need it at a certain point. Because there'll be people who seem like they have their cool and then a couple of years later I'll get a message from them and say, "Hey, Kalina, do you have an extra deck of those cards?" Or something like that or someone that I would never expect to ever have any interest in something like Big Talk who ... Yeah, it usually comes in the form of a private message. I think it's those times when people are just alone and feeling vulnerable, reflecting on their own lives that they might need something like Big Talk. So, it's helped strengthen my conviction to keep going. Everyone's going to need to have a meaningful connection in their life in order to survive and get through.

Kalina: You don't know where a conversation will lead and sometimes it led to things that I was not equipped to deal with like people sharing their deepest most innermost secrets or mental health issues. I am no licensed psychologist or therapist, it really for me just started off as a story-telling project, journalism, making friends. So, those were the times where I just didn't know if what I was doing was right, if it was crossing a line that I wasn't ready to handle. Those are the times where I wondered if I should have done this. Because it had led to people who are just now relying on me for help and I don't even know what resources to point them to yet.

Kalina: There's just so much beneath the surface, there's so many nuance experiences. I mean, I'll go on vacation with a friend and we'll talk about our favorite parts of the trip and they'll say things very simply like, "I like visiting this place and eating this food." And I'll be like, "Oh, I liked that encounter I had with this person when this happened." So, just kind of going a layer deeper but I do like to adopt the mentality because it makes the trip more fun for me too other than just going in with everything planned and expected.

Kalina: I actually started writing a play, I haven't really shared it ...

Kalina: .. about it and I called it Beneath the Surface because a lot of what I'm doing with Big Talk is going beneath the surface and just talking about the conversations I'd have with people, people you'd expect to say one thing and then you go a little deeper and find out more about them. Yeah, I haven't done anything with it because I ... It was just so taboo and random for me to just start writing a play about it but it was how I processed each encounter.

Kalina: Despite being able to be a part of so many different worlds like the hippy drum world, the state department world, the students. I mean, everyone thought I was a student when I was doing research at NUS or the modeling world, all that. I still felt very much like just Kalina from California and would come home and be talking to all my friends from home. I felt like I had two lives I was living at once but by sharing stories on either side I was able to still feel like I could be both. It was also when I had friends visit and then they met my friends in Singapore and then suddenly everything felt more real. Because there were times where I felt I was living this alien life and that it was really disconnected and it was in a dream. But once, people started meeting each other and connecting, that was really cool.

Kalina: Despite Singapore being a small country, big city, it's fairly quiet and ordered but you would still hear the sounds of a city in a very kind of rhythmic ordered manner. You don't hear taxis or ambulances like you do constantly in New York, for example. Hear a mixture of languages because everyone in Singapore speaks English but also they speak Chinese, Malay. Smell a lot of yummy Asian food, sweet chili sauce, that was my favorite, I would drench everything in sweet chili sauce. And feel really hot and sweaty unless you're in a really air-conditioned place which you could walk into anywhere. The feeling was very comfortable for the most part, you always felt safe and secure and like you knew what you were doing because everything ran on time. But I think because everything was so ordered and secure, I felt like I had more freedom to do things that were outside of the box because everything else was taken care of. So, I was able to experience so much within one year, I really felt like I lived three years in one year.

Kalina: There was one night, it was at the end of my Fulbright probably, maybe month eight or something like that that I went to ... Out dancing at this really cool Indy movie theater and they turned it into a live dancing venue. When I was there, I ran into 10 people I knew that I had met just over the past year and it was so cool to just go somewhere in the city and have friends from all over. It was one of the guys was in the artist collective I was in, someone else I had done a dance class with, someone else I had just met through mutual friends because they had moved from Hong Kong recently. So, it was just really cool to see through that effort and sustained energy and friendship over eight months or so being in Singapore, I had a world there and that was just amazing and I wish my friends and family could have shared in that experience.

Kalina: I hope people will walk down the street and smile more because smiling is something that's so natural and if someone is just walking down the street and smiling, you know they're genuinely, sincerely happy. It sounds cheesy but a smile can be very indicative of the world going right, being a good happy place for everyone and things being in order.

Chris: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and State 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.

Chris: This week, Kalina Silverman told us about the creation of Big Talk and her time as a Fulbright scholar in Singapore. 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 so wherever you find your podcast and hey, while you're at it why don't you leave us a nice review? 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 @state.gov. Photos of each week's interview and complete episode transcripts can be found on our webpage at ECA.state.gov/2233. Special thanks this week to Kalina for sharing her story and for going beneath the surface.

Chris: Along with Ana-Maria [Sinertine 00:15:01], I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was Haven by [Gel Sonic 00:15:06], Patched In by Blue Dot Sessions and Jolenta Clears The Table by Dr. Turtle. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How The Night Came and the end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagirljus. 

Chris: Until next time.  


Season 01, Episode 56 - Learning By Unlearning with Bilal Khan

LISTEN HERE - Episode 56


How do you mix heartbreaking and hilarious? YES program participant Bilal Khan, from Karachi, Pakistan, tells about his life before, during, and after YES, and the inescapable conclusion is that stories like Bilal's are why we do international exchanges.

To learn more about the Youth Exchange and Study program which provides scholarships for secondary school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend one academic year in the United States, please visit https://www.yesprograms.org.


Chris: You grew up in a world colored by tragedy, but determined to use your experiences, both positive and negative, to help others in similar situations. You threw yourself into countless new situations, each time with enthusiasm and spirit.

You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Bilal: I walk in, my other DC commander, he says something he has no idea what exchange students are. He has never met anybody from Pakistan. He is six foot six aged, this military guy, very tough, everybody's scared of him. Nobody has ever seen him smile, that's somehow a legend about him until I came to his class. I wasn't planning to make anybody smile.

I'm sitting there, he says something, obviously I did not understand the English. He's like, "Khan, give me..." My last name, he's like, "Khan, give me 20." Now you have to understand this is my first class, first day. I come from Pakistan, so there's a different culture there. I get up so disappointed. I walk up to him, I take out my wallet, take out my only 20. I'm like, "I can't believe American teachers take bribe." My head is going through, I'm like, "In front of everyone, man, you're just going to take 20 sides?" He's looking at me. He's like, "What are you doing?" I'm like, "You asked me to give you 20." He started laughing that the senior commander had to come in that, "What are you doing?" He's like, "This happened," then he started laughing. Then the whole class, and then it turned out I had to do 20 pushups.

Chris: This week, life with granny. 27 mentions in the yearbook. A hornet with a Bollywood vibe and unlearning by experiencing. Join us on a journey from Karachi, Pakistan to Herndon, Virginia in finding a path through tragedy.

It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, Wurts and all.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shape to who I am.
Intro Clip 3: (Music) Then 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...

Bilal: Hi, my name is Bilal Zubair Khan. I'm a YES, Youth Exchange and Study Program, alumni. I was in United States in 2009 and '10, and I was born in Karachi, Pakistan. I came close to this YES Program in 2008. We had internet in our house, this was one of the first search that I did. The others were not better not to be told about, so we would just leave it there, but the truth is that, this is not where my story starts.

This is the first time I'm sharing this story. I had a little sister, her name was Ramsha, beautiful girl, amazing. Funnier than me, better than me. May 20th, 2001 we were in our community swimming pool, and she fell down and hit her on the head. She was unconscious, she passed away. She was four, I was six. This was not my first time seeing somebody die right in front of me, because my mother passed away like few years before that. For me, my only best friend, the only person that I ever talked to after my mom passed away was my younger sister, because we had to sort of look out for each other.

I was born in a family that was very well off, but my mother's cancer just did things to our family that we had to literally sell everything. We were like, I opened eyes seeing adults worried and trying to hide it. I see adults not having answers for me, but trying to still make me feel good. That shook me. I believe that everybody talks about minorities, the real minorities of the world are children. They are second class citizens, nobody understand what's going on with them. At that time nobody understood, but the way my sister passed away it was a story of the neighborhood. Everybody wanted to know this, how the girl drowned because it was a community swimming pool. That hadn't happened in 10 years.

I did not know how to swim. She fell down in the 10 feet, nobody knew. It was dark and I was in the shallow, so I couldn't do anything to help her. What happened is that, the reason I'm trying to tell you this is, it will make sense, that on April 20th when she passed away, people start coming in. It's in the local newspaper, a lot of people are coming in. I was put in front by adults to repeat the story. I did not have any confidence, just let's be very clear. I was very shy. I didn't even know I was failing second grade, third grade because of the things that were happening. No mother, nobody, really you can't go and tell somebody anything. I started telling the story of how... I did not want to, I hated it. I just didn't even know what was happening, but I just told that story let's say 500 times, so many people came up. I'm just doing these stories, stories constantly talking about that at such a young age.

Comes 9/11 right, when we turned on the TV the 9/11 is happening. You have to understand I have no connection to America at this point. I don't even know anything. I only have connection to one thing, that is my sister's passing and my mother. You have to understand that America's perceived in a very different way in other parts of the world. A lot of people who were even, this is happening, 9/11 is happening, there's no emotion. I saw no emotion, the way I saw emotion for my sister when she passed away.

I'm really confused. I don't know what's happening. This is when they didn't censor anything in media. They were showing it as it is. The way you guys saw it here, I was watching it there, and I'm what, nine years old. I don't know who to talk to about it, because it's not happening in our country, nobody understands until my mother, I had a step-mother by that time. She saw it and she just came and she's like, "What's wrong?" I'm like, "This is happening so far away, but it just feels like it's what happened few months ago in our family." My mother who didn't even finish 10th grade, never been out of any city let alone America, she was like, "At the end of the day, they are somebody's children. If you're seeing somebody's children being hurt, you don't have to be an American to be human." These are the things she said it in Urdu of course, I'm just translating it for you, but that's where America started for me. I'm like, "Who are these people? Why this happened to them?"

Then over the course until 2009, for the next eight years, I had zero idea that I would ever end up here. My family's so big that nobody ever left the house. We were all people that you do one job, you have kids. This is how you live your life, so I was a wild entry. Then when I'm searching Google and I've talked about this in my TED Talk, my first search is 16 year old Pakistani going to America. He wasn't just going to America to represent America, but to tell this story. As I grew older, I saw so much hate, they had zero idea what America is like outside of movies and outside of what media was telling them. Every time media was sharing something bad about America, I'm going back to that little incident that happened.

When I came on this Youth Exchange and Study Program, I was like, "This exchange, this link is going to make me whoever I am." The first few weeks of this exchange, it reversed the 15 years of stereotype that were being fed to me. An average American is not out there get me. They're smiling, they're saying hello. They're like, "Hey, where are you from?" The way I'm able to represent my country, I never even represented in my own country. I have this confidence, I have this personality that was somewhere hidden. It's only coming out by having minimal conversations on day to do basis in my high school with my host family, with my friends. That little link that we have is very, very, very useful.

I had two host families. My first host family was a couple, Rose and John. I had an eight year old sister, Alex. The reason I started the story with my sister is because, when I went there, she was the same age when my sister passed away. It just felt like, you know how you pray sometimes, doesn't matter which God you follow or which God other people follow. I prayed to do have a little more time with my sister.

When I come to YES Program, and I was placed in Herndon, Virginia, which is like 45 minutes away from DC, I have Alex. She's nothing like my sister. She's showing me these dance moves from Hannah Montana. She's like, "How are they?" I'm like, "The best I've ever seen." Then I go and Google what Hannah Montana is, because I want to be part of these things. Now she's grown up. We send memes to each other. I'm trying to get her to her first internship. All of these things, like she's there. This connection didn't end.

My second host family was, my host brother was in my civics class. His name is Matt Olem. Matt and I were friends, and then my mother at that time was running for the town council election for the first time. The first time I sat in front of her, I was like, "What are you doing?" She's like, "Oh I'm running for this town council election." I was like, "What does that mean?" She told me, "It's a local city election." I'm like, "I want in." I had no idea of what it is, but I was like, "I want to help you. You have to win," and that's what happened.

We would in our spare time, me, Matt my host brother, and my mother, at this point all three of us are going around giving brochures in all town. Everybody's like, "Oh, who's this?" She's like, "Oh that's my son." You have to understand my mother, a Jewish, white American woman doesn't quite look like a brown, Muslim Pakistani guy, so they are obviously asking questions. There was the fun, "Where is this kid from?" Then they're like, "Oh it's our exchange son." They're like, "Oh okay." They're so happy and I'm going around all this town.

I was volunteering at that time with Adam Center, all All Dulles Area Muslim Center. I was friends with all the Muslim community because of my volunteering at the mosque. They were like, "We are just voting for your mother." She got every single vote, and there were some people who were from Pakistan and India who were in that race, they were just not happy. They didn't say anything, because I was like, "I'm going to go with my mother." She won the town council.

When she won the town council, for the ceremony, her mother, Gracie, she is 91 years old now. I figured out that my host mother Sheila and her mother Gracie, they had a big divide in how they saw things politically. When my mother called her up, and she was like, "Hey, I'm hosting an exchange student from Pakistan." She was like, "Is he Muslim?" She's like, "Yeah." She's like, "Why are you doing this?" When she told me, I was like, "Sheila, when I applied for the YES Program, when my father told my American mother that he's going to America, the first thing they said that, "Oh they're going to turn him into Christian, don't send him." She was really upset." I was like, "I've been through this, let me handle this."

My granny calls, and she has this accent, that's one of the sweetest things I've ever heard. I understood it right away, it was her southern accent. We FaceTime, and then she came to Herndon and I hung out with her. Then she went back and then she was like, "Send him here. I want everybody to meet him." Then I go there, all of her friends, we are going with my grandma, she's driving this old Cadillac. We're listening to all this music, which is from Nashville, from Muscle Shoals and all these areas in Alabama.

We went to music hall of fame of rock and roll, and she's telling me where she was in 1940 when she listened to that song. Where she was in 1952, how she met her husband. Then there was a retiree place where all the retired people go. I went there. Gracie has a friend visiting from Pakistan, and then they call up us on stage and everybody's just looking at me because I'm very different in this area. You have to understand, I have this beard. I used to be 50 pounds more, I won the Biggest Loser Challenge. I used to be little overweight, and they're like, "Who is this guy?" I go up on stage, I'm like, "Hi, my name is Bilal. I'm from Pakistan and I just want to say you guys have nothing to worry about." The minute I said this joke, I know it's bad, but they started laughing. They just wanted to hang out with me. I got published in the local newspaper for a visit to Alabama, like tell me that happens anywhere else.

The point is, when we were driving back, she told me like, I don't want to make this sound like a weird story, but I would just tell you right away that we are driving, I'm on my phone. This is how me and my granny used to hang out. I'm on my phone, she's driving and then she's like, "Oh I'm going to show you some of my friends." I'm like, "Okay, sure." I was going out with her to her hair appointment, to her nail appointment, and I got my nails done. I'm doing all of these things with her, I've never done that with my own mother, my sister. We're driving and then she's like, "Oh we are here." I look up, it's a graveyard.

She has a car in the middle of a graveyard, and she told me that we are going to see her friends. You have to understand, by this time I'm like, well granny is 89 after all, so age gets to you, maybe she's not ... Then we go out to this spot that has many of her friends who passed away. Then also like her husband, and there's like a tomb for her. That's something that never happens. It's like, you have to understand, my trauma comes mostly from graveyards. I was like, "Why do you have it now? I mean this is some dark, dark things granny." She told me that the reason she has it on, because she knows that's where she's going.

She's like, "After a while you don't worry about dying so much, but knowing other cultures, meeting you. Knowing all that I've learned about where you come from, it's a good reminder that my life has come full circle." Then every Pakistani she meets, anywhere in US, she tells us. "My doctor, Dr ..." say he's from Pakistan. She's the unofficial representative of Pakistan, started the job at age of 83. That's my granny.

When I came to Herndon High School, my counselor, Miss Nikki Vendor, she was like, "Okay, so what do you want to do?" I was like, "That's a good question, because I really don't know. You know, that's why I'm here in your office." My counselor encouraged me to take those classes that I would never have in Pakistan, so I took photojournalism. I took theater. Theater was incredible. I took ROTC, we had to wear uniforms. I did not like this class, because one of my dream when I was coming to America was to have long hair and do some crazy with that because I had the freedom. In this class they asked me to have a buzz cutt. That's how my hair was. I looked like an egg throughout my exchange year, and through that class we would go volunteer. This is where I'm like learning about volunteers. I'm already going back to the time when my mother is sick. The funds are really low, we are selling everything. I was like, "What if there was a person who was doing community service or fundraising back then?" I started getting really involved in that.

This was my goal, that I wanted to be the person who is mentioned the most in the yearbook of that year. I'm mentioned on 27 pages. That's a separate thing that I was in the yearbook class, so I sneaked my name in some places, but I was the spirit captain for swim team. I was the secretary for International Club. I performed in a high school musical Oklahoma. I sound very southern already as you see. I did dance, never doing it again, I was really bad. People were really nice there. They didn't boo me off the stage. I was a DJ. I did stand up comedy. I just thought that if I could make people smile, because I had just so many stories that I had to share from my childhood, but I was not really finding the right balance yet. I had to know them, they had to know me, and that's where I realized that I cannot really force everything I know on somebody. Or be upset if they don't react the way I want. I learned how to represent your culture in a way that it speaks to them to.

As I said, my story like on human basis, what are the things I could find? I would show pictures of my family, and I would ask them like, "Oh what is it like for you guys?" They would ask me all these questions. "Do you have electricity?" Some high school students are mean, so they would be like, "Oh where's your camel man?" I'm like, "Oh I double parked it outside." I would make these jokes and then they wouldn't have anything. Again, I used humor to become friends with all of these people.

During this year, I got to meet the ambassador of Pakistan to United States, and you know why? There was a big event, my host family took me to this Eid event. Therefore, thousands of Pakistani, Indians, and like every Muslim community was there, and they had a little stage in the middle. I was so excited to see so many people who looked like me all of a sudden, because I haven't met anybody else. I just started dancing. I'm wearing this Pakistani cloth, and like it's hundred degrees out. I'm all red, so everybody's looking at the stage and there's this one guy dancing, doing his thing.

My sister taught me Macarena. I was doing Macarena on Bollywood songs, you know how awkward that is? It's very awkward, don't do it, that's the point. Then everybody who's American-Pakistani, American, the community's called Desi community, they're looking at me. They're like, "Who are you?" I'm like, "I'm an exchange student, I'm from Pakistan. Do you want to know? Do you want to know?" Then the ambassador was looking, so he sent a security guard. He's like, "Hey, can you bring that guy to me?" I go to him, and he's like, "You okay?" I'm like, "Yeah, I'm having fun. It's Pakistan, I'm representing," because I had never thought that I would be in US, and let alone be on State Department program.

He invited me to embassy. He invited me to tea, which had never happened in YES, these pictures go back to Pakistan and boom I'm a star. Voice of America wants to talk to me, and like all of these people want to talk to me. I'm getting this early success all of a sudden. What happens with that success is that, again, it's not a Peter Parker thing that with power comes responsibility. What I started feeling at that time I was like, "Okay, this is going in different direction." I just wanted to do fundraising, community service and all of a sudden people are celebrating you.

Taylor Swift, Love Story, I felt like she was speaking to me. Taylor says, "Lyrics are amazing for teenagers, no gender issues." My friend Olivia had a car, a blue whale, Ella she would call her car, and she was my swim partner, so she would drive me everywhere. We would listen to Taylor Swift and a lot of Kesha, because I was hanging out with girls. I was a cheerleader, sorry, I was a mascot of my school, a hornet, so I would wear the whole thing and practice for teenagers. Go to football games and different games, and do the whole thing. They were like, "Why is this hornet looks like he's from straight from an Indian movie?" My dance moves, I come from like that part of the world, so I'm doing this and nobody knew it was me.

I'm friends with everyone, I'm going around and whatnot. On the last game, home game of basketball, so the coach of cheerleading and the whole cheerleading team decided that they wanted to do one stunt with me, where I reveal my face and tell the whole school that it's me. I'm like, "Are you sure? I don't want to get up and fall down and be embarrassed one last day of school." You know, you don't want to end it like that. In the middle during the halftime, and it's packed, it was the last game. It's winter, it's packed, and they lift me up in the air. I took off my head and then like everybody just went crazy.

I did swimming in high school. I was so bad when I tried out that my coach was like, "This has never happened because all kids swim from young age." When I tried out I was like, "Okay, I'm going to be really good because I learned a little bit, I learned how to swim in Pakistan." After my sister's death for two years we were not allowed to go anywhere. Then I wanted to beat that fear, so I was like, "I'm going to go back to that same swimming pool where she passed away and I'm going to learn." My family was like, "You're crazy," and whatnot.

I went back, so I learned how to swim by myself for a little bit. Then I became the fastest swimmer for that little pool where she passed away. In 2005, I'm sitting there and there's no lifeguard somewhere, and a few kids come and running to me. They're like, I'm 13 or 12 I think by that time. They come running to me, they're like, "We came to find our friend." You have to understand I'm like really short and boom, boom, boom, boom, Ramsha comes back, everything. I just like dive. I find this guy who's six, two feet and I take him out, save his life from seconds. I really feel like sometimes a trauma can save somebody else.

When I was in high school, when I tried out, I knew I wasn't going to make the team. I went to that same coach. I'm like, "Hey, listen, I really need this. I get $125 stipend every month. I've spent $32 on this swimming trunk, and they're not going to take it back. It's a big investment for me, so just let me do something." She started cracking up. She's like, "Okay." She took me in team because of my spirit, so she made me the spirit captain. My timing for 50 meter freestyle was 54 seconds. The person closest to in our team was 32 seconds when we started. I trained with this team for four weeks. My timing is 27 seconds, which is 1.5 seconds away from the national record of Pakistan that wasn't broken since '92. I went back, I got into college on swimming quarter.

I landed. After doing the whole thing in America, I would get back to it. I landed on June 20th. June 21st I was the mentor for the next year of YES students who were going. Since that day, I've been working full-time. I have gone to college. I have trained over 30,000 teenagers. I have done a lot of multiple jobs, over 600 events that have been done just to bring communities together. Every time they would task me at this, they're like, "How do you come up with these ideas? Oh you're having these stores, these Instagram friends, these selfie boots. How are you doing it?" To be absolutely honest with you, I was channeling my 16 year old intellect and the things I saw in high school. I worked with theater, so before you perform, there's the whole team. How they come together, how they're excel sheets, none of this was there when I was growing up. When I learned it, I was like, "Okay, I know, but how many people don't know? Yes, I made it, but there's a child out there who's going through the similar thing that I was going through. I have to reach to that child."

I'm presenting, I'm doing youth clubs and like all of a sudden I'm just so busy in Pakistan now. Every alumni event, you take them, this workshop, that workshop. Until three years I do this day in, day out, there's nothing more I can learn in life. I realized that I was actually running away from all the people who were not on board with my American experience. I realized people can only understand me as far as they have understood themselves. If somebody has never left Karachi and me trying to tell them what DC is like and how to take picture, and they're never going to make it there, so I'm actually wasting their time. My best friend Hassam, he said that. I grew up with him and he just stopped me and he's like, "Bilal, you were in America, I was not."

Then I looked around, I was like, "Okay, I need to do something that is more than this." I'm like, "Okay, I'm going to do this project." This big project about fundraising where there's like really underprivileged area in Baldia, Karachi. Then it would look really good on my resume. I'm trying to be very honest with you. I'm doing good work, but this is what it would look really good on my resume. Then I can apply for a college here or a college there, this is what I'm thinking. A lot of people think that, so I understand what you go through.

Until this big project, I had 3000 Rupees. I was like, "I'm going to spend." When I had this realization, I was like, "I need to do something good." I was like these 3000 Rupees, which makes it $20, I was like, "I'm going to invest it into something good for somebody else." I balanced my car, I'm out.

I started this fundraiser in Ramadan, that we are going to buy ration for one family in this little area. I talked to my friend, I go there. When I realized that, "Okay, this is how much it takes. I have so many friends on Facebook," so I spent those 3000 in buying one ration for one family. Then I put it up on my Facebook, and within the next five days we went to 80 families. Then we went to 300 families in 10 cities, so it became a nationwide project.

If I feed somebody who's hungry right now, he's going to be hungry tomorrow. This is the first time I googled. I always go back to Google. I was like, so the term came up sustainable solutions, sustainable development goals. I started finding ways, and then I went to UN just for this one thing, got in, selected, came back, started this vocational training center along with her. I was like, "We are going to do something that this doesn't happen where they're waiting for food money."

This woman, Maria, she's also YES alumni by the way, senior than me and she had two sewing machines only. One was her own, one was of her mother-in-law, and she had to carry it all the time. This sewing machine, I was like, "What we can do with it?" She's like, "If you buy me three more, I can have three mothers who can just earn money through this."

Long story short, within five years, they're running a whole social welfare center. Over 500 women have graduated from here and have started their own business. This one project that we did and we installed two sewing machines, that changed the map of this most poverty and crime ridden area that was there. That's one project.

As I mentioned, there are 400 more of these, development wise incredible. What impact it had on me and my family, that's the most important thing, my Pakistani family. They never traveled to America. They were not fond of America. You have to understand that 2011 when Osama Bin Laden was found in Abbottabad, he was living in a town called Bilal Town. It's small things like that.

My high school friend, he was like, "Hey, somebody was talking about it, Bilal Town, and I told them." I was like, "Hey, but I know a Bilal who went to high school with me." The same thing I was doing when some policy, some government thing would happen and everybody would just start saying things about America, I would just take out a picture of granny. I'm like, "Did you guys forget? You were feeling all emotional when I told you this story," like to my Pakistani friends. They were like, "Yeah, he's right. I mean we cannot really trash talk about Americans," because then it means they're trash talking about my family and we don't do that in our culture. I found these little loopholes, I'm like, "Oh this would work. I don't have to take a side, because I don't have a side." I'm right in the middle. I've seen it happen with my host family where the mother is Democrat, the granny is Republican, but it never affects them because I'm their son. You don't politicize your family.

My family in Pakistan had strong opinions about America, they're all gone. I'm telling you, they're like legit gone. If it wasn't for these exchange programs, if it wasn't for me picking up camera to take pictures, or me picking up mic to do the stories, I would have picked up something else. I always had energy and exchanges saved me by channeling that energy into the right path. For that I would always be so thankful to each one of them. Every project that I do and I would do in future, it is not entirely for America. It's just for these two, three Americans who changed and made me who I am. Where I come from I would go to any length to give back to the community.

If you were to go and learn in Karachi, you would find 1,197 more stories like me. You would find 12,000 stories of YES alumni in Pakistan. Now I work for a program called Future Leaders Exchange. All I'm saying is that, if you look from financial perspective, emotional perspective, diplomatic, it works. I would say, I would summarize with this, that I have unlearned more than I've learned during this experience. That is what is the success of exchanges, that normally you have this pressure, "You're going to do a PhD, you're going to do this, you have to do." Over here you're just unlearning a little bit, learning a little more and mixing it up to present it to that audience that it would speak to them. Again, people can only meet us as far as they've met themselves. You have to understand just that part.

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's Christopher Wurst, I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is name for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the US code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of the US government funded international exchange programs.

This week, Bilal Khan told stories from before, during and after his Youth Exchange Study or YES Program. For more about YES 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 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@state.gov. Photos from each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233.

Special thanks to Bilal for all his stories, along with Ana-Maria Sinitean. I did the interview and I edited this segment. Featured music was "71017" by Borrtex, "Chapel Bottom" and "Algea Trio" by Blue Dot Sessions, "Beachy Coletta" by Mikaela, "All Clear" by Ketsa, and "Blue Spring" 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 Tagirijus. 

Until next time.

Bilal: I'm talking too much, I'm so sorry, it's the end of the day.  


Season 01, Episode 55 - [Bonus] The Food We Eat, Part 8

LISTEN HERE - Episode 55


Another selection of crazy food stories from around the world.


Chris: Welcome. Thank you for choosing to satisfy your hunger with our eighth bonus food podcast. True Story. I was in Budapest one time struggling with a menu that was only in Hungarian, and I asked the waitress for some help, and she went down the line pointing at the different items. "This is meat," she said. "This is red, this is green." To be fair, she was telling the truth, but I was still left guessing. Worse, though, is the thought that the word you are looking for flat-out doesn't exist in the local language. Let's say, for example, the word vegetarian. 

You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Intro Clip 1: (Music) Food, food, food, food, food. Food.
Intro Clip 2: (Music)  Oh, yeah. Tell me your favorite food stories.

Chris: This week, the dangers of Tum Pong, deep fried duck bill, and an exotic little known dish called white rice. Join us on a journey around the world to tickle your taste buds. 

It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 3: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 4: (Music) These exchanges shaped who I am. 
Intro Clip 5: (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 6: (Music) Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange. Oh, yeah...

Speaker 1: When I came first time to U.S.A., I think 2004, I think if I'm not wrong, first time I tasted Pizza, and that was also very surprising. We got a very good stipend that time and then we are taking food outside. Then I went to a place and this one round shaped thing they're selling, "What is this little pizza? How does it taste" "Try it." "No problems. I can try it. So far I am not getting die." Then the guy told, "If those guys on a dying, you are not going to die my brother." Fine, so I tried it as a first tasting of pizza and I really liked it. 

I wanted to take less because there's quite a big of cheeses, I don't take Pizza, but my daughter loves it. She got the gene from me. So that is one food. Then I brought good number of Indian food because all as we go somewhere we carry our own food, this time I was carry my own food. I love it actually. And people loved our food, loved our food and all the people, not even the fellow participants and the fellow scholars, but also where ever you go and we brought, I took the food, we meet with me to them and a lot of them meet there loving my food. So that was a very funny.

Second, party that I also learned the different cooking styles. Like this time I, I was hosted by crystal in Lincoln, and her husband is one of the best chef in Lincoln and that guy was amazing. He was also a very good singer and both of them host a soup dinner party at her home. And then her husband was explaining me how I can make different vegetarian sandwich and I, Erica, I just learned from him. And even at night I shared it, my wife, but my wife gave me the very nice compliment. Okay, you learned it, come back, do it. So it was really, food is super, it can unite you very fast. I really liked it.

Speaker 2: Oh man, food and Samoa, I was vegetarian when coming to Samoa. There is not like a word for that. There's no word versus vegetarian, you know, it'd be like, oh so here's fish or here's chicken. So my diet was quite limited so I did end up becoming a pescatarian so that you know, I could actually engage, I mean especially when we were out in the community doing the surveys and interviewing people and doing focus groups, you know you were part and parcel of that experience. You're given food, you're welcomed to the table and it would look very bad if I didn't eat, you know what I was so graciously given. 

So that was sort of definitely something that was added. In any sort of island culture, you have quite limited things that actually get imported in that, so many of us missed sort of dairy products, any type of cheese you'll be on Whatsapp chains with, you know, Australian counterparts, Kiwi counterparts. And it'll be like, "Guys this grocery store, this little shop, it just got a import of Camembert. Like come quickly because it'll be gone in five minutes." Because  people just like be like, yes I missed that. So we managed to get this gigantic wheel of Camembert cheese and we were also excited. 

So we took it to one of, you know, the many beaches. You go to the beach every weekend you a stay and these sort of beautiful open sleeping out on the beach, kind of like they're called Fales and it's just like, you know, a typical weekend experience except for this time we had a gigantic wheel of Camembert cheese. 

When you haven't had something for that long and then you sort of gorge yourself on it, all of us were just like completely sick cause we had way too much of it. So yeah, that sort of can happen often. Yeah. And you know, one of the major issues that a small island developing state like Samoa deals with is making sure that the food that gets imported in the food that is in the diets is healthy. Samoans are known for being quite large. So yeah, it was definitely an adjustment.

Speaker 3: I actually grew up vegetarian and didn't start eating meat, until college, but it was very far and few in between. However, I knew I didn't really have much of a option there since most of the diet was meat heavy. So came to terms with the fact that I was eating noodles and beef and pork for breakfast every day, which I'd never thought was a breakfast meal, but I kind of got used to it after a while.

At one of the research stations in Malaysia, every time a group of people, whether it was a group of tourists or a group of researchers would leave, they would throw like a little barbecue, like a little party for everybody to say goodbye. You get a bunch of people out in the woods and having a reason to celebrate. Then they, they, they really go for it. So you know, they'll have like beer and some drinks and stuff like that. Then late into the night they'll, they would, some of the staff there would bring out the local wine or local alcohol called Tum pong, which is basically fermented from rice. I don't know how it's traditionally done, but the only way I ever saw it was there's rice in an old water bottle and the top has been cut off. Then they put water in it and it just ferments over days, or however long it takes. And they put they put plastic over the top with a rubber band. 

So you get it and it almost reminds me of like getting like a bubble tea sorta because it's like this big plastic cup and then a plastic thing over the top and then you, you take it out, they put a straw in it and they pour water in. So then you like drink more and more and more of it. And, and the first like couple sips, it's just like sour rice. Right. And then some of the rice like comes up, which really adds to the, the like Boba sensation of it all. And so I was like drinking it, and it's not terrible, but it's not something that I would like choose to drink per se. 

One of the guys that was working there that had brought the Tum pong, he saw me testing it out and he's like, "Oh, don't worry. The amazing thing about Tum pong is like you drink some of it, you take that first sip and it's, it's intense and then you drink more of it and the more you drink the smoother it tastes." And I was like, "Isn't that sort of true of all alcohol? Like the more you drink of it, the less you're going to taste it." So I like, you know, I didn't want to burst his bubble or anything, but I think like that's sort of like a universal truth of alcohol. Yeah, it was, you know, again, one of those things, it's like people like make it in their home and they're sort of making their own supply of it. So it was actually really generous of them to like bring it out and let everyone try it. So, so yeah.

Speaker 4: Hey, I was trying to cook with a Jordanian traditional food Mansaf. You cook meat in Yogurt and dried concentrated yogurt, that's a little bit salty. So salty it's a little bit salty, and you cook rice next to it. You serve it all together with a little bit of pine seeds, what do you call them, almonds, crusted almonds and all of that. So it's pretty good. But it's really, you know, heavy on the stomach.   

The first time I made it, it's not supposed to be, you know, blackish, it's supposed to be white, hence the yogurt. So it came out old burnt out. Then I did it again. That was on the same day and I tried to make it again and it came out like bread, brown color. So I burned it but a little.   

So the third time it came out like reddish. The third time I was like, mom, I'm sorry I'm calling you. You're telling me what to do, exact step by step. So my mom was, was with me on the phone. She's like, don't do this, do that. Lowered the heat now and raise it now. And finally I made, it took me like six hours, seven hours on a Sunday to make it. But I made it and we were like really late for dinner, but everybody ate Mansaf and just passed out. Just went to sleep. We can't function anymore.

Speaker 5: Indonesians are always saying, what's your favorite Indonesian food? Which is hard to answer because I like everything. And then then they'll often ask me if I eat rice. Because I guess people have the idea that Americans just have never had rice and it must be so strange and you know, you know and I know that that's not true. We have rice here and it's not really considered an exotic, an exotic dish. 

So the number of times that I've explained that yes, that I eat rice and that yes, I've tried a lot of Indonesian food and like them all. Oh, I remember one time I thought I was eating dried clams and they were actually dried sea slugs or dried sea worms. Not even slugs. I remember thinking this is not a tasty treat, although I guess if you've deep fry anything and put enough salt on it, it's fine. 

Speaker 6: So in Cambodia they eat tarantulas, and I think they're called fire ants. Crickets. Now most of them are deep fried. A lot of them are disguised. I have to tell you, I really tried to be brave enough to do it, and I just couldn't get the tarantula in my mouth. Duck bills in China. That was interesting. Yes. Duckbills I think again were fried. You don't even know what they are until you look really carefully and it's literally the bill, the snout, the mouth of a duck. 

Again, here I am making judgment. It probably, they probably all taste like chicken. A little olive oil and salt, you know canola oil and salt it probably all tastes the same. I try to be completely open minded when it comes to foreign foods and I'm pretty good. Like I can handle a lot of spicy foods, but when it comes to the really different, as much as I can try to respect a different culture. Yeah. Part of my is thinking I have to get through the next five days, so if this is gonna make me sick, then I'm in trouble. Not that the duck bill would make me sick, but 

Speaker 7: I passed through this stage where you're exposed to the American food per se. When I was on my yes program and the exchange before when I was younger. So of course we were all fascinated by all the fast food and stuff. But when I came to this, he actually, this was a moment where I was happy to, to cook for myself and eat healthier. So I really barely ate out. I was happy to go to either whole foods or trader Joe's and get my healthy food and cook and go to my classes, go to the gym, come back, share a meal with our roommates. We had someone from India, from Norway, from the UK, from the US. It was a blend of different cultures, but we all were just cooking and making sometimes Lebanese dishes or Indian dishes and sharing them together. So I think the only thing that I was fascinated to try was the Georgetown cupcakes. Which you have to stand in line forever to get it. So I remember once I passed by and there was no one in line, so I went in and tried it and it was 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 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, and our stories come from participants of  U.S. government funded international exchange programs. 

In this episode, our taste buds were tempted by Kamaal Thomas, Biplab Paul, Kevin McLean, Joanna Guzman, Netta Risvonovich, Ali Makahleh, Janet Steele, Robin Hauser, and Natalie Nasser-Aldin. We thank them all for their stories and their willingness to try new things.

For more about ECA exchanges, check out eca.state.gov for more about 22.33 you can write to us at ECAcollaboratory@state.gov. That's ECA c-o-l-l-a-b-o-r-a-t-o-r-y at state.gov. You can find us and subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts, and you can get complete episode transcripts and photos of the interviewees at our webpage at eca.state.gov slash 22.33.

Special thanks this week to everybody for trying new things, for living to tell the tale, and then for telling it. Featured music during the segment was Marble Arch by Dave Brubeck. Monkey Spitting Monkeys by Kevin McCloud was heard at the top of this episode, and the end credit music was Two Pianos by Todd Geurloos. 

Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 54 - Medicine & Poetry with Irene Mathieu

LISTEN HERE - Episode 54


This week we interview a pediatrician and poet from Virginia who traveled to the Dominican Republic as a Fulbright Scholar. For more information about the Fulbright U.S. Scholar program please visit https://www.cies.org/program/fulbright-us-scholar-program.


Christopher: You find yourself in a strange situation. You've left your home and country and yet you feel like you fit in your adopted country, almost as if you've been here before. And the empathy you acquire about yourself, and those around you is articulated in your compassion to your patients, and in the beauty of your words. And it leaves deep and profound impressions. You're listening to 20.33 a podcast of Exchange Stories.Amb. Mulhall: I can tell you the song I remember most is "Rikky Don't Lose That Number" by Steely Dan and to this day I've bought every single one of the records or cds that they've issued. And I still, when I play Pretzel Logic, it brings me back to my dorm room in Kansas City and to my summer of 1974.

Irene Mathieu: I hear chickens crowing intermittently and motorcycles rubbing down the street. As cars pass by, some of them are blasting Dembo music out of their windows, but in the background, the guy next door has salsa cranked all the way up and he's just singing along as he cleans his house. I smell the ocean because I lived a couple of blocks from the ocean, and it was often intermingled with the scent of [foreign language 00:01:00] which is little cakes that were from the first floor because my landlord's mother had a bakery and so often the smell of the [foreign language 00:01:07] would mix with the smell of the ocean. 

And then occasionally we'd get some of the street fumes from the motorcycles that were revving past, and it's hot and sticky and I probably just took a shower and I'm already sweaty again, and there's certainly no air conditioning, but there might be a nice breeze from the fan.

Christopher: This week, understanding systems to help individual people, learning to expand your limits of trust and using words to understand emotions. Join us on a journey from Virginia to the Dominican Republic, and communicating through imagery and empathy. It's 22.33.

Intro: We report what happens in the United States warts and all. These exchanges shaped who I am. And when you get to know these people, they are not quite like how you read about them. They are people very are much like ourselves. Oh that's what we call cultural exchange.

Irene Mathieu: My name is Irene Mathieu I am a pediatrician and a poet from Virginia and I spent my year as a Fulbright scholar from 2009 to 2010 in the Dominican Republic. I grew up in suburban Virginia and my family was often seen as outsiders. We were one of the only families I knew among my peer groups where all of us had different skin tones. We had French names, in some cases going further back Spanish names. We ate beans and rice on a regular basis. My family is Catholic. There were a lot of things about us that didn't really fit in suburban Virginia and I didn't really understand or have the language to conceptualize it other than what my parents would tell me, which is that, well, our family's [creel 00:03:23] from New Orleans.

But I didn't really know what that meant. And it wasn't until I traveled to the D.R. that I understood. New Orleans is really the northern most part of the Caribbean and it is a former Spanish and French colony. And so it's culturally much closer to a place like the Dominican Republic than it is to a place like Washington D.C. or Virginia. That helped me to understand my own family's history in the context of a larger American, by which I mean North and South and Central and the Caribbean American colonial history, rather than a history that was specific to the United States.

But it also helped me to understand the ways in which history in the U.S. is often very dichotomized and very black and white literally. And reality is much more complicated. And I think that there are other countries that embrace that nuance in that complication and a little bit better than we often do here. So I found myself writing about those themes more and more as I think about home and belonging and what it means to be from a place where you aren't currently living. 

 I went to the Dominican Republic the year after I graduated from college, and the reason I chose the D.R. as my location was that I had been involved in a global health project throughout the last three years of college. And I had spent several summers and winters going and working in a public health partnership right outside of Santo Domingo. So I knew that I wanted to return to the country because my experiences up to that point had been very profound and I wanted to continue working in a public health space in the D.R. 

The first time I went to the Dominican Republic was in 2007. I was a sophomore in college, and it was winter break and the most profound thing that I remember was a really deep sense of deja vu when I first arrived to the country, and it took me many years to understand where that came from and I think I'm still unpacking and processing it. As I spent that couple of weeks that I was there in the country, it started to occur to me that this was the first time I was in a place where people assumed that I belonged, and unless I was with my other American friends, most of whom are white, people really thought I was Dominican.

I had never experienced that before and I didn't really realize what I was missing because I had spent my entire life in the U.S. had never been in a place where people weren't questioning where are you from? And assuming that I was foreign and as somebody whose family has been in the United States for hundreds of years, that was always a frustrating experience, and so it was really wild to be somewhere where the opposite was happening. And was having to explain to people that I actually wasn't from there.

It made me feel really seen and at the same time invisible. Seen because it felt like I wasn't abnormal or in other, I was just one of everyone else, but invisible in the sense that I felt a little bit safer than maybe some of my white colleagues did because when I was walking down the street, I didn't feel like I was as much a target. I certainly was to some extent because of my gender, but I didn't feel as much a target as maybe some of my colleagues and friends from the U.S. might've felt. So It was a really profound and fascinating experience.

This poem was written several years ago. Pretty soon after I returned from my Fulbright, it's called The Black American Gets Her Travel Fellowship and Grows Abroad. One, an exercise. The positionality of placeholders. There is something that wants to be said. There is something that wants to be said. There is something that wants to be said. There is something that wants the dark birth of words. She is on a line. The passport holds her up. Little blue woven book, Little blue book, little blue little she. The empire machine is dreaming. The empire machine rolls over. The empire machine wakes up, the empire machine stretches, the empire machine does not have a lover. The empire machine makes coffee. The empire machine goes to work.                                    

Two, I promise you that girl, she looked just like my sister, cousin, daughter, niece [foreign language 00:07:54] you know, [foreign language 00:07:56] who lives next to the [foreign language 00:07:57] that always smells a raw meat and [foreign language 00:08:00] three, what she says. One day I dream myself on the outside of a flying plane. I grip a rope twisted through a loop on the wing, and the wind scoops everything out of my mouth. Inside my bones an unborn old woman is stretching and dancing.

My skin feels too tight. I return swallowing Spanish. Border control squints, interrogates, x-rays, finally says, "Welcome home." I am overflowing. And the taxi driver sees, "You miss your country?" His eyes are soft. I cannot speak. Four, and regarding a bra made in, I wonder what woman with a transatlantic face like mine has worked callouses into her fingers for the comfort of nude colored breasts, nude being khaki, as in fatigues or nude being cream, as in of the crop. Try wearing a river, barbed wire, gold, black, dried blood, a harvest, lost languages, a seam, I mean a border. 

And how will you find your way home? And how will you find? And you how? How will you? How you? Home will find you. And how? When I lived there for my Fulbright experience, I also became really aware of certain privileges. The privilege of having a U.S. passport, the privilege of having the money to go back and forth and to engage in the kind of work that I was doing around public health research. That really helped to illustrate for me many of the things that I had been studying and learning about in college as an international relations major.

So to really be immersed in that for a year and to see the structural effects and then on the ground how that really impacts people's lives, It was really profound and has shaped the way that I think about public health and medicine going forward. What I learned is really the way to translate that international relations policy level thinking to the life of an individual in front of you, and how to best approach what they may be going through .                                    

People would sometimes tell me anecdotally about how in the 90s it became very difficult to sustain their rural livelihoods as small farmers, and that drove a lot of people into cities. And the capital is also the largest city Santo Domingo. In cities, people often found themselves in very crowded housing situations with poor ventilation and not a lot of resources, and those are the types of conditions that really fosters tuberculosis, which is the disease I was studying. And so I would hear these stories over and over, and it was very clear to me how this macro level policy had this very material impact on people's lives. 

We know that malnutrition is a really important factor in the development of tuberculosis and that was certainly an issue, which again people could relate directly back to agricultural policies and international trade agreements that had shifted the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in some cases. So a lot of these larger political forces that I had studied in Undergrad were having a very real impact on people's actual bodies and lives. The further I got in my Fulbright research, the more I began to doubt whether or not what I was doing would have a big impact in that came to a head. 

I remember one day in particular, there was one patient who had what we call MDR-TB, which is multiple-drug-resistant tuberculosis and people who have that cannot take the first line antibiotics. So they have to take stronger and more powerful antibiotics. And those often have more toxic side effects, which ironically creates this vicious cycle where if they're less likely to take them or to be able to finish taking them because of these toxic side effects, that tuberculosis can become even more resistant. And so it's a big cause of mortality. 

And the Dominican Republic has one of the highest rates of MDR-TB in the Western Hemisphere. So this one particular patient was having a really tough time and was just having a lot of terrible physical side effects with medications and was clearly frustrated by this, but still kept trying to come back to the clinic for his treatment. And one day he got very angry with me and he said, "What are you doing here? What are you just going to write a paper about this? How is this going to help us?" And I had no idea what to say. I thought about that for a long time. 

I'm obviously still thinking about it, but it made me really pause and reflect on what it means to be community engaged, what it means to try to make a change or make a difference. It also made me think about the ways that consciously or subconsciously I may be complicit in policies, whether in the U.S. or abroad that are negatively impacting people's lives. And so the things that I do outside of my clinical practice, like the way that I vote and where I shop and how I travel, are all things I need to consider because they have larger ethical implications but may not be obvious. 

t's certainly informed the way that I approached community engage research, which is my big interest area. It's made me really careful about having upfront conversations with community members and organizations about what the goals of a given partnership or research project are. And to be very clear and sit down and say, "What are you going to get out of this?" Yes, I might be able to publish a paper from this, but what might the community get out of this and are there resources in place to operationalize the results of this study or to turn it into a program that will be sustainable?

And so it just made me much more cautious and thoughtful about approaching community engage research in the future. I'm not sure if I'm an optimist. I think I must be, because I still feel this very strong drive to try to make a difference and that ... I mean that both in terms of individual, people's lives, but also systemically. I think optimism isn't the same thing as what drives me to write, but maybe what drives me to publish my work and share with other people is this optimistic idea that maybe it will have a positive impact on somebody else. So, I suppose that I am an optimist deep down, but there are a lot of days that it doesn't feel like it. 

Learning more about the conditions in Central America and having spent a little bit of time in Central America, once I started seeing patients who had come from Central America recently, it was impossible for me to divorce their individual story from the larger social context. And of course, everyone has their own individual story and it's going to be different and you can't make assumptions about somebody's particular life experience. However, I think that it's impossible to separate a person from his or her context. 

And so if even just a little bit about that context, it should open up questions and a space for a curiosity and a space for trying to understand better because you have a little bit of a knowledge or a little bit of an in to understanding what may be driving that person's motivations and goals and what may be the factors that have shaped their life. A very Dominican gesture is a nose wrinkle when you don't understand something. So instead of somebody saying what? Or the equivalent in Spanish, they might just scrunch their nose. I started doing that almost subconsciously when I returned to the U.S. 

My parents kept saying, "Why do you keep wrinkling your nose like that?" And I had just picked up on it and I still have to stop myself sometimes from doing that reflexively because it's just become a part of my body I guess and my set of communication languages. There's a kind of closeness and a different sense of personal space that took a while for me to get used to, and which I ultimately really came to appreciate. But there were times when I would be on a [foreign language 00:18:05] which is a public bus, but it's basically a big van. It would be totally packed. 

Then maybe like this 15 year old girl would just sit on my lap because there was nowhere else for her to sit. And so things like that would happen, that would normally make me feel very uncomfortable or feel like this is a breach of some social contract. But there, that's just how things were done. And I learned how to get used to that. And I think it kind of gave me a sense of pride that I could anticipate those sorts of situations and be okay with them. I was very inspired by the kindness that I encountered so often from complete strangers and from people who had no particular reason to be kind to me. 

Other than that, they were just wonderful. I remember this one time I was traveling with my roommate and we were going to this beach town a few hours away for the weekend, and we really didn't have specific plans. We weren't sure what we were going to do when we got there, and we started talking with this woman on the bus with us who was a young mother and had several of her children in tow. And she said, "Oh, I'm from that town if you want, I can show you around, I can take you to the best beach." And my roommate and I were exchanging these silent glances, trying to figure out if we should trust this person or not, and kind of what was going on. 

And we ultimately decided to go with her. So we just went with her and she's brought us to her house and she said, "Here's my village here's my family." And everyone greeted us as if we were family. And I think they gave us some fish for lunch. And then she said, "All right, now you can just put your backpacks in my house and we'll go to the beach." And at this point, my roommate and I again exchange glances, like "Should we go along with this or not?" And I just had a really good feeling about it. I mean we had our backpacks, I don't think we had our passports on us.

Hopefully not, but we had a lot of our stuff and we decided to do it. So we left our things in this woman's house and we went to the beach with her and with her children. And we spent a few hours there and her kids showed us how to open wild almonds and eat them. And we just played in the ocean and it was so much fun. It was a beautiful afternoon. And then when it was over, we went back to her house and our stuff was there, and everything was fine and everyone said, "I hope you had a great time at the beach. Come back and visit again."

And I'm just really inspired by people who have that generosity of spirit to open their home to a complete stranger from another country, and to just treat you like a human being, which I think doesn't happen as much as it should, because I think a lot of times we let a lot of assumptions get in the way of that. I think that when I let down my guard and stop making assumptions, it paid off in a really big way in terms of this human connection. Getting used to living there and achieving a kind of comfort with my life there. 

And then becoming aware in those moments of maybe taking the public transportation to the grocery store and buying groceries in another language, and talking to the guy outside this street who brings the fruit and buying groceries from him. It's just was such a different way of organizing my life than what I was used to in the U.S. and sometimes I wish that somebody could just have a little camera so I could show my family and friends back home. This is how I live here and this is how comfortable I am in this setting, and here's how I navigate it. Being in the Dominican Republic as well as some of my other experiences, living and working in Latin America, really helped me to gain some proficiency in Spanish. 

And so, being able to be a bilingual health provider who can speak to my patients in Spanish or in English, I can't imagine practicing without that. I have used an interpreter for other languages and even with the best interpreter, there's still always this barrier between you and the patient that I think does a disservice overall. And of course you can't speak every single language that your patients are going to speak. So we do the best that we can, but I think because Spanish is such a common second language for me to encounter in the U.S. after English, it's become an irreplaceable tool that I have in my toolkit as a physician. 

I felt really proud of the fact that I was able to just successfully live there as an adult. I was very young when I did my Fulbright. I was right out of college. And so, for me college was extended adolescence, I was living in a dorm, it's still very much financially dependent on my parents. And so, this was the first trial of my adult sea legs and it was in a completely foreign context to boot. I really felt like the year that I was there gave me a sense of confidence about my ability to just do normal adult things, but also to do them in a foreign context and to adapt and roll with the punches and to do things in another language too.

From simple things like grocery shopping and figuring out public transportation, to making friends, sustaining relationships there. I did a research project that was qualitative research and so, most of my data was people talking in a language that was not my first language. And so, it was really a huge learning process for me, but one that made me feel much more confident and comfortable about my independence just as an adult human. So, the year I did my Fulbright was actually a really important turning point for me in terms of poetry as well because, when I was there I met a woman who had been a Fulbrighter and then subsequently just relocated to the D.R. 

Had been living there for several years. And among other things, she'd started a small press that published primarily poetry. And up until that point I had been writing poetry my whole life and had written some fiction as well. And I had never tried to publish it. I thought maybe someday in the future I'll publish this, but I don't really know what I'm doing with this writing thing. And I mentioned it to her and she said something to me that I still think about. She said, "If you write, then you're a writer. No one is going to give you permission. That's just a title that you can claim for yourself."

And I had never thought about it like that. Obviously becoming a doctor is a very routinized, protocolized process. And there's really no other way to do it and at least in the United States, besides going through all these very specific steps, but becoming a writer is completely different. It's something that you can create for yourself and what you want that to look like, whether you feel like publishing your work or not. Some of the first poems that I ever published were about my experiences in the D.R. so it really changed the way that I approached poetry as well. 

My experiences in the D.R. also shaped what I write about and how I write about it. Because being there really framed my identity and my own cultural context in a much clearer way. I think that the way I approach writing about family and identity and history, is just so much richer than it would have been if I had never gone there. I don't see them as being that different. So they both spring from the same impulse for me, which is to understand the conditions of our world and how we got to the place we are, which means a really deep analysis of context and history and place. 

So there are really two methodologies to approach the same question, but I think the way that poetry and the way medicine work have some overlaps. So, for example, I would say Science is the language of medicine, and words are the language of poetry. But both of them have ways in which we can be rigorous. So in poetry we can think about form, we can think about structure in very rigorous ways. And in medicine, we're rigorous with our use of empirical data, at least when we're talking about Western biomedicine. 

But there's also a necessity in both fields to be able to be flexible and to lean into spaces of uncertainty and liminal spaces, where things don't really make sense because that's often the most generative place. So, a concrete example would be if you have a patient who's presenting with a set of symptoms and you think, "Oh, this is clearly this one thing." It's that one little bit of data or that extra hesitation before they move on to the next question where maybe the answer lies, and maybe that's what you need to pursue. Whereas with poetry, it's really difficult to write a good poem if you know what it's going to be about at the beginning. 

You may know where you're going to start, but you won't necessarily know where you end. So I think in both medicine and poetry, there has to be an openness and a willingness to be wrong, and a willingness to make sense of whatever data or emotion is thrown your way as you're constructing the poem, as you're figuring out the diagnosis. I see them as actually utilizing a lot of the same muscle memory if you will. This poem is called DCA to SDQ. DCA is the airport code for Ronald Reagan National Airport. And SDQ is the airport code for Santo Domingo Airport in the Dominican. 

One, I'm with a group of other Americans trying to get into a nightclub. The bouncer lets the boys in, nods and winks. Stops me [foreign language 00:29:23] I pretend I don't speak Spanish, level and cut my eyes into razors. I'm not Dominican. He looks me over, considers, steps aside. But the sugar on my tongue has already dissolved. Rotten aftertaste thinly coating my teeth. I'm strong in the cobwebbed night dense as 200 year old cotton bales, as sugarcane stacked in wagons. Dense as the salt iron throb of blood. Of course I want to leave then, but the boys are already throwing back rim shots, and I don't have the heart.

Two, the incredible thing about this country is that we don't see race here. It's all melting pot [foreign language 00:30:04] everyone does [foreign language 00:30:06] the same you know? My friend's face is a cup of cream. Our parents so skin, fix hearts. Our hands are soft as clean gauze, our necks are smooth, our breaths confident. When we smile, our teeth look like boarding passes. We are smiling in a restaurant in the old colonial city, perfect slices of stewed goat on our white plates. 

I look down and think I see the goat's heart. I want to say, there is a faint bleating coming from my plate, but I don't have the mouth. Three. What do you call a goat trying to get into a nightclub? A Billy club swinging. What do you call Billy and his friends throwing words like darts at you? A faint bleeding. What do you call a game of darts in the colonial city? A morning. What do you call a game of darts in Washington DC? A body club morning. What do you call a ghost that dances on your plate? What do you call a bleeding morning of darts? A word throwing clubs in the city.

A morning dance in the club. What do you call the precise form of surgery in which a heart is removed from a person while she is still walking, still speaking and placed on a white plate? What do you call what sugar does to a body? How it melts, sticks, damps the pipes, slows blood as it tries to push, slows the tuckering heart, ties it up like a goat? What should we call this type of drowning? 

Christopher: 20.33 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. 20.33 is name 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 program. This week Iran Matya described her time and shared two of her poems from her exchange to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic as a Fulbright scholar. 

For more about the Fulbright and other ECA exchange programs, checkout eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 20.33, you could do so wherever you find your podcasts. And we'd love to from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@tstate.gov that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Photos of each week's interviewee and a complete episode transcript can also be found on our webpage. And that's at eca.state.gov/20.33. Special things this week to Iran for her stories, poems and compassion. I did the interview and edited this segment. 

Featured music was Bitter Roll, Tendon and The Trestle by Blue Dot Sessions, The sound effects Manne by Shelly Manne, Big Disco Ball (instrumentaL) By Josh Woodward and Down The Line by Gene Ammons. 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 53 - [Bonus] Beware of Taxis with Disco Balls

LISTEN HERE - Episode 53


Our guest this week, who now works at the Department of State on programs in the Middle East, describes her first experiences traveling to the region when she was an international exchange student in both Jordan & Kuwait.


Chris: What happens when you leave your comfort zone, travel to another country, interact with a different culture, a new language, and unique ways of life? Now let's take that a step further. Imagine you are in a place that many would be very afraid to visit, finding yourself in situations like nothing you've ever experienced. How do you trust yourself to make the right decisions? 

You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Madeline M.  H.: I really had to fight a lot of ideas that you're told about another part of the world and people that live in another part of the world. I think oftentimes in thinking about the Middle East, we automatically think about how much conflict is in the region. We automatically think about, at least being at the State Department, about the geopolitical context of the country that you're in. But I think that there's such a human level of interaction that's so important to get when you're on the ground and that if you're not trusting the actions of the locals, that you could escalate what might not be a dangerous scenario in the first place to something that might be dangerous.

Chris: This week, Taxis with Disco Balls, Long Way to the Border, and the Biggest Desert Sky You've Ever Seen in Your Life. On this episode, a journey from Vermont to the Middle East, mainly by taxi and bus and taxi. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3: We operate under a presidential mandate which says that we report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5: 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-

Madeline M.  H.: My name is Madeline Hall. I originally hail from the beautiful Green Mountain state of Vermont. I spent time on two different ECA programs, one in Jordan in 2009 and one in Kuwait in 2011. Currently I work at the State Department working on programs in the Middle East.

When I was living in Jordan there was a semester or a month in between the two semesters of Arabic that I was taking. I decided with a group of three other women that we were going to spend some of that time traveling to Syria and then I would go onwards to Turkey by myself. We started in Damascus and traveled up through Syria and I ended in Aleppo. I was only there for a night and found it fascinating that there were so many other tourists in Syria. In Aleppo specifically there were Italian tourists, French tourists, but very few Americans, and at that moment really realized how the stories that you're told living in the United States and the news that you get often is very different from the experiences on the ground that you're able to have when you're really able to connect at a human level, that people deep down really want a lot of the same things to share in food, to be joyful, to laugh, to find connection.

It was really powerful in this ancient city in Syria, having that aha moment. I was traveling to Turkey by myself and remember that I had to wake up early in the morning to get the bus. It was a 24-hour bus ride from Aleppo to Istanbul. I asked a few times, "Am I going to be okay? This is an early-morning taxi." And someone said, "Yes. People will be up. It will be fine." I put a lot of trust that the locals knew that I would be safe. But I think it was in Syria where I had some of the most frightening taxi experiences that I've ever had in my life. I got into the taxi and the driver had this hat on that had all these spinning things on it and a disco ball in the front of the taxi. I figured he's trying to ... It's the night so he's trying to be bringing people home maybe from partying or being out with their friends.                                     

I was petrified because I just didn't know if I was going to get to this bus station safely. We eventually got to the bus station and I remember being incredibly relieved but also knowing that I had a deep trust for what the men at the souk or the market had told me of how I needed to get a taxi and then I'd be safe going to the bus station. On my way back from Turkey, I had to go back through Syria and wasn't so lucky at the border coming back into Syria. We had to wait for seven hours, eight hours. I was by myself. Then we went from the border and drove to Damascus. We arrived at about, again, 4:00 in the morning. I went to the bus stop at around, this bus station, at 7:00 in the morning. Everyone was telling me, "There are no buses to Jordan today. It's Friday."                                     

I was thinking, "Oh gosh. What luck." I return to the theme of trust. There were a lot of taxis that were around the bus station, so I haggled with the taxi driver that I would pay him, but we'd have to find another passenger. I got into the taxi and we drove around for what seemed like hours. I was in and out of sleep, but sometimes it's very hard to fight the urge to close your eyes. I remember waking up and being outside of a house and the taxi driver getting out of the car. I was thinking, "Oh geez. This is potentially the end of me right now." It was a little bit frightening, but I knew that deep down it was best to stay calm. It was best to, again, let the scenario play out because I really wasn't sure what exactly was happening.                                    

He went in and then he came back out and his friend got in the car. We drove to the Jordanian border. Lo and behold, the trust that I had to put into the taxi drivers getting me from point A to point B was a very deep sense of trust. It really fought a lot of ideas that you're told about another part of the world and people that live in another part of the world. There was definitely moments within both of those taxi drives that I had a lot of fear and then had to overcome that fear because there wasn't another choice of how to get either to the border or to the bus station short of walking or hitchhiking, which weren't really options.                                     

I think that there are a lot of lessons to unpack from that, but I think the biggest one was not just trusting others, but also having the ability to trust myself that deep down if I felt that there was really a danger to my existence or wellbeing, I would have found a way to get out of those situations. But I think that there was a level of safety that I really felt secure in where I was. I think that the other thing too is the ability to really sometimes let something unfold, that something that may appear to be really scary sometimes really isn't and you have to let it unfold a little bit to then see how you might need to react. But I think there's a lot of patience in both of those experiences that you have to let the process play out.                                     

It happened several times. I would say that it was kind of a recurring thing, where you'd get in a car with a taxi driver and they would ... You'd say, "I'm from the United States," and they ask you, "What are you doing here?" I say, "I'm taking Arabic. I'm here. I'm really interested in your culture." I feel that in our country, in the United States, there's so much misperception about what it means to live and to be in the Middle East. I wanted to really explore the region for myself and get an understanding for the local context that isn't coming from the news or from other sources. We'd start to have a conversation. I'd often get asked if I was married and then they'd tell me that they'd have their son or a cousin or someone that they could marry me off to.                                     

And then often after those initial conversations, it would then move into we'd go back to this topic of the United States. I think that the biggest question actually that I got asked was if I owned a gun. I think that it's such a small thing or it's such a pointed question. I don't own a gun and I, at the time, would say no. And I think there are a lot of ... Yes, there are a lot of gun owners in the United States, but there are also a lot of non-gun owners in the United States. I think that they would then talk about how this was very unique to the United States and that they also, on the other end, see that there's so much violence in the US. I thought that that was a really interesting lens because on the flip side, what we often think of the Middle East very initially is conflict.                                      

We think of war. We think of a region that has really been in conflict for such a long time and a lens that they're also then looking back to us through is similarly conflict, but through gun violence, that we're really using on ourselves. It's not an outside conflict or a war or bombs or anything greater than citizens and civilians having guns and creating the conflict. I think it was a really interesting juxtaposition talking about or being in the Middle East and thinking about the violence that they've seen historically in the region and around them, and then being questioned on the own violence in our own country.                                     

When I think about my time living in the Middle East, I also think of the night sky. I remember going to Jordan and going to the desert to Wadi Rum, which is this vast desert and camping, and just looking up. I didn't think that the stars could just look so grand and vast. They went on forever and ever and ever. It really made me feel so tiny in this ... You could just really see, almost feel and see just how vast the universe is. I think that that's really powerful. If you have never seen a night sky, I suggest going to the Jordanian desert and witnessing it for yourself or any other desert. It feels like the sky kind of envelopes you. It's a very unique and also a very comforting feeling that you can ... There's just so much vastness.                                     

You can be a part of it, but at the same time you're such a small part of it. It's very humbling in a lot of ways.

Chris: I’m Christopher Wurst, director of the Collaboratory, an initiative within the US State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. 22.33 takes its name from title 22, chapter 33 of the US Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of US government-funded international exchange programs. In this episode, Madeline Murphy Hall shared her experiences as a Fulbright scholar in Kuwait and a Boren scholar in Jordan. For more about ECA exchange programs, such as what's the difference between a Fulbright and a Boren scholarship, check out eca.state.gov.                                     

We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 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 @state.gov. Special thanks this week to Madeline for sharing her stories with such candor. I did the interview with Madeline and edited this episode. The featured music during the segment was Time Train by PC3. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How the Night Came. The end credit music is Two Pianos by Tagear Lioos. Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 52 - Learning From One's Mistakes with Nejra Rizvanovic

LISTEN HERE - Episode 52


As a child, when you thought of America, you thought of the Texas plains and cowboys but, as a teenager, when you first traveled to America, your destination was Alaska. Instead of life in the Wild West, you found yourself in the snow hugging trees, literally hugging trees.


Nejra R.: If you want to make a change, if you want to do something differently, if you want to create something new, then you, inevitably, have to make mistakes. If you change your perception towards failure, maybe you're just going to get there faster.

Chris: This week, finishing a Nordic marathon, finding the fun in volunteering, and did we mention hugging trees? Join us on a journey from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina to Anchorage, Alaska, and learning from one's mistakes.

It's 22.33.

Speaker 1: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 2: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 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…

Nejra R.: My name is Nejra Rizvanovic. I'm from Sarajevo, from Bosnia and Herzegovina. That's a little heart-shaped country in the southeast of Europe. In my spare time I study. I'm a master's student of cognitive science at the University of Vienna. The name of the program that I went abroad with is YES, Youth Exchange and Study. I was in Anchorage, Alaska.

I remember sitting in my English class in high school in Sarajevo, and one person just came in to spread around the announcement that if you want to join this program. At the moment, I had no idea what it was. It was established in that year in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We were actually the pioneers of the program. That's how I went. I went to the first round. I call up my friend and I said, "Hey, you want to join for this? Maybe, I don’t know, we'll get a chance. Let's just see how it goes." We managed to go through the first round, second one, the third one, and then both of us were finalists of the program. We were chosen to go to the US.  

We could actually list our first three options or the three options that we would like to go to. As far as I remember, Texas was one of them. I had always wanted to see the… well, I had the image of the US, of these cowboys saying howdy all the time. Basically, what I got was the opposite of that. But I can say that I really loved my experience, so I would go for Alaska any time.  

In the beginning, I was really excited to go. But then once I was on a plane from Seattle to Anchorage, it started to get to me. When I saw the mountain range below that's quite particular to Alaska, I was scared and shivering, but I was always interested in going abroad. I loved languages, and I started picking up English through movies and books. I would say that the language was a very good link for me not to feel so foreign in a country. It made me bond faster with my host family. They were really amazing. They waited for me at the airport. Even though I thought it was going to be really foreign and really scary, they were just so welcoming, waiting for me with the bouquet of flowers and a welcome sign with the Bosnian flag drawn on it.  

As a part of our program, we have a pre-departure orientation. One thing I remember they said was that Americans have their privacy bubble, so don't really get too close or don't just get huggy and touchy-feely. I didn't get that feeling. I think Americans were quiet friendly and open in the beginning. They're always ready to engage you in conversation, but getting to the point where you actually feel that really strong or really deep bond, it takes time. In Central Europe, I would say, people are more reserved in the beginning, but you get there more easily.  

What was most striking for me in the first few months is the difference in pace in life. In Alaska, everybody was on a schedule. If you wanted to meet up with friends, you had to tell them two weeks in advance. Something that I really liked about Bosnia is that if you're just walking in the street and you have something to share with your friends, you just call them up and you say, "Hey, I'm here in the hood and let's just go for a cup of coffee." A cup of coffee can mean many different things. It can mean an actual cup of coffee up to having a therapy session because you had something to share. That's sort of something that everyone knows in Bosnia, and then you just go and talk for hours. In the end, you end up drinking tea. This is something that I tried to kind of promote in the US within my host family just to go slowly, take our time, and really be present.  

I was thinking whether I should join the ski team in Anchorage because, living in Alaska, you have six to seven months of winter. If you want to survive the winter, you have to ski basically. As a final roundup of the year, we had our little competition or what was called the Tour of Anchorage. I did the half marathon, and I actually pulled through. I mean I made it to the finish line. I remember being exhausted but super, super proud, and my host parents were super proud, so that was cool.  

I remember during our ski practice, we were divided in a couple of groups and we had our instructors with us. But then I just started noticing commotion and then instructors yelling, hide behind a tree because, apparently, there were two moose on the road, a calf and a mom moose… cow, I guess. Apparently, it was really, really dangerous when there was a calf around there since the mother would be worried, possibly attack. They've instructed us before that to just hide behind the tree and you have to literally hug a tree because the moose can't differentiate between a tree and a person. That's the way to keep safe. I remember, oh God, hugging that tree, thinking I don't think I'll ever be able to explain this to friends or family back home.  

A lot of people back home in Bosnia are a smart bunch of people that have big ideas but they don't feel like they are… I don’t know. They don't have the necessary support of the government, so they just give up and they don't do anything.  

In the US, I kind of saw the value of community spirit and community service. You don't really need money to do anything. You just kind of gather a bunch of people and do something. I don’t know. You organize a food drive. You clean a certain part of the street or so on. This is something actually that's a big part of the program of something that I do back home. We are regularly organized orphanage donations, food drives, cleanups and so on. That's something that I really liked and I tried to incorporate in not just my habits but my mentality as well, so how I go about problems that I see around.  

I remember doing a week long cleanup in Alaska at the Gulf of Alaska, an area called Prince William Sound, which was affected by the oil spill. Very many ships and boats sailing through there, leaving a lot of marine debris that threatens the marine life of Alaska. I remember just going there with a group of people, and spending a week there. In the end, we collected over 30 bags of trash of different things. This was… I don’t know. In itself, it was very rewarding. We had fun along the way, but it was, "Oh, we can actually make a difference."  

I guess, well, after coming back home from the US, I started studying. After a semester and a half, I wasn't really happy with how the educational system was in Bosnia and so on. I appreciated my experience back in the US because there was really this opportunity for dialogue in the classroom. It's not really hierarchical. You have the professor and a student on eye level, and they're discussing and exchanging ideas and something cool comes out of it.  

Also, I enjoyed working in international groups, so I decided that I wanted to experience that again. I went over to Vienna, and then I started studying cognitive science, which is 25 of us from all over the world. I think maybe even unconsciously, my US experience kind of headed me in that direction and, more importantly, kind of gave me the social skills needed to thrive in such interdisciplinary or international groups, which is not always an easy thing to do. You have the language barriers, the cultural barriers. I learned how to communicate with different groups of people.  

Basically what I'm trying to explore is the topic failure culture in different organizations, so trying to compare and contrast organizations that have a positive failure culture, so positive view towards committing mistakes versus a negative view towards mistakes, and see how that affects their decision making skills, effectiveness as a group, and so on. Well, I tried to do it in a hospital basically where mistakes inevitably happen, but maybe the way you look at failure determines whether you learn from it or not. In turn, that would affect how effective you are as a group, how good of decisions you make, and so on.  

I'm not really sure what sparked that interest, but there is a lot of taboo towards making mistakes in Bosnia, I would say. Well maybe not just in Bosnia, but it's quite highlighted in Bosnia. If you've made a mistake, don't talk about it especially professors who are the gods at university. They wouldn't be really willing to admit making mistakes.  

I remember I was always afraid of disappointing my host family because they were this active bunch of people who would do everything. They were so enthusiastic and excited to include me in their activities. I remember one time they just said, "Oh, let's do with this 20-mile ski trip over a frozen lake during Thanksgiving." I really wanted to do it, but I was so terrified that I wouldn't be able to, that I'd be just slowing them down that I said no. I didn't really tell them why not. After a while, we just sat down and talked about it and I said, "I'm really afraid of doing this," and they said, "You should've come to us." This kind of not being afraid to say that you're afraid was a turning point to understanding how important open communication is and not being afraid of making mistakes.  

I was always interested in education, educational system, and in trying out different methods of education. I think my long-term goal is to create, to found a kindergarten where I would try to teach kids basically not just professional skills but also social skills like resilience and grit, and not being afraid of making mistakes, talking about it, trying to find a better way to fail, so to speak. It takes a lot of courage to do so, and courage has proved pivotal in all of my experiences in the US. Just going to the US was a courageous thing to do, and then later on going, studying in different parts of Europe and so on, so just kind of not being afraid of venturing out into the world and doing good things.  

I would like to go back to Bosnia once I've collected all of my ideas and picked the best things from all the educational systems that I had to compare, and just try to model my own school after that.  

I see it as sort of a pay it forward principle. Let's say your host family that volunteered to host you was giving something to you that you don't necessarily have to give back to them, but give to somebody else, pay it forward. I remember, through a lot of volunteering activities that we did back home, we encouraged a lot of students not to be afraid of going abroad, being exposed to different people and cultures.  

During one program that we established called Yes to English, where we taught English to kids and mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds, there was one girl that was visually disadvantaged, but she was always very curious. She wanted to go abroad, and she wasn't deterred by the fact that she was blind. She ended up applying for the program and she got in. I think that's something that I can put forward as the nicest part of it, somehow, the ripple effect that I'm sure that she also spread the word, and it just goes on.

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 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. Our stories come from participants of the US government-funded international exchange programs.

This week, Nejra Rizvanovic described her time in Alaska as a Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study or YES participant.

For more about YES 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, heck, while you're at it, you might as well give us a nice review.

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 @state.gov.

Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233.

Special thanks to Nejra for taking the time to talk to us this week. I did the interview and edited this segment.

Featured music was Flagger, Outside the Terminal, and Scalloped all by Blue Dot Sessions, and Backstairs by Paddington Bear. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How the Night Came. The end credit music is Two Pianos by Todd Gearloose.

Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 51 - Start from the Outside with Steve Coleman

LISTEN HERE - Episode 51


We speak to Steve Coleman, the Director and President of Washington Parks And People, which is a local, community based charity here in Washington, D.C., whose mission is to advance park based community health. He was part of the Professional Fellows Program, hosting fellows from the Middle East here in D.C. Then he became a fellow himself, going the other way, to Cairo in 2017.


Chris: The thriving, multicultural neighborhood that you so love wasn't always that way. When you first arrived, it was a place of fear and violence, and thus sadness. A group of courageous and passionate community leaders, including you, set out to change that. You talked to the neighborhood elders. You listened. You started living and leading by example. One of the driving forces of your actions, then and now, is the vital importance of outdoor spaces, places where people meet, and come together, and share their lives. You are listening to 22..33, a podcast of exchanged stories.

Steve Coleman: Back in 1997, we learned about what was generally understood by the Parks Department to be the worst park in town, more trash, more rubble, and more abandonment. It was known as Watts Branch, named after a slave holding family that the stream running through it had been named after. It was the longest municipal park in the city and it was the longest forgotten. We were asked to kind of come in and try to find a way of getting it going. As we did our thing of walking,, and saying hi and learning from the elders, their memories, and the kids, their dreams, there was a young boy back in the 60s named John Hatcher, who at the age of eight saw that the first lady of the United States was leading these efforts to beautify the country, where she said, "Look to your left. Look to your right. Do you see a thing of beauty? If not, plant a tree, a shrub, or a bush?" Actually, she said [boosh 00:01:36].

He was wondering if she's going to do that all in all the fancy places, why not in his neighborhood? So, he wrote a letter and sent it to the first lady, saying, "Dear, Mrs. Johnson, if you can put flowers in all of the fancy places, can I please have an azalea bush for my public housing yard?" A couple months later, a representative of the first lady showed up in his public housing yard with not one, but a whole grove of native azaleas, and together with the then appointed mayor of the District of Columbia, and they planted these azaleas. A year after that, the first lady of the United States came out. It turns out she used to open some of her mail, and she happened to open the letter from John Hatcher, and it moved her. She said, "This is exactly right. We need to do this."  

We didn't have the phrase environmental justice then, but that's really what she meant. She never liked the word beautification. She was trying to do something deeper. So, that became the beginning of that Stream Valley actually being thought of as a park and inspiring the people in the community to think about how can we connect this together? Can we have trails? Can we have playgrounds? Can we have schools that tie everybody into this? Well, years later, we tracked downs John Hatcher, who still lives in the Stream Valley with his mom, now in his fifties. We tracked down an aide who had worked with Mrs. Johnson back in the day, and we invited her to come out to plant azaleas, a whole grove of native azaleas in the part of the stream below where John had lived, at Lincoln Heights public housing.

Now in her eighties, Marie [Ritter 00:03:12] came out with us, and we brought a little folding chair. We set up the chair, and she sat down as we planted the azaleas in the middle of the woods with John Hatcher. Just when we thought we were done and we were going to leave, Marie Ritter pulled out a little, folded piece of paper and unfolded and said, "I have something I want to share with you." It was a note, which Lady Bird Johnson had dictated to her daughter on her death bed. She had died just two weeks earlier. "Dear good people of the Watts Branch Stream Valley, it does my heart such good to know that after all these years you are still carrying the torch for our beautiful park and stream. Carry on and godspeed, Lady Bird Johnson."

In that is kind of everything. You know? The, here's this one kid living in public housing and just thought, "You know. I deserve to have an azalea, just like anybody else." That became the genesis of a park that's now become a model of what communities can do to reclaim the earth. That's a story that's now reached people around the world.

Chris: This week. Azaleas from the first lady, saying hello to everybody you meet, and introducing the embassy of the earth. Join us on a journey from Washington D.C. to Cairo, Egypt and the vital importance of community. It's 22.33.

Intro: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro: these exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro: 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: (singing)

Steve Coleman: I’m Steve Coleman. I'm the director and president of Washington Parks And People, which is a local, community based charity here in Washington, D.C., whose mission is to advance park based community health. I was part of the Professional Fellows Program, hosting fellows from the Middle East here in D.C. Then I became a fellow myself, going the other way, to Cairo two years ago, in 2017.

Well, my personal evolution was that I came to D.C. to kind of help save the world, like a lot of idealistic people do. I worked on all kinds of global issues, but I found that I wasn't really involved in my own neighborhood, and that came home powerfully when a boy was killed next to my home in 1990, on Dr. King's birthday, and died in the arms of my housemate. As a result of that experience, I was sort of shocked into shifting to doing a lot more to act locally. I could think globally, but I really needed to act in my own neighborhood. So, we co-founded this effort to use the park as a base of countering violence, countering divisions, and bringing people back together to forge real community across inner city D.C.

What we found in that work was that a key thing that was missing was this whole idea of thinking outside. As a society, as a world, we're putting so much of our focus, our time, our energy, our money into all the inside solutions. When we talk about health, we talk about emergency rooms, crime it's prisons, food it's supermarkets, education it's classrooms, policy it's hearing rooms. We think that there is a key thing missing. Certainly you need all those things, but the outside, where nature and community, where the human and natural communities have a chance to get come together, that's a place where we can really do amazing things to change how we live together on this planet.

Here in D.C., we are the greenest city in North America. We have the highest percentage of public green acreage, but we haven't really been using it, haven't really been taken care of it. It hasn't been woven into our lives. We're trying to help people make the playgrounds come back to life, to plant community gardens and mini farms. We work on growing food year-round in several places in the city. But we're also growing community. We do arts. We do music. We do job training in the parks, using the parks as a base of helping people coming out of prison to learn basic skills, so they can get back into the job market without having to turn back to crime. It's been really kind of thrilling to see all the ways that this simple idea of getting outside and connecting with people in the parks, we can make community be the thing it is, which is I think the most powerful force on the planet.

At some level people know they need this and they want this. Every kid has an innate desire to be outside and connect with nature and with everybody else in the neighborhood. But we tend to kind of disregard that. So, yeah, it can be really tough for us to get that idea across, because so much of the money, and the focus, and the priorities are inside, and so we have to be creative in how we invite people outside again. We use music. We use storytelling. We use play. We're the only country on the face of the earth which has the pursuit of happiness in our enabling documents, but we don't really value play the way we could. Something that we might have taken for granted in how we grew up is something that kids today can't really take for granted, the idea of playing in. That's the space that we're working in, and we're always kind of playing with new ways of getting people to both think and be outside.

We didn't have any money. People thought we were absolutely crazy. The park had been written off. There were people in the Office Of Management And Budget who are talking about tearing the park down, that it was just an anachronism. There were too many shadows and too many hidden places. I think it was really changing the way that people thought about that. We've told that story now all over the country and all over the world, as we've learned about other people doing the same kind of work. That became the underpinning of projects that were much bigger and tougher and required all kinds of more complex funding and partnership, like our work at Marvin Gaye Park, which has been amazing.

But none of that would've been possible without the simple things that we did when we were a neighborhood crime patrol, having to say hello to everybody we met during that horrific, frightening time, walking around at night in the winter, just trying to stop the killing. Ass we said, alluded people, we learned. We learned about their lives. We learned about things we thought we knew about the neighborhood that we didn't really know. We found the power of community.

There's that great line that gets attributed to [Gerta 00:10:39]. I don't think it was Gerta. I think it might've been a Scottish mountaineer. But whoever said it, it's sort of at the center of our philosophy. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. America is a revolutionary idea. When we settle back and wait for others to do things, or blame others, or decide that we're powerless, we become part of the problem. What we try to do in Parks And People is to say we all have a responsibility to be part of the change that we seek. That means we have to help make it happen and not wait. So, there are times when we just do it. There's a lot of power in that. Sometimes you have to ask forgiveness afterwards. We did a simple thing of saying we're one city here in Washington, and Washington is not one city. It's many divided places. But we wanted to say geologically, environmentally we're one city, and so why not be one city as human beings?

We started the idea, which my dog actually inspired on these long walks, as she was dying. She was trying to show me the Ancient Ridgeline Native American Trail that connects our park with the Potomac River, and she did. Before she died, she took me on this miles long journeys to show me this path, which we then turned into a hike we do across the whole city, called the Washington Ridge Crossing. In our world, where we've so defined what is other, what is outside, what is frightening, as we've increasingly retreated into our virtual realms, we found there's something really revolutionary about just walking across the city. It wasn't anything official. We didn't have any permit to do it. We just did it. Then before long the Washington Post did a whole full page story about us walking across the city, and then that year we were in drenching rain. It was like walking across Vietnam. It was a beautiful story. So, there's power in just doing it.

I lived next to Central Park in Manhattan, when that was at rock bottom, in the mid-70s, when people thought of that as the worst urban park in the world. That was the reputation. To see that come back to life through music, through play, through dance, through just the joy of human and natural community, that has been my life's inspiration. I wanted to see how we could breathe new life into these forgotten parts of our cities. There were so many amazing, fanciful things that really kindled what I call the invisible park, the invisible landscape. It's the park of the soul of the spirit, the landscape of freedom, of justice, of dreams. We live in a time when people are asking, can we really believe in our dreams anymore? And America has so often stood up for that idea that that we can, if we really hold to what's in our hearts.

We found that this stuff really works. This stuff is powerful. It's deep. It's joyful. For me now to go into Meridian Hill, Malcolm X, where we started, which was basically a no man's land when we started, the police had even given up patrolling it, because they said they didn't have enough officers to even go in there, and to see this place where people were dying, on a Sunday afternoon, when the drum circle is going, and the acroyoga, and the tight rope walking, and the sunbathing, and the reading, and the picnicking, it's just so thrilling to see what happens when we give each other a chance to be in real community with each other and with the land.

It's been a funny thing to have come to D.C. to work on the planet and then work on my neighborhood and find that by working on my neighborhood I could actually do more to connect with the rest of the planet, because there is so much commonality. My late mentor, Josephine Butler, who was the daughter of sharecroppers, granddaughter of enslaved people, this amazing deep community activist, and poet, and artist, and dreamer, who used to talk about big things that needed to happen to make the world a better place. People would say, "Well, that's going to take a long time," and she'd say, "Exactly. That's why we have to get started right now."

We've hosted people from all over the world in the parks in D.C., and we've learned from them. We've gone to their places. My work with the Professional Fellows Program and Legacy International took me into a deeper level of that, where we were hosting fellows from Egypt, from Morocco, from various parts of the Middle East, and getting them involved kind of deeply in our work and learning through that a little bit about their work. But I would later learn how little we really did get from just seeing them here in the States, when I got the chance to go to Cairo as a fellow myself.

I thought I was going to tell people in Egypt all about community and the power of community. Boy, was I ever wrong. I had so much more to learn than to teach, and I think I had some things to share, but there was far more coming at me than coming out of me. My escort in this was my colleague, who had been a fellow of ours from Cairo, [Zainub 00:16:12] [Abas 00:16:12], who is just an amazing person who really knows the story of Egypt. She's a specialist in the antiquities, and cultural preservation, and the community interface with that and took me all over around Cairo, showing me her world through her eyes. I was continually struck by the depth, the power, the sheer joy of community in the middle of Cairo. I was not prepared at all for how much I needed to be taking notes and learning. It was just thrilling for me. It's something that still resonates with me and reminds me that when we think we've got it all going on here in the States, we have a lot to learn.

Zainub have decided that we would go to ... There aren't that many parks in Cairo, but she decided she was going to take us to this big park called Al-Azhar Park. We were walking around. It was all pretty, and it was nice, and it was okay, but then we met a group of college students who were celebrating somebody's birthday. They invited us to celebrate with them, and we had an open afternoon, and we ended up playing with them in the park for the entire afternoon. We were playing tag, and we were playing music, and we were sharing stories. The deep bond that happened in that afternoon in the park was unlike anything that I had expected or had really frankly ever experienced, even though I'm a park guy. While we were in the park, we encountered children everywhere we went, and I stood out like a sore thumb there.

Tourism is down in Egypt. There Haven't been a lot of Americans going there. I didn't know how that would be. The kids were just so fascinated by me, as this funny looking, foreign guy, this big, white guy lumbering around, but also so eager to connect, so eager to break through ... There obviously was trepidation and fear, but it was clear that their joy and their eagerness to make that connection was stronger than any fear or concern,, and they were mauling me with their eagerness to touch and tell me things,, and show me things and have pictures taken with them. I felt like some kind of rock star. I've never experienced anything like that anywhere. There were hundreds of them everywhere we went. All through Cairo there were kids wanting to connect, and that's something that I will carry with me the rest of my life.

I learned so many things, as an American. I learned that we're much more important than we realize and probably much more clueless, that we really are looked up to, that people really, really respect us and really, really care about what we are doing and saying in our lives and in the world. America is a mover and a shaker in this world, and the whole world is kind of watching us, but there's so many ways that we just profoundly don't really know that much about the rest of the world. That is both a peril of the rest of the world and our own.

I think that people think that America is out to take over the world, that America is trying to tell everybody else what to do. There certainly have been times when we do that, but I really want to show that America is a diverse place, that America is a complex place, that America is a place where dreams can come true, and America is a place that knows it still has a lot of work to do in addressing the places where the dreams have not come true, and that injustice and division are things that we all face all over the world, and we can learn a lot from everybody and how we deal with those challenges.

We were in one of the poorer parts of Cairo, around the corner from the City Of The Dead, where people are so poor that they're actually living in graves. We came upon a bakery, which was nothing more than a hole in the wall, where there was an oven. The dough could be slid in there and the loaves pulled out, and he would sell things from this hole in the wall. He motioned us over, and insisted that I take three of his loaves of bread, and refuse to take any money, in one of the poorest parts of Cairo. That's just, it's a simple act of the kindness to strangers that really moved me deeply. To this day I just think about that, but I found that kind of hospitality, deep hospitality, everywhere we went.

I had never been in a mosque in my entire life. I don't think of myself as closed minded or anything. I just never felt like I would be particularly welcome. I figured I don't really know what to do. So, Zainub took me into mosques when it was time for her to pray, and I got to know mosques. I don't know. It was really surprisingly eye-opening. I wouldn't think it would really matter what kind of a church you're in or what kind of religious place, but it kind of opened my eyes. I didn't realize how much Islam is about peace, like the other major religions of the world. It may sound really ignorant, but I just had no idea.

Learning that by seeing it in practice, seeing people praying to their God, as others pray to their God in other ways, reminded me of my grandfather, who was a biblical scholar, who traveled the Middle East, Palestine when that was Palestine, when he was working on translating the Dead Sea scrolls and the revised standard version of the Bible. He was writing the books of Job and Ezekiel. But he always knew that as a devout Christian, every path to faith was equally valid, and I saw that.

There's an American idea that anybody can start anything. Tocqueville said, "We're a nation of joiners, and we can start anything." And we do that. We do that all the time. I've done it in my own life. I've basically invented a whole career for myself by creating an organization and being part of an emerging field of community based health. That's a very radical idea in other countries. In more rigid societies, even in many parts of Europe, it's hard for people to really see how they could switch careers. I found that people in Egypt were really eager to hear how we do that, the practical aspects of civic engagement and civil society, the money. How do you actually raise money? In our case, we actually earn money as well. How does the independent sector work? But then also how do you really pursue dreams?

We found all these young, articulate women who were doing various kinds of community engagement, but also wanted to write about their own lives. We actually connected them with a U.S. organization that works on helping women writers. One of the things that naturally occurred to me was, well, I run Parks And People in Washington. Why isn't there a Cairo Parks And People? You've got the Nile there. The Nile is perhaps one of the most magnificent potential parks in the world. So, we found people in Cairo who were excited about the idea of a Cairo Parks And People.

There's some real fear in Egypt, in the regime, of what a nonprofit enterprise might do to threaten them, and so you have to be careful how you talk about that. But I think we can show how there's nothing frightening about the arts and people, that there's a deep, positive power in people coming together with the land and culture. We saw that happening in wonderful ways, and we also saw ways that there were things we had done that could help folks. We saw the Cultural Wheel Program under an underpass along the highway by the Nile, where there were people. We found a whole Muslim boy band practicing their acapella singing, beautiful, beautiful singing. I took video of them, and they wanted to come to America to share their song here. It's the kind of interchange I think we need more of.

I was really proud to see how these ideas that we had shared with Zainub, when she was a fellow with us, were being lived into reality in her work with kids in inner city Cairo and how those ideas were things, as simple as they were, that could mean kind of radical transformation. She was bringing us together with mentors of hers. We had an amazing afternoon long meeting in an arboretum in town, which had been a scene of killing during the riots, and the revolts, and so forth, following the Arab Spring. Her friends and mentors were so eager to learn more about what we're doing. They saw the deep import of all of that. I was proud to see that these things we'd worked with could have such resonance with people in Cairo and in turn to see how the ways they had brought them alive and were now running with them. I was just proud to see all that they could do to take that and turn it into really exciting kinds of change and opportunity for people.

The project that Zainub was focused on was trying to go into places that had been forgotten, that had problems of trash, and pride, and disconnect, and find a way to build appreciation for this historic site, but develop this stewardship among the young people, so that people who didn't have much to do could find hope in their lives through some sense of pride in their heritage. That was her focus.

I found the whole trip to Cairo to be a deeply affirming journey about this power of community, that this is not just a nice, warm, fuzzy thing that we pay lip service to. The community is something that can really make it possible for even people facing an oppressive regime to maintain their sanity and to find ways of lifting up health, and joy, and freedom in a lot of ways, even amid all the torment and all the struggle. That was a reminder for me that the work that we do in park based health can be so powerful. I've tried to bring that to the communities I work with in inner city D.C. and also reminding people just the privileges that we have in the kind of open society we have. We're good at criticizing ourselves and saying how we don't have power, we don't have equity, we don't have justice, but it really was helpful to see what people do have even far less than we do.

I find that we're mammals. We all want to bond with each other. We're all kind of reaching, trying to surmount our own fears of people who are different and deeply needing that bonding, that learning, that connection that happens when human beings who don't know each other come together, especially across the lines of race, and color, and religion, and nationality, and language, all of these categories that we've come up with to divide us. None of us really want that. I found so many ways of bonding with people. I don't speak Arabic, but I think that there is a universal desire for peace. I think there's a desire for understanding, for community, for sustainability of our earth, but I think there's also a universal desire for play, for fun, for joy, for silliness, and just the power of discovery, of learning about cultures that are different from ours, people learning from me as I was there, and me learning from them, and all of that.

I came back more optimistic. I was overwhelmed by many of the things I saw in Cairo, even just the traffic. I'd never seen highways like that, where there might be officially 12 lanes, but there's actually 22 in the way people are driving. It is a staggering moment in civilization to arrive in Cairo and see what it's like to have 23 million people living on top of each other and in this way of, massive air pollution and all the kinds of strife and turmoil, and challenges, and yet amid all that to see the joy, to see the kinds of simple decency, simple kindness, like I described, those were things that I have carried with me since and are lifting me up as we now seek to take our little, formerly abandoned embassy and make that the embassy of the earth, as a place to share these stories.

We actually occupy, next to Meridian Hill, an old embassy that was the embassy of Brazil, of Hungary. China had it. India wanted it. Now, we're calling it the embassy of the earth. It's officially named after Josephine Butler, my mentor, but we're making it the embassy of the earth. We think the earth needs an embassy in America, right here in D.C. We need to find ways that we can connect more deeply and learn from each other. America has always been the shining city on the hill that offers so much for the rest of the world to learn from, but we have so much to learn too. We need that exchange.

Really it was Zainub who inspired us to transform our former embassy into the embassy of the earth. That was pretty cool to have somebody from Egypt seeing that there is a value in this idea of having something that celebrates the whole earth. Washington Parks And People owns the building, and we own it debt free. We've restored it with over 50,000 volunteers over the past 22 years. It's won all kinds of awards, but we want it to be something more. We want it to be this living museum and training place, learning place for celebrating the power of community in the land, of people and nature coming together to meet our most urgent and important needs. We have offices there, where we're incubating charities, but we also have shared public space. We have public events, private events. I was married there. It's cool. It looks out on the park, where we started work 29 years ago. We think that it's a great place, being in the most diverse part of the capital, to lift up these ideas about how much we have to learn from each other.

The thing I learned in inner city Washington when we were at our worst is the same thing I learned when I was in the middle of Cairo. Even when we're at our worst, when the times look darkest, we have assets. We have options, as my father would have said. We have deep cultural assets, in heritage and pride. We have deep natural assets. So often what's happened in communities in America, as around the world, when one kind of industry has died, and jobs have been lost, and people's pride has been eroded, is people think they're on a dead end street. We forget about the deeper value of our lives. A simple thing that we did early on in our work was to work with children from homeless families to plant flowers. These kids had never seen living soil in their lives. We took them out in the park.

As we dug into that beautiful, black, rich soil of the park, they were scared to see these squiggly, little snakes they thought in the dirt. They'd never seen earthworms or even knew about them. Then my friend Josephine Butler, had to say, "Well, these guys are, they're friendly, so you can touch them." Then one kid said, "I want to take him home as my pet." She said, "Oh, no, you don't. He's got work to do, because see this little guy here? He's making the soil rich, so that soil can feed the roots of this tree, so the tree can make the leaves that make the air for you to breathe." There was this moment of awe for that kid holding that little piece of the magic of life, and that's what we're disconnected with.

When we think about our farmers, who are flooded out across the farm belt right now, when we think about our miners dying of black lung, you think about these neighborhoods all over America where we've gotten hopeless, because we've forgotten the power of what we already have. As a country, as communities, we forget about the heritage of our elders. We forget about the dreams of our kids. When we were on that crime patrol way back when, our role was we had to say hello to everybody. It wasn't our role. We learned it from African-American grandparents who told us, "You got to do this. If you want to make a crime patrol, two things." They said, "You can't carry a weapon or anything that looked like a weapon, be cause the weapons are the problem, and you got to say hello, because community is the answer."

We didn't realize how much that simple act of saying hello, of being humble enough and present enough to just say hello to somebody who might scare you or be different from you ... As we said hello, we were learning those memories of the elders and the dreams of the kids that have inspired us to this day. I think America needs that. I think America often has lost its way for the future, because we've forgotten who we are. I hope, I believe in my soul that the work happening in these places in Cairo or these places in inner city D.C., it's the same work as people across middle America who are just trying to have a better life. I think there's a lot we can all learn from each other.

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, and our stories come from participants of the U.S. government funded international exchange programs.

This week, Steve Coleman talked about how his role with D.C. Parks And People eventually led him to Egypt as an ECA professional fellow. For more about professional fellows and other ECA exchange programs, check out ECA.state.government. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, and while you're there, leave us a nice review. We really would appreciate that, and 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-Y@state.Government. Photos of each week's interview and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at ECA.state.gov/2233. 

Special thanks to Steve for his stories and commitment to community. I did the interview and edited this segment. 

Featured music was Heartland Flyer and Hundred Mile by Blue Dot Sessions, Hey Ruth and I'm Letting Go, both instrumental versions, by Josh Woodward, How deep is the ocean by the Bill Evans Trio, His Last Share Of Stars By Doctor Turtle, and Chipper Dan 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 50 - [Musical Special] The Songs of 22.33

LISTEN HERE - Episode 50


A medley of “Little Nook” concerts and original music heard exclusively over the course of 22.33’s first 49 episodes.  Featuring Seth Glier, Carla Canales, Derik Nelson & Family, Tony Memmel & Wordsmith. Plus our special Spotify playlist is available here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0ukWdvZuJ0ynWFEj5JUAk7.


Coming Soon!


Season 01, Episode 49 - The Bottlebots Are Coming with Melissa Stange

LISTEN HERE - Episode 49


What started as a great experiment—a virtual exchange between schools in rural Virginia and Amman, Jordan—ended in a heartwarming face-to-face meeting and lifelong friendships.  Moreover, together the students created the “Bottlebot,” a patented tool to help clean the environment.


Chris:  When your rural community college students registered for your class, they had no way of knowing that they were opening a window to the wider world and never in a million years did they suspect that by the time the class ended, they would be close friends and business partners with students half a world away, but they are and the world is better because of it. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Melissa Stang:  I wanted students to experience the world with teaching and technology. A lot of students in America think about the large tech companies, but they don't realize how much of a difference they can make with technology globally and to think out of the box

Chris:  This week, taking connectivity for granted, dance moves on the Metro platform and starting a long distance business to improve the planet. Join us on a virtual journey from Middletown, Virginia to Oman, Jordan and the birth of the Bottlebot. It's 22.33.

Speaker 3:  We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Speaker 4:  These exchanges shaped who I am.
Speaker 5:  When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you read about them. They are people, very much like ourselves, and ...   (singing)

Melissa Stang:  I'm Melissa Stang. I'm from Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Virginia. I'm the professor of computer science and I participated in the global sustainability challenge. The Stevens Initiative launched a global solution sustainability challenge for hospitality and tourism. The Stevens Initiative honors ambassador Stevens, and he was very big on having Americans explore the world and understand and develop a better cultural understanding to make the world a better place. Through the Stevens Initiative, students are able to do that without having to always leave the United States and still gain the same aspect that Ambassador Stevens wanted every student to experience.

I had never done an international virtual exchange. I was a foreign exchange student in Spain when I was in high school and our college had lost our Spanish student who...teacher who would have taken students on alternative exchanges, but we didn't even know virtual exchanges existed until the Stevens Initiative came across our email and said, "Here's an opportunity."

In Lord Fairfax, our student population is very rural. Most of them are working adults, nontraditional students, and they don't have the opportunity because of work and family concerns to actually travel. We had 17 of them in a Introduction to Computer Science class and then we had three business students join us and two science majors joined in and they had to figure out how to mesh different backgrounds, different career aspirations, and at the same time, learn how to talk with their Jordanian partners, and they're seven hours ahead of us, so they had to sometimes to work at one o'clock in the morning and then get up and come to class. So, they had a cultural experience. We had ... On our team, we had military vets, we had foreign students already, ELL students. Then, we had some people who had never been out of the Northern Shanandoah Valley before, so it was a great mix to see and an opportunity for students to experience stuff they never would have.

Actually, we had people from the age of 42 all the way down to 17. We had two minors in our group. One was still in high school, she's a dual-enrolled student, and she was actually able to take this experience and what she was doing at the college into her government class and history. We had veterans in there who had traveled the world with the military, but had never been to Jordan, and they had a different aspect. We had students who were from Mexico and were able to relate his world in Mexico to what inner cities in Jordan look like. So, we went full scale from, like I said, 17-year-olds up to 42-year-olds. It was a diverse group.

So, we received an email two or three weeks after we had been accepted into it of "Here is your counterpart professor. Here is the school." Then, of course, as soon as we knew the name of the schools, our students were going out and searching the web, trying to find out about them and look at questions. So, we set up a virtual exchange then with the students to meet each other.

Some of the students, the females were a little gun shy because they hadn't perceived that the females were not respected as much as they were in America, and that quickly was shot down. They had the idea that all the ladies wore the Muslim headdress. That was shot down. So, they broke down a lot of cultures. The Jordanian students asked questions, wanted immediate responses. The American students liked to contemplate about how they were going to answer because they didn't want to say anything wrong. We had a real hard time. I remember not to use slang because it got confusing. So, it was really somewhat interesting to watch, but also, at the same time, the, students were able to laugh at each other and try to explain. So, they would have a Jordanian student trying to interpret for the other Jordanian students or the American student will try to explain what they thought the Jordanians were saying. It was really nice.

Oh. I would not want to venture what these students have shared. They spent days when when they finally got to meet here in DC. They spent days going around trying to teach each other different things. We had one student who was trying to learn Arabic. The Jordanian students were going back and saying, "Y'all," because they thought that was funny, and, "Hey." So, it was really neat to watch them pick up.

So, it was very awkward. We take the connectivity to the web for granted here. A lot of times, the Jordanians were having to connect through their phones in coffee shops. We learned that they don't all have data plans. They use Wifi a lot. So, we were going through five or six different types of technology to get worked out. One of the big discussions was the Americans would look at ... We had it up on a big screen in front of the classroom, and they would look at that screen and talk, and the Jordanians were getting frustrated because they wanted them to look at them in the camera, but the Americans thought they were. So, we were moving TV screens and cameras around to try to work out so both of them could get what they needed to.

When the light bulb went off on an about week four, it was the first time the students came in and took charge. They set up the technology and they just connected and started talking, and they were hashing out drawings on stick figures on the board, and then they would say, "No," and they'd share each other's stuff. I was able, finally, to just move back into the back and sit and watch. Then, as they were progressing and they were showing their video and their designs from going out and talking to businesses, then all of a sudden it hit them. This could be a real thing.

They had talked to the Office of Ministry in Jordan and we had talked to several convenience store people in town who were willing to continue the funding after the program. So, these students are very close to possibly getting patents out of the project. So, yeah, that really kind of hit reality is that these community college students who never would have thought about even where Jordan was now, all of a sudden, are lifelong partners with the Jordan team.

The goal of the exchange was to come up with a solution to a problem that they selected in the hospitality or tourism area, and they came up with recycled water bottles because it's in the ocean. Both countries could address that. We all use them, and in Jordan, they just throw them away. They don't have quite the recycling that America has. So, it was very important that we address what could be usable in both areas. Our students here went out and talked to businesses and found out that where we go and buy these plastic reuse bottles, they would love to have a collection areas for recycling there, but they don't want something big and huge.

The students took that and then in Jordan, they wanted the same thing. So, they took that together and created this small, size of a trashcan recycles thing that uses a mobile app to notify people to come pick it up and empty it and, at the same time, reward users with monetary gifts and money through an app. So, if I'm in the US and I'm a member and I'm recycling through their project called Bottlebot and I go to Jordan or I go to the Turkey or I go to Australia and I throw away something in the Bottlebot there, I'm still getting points and rewards. So, it is truly global.

We started out trying to, each team, do the same thing and then compare and pick something, and that got a little chaotic because each side got defensive of, "I want this way," and, "I want that way." So, the two leaders of the groups, one from each side, the binational leaders, said, "Well, let's split it." So, The Jordanians did the engineering part because that was their background. The Americans did the programming and the computer part and the marketing part because we had the business students. The Jordanians did the videos. So, we gave each other pieces and parts, but each country did certain things to come together as one final project.

Well, the project actually ended with one huge business plan that was created, a binational video, and that was submitted to the Stevens Initiative to be judged by people we didn't know, and it was put out on the web for people to review and look at and compare. Thankfully, we were tied for the winner of the second cohort. I think that's when they really became one because they were, literally two minutes from the deadline, making tweaks to their videos and talking all the way through the night, and they became a team.

Bottlebot, right now, we have some funding from both sides. There is a convenience store here in the US chain that would like to test drive it for us, and it's actually being manufactured in Jordan because their Office of Ministry is very much behind the students and the whole patent process and everything. Because it's being manufactured over there, it'll be filed over there first, but they are still working on it and, hopefully, this time next year, the product will be out and into the field.

In the US, we tend to throw recycle in and it's compacted down and separated. In Jordan, because of the heat in their environment, they actually wanted it melted. So, they came up with a Bottlebot that allows it to be both. So, it's adaptable to the country that it's in. It dresses a big concern that we found out was nobody wants to visit someplace that's dirty. So, in the battlefields around here or out in front of the museums when people have their water bottles before they go in. So, it's a way to keep the environment cleaner. It keeps it out of the water, especially in the Jordan area. So, it's hope that it'll help clean up the Dead Sea and the Shenandoah Valley or the Shenandoah River. So, we've kind of really want to use that as the model to move it out through the rest of the world.

We had that...We learned that the Jordanians thought that Americans were very arrogant, and they shared that with us at the ... Then, by the end, they were telling us, "That's not true. You just have certain ways that you figure everybody does." So, they learned the difference of why the Americans were the way they were. But more importantly, on my students side, they definitely have a different idea about Muslims and that whole Jordanian area over there and what they have to face. That things like cars would go by and you could hear them through while they were inside their building. We were like, "What was that?" So, they had to learn that we have things pretty good. They also different dances, different cultures, but in the end, the students are students and they all want to make a better place. Unless they talk to each other outside of their own communities, they can't make that difference, but now they really think that they can.

I've got students going down the hall today still wearing the gifts that they got from their Jordanian students to start conversations. They're talking about what they learned from the Jordanians and their culture and all their tourist places. They want to go there now. I think they've been begging the Steven Initiative to say, "Okay. Let's take the Americans over to Jordan now since they got to come this way." It's really created a spark, and it's students creating that spark in students now. It's not just us faculty saying, "Here's a class so you, too, can experience this.: Other students are going out to recruit, and those students are coming to faculty now saying, "Can you add this to ours?" So that's the big piece.

The Lord Fairfax Group ended up, all except for one young lady, ended up there before the Jordan students and literally going back into the lobby all the way up until midnight when they got there because there was a hangup with customs and we were like, "Are they here yet? Are they here yet?" Then, the next day, we had one of our last students show up and it was 10 o'clock at night and all the Jordanian students on the team came back downstairs to meet her and her mother and just ...They were hugging each other and saying things that ... The mother was like, "This is like a family." I was like, "They really are." They were so excited to see each other.

Then, we were touring DC and we were in the subway and we were waiting for the train and the Jordanian students started trying to teach the Americans how to do a dance and it just wasn't going well, so then Americans were like, "Okay. So, we'll teach you our dance," and they were like, "Yeah, I don't like that. Let's go back to ours." So, it was funny to watch them dance together and try to teach each other. The Americans were trying to learn Arabic and we're the ... We were trying to teach them some slang and some fun things while we were walking around looking at the White House. One of our girls had a birthday, and the Jordanians, birthdays are apparently a big thing and they had a big party celebration for her the Jordanian way, and she was just totally overwhelmed with the difference of how a birthday is done in the two different countries. It was really exciting.

At the summit, we had students at a high stress time. We had two of our students actually have breakdowns. They were really stressed out. I watched these Jordanian students on the team come in and be that supportive piece for them and got them through. "It's okay. We can do this." They were like sisters or brothers. They went from that to watching them up on stage doing their presentation and something would go wrong or somebody would say something and they were there, covered it, covering for each other and supportive. At the end of that summit, they went around and they did a Kudos. and every single person on our team gave somebody, another person on our team, A kudo for some point. That's what it was like, this being the difference.

I can't imagine teaching without a piece of this now. It's definitely changed my perspective, how important it to get students to think out of the box, to experience other cultures, even virtually, that it gives them that sense of travel, that they belong to the world and it's not just the United States. There are other countries out there. Then, when they're creating things, especially in technology, they have to think about it from a global aspect, and they would not have had that. So, I'm already started changing my courses. All of them are going to have this piece now in one form or another.

We've had two students who have been given job opportunities, and during their interviews, they've explained to us that they were asked quite a lot of questions about their experience and the exchange, and both of them said the communication, the teamwork skills that they gained help them get those positions. We've had one student who will be graduating in May going onto a four-year. She actually was given a total presidential scholarship to the four-year school because of the Jordan experience and the global exchange. That's something the school was very impressed with at the community college level, that they had never heard of that happening before. Students are actually switching careers and asking now for more of this. So, they are going out in the community, and our community in Middletown has very much been supportive and asking for our students to go out into the community and sit on panels and talk about their experiences and we've also been able to find out that there's a similar ... some opportunities for the high school students, and we've taken that now out. They've taken that to the schools in the area are excited about it.

Well, I'd say the virtual exchange experience definitely has made me more optimistic. You hear quite a bit about all the bad going on. This gave me hope that the students that are out there now have experienced this, they're going to make a difference because they are open to talking to other countries and solving problems and they know they can do it, and it's really going to change the world.

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 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 US government-funded international exchange programs.

This week, Lord Fairfax Community College professor Melissa Stang discussed her classes first ever foray into international virtual exchange with a class of students in Jordan. The program was part of the Stevens Initiative, an international effort funded by ECA and others and implemented by the Aspen Institute to build career and global competence skills for young people in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa by growing and enhancing the field of virtual exchange online, international and collaborative learning. For more about the Steven's Initiative, check out stevensinitiative.org. For more about ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov.

We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do so wherever you find your podcasts, and while you're at it, leave us a nice review. We'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-CO-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y at state dot gov. 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 this week to Melissa for her stories and her groundbreaking leadership in her classroom. I did the interview and edited the segment. Featured music was Turning, Three Stories, [Tripoli and Victoro 00:26:13] by Blue Dot Sessions and There Once Was a Mad by Ted Heath, Edmundo Ros and their orchestras. Music at the top of each episode is Sebastian by How the Night Came and the end credit music is Two pianos by Todd Gearloose.

Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 48 - [Bonus] The Food We Eat, Part 7

LISTEN HERE - Episode 48


Stories this month with flavors from Malaysia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Slovenia and other Balkan countries, India, and the United States.


Chris: Welcome to our seventh bonus food episode. This week, we have a buffet. Don't delay. Get in line. There's magic in those shaping dishes under those heating lamps. It's all you can eat. Except for the sheeps eyeballs. You only get two of those. 

You're listening to 2233 a podcast of exchange and sometimes food stories.

Speaker 1: There was a teacher specific cafeteria that everybody would go in. And so of course I didn't want to just hide and not eat lunch with the teachers because I'm like, I'm never going to get to know them if I don't. But I would go in and it's really awkward cause I couldn't really speak the language and everyone's sort of like, we don't know how to talk to this American girl.

So one day I got up the courage to order hot tea, which is all I wanted. I just wanted some hot tea. The words for spicy and hot are Panas and padas. I basically mixed them up and the whole room burst into laughter. They thought it was the most hilarious thing ever. They like we, oh you want spicy t one spice, it's not hot tea. And I said, no, I want the hat. I'm so confused. It's so confusing and it's the two matching. But that broke all the ice. 

So Padas and Panas are my I the two wires that stuck with me being entire trip and now I'm very good and I know about asking for something spicy is something that is hot. So it worked out.

Chris: This week. Would you like that tea hot or spicy? Indian hot chocolate and the savory sensation of sheep's eyeball. Join us on a journey around the world to tempt your taste buds. 

It's 2233.

Intro Clip: We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip: These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip: And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. There are people, right? Much like ourselves.

Speaker 2: It's slaughtered a sheep for me as a guest of honor. The custom is for the visitor to sit towards the head of the table and you are given the head, boiled on a platter, dressed with some onions on it, and you get to choose what to do with it because they all want to eat it.

I think it's a macho thing like we eat rocky mountain oysters in the West if you know what that is. So there's some macho ness to it. It's not like it tastes good. And also it's a huge gesture or it's a huge signifier if the guest carves up the head, enhance some of it to you as a member of the table, that's the person designating your stature to them. And so that was my out. I'm like, okay, well then we will carve up this. So I start carving off the cheek and I start carving off this and handing it out.

They realize the gig that like, mm, well you must keep the best part for yourself. I was like, Oh God, what is this gonna be? And my host reaches over him, plucks out the eyeball and says, this one's yours. And with the whole table watching I look up at this eyeball that's looking back at me and I make sure there's a glass of water really nearby.

Yeah, put it down the hatch and it slips and it slides and it jiggles. It barely went down, but I got it down. Sheep eyeball. I can add that to the list. I've got an eye phobia too. So this couldn't hit me at a worse spot. This really couldn't like... when I got contacts as a kid, it took me like two years to be able to touch my eyeball. I just walked around blind forever.

So to have this thing that was like the size of like what, how could I even compare? It was like the size of a golf ball, and it was salty cause it had tears in it and I didn't want to taste it. And Lord, I did not want to chew it. I just knew I could not bite down on this eyeball. So I had to swallow something about the size of a mouse, you know, straight down with a lot of water. Oh goodness. This is swallowing my fears. And my host looks at me and he goes, you liked it. There are two.

Speaker 3: There is one dish, this gelatinous meat dish that they serve in Serbia. It seems like every grandmother has this waiting for you in their home to give to you as soon as you get there. I'm sure for some people it's lovely. For me it's like one of the most repulsive things I've ever encountered. But it's like a Jello mold with chunks of meat floating in it.

It's one of those things where when you arrive to someone's home and that's what they're offering you, you have to eat it no matter what. And they don't care if you're a vegetarian or whatever, you just have to see what that, so I feel like the, I don't know if it's necessarily a crazy food story, but probably one of the grossest things I've ever eaten and I had to eat over and over again was this gelatinous meat dish.

And even if you complain about it and to cheer friends, obviously I would never complain to the person who cooked it for me. But when I would talk to friends about it later, they would say, oh, it's so full of minerals. It's so healthy. It's so good for you on it. When you look at it, it's just a Jello mold with floating maintenance. You're like, there's no way that this is a health food.

Speaker 4:  I think that really the fish really stood out for me. There was this restaurant right behind the market. You walked in, it was a fish market in the back was this restaurant probably had about 60 seats maybe, one waiter, but you would pick your fish and then they would roast it over an open fire for you with vegetables and just some really great Sullivanian olive oil and the simplicity of it all it was was the finest meal. I say that having eaten some great meals from some chefs who have Michelin Stars.

Speaker 5:  Bournvita which is like an Indian form of hot chocolate, almost so much better. So my host family or my host mom specifically from my very first day in India until my last would wake me up every morning with a hot cup of Bournvita. So definitely miss you know that. That's definitely my preferred wake up routine.

In Indore, my host city specifically a very big food tradition is po Haji layby. Families will traditionally eat it on Sunday mornings and Shalaby is like this fried dough soaked in syrup. So that's like the sweet and it's contrasted with this really nice like almost like rice but with chives in itand other Indian spices in it called poha and so somebody will take a bite of poha and then take a bite of shalaby and it just makes this awesome like combination that I can't even describe but I, I definitely miss poha shalaby as well.

Speaker 6: I can tell you that some things during Iftar are pushing the envelope just a tad due to the fact that I think the goal is to make tasty calorie dense food. Sometimes that would include taking a sandwich and frying it. I probably could have gone without the frying portion. 

On our excursion they were selling dried fish, which is essentially like, you know, salt cod or something that we would find her around Christmas time. It's laid out in the sun. It smells like it was laid out in the sun and it tastes like it was laid out in the sun, but it is absolutely a delicacy. It's an acquired taste. Since that initial shock, I have grown to really like that as well.

Speaker 7: Craziest food experience was definitely chicken feet. I had no idea that was a thing. I didn't know it was edible, so I decided to try it. It's very crunchy. Not a huge fan of it, but I decided to try it anyway. Then the other was tarantula. Tried that as well. I don't want you to get the idea that most Chinese people eat this on a regular basis. Chicken feet more than tarantulas. It was just more kind of a delicacy.

However, I did try the tarantula. Almost threw up from it; definitely spit it out after taking a small nibble. Very salty, very crunchy. It's still hairy though. So it crunchy hairy though.

Speaker 8: When I went to Delhi, there were a couple of truths that people told me. Pieces of advice that I should follow. A one was donate the street food, particularly Pani Prairie, which is this delicious little puff of dough that's hollow and filled with Chutney and this flavored water and spices and everything you could ever want in your mouth in one bite.

The second truth was that I had to attend an Indian wedding no matter what. I had to figure it out, try and get an invite because they are like out of this world incredible. So both of these pieces of advice led me to attending a wedding of a friend's relative distant, like no relation to me, but a very kindly invited me along to see the festivities. I was also promised that they would be a [inaudible 00:11:43] , so essentially Indian street food or snacks.

I was super excited because I had tried to avoid eating street food because had been told I would get deli belly from it. I show up, I see the [inaudible 00:11:58], I like, I'm ready for it. I'm so excited. I like get there and I'm like, I actually don't feel hungry and I hadn't eaten since breakfast and this is the evening because I was like, really looking forward to eating as much as I could at this wedding. I told my friend, I was like, dude, I'm really not hungry right now.

And she was like, oh that's weird. Well maybe it's just because you haven't had anything since breakfast. And I was like, that's probably right. Like that happens sometimes, right? So I take a few bites of my favorite, [inaudible 00:12:29] and it was really good, but somehow it just like was not what I wanted in that moment.

And so I kind of force like one after the other, these pani puri because they're just like a mouthful, you can have down my throat thinking, well I must like need to eat food because I'm feeling kind of weird. I've got it. Maybe I just like dehydrated. I need to like hydrate and feed myself. It's hot out. Like all of these, all of these excuses that you tell yourself when you're trying to pretend that you're not about to have food poisoning.

So I start like eating as much as I could and like really trying to enjoy this experience. About an hour later there's like the huge dancing portion at the wedding and I was like, Oh God, we go to dance and it's a lot of jumping up and down because I don't know any of the moves and I start to feel incredibly, incredibly nauseous and I like, I'm trying to be like a fun guest and everyone's like really excited because there's this like random girl there and they were like trying to show me like these dance moves.

Like this is how you do it. Like do it with me and I'm just like barely standing up straight and I like run to the bathroom and yes I do have food poisoning. Supposed to be the best time in India and I'm in the bathroom for the rest of the night throwing up. But the food was delicious and I can still eat pani puri, which tells you how delicious it is. Because usually you know you don't eat the last thing you had before you get food poisoning because it stays with you. But until this day I will certainly pani puri, so that's probably my, my best and worst food story of India.

Chris: 22.33 is produced by the collaboratory and initiative within the US State Department's Bureau of cultural affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Worst, 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 the US government funded international exchange program.

Taste bud temperatures in this episode, featured Cheyenne Boys, Ryan T. Bell, Christiana Baltich, Lenny Russo, Luke Tyson, and Heather Burn. We thanked them for their stories and their willingness to try new things.

For more about ECA exchanges, you can check out eca.state.gov we encourage you to subscribe to 2233. Why have you not subscribed by this point and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ececollaboratory@state.gov that's ECA, c o, l l a b o, r, a t o, r, y@state.gov.

You can find complete episode transcripts of each episode of 2233 at our webpage, ECA.state.gov/2233. Special thanks this week to everybody for trying new things and for living to tell the tale and, and then for telling it. 

Featured music during this segment was travel on by the Ramsey Lewis trio. The top of this episode, you heard monkeys spinning monkeys by Kevin McCloud and the end credit music is two pianos by Tiger Leaves. 

Until next time.

Fading out: Yeah. This is an advice podcasts and now you know what to do or not do when you're in Delhi.


Season 01, Episode 47 - Who Says You Can't Be A Boy Band with Cheyenne Boyce

LISTEN HERE - Episode 47


Nobody told her what she should be doing as a first-time English teach in Malaysia, but then, it’s likely that nobody there had ever considered learning the language while also working on dance moves in a boy band.  But pretty soon, every student wanted in!

Cheyenne visited Malaysia as part of the Critical Language Scholarship program. For more information about CLS visit https://www.clscholarship.org. Cheyenne visited Indonesia as part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program. For more information about Fulbright ETA visit https://us.fulbrightonline.org/about/types-of-awards/english-teaching-assistant-awards.


Chris: The journey from Detroit to the jungles of Malaysia is so dramatic that all you can do is hold on tight and resolve to enjoy the ride. Your decision to embrace new things is fortunate, because everything around you is new. But at the same time, it doesn't stop you from introducing things from your culture that are new to others. 

You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Cheyenne: And so one day, I got up the courage to order hot tea, which is all I wanted. I just wanted some hot tea. The words for spicy and hot are [foreign language 00:00:41] and [foreign language 00:00:42]. And I basically mixed them up. And the whole room burst into laughter. They thought it was the most hilarious things ever. Oh. They were like, "Oh, you want spicy tea? You want spicy tea? Not hot tea?" And I said, "No, I want the hot tea, but I'm so confused. It's so confusing. And it's just too much." But that broke all the ice. So [foreign language 00:01:07] and [foreign language 00:01:07] are the two words that stuck with me the entire trip, and now I'm very good, and I know about asking for something spicy and something that is hot. So, it worked out.

Chris: This week, embracing the unknown. Most likely to run off to Southeast Asia to manage a boy band, and finding the grandparents you didn't know you had. Join us on a journey from Michigan to Malaysia to Indonesia, to re-confirm that sometimes, it's can be a jungle out there. 

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

Cheyenne: My name is Cheyenne Boyce. I am originally from Detroit, Michigan. I am currently a senior program officer at the Confucius Institute U.S. Center. It's a small nonprofit that promotes mutual understanding between China and the U.S. And I was a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Malaysia in 2015, and then I was a critical language scholarship recipient in Indonesia in 2017.

I'm a city girl. I didn't really know what I was getting myself into when I came to Malaysia. It was during orientation and they told us that we were going to go jungle trekking. So I have nice safari shorts and I put on a nice shirt and I'm not a fashionista, but I try to be fashionable. And I said, "Okay, I have my trekking outfit. This is what I'm supposed to trek in." And I come downstairs to the hotel. Everybody has on T-shirts and gym shoes, and I said, "Oh, is this what you're supposed to wear to jungle trek? I thought we were just going to look at the jungle. Are we going to go be in the jungle?"

And this is in Kuala Lumpur, so I hadn't even gotten out to my placement yet where I really saw what the jungle looked like. So I said, "Okay." I got to the jungle and we start to sort of trek, and there's this man telling us about the wild boar that live in the jungle, and all of these things about the trees. This was sort of the first week, and I really wasn't acclimating to life in a rural environment in Southeast Asia. The bugs, the heat, the everything. I was sort of still adjusting to that.

They made us walk through a river and now my shoes are all wet, and I'm like, "Well, what am I supposed to do now? My shoes are wet." And there was another guy in my cohort. He's from New York. He said that the furthest he's ever trekked is down the street to get bagels in New York City. So why are we trekking in the jungle? And we were both kind of not really into this experience.

I kept going though. I said, "What can I do. I'm out here." We kept going, and finally, it opened up to this waterfall. The most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life. Again, being from the city, even living in Michigan, I didn't necessarily go out to do the nature activities when I was younger. And it was just the most amazing thing that I have ever seen. And all of a sudden, now, I jumped in the water and I'm excited. Everything is great. And it was in that moment that I realized that I don't know what this experience is going to be, but we're going to ride this train and see where we go, and it's going to be great. It's always going to be worth it and amazing and mind-blowing and life-changing in the end.

And so I think realizing that then put me in a mindset that was sort of ... when I got to my school and I got to my placement, it was ... I don't know what is going to happen. This is completely unpredictable. Never in a million years would I think that this is what I'm doing or this is what I have the opportunity to do, or that I can have an impact on students, and I have people who want me to be a mentor, and who are asking me questions about life and college. And I have students who never thought that they could, let alone pass English, first of all, but then also like to apply for higher education programs, or potentially think about applying to go to school, or study in the United States, or other places in the world.

And so I never thought that that would be the situation, but I embraced that opportunity, and I realized that this is a one-time thing. I don't know when this will ever happen again. I hope that it does. I hope, because I've sort of built a career and a life around this now.

But just knowing that this opportunity is ... I have been placed here and these students have been placed here all for a reason. And so I need to embrace it and do what I can with it while I can, because I don't know what'll happen, but it's going to be great in the end.

I had done a lot of volunteer work, but I by no means considered myself a teacher. I enjoyed working with kids and I thought, "Hey, Malaysia. Don't know much about Malaysia. I should go there and see what's going on." And so I went and I ended up being placed in a [Sikuda 00:06:51], which is in the rice paddies, basically, of rural Malaysia. And so I am a city girl through and through. From Detroit, I went to school in Atlanta, moved to Washington D.C. just because I loved the hustle and bustle of city life. And so to see a city girl put in the middle of the rice paddies in the jungle of Malaysia is sort of like, "Oh, if my family could see me now, they would not believe it."

You had to go up a dirt road and through some jungle to get there. And I remember there were monkeys that lived above the house, and there were chickens that lived on the front porch. And there were cats that would just appear, and all of these thing. But the house was surrounded by mountains, beautiful mountains. And I could look out and I just would sit there for hours just looking out at the mountains, and that's something I could have never imagined myself doing, because I move fast, I do fast. Things have to get done. And so to be in that space where life is just simpler was something that I didn't even realize that I would cherish. So ...

That was the context of where I was. And so that also meant that the students that I was working with ... I was in a secondary school, so I worked with students ages 13 to 17. 17, 18. And I saw about 300 students a week, and the school had about, we had about 900, almost 1,000 students. It was a pretty large school. But by Malaysian standards, it was considered a lower achieving school. And so they place ETAs in places where they feel like the students will really benefit, and you'll have an opportunity to work with students learning English who wouldn't be encouraged to learn English otherwise, necessarily. So I had a great English teaching staff at my school. I was very lucky. They supported me and all of my sort of crazy ideas about how to make English more exciting and more fun. And that was my job, to come in and be super exciting and really happy all the time, and make it seem like learning English is actually really, really exciting, and it's something that we can have fun doing.

So I started a boy band in Malaysia. I won the paper plate award among my cohort for most likely to run off and manage boy bands in Southeast Asia in my future life, because the first couple months in, you're getting acclimated and sort of getting to know the students, and you realize the ones that are really excited about you being there and are on this journey with you wherever you want to go. And then of course I had shyer students who, just getting them to come up and have a two second conversation with me was a success by the end of the year. Hearing just a couple students finally just say, "Hi," instead of running up to me and then running away, was actually very exciting.

I had my boy band students. They were 12, 13 year old young boys. The thing was, it was learning English. You are learning how to sing these songs in English, and so therefore that makes this a lesson, and therefore this is right in line with the mission that I'm here to achieve. And so they learnt the songs and they went through, they suggested songs, and we looked at some songs and then told them, "Okay, so you guys are going to have to practice." And so we used to practice, I think, every day at lunchtime, and then a couple days after school. They would come and practice.

And so, they eventually said, "Well, what are we practicing for?" I was like, "Okay, we're going to have a performance, so let's figure out how to have a performance." And so the school had morning assembly every day. So we set a time. We set a date. We said, "Okay, we're going to prepare for this performance." And the other teacher and I, she was pretty musically inclined. I'm musically inclined, so I play cello. And I didn't have an opportunity to play in Malaysia, so this was great for me. I said, "I'm going to get this music thing going somehow, some way."

And they were so dedicated. They really thought they were in a boy band. They became the school's boy band, and we taught them choreography, and they ended up singing a Westlife song, which is older boy band. Maybe from like the '80s or something.

And then I had another group of boys. A group of like [forum 4 00:11:46] boys. So they were like 16. They said, "Well, we want to have a boy band too." So next thing you know, now I'm trying to manage two boy bands. I have two boy bands at this school on top of my lessons, and I'm trying to figure out how to manage all of this. And so that boy band, they wanted to sing songs too.

They were more teenagery and a little bit more concerned about their appearance and things like that. So we couldn't put them on the first performance, but we did get the first group ready, and we had had dress rehearsals, and now this is becoming Saturdays and Sundays. We're practicing. Parents are now involved, because they're like, "What are you doing spending all this time at the school with this American girl who appeared from out of nowhere?"

They came to the school early in the morning and all of a sudden everybody has stage fright. I said, "Guys, we have been practicing this over and over again. You guys know this like the back of your hand," because a lot of what I was doing, even as an ETA working with the students that I had, was building confidence. They didn't have the confidence to speak and to just believe that they did know what they were saying and that what they were saying was good. So all of a sudden my boys who have been so great all of this time have stage fright. So now I'm like, "Okay," motivational prep talk. I'm like the stage mom, the stage manager, the choreographer, the everything, trying to get them ready for the performance.

So the performance comes and they just sung their hearts out. They had microphones that weren't really picking up their voices that well, so they were sort of yelling to the audience, and it was the proudest moment. I cried. I was so happy just to see the growth. And I think we put this together in maybe like a month and a half, like two months or something like that. And just to see that they had done it. They got up there and they just sang, and they did all the choreography that they were supposed to do. And the other students, this is in front of the entire school, so it was a lot of pressure as a 12 year old. And so the rest of the school is yelling and they're clapping, and everybody's so happy. And next thing you know, "I want to be in the boy band. I want to be in the boy band. Oh, can we start a girls' band? It's not fair. We need a girls' group too. So can we start a girls' group?" And now everybody wants to be a performer.

It was just so great to see their development.

And so my boy group, they were so great. I think they really did learn from that opportunity that, who says you can't? Who says that you can't be a boy band? I say you can. So if that's what you want to do, let's do it. So that was awesome.

In Malaysia, I was teaching. I was in a certain position of power. I had a lot of leverage that I could use to do certain things. In Indonesia, I was a student. So I was back in a university setting. I had teachers. I had other students that I was working with, and this was all to learn Bahasa Indonesian, which, at the time, I knew nothing, because I had spent all of this time in Malaysia, and I used it sort of as my trick to teach English. It was like, "Oh," if the students would try to speak to me in Bahasa. So Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesian are very similar languages. And so my students would say something, I used to be like, "Oh, no. Can't understand you. Have to speak English." But that meant that when I left my school, or out of that environment, I would go somewhere and I'm like, "Oh, I can't speak the language. I have no idea what people are saying to me." So that's what encouraged me to do the critical language scholarship and go learn Bahasa in Indonesia.

They give you your host family the questionnaire to tell them your preferences and things. And so I put a family with lots of kids who are very active, and things like that, because that's the type of thing I like. I have a lot of energy. I want to share that with people. And so I got to Indonesia and they took me to my host family, and I was placed with a lovely couple that was, I believe at the time, 85 and 86. 83, 85, in their 80s. So, a lovely couple. And all of a sudden I said, "Oh my goodness. I am going to be living in this house for two months with this older couple. What in the world are we going to do?" Because that just wasn't what I was expecting.

I'd loved living with them. They were my Indonesian grandparents, and the year prior to that, I had actually lost my grandfather, so to be in a place where all of a sudden I have like these two Indonesian grandparents that I never thought I would have, it was sort of mind-blowing, and it just showed me that all of these things in my life are sort of organizing themselves for a purpose. I ended up being in the house with them, and the first day was really awkward, because remember, I couldn't speak any Bahasa. And they were speaking Bahasa and I was just like, "I don't know what we're saying. So we're just going to sit here and I'll smile, and I'll be okay."

So we eventually started to get to know each other, and they had meals every day at 7:00, 1:00, and 7:00. So that was the time you ate. There was no eating in the house outside of those times, and those moments of being able to have breakfast with them, and have dinner with them, I usually had lunch at school, they were so warm and welcoming, and treated me like I was their granddaughter. Like I was not some person who just kind of got off a plane and came to Indonesia and will be here for two months and then will be leaving. They were so invested in my learning and education. So we would have our lessons at the table, and the grandmother would [inaudible 00:18:20] repeat the same words to me over and over again, and then I would try to repeat them back. But then I never said them good enough for her. She's like, "No, no, no. You need so much more work." And I said, "I know. I'm going to go back to class. We'll work on it."

But then when I would take my test and I would pass my test, I would show it to them, and they would be really excited. And they really wanted to know more about me. They said they had been hosting students since some of the original State Department programs that used to take people to Indonesia. For at least 30 years, they've been hosting American students. And they said for the first time ... This was one of the first times that they have met someone who was African American, who just seemed to be a little bit different. Like I was very passionate and very excited, and my personality, I think, is just very, "I'm so happy to be here and I'm so happy you're here with me, and so let's just have a great time." And so they said that I was just so nice and warm and all I could say was, "You are so nice and warm. You make me be this way, because living here with you is amazing." I literally never thought that it would be like that, because I said, "Oh no. There's not even any kids that I can distract my time with and play with them instead of actually having to practice my language skills with adults and have conversations."

But we used to talk about everything. They would ask me about things that were happening here in the States. I would ask them about different social issues and things happening in Indonesia, and they would just tell me about ... They had such a wealth of wisdom. And that also was very impactful for me because I am young and growing and trying to learn more about this region and these different cultures and things like that. It was different. They were just so warm and welcoming and they really taught me that I want to be that way too.

It changed the way that I thought about welcoming people into my home, and the way that I thought about what it's like to really share my life with someone else. So, yeah, it was a big impact. They were great, my Indonesian grandparents.

At the same time that I felt welcomed and loved and like really a part of these different communities, I also was constantly trying to navigate my identity as an American. What's it's like to be an African American in an American context. What's it's like to be an African American woman in an American context. And then, what it's like to be these things in a Malaysian context or in an Indonesian context. And my identities sort of were going haywire all of the time, because I would be in my school in Malaysia where ... I remember my first that I was actually in school. It was February, so it was Black History Month. And I said, "Great, we're doing Black History Month. First thing out."

That was also me coming from a space of, well yeah, as a girl from Detroit who has lived in these different cities, went to Spelman College at HBCU in Atlanta, everybody talks about Black History Month. That is what I know. And so my first tactic was to just share what I know, as I sort of figure this out.

But my students in Malaysia, in rural [inaudible 00:21:57] had never really heard the name Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Had never heard Malcolm X, or had no concept. So it actually showed me, "Oh, wait, I'm going to have to break this down a lot further, because they see me as just an American. And why am I teaching about this? So how did this happen? Why? They're asking me questions. What was civil rights? Why did you need civil rights in America?" America is great. And this is the perspective of my students who only sort of knew one narrative about America. And so, that was a challenge.

So I would leave that space where I'm very much seen as an American, but then I would go into a mid-year meeting, or I would go into a setting with majority my cohort, and this was in 2015 at the height of a lot of Black Lives Matter initiatives, and there were things happening here in the United States that were really affecting me and a lot of the other students of color in the cohort. All of a sudden, our experience was sort of marginalized and we didn't know how to navigate it.

Thank goodness the commission in Malaysia was great and always helped us feel supported and gave us the resources that we needed.

I could see the confusion on people's faces when I first arrived in my placement. They're like, "Okay, she says she's from America, but she definitely is not white with blond hair and blue eyes. And she said, but she kind of looks like she's Thai. So maybe she's from Thailand. That's actually probably what she is." And I could see people staring at me. I remember I went to a 7-Eleven a few weeks in, and the girl ... I was trying to pay, but she wouldn't take my money because she was staring at me. And I was thinking, "Please, just take my money, because I want to buy this ice cream, because I'm homesick and I need to eat this." But she was just so confused by that.

I came back from Malaysia and Indonesia with a much stronger sense of my identity. Things that I never had to think about, all of a sudden were at the forefront of my mind. I was prepared to deal with the unexpected from the country, because it's like, "Well, of course. It's Malaysia. I don't know much about Malaysia. I don't know what's going to happen." But I didn't think about what it would be like to be in that space with other American students.

As an African American, I learned that as an American, despite the challenges that the African American experience presents in the United States, I still have an unimaginable level of privilege that I can take with me as an American. And that is what comes off. That in some situations as a foreigner in a place like Malaysia or in Indonesia, that is what is going to be seen first, no matter how I see myself here in the States, or no matter how I hold the challenges and the need to appreciate the work that my ancestors and my family and people have done to create a space for me to be able to take advantage of these opportunities. That is something that I hold very close to me personally, here in the United States.

But there, I'm still an American. And people who don't understand, or who have never had to try to understand the African American experience, it's hard to understand that. It's hard to explain that to other people. So sometimes I would find myself talking to my students, and feeling like, "Well, I can't actually really share who I am with you all, because there is a difference here." And they see me as an American. And that was hard for me to sort of navigate myself, and to try to figure out, "Well, how do I share these very important parts of my culture and who I am with people in a situation where I'm American?" That's it. There is nothing else to that. You're American. You get the things that come with that, and, you know.

My experience is not going to be the same as anybody else's experience. That was the first thing that they tell you in orientation. "Well, it depends." So any question that you ask, "It depends on the situation." What happens to me may not happen for you. But I think being able to recognize that does impact how I navigate certain situations here in the United States, because I do know what it feels like to have privilege. So that means I can relate. I can relate to somebody who has a certain level of privilege here in the United States, that I maybe don't have. But I get how that feels. I still can understand. And it's hard to change that. To sort of shift that mindset. But I understand. And I think what you have to do is at least find some place of common understanding. So if I can try to understand and you can try to understand, okay, now we can talk. Now we can dialogue. Now we can move forward. So, that helps.

When I went to Malaysia, I started a multicultural club for some of my students, and those students were the ones who volunteered to come in again, be on a journey with me, because I didn't know what this was going to be. And we started off. I was going to teach them about the different cultures of different countries. They were going to do research projects and presentations to learn about different countries. So they were assigned to Brazil and Italy and places like that.

And then one day in conversation, I realized they didn't actually know much about the richness of Malaysian culture. I was in a 99% ethnic Malay school and community, so all of my students, for the most part, were Muslim. And, again, it was a rural environment, and so they didn't necessarily know about the different indigenous groups or just the richness of the culture.

So I said, "Well, we should learn about that instead. Let's study that." And so we started doing projects and things related to that. That eventually snowballed into a cultural exchange trip for this like 17 students that I had. And oh boy. It was a journey, because all of a sudden it went from a after-school project to now I'm trying to raise money, and I'm trying to figure out a way to take students on a trip somewhere.

I think I called it discovering cultures in your own backyard cultural exchange trip. And I took them from Sikuda to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, which is on the Borneo side of Malaysia. So about a two hour plane ride. This was most of their first time on a plane. This was some of their first time out of the state, and for some, the first time out of our small village. And so, it was amazing.

We took them on this trip. They ended up going ... I did an English camp. I partnered with a local school there where they were students who had similar interests, similar age, but were from a mix of different backgrounds and different ethnic groups and different religions. And so they were able to interact with each other, and the point was to show we are not as different as we sometimes like to think we are. These are students, and then at the end they're on Messenger together and they're planning things together. I said, "See? You guys are all 16 year olds, but you thought that originally people living on this other side of the country are very, very different," and things like that.

And so they did a service learning project, and they volunteered. They got to meet other English teaching assistants, which I thought was great, because my students had be used to me, which is, I do not represent all of America. So I want you guys to meet other people, learn about them and learn about their stories. And it was the hardest thing I've ever done. First of all, I couldn't believe that the parents were entrusting me to take their children on this trip. I said, "Y'all, I don't even know how you guys are ..." but they said, "Yeah, we think this is a great idea. You should totally do it." I said, "Okay."

And then the raising the money. I, thank goodness, was able to get a small grant from the embassy in Malaysia through State Department, that helped me to offset some of the funding. The trip was fully paid for for the students. And they also, they entrepreneurial skills. They had to fundraise and we had projects and they had to sell things, and things like that. And I also had the one gas station in our town, I asked for a sponsorship. I was chasing the man down the street in his car, because I knew where he lived, but I couldn't get in contact with him. And I said, "Can you please read my letter? This is what I'm trying to do." And so he gave, he supported, and different government agencies supported, and so I just felt like I had this huge support of people who believed in this project. And the project was a huge success.

So coming back to the States, I went back to American, I changed my concentration from international development to youth conflict and development. I started focusing more on international education. And so now, what I really am focusing on is trying to figure out how to make these opportunities available for more students. Cultural exchange experiences, whether it ... And of course, I personally believe in international exchange, international education, but also a lot of these same principles can be applied within the United States, and within places where there are cultural differences. And their dialogue needs to happen, and that is how you create a better understanding between individuals, and create those people-to-people connections that make people feel connected, and like they can understand the other, someone else's story, which, I believe, is the key to solving a lot of our problems.

The things that I took away are much more intangible. So it's, again, the kindness that I want to show to people. I want to show the same kindness to others that they showed to me. I was completely welcomed into families and villages and communities as someone who dropped from literally out of nowhere. And it's funny, because there was a lot of sort of adjusting, because I was not, when I was in Malaysia and in Indonesia to some extent, I was not what people expected. Especially if your idea of America is maybe coming from the media, so here I am, an African American girl who, but then, has fair skin and looks maybe a little bit different. And so, people just did not know what to expect.

But yet, they still fully accepted me and allowed me to ... I went to so many family celebrations and I went to weddings and was a part of so much. One of my favorite experiences was celebrating Hari Raya in Malaysia, which is the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Yeah. I went to like six different houses and just ate all day, with people who were so happy that I was there. They were so happy to share their traditions with me. I had a traditional baju kurung, which is the attire that women in Malaysia wear. I had one made and so everybody of course was ... It's sort of like a fashion show. You want to see what everyone's wearing. What colors is this family wearing? What are they going to wear?

And so I did all of that and I fully participated in all of these traditions that have sort of lasted for so long in people's lives and generations. It is what they do all the time. And then they welcomed me into it. And so I think about that a lot now. How to be welcoming and inclusive and make people feel warm and know that, yeah, you are a girl from America, and we are families in Malaysia or Malang, Indonesia, but we want to get to know you, and you matter to us, and they matter to me, and just being able to share that, I think, is something that I try to hold with me. And also share here in the United States with others. So, yeah.

I just really loved the experience to be unapologetically me. I am what you get. So even at my school, you may have expected something a little different, or maybe there was stereotypes, things like that. But hey, here I am. I am here and I am excited, and this is going to be so much fun. So let's just have fun. And even in Indonesia it was, I don't know Bahasa, with my host family. I really don't know. But I'm going to really try hard and I'm going to learn as much as I can and I'm going to try to have conversations, and it's going to be great. And so I think recognizing that and holding on to that, that I am me and I am special for whatever reason, and I have a story to tell that matters, and that it's worth sharing. The reasons that I have been able to participate in these programs is because I do have something that I want to share, and my culture is important.

And so being able to be just sort of unapologetically Cheyenne and share who I am, I think, helped me build the connection that I know now will last a lifetime. So with the other teachers, I would say, "Hey, I really am not a teacher. But you are, and I'm really excited. And so let's figure out how to do this together," sort of thing. Yeah. So I really enjoyed that. And I think you sometimes think about going abroad as you're going into this place that's so different and it is different, and it is very challenging, but then at the same time, it makes you focus on you. And who are you in the world and what do you want to put out into the world? And so I really embraced that. And I think that helped make all of these opportunities so life-changing, because they really did change my life. And the people that I have met are now like a part of this family that I have in Southeast Asia.

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.

This week, Cheyenne Boyce told us about her participation in two ECA programs. As a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Malaysia, and a critical languages scholar in Indonesia. For more about these and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. Of course, you can do that wherever you find your podcasts. And since you're in the neighborhood, why don't you leave us a review while you're there, huh? We'd also love to hear from you. You can write to us an ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov.

And, did you know? Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcripts can be found on our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. Very special thanks to Cheyenne for her wonderful stories. I did the interview and edited this episode. 

Featured music was Begrudge, Down by the Bank, Stakes and Things, and Contrarian, all by Blue Dot Sessions. To Meet Again, by Lobo Loco. And of course, actual audio of Cheyenne's amazing boy band. 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 46 - The Ambassador's First Job with Dr. Daniel Mulhall

LISTEN HERE - Episode 46


As Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Mulhall lives and breathes an international lifestyle within an elite group.  But it wasn’t always this way.  In fact, his first international experience came 40 years earlier, in Kansas City, Missouri, toasting hot dog buns in a local café.  Yet, without a doubt, KC was the first stop on his road to the foreign service. Ambassador Mulhall first visited the United States as part of the Exchange Visitor Program, for more information please visit: https://j1visa.state.gov/programs.


Chris: As an Irish diplomat, you have risen to the highest ranks in your profession, becoming your country's ambassador to the United States. But, of course, this was not your first time on the other side of the pond. In fact, this was not even your first work assignment in the United States. For that, you need to go back more than 40 years, to a little family-run café in Kansas City. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Amb. Mulhall: I can tell you the song I remember most is "Rikky Don't Lose That Number" by Steely Dan and to this day I've bought every single one of the records or cds that they've issued. And I still, when I play Pretzel Logic, it brings me back to my dorm room in Kansas City and to my summer of 1974.